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Month: February 2017

Foodie Bucket List: The 16 Best Local Foods (and Drinks) in Israel

Foodie Bucket List: The 16 Best Local Foods (and Drinks) in Israel

Leading up to my most recent trip to Israel, I was a bit stymied by the ‘travel planning’ phase I engage in for most of my trips. I lived in Israel for a year, which was the start of my extensive traveling. I’ve been back to visit many times since, and not so much changes from year to year. Besides catching up with friends and family, how would I spend my time there?

Then, the night before my trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the foods I knew I wanted to be sure to eat at some point during the ten days. I obviously had to have falafel. And hummus. And shakshuka. The more I thought about it, the longer my list became, until I had a pretty decent list stored on my phone of what foods I would seek out on my travels.

So I arrived with a “To Eat” list instead of a “To Do” list.

Even if you’ve never been to Israel, if you’re familiar with the cuisines of other countries on the Mediterranean Sea, you may recognize some of the foods below – or their variations. In any case, the Israeli versions of these specialties are worth seeking out on your visit. Ask any local, and they’ll point you to the best nearby spot for:

Savory Bites

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Shakshuka

The ultimate in savory breakfast, shakshuka consists of a spiced tomato, pepper and onion mixture that is heated and then used as a liquid to poach eggs. A beautiful and incredibly hearty way to start the day. Or do as many Israelis do, and have breakfast for dinner.  Find out more about a top spot to sample this typical dish in my post on the Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel.

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Bourekas

Known as a burek in other countries along the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe, the Israeli version of bourekas also involves phyllo dough that has been stuffed typically with some sort of savory filling and topped with sesame and/or poppy seeds. The salty cheese and potato ones are most common, although there are plenty of variations on fillings. A lot of markets have stands selling bourekas, or it is a good savory bite to pick up from the bakery section of a supermarket for a snack on the go.

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Falafel

A falafel is one of several common Israeli foods served in a puffy pita. The falafel balls themselves consist of ground chickpeas and other spices that are then deep fried. In any reputable falafel stand, you’ll have a variety of toppings to choose from, including spreads like hummus and tahini. Some of my favorite add-ons are marinated cubes of eggplant, pickles, and french fries.

Schwarma

Another typical pita dish found all over Israel, schwarma is filled with meat shaved off of a spit. In Israel it is usually lamb, although you’ll sometimes find chicken versions. Condiments mirror those available for falafel, and make for some tasty bites.

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Sabich

The third and final pita dish on this list, sabich has recently become trendy and widely available in Israel, and was my favorite new bite of my last visit. Condiments are also similar to falafel and shwarma, except that the main filling is fried eggplant and chunks of hard-boiled egg. There is just some unctuous savoriness that comes with a well-made sabich that made this the meal I chose for my final dinner before flying home to Milan.  Head to my post on the Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel for my favorite spot to eat this local specialty.

Hummus

As you’ve seen above, hummus is a typical condiment for pita-based dishes, however it can also be a stand-alone meal. When hummus made its way onto my “to eat” list, it was not as a dip but the warm hummus that is served with chickpeas and spices or sauteed lamb on top, and then pita bread becomes merely the vehicle for the food, with the hummus and its toppings as the main event.

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Jachnun & Malawach

These two types of Middle Eastern concoctions are often made from the same dough and served with the same condiments, so I’ve included them together here. The format differs – for jachnun the dough is rolled into almost a narrow cylinder and malawach is in the form of thick, circular pancakes – but both are brushed with some type of fat or oil. Jachnun tends to be cooked slowly in an oven while malawach is fried, but then both are served with a crushed tomato dip, hard boiled egg, and hot sauce.

Sweet Bites

Image: Yehudit Garinkol via PikiWiki
Image: Yehudit Garinkol via PikiWiki

Baklava

The exact history of baklava’s origins is murky, but the important thing to know is that it is part of local tradition and you’ll eat excellent versions everywhere you go. There are also many varieties beyond the typical bites with flat sections of phyllo dough, some having a more shredded exterior. You can usually find pretty small bites of the different varieties, so go crazy and sample them all!

Image: deror_avi via Wikimedia Commons
Image: deror_avi via Wikimedia Commons

Halva

There are tons of variations of halva around the world – and I’ve sampled versions from Greece to Oman – but the Israeli version is the one I find most addictive. Locally it’s made from a sesame paste and starts off in a large block that is cut into slices for sale. Varieties abound, and beyond the plain version, you’ll most typically see chocolate or various nuts mixed in. Any market is a great place to sample many different types and then buy a slice or two for later.

Elite exploding chocolate bar

‘Exploding’ Chocolate

At any supermarket, head to the row of red Elite chocolate bars and you’ll find this delightful bar of chocolate with pop rocks inside, with little yellow explosions shown on the label. A great snack to have after a picnic meal or while out hiking. It’s also a great souvenir or gift to bring back home, especially if you don’t tell the recipient what to expect when they take a bite.

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Krem Bo

I’ve sampled this treat at food markets in Europe also, but my favorite version is still the Israeli Krem Bo. It is a circle of graham cracker covered by a near-cylinder of marshmallow goo and encased in a thin chocolate shell. Due to the summer heat that would melt these pretty quickly, you’ll typically only find Krem Bo for sale in the winter. The good news is that during Israel’s cooler months you can find them almost everywhere, from large supermarkets to the convenience store on the corner. If you’re having trouble finding them (which even I do sometimes despite knowing what they look like), just ask.

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Doughnuts

Although doughnuts themselves are not a local food per se, sufganiyot – the doughnuts available around Chanukah time – are taken to a whole new level in Israel. The toppings and fillings available boggle the mind, and really it just becomes a vessel for a baker’s creativity.

TIP! Chanukah is usually in December, depending on the lunar, Jewish calendar for any given year, so check the timing before you go if you’d like to be around for the right 8 days.

Beverages

Nana Tea

Any time of year, hot tea is good way to stay hydrated in the desert. So whether you’re actually in the desert, or at one of the developed cities surrounded by desert, nana tea is the local pick. Nana is a type of spearmint from the Mediterranean whose mint leaves will be placed directly into boiling water, often with a regular tea bag, too. A refreshing cuppa anytime.

Sachlav

You’ll see this milky, comfort beverage more often in winter as many people prefer to consume it hot (although it is served cold as well). In addition to milk, aromatics are added, with the exact mix depending on the recipe. Known by some as ‘the hot chocolate of the Middle East,’ it basically serves the same comfort function of a hot chocolate, mulled wine, or hot cider. Keep an eye out for it at market vendors and even coffee shops in bus and train stations during winter.

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Wine

Israeli wine is excellent. A lot of wineries produce kosher wine, but make no mistake – we’re not talking syrupy-sweet Manishewitz here. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had have been from Israel, which produces many varietals of both white and red grapes you’re probably familiar with. Israeli ingenuity has led to exacting production standards that produce a delicious final product year after year. There is also a ton of value with Israeli wine right now, due to all of the competition. Take advantage and sample your way through Israeli wines whenever you have the opportunity. And check out this thorough post on which Israeli wineries are best to visit. If you won’t get a chance to visit wineries in person, but still want to taste the range of Israeli wines, there are dozens of wines that can be sampled at Tel Aviv’s Tasting Room Wine Bar.

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Beer

Israel is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, and this is evident in the emerging craft beer scene as well. The craft beer expansion began in earnest around a decade ago, similar to the timing of Israel’s boutique winery boom. You’ll find it on menus all over and there are quite a few breweries or brewery pubs for specific brands in Israel’s major cities. There is a great round-up of craft breweries to visit from Afar Magazine here. Another great place to sample a variety of craft brews from different breweries is BeerBazaar, with locations in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv & Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem (I’ve been to and enjoyed the Jerusalem branch). Or you can always opt for the old standby Israeli-produced beers that have been quenching thirst for decades: Carlsberg, Goldstar, Maccabee, & Tuborg.

What’s your favorite Israeli dish? Any typical food I’ve omitted? Have you ever traveled with a “to eat” list? Let me know in the Comments!

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Insider Foodie Bucket List - the 16 Best Local Food and Drink Israel

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8 Best Wineries to Visit in Israel

8 Best Wineries to Visit in Israel

“If the Romans made wine here 2,000 years ago, why can’t we today?”

These wise words from one of the more recent Israeli winemakers of the Judean Desert south of Jerusalem embody the explosion of new wineries in Israel over the last decade or so, with the most up-and-coming regions being located in Israel’s desert areas in the south of the country.

Wine has been produced in Israel for millenia – dating from biblical times and later during the Roman Empire – but modern Israeli wine-making has happened on a much shorter timescale, from the 1880s on. And it is the last decade or two in particular that has seen an explosion of new boutique wineries across Israel producing excellent bottles of wine. The recent expansion of wineries is not limited to just the number of wine producers, but also includes wineries popping up in new geographic areas of the country, bringing even more variety to what types of wines today constitute ‘Israeli wine.’ This also means that wherever you’re travelling in the country, there is likely a winery nearby that you can pop into for a visit and a tasting.

Traditionally the green, fertile areas of the Galilee and Golan Heights and the coastal areas in the north of the country have been the hub for wine production, and you’ll still find Israel’s oldest and largest wineries there. Some of the most interesting wines being produced however come from the newer wine-producing regions in the more arid regions to the south, whose varied terroir (soil) and climate lead to very different flavors and notes in the final product. Of course grapes can always taste quite different depending on where they’re grown, but Israel’s varied terrain over relatively small country makes it an especially interesting contrast as you taste your way through its wineries as you travel across the country.

In general, the red grapes grown throughout Israel today tend to be similar to those found in France, from the most common Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah and even some of the lesser-known red grape varietals like Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. In terms of whites, you’ll see a lot of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, along with some German white wines like Gewurztraminer and Riesling.

I’ve personally visited most of the wineries on this list, however there are a few additional wineries producing excellent bottles right now that I’ve also included as options for a winery visit in the relevant regions below:

Wineries of Note

Coastal Areas

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Carmel Winery

Reservations: Required

Tasting: Organized as a group or VIP tour and tasting, for a fee

Varietals: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Viognier (and several others, check out the full list here)

Famous French winemaker Baron de Rothschild (of Chateau Lafitte renown) founded this winery in the late 1800s, kicking off the modern era of Israeli winemaking. Carmel is actually the largest winery in Israel, and has such interesting history it is also well worth it to come for the tour. If you get a chance, check out the original log books of expenses, and you’ll notice several incidences of the word bakshish (the Arabic word for bribe) listed in several different spellings – a recurring expense when the winery was first founded 😉 It is quite inexpensive for the basic tour, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth here and also enjoy the several wines available for tasting whichever tour you choose.

Tulip Winery

Reservations: Not needed (except for groups)

Tasting: Free

Varietals: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurtztraminer, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz

Although I haven’t been personally, the wines from Tulip are so acclaimed I am compelled to include it on this list. Their wines are routinely on lists of top wines from Israel, and their visitor’s center garners high praise. Also, this family winery has a social conscience, employing many people with special needs from the surrounding community.

Golan Heights

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Golan Heights Winery

Reservations: Required

Tasting: Organized as a group or VIP tour and tasting, for a fee

Varietals: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Viognier (and several others, check out the full list here)

The Golan Heights Winery offers what I would characterize as the most touristy experience of the wineries on this list, with tour groups criss-crossing each other throughout the estate. Due to the several acclaimed labels produced by this winery, and their extensive operations, it’s definitely one of the wineries where it is worth the advance planning necessary for a visit. There are several levels of tours available in multiple languages beyond Hebrew and English. The different levels of tours vary in length, price, food offered, and which wines are available for tasting.

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Pelter Winery

Reservations: Not needed except for groups

Tasting: Free, there is a per person fee for groups, which includes tour and wine tasting

Varietals: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz

Have a phone or GPS handy, as this winery was a bit hard to find. Once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded by a tasting of excellent whites and interesting reds. While Pelter is a known brand you’ll find in many wine shops and on restaurant menus, you’ll be able to buy bottles for a much more reasonable price in person and have a great tasting experience. And while it may be pricier wine than the bottles you’ll find at other wineries, the quality makes it all worth it.

Judean Desert/Center

Domaine du Castel

Reservations: Required

Tasting: Organized as a group tour and tasting, for a fee

Varietals: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot

This winery involves a bit more effort to visit on your own, although it is a stop on a lot of organized wine tours. The wines include a chardonnay, rosé, and some red blends, many of which have received international recognition for their quality. Like several other wineries on this list, it is a family-managed winery, which you’ll feel on your visit. Do note that this is the priciest of the wine tastings, which includes a winery tour and cheese plate.

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Flam Winery

Reservations: Required

Tasting: Organized as a group tour and tasting (with add-on option of cheese & bread), for a fee

Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah

While I’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine from Flam at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, I have not visited the winery personally. It is the second priciest winery tasting option on this list (with some of the priciest bottles of wine), however the winery has received so much attention lately I would be remiss to not include it. Definitely a stop for the serious oenophile.

Tzora Winery

Reservations: Required

Tasting: Organized as a group tour and tasting, for a fee

Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah

Tzora is unique to this list for being a boutique winery in a desert region that has actually been around for over two decades, producing wine since the early 1990s. One of the pioneering wineries of the Judean Hills, the team at Tzora has assembled a lot of expertise that shines through in the final product, always topping lists of the best Israeli wines.

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Yatir Winery

Reservations: Recommended

Tasting: Free

Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Viognier

Another one of my absolute favorite wineries, Yatir is one of Israel’s current outstanding producers. Like Pelter (see above), it is widely available in wine shops around Israel, although at a markup from what you can pay for the excellent quality in-person at the winery. A top winery for a visit, producing some truly excellent bottles worth taking home.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

There are a few additional things you may want to keep in mind when planning your wine tasting tour of Israel – or at least a tour of Israel with some wine tasting along the way =)

TIP! If you’ve rented a car, you’ll know you’re in the vicinity of a winery by the brown sign for sights of interest with grapes on it. The best part of taking a road trip is the spontaneity to go somewhere unexpected at a moment’s notice. If the mood strikes you, take advantage!

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TIP! Most Israelis speak English well, and this is especially true at the wineries hosting visitors, so don’t worry about being able to understand your tour or tasting. Some of the larger wineries will also offer tours in additional languages.

TIP! A lot of wineries are closed on Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath, and many have limited hours on Friday as the Sabbath begins at sundown (so timing varies throughout the year). Plan your visits accordingly.

TIP! Wineries (and the country as a whole) will also close for other Jewish holidays that may not be on your radar, so definitely consult a Jewish calendar before planning your trip and your winery visits.

TIP! Even for the wineries that don’t require advance reservations, it is good to have a working phone handy to give them a heads up you’ll be coming or to get help with directions if you’re lost on the way.

TIP! Phone numbers in Israel begin with a zero followed by another number indicating the region, and cell phones all begin with 05. If you’re calling from an Israeli phone, include the zero. For calls from other places, when you add the +972 in front for the country code, leave off the zero from the number.

Israeli wine tasting for me ranks up there with some of the stellar tastings I’ve done in wine regions all over the world, from the US to Australia to France to Italy. And the environment is so different from wine regions you may be used to that even some of the grapes you think you know well are likely to surprise you.

If you’re not sure if you’ll have time to do a wine tasting at a winery, check out the ‘Wine’ section of my Foodie Bucket List for Israel for the best spot where you can do a number of tastings at wine bar in Tel Aviv.

Have you ever had Israeli wine? Any favorite Israeli wineries that didn’t make my list? Share any additional intel and comments below!

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8 Best Wineries to Visit in Israel

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Naples Cheat Sheet: What to Do & Where to Eat

Naples Cheat Sheet: What to Do & Where to Eat

Impressions

Naples is considered the birthplace of pizza, however the Neapolitan pizza tradition is just scratching the surface of what the city has to offer. Many people pass by Naples on their Italy travels, or stay for just a few hours when transiting, but there is such a special personality of the city that warrants a longer stay. You can read more about my impressions of Naples and all of the crazy experiences I’ve had that represent some of the spirit there in a previous post here.

Sights in Naples range from the subterranean tunnel system to opulent churches with incredible art collections and castles with incredible vistas of the harbor. The intensity and bustle of the city is matched by the variety and flavor of the many local culinary specialties, and a few days or a weekend is needed even just to eat your way through Naples, let alone appreciate all its beauty. Keep scrolling for all of the things you’ll want to spend your time doing, and where to eat some incredible food along the way.

Things to Do

Amazing art

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Archaelogical Museum

Pompeii is of course worth a visit all on its own, however the Archaeological museum in Naples itself is where a lot of the art from Pompeii is displayed. It’s an incredible collection well worth the time to explore (I spent several hours).

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Pio Monte della Misericordia

I went inside on a whim one of the many times I was walking along Via dei Tribunali, one of the central streets close to many churches and restaurants. Although it is a church, there is a fairly large collection of impressive artwork and objects, including Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy.

Sansevero Chapel Museum

The highlight of this museum-chapel is the tomb monument known as ‘the veiled Christ.’ Like all transcendent art, you see it once, and then anywhere else you are in the room, your eyes keep getting drawn back to appreciate its beauty.

Other churches of note

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Duomo

The word Duomo means cathedral in Italian, making it a top sight in most Italian cities. The Duomo in Naples is no exception, and it especially notable for the Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro, a museum of well-adorned art treasures connected to the cathedral.

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Church of Gesù Nuovo

This is a very different looking church from the others you’ll see in Naples, especially from the outside with its dark stone facade, starkly contrasting with the golden colors of its interior. It’s a popular place for locals to attend service on Sundays, so plan your visit accordingly.

Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore

Pretty much in the exact historic center, the inside is not as opulent as some of the other churches, but this Basilica boasts extensive history, including the remnants of an ancient Roman market underneath.

Around town

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Napoli Sottoranea (Naples Underground)

This is a tunnel tour well worth your time, exploring the tunnel system under the city. History in the tunnels ranges from use as a water source in ancient times to being used as a shelter during World War II, and even includes the remains of a Roman theater that is concealed by the many homes and apartments it borders.

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Spaccanapoli

This street is easily spotted from any vantage point in Naples as the pedestrian walkway that cuts a straight line through the historical center. Mentioned often in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, it is still a bustling street where locals spend their leisure time.

Porta Nolana market

Visiting a market is a must to get a feel for the true chaos of Naples. The Porta Nolana market is mostly known for its fish and seafood, although you can find typical market fare as well.

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Lungomare Caracciolo

Lungomare literally means the length of the sea, and is the pedestrian promenade along the Gulf of Naples. You’ll find many locals taking a stroll here in the late afternoon, watching breathtaking sunset views.

Amazing views/Off the beaten path

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Capodimonte Museum

There are some famous works of art housed here and I enjoyed my visit, but I appreciated the location even more for its expansive views and the popular park surrounding the museum building.

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Castel Nuovo

Close to the Royal Palace and Piazza del Plebiscito, this literal “new castle” is quite distinctive-looking and considered a city landmark, and dates from medieval times.

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Castle of St. Elmo & Certosa e Museo di San Martino

The castle and nearby former monastery/museum are both accessible on the same hilltop by either metro or funicular from the center (followed by a bit of walking). The views from both are breathtaking, and they are not very crowded – I had some great opportunities to sit and appreciate the view in solitude. Also check out the nearby Friggitoria Vomero (see below) for a quick bite.

Ovo Castle

While the castle itself has irregular hours and I did not get a chance to visit, it is located on a small peninsula jutting out from the mainland not far from the Piazza del Plebiscito. Worth a visit for its lovely views of coastal Naples, especially at sunset.

Morning in Napoli, at Piazza Dante
Morning in Napoli, at Piazza Dante

Piazza del Plebiscito

This piazza, or square, has a very different look and feel from other parts of the city. It is an austere semi-circular open expanse lined by traditional columns and the domed Basilica Reale, or royal basilica.

Best Bites (& Sips)

Coffee

Caffè Mexico

On Piazza Dante, Caffe’ Mexico is considered by many to be the best coffee in Naples. The interior is traditional as is the espresso: deep brown and intense. Local coffee in Naples packs a particularly strong punch, even by Italian standards, and the version at Caffe’ Mexico exemplifies why coffee was its own entry on my list of Top 10 Things to Eat and Drink in Naples.

Il Vero Bar del Professore

Beware imposters, there are a ton of similarly named places in the immediate vicinity of the real (vero) bar where caffè alla nocciola was created, but it is worth seeking out the original spot where espresso was mixed with whipped hazelnut (nocciola) cream. Mmmmm . . .

Pastries

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Sfogliatelle Attanasio

Open daily except Monday, take a number to join the queue for the piping hot sfogliatella, a seashell-looking pastry which is served here with the perfect balance of ricotta, citrus, and crispy outside. It is quite close to the central train station, making it an easy stop for visitors (and loads of locals).

Pastisseria Capriccio di Salvatore Capparelli

This spot is my go-to spot for babà on Via dei Tribunali, serving up a light-as-air version of the local rum cake that somehow has still soaked up all the syrupy goodness without being too sweet.

Restaurants

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50 Kalò

Neapolitans could probably argue for days over which pizzeria serves the best pizza in Naples. I had a particularly delicious one here, on a recommendation from a friend-of-a-friend who is from Naples. It’s not such a well-kept secret though, learn more about what makes their dough so special here.

Friggitoria Vomero

This friggitoria (a vendor of fried goodies), was a small, authentic spot close to the Castle of St. Elmo and the Certosa e Museo di San Martino. The smell draws you in and then you are presented with many fried options to choose from, although I think the fried polenta and fried zucchini blossoms, fiori di zucca, were my best bites.

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La Masardona

Also close to the central train station, this is another popular place that keeps the order of people waiting by taking a number. There are several varieties of fried pizza available, although my favorite bite might have been what was essentially fried macaroni and cheese (technically with bechamel, but same thing really). And best of all, you get to watch them assemble and fry your choices.

Osteria Da Antonio

A charming spot with local specialties done well and friendly service. It’s small, but cozy, and filled with lots of Italians. I dined on my own and it felt like I was being welcomed into someone’s home.

Limoncello

Limonè

Also along the Via dei Tribunali stretch and right by the Naples Underground, this factory makes several lemon-based products, including limoncello, the famous local lemon liqueur, usually imbibed at the end of a hearty meal to aid digestion (literally a digestivo). Unlike souvenir shops, at Limonè you can taste the different varieties of limoncello before you buy. I like both their traditional limoncello and their crema di limone, the cream version.

Have you visited Naples? What were your highlights? Anything I should add to the Cheat Sheet? Let me know in the Comments!

Naples Italy Cheat Sheet - What to Do and Where to Eat

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12 Things To Expect on Your Visit That Are “So Perth”

12 Things To Expect on Your Visit That Are “So Perth”

I had (almost) forgotten so many things that make Perth a wonderful and unique city. I lived there for just over a year, and then went for my first return trip just a few months ago. I pride myself on having an excellent memory, so it really was quite a shock to the system to realize how much of what I knew about Perth that had migrated to the outer edges of my recollections and only returned to my consciousness in force when I was experiencing the city in person again.

The thing about moving away from a city where you’ve lived is that while you take many memories with you, there are so many more memories that are so inextricably tied to a sense of place that you only recall them walking the same streets, hearing the noises of the neighborhood, and smelling the aromas you’ve left behind. It’s the reason we re-visit places from our past, and why we’re drawn in some cases to travel to the same place over and over again.

What you need to know about Perth is that while it may be considered by many to be the most isolated city in the world, it’s an incredible city for living. Winters are mild, people are friendly, and even the public toilets are nice. What’s not to love?

Even many Australians from east coast cities like Melbourne and Sydney have never ventured to Perth (for those of you unfamiliar with the size of Australia, it’s about the size of the continental US – taking 5 hours flying to traverse east to west), so Perth can be a bit of a mystery, even to the Aussies. Every city has its own flavor, and Perth is no different, with all its quirks.

Here are some things that stood out in my rush of memories on my recent visit, and that you should also expect when you go. Things that are “so Perth.”

#1 | Friendly People

Australians in general are a pretty friendly bunch, and people in Perth really exemplify this. You’ll notice it when you’re getting coffee or browsing in a shop, or doing any activity really. On my recent trip I went to an outdoor kickboxing class with a friend, and the friendliness of the *other* people taking the class really blew me away. Although I was not a regular and they did not know me, every time we were running laps between intervals, the Aussies were shouting “good on you” and other words of encouragement. A stark contrast to other places I’ve lived for sure.

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#2 | Sunny Days

When most people picture Australia, it’s probably a sunny image, but Perth takes things to a whole new level. It’s the sunniest capital city in the world, averaging 8 hours of sunshine daily, so any visit is likely to include mostly sun-filled days. For me this also means that I usually have some sort of hat or visor with me at all times, because the Australian sunshine is H-O-T. And beware that the hole in the ozone layer above Australia is no joke. I would sometimes get a bit of color or even sunburn on my 10-minute walk to the grocery store. But if you’re anything like me, bright sunshine puts you in a good mood, so every day feels like a pleasant vacation.

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#3 | Great Coffee

Anyone who’s ever been to Australia knows that there are excellent espresso-drinks nearly everywhere – in fact, it was when I was living in Perth that I became a full-fledged coffee snob. Perth is pretty laid-back overall, but they sure do take their coffee seriously, from the beans to the roast to the barista artwork. And when you’re arriving in Perth from outside Australia like I was on my recent visit, the difference is striking. Enjoy several discerning cups of coffee, and appreciate it while you can.

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#4 | Beaches

Like most major settlements across Australia, Perth is basically on the coast. The Central Business District, or CBD, is a bit inland along the Swan River, but most of metropolitan Perth’s coast is along the Indian Ocean. There are several great surfing beaches easily accessible by public transportation, areas like Mettam’s Pool with world-class snorkeling right off the beach, extended sections of coast that are basically a giant playground like Hillary’s Boat Harbour, and plenty of bars and restaurants up and down the coastline. Beaches are so loved by locals I even had co-workers on adjusted work schedules so they could head to the beach before or after work EVERY DAY.

#5 | Wind

People in Perth always told me that it was the 1st sunniest capital city in the world and the 3rd windiest. I’m not sure how accurate the windiest claim is, but the takeaway is that Perth can be quite shockingly windy. Somehow the grid of the CBD lines up with the typical wind currents, so you’ll experience some pretty strong wind gusts in the streets of downtown. It also tends to get more windy as the day goes on, so people in the know head to the beaches in the morning hours, before the windiest part of the day sets in.

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#6 | Kangaroos

You don’t need to go to a wildlife park or zoo to get a glimpse of a kangaroo – there are plenty of wild kangaroos hanging out in and around Perth. Not far (and walkable!) from the CBD is Heirisson Island, with an area open to the public with wild kangaroos, in full view of the downtown skyscrapers. There are also quite a few wild kangaroos that hang out and play in Yanchep National Park, north of the city. When I was at Yanchep there were some kangaroos fighting – remember that kangaroos are powerful animals and don’t get too close in the wild, they have a fierce kick when balanced on their tail! Still very cool that kangaroos are just hanging around in many places throughout the city, especially at dusk.

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#7 | Rainbows

For a place as sunny as Perth, rainbows are not something you would expect with great frequency. But there is just something about the weather patterns (and possibly how quickly the sun reappears after rainfall?) that makes huge arcs of color a common sight. Living there, I remember being very excited the first time I saw a rainbow, and immediately snapped a picture. A few days later, I felt like the luckiest rainbow-spotter ever, and took another photo. Not long after, I realized how often rainbows would appear, although that didn’t make them any less beautiful. I probably took more rainbow pictures in my one year living there than everywhere else I’ve ever visited combined!

#8 | Crazy Costs

Australia is a giant island, so many things have to be brought in from overseas, and are priced accordingly. Perth is so isolated – even from the rest of Australia – that prices can even be a bit higher than in other parts of Oz. The good news is that while the prices look exorbitant, for many nationalities coming from abroad, the currency exchange rate is way more favorable now than before. For example, when I lived there 5 years ago, the Australian dollar and US dollar were basically at parity, US$1 = AUD$1. Now an Australian dollar only costs about 75 US cents. My strategy on my last trip was to think about paying in US dollars or Euro, and then I had a very pleasant surprise when I saw the actual charges on my credit card bill =)

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#9 | Wine Country

Did you know that Western Australia produces a disproportionally large percentage of Australia’s premium wines? While the most famous region is Margaret River, about a 3-hour drive south of Perth, don’t worry if you don’t have enough time to make that trek. Because there is also a wonderful wine region that is right off of the Perth metro, called Swan Valley, not far from the city center. It’s an easy drive to get there from Perth by car or metro, you can rent bikes and ride around the 32-kilometer loop that links many of the area wineries, or sign up for one of the many food and wine tours of the area. It’s the oldest wine region in Western Australia, and the area now boasts breweries, distilleries, and many excellent purveyors of culinary products – from coffee to honey to lavender.

#10 | Birds of Every Feather

There are lots of birds all over Perth, but those you’re likely to encounter are the swans, the ravens, and the magpies.

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To See: Perth was settled around the Swan River, and you can guess how the river got its name! Especially along the bike and walking paths along the river’s edge in the CBD, you’ll come across both white and black swans, just a short stroll from the heart of the city. While they are beautiful, keep your distance as swans are not the nicest of animals.

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To Hear: You’ll hear the ravens before you see them, and as you listen to their repetitive, whiny caw, you’ll wonder how a bird could possibly make such an unpleasant noise. The birds tend to be black and either up in a tree or hopping around along the ground, as long as no people have approached too closely. I had nearly forgotten all about their existence until the first time I heard their distinctive call during my recent trip. There is a lot of green space throughout the city of Perth, so there are plenty of trees where the birds like to nest, and you’ll hear them if you’re walking anywhere in the vicinity.

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To Avoid:

Magpies, innocuous-looking black and white birds, can pose quite a danger when defending their urban nesting areas. You’ll need to be cautious during their ‘swooping season’ in September and October, when they can actually cause real damage to humans, especially cyclists. If you’ll be around Perth then, familiarize yourself with tips on staying safe. There is a good overview of what to do and not to do from Australia’s LifeHacker site here.

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#11 | Bustling Downtown

Lots of cities have a bustling downtown, but the city of Perth makes it even easier to navigate – for free! There is actually a Free Tansit Zone (FTZ) that encompasses the major swath of downtown. All of the bus lines that cross through the CBD are free so long as you board and leave within the boundaries of the FTZ. There are also several CAT lines (red, blue, yellow, & green) for ‘Central Area Transit’ that loop through the downtown area – and even a bit beyond – that are completely free to ride. This means that during lunchtime on a weekday, local workers don’t typically restrict themselves to the immediate vicinity of their office building, but can be seen riding the buses to hit up the best restaurants for a delicious lunch, all within the time constraints of their lunch break – and for free.

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#12 | Fireworks

When I lived in Perth, the first time I was sitting on the couch on a Tuesday evening and heard the explosive noise, I was alarmed and had to take a moment to think. My New Yorker sensibilities suggested that it might be a gunshot or explosion, but then I realized that not only is Australia (and Perth in particular) incredibly safe, but almost nobody owns a gun due to its strict laws. My next thought – could it be fireworks? I rushed out to the balcony to take a look and was delighted to discover a colorful display taking place over the Swan River. Little did I know when choosing an apartment that its view would offer front-row seating for the ridiculously frequent fireworks displays. Fireworks displays happen so often in Perth there’s even a blog dedicated to just that – Why are there fireworks in Perth tonight? So yes, when you visit, if you’re downtown in the early evening, you’ll probably see fireworks. Look up and enjoy the show!

As you can tell, I loved Perth and found it such an interesting place to be able to live. And recently, to come back as a visitor. While Australia if far from many places, it’s quite close to Asia, and a great place to pop into when you’re nearby or set as a destination for a longer trip.

Anything I missed about Perth? Any things that are also “so typical” about where you live? Share in the Comments below!

12 Things to Expect on Your Visit to Perth in Western Australia

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How to Spend One Day in Mainz, Germany

How to Spend One Day in Mainz, Germany

Tons of people each year end up with a layover in Frankfurt, and many opt to stay the night, but most probably make it to this gem – the city of Mainz, which is on the Frankfurt metro system. I didn’t even know Mainz existed, except perhaps an obscure reference in my high school history class a long time ago. But when I saw pictures of a fellow expat friend (thanks, Lisa!) taking a trip there to see the Chagall Windows of one of the churches, I knew I had to make a stop during my next visit to Frankfurt.

I had originally planned to go to Mainz for just a couple of hours in the morning, but was having such a wonderful time I ended up spending the entire day! And Mainz also had one of the most beautiful things I saw all of last year, which you can read more about in my Thanksgiving post here.

My visit to Mainz occurred almost exactly a year ago – in the dead of winter. My top 2 highlights? the Chagall Windows at St. Stephan’s Church & the Gutenberg Museum, seeing multiple Gutenberg Bibles.

If Mainz absolutely charmed me in the coldest weather of the year, you’ll love it whenever you are able to go!

Things to Do

Around Town

Gutenberg Museum

If you know your history, you’ll recall that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-1400s, which was revolutionary in allowing for the mass printing of books and pamphlets, spreading knowledge and improving literacy across all social classes. Although the machine was a feat of engineering, printing in those days was part art, part science, and Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible (and many other books and pamphlets) created some of the world’s most prized possessions. You’ll catch all of the relevant history at the museum, but be sure to time your visit to catch one of the printing press demonstrations by the friendly staff and also leave enough time to savor the beauty of the original Gutenberg Bibles on display. I couldn’t help but stand there awestruck, and visited the room with the Bibles again and again as I walked through different floors of the museum. Seeing the Gutenberg Bibles was one of my absolute highlights of all of 2016 – and that’s saying a lot!

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Mainz Cathedral (Mainzer Dom)

Located in the central pedestrian area, this Cathedral has been around for over 1,000 years, and its history can be traced in the different architectural styles of the building and adornments. Take your time strolling through to appreciate the details of the artistry and history displayed throughout, and be sure to visit the outdoor courtyard.

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Market Square (Marktplatz)

Surrounding many of these ‘Around Town’ attractions is the market square, part of the broader pedestrian plazas and streets. Even when not en route to or from one of the attractions, take the time to wander the old part of the city and join the daily rhythm of the locals.

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St. Augustine’s Church (Augustinerkirche)

Not far from the Mainz Cathedral – and a few hundred years younger – the Augustinerkirche has a very different feel. The interior decorations here are quite elaborate and include many gold accents typical of the Baroque style, and is beautiful in its own right.

Off the Beaten Path

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Citadel (Zitadelle)

The Citadel is an entire complex, originally an abbey and later a fortress, and has a lot of trails to stroll around. Housed on site is also the Historical Museum of Mainz and from April until October you can even take tours a couple of days a week that take you on and to the underground areas of the Citadel.

TIP! While the main website linked above is in German, if you scroll to the bottom of the homepage there is an option to switch your browsing language to English.

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Synagogue, Synagogenplatz

Built less than a decade ago, the new synagogue of Mainz serves a local Jewish community nearly 1,000 people strong. The building is striking from the outside – seemingly an abstract, modernist creation – but in reality comprised of the hebrew letters for kedusha, holiness. In a moment of travel serendipity, one of the staff peeked out while I was photographing the synagogue’s exterior (as you can see in the photo above!) and was kind enough to let me in and join a tour that was in progress, so I got to view the synagogue’s stunning interior as well. Although picture-taking of the sanctuary was not allowed, you can see the incredible features of the building on the architect’s website here. The synagogue was the spot I visited that was farthest from the historical center, but local trams will get you there easily (see (More) Practical Tips for Visiting’ section below).

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Old Synagogue

The previous synagogue of Mainz no longer stands, however there is a plaque commemorating its location. Originally constructed in 1878, it was damaged during Kristallnacht in 1938 and then destroyed in 1942 by bombings during World War II. Above you can see the rendering of what it looked like before it was destroyed, a model that was on display at the new Synagogue when I visited.

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Roman Theater

There is not a ton to see, although it is an interesting juxtaposition to have the ancient Roman Theater abutting the modern train station. Since you’re likely to arrive in Mainz right nearby (see (More) Practical Tips for Visiting’ section below), it’s worth the short stroll from the train station to check it out.

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St. Stephan’s Church

People make a special journey to this church (and even the city of Mainz) for one thing – the blue Chagall windows. Notable as the only German church that the Jewish artist Marc Chagall designed for, his signature stained glass windows are even more breathtaking in person. The church is located a bit away from the most central part of town, but is another one of the absolute highlights of my visit to Mainz, and probably the #1 attraction for most tourists. Be sure to make this a priority during your time in Mainz!

TIP! The main Mainz website offers itineraries for a variety of self-guided city walks, to help you logically navigate the different sights that interest you most.

Best Bites

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Eisgrub-Bräu

The oldest brewery in Mainz, this is a great spot to grab a beer and sample some delicious, traditional German food. The brewing takes place on site, so you’ll see the giant tanks inside the restaurant, maturing the several different types of in-house brews. The restaurant is a short stroll from the central pedestrian area – just far enough away that it was completely packed with locals when I went. I was on my own, but if you’re in a group (or really ambitious) you can order the giant cylinder with over 2 liters of beer!

TIP! This restaurant is open for weekday lunch, while many restaurants in town are only open for dinner during the week. Anywhere you’re planning to eat, be sure to check the operating hours ahead of time.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

Coming from anywhere on the Frankfurt metro, a day pass is a great, economical option. And if you get a train pass, it’s also valid for transportation within the city of Mainz. There is an extensive tram system that takes you between different parts of town, saving you some walking and quite helpful in bad (or cold) weather.

Also, there are multiple train stops in Mainz. For access to the historical center and quaint pedestrian areas, you’ll want to travel to the S-bahn stop by the Roman Theater: Mainz Römisches Theater.

For me Mainz really over-delivered, with the Gutenberg Bibles being the absolute highlight that I couldn’t get enough of, but by no stretch the only amazing and beautiful thing I saw during my day there.

What’s your favorite part about Mainz? Any other tips for a visit? And what was the last city that wowed you unexpectedly? Share away in the Comments!

How to Spend One Day - 24 hours - in Mainz Germany

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How the US Election Result Helped Me to Connect My 2 Passions

How the US Election Result Helped Me to Connect My 2 Passions

Where are you from?” The typical first question of cab drivers transporting tourists, pretty much anywhere in the world.

I’m American,” I reflexively replied.

While I know some Americans try to always disguise their nationality while they’re traveling, that’s never been me. I realize that sometimes there are bad stereotypes out there about American travelers, but I specifically mention that I’m American for that reason – to combat stereotypes. Nothing is a bigger compliment than being told by a foreigner that “you don’t seem like an American.” It basically means that they expected bad behavior, and instead you were gracious and unassuming.

The only place I had even considered temporarily adopting a non-American nationality was traveling in Vietnam in 2012. I had thought that locals might have prejudices or dislike Americans because of the Vietnam War, so started off telling people I was Australian (I figured they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between different accents speaking English, plus I *was* living in Perth at the time). In the end though, it turned out that none of the Vietnamese people I met harbored resentment against American tourists. So whenever I’m asked about my nationality, answering that I’m American doesn’t take any conscious thought.

Of course, on this particular cab ride, it was the next question that caught me completely off guard. “Donald Trump, new President?”

For Election Day this past November, I was in Bali, Indonesia. It was a week that I had set aside during my recent travels to fall off the grid. Not because of the US election, but simply as a week bridging the time between staying with friends in Singapore and Perth, Australia. I did not post on the travel blog or any of my social media accounts about where I was. I left my “nice” camera behind every time I went around exploring. And I was evasive when people asked which countries I’d be visiting on my 2-month trip, always excluding Indonesia.

Ubud is a pretty simple town in central Bali, where roosters crowing will wake you up at dawn no matter where or how fancy your accommodations. I had booked a car to take me to the airport at a nondescript, family-run stand around the corner from my impossibly cheap homestay. So when my taxi driver (the husband of the family) displayed a working knowledge of the American election result from three days prior, asking me about our new President-Elect by name, I was taken aback.

This was my first indication of the worldwide impact and awareness of the US election results – that everyone from wealthy intellectuals to the proverbial (and literal) man on the street in remote areas would know about the election, and be eager to ask any American in sight all about it. And like many Americans, foreigners were equally baffled about the election’s outcome, and couldn’t help but pepper me with questions as they tried to make sense of what happened.

So what does this all have to do with me and my passions?

I recently read Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she discusses the concept of a “slash career,” put forth by Marci Alboher. Essentially, the idea behind it is that people don’t need to limit themselves to a single professional identity, or even a single field. Instead, it’s fine to be a Doctor/Artist or Engineer/Musician (notice the slashes?), identifying two distinct passions or identities and taking on them both simultaneously without having to pick a single career or chosen pursuit.

This really was a moment of epiphany for me. I started the Travel Savvy Gal blog at a point in time when I was not working a regular job. People still ask me if my plan is to become a Blogger full-time. “Oh no,” I say, “blogging is a hobby, professionally I am still an Educator.” But this idea of a “slash career” meant that I didn’t have to choose, I could be both! From that moment on, I started thinking of myself as an Educator and a Travel Blogger, two pursuits I considered as disparate as being a Doctor and an Artist.

It’s great,” I thought, because my education background is teaching high school mathematics so the “Educator” title would cover the logical, rational, mathematical side of my brain and the “Travel Blogger” title would be my completely different, creative pursuit in writing and communication. Two completely different areas where I find personal fulfillment and two different pursuits tapping into totally different parts of my brain.

This world view held for months, and it was only after the US election that the two ideas, my two passions that I had considered so completely separate, began to come together in my mind.

After Donald Trump became the US President-Elect, the questions swirled…

How could this happen?

How could America elect someone with no experience in elected office?

How could the same country who *re-elected* America’s 1st black President four years ago now elect someone who had spoken out against many minority groups?

Why did so many Americans fear the “other”?

And perhaps most importantly,

What needs to happen in the coming four years so that Americans support a candidate in the next presidential election who favors openness, international engagement, and welcoming refugees and immigrants?

Of course, I grappled with these questions and thought extensively about what I thought would be the “solution” to counter America’s isolationism and the desire many Americans felt to withdraw from the world stage and focus solely on issues at home instead.

What could convince Americans to be more open to strangers and foreigners?

What would make Americans believe that most refugees were simple people in a rough situation they did not create, and did not pose a security threat?

What would need to happen so that Americans wanted to engage with and not withdraw from the international community?

And honor our obligations to the international community?

After much pondering, the two answers I came upon: Travel & Education.

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Travel.

Traveling of course can range from being sequestered in an all-inclusive resort and never setting foot outside to being completely immersed in the villages and with the people of a foreign country. Most of my travel falls into the latter category, and it is this kind of travel I’m talking about. Even if it’s minimal contact on a single-day jaunt away from the resort or off of a cruise ship, to me travel means both contact with locals and exposure to a different culture and a different way of doing things. And eye-opening travel can also be within your home country, to another state or region that does things a bit differently.

If you’ve never left the familiar comforts of home, you’ll never realize how much you take for granted. All of those things you simply think are universal or fixed in place, but it is only exposure to another place or another culture that allows you to see a different approach. For me, travel has allowed me to see that their can be two approaches to a situation, both different, yet both equally valid. There can be multiple right ways to do something, it all depends on your perspective. It is that open-minded thinking that I believe can prevent politics from becoming emotionally-charged and hugely divisive, and in many ways a type of thinking that is enhanced by travel.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

On the road, you’ll often meet people of other nationalities, economic brackets, professions, and walks of life. Being outside of your normal routine, you’re more likely to cross paths with someone you wouldn’t have encountered back at home, even if it is someone of the same nationality. Through these interactions with someone who on the surface is quite different from you, that is where the commonality of the human condition emerges. Some of the most impoverished people I’ve met in my travels have the same basic concerns as people everywhere: how to best take care of their families and creating a better future for their children. These first-hand interactions that come from travel really make it so clear that people around the world have more in common than is different.

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Education.

Sure, you say, travel is great, but not everyone has the ability or financial means to travel. While I would dispute the idea that travel is outside of the reach of many people, that is a conversation for another day. Among both the frequent travelers and those who never stray outside of a short distance from home, I know that education can teach different approaches and ways of thinking about the world, just as travel does.

People often say to me that it must be so easy being a math teacher and grading papers because there is only one right answer to a math problem. But that is not the case at all! Even for a problem that has a single number as an answer, there are so many different possible approaches that assignments and exams can be quite difficult to grade. And of course the real mathematical analysis comes into play when you ask a student to come up with multiple, valid ways to solve a single math problem. That is where the real expansive thinking comes in, brainstorming multiple approaches that can all be simultaneously correct.

I see education as a “solution” to isolationism because it has the capacity to expose people to a diversity of ideas and approaches, in mathematics and of course all the other subjects, too. Good education teaches critical thinking and provides students with the skills to compete in a global economy rather than fear it. And education inspires students to take the initiative to do research and be responsible for their own learning, drawing their own conclusions and not just accepting what others say at face value.

Connecting the Two?

Interestingly, I am not alone when it comes to having both travel and education as a passion. There are a ton of other travel bloggers out there who are also educators, something I was surprised to discover (but really shouldn’t have been). Sure, you say, of course teachers travel a lot because they get summers off. However, I don’t think it is just because of the vacation time – although many teachers certainly use that to their advantage – but also because of that common drive we teachers have to discover and explore the world around us. And just because teachers travel a lot would not necessarily mean that they also become travel bloggers in droves, although that too is what seems to have happened.

If you are a teacher, you not only have an intellectual curiosity about the world around you, but you seek to share your experiences and knowledge with others: your students. That is where the crossover between academic and professor occurs, and also the crossover between avid traveler and travel blogger – not just traveling but also sharing the resulting expertise and perspective with the world.

Of course, there are ways to simultaneously unite travel and education, instead of just keeping them as parallel yet related passions, and there are travel bloggers out there doing just that. As for me, at this point I don’t know if I’ll integrate my two passions of travel and education or keep them as separate pursuits, but certainly they are not nearly as different as I originally thought.

Do you have multiple passions or careers that you’ve chosen to pursue? How do you reconcile these different aspects of who you are? I’ve obviously been grappling with these issues, so help me out here =) Share your strategies (and ongoing struggles) in the Comments below!

How the US Election Result Helped Me Connect My 2 Passions

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Verona: A Romantic Getaway for Valentine’s Day

Verona: A Romantic Getaway for Valentine’s Day

I should have known better. It was a wintry February, I was just two months into living in Italy, and was looking for a town not too large or far from Milan for a weekend trip. From some vague research, it seemed like Verona would be perfect. It was big, but not too big. It had a bunch of noteworthy sights, but not too many to be overwhelming. It had a culinary scene, but was still only a short drive from wine country. So I found a good deal on a bed and breakfast (it was the off-season, after all) and booked.

It was only when I arrived on this first visit to Verona that the realization hit. First, it was a poster with hearts here and there. Then announcements of an upcoming festival. Then finally the barrage of red hearts permeating my consciousness and I started connecting the dots. Verona . . . “In fair Verona where we lay our scene” . . . Romeo & Juliet . . . a romantic destination for Valentine’s Day!

Unwittingly I had put together a very timely weekend getaway in this most romantic of places. And the center of Verona is quite compact and walkable to all of the sights, making for a leisurely time even with a healthy dose of sightseeing. And although a fair bit of what you’ll want to see is outside, it makes it even cozier when you enter the cocoon of a traditional, wood-paneled restaurant or get cozy next to the fireplace. Or warm up with a thick, gooey, Italian hot chocolate.

Despite sort of stumbling on this gem for a romantic weekend away in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, it was such a wonderful trip. If you’re going for a romantic weekend – at any time of year – definitely keep your schedule flexible. The only firm plans I’d make are for your meals if there are specific restaurants you have in mind, and most Italians will reserve if they’re going out to eat during the weekend. Otherwise, just play it by ear and go where your heart takes you <3

Things to Do

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Even if you’re not feeling touristically ambitious, the Verona Card is a great value, providing free entry into many churches and the main sights around town. It comes in 24- and 48-hour versions, and can be most easily purchased at any of the included attractions (everything I list below is on the Card).

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Roman Arena

Verona’s Arena may not be as big or famous as the Colosseum in Rome, but it is very well preserved. So much so, that it hosts a full season of outdoor opera performances during the warmer months. To enter, you’ll inevitably pass through the picturesque Piazza Bra, which is also a nice spot to stroll.

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Castelvecchio

Literally “old castle” in Italian, this castle-turned-museum has great pieces of art and sculpture on display. It also has what is probably my favorite view of Verona, overlooking the nearby bridge and river. It’s all just so quaint!

Juliet’s House

Not just any Shakespearean characters, Romeo and Juliet are part of how we think about love, even today. While Juliet was imagined, “her” house could not be more real, turned into a museum with an actual balcony where you can get your iconic picture and a wall at the entrance for leaving a note for your beloved.

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Lamberti Tower

Adjacent to Piazza delle Erbe, this tower has been around for nearly 1,000 years, and the bells still ring multiple times a day. The fun of course is the view at the top – accessible on foot or by elevator. You’ll need to specify your preference when getting your ticket to enter, as the elevator costs a bit more.

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Churches

Like pretty much every city and town throughout Italy, there are several churches as well as a Cathedral, or Duomo. You’ll probably see several of these just strolling around, and there are 4 churches included on the Verona Card (see above). Verona has been well-preserved through the centuries, so you’ll get plenty of history whichever ones you choose to visit.

Places to Eat

Antica Bottega del Vino

Close to Piazza delle Erbe, but away from the fray on a side street, this restaurant has been around since the late 1800s and you feel the history in the décor and the depth of flavors in the dishes. It’s a great spot to sample a red risotto, made with the local Amarone wine.

Da Ugo Osteria

This is the spot to head to for traditional local cuisine. Popular with the locals, I definitely recommend a reservation for dinner or weekend dining. There is a ton of selection, and is personally notable as the one restaurant where I’ve sampled a dish with horse meat, which is pretty common throughout Italy. It was good.

Gelateria Savoia

Even wintertime is time for gelato. Many of the spots locals will recommend for the “best” gelato are far afield, but this is a delicious option right in the heart of the city, which has been around since the 1930s.

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Like most great finds, I was looking for a spot for an aperitivo – a pre-dinner drink with some snacks – and followed the chatter of the locals to the bar inside. It’s on a pretty touristy stretch in Piazza Bra by the Arena, and I’ve never had a full meal there, but their cocktails are solid and the little nibbles that come with your drink are surprisingly delicious. The tasty snacks and great value for money (read: it’s cheap) are the reasons to seek out this particular spot. Join the crowd from about 6 to 8pm, before heading to your late Italian dinner.

 

TIP! Verona is in the Valentine’s spirit in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. If you come on Valentine’s weekend itself, there is a multi-day “Verona in Love” Festival, which will be more crowded than other weekends, but also with more events. Its tag line says it all: “If you love someone . . . bring him to Verona!” Decide what timing works best for you and your sweetheart for that romantic getaway.

Several visits later and Verona is one of my favorite places in Italy, a spot I keep coming back to again and again. It’s a great romantic getaway for a day (or several) at any time of year, but you’ll feel some extra love from the city if you go around Valentine’s Day or during the Festival.

Where’s your favorite romantic getaway for Valentine’s Day?

Verona - A Romantic Getaway for Valentine's Day

 

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Ways Hospitality in Oman will Wow You!

Ways Hospitality in Oman will Wow You!

Hospitality is renowned throughout the Middle East, but in Oman is in a league of its own. My recent week-long road trip through Oman was nowhere near my first visit to the region. I lived in Israel for a year nearly two decades ago, and have been back there many times since. I’ve traveled in Jordan and Egypt. I explored parts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after Oman. But none of those places can compare with Oman in terms of hospitality.

As a native New Yorker, I always find it a bit unsettling when I’m traveling and people seem super-nice. Are they trying to scam me? Take advantage of me somehow? Overcharge me for my purchase? My senses are heightened and I try to take everything with a grain of salt, figuring out what is real versus contrived. Also, I traveled in Oman with my sister, so wondered as two females traveling alone in a Muslim nation, would there be anything we needed to worry about?

After the first few days in Oman, however, it became apparent that Omanis were nice, gracious, and always jumping at the chance to help you. At every turn, it seemed like all of the locals we encountered were interested in going out of their way to make our stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Any time we stopped the car briefly on the side of the road to figure out directions, an Omani would suddenly appear to provide directions and offer help. Pretty quickly we realized that we should simply relax and appreciate the generosity and hospitality being shown to us.

One of the things that stands out in my mind is that there is a ton of hospitality around food. Anything you’re served will involve huge attention to detail. Sometimes there was even a woven contained for your bottled water to accompany your meal!

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Oman is especially known for its coffee and fresh dates, which will make an appearance at the end of meals and greeting you in hotel lobbies, offered of course free of charge. Omani coffee, known as kahwa, is not your typical Western concoction. Instead it consists of an incredibly aromatic brew, infused with cardamom, sometimes cloves, and other spices. And despite my extensive travels in the Middle East, it was only on this trip to Oman that I found true date heaven. Fresh dates were always offered alongside Omani coffee, and the freshest and most delicious dates of my life were sampled throughout Oman. Even at our most budget accommodation – a double room for the equivalent of $40 US – coffee and dates were available around the clock for a touch of comfort during our stay.

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Not anticipating Omani hospitality also caused us to over-order at many of our meals. There is of course the dishes you pick out from the menu to satiate your appetite. But more often than not, there was also additional food that simply arrived at the table. Most commonly, huge portions of bread and salad arrived along with the other dishes. Sometimes there were other appetizers that simply appeared after placing our order. So we figured out to scale back a bit by the end of the week, anticipating the ever-present Omani hospitality, although I don’t think we ever cleared all of our plates.

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Then there was the time that someone really went out of their way to offer help. My sister and I were driving through an area in the middle of the country, where most accommodations involve tents in the middle of the desert. And we were in the most budget economy car we could find – a quite compact Toyota Yaris. All of a sudden, we get flashed by the truck behind us to pull over. My safety radar immediately goes off, and I’m cautious as I open the window, thinking that maybe the brake light is out or something is wrong with the car? No, the helpful local is asking us where we’re staying and making sure that we realize that we can’t drive our teeny vehicle into the desert, or we will get stranded. He even offers to give us a ride. Fortunately we had already realized this, and arranged for the owner to pick us up in his 4×4 and take us to our tent accommodation for the night. But this is certainly the first time anywhere that someone was driving along next to me and was so concerned for my safety and well-being that they stopped the car to offer assistance.

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The next morning, after a very hospitality tent stay in the desert, we continue on our way. Our first stop after picking up our non-desert ready budget vehicle is a collection of stores to pick up items for a picnic lunch during our hike in nearby Wadi Khalid. First, we get some sandwiches to take with us. Then, we stop into the nearby fruit stand (all markets in Oman are pretty specialized) to pick up some additional snacks. After picking out some clementines, I approach the vendor to pay. He looks at us, then shifts his gaze to the fruit, and again back at us. While he doesn’t speak any English, he gestures at us in a way that seems to indicate that he is offering us the fruit for free. I try to communicate back, are you sure?, with the shrug of my shoulders and facial expression. Now he is motioning with insistence – yes, the fruit is ours to take, free of charge. If this had been in the first day of traveling in Oman, I would have been incredibly confused and nervous about misinterpreting the gesture. Several days into experiencing Omani hospitality, I realize that he is being generous with us, guests to his country. I say a grateful shukran, Arabic for thank you, as I depart with the fruit in hand.

Just when I think that I have seen it all when it comes to Omani hospitality, the country has one more crazy experience in store for me and my sister. We arrive at Wadi Khalid and know that one of the first things we are looking to do is check out the well-known cave with water flowing inside. It is actually well-signed, so we start off on the trail following the direction of the arrows over the rocks. As we go, we catch up to someone who seems to be Omani although he addresses us in English. We find out his name is Sayeed, local to the area although he lives in Muscat now, and he offers to be our personal tour guide to the cave.

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Anywhere else, the offer would have screamed danger, but in Oman it’s just a local being nice. And it ended up being amazing, because the cave was really cramped with no light and difficult to navigate. As we were entering, there were other tourists leaving after only venturing into the cave a little bit. Because we were with someone who knew the ins and outs of navigating the cave, we managed to see the water source far into the caverns, peer at some sleeping bats hiding in the darkness, and find our way out without getting lost once. Sayeed was a knowledgeable and informative guide as well, describing the history of the area and how locals grow up playing inside the cave. The whole time I just kept thinking that we were so fortunate to have a local to show us around, and that our experience would not have been anywhere near as incredible without his hospitality. He even suggested some cultural events in the area to check out that evening.

Of all the things I expected from the road trip with my sister through Oman, such extensive hospitality was not one of them. Certainly, we exhibited good tourist practices while there – knowing a few words of Arabic and wearing modest dress, even for swimming – but the kindness of our Omani hosts everywhere we went made it an even-more amazing (and welcoming) travel experience.

Where have you experienced the most gracious hospitality in your travels?

Ways Hospitality in Oman Wows You

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11 Incredible Reasons to Visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria: In Pictures

11 Incredible Reasons to Visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria: In Pictures

Plovdiv is the most under-rated city in Bulgaria, and my absolutely favorite from my week-long trip. It holds 6th place on the list of the World’s 10 Oldest Cities, and the history dating back to the Roman empire (and long before) is ever-present as you explore the city’s many sights.

Why go? See for yourself in the pictures below!

Pedestrian Walkways

No need to keep an eye out for aggressive drivers, you can stroll the city center in peace, where some of the most picturesque buildings and ancient ruins reside.

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Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis

The stadium, an archaeological remnant from the Roman Empire, was massive. However, only part of it is visible, as most of the stadium actually lies under the modern pedestrian walkway. Fortunately the exposed section includes the tiered seating that allows audiences to continue to enjoy performances, including the choir festival I enjoyed one of my nights in town.

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Mosaics

There are many mosaics throughout Plovdiv, some of which are nearly two millenia old! Some of the most intact examples from the 2nd and 3rd centuries are at the Small Basilica in town and the Trakart Gallery in an underground passageway in the city center.

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Ancient Roman Theater

Even though its one of the best preserved in the world, the 1st century Roman Theater of Plovdiv was only uncovered in the 1970s! Today it hosts theater and musical performances, and on the day of my visit, there were stage hands hard at work preparing for a show.

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Churches, but Not Only

The city of Plovdiv, over its 6,000+ years of history, has also been host to the world’s main monotheistic religions. In addition to churches, you’ll also find an active synagogue and mosque in town.

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Forts and Monasteries on Nearby Hillsides

There is the Puldin Fortress in Plovdiv itself, as well as several other fortresses and monasteries in the surrounding hills, all featuring lovely vistas of the surrounding Bulgarian landscape. Nearby standouts featured in the pictures below are the Bachkovo Monastery and Asen’s Fortress.

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Singing Fountains

On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, the fountains in Tsar Simeon Park put on a choreographed show with the fountains, colored lights, and music. I was mesmerized – it’s incredibly well done.

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Alyosha Monument

Alyosha is a monument of a towering Soviet soldier, made even more imposing by its position at the top of the military park at Bunarjik Hill. The statue itself stands over 10-meters (35 feet) tall! And of course once you’ve hiked your way to the top, you get a lovely view of Plovdiv on all sides.

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Street Art

From formal pieces to graffiti masterpieces, art is everywhere you turn in Plovdiv.

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Food

Hearty, Eastern European specialties at their best. Think meat and potatoes in stoneware, but also some very fresh produce and delicious cheeses.

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Wine & Wineries

While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you picture Bulgaria, this is wine country extraordinaire and as recently as the 1980s, Bulgaria was 2nd in the world in wine production. With many excellent wineries surrounding Plovdiv – Wine Enthusiast has named this area a Top 10 Wine Destination for 2017 – whether you like to tour vineyards and do wine tasting or just cozy up in town at a wine bar, you’ll drink well while you’re here.

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What city or country has taken you by surprise with how wonderful it is when you go? Have you been to Plovdiv? What convinced you to make the trek?

11 Incredible Reasons to Visit Plovdiv Bulgaria

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