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Month: May 2017

How to Spend One Day in Lake Como, Italy

How to Spend One Day in Lake Como, Italy

When I say the word “lake,” what do you imagine? A small, oval-shaped body of water where you could easily row to the other side in a boat? A modest-sized swimming hole for a quick dip as you hike in the woods?

Your imagination has probably conjured up something relatively tiny, but the lakes of northern Italy – including Lake Como – are anything but. Instead of your typical circular or oval body of water, Lake Como is like an upside-down letter Y or wishbone shape, and extends north to south nearly 30 miles/50 kilometers! This was one of the first of many things that made a deep impression on me when I visited.

Even if you can’t find Lake Como on a map of Italy, you’re likely to know a few things about it. Like the fact that George Clooney lives there. Or that it is a posh weekend and summer destination for residents of Milan. This means that in addition to being curious and making several trips on my own, Lake Como was also a popular destination for guests visiting me when I lived in Milan, and I’ve been there many times across several years.

One of the easiest spots to land, and with plenty to see, is the town of Como at one of the southern tips of this wishbone-shaped lake. The lake itself is huge, which you’ll discover standing on its shores and staring out toward the horizon where the lake continues even past where you can see. You could easily spend a week exploring its shores, but for most visitors, you’ll probably just have a day (or two) to spend exploring.

Here’s what to do when you visit Como:

Around Town

Lake Como

A beautiful Lake Como morning

Whether you’re arriving by car or train, your drop-off point or parking spot will likely be quite close to the shore of Lake Como. And walking up to the edge of the lake is always the first thing I want to do when I get there! There are beautiful views along the shore in both directions, and a lovely pathway for a stroll.

Boat Tour

Boat Trp Lake Como Italy DSCN0408

During warm weather months, from about April to October, there are leisure boats lined up along the dock close to the Como Nord (northern) train station. With a high number of tourists, boats leave quite frequently and very affordable at around 5 Euros per person. When you arrive at the dock, just ask how soon the next boat is leaving. It is about a 30-minute trip up and back along the adjacent section of lake, and the better boats will point out sites of interest along the way, including spots where famous movies were filmed.

TIP! Doing a basic boat tour is different from taking the fast or slow ferry to other towns on the lake, so if you want to just do a boat tour, this is just along the shore, not at the official ticket counter (see ‘Off the Beaten Path‘ below for more details on ferries to other town).

Cathedral

Duomo Cathedral Lake Como Italy

The main Cathedral of Como, or Duomo, is located right in the center of town and is a stunning example of Gothic architecture. It is free to enter and a must-visit spot while you’re visiting. Spend as little or as much time as you like.

Porta Torre and Old City Walls

Arriving at Porta Torre, the medieval town entrance dating back nearly 1,000 years, involves walking through winding cobblestone streets away from the lake front. Not only will you get a glimpse of the oldest parts of Como along the way, you’ll also get a great sense of this town’s lengthy history and long-standing structures.

Como Silk Museum

Did you know that an overwhelming percentage of Europe’s silk production comes from Lake Como? Ever since a Duke around the year 1400 decided to start growing mulberry trees and importing silkworms from Asia, Como has been a hub of silk production, which continues today. This museum, located a bit beyond the Porta Torre (see above), chronicles silk’s history in the area and the various stages of production.

Shopping

I’m not always a huge shopper, but there are lots of wonderful things to get in town. There are your typical clothing chains, but also cute kitchen stores, shops with local food products, and jewelry makers. And of course, plenty of Como silk!

Off the Beaten Path

Como-Brunate Funicular

Brunate Funicular Lake Como Italy 20150610_165610 (2)Brunate View Lake Como Italy 20151001_165504 (2)

Lake Como is surrounded by hills and mountains, and while it’s definitely possible to hike up the steep incline on foot, most people opt for the funicular, which is like a steep tram. There are some shops, sights, and restaurants up top, but most people make the trip for the lovely view of Lake Como. There is a great viewing spot about a 20-minute relatively flat walk to the left when you exit at the Brunate station.

TIP! The funicular runs quite frequently, but it’s always a good idea to look at (or even take a picture) or the return schedule to time your return trip to Como.

TIP! The front of the lower section of the funicular is a giant window, and that’s where you’ll get the best views as you ascend and descend. Arrive early to be first in line to snag this spot!

Villa Olmo

Villa Olmo Lake Como Italy 20150610_181532

There are many villas along Lake Como, one more beautiful than the next, and many with extensive landscaped gardens to behold. The closest one to the town of Como is Villa Olmo, about a 20-minute walk from the center along the west side of the lakeshore (if you’re facing the lake, to the left). The outdoor areas are impressive with beautiful lake views, and the interior is a free museum open daily except Monday.

Ferries

Bellagio, on Lake Como
Bellagio, on Lake Como

There are many other towns along the lake, and it’s definitely doable to visit and explore one or more others during a single day, depending on how you want to spend your time. The link above shows the schedule and fares for various destinations along the lake. The town of Bellagio is one of the most popular other towns for visiting, although be aware that it is approximately a 2-hour boat ride with the slow ferry and around 45-minutes one way if you pay the surcharge for the fast ferry. And it will cost around 10-15 Euros each direction.

TIP! If you just want to get out on the water a bit and not necessarily see another town, the faster and more economical way is a tourist boat tour, see ‘Around Town‘ section above.

TIP! If Bellagio is the main town you’d like to visit on Lake Como, it is faster and cheaper to take a train from Milan to the town of Varenna, and then take a ferry across from there, skipping the town of Como entirely.

Best Bites

Ristorante La Cucina di Elsa

La Cucina di Elsa Lake Como Italy 20150610_132118 (2)

This family-run restaurant is close to the waterfront, but just far enough away that it is mostly locals who you’ll find as your dining companions. Apparently there is another branch just across the border in Lugano, Switzerland, but I’ve only been to the Como one. ‘Elsa’s Kitchen’ has typical Italian dishes with a lot of fresh seafood, with dishes that are a bit elevated from down-home cooking, so worth lingering over every perfect bite.

Locanda Barbarossa

Set inside a vast stone building, the ambiance is wonderful along with the food. Pizza is the most popular, and comes in dozens of varieties including several white pizzas, although the northern Italian risotto and meat specialties are equally delicious if you’re not in the mood for pizza. Either way, it’s a great spot for a lingering lunch.

Gelateria Lariana

Gelateria Lariana Lake Como Italy

No Italian outing would be complete without gelato. This gelateria is along the waterfront, but somehow seems to be frequented mostly by locals – it was actually a tip from a local that led me here in the first place. There are a few spots to sit outside with your gelato, so grab your favorite flavors, and enjoy it along with the view.

It won’t even take a single day here to begin to understand why Lake Como is an ideal location for a summer getaway, and how it has become the ‘it’ destination for so many. I’ve visited lots of lakes across northern Italy, and with the dramatic cliffs and mountains right up to the water’s edge, Lake Como is still my favorite.

Have you been to Como? Any recommended spots that didn’t make my list? And do you have any other questions about how to spend your time on Lake Como? Let me know in the ‘Comments’!

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How to Spend One Day - 24 Hours - in Lake Como Italy, Day Trip from Milan

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16 Travel Essentials for Every Kind of Trip

16 Travel Essentials for Every Kind of Trip

Note: This post may contain affiliate links.

Whether it’s an outdoor adventure, relaxing on the beach, or wine tasting, there are some travel essentials that you’ll want to have on hand for every kind of trip you might take.

There are a lot of travel products that many backpackers and bloggers consider essential, but I just don’t use them. For example, unless you’re doing a long camping trip or are staying in super-budget accommodations, you probably don’t need a miniature travel towel.

But there are plenty of things that I use and would recommend having on hand for every kind of trip, even if it’s just a short weekend getaway or a day trip on the train.

Most of these are pretty inexpensive items that won’t break the bank, but will last for years and have a huge impact on the quality of your time in transit and during a trip or vacation. In fact, I’ve been using most of these for a decade or more!

Kindle Fire

This is a product I use daily, whether I am traveling or not. It’s almost always in my purse or on my bedside!

Having an e-reader of any type is useful as instead of carrying multiple (possibly bulky or heavy) books, you can load up several books worth of reading material onto a single, sleek device. Although I received this as a holiday gift – and was dubious since I like the feel of an actual book so much – I actually love it.

Not only does it make many books portable for longer trips, the Kindle Fire also doubles as a tablet and portable Wi-Fi device, which I have found useful when I’ve traveled without my laptop. It is a time-keeper overnight if my phone is charging far away & serves as a backup alarm if I need to wake up early in the morning. And it is backlit, so I can still read in a dark room or airplane without additional light.

It is a bit heavier to get the Kindle e-reader with internet. If you’re nervous about the weight of the device, or don’t want all the additional functionality, check out the Kindle Paperwhite as a lighter alternative.

Earplugs

Earplugs are one of the travel essentials for any kind of traveler. Whether it’s used for tuning out background noise so you can focus or blocking out the world so you can catch a nap somewhere, you’ll be glad to have a steady supply of these among your travel essentials. I like the cylinders better than the rounded ones as I find they block out noise more effectively, and I use them on buses, trains, and planes all the time.

Eye Mask

I usually keep my eye mask and earplugs in a bag together for travel, and this bag is typically the second thing I grab (after my Kindle!) to have a comfortable journey. I use my eye mask to comfortably nap in bright places, sleep at off hours, and often to block out the sun in the morning wherever I’m sleeping. I don’t know about you, but bright sun wakes me up at any hour, which can happen quite early in some places depending on where you go and the time of year.

I’ve tried several different eye masks, from the ones that come complimentary on the airplane to fancy ones that I’ve seen recommended online and then purchased. But nothing beats this version, which completely blocks the light while still being light and flexible and barely feeling like anything when you wear it. It comes in a bunch of designs and has an easily adjustable velcro strap.

Ear Buds

Probably most people have ear buds to go along with their portable music player, but these are also great to have for watching things on laptop or tablet in a public place or listening to music or a podcast on your phone. Any time I think I don’t need them and leave them behind, I usually regret not having them on hand. And the ear bud itself is soft and flexible so doesn’t hurt my ears after a while like other versions.

Headphone Splitter

This is an incredibly small and basic piece of technology, but it’s nice when you have a single tablet or laptop and are traveling with a buddy, to be able to watch (or listen to) something at the same time. This is a great way to enjoy music or watch a movie or TV show episode together with minimal hassle. And it easily plugs into any port, and then you just need two pairs of ear buds to listen in.

Portable Charger

For me when I travel, not only is my cell phone my watch, camera, and internet browser all in one, it’s also my main means of security. I need the fallback plan of being able to call for help if needed, so the last thing I want is a dead cell phone battery.

When you travel, you can’t count on always finding a wall plug to charge your devices, which is why having a portable charger (even if it’s just in case) is one of the most critical travel essentials.

Fleece Jacket

Rottnest Island, Australia
Rottnest Island, Australia

A fleece jacket is one of the most versatile items you can travel with. Beyond the obvious function of wearing as a jacket to keep you warm, it can also cushion fragile objects in your luggage or serve as a pillow in a pinch. And if you’re flying, wrap it around your waist in transit which doesn’t count against your luggage allowance.

Fleece Jackets for Men & Women

Neck Pillow

Any time I am traveling on a long flight or an overnight trip, my neck pillow is coming with me. It’s a great way to support your neck sitting up or reclining, and this version with the beads inside can be easily molded for maximum comfort. It also doubles as an actual pillow and can substitute for any uncomfortable hostel or hotel pillows you encounter in your travels.

Headlamp

You won’t realize how many uses you have for a headlamp when traveling until you take one with you, which is why it made my list of travel essentials. It’s not just for camping in the wilderness, but also good for any number of things – finding your way around a poorly lit area at night, reading in bed in a hostel dorm, & finding your way anywhere while still having your hands free. Plus, it’s always good to have a bright light source on hand, just in case.

USB Car Multi-Charger

Although USB ports are becoming increasingly common in vehicles, this multi-charger is still an essential for me. I use it in my car at home, and am also sure to pack it any time I travel to go on a road trip and am renting a vehicle. This version plugs into a cigarette lighter port, and is shockingly fast at charging devices. Especially if you’re using a cell phone to navigate as you drive, you’ll want to have this accessible to keep it powered up for your entire journey.

Water Bladder

Solo hiking in Liechtenstein
Solo hiking in Liechtenstein

Hydration bladders are lighter and flatter than traditional water bottles, making it an easy and lightweight item to take along for travel, even if you’re only planning to take a carry-on bag. Whether you’re doing intensive physical activity or not, it’s super easy to fill up, seals perfectly, and doesn’t start growing bacteria and having a weird taste after repeated use.

And many backpacks have a convenient loop like in the picture above so you can sip as you stroll without having to stop and open things.  I like having the 3-liter size because I can fill it up to the 1-liter mark for less intense walks or fill it to the brim on a blazing hot day.

Full disclosure: I’ve included this water bladder here because it’s what I use myself and I find it substantially better than other similar products out there. However, just so you know, I do have a family connection to this company. Read the Amazon reviews for some honest opinions from others about why this is the best hydration bladder you can use.

Zip-Off Pants

Walking to Sawadi Island, Oman (and staying modest)
Walking to Sawadi Island, Oman (and staying modest)

Some people love them, some people dislike them for their look. As for me, I find zip-off pants to be incredibly functional. I’ve found the current pair I own to be especially useful since they cut off below the knee when unzipped, which still allows me to enter religious sites with modest dress since my knees are covered.

Zip-off Pants for Men & Women

Columbia Omni-Shade Shirt

Amman, Jordan
Amman, Jordan

You know how Bedouins live in the scorching hot desert and are always seen wearing clothing from head to toe? That’s because it is actually cooler to have your skin covered, and when you sweat it’s basically like built-in air conditioning.

I love the Columbia Omni-Shade shirt because it is incredibly lightweight, has sun protection (SPF 30) built-in to the material, and has roll-up sleeves when you want them. If it gets wet or sweaty, it dries quickly. And it looks nice, especially the ones with pockets in front, so doubles as a ‘dressy’ shirt to wear out to a nice dinner in the evening. Travel essentials don’t get better than this!

I have been wearing mine for close to a decade, and you’ll see it in a startling number of my travel shots. I recently encountered someone with my same shirt, except in light blue, and we just chatted about how much we love the shirt and how versatile it’s been in our travels.

Columbia Omni-shade Shirts for Men & Women

TSA-approved Travel Lock

If you travel a lot or a little in the US, you’ll want to have some form of Transportation Security Administration (TSA)-approved travel lock so you can secure your luggage and agents can still open it as required if it needs to be searched.

TSA-approved Luggage Locks

Universal Adapter

This is most useful for international travel or if you own devices on different plugs like I do and need to be able to convert. It also has the different shapes nest into each other, so it is compact for packing purposes.

The universal adapter covers various plugs from all over the world, and I was so glad to have it when I missed my flight connection and had a surprise overnight in London. I was going from a European to an American plug that trip, so it was only because I had the universal adapter with me that I was able to plug in and charge my phone right away when I got stranded at London’s Heathrow Airport, since the UK is on a third type of plug.

Global Power Adapters

Wine Skin

Okay, so technically these are single use (and I may have been reusing mine for a few years now), but these wine skins are an excellent way to pack wine in with your checked luggage for flying, and they’ve always kept my wine bottles intact. Basically there’s an interior layer of bubble wrap that hugs the shape of the wine bottle to keep it from breaking in transit. And they come flat, so it’s easy to bring them along, even if you’re following my top advice and ‘packing poorly.’

Anywhere you travel and think you may purchase wine as a souvenir, I encourage you to have a set of wine skins on hand to help transport them home.  It’s one of those travel essentials for every wine lover.

What are your travel essentials? Is there anything you always travel with that didn’t make my list? Let me know what I should add!

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Why The Best Packing Strategy is to Pack As Poorly As Possible

Why The Best Packing Strategy is to Pack As Poorly As Possible

There are a lot of competing ideas about which packing strategy is best, but this is all about a very different, but highly-effective piece of advice.

Most define packing success as sitting on top of an overstuffed bag and just getting it to zip closed. Possibly by sitting and jumping on top! The packing ritual been hilariously portrayed in many films, and you’ve probably lived it yourself getting ready for a vacation.

But here’s the thing.

One of the eternal truths of this world is that items always seem to multiply when you’re on a trip. You get a brochure from a tourist attraction you want to save for your scrapbook, you accumulate receipts and invoices from hotels and restaurants, you purchase a knick-knack here or there.

I’m not huge into buying souvenirs, and even I used to have trouble squeezing everything back into my bag. Re-packing into the same luggage you came with shouldn’t be this hard, right? It all fit inside the first time.

This is why I say that my best packing strategy is to pack as poorly as possible. Then you’ll have plenty of extra packing space when it’s time to come home and you go about packing efficiently for your trip back.

How to Pack On the Way There

Basically, my packing strategy when I first leave on a trip is to do the opposite of all of the tips out there for how to pack efficiently. I aim to pack as inefficiently as possible. And then I take out 3 more items of clothing, to clear up even more space.

What does this look like?

  • No socks (or anything) stuffed inside shoesGoing There Packing Strategy Travel Hack DSC_0494
  • Pack hiking boots or bulkiest shoes, and then wear flip flops or sleek sandals
  • Pack disposable items in small containers that you can finish and throw away during your trip, like:
    • travel size toiletries, including shampoo, conditioner, facewash, and lotionGoing There Trip Toiletries Packing Strategy Travel Hack DSC_0498TIP! It’s better to pack 2 small shampoo containers than 1 large one, because then you can throw away the small one when it’s done instead of having to transport the large one in both directions
    • tampons and pads, for the ladies
    • mints or snacks in small sizes
  • Fold, don’t roll your clothesGoing There Packing Strategy Travel Hack DSC_0499
  • Pack small gifts for hosts and/or to pass out to people you meet in your travels
  • Include physical books that you’ll give away when you finish reading
  • Close your luggage with its smallest possible dimensions – so don’t open the expanding zipper or loosen the closure on a backpack when you first pack

It may not be the prettiest packing job (although you should still pack carefully to keep your clothes from getting wrinkled in transit) but this is the best way I’ve found to preserve extra space in my luggage for later. Whether it’s to bring something back from my travels or simply to have the flexibility to pack poorly when I might be exhausted at the end of my trip.

“Pack efficiently, but just fewer items!” you shout. “That’ll solve the packing dilemma.”

Although that is certainly possible in theory, practically that would never work for me at least. But you also don’t want a lot of empty space at the top of your bag where things might get jostled in transit.

Packing poorly ensures that the space is taken up to keep items secure, but there is plenty of wiggle room if you pack efficiently later to include more things.

READ MORE: 16 Travel Essentials for Every Kind of Trip

How to Pack On the Way Back

Well, how efficiently you need to pack for your journey home depends on how many things you’ve managed to finish and dispose of along the way, and how many things you’ve purchased to bring back with you.

Or if you’ve purchased heavy items in a duty-free shop and would prefer to have the extra space to insert them into your rolling carry-on luggage to be able to drag along through the airport and avoid carrying them by hand.

Let’s assume for a second that you loaded up on souvenirs and want to be able to have them fit neatly inside the bags you came with.

Here’s what you do:

  • Wear largest/bulkiest pair of shoes home
  • Stuff socks or other small items inside other shoes packed in the luggageComing Back Packing Strategy Travel Hack DSC_0511
  • Throw away or consolidate any toiletries you’ve used up
  • Roll all clothing, or use packing cubes if you’re into thatComing Back Packing Strategy Travel Hack DSC_0516

Ta-da, space for everything you purchase along the way!

Do you usually find yourself struggling to close your luggage for the return trip? What packing strategy do you use to have enough space?

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The Best Packing Strategy to Always Have Extra Space - Travel Hack

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What’s the Big Deal with ‘Country Counting’ Anyway?

What’s the Big Deal with ‘Country Counting’ Anyway?

I don’t always come into contact with other frequent travelers on the road, and when I do, the topic of ‘country counting’ doesn’t come up. Until last week when I was in Belize and happened to take a day trip to Guatemala with a bunch of frequent travelers, including a pair who worked at a ski resort 6 to 8 months a year and traveled the rest of the time.

Travel blogging doesn’t always lend itself to interviewing or conducting field research, but on the two hour or so drive, I felt like I had an opportunity.

“So, do you know how many countries you’ve been to?”

I tried to pose the question as innocently as possible to the ski resort pair. They didn’t know I was a travel blogger, and I didn’t offer up the information because we were at the beginning of the tour and I didn’t want special treatment from the guide. Although I had already planned to write about ‘country counting’ for the blog.

After a brief moment of thought, one of them suggested, “Maybe somewhere in the 30s?”

I would venture to say that visiting 30+ countries is something not attained by most people. As we passed our passports to the front of the van for processing at the Guatemalan border, theirs bulged with the extra pages displaying all of the places they’ve transited.

But here is the other key piece of information. They didn’t talk about all the countries they’d visited or how many new ones they would see this year, but instead waxed philosophical about how they loved southeast Asia and it was a destination they’d returned to again and again.

This is in stark contrast to the travel blogging world, when someone’s number of countries visited serves as some sort of “street cred” (aka credentials) of how experienced they might be, or perhaps how trustworthy with advice.

When I started out blogging, I noticed it in people’s Twitter or Instagram profile. I followed suit and added it to my Pinterest page description. As you can imagine, there are also travel bloggers that are vehemently opposed to country counting because of what it represents. To each his or her own.

Country goals

There are plenty of people though, from infrequent tourists to backpackers to business travelers, who engage in ‘country counting.’ For some, it’s not a constant tally, but an occasional check-in, depending on the goal.

I’ve heard it all in terms of goals: visiting 30 countries by the age of 30, making it to 2 new countries each year, or just using the number as a motivator to travel more. Apparently there’s even an app for that. Or rather several apps, that typically use a map feature to shade in and track where you’ve visited.

And for the really ambitious, there’s the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC). The TCC was founded in Los Angeles, California in the 1950s and – you guessed it – membership is open to those who have visited 100 or more countries.

Why ‘country counting’ is so complicated

Of course, “been to” or “visiting” can mean many things.
Does transferring at an airport count?
What if you go through customs and leave the airport?
Do you have to spend the night?
Stay for 24 hours?
Have a meal?

By the way, those aren’t random questions. All of them are criteria I’ve heard floated by friends and other bloggers as to what you might have to do for a country to “count.” Or for those counting US states or Canadian provinces or Italian regions as they try to visit each one.

As for me, I only know the number of countries I’ve been to because I sat down and made a list last year, thinking that it would help to mention it to be considered a travel blogging authority. At the time I started the blog, I had been to 45 countries, which I mentioned in my very first welcome post on the blog.

Although interestingly I don’t know – off the top of my head, anyway – how many of the 50 US states I’ve visited, although it’s quite a few. (Maybe I’m somewhere in the 30s?)

Hidden in my number of 54 are a few quick passes through places, like…

  • brief jaunts into Montenegro and Bosnia on day trips during my 2007 road trip
  • the overnight I spent sleeping at the Kuala Lumpur low-cost airport terminal in 2012, although I did have to get my passport stamped and I exited the terminal once for a brief stroll
  • my day trip to visit the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala last week, starting and ending in Belize
Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala

Also hidden in my number, which seems to be toward the high side for bloggers, is the fact that I’ve never been to South America! Although I’ve traveled a bunch in the Caribbean and Central America. And racked up quite a few extra countries while living in Europe and visiting micro-nations like Andorra and Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City.

Monte Carlo, Monaco
Monte Carlo, Monaco

It sure sounds impressive to say that I’ve lived in 4 countries on 4 continents (which is true!) but really I just keep going back to those same continents for travel as well! And no, I don’t count my few days into the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt as visiting Africa, although you might consider that to technically be the case.

Mount Sinai, Egypt
Mount Sinai, Egypt

See how complicated this all is?

But wait, here’s the other kicker of a question. How many countries are there in the world?

There are some people who aim to visit every country in the world. Although I’m not one of them, the question of how to know when you’ve visited them all is not so straightforward.

How many “countries” are there?

You would think that knowing how many countries there are would be a simple question, but it is anything but. How to decide?

Probably the first thing most people think of is to consult the United Nations (UN) membership as a guide. There are 193 UN member states. OK, so there is our number: 193.

Vatican City Holy See 20150928_092351

But wait, what about the Holy See (Vatican City, pictured above) and Palestine, both of which have official UN observer status. So, there are 195 countries in the world?

Well, not so fast. Taiwan is not a member of the UN at all, due to ongoing disagreements with mainland China. And certainly most people would consider it a country. New tally: 196.

Or how about Kosovo? Following conflict over its status after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, which over 100 countries have recognized. But it is still not part of the UN. And we’re at 197.

There is still Antarctica, which is a continent, but has no country based there. Can you visit a continent without adding to your ‘country count’? Or what about Hong Kong & Macau, which are Special Administrative Regions of China?

Interestingly, the Guinness Book of World Records put the number of “sovereign nations” at 196. The most recent (and fastest) person to achieve the feat of visiting them all, American Cassie De Pecol, brought recent attention to ‘country counting’ with the goal of visiting every country. It took her just over a year and a half.

The TCC country and territory list takes things to a whole new level and lists 325 places! Based on their own definition, of course.

What about me?

Personally, I think you need to clear immigration and step foot in a country for it to count, so by that measure I am technically at 54 countries, although it really feels like 53 since I left the Kuala Lumpur airport oh-so-briefly during my overnight layover. I didn’t actually see or do anything there. Except take this picture:

Overnight at the KL Low Cost Carrier Terminal. Not sure how people think they'll be able to bring a crate of live chickens as carry-on. Several goats as well.

How did my count get so high?

A few factors, really. It was Caribbean vacations with my family & a few well-planned trips over the years that included several countries each & living in Europe for 3 years where things are so darn close together.

“Oh, you lived in Europe for 3 years, you must have been everywhere!”

That’s something I hear a lot, but I didn’t even come close, despite my many trips to micro-nations. I only made one foray during that time into Scandinava (Stockholm for TBEX, a travel blogging conference), and there are other places that lots of people have visited that just haven’t happened for me. At least not yet.

Like Portugal. Or Ireland. Or places I would love to get to this year like Malta & Georgia.

Some would call me well-traveled (and I think I am), but not because of my country count!

Some parting thoughts

What I can say? Yes, I’ve been to a lot of countries. I’m not an expert on everywhere, but I have done enough travel to offer advice and tips on mistakes to avoid and how to do it well. Which is why I started a blog =)

For the places I have been, I typically do a fair bit of research before going. Then I take good notes on what I’ve seen, done & enjoyed, and can share my best tips for those destinations with you!

And this whole ‘country counting’ business? I like numbers, and it’s certainly something interesting to think about for your own travels. But at the end of the day I’m much more concerned with what type of travel someone has done than how many places they’ve visited necessarily.

  • Did you savor great street food, seek out haute cuisine, or eat what’s most convenient at the moment?
  • Did you plan ahead of time or travel spontaneously?
  • Did you join organized tours or do your own thing?
  • Did you visit places where you know locals or went somewhere you have no connection?

These are some of the many ways to frame travel, and they’re certainly not mutually exclusive. I travel in lots of varied ways depending on the destination, budget, and my traveling companions. There is no one right method, although in its own way my number does tell a story – of the clustered travel I’ve done around countries where I’ve lived, and how much of the world is still left for me to explore.

A particular travel count is not a goal of mine. (It never even occurred to me to try to visit 30 countries by the time I turned 30!)

And I don’t know that I’ll want to go to every country someday like some of those world record holders.

But I do want to explore new places, re-visit places I’ve been and loved, and take some travel savvy with me when I go.

Happy travels!

Lana

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Do you know your country count? Or your count of provinces or states where you live? What does it mean for you and your travel? What do you need to do in a place for it to make it onto your list?

And do you have any goals around your country count? Like visiting 40 countries by the time you’re 40…or 100 countries in your lifetime? I want to hear all about it!

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Country Counting - All the Ins & Outs of Meeting Travel Goals

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Photo Journey through Berlin’s East Side Gallery

Photo Journey through Berlin’s East Side Gallery

Berlin’s East Side Gallery is the longest open-air art gallery in the world, where artists have left their mark on an extended section of the original Berlin Wall. Artist got a wide rectangular section of wall as their canvas, and the resulting art is a combination of humor, political satire, and hope. A fitting mix of emotions given the symbolic nature of the wall during the Cold War, and the harsh reality it represented for Berlin’s inhabitants.

I’ve already posted a quite thorough Berlin Cheat Sheet on the blog with my impressions of the city, all the best things to do, restaurants and food to seek out, and thorough tips to make the most of your visit. These images will give you a closer look as to why the city made such an impression on me, and why I left thinking of it as a ‘City of Contradictions.’

The Berlin Wall has been on my mind again lately, as I recently visited a section of the original wall, also adorned with art, in the lobby of a random New York City office building:

The East Side Gallery of course is the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. You can get a sense of the length of the East Side Gallery in this shot, although you may have to get pretty close to your screen to see just how far it continues to wrap around alongside the road:

East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0789

In this photo journey through my visit, I’m including the panels that I found most interesting, many of which have incredible detail. I spent around two hours strolling up and down the panels – you could spend more or less depending on how much time you’re interested in spending with each mural.

And you’ll notice that some of my shots include fencing. Over the years since 1990 when the East Side Gallery first opened, there have been some sections obscured by graffiti, and so after a restoration effort, fences have been put up to protect the art.

Here’s what I saw…

German flag with overlay from the Israeli flag:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0763

Portrayal of the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, which connected the two sides of Berlin for those authorized to cross:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0768

Interesting panel, since there is a three-dimensional component with the plant box. Reminiscent of a church for me:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0770

“Save Our Earth” and the incredibly detailed, colorful panel on the left:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0773

Amnesty International dove of peace and chain of captivity:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0783

I’ll let the bold yellow and red here speak for itself:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0784

The panel that was most impactful for me, so I’m including 2 different perspectives. It portrays a “Curriculum Vitae” of the people killed while trying to escape, during each of the years the wall stood from 1961-1989:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0785

Each rose represents one person:East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0786East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0787

I spent quite a bit of time in front of this final panel, what do you make of it?East Side Gallery Berlin Germany DSC_0794

Which panel made the biggest impression on you? Have you been to the East Side Gallery? Any memorable panels I missed?

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Berlin's East Side Gallery in pictures Germany

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Foodie Scoop – The Table in Boston

Foodie Scoop – The Table in Boston

On a recent weekend trip to Boston designed for catching up with friends and loved ones, I wasn’t expecting to have any notable experiences to share on the blog. Until I went to the Gardner Museum, site of the largest unsolved art heist, and loved the vibe of the museum even beyond the noticeably empty picture frames on the wall. And then that night, my foodie revelation – enjoying my best dining experience of the year so far.

In between a night cooking at home with friends and another getting some traditional Boston clam chowder out, I had a night to fill on my recent weekend trip to Boston. I cooked have cooked at my friends’ place where I was staying, even though they were out that night. It would have been quite cozy, and I do love to cook.

But when I’m somewhere other than home, you know me – I like to get out and explore! So despite the freezing temperatures and chilling wind, I ventured outside in search of a meal out. It was a decent stroll, actually, to another corner of Cambridge, to see if I could get in to The Table at Season to Taste.

I had seen The Table on a list of best Boston restaurants for foodies, and was intrigued by it offering a tasting menu, but choices within each course, all of which sounded delicious. And I sure worked up an appetite by the time I arrived.

Of course, I came prepared with a backup plan of several other nearby restaurants in case I couldn’t get in at The Table. But fortunately that was not needed and I had a really stellar dining experience that I’m compelled to share:

How ‘The Table’ Works (& What You Should Do Instead)

The Table is a quite small Cambridge dining establishment, with only twenty seats inside. The main seating is a combination of 16 spots at regular tables and 4 stools at the bar facing the open kitchen.

All of these seats, including the bar stools, are available to reserve and when you do you’ll be asked for your seating preference – Standard or Counter. You’re also required to provide a credit card, and you can only cancel the reservation until 48 hours in advance. By reserving, you’re committing to a 4-course tasting menu (there are 2 options within each course) at a cost of $69 per person.

But who needs commitment like that when you can instead play it by ear?

The website for The Table describes that “there is a menu of light snacks paired with choice wines and craft beers at the standing wine bar.” This is accurate, and you can find both a ‘Drink’ and a ‘Snack’ menu on the site to check out in advance.

TOP TIP! What they don’t tell you is that the ‘standing wine bar’ – really like a waiting nook to the right of the entrance – is far more flexible than they make it sound. You can actually order from the several choices on the ‘Snack Menu’ or order any of the 8 possible courses a la carte from the tasting menu (4 courses x 2 options in each). You can mix and match. And it is glorious.

In foodie heaven, I ended up getting 3 courses in total, one of the “first courses” and both of the “second courses” from the tasting menu the night I was there. And none of the “snacks.” My choices were partially based on my mood and partially based on the one course my server recommended when I asked for guidance – the crab stew (which you’ll read all about below).

The best deal by far is to dine in the waiting nook. Both in terms of choice and price.

I’m not the only foodie who’s figured this out as there was a neighborhood couple who dined there the same night as me, but otherwise the other people who entered had reserved in advance at the tables or at the counter.

The ‘standing wine bar’ only has 2 stools (I managed to snag one), but you can also stand, if you don’t mind. The one couple who came after me opted to stand. FYI, I arrived around 7:30pm on a Saturday night, and was the first person to arrive without a reservation.

And in the end, it was incredibly affordable for the size and quality of the dishes that came out. Each of my First/Second course choices were only $14 each! And you could be happily full on just two, trust me.

I honestly didn’t ask for the a la carte price before ordering, but the meal cost less than I expected it to be, which was a pleasant surprise when I received the bill at the end. Basically, my food and wine came to the total I was expecting just for the food. Amazing.

Now that I’ve talked about the pesky money business, it’s time to focus on the exceptional meal and service I enjoyed. Which, price aside, is what really made this a stand-out restaurant experience for me.

The Staff and Chefs

Despite the main restaurant menu consisting of just a tasting menu, the service is effusive and not stuffy or pretentious at all. I’d characterize it as quite laid back, which seems to be my preferred style of dining these days. From welcoming me as soon as I came in the door to explaining my ordering options in the ‘standing wine bar,’ everything throughout the meal was very comfortable and relaxed.

And while I didn’t try any of the craft beer that was available, I did enjoy a couple of wines by the glass – one white, one red – and had some great sommelier advice along the way. The menu options by the glass were interesting, and the knowledgeable staff gave some spot-on recommendations for pairings with the dishes I ordered.

Although the chefs are focused as they expertly assemble dishes in the open kitchen, they are also aware of the diners and happily chatting away with us, even with me over in the nook! Being close to a kitchen with chefs that were so friendly and interacting with guests definitely enhanced the dining experience for me.

Another thing I noticed when I got settled on my stool in the waiting nook was that the head chef in the kitchen sure looked familiar. A quick search on my phone revealed that yes, it was Carl Dooley from Top Chef, which (I swear!) I didn’t know before going.  Like many foodies I know, I’ve been a loyal watcher of this American cooking reality show for years, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a restaurant of a Top Chef contestant outside of Washington, DC before. Fortunately, his time on TV didn’t go to his head and he was super friendly, just like the other chefs in the kitchen.

Another nice touch is that different chefs hand deliver each course, and you get to chat with them as they come to where you’re seated with your dish. They never seemed too rushed to get back into the kitchen, helping the meal feel relaxed.

The staff is so, so friendly and both welcoming and accommodating that they made an already great experience especially memorable.

Breaking it Down Course by Course

Since I had ordered a random mix of three courses and was not doing the full tasting menu, I was expecting dining in The Table’s waiting nook to be like any other a la carte meal. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at the very hospitable and foodie-worthy dining experience.

Soon after ordering, heated triangles of house-made sourdough bread appeared, served with some cultured butter. I had no clue what cultured butter was, so asked and found out that it was butter that had been churned with live bacteria to culture it. It was a flavor I didn’t love on its own but really enjoyed with my different food courses.

Amuse Bouche The Table in Cambridge Boston USA 20170311_200018

Another surprise then headed my way, an amuse bouche. This is a small dish made at the daily whim of the chef to start my meal, and something I wasn’t expecting since I had not committed to the tasting menu like the diners at the tables and formal counter spots. I enjoyed the apple, turnip, and jalapeño soup, although it was not nearly as incredible as the more polished courses that followed.

Grilled Squid and Winter Citrus Salad The Table in Cambridge Boston USA 20170311_200815

I had ordered the 1st course of grilled squid with winter citrus just because I was in the mood for squid. The dish looked different than I had pictured it in my head, but it was incredibly delicious. The thin rings of squid were cooked perfectly, and not in the least bit rubbery or chewy. It was boldly seasoned to the point that I found a bite of the squid on its own to be a bit too salty, but with the other flavors of the citrus, mint, olives, and pistachio, it made for a perfect bite.

When I ordered my two 2nd courses, I had just assumed from my perspective after living in Italy that the pasta would arrive first, followed by the crab stew. But I didn’t specify anything when I ordered and the kitchen had its own ideas about the proper order. Which meant that the server-recommended crab stew came next.

I’m glad that it did, because I wasn’t approaching being full yet, and was able to appreciate it completely. I don’t say this lightly: this crab dish is one of the best bites I’ve ever had.

Crab Stew with Housemade kimchi The Table in Cambridge Boston USA 20170311_203244

This 2nd course was the crab stew, with peanuts, scallions, house-made kimchi, & a sunny side up egg. Sounds simple enough, and it actually didn’t appeal to me much from reading the menu description.

But when I had asked my server about what dishes from the menu stand out (and I honestly expecting waffling, saying that “everything is good” as many servers do), she hands-down said the crab dish was unlike anything she had ever tasted. So I took her advice to heart and ordered the dish, which was oh-so-good, far beyond any description I could possibly offer. Although I’ll try.

Like my first course, the crab stew was boldly flavored. The house-made kimchi packed a spicy punch, and its sour flavor and texture from the cabbage with the smooth, buttery crab made it very pleasant to eat. Each spoonful was an unapologetic, perfectly balanced umami bite of addictive, comforting flavors. The runny yolk from the sunny side up egg put the richness of the dish way over the top (in a good way!) and the crunch of the scallions and peanuts kept each bite interesting. I would travel back to Boston just to eat this dish again.

Of course, I wasn’t even done with the meal yet. My final course had yet to arrive!

I was starting to get a bit full at this point, and had I not already ordered a third dish, I probably wouldn’t have. And you could definitely be satisfied with just two courses, as I mentioned before. While I was waiting in between courses, I mentally told myself that it would be okay to not finish my last course. And then it was presented.

Homemade Garganelli Pasta with Duck Confit The Table in Cambridge Boston USA 20170311_204825

This other 2nd course was a house-made garganelli pasta with duck confit, toasted hazelnuts, mushrooms, and spigarello, a leafy green. There was great winter flavor to this dish, between the pasta, the spigarello, the hazelnuts, and the fresh parmesan cheese grated over top.

The duck confit itself was very good, although possibly superfluous – while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure that the dish needed the meat at all. And like all my other dishes that night, there was incredible flavor and textural balance, making every bite supremely enjoyable.

My only critique the whole night – and an incredibly minor one – is that some of the pieces (in all of the dishes) were left quite large, so it was hard to maneuver and balance all of the components of the dish onto my fork at the same time to enjoy them as a single bite. The larger pieces were certainly a plus in some cases, like the lovely chunks of lump crab in the stew, but overall I would have liked to have more mixed bites since the dishes were so good when you got to eat everything together.

A Sweet Ending

The regular 4-course tasting menu includes a dessert course as the final two options, however I had consciously chosen three savory dishes with the idea of forgoing dessert entirely. And honestly, I was pretty full after the first two of my three courses, although you probably couldn’t tell, given how I devoured them all!

Suffice it to say that even two courses would be plenty of food for a lot of people, and dessert for me was definitely not necessary. Of course, while I politely declined dessert when asked, the meal still wasn’t quite over yet.

To my surprise, despite being in the ‘standing wine bar’ nook perched on a stool and an itty bitty ledge to eat off of, I got all of the benefits that typically happen at a restaurant when you order a tasting menu.

Not only did I have an amuse bouche and the bread with house spreads to start my meal, but the meal also ended on an equally generous note.

First (after refusing dessert) I was served a perfectly tart and bitter sorbet of grapefruit and Campari liqueur. Even though I don’t usually love either of those flavors on their own, I couldn’t resist a taste. And let’s be real, by this point I certainly had full trust in anything this restaurant served. The sorbet was a very nice palate cleanser/digestif to end a very rich and luscious meal.

Grapefruit Campari sorbet Brownie & Granola Bar The Table in Cambridge Boston USA 20170311_210845

Then another complimentary dessert plate arrived (no, I’m not kidding!) with a small square of brownie and a slice of homemade granola. I probably shouldn’t have, but I ate the entire brownie immediately and then really was at my absolute limit.

In the end, it was quite a lot of dessert for a person who had declined, but I of course enjoyed the sorbet and brownie bite, and filled to the brim, put the granola in my purse for later. Conveniently it was already wrapped in brown paper for exactly this purpose =)

And after all that delicious food, I knew I would need to take a nice long walk, so pushed the idea of a taxi out of my head and had a very blissful walk home, with a smile plastered on my face, and the flavors and memories of this incredible meal still bouncing around.

Final Thoughts

My foodie tastebuds are happy all over again as I relive this meal by writing about it. Certainly, if you’ll be in the Boston area, this would be top of my list to seek out while you’re there. And if you’re not going anytime soon, plan a trip!

And forget reserving seats for the typical tasting menu – you’re likely to pay less than a typical night out if you’re willing to enjoy your meal in the waiting nook that is the ‘standing wine bar.’ Plus, you’ll have complete control over which combination of courses to enjoy if you dine there.

What makes a meal outstanding for you? What’s *your* best dining experience of the year so far? (‘Cause let’s be real, wherever it is, I want to go.) Share away in the ‘Comments’!

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The Best Restaurant Meal of the Year - in Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Top 9 Things to do in the Le Marche region of Italy

Top 9 Things to do in the Le Marche region of Italy

East of Tuscany on the Adriatic coast is one of Italy’s lesser-known regions, Le Marche, where you can avoid the tourist hordes and enjoy some pretty incredible Italian experiences and cuisine. I’ve visited many times, for relaxing long weekends and outdoor adventure, for wine tasting and relaxing on the beach, for hiking and exploring walled cities. The region of Le Marche is probably a destination where you’ll want to rent a car (and you can check out my Best Tips for European Road Trips), but you’ll be so glad to have the flexibility to explore off the main train line along the coast.

You may never have heard of Le Marche before – and travel guidebooks don’t help much – so I’ve compiled a list of the top things to do while you’re there. And once you’ve mapped out the attractions you’ll want to visit, I recommend finding a nearby guesthouse to stay, where you can chat with the owner for some insider information on the area and have an even better experience.

Top Things to Do

Relax on the Beach

Beach Le Marche Italy 20160921_152331

Le Marche is a coastal region, with its eastern border along the Adriatic Sea, so there is no shortage of beaches for swimming, suntanning, and relaxing. If you’ve been to Croatia you know that Adriatic beaches tend to have pebbles instead of sand, and Le Marche is the same for the most part. Which is why Senigallia is a popular beach destination, as one of the only sandy beaches in the region.

Beach Le Marche Italy DSC_0216

The other main attraction in terms of Le Marche beaches is the Conero Riviera, south of the regional capital of Ancona, with some absolutely stunning coastline. Several of the beaches can be accessed on foot or at least closely approached in a car. One exception is the lovely Due Sorelle (two sisters) beach, only accessible by boat from Numara, and usually a less crowded spot to enjoy the sea.

Eat: Savor Local Specialties.

I’m no expert on Marchegiana cuisine, and like all over Italy it varies from town to town, but Marche like other parts of Italy is known for its regional food specialties. Probably the most well-known across Italy are the beloved olive ascolane, which are olives stuffed with a ground pork mixture, then breaded and fried.

Less likely to find in other parts of Italy are some of the primi, or first courses. Vincisgrassi is a local variation on lasagna, usually baked with chicken livers, and you’ll often seen passatelli pasta featured on menus, made by passing a breadcrumb dough through a shaper until it emerges in the shape of spaghetti.

Passatelli Le Marche Italy 20160921_214240

Various sausages and game dishes are also common, as is brodetto, a fish stew made traditionally with 13 types of fish and seafood, to represent the number of people at the Last Supper. Whatever corner of Le Marche you find yourself in, one thing is guaranteed – you’ll eat well!

Caves & Undergrounds

Basically, there are lots of caves and undergrounds all over Le Marche. As long as you’re not scared of enclosed spaces, there are some great spots to check out:

  • Frasassi Caves. The largest cave system in Europe, these are a must-visit spot if you’re in Le Marche! The claim to fame here is that the initial chamber of the Frasassi Caves is so large that the Duomo di Milano, Milan’s Cathedral, could fit completely inside. There is a long, meandering path you’ll follow if you take basic tour (guides are mandatory for a visit) or if like me, you’re a bit more adventurous, there are 2 spelunking tours through these natural caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Although no pictures allowed =(I love going behind the scenes, so signed up for one of the “Speleo-Adventure” tours, and had a blast. You’ll change into coveralls and tall rubber boots, because you’ll get quite muddy along the way. And do ask ahead of time about language. My tour was in Italian (and fortunately my Italian is quite good), but if you don’t speak the language, be sure there’s someone who can relay safety instructions to you in English before you book.TIP! While you’re there, it’s a short car ride or a reasonable stroll from the entrance to the Frassasi caves to the parking lot where a leisurely path starts up the mountain and brings you to the Temple of Valadier, a church inside of a cave!

    Frasassi Le Marche Italy DSC_0290Frasassi Le Marche Italy DSC_0314

  • Camerano. Not nearly to the scale of Frasassi, and a bit different since this cave system is man-made, there is an excellent tour available in English that will take you through the passageways. At different points in time there were spaces used for religious worship, wine-making, and as a shelter during wartime. An incredibly interesting spot to check out if you’re nearby.Camerano Le Marche Italy DSC_0319Camerano Le Marche Italy DSC_0324

Wine Tasting

This is Italy, so of course there are incredible wines to sample. They are made from grapes local to the region, and meant to pair well with the local cuisine. This is just how Italy rolls. The wines you’re most likely to encounter on a Le Marche menu are the Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno – two basic, local reds – and the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, a mineral-rich white wine meant to pair well with local fish and seafood dishes.

Antica Cantina Sant'Amico in Morra d'Alba
Antica Cantina Sant’Amico in Morra d’Alba

An absolute favorite though is the relatively unknown appellation of Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, A red wine made from lacrima grapes in (you guessed it) the town of Morro d’Alba, this usually young red is very particular in taste, so you’ll probably love it or hate it. It is fruity and aromatic, while fairly dry. The wine can vary greatly from year to year, so enjoy a tasting and then decide what to buy if you visit a winery. Otherwise, you’ll definitely see it on restaurant wine lists around the region.

Explore Walled Cities

A function of the rolling hills of Le Marche, the region is dotted with walled cities who built the structures as a means of defense. Today they are picturesque spots to visit, usually with an Old Town of centuries-old buildings and cobblestone streets inside.

My favorites:

  • Urbino. Urbino is definitely the largest walled city on this list, with the most to see inside. It is the birthplace of renowned artist (and Ninja Turtle) Raphael, and has quite a few museums and a Cathedral inside. It is well-lit in the evening, and has many winding cobblestone streets and various lookout points to see the surrounding countryside.Urbino Le Marche Italy 1263Urbino Le Marche Italy 20141109_195520 (2)
  • Gradara. Much smaller than Urbino, Gradadara is known for its castle, which you can explore along with strolling on the city walls. Supposedly packed in summer, my friend and I had a pretty solitary visit in September, enjoying the beautiful views of the countryside and the views inside this hilly town.Gradara Le Marche Italy DSC_0087Gradara1 Le Marche Italy DSC_0027Gradara2 Le Marche Italy DSC_0049 (2)
  • Corinaldo. Very teeny, Corinaldo packs in all you need from one of Le Marche’s walled cities. It has cobblestone streets, great views of the surrounding area, and delicious food. It also has 2 quirky claims to fame – a polenta well that according to legend fed the city during a siege & also a house with just a facade, built by a heavy-drinking father to send pictures to his son overseas that the money being sent home was being put to good use. Now there’s a plaque to mark the spot.Corinaldo Le Marche Italy DSC_0252
    Gate into Corinaldo
    Corinaldo Le Marche Italy DSC_0260

    Corinaldo Le Marche Italy DSC_0258

Take a Hike

Hike Le Marche Italy DSC_0285

There are a number of hikes throughout the region, but the main hiking destination in Le Marche is Monti Sibillini National Park. There are several biking and hiking itineraries available, including a vast loop that will take multiple days to complete. If you’re interested in a multi-day trip, there are accommodations available along the way.

Visit the Acqualagna Truffle Festival

The real reason we're here: white truffle festival in AcqualagnaAcqualagna Truffle Festival Le Marche Italy IMG_1259

The Alba Truffle Festival in Piedmont in northern Italy may be more famous, but Le Marche’s own fall Truffle Festival in Acqualagna has the same renowned white truffles and is definitely less crowded and easier to explore. There are outdoor stands with various vendors of truffle products and whole white truffles for sale. There is also a large indoor area, selling nearly everything under the sun.

And since it’s the season of truffle, whatever restaurants you visit in the area in the October/November timeframe will have plenty of dishes with white truffle shaved over top. No Italian event centered around food would be complete without wine as an accompaniment, so the festival also has wineries represented in various booths, and a whole stand just for wine tasting, with bottles from around the region.

Even if you’re not there in fall, there are two Acqualagna black truffle festivals, one in February and the other in August (although I don’t recommend an August visit to Le Marche, see the ‘When to Go’ section below).

READ MORE: How to Make the Most of Visiting an Italian Truffle Festival

Go Skydiving

You probably don’t associate Italy with skydiving, but the region of Le Marche specifically is known for being a great spot for it. It even made #8 on this list of top skydiving sites in the world! On my first trip to Le Marche, several of the other people in the traveling group went skydiving for the first time in Le Marche and absolutely loved it. Whether it would be your first time doing it, or you have a lot of jumps under your belt, Le Marche is THE PLACE to skydive.

Inhale the Aroma of Sunflowers

Sunflowers Le Marche Italy DSC_0324Sunflowers Le Marche Italy DSC_0327

Even if you didn’t know that sunflower fields abound in Le Marche before your trip, any road trip in the region at the right time of year will inevitably drive past lovely yellow expanses. Sunflowers typically bloom in early summer, with the exact dates depending on the weather conditions that year. If you love flowers, or sunflowers in particular, you can see beautiful fields of them all over Le Marche.

When to Go

There are lot of great times during the year to visit Le Marche. What will be best for you of course, all depends on which activities appeal to you most:

  • Sunflowers are typically in peak bloom in late June through July.
  • The Acqualagna Truffle Festival typically takes place in late October and early November.
  • Fall and spring are probably the most comfortable seasons for hiking.
  • And of course the beach will be most pleasant in summer, and less crowded before and after.

I visited in early July when I saw sunflowers, I did a road trip to walled cities and caves around Le Marche last September, and I went to the Acqualagna truffle festival and nearby towns in early November. All wonderful trips =)

The only thing I would caution against is visiting in August. Pretty much all Italians (as well as other Europeans) take vacation then, so the beaches and attractions are likely to be packed. And for me, a big part of the appeal of visiting Le Marche is heading to a destination *without* the crowds.

The diversity of activities to do in Le Marche is quite amazing, and even if you’re looking for a relaxed itinerary, there are plenty of places to kick up your heels and enjoy the countryside or the coast. Just like most of my all-time favorite destinations, there are a lot of varied activities available and beautiful scenery along the way.

Have you been to Le Marche? Any things to do that I missed and should add? What activities are most likely to draw you to visit a new place?

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Top 9 Things to Do in Le Marche Italy - an alternative to Tuscany

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The Best Tour of the Sydney Opera House: Backstage at 7am

The Best Tour of the Sydney Opera House: Backstage at 7am

Note: This post may contain affiliate links.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not a morning person, but I can be persuaded to wake up early for the right motivation. The Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House, which only runs once a day at 7am, is one of the best tours I’ve ever taken and was definitely worth the early morning.

I first read about this possibility in my Lonely Planet Australia (Travel Guide)>Lonely Planet Australia book, and immediately circled that part of the entry and knew I’d find a way to make the tour happen during my few days in Sydney. Luckily, not only was the tour available, but we ended up being the only two people and got a very personalized experience.

Sydney Opera House in the Morning Light

Arriving for our 7am backstage tour at the Sydney Opera House

Overview: Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House

The Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House is only offered at 7am, because by around 9 or 10am rehearsals begin, and then all of the stage areas are off-limits to tourists. Which means that on the tour, you get to be backstage before performers arrive!

It basically is an intimate look at the Opera House, getting to see several stages and concert halls, and all of the places behind the scenes that you won’t get to go when you attend a performance. Plus, since it’s an early morning start, the tour also includes breakfast.

Seeing the Stages

As you stroll through the stages, there are a ton of pieces from the sets of various performances. It’s incredibly cool to see them up close, however they tend to be copyright-protected (who knew that theater sets were such serious business?) so you won’t see any photos of them below.

Although the sets are proprietary, fortunately the stages and theaters are not. I got some great shots from the stage looking outward:

I Danced on Stage at the Sydney Opera House!

And now I can officially say I've danced on stage at the Sydney Opera house =)

And Did a Bit of Conducting

Conducting on Stage Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0571

Of the pretty amazing performance spaces, the Concert Hall is the largest. It has also hosted an incredible list of presenters and performers, from Pope John Paul II to Kanye West to Ella Fitzgerald to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here is a glimpse:

Concert Hall Sydney Opera House Australia DSC_0577

Backstage Access

Getting to go backstage is kind of implied in the tour name, and it was just as cool as I had imagined. Performances at the Sydney Opera House are frequent throughout the year, so there are inevitably some cool details to spot. Some of my favorites:

The Pit Dress Code (pardon that this is a bit fuzzy with the lighting). Also, thongs = flip flops in Australian.

FYI, thongs = flip flops in Aussie speak. And if you're stuck in the orchestra pit for 4 hours with 30 other people, attention to personal hygiene is definitely appreciated.

“Don Q” Group Notes for the Dance Numbers

Backstage Notes Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0565 (2)

Lipstick Wall of Good Luck

Lipstick Backstage Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0581

The Green Room

The Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House usually begins with breakfast in the Green Room, a holding room for performers before and after a show. During my visit however, it still had not been cleaned up from the previous night, so we ate elsewhere. We still got to visit though, and get an actual glimpse of what it looks like all set up:

Food Spread from the Previous Night

In the green room, which still hasn't been cleaned from the night before

Yes, the Green Room has a View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bring your sunnies!

Green Room view Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0583 (2)

Backstage Tour = Getting to Play the Piano in the Green Room

Green Room piano Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0587Green Room piano Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0588 (2)

Building Architecture

Probably the most recognizable building in Australia, the Opera House with its white sails is an iconic part of the view of Sydney. Getting to go on a tour of the Sydney Opera House, there is so much you learn and also realize by seeing the building exterior up close.

A fairly unknown Danish architect won an international contest for the building’s design back in the 1950s. There was a bit of drama along the way with construction (the architect eventually resigned from the project!) but everyone of course loves the final product.

The most surprising things to me were all the things I found out about the white sails. I don’t know how much I had ever thought about it before, but the sails are meant to be like the sails of a boat, given the Opera House’s position right on Sydney Harbour (yup, I’m spelling it like the Aussies do).

Not only are the different heights of the sails a nice aesthetic effect, but it’s also functional, as it represents the varying heights of the differently-sized performance spaces inside.

And when you get up close to the sails, you realize that there’s actually texture and a pattern overlaid on top, it’s not just painted white:

Sail Detail Opera House Sydney Australia DSC_0596 (2)

Amazing detail of the sails that you can only really see up close
Amazing detail of the sails that you can only really see up close

Practical Tips for Visiting

For the Backstage Tour, your best bet is to reserve online in advance. Tickets purchased this way are offered at a 10% discount, and you’ll guarantee your spot, especially given the time of day. Plus, not all days are open like the morning I went. There is just the one tour at 7am each day, and there is a daily cap at 12 people.

TIP! Since the Backstage Tour has such an early start, I also recommend that you book accommodations somewhere nearby or with an easy time to get to the Opera House. That way you’ll be sure to arrive on time.

Here is a breakdown of the 2 main tours offered:

Sydney Opera House Tour
offered 9am-5pm
1 hour
37 AUD

The Backstage Tour
7am only, daily except Christmas & Good Friday
2.5 hours
165 AUD

Prices listed are before the 10% online discount, so you’ll pay a bit less when booking online.

Even if you can’t get in for the 7am Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House, I’d recommend taking one of the regular tours so you can see the inside of the building. Another way to get a glimpse inside is to buy tickets to attend one of the events held there, which include all sorts of musical and theatrical performances.

But really, if you want a close-up look of the inner workings of this iconic Australian landmark, and lots of time to explore inside, I can’t recommend the Backstage Tour enough!

Would you be willing to brave the early wake up to take the Backstage Tour? Any other tips I missed for visiting the Sydney Opera House?

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The Best Tour of the Sydney Opera House - Backstage at 7am Australia

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Top 10 Things to See & Do at the Dubai Mall (that aren’t shopping!)

Top 10 Things to See & Do at the Dubai Mall (that aren’t shopping!)

Shopping isn’t exactly my thing, despite my years living in Milan, so you may be wondering exactly how I ended up at the Dubai Mall as my first stop in the UAE. Arriving from Oman, after a week-long (and very hospitable time) on a road trip with my sister, she was in charge of picking our first destinations. We had already lined up a trip for the next day, so it would be our time to explore Dubai together before she flew home. I had an extra day before I would be leaving, so I deferred to my sister. And the spot she wanted to check out most was the Dubai Mall.

When I entered the Dubai Mall, it certainly felt initially like walking into any of the many shopping malls I’ve visited around the world. But it didn’t take long to realize that it was in fact a giant building filled with art and activities to create wonder, and you never knew what surprise would be around the next turn.

The word ‘mall’ has many connotations for me – and let’s be real, most of them involve shopping! Yet somehow other than buying food and paying for activities, neither of us managed to make any purchases in our nearly 10 hours at the mall.

Basically, the Dubai Mall is what you would get if you had a team of very creative people design a space that would make you keep wandering for hours upon hours and never want to leave.

A few of my top ‘Things to See and Do’ listed below were on my radar and others were surprises along the way. Or tips from readers after my first Facebook post after arriving at the mall – thanks!

Here are the things you won’t want to miss:

Things to See and Do

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
Aquarium Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0798

Yes, there is one of the world’s largest Aquarium’s located *inside* of the Dubai Mall. Even if you’re not planning to go inside (we didn’t), there is a giant observation tank spanning several levels of the mall, open for anyone to see. It is listed on mall signs, and you’ll also notice if you walk nearby by the huge crowds watching the marine life inside. The Aquarium has a ton to offer, including the ability to do a Shark Dive or Cage Snorkel inside the tank – check out the section of the above link on ‘Aquatic Experiences.’

Waterfall
Waterfall Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0012

Sure, you say, you’ve seen waterfalls before. Out in nature, and possibly even inside of other shopping malls. But this waterfall is massive, and probably has something you haven’t seen before – human figures diving inside the water. The combination of natural features and crafted art makes for an interesting effect as you stare up the full four stories of this creation.

Dinosaur Skeleton: “Dubai Dino”
Dinosaur Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0024

When my Dubai blogger friend Millie, the Very Hungry Explorer, inquired, “Have you visited the dinosaur yet?” I honestly didn’t know what to think. But it turns out there is an actual dinosaur skeleton just hanging out in full view in the Grand Atrium for anyone to visit. And of course, since it’s the Dubai Mall, it is lit up in a deep bluish-purple instead of just being simply displayed. From the girl who walked around in 3rd grade telling people that I wanted to be a paleontologist, seeing a dinosaur skeleton someplace unexpected had me geeking out – thanks, Millie!

Dubai Ice Rink
Ice Rink Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0016
Yes, Dubai is in the Middle East where temperatures range from hot to hotter. But this is the inside of a shopping mall, so anything is possible. The ice skating rink has sessions practically all day, so if you’re interested in taking a spin on the ice to cool off from the sweltering heat outside. One of the many things you’ll find at the Dubai Mall that other malls wouldn’t even dream of.

Authentic Emirati Cuisine at Milas Restaurant

Milas Restaurant Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0028 (2)Milas Restaurant Dubai Mall UAE 20161211_212951

In general, finding local food is much harder than you might imagine in Dubai. Outside workers outnumber locals by a margin of about 8 to 1, so there are far more south Asians for example than there are Emiratis. And with the vast ethnic offerings of the Food Court, you feel like you have every option under the sun besides Emirati cuisine. Although this restaurant can be a bit difficult to find, if you’re by the ice rink, head through the passageway with all of the blue jeans for sale. You’ll arrive at the Village Atrium section of the mall with colorful umbrellas displayed overhead and some traditional Emirati hospitality and delicious food at Milas.
Observation Deck “At the Top” of the Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa At the Top Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0921

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world – and it’s located at the Dubai Mall! The Observation Decks are popular, but worth it for the view of the city. For everything you need to know about visiting, read my comprehensive blog post with Tips and What to Expect Going Up the Burj Khalifa.
Light Show on Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa Light Show Dubai Mall UAE 20161211_221614

I didn’t know this until I was on the Observation Deck in the early evening, and lights along the outside of the Burj Khalifa started flashing and moving. Of course, you can’t really appreciate the designs unless you’re outside the building looking on, but the light show is colorful and mesmerizing as it flashes between the different patterns. It runs starting at 6:45pm at set intervals around the Dubai Fountain Show (see the next item!).

Dubai Fountain Show
Dubai Fountain Show Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0836
Dubai Fountain Show Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0063

Different from the light display on the Burj Khalifa itself, the Dubai Fountain Show is its own spectacle of water fountains shooting into the air and synced with lights and music. It runs twice in the early afternoon, and then every half-hour from 6:00 until 11:00 pm. It’s incredibly well done, and this is after I’ve seen similarly choreographed shows from Hong Kong to Singapore to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Click the link above for the full schedule of when to catch it.

TIP! Leading up to the half hour, people crowd the edges of the fountain to get a good viewing spot. Go well before the show starts so you can find somewhere you can see – I recommend the bridge, where you’re a bit elevated above the crowd.

Souk Al BaharSouk Al Bahar Dubai Mall UAE DSC_0840 (2)

Housed in a separate building from the Dubai Mall, the Souk Al Bahar is located on the other side of the Dubai Fountain. The interior is stunning, in a traditional Arabic style. It is filled with restaurants, cafes, and all varieties of shops selling anything from spices and fresh dates to clothing and jewelry. Even if you’re not planning to buy anything, it’s worth walking inside before or after the Dubai Fountain Show (see above).

Adventure Experiences

Who knows how many miles or kilometers we walked exploring all the different areas of the Dubai Mall, but after our late dinner and watching all the nighttime entertainment, we headed back to our hotel in anticipation of an early wake-up the following morning. But with more time (or different priorities), there are plenty of adventures to be had around the Dubai Mall:

  • Sega RepublicThis indoor theme park and gaming area includes everything from an indoor roller coaster to virtual reality simulations to traditional arcade games. You can see the Dubai Mall listing with a map of how to find it or just follow the signs inside the mall.
  • Ferrari F1 Race SimulatorAt the Ferrari store of course, there are multiple simulators that let you choose between several different racetracks to test out your abilities as a race car driver.
  • Emirates A380 Flight SimulatorThe Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft, and you can try flying one into 12 of the busiest airports in this simulation. You earn points based on your skill and can see how you stack up to other wannabe pilots. Find it at the Emirates store here, not far from Milas Restaurant!

Practical Tips for Visiting

The Dubai Mall is easily metro accessible via the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall stop on the red line. Conveniently, the Airport is also on the metro’s red line, if you’re planning to visit on a layover in Dubai. You can find a user-friendly Dubai metro map here.

TIP! Be sure to hold on to your metro ticket. You’ll need it to exit.

TIP! The metro station at the Dubai Mall can be quite busy, so buy tickets for both directions when you go.

It’s also important to note that the pathway from the metro to the mall takes a bit of time to walk through, and then of course the Dubai Mall is so enormous that you’ll be doing a lot of walking to get around. And like us, you could easily spend 10 hours at the mall – and that’s without any shopping!

TIP! Allow plenty of extra time, especially if you have a timed ticket for a specific attraction. This goes both for getting between the Dubai Mall and the metro station, and also within the mall itself.

TIP! Wear comfortable shoes. No matter how much walking you expect to be doing, you’ll be doing more thank you think!

One of the other reasons you’ll enter the Dubai Mall and have no reason to leave: Free WiFi. Given that the Dubai Mall receives nearly 100 million visitors a year (!!), it’s impressive that there is free and typically fast WiFi available for all of the mall visitors.

Although I didn’t manage to do any shopping at the Dubai Mall, it is the usual purpose of having all those stores in one place. There are plenty of luxury brands represented, and it even may be cheaper for you to buy items in Dubai. This of course depends on where you’re coming from and what currency you’re using. Certainly the Dubai Mall has unparalleled options all under the same roof.

The same goes for eating, from restaurants and snack vendors around the mall to the massive food court with ample seating. We stopped at the food court ourselves for a mid-afternoon snack to fuel the exploration.

But even if you’re like me and aren’t that into clothes shopping or malls typically, you’ll still have plenty to keep you entertained and staring in wonder as you explore all the things the Dubai Mall has to offer.

Enjoy!

Have you been to the Dubai Mall? What was the attraction you enjoyed most? Any other things you’d recommend that I missed?

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Top Ten Things to See and Do at the Dubai Mall that aren't shopping UAE

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