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Author: Lana @TravelSavvyGal

Finding Zero Mile in Detroit

Finding Zero Mile in Detroit

“You’re going to Detroit? Why? Isn’t in dangerous there?”

It’s a question I received again and again leading up to my long weekend in Detroit, Michigan, to spend time with friends from Milan, Italy (random, I know). Not only was I looking forward to catching up with them, but also to exploring an American city I had never visited for the first time.

And then, the inevitable follow-up question in the conversation would come: “Isn’t that where the movie 8 Mile was filmed?”

It seems that most Americans’ (and foreigners’) ideas of Detroit come from the movie 8 Mile, based in large part on rapper Eminem’s upbringing and struggles growing up in the rough neighborhoods around the road ‘8 Mile’ in Detroit, a de facto dividing line between black and white, and poor and rich communities still.

Given that the Detroit reference point for most people was a road counting out 8 miles from the center of town – and that there are lots of other “mile” roads counting out from the city before and after it – I expected the central point, or zero mile marker, to be obvious.

But let’s back up a little bit.

Kilometer Zeros Around the World

As most of the world is on the metric system, it is far more typical to see a ‘kilometer zero’ than a ‘zero mile’ marker, but there are plenty of both to be found all over (thanks, British Empire).

For anyone who’s visited the famous Cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris, France, you may have come across this marker perched in the cobblestones out front like I did:

Point Zero Paris France Notre Dame DSC_0780

It was a bit of a ritual for me to seek out the point from which all roads in France are measured, especially in such a lovely locale in Paris’s center.

Although I haven’t been to Madrid, Spain yet (I know, I know), there is also a quite prominent zero kilometer marker there as well:

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like in France, it marks the highway kilometer counts and is also the central point for the numbered roads within the city of Madrid.

While most of the ‘kilometer zero’ markers are still used and prominent today within the specific city or country where they’re located, few I expected to be as iconic and visible as the ‘zero mile’ in a city known for roads like Six Mile, Seven Mile, Eight Mile, Nine Mile, and so on.

Nine Mile Road Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan Point of Origin DSC_0969

The Quest

Surely, I thought that finding the ‘zero mile’ marker of Detroit to be a quick stop on my first day in town. I was mistaken.

I don’t know how this is possible, but no one knew where it was!

Not my friend who was born and raised in Detroit.
Not my friend who moved there recently and lives right downtown.
Not the guard at the nearby courthouse in the Penobscot Building.
Not even park patrol at Campus Martius, the supposed site itself, while standing with a dozen steps of the actual spot.

I finally located the ‘Zero Mile’ in Detroit on my third try, my final day in town, only realizing then that I had actually been standing right next to it my first day exploring.

Detroit’s Zero Mile Marker

So how long had that thing been around anyway, that nobody seems to know about it?

It took quite a bit of searching on the internet across my multiple searches to even find enough information to locate the spot in the end. And was hard to find even when I knew what to look for. Although Detroit has numbered mile roads that led me to seek a ‘Zero Mile,’ the central spot where counting began is actually known primarily as the ‘Point of Origin.’

Historically, Detroit’s current road system was laid out after an 1805 fire that decimated the city despite causing no fatalities. A local judge created a wheel-and-spoke system modeled after Washington DC’s street layout, designating where the mile count would start.

A 6-foot tall square granite pillar was erected to literally mark the spot where the surveying began, although over time it became buried and hidden, only visible at ground level by the accompanying marker, the ‘Point of Origin.’ The Detroit ‘Point of Origin’ marker used to be easier to find, looking like this:

Image: Waymarking
Image: Waymarking

The Campus Martius park had an overhaul as part of downtown renovations and revitalization, with the park being rededicated in 2004, and according to my research was the location of Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin,’

Despite having seen a picture online of what I now know to be the old ‘Zero Mile’ marker, and knowing the narrow park area contained it, I saw nothing even approaching this photo in my strolling.

So what does it look like today?

Zero Mile Marker Point of Origin Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan DSC_0255

As you can see, the marker is quite unobtrusive, with the year after the fire only vaguely visible. You’re only likely to find it if you’re specifically seeking it out!

To get there, go to Campus Martius, a prominent oval-shaped park in central Detroit. Go to the side of the fountain facing the restaurant, and there it is, in the ground, right by the entrance:

Campus Martius Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan 20171009_170554 (2)

I’m not sure why Detroit hasn’t kept the old lettering that boldly announced the presence of the ‘zero mile’ marker, Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin.’ But if you’d like, you too can visit the spot where it all began!

Have you visited any ‘zero mile’ or ‘kilometer zero’ markers either in your hometown or in your travels? Or managed to find Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin’ like I did? Tell me all about it in the Comments, I’d love to visit more!

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Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan Point of Origin

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7 Reasons to Visit Israel during Chanukah

7 Reasons to Visit Israel during Chanukah

I hadn’t planned to go to Israel during Chanukah two years ago, it just sort of happened. I knew that I was targeting the first weekend in December for a short trip somewhere, since it was a holiday weekend in Milan. After asking around a bit, I couldn’t find a single friend who was available to travel – most people already had plans.

Then, on a whim, I checked on flight prices to Israel. I have some family there, and since it’s only a 4-hour direct flight from Milan to Tel Aviv, they had been asking me when I’d visit ever since I moved to Europe.

It seemed like the next option to try, just to see. Then up pops EasyJet, one of the European discount carriers, with a fare of 68. Round trip. For direct flights in both directions.

Obviously I took this as a sign, and I booked my flights immediately. Only after that did I realize that my visit would coincide with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. I was busy with university coursework during Chanukah the year I lived in Israel, so experiencing the fun of Chanukah there as a tourist for the first time was a welcome surprise.

Here’s why Israel is a great destination to visit during Chanukah:

Lights

Lights 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151203_173036

Chanukah is known as the ‘Festival of Lights’ and just as you might expect, the whole country is decorated in lights during the 8-day celebration. It is a beautiful time of year for a visit, with everywhere from small towns to big cities lit up at night, like you might expect to see in other places for Christmas. You may also get the chance to progressively light Chanukah candles during the eight nights, a special tradition to share even if you aren’t Jewish.

Potato Pancakes

I promise you, I ate lots of latkes during my Chanukah in Israel. They are traditional potato pancakes that are cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of the holiday, when a small amount of oil lasted unexpectedly for eight nights.

In Israel, I devoured home-cooked latkes at several friends’ and family’s houses, grabbed a few when out for other meals at regular restaurants serving it as a menu special, and snagged a few more when I went to Chanukah parties around Tel Aviv.

What didn’t I do? Photograph any of the ones I ate during my trip! So here’s a shot of latke-making in the US with my family from last year to give you an idea of what to expect:

Latkes 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20161225_184259

Doughnuts

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151204_113317

Doughnuts as far as the eye can see is the view that will greet you walking into any bakery during the holiday of Chanukah, and this seemed to be the most-consumed Chanukah food. Doughnuts are known in Hebrew as sufganiyot, and you’ll hear that word quite a lot during a holiday visit. Like latkes, they are a traditional festive food because they are fried in oil, commemorating the Chanukah miracle.

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151210_211231

Practically, sufganiyot for Chanukah are an excuse for bakeries to take their sweets to the next level, with all sorts of crazy flavor combinations you won’t see at other times of the year. From elaborate decorations to injectable “shots” of doughnut filling, it is a foodie dream to explore all of the different doughnut varieties available. And the good news is, you have 8 nights to do it!

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151211_092257 (2)

TIP! Jewish holidays go by the lunar calendar, so during the nights of Chanukah you’ll find doughnuts overflowing out of bakeries across the country. On Day 8 of Chanukah, following the eighth night, it’s back to the regular bakery offerings – so get your fix of specialty doughnuts before then!

Other Winter Specialties

In addition to the two traditional Chanukah foods you’ll find in abundance – latkes and sufganiyot – there are also some other winter culinary specialties that if you visit for Chanukah, you’ll get to enjoy just by being there in the right season for it.

Top of that list for me is the Krem Bo, a dessert that comes individually wrapped, and is only available during the winter time. It consists of a circular graham cookie base, a marshmallow-like meringue mixture piled high on top, with a thin coating of chocolate around everything but the bottom.

Since it’s covered in chocolate, it would melt in Israel’s hot climate at other times of year, so is only available during winter. Most convenience stores and markets will have it in one or more flavors – if you don’t see it, just ask!

Krem Bo 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151203_185545Krem Bo 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151204_102514 (2)

Another cold weather favorite is the aromatic, creamy Arabic beverage known as sachlav, which will be served at outdoor stands piping hot just like hot chocolate or mulled wine in other parts of the world. Head to the nearest market – or just keep your eyes open around town – and you’ll definitely find a vendor to sample this specialty.

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

No Special Religious Restrictions

A lot of Jewish holidays are of great religious importance, and observant Jews will treat it like the Sabbath, not using their phones or computers or even turning on lights around the house. The benefit of Chanukah is that it is a relatively minor holiday not subject to the same restrictions.

So other than the typically one Sabbath that will fall over the 8 days of Chanukah, you can cook latkes with your religious friends and family with abandon, which I especially savored this trip since I have extended family members who are observant who I otherwise would not have been able to spend as much time cooking and celebrating with.

TIP! Even if you won’t be hanging out with any religious Jews when you go, there won’t be any special closures of public buses or businesses for Chanukah to worry about and track along with your itinerary.

Festivities

Festive 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151207_225916 (2)

Israelis are always looking for a sibah l’msibah, a reason to party! While Israelis might be traveling at the end of December to spend New Year’s somewhere special, people are typically around through the rest of the month, and celebrate accordingly.

I spent most of my Chanukah in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. It has a bustling nightlife during a regular week, which goes into overdrive for the Chanukah celebrations. There were multiple parties happening across the city on any given night, from low-key gatherings to late-night clubbing on the beach. Get a special taste of festivities across the country by coming during Chanukah!

Great Travel Deals

Late in the year, there is a jump in prices in late November with increased American tourism around when Thanksgiving falls and again between Christmas and New Year’s Day as many people everywhere have work holidays during that time. The typical timing of Chanukah in early-mid December positions it between those other holidays, and I was delighted to find great deals for travel during that period.

Not only did I get possibly my best flight deal ever traveling to Tel Aviv from Milan for cheaper than a domestic train ticket, but other tourist amenities were also cheaper after I arrived. Spending Friday night in Jerusalem was a no-brainer after finding availability at a decent hotel in the center of town for just $60/night, so my budget went just that extra bit farther and I was able to see more throughout the entire trip.

What holiday celebrations have you enjoyed on the road? Have you ever visited Israel during Chanukah? Anything else you want to know before you go? Let me know in the Comments!

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7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah

READ MORE ABOUT ISRAEL TRAVEL:
Insider Bucket List: 20 Top Experiences to Seek Out in Israel

Impressions & Top Insider Picks for What to Do in Jerusalem

8 Best Wineries to Visit in Israel

Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel

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How to Spend One Day in Bergamo, Italy

How to Spend One Day in Bergamo, Italy

Imagine a raised plateau, like one of the mesas of the American southwest or Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock) in central Australia. Usually you’ll encounter a formation like this out in nature. But in northern Italy’s town of Bergamo, there is a large plateau with a UNESCO World Heritage old town perched at the top, surrounded by modern Bergamo, Italy.

It is this division that makes Bergamo unique, split into the historical, raised Città Alta with its meandering pedestrian cobblestone walkways and the lower Città Bassa with a bustling, modern city.

Bergamo is so close to Milan that it houses one of the three airports of the metropolitan area, and is easily reached by car or train in around an hour (more details in the ‘Getting There‘ section below). The upper city has incredible charm and a quite lengthy history, with all of its attractions close to one another in easy walking distance, making it an ideal destination for a day trip.

Here’s how to make the most of a one-day visit:

Around Town

Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of items listed below as sights to see. Bergamo is a town made for wandering, and the Città Alta is so compact that you can easily stroll between everywhere I’ve listed at a pretty leisurely pace.

Piazza Vecchia

Piazza Vecchia How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0355

The Piazza Vecchia, or old square, is the central space in Bergamo’s Città Alta, with many of Bergamo’s sights either on the square or nearby. It is a gathering place that is especially lively on weekends, with many visitors and street performers clustered all around.

Piazza Vecchia How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0248

Palazzo della Ragione

Palazzo della Ragione How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0223 (2)

Right on the Piazza, this regional palace served many functions over many centuries, and has exhibitions that rotate seasonally. My favorite spot is underneath the open archways at street level, where there is a centuries-old sundial, that still marks the passing seasons. At noon daily, the sun will still meet the mark on the ground corresponding to the month and day.

Palazzo della Ragione Sundial How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0229 (2)The sun shines on the line each day at mezzogiorno (aka noon)

Campanone Civic Tower

Campanone Civic Tower How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0224 (2)

If you’ve been reading the blog for a bit, by now you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I both like to climb things and also enjoy an expansive view in a new place. Ascending this Civic Tower (by elevator or on foot) gives you the highest perspective you’ll get on the already high up Città Alta, getting a sense for the overall layout of the small area and providing some pretty fabulous glimpses of the surrounding countryside.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0235 (2)Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0234 (2)

Just a quick glance at the outside of this stunning Basilica gives an inkling of the treasures that must be contained within its walls. Leave some time to go inside and explore, as you can easily get lost in the many works of art.

Baptistery

Baptistery (Battistero) How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0236 (2)

There is also the nearby ornate Baptistery, or Battistero, where babies would be baptized before being allowed into the main church. Originally built inside the Basilica, it has now been relocated and is officially part of the Cathedral.

Duomo (Cathedral)

Duomo Cathedral How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0233 (2)

Pretty much every town in Italy has a main cathedral, and Bergamo is no exception. While beautiful, most visitors find it overshadowed by the Basilica, and will spend more of their time there.

Off the Beaten Path

There is plenty of wandering to be done on foot around the Città Alta, which I recommend leaving time to do. As you stroll, here are two spots of particular interest:

Convent of San Francisco

Convent of San Francisco How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0259

This ex-convent is a quiet spot away from most tourists with a lovely inner courtyard and a great view over the surrounding Città Bassa down below. The complex also houses the History Museum of Bergamo, which I didn’t visit, although I loved strolling along the grounds despite my expression in the shot below.

Convent of San Francisco How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0268

Venetian Walls

Venetian Walls How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0343

What good is having a city on an elevated plateau without some defenses? For over three centuries Bergamo was part of Venice’s extended empire, hence the aptly named Venetian walls. Yes, the walls are old, but really I love exploring any old city walls – not just for the history they represent, but also for the great views!

Best Bites

Città Alta

Ristorante Trattoria Bernabo How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0375

Ristorante Trattoria Bernabo

Although there are several higher-end restaurants scattered across Bergamo’s Città Alta, I’m all about down home cooking of the region when it comes to Italian food. This restaurant not only has wood seating and décor that speak to the city’s history, but delivers basic, humble, and delicious local cuisine to satisfy your hunger and nourish your soul. It’s an especially great spot for lunch, with daily set menus and specials.

Gelateria Pasticceria Dei Mille

Although this spot is located right on the Piazza Vecchia, the main square, it hits that perfect balance between intense, pure flavor of the ingredient and creamy texture that I look for in a gelato. Their fruit flavors are particularly delicious, with very concentrated flavor, and this ranks as one of the favorite gelato spots after three years of living in Italy (and much gelato consumption, trust me).

 

TIP! It’s also lovely to grab a drink anywhere there is outdoor seating, there are several spots with beautiful views around the Città Alta where you can linger and enjoy.

Città Bassa

Taverna Valtellinese

I once drove from Milan to Bergamo just for a few hours to meet someone for dinner. It seemed like a hassle to go up to the Città Alta just to eat (although that would have been very possible as well), so I found this gem in the Città Bassa, the lower, more modern part of the city.

The cuisine hails from the Valtellina region almost due north of Bergamo, although there are some general items you’d see on any Italian menu as well. The highlight was the carne al bastone, a two-foot long stick of white ash tree with beef wrapped around it, cooked, and then served on the stick! I think I was so enthralled I completely failed at any picture-taking, but trust me, it’s a sight to be seen – check it out on the left plate in this photo here.

Getting There

City Gate - Entrance How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0378 (2)

Arriving in Bergamo

Orio al Serio Airport

As I mentioned before, one of Milan’s 3 major airports is located in Bergamo, and principally serves low-cost carriers like Ryanair. You can also arrive at Bergamo’s airport by transfer from other Milan-area airports. From the Bergamo airport, there is a bus transfer that will take you to the center of town, and there are of course taxis as well.

Bus/Train

Other than arriving by bus from the airport (see above), the easiest way from the city of Milan to Bergamo is by train. You can check schedules and fares on the TrenItalia English website.

TIP! There are multiple train stations in Milan. Be sure to check which one you’re departing from, although you can search for all options at once on the TrenItalia website by selecting “Milano (tutte le stazioni).”

Driving

Driving was my most frequent method of arriving in Bergamo, which is right off the major east-west highway in norther Italy that runs between Turin and Venice. There are ample parking lots in the center of Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower city), with several well-signed garages that you’ll find by a blue sign with the letter P.

TIP! Thorough instructions on How to Get to Bergamo by all the methods listed above.

Going up to the Città Alta

Looking from Bergamo's citta bassa up at the citta alta

All of the ways listed above will get you to the Città Bassa, but if you want to get to the historical Città Alta, there are two main methods of arriving:

Funicular

Our transport up the steep incline

The funicular, a tram up the steep slope connecting the Città Bassa to the Città Alta, is the main way to arrive for most visitors. You can check out the timetable at the Funicular link above (it is Funicular C at the bottom of the page), but it runs so often, just go to the station and buy your ticket when you arrive.

Walking

Walking to the Citta' Alta How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0345Featured Walking to the Citta' Alta How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0348

The less-frequented path along a few streets is a bit steep, but worth meandering along for the lovely views along the way. While facing the funicular station, start ascending to your right and follow the street until it ends and winds around to the left. It’s a little over a kilometer to the city gate, and will probably take around 20 minutes to arrive at the Città Alta entrance:

Bergamo with my uncle visiting from Hong Kong

However you decide to structure (or not structure) your exploring, the town of Bergamo is an incredibly fun day trip with quite unique views as you see and stroll the two levels of the city. One I liked so much I returned to again and again during my time living in Milan!

Have you been to Bergamo? Any spots you enjoyed that didn’t make my list? Any other questions about making the trip? Let me know in the ‘Comments’!

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How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy - Day Trip from Milan

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Top Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel (& How to Handle It When You Do)

Top Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel (& How to Handle It When You Do)

Lost or misplaced items can be incredibly frustrating, especially if it was something expensive or with sentimental value. But this is an experience I honestly haven’t been very familiar with, despite my frequent travels. Until this year.

I still can’t pinpoint what exactly has changed. Is it that I’m getting older? Is my mind just overloaded with the stress and changes of moving back to the US after 5 years abroad? Or maybe I’ve always lost things, and it’s just that I’ve lost more precious things this year so I noticed it more?

Who knows, and honestly the reason is not nearly as important as the result – this year, I’ve definitely been losing things far more often than I’d like.

Things that were expensive to replace. Things that I picked up in past travels and had a special place in my heart. And things that were just inconvenient to not have anymore.

The good news is that an ounce of prevention goes a long way. And fortunately – for my sanity and my wallet – I manage to hold on to my possessions successfully most of the time. Here’s how.

Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel

Certainly the easiest course of action is not losing things in the first place. While that is never 100% guaranteed, here are some things you can do to greatly minimize the number of things you will misplace or lose while you’re on the road:

Pack brightly colored objects.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost black or navy umbrellas. I’ll be sitting down at a restaurant and leave it on the seat next to me, and never spot it when I leave as it blends into my surroundings.

My bright pink umbrella? I’ve had it for years! Even the few times I’ve walked away without it, inevitably a server or friend will see it and pass it back to me. Choose bright or unusual colors when you can, and you’ll be much more likely to hold onto important objects on the road.

It was a little foggy and rainy. You're *supposed* to be able to see the model for the Disney castle behind me.

Have a designated spot for the items you always travel with.

Some people make lists. I travel enough that I just know which items I keep where. For my well-traveled wheeled carry-on bag, I know that my deodorant, toiletries bag, and hairbrush always gets packed in the small outside pocket. My cell phone charger is always in my purse.

However you need to remember it (there’s probably an app for that), set up locations that you’ll always use for all of the items you’ll need on a trip. It’s much easier to see if something is missing or forgotten if you have one place it will always be in your luggage.

Have secure places to store sensitive items.

Of course, for things like your passport or driver’s license or credit card, you don’t want to have those items easily accessible to possibly be snatched or fall out of your bag. Be sure to have an extra zippered compartment to seal with your valuables inside.

And for longer journeys, consider hidden compartments in your main luggage for some emergency cash or to store your second credit card or bank card as a backup just in case the unexpected happens.

Put things back where you got them from.

Having those set places to put certain objects only works if you consistently put things back where you got them. Every. Single. Time. It may seem tedious, but this is the only way it works.

Exploring a new city or country can make you more on edge than normal – that’s part of the excitement! – which means that is especially important to follow the system you set up. Even if it means stopping for an extra minute before getting a start on your day or taking extra care when packing your bag.

Routine, routine, routine.

Most of your time traveling will not be in the moment of packing or unpacking at home or at your hotel or accommodation. It will be you in the airport or train station, boarding a bus, or on foot exploring. This is how you’ll make the most of your time traveling, but also consists of hundreds of little opportunities to possibly leave something behind.

I usually have both a cardigan and a scarf with me when I’m traveling, in case the weather cools down or I enter a museum with the air conditioning on full blast. This means that these two items are laid over the top of my purse, which means that every now and again, and each time I leave a place, I reach over and confirm that I still have both.

Of course, the one scarf I did lose recently (a beautiful one I had purchased in Barcelona traveling with a friend), was when I decided that in Belize that I didn’t need to keep it out anymore, and put it into my backpack and then wore it again without checking that I still had it.

Scarf Tips for not losing things when you travel IMG_3549 (2)

Check thoroughly every time you leave somewhere.

There are a few places where you’re most likely to leave a treasured item behind: your accommodation, transportation, or at a restaurant or concert/performance. Out and about, I’m most likely to leave a sweater or umbrella or shopping bag behind. Or my phone charger or something in the bathroom wherever I’m staying. Knowing which items you frequently forget can help with your checking, including having a list of those final things to confirm you’ve got.

When I’m carrying multiple items, I’ll do something that I recently discovered that oddly my mother and I both do – count how many items I’ve carrying, and then check for that number of items. If I know I’m carrying 3 things and I only count 2, I know I’ve missed something.

The real bottom line, though – whether you’re a counter, or list-maker, or simply a thorough searcher – find a checking method that works for you and USE IT consistently!

Leave an obvious reminder somewhere you’ll definitely notice it.

It may sound silly, but I’ve been known to leave something on the floor exactly in front of a hotel door to make sure I can’t leave without grabbing it. Or hold my wallet in my hand until I put my credit card back inside after paying the bill.

While those suggestions may seem over the top, there’s no better way than something extremely prominent to get your attention and make sure you don’t leave a beloved item behind!

How to Handle It When You Do Lose Something

Of course, even with the best preventive methods, it’s still possible to lose something. In some cases, the item might be expendable, but of course the incidents that stick out most in my mind (and probably in yours, too!) are those where it was something critical like an ID or bank card or some object or item of clothing with sentimental value.

A few things I’ve lost recently have really thrown my world upside down, since I’m not accustomed to losing things. In my effort to retrace my steps and find the missing items, I have picked up a few tips on how to best do this, and which methods were most effective.

While some of these suggestions may seem obvious, it’s definitely worth mentioning them all as I’ve (foolishly) overlooked them at one time or another. And shouldn’t have.

Act quick.

Especially if you lose something while in transit, you may first realize the loss upon your arrival. By which point you might be exhausted or jet lagged or both. The inclination in the moment will definitely be to delay reporting an item as missing, but this is never the right choice. The quicker you act, the more likely you’ll be able to locate whatever you’ve lost.

Go in person. Otherwise call.

Again, this seems so simple, but you’d be amazed at how much a difference it makes to search for your item in person. It’s much easier for someone to blow you off on the phone, or only look for your missing item half-heartedly. When there is a distraught person right in front of them, there will be a more thorough search.

When I lost my work ID a few months ago and was fairly certain I had left it at the gym. I called and they said the looked for it but to no avail. When I arrived in person the next morning to ask about it, they located my ID in under a minute.

Depending on where you lose something, you might also run into an automated phone line where it is difficult to get connected with an actual person. So make that extra effort if you really want to recover the item you’ve lost.

Officially report valuables as lost.

For any important document like a passport, credit card, or bank card, be sure to contact the bank or company that issued your card or the relevant consulate to make an official report IMMEDIATELY. As bad as it is to lose something, it is even worse to have to deal with unauthorized bank withdrawals, surprise charges on your credit card, or identity theft.

TIP! Keep a hard copy list of important phone numbers, like your bank, credit card company, and local consulate or government office, so you can contact them if needed. If you have access to WiFi, you can always call on Skype or dial the collect number.

TIP! Some companies allow you to place a hold on your card instead of canceling it, so you can reactivate it and continue using it throughout your travels if it’s later recovered.

Continue checking every possible spot.

You’ll probably replay your step-by-step movements and might even become convinced that you know exactly where you lost something. Don’t trust your memory! Especially after replaying events over and over in your mind, you may be rewriting history. Continue to check everywhere.

It’s hard to check with lots of places and you may start to feel silly asking again and again, but push through and go through all the motions for your best shot at recovering what was lost. Decide how much you want to avoid sounding like a careless person by inquiring in multiple places versus how badly you’d like your item back.

When I lost that beloved scarf I had bought in Barcelona, Spain, it was on my way back to the US from Belize. I was unsure if it had been left behind at the airport in Belize, the Houston airport where I connected, the airport restaurant where I ate dinner, or in my Lyft ride home.

Although I I filed a lost item report with the airline online, there was no one to call or way to upload a photo, and I never personally checked with any of the other possible locations. In retrospect I should have also called each of those locations to speak to someone personally and leave no stone unturned in my search.

Four months later, and my scarf has not been recovered (and probably never will be).

De Halve Maan brewery tour
Happier times wearing my scarf in Brugges, Belgium

Trust me, if you’ve never lost something important, it can feel devastating in the moment. And if you’re like me and don’t typically lose things, it can be unnerving as well.

Of course, credit cards that need to be canceled or a lost passport can be difficult and possibly expensive to resolve. But even the sentimental items with low monetary value can be quite upsetting to lose as well.

Think more deliberately about how you safeguard your valuables and keep track of all of your belongings on the road. And keep these top tips in mind in case you do lose something, so you can take all the right actions as quickly as possible.

How do you keep your belongings safe on the road? Or secure when you’re out and about where you live? Any tips that I missed?

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Top tips for not losing things when you travel and how to handle it when you do

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How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia

How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville may be a college town, but it is much more than a destination for the University of Virginia.

There are several US presidential estates in the area, most famously Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate, but not only. Charlottesville is nestled in some of the greenest areas of Virginia, offering many opportunities for hiking and outdoor exploration. And the reason I keep coming back again and again? All of the delicious food and wine all nestled into a small, beautiful area.

It is definitely useful to have a car for a weekend in Charlottesville, because many of the sights you’ll want to see will be out of town. Also, if you’re like me and planning to do a bunch of wine tasting (and purchasing), it is handy to have the trunk of a car to transport it all. And of course, road tripping gives you the ultimate flexibility of how to spend your day.

Read on for all my top recommendations on ‘Things to Do’ and ‘Best Bites & Sips’ for when you visit.

Things To Do

Monticello

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Former presidential estate of Thomas Jefferson, this is probably the most well-known landmark in the area and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tours are required, but you can get a ticket to do this at your own pace, or one that focuses on a specific aspect of the estate, like the lives of slaves on the plantation or Jefferson’s gardening interest and research. In the years since my last trip there, Monticello tourism has exploded, especially in summertime. Definitely try to time your visit for spring or fall, and plan to get an early start to beat the crowds.

TIP! You can get tickets online in advance at a discount, and this will save you waiting in line when you arrive. These are available until midnight the day before your visit.

TIP! There are quite a few quite easy walking trails across the property, so leave additional time if you’d like to explore more on foot beyond the estate and its buildings. A trail map is here.

Highland

James Monroe Highland Estate How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0846James Monroe Highland Estate How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0855

Although James Monroe’s Highland Estate was (deliberately) close to Monticello, it attracts far fewer visitors. Certainly it is a smaller estate, but it also limited since the original house burned down at one point. The up side for visitors to the area is that even at the peak of summer travel when other spots are quite busy, you can still stroll in and enjoy the relaxing and quite informative tour of the grounds. A lot is still being discovered on the property, so even if you’ve visited before, it’s worth another look on your next Charlottesville trip.

TIP! Highland is so close to Monticello that it is quite easy to visit both together in a single morning or afternoon.

Explore Nature

https://www.instagram.com/p/BX0rKqIlNOk/

There are a ton of nearby green spaces to explore, most famously Shenandoah National Park and its scenic Skyline Drive. There are also a lot of nearby hikes that you can research through the national park website. There are also trails on the Monticello Estate, see more in the above TIP!

Historic Downtown Mall

Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_184947

This pedestrian area is the social center of Charlottesville and has a great variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants to enjoy over the course of an afternoon or evening (see ‘Best Bites & Sips’ below). Envisioned as an ‘urban park’ there are a ton of outdoor events scheduled here, especially in summer. Plus, there is an ongoing schedule of concerts and festivals at the adjacent Sprint Pavilion.

University of Virginia (UVA) Campus

Even if you’re not a prospective student or the family of one, you might want to explore the campus of the University of Virginia. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s and is the only college campus in America that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Explore the campus on your own, or join UVA University Guide Service for one of the historical tours that take place most days at 10am, 11am, and 2pm. There are also tours about the ‘History of Women’ and ‘History of African Americans’ at the University by request.

Alcohol Alley

Nearby Route 151 is not the only place to find great wineries, breweries, and cideries in the Charlottesville area, but it sure has a lot of them – hence how it got nicknamed by locals. Certainly even if you do no research and have no plan for tasting the local libations, you can explore along this road and follow the excellent signage to pop into a few random spots. Silverback Distillery below was an impulse stop along this stretch of road, and there is lots more to explore.

Monticello Wine Trail

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVQmk07grgO/

Honestly, the wineries (and the delicious food – see below) are the main reason I keep recommending Charlottesville as a great weekend getaway. You visit one or two of the 30+ local wineries over the course of the weekend or can set an ambitious schedule – like I *might* have done – hitting up 4-5 wineries in a day. It’s definitely possible to do that without feeling rushed, but of course it all depends on how early you start 😉

TIP! Most local wineries are open from 10 or 11am until 5 or 6pm.

My top 2 picks are DelFosse Vineyards & Winery and King Family Vineyards, but for more on the best local wineries – including which ones have the best lunch options and picnic grounds – head to my post all about Charlottesville Wineries.

READ MORE: Best Wineries in Charlottesville, Virginia

Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0782 (2)

This was an impulse stop on a day of hitting up multiple wineries and a great find. Although the Distillery is only a few years old, it offers rye and honey rye, plus boasts several award winning alcohols including a very uniquely aromatic gin that I just loved. They also craft some pretty creative cocktails on the weekend, and I might have been just a little mesmerized by them setting a chunk of bark on fire to infuse their smoky Old Fashioned.

Silverback Distillery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0786

Best Bites & Sips

I have not had a bad meal in Charlottesville. There is a definite foodie culture in this university town and many outstanding options to choose from, from low-key dishes done well to high-end experimental cuisine. I certainly have not sampled them all (yet!) but I have done quite a bit of research into the spots where I did land on my trips, and have only included the spots of my most outstanding meals here.

A lot of the best spots are clustered in the downtown pedestrian area that extends for many blocks, and I’d definitely recommend staying walking distance from this part of town. There are several coffee and breakfast places to hit up in the morning, and dozens of exceptional restaurants to explore each evening.

Breakfast

Bluegrass Grill & Bakery

Bluegrass Grill and Bakery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170611_102411 (2)Bluegrass Grill and Bakery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170611_103206

This place has a bit of something for everyone, kind of like a diner with more flavor combinations for each dish. And they might be just a wee bit obsessed with bacon, based on all of the signs and puns scattered around. No reservations, so be prepared for a wait, especially if you’re in a larger party.

TIP! It’s usually easier to snag a seat at one of the bar stools, which lets you leapfrog the list if you see a spot open up. I was seated in about 2 minutes on a crowded Sunday this way, and got the added entertainment of being able to see into the kitchen.

TIP! There are lots of vegetarian and vegan options here, in all sorts of delectable combinations.

Bodo’s Bagels

First off, let me say that I am a native New Yorker. Saturday memories of my childhood are filled with the aroma of steaming bagels piled high in a paper bag that my dad would go out and get fresh early in the morning. Any time I’ve lived outside of the New York City metro area, I usually transport bagels by the dozen to freeze and defrost one at a time for eating, because I’ve found that frozen and reheated NY bagels are still usually better than what I can find locally.

Bodo’s serves up a very respectable and delicious bagel, and it’s definitely worth seeking out on your visit, especially if you don’t have access to great bagels back at home. You’ll find each location packed with locals when you go!

Dinner

Brasserie Saison

Brasserie Saison How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170609_204407Brasserie Saison How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170609_205012

It’s French cuisine with a twist, and easily accessible right on the downtown pedestrian mall. While I wish that the steak frites had been more traditional, their daily specials that you see were out of this world and there was a comprehensive wine and beer (and cocktail) list to accompany all these delicious bites. An outstanding spot – the only thing missing is to have some bread at the table to sop up all their amazing sauces!

TIP! The Brasserie is the only place in this section of the list that also serves lunch, if you’re looking for an upscale midday meal.

C&O Restaurant

This restaurant, named after the old Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) train station across the street, may also be a local classic from many years ago, but you’ll get a delightfully modern and local take on food when you dine here. It is a bit upscale, although if you are visiting from a major US city, you may just see the prices as what you’d find at a neighborhood spot back home. The food is so delicious and beautifully presented in a great atmosphere with excellent service, that you’ll blissfully enjoy your time dining here. Added bonus? It’s right off the downtown pedestrian mall.

Ivy Inn

Ivy Inn How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_201120Ivy Inn How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_214111

First of all, this is the one spot that is a bit far from the central pedestrian area I keep talking about, close to the UVA campus. But trust me, it’s worth the trek. The décor is a bit old school, but the innovative takes on dishes and flavor combinations are divine and every bite here was one to savor with just the right balance of textures as well. Plus, everything was beautifully presented, and they added some extra special touches for my birthday as you can see in the photos.

Zocalo

Zocalo is a Latin-inspired restaurant on the downtown pedestrian mall that was relatively new to the scene when I first visited a decade ago, and it is still just as good as it ever was. Their flavors are bold, execution flawless, and it is just really delicious food. Now a Charlottesville mainstay, it is a great spot for exploring all that the local food scene has to offer.

To Drink

Commonwealth Restaurant and Skybar

Commonwealth Restaurant Bar How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_184642

I can’t speak to their food although as you can tell from the name it is also a proper restaurant. I can vouch for their great beer selection and solid cocktails, though. My favorite part was sitting outside at the Skybar doing some people-watching, since it overlooks the central pedestrian area below.

TIP! Seating in this upstairs section is first-come, first-served.

Some Final Thoughts

Admittedly, my first forays into Charlottesville were to watch college lacrosse games. The University of Virginia (UVA) usually has a solid team, and sometimes I even did day trips from Washington, DC to see them play my alma mater.

The reason I’ve returned to Charlottesville time and again is not just the variety of things to do and great places to eat, but that there is such a high quality and friendliness everywhere you go.

This really is a superlative spot to spend a few days, and after recent events, Charlottesville is definitely in need of some tourist love. Get to it!

Have you been to Charlottesville? Are there any places that didn’t make my list but should have? Share away in the ‘Comments’ – I’ll definitely be back!

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How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia USA

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Hidden Gem: The Tile Museum in Palermo, Sicily

Hidden Gem: The Tile Museum in Palermo, Sicily

“I’m sorry, we’re not doing any tours today.”

As a visitor intent on seeing a particular sight, this can be one of the most disconcerting messages you hear in your travels. But of course it is one that comes up every now and again, and is simply part of the whole travel experience, which does not always work out perfectly.

Visiting the Palermo Tile Museum was a complete fluke. My friend Isabel and I left it until the last day of our long weekend in this Sicilian city to even attempt to visit for the first time. We had a bunch of hours to enjoy Palermo before catching our return flight to Milan in the afternoon, and a few last things to see.

And even seeking out the Tile Museum at all was somewhat random, as it didn’t come up in most of my pre-trip research – although where I found any information, it received rave reviews.

So this Monday morning, we walk up to the street address for the museum entrance and are faced with what looks like your standard Italian apartment building, with a row of labeled buzzers.

At first, we think that surely we’re in the wrong place. There is no prominent sign labeling any type of museum, and certainly no open entrances to welcome us in.

Only after walking up and down the block a few times do we realize that the address is in fact correct, and that one of the buzzers, if you peer closely, lists the museum and displays a phone number.

I call the cell phone number indicated, and find out that a reservation is needed. At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic, and hoping that since Isabel and I speak both English and Italian, surely there will be a tour we can join in one of those languages.

Unfortunately there is no tour planned until after our flight back to Milan – that disappointing message of “I’m sorry, we’re not doing any tours today.” So I say a polite thank you, relay the disappointing news to Isabel, and we start strolling in the direction of Botanical Garden as a backup plan.

This is when we have what I’m starting to think of more and more as one of those magical Italian moments.

My phone rings, and the number looks vaguely familiar. It is the same gentleman calling back, offering us a tour in Italian for just the two of us. It sounds cliché, but my heart leapt with the news after the disappointment of hearing that a tour would not be possible. We were getting to see this mystery of a place!

As you can see in the photo below, entering this apartment really is just like any other residential building:

Entrance Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_120945 (2)

We find out at the start of the tour with our passionate, knowledgeable guide that this is because one of the most impressive tile collections in the world was part of someone’s private collection.

The apartment that houses the museum is called the Stanze al Genio, the rooms of the genius? Or genie? It is not large, but the tile collection is so enormous that it feels like every available space is dedicated to displaying these lovely items.

Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_124331 (2)

Tiles in the south of Italy are commonly seen in hues of blue, yellow, and green, but the variety of this collection goes well beyond that. Colorful hues, interesting designs, and even some tiles with images like those you’ll find at the ruins of Pompeii, outside Naples:

Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_124347 (2)

And there’s nothing better than a tour guide who is excited about the collection to share interesting tidbits and answer your questions with enthusiasm.

Tile museum

I felt incredibly fortunate to have made it inside the doors of this museum at all. And while not large, the museum contained one of the most unique and well-curated collections that I’ve been privileged to visit in my travels.

I think for both me and Isabel, it was one of the most memorable moments of our weekend trip. And a spot I recommend to anyone visiting Palermo!

Certainly, we were very lucky on the day we visited, but if you want to visit the Stanze al Genio, I wouldn’t count on winging it, here’s the right way to visit:

Stanze al Genio

Visits are available 7 days a week, by appointment

E-mail or call *in advance* to schedule:

stanzealgenio@yahoo.it

English: +39 380 367 3773

Italiano: +39 340 097 1561

The website is currently under construction, but check the link above for the most updated information.

There’s also a Bed & Breakfast on the property!

I didn’t stay here, but if you are interested in having these spaces be your accommodations in Palermo (or just want to check out photos of more beautiful tiles!), check out their site here.

Happy travels!

Where was the last hidden gem you discovered? Any other spots you loved in Palermo? Let me know in the Comments!

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Hidden Gem Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy

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Fun Facts: Things to Know about Belize Before You Visit

Fun Facts: Things to Know about Belize Before You Visit

Usually I’m a planner. I learn about a new city or an event happening in a country I’ve never been, and add it to my Bucket List for a future visit.

In the case of Belize, I had overlooked it during my Solo Trip to Mexico in 2009 since it was a bit outside of my backpacker budget to do a quick trip there and back from the Yucatan. And I hadn’t really thought about it much since then until I was starting a new board on Pinterest and was intrigued by all of the outdoor adventure activities and beautiful beaches.

So when I had a week open up in May for a trip, I ignored the budget flights to Iceland and Europe and impulsively went in a new direction – Belize!

I only booked my flights two weeks in advance, so it was a bit of scramble to get things planned for my time there and I didn’t have the opportunity to do my typical advance reading to prepare for a trip. Which made the trip even more exciting as I discovered all of these quirks and local sayings and particular history of the region.

Here’s what I discovered:

Belizeans sure love their flag. You’ll see it proudly displayed pretty much everywhere you go.

And Jesus, too. Not only are Christian religious symbols prominently displayed outside homes and businesses, but there are also large signs with the ten commandments written out that you’ll also see in a lot of different spots around the country.

The Ten Commandments Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170515_080414 (2)

Bus Stations really are an incredible crossroads…

In Belize, the bus station accepted 4 types of currency! To be fair, both the Belizean dollar and US dollar can be used to pay for anything around the country, but you can also use Mexican and Guatemalan currency there if you need to.

Even the bus station vendors have hot sauce available. It really is the universal condiment around Belize, but I was still amazed at its presence next to the pre-cooked food already divided into different take away baggies.

Street Food stands at bus station with Marie Sharp's hot sauce Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go20170508_115008

Everyone can tell you where and when next bus is leaving. There was no information booth that I saw (although any tourist office can help with bus schedules). But equally reliable? Asking any Belizean hanging out at the bus stop when the next bus will be. They’ll give you times, tell you whether it’s local or express, how much it will costs, & which area it leaves from. Just incredible!

It’s a small enough country to have some national standards…

Like Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. Marie started her company in Belize back in the early 1980s and she has already been inducted into the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame. And it is her Belizean brand that is the standard that you will see at street food stands and on restaurant tables – unless there is a homemade version.

Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce on Every Table Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170510_080547 (2)

Or Belikin, Belize’s national beer. If you ask for a “beer,” you’ll get the Belikin standard brew. If you ask for a “stout” or a “lager” you’ll get the Belikin version of those styles. Any other beer you must ask for by name.

Belikin Beer Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170511_213022

Beers are smaller! You’ll notice that Belikin beer comes in 250 mL bottles, which is just small enough compared to the standard 330 mL bottle of beer that you will notice the difference!

You might experience a 4-bath day when you go. If you’ve ever heard of the expression (or musical band) ‘three dog night,’ this is a similar notion. A three dog night refers to a cold night out in the Australian outback, when you have to cuddle up with 3 dingoes (the dogs) to stay warm. A 4-bath day in Belize . . . that’s a hot and sweaty one.

Houses are colorful. There is something about the tropics that lends itself to brightly colored houses. You’ll see plenty of these around Belize, including many in a shade I started calling ‘Belizean blue’ because you’ll see that exact shade in so many places.

Houses are Colorful Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0704Belizean Blue Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0435

Buses are the way to go for some local flavor . . .
Repurposed American schoolbuses are the main mode of transportation. Different companies may paint the outside in different colors, but the inside is the same school bus with benches set up you may know from your childhood. And just like back then, the seats get sticky in the heat and there is no air conditioning. But it’s definitely the most affordable way to travel Belize while getting a taste for how the locals live.

School Buses Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170510_093441

And they’ll play music very loudly. Buses may be the cheapest way to get around, but they’re certainly not the most serene. Most of the ones I traveled on had upbeat music playing quite loudly for most or all of the ride. I wasn’t sure if this was a strategy to keep people happy and quiet, but that certainly seemed to be the effect.

Non-express buses will stop at pretty much any point along the route. This is a great convenience for anyone who lives off-the-beaten-path, but you can imagine how much time all of these stops will add on to your trip. There’s a reason the express buses are a bit pricier.

Some unexpected foods you’ll find everywhere. There are Caribbean and Latin American specialties and their variations, but there’s also an abundance of banana bread and fried chicken. Who knew?

But in general you’ll find the best local specialties at street food stands. Whether it’s seeking out the best rice and beans (look for a giant pot) or getting salbutes fried to order, the flavors you get at the street food stands outpace any brick-and-mortar restaurant I visited.

Street Food Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170512_144632

     READ MORE: How to Eat Like a Local in Belize

Expect that you’ll frequently be all by yourself with relics. Sure, there was someone staffing the booth when you bought your admission ticket to the museum or archaeological site. But chances are that as you explore the rooms with the priceless artifacts, or even the pyramids, you’ll be all on your own.

Archaelogical Relics to Yourself Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0786Archaelogical Relics to Yourself Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0714

And that there’ll be almost no safety measures for climbing all those Mayan pyramids. I scaled my fair share of pyramids during my week-plus in country, and there were very few handrails or markers for dangerous sections or to prevent you from falling off the top. A local shared that the vast ruins of Xunatunich only had railings put in just last year – and only 2 of them across a huge area! Tread carefully.

No handrails at Mayan pyramids Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0577

Belizeans are genuinely friendly. They’ll chat you up on the street and then share their favorite local spot for a meal. Not for a monetary tip, but just to welcome you to their beautiful country.

Simone Biles is the most beloved athlete. Maybe it was my visiting within a year of the Rio Olympics, but although there are Belizeans who have somewhat “made it” in professional sports, American gymnast Simone Biles (who is of Belizean descent) is the true star if you ask any local.

Belize City is not the capital. I guess I spent my childhood gazing longingly at an outdated globe, because even though the capital city shifted to centrally-located Belmopan back in 1970, I had it in my head that it was Belize City until my visit. Oops.

Cemeteries have above-ground coffins. Like many of the houses and buildings in Belize, cemeteries are colorful places. And instead of burying the dead, I saw plots with elevated coffins where relatives come to pay their respects.

Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0004Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0009

English reigns supreme . . .
More currency with Queen Elizabeth. If you travel a lot, you’ve probably seen her face on quite a lot of currency by now. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is still part of the British Commonwealth.

English British Commonwealth Coins Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0716 (2)

It’s not just lip service though, the Queen came for a visit! Queen Elizabeth II has visited Belize twice – one in the mid-1980s, another time in the mid-1990s. Of course, the part of her visit that people referenced the most during my trip was when she ate a local rodent whose meat is considered a delicacy, the gibnut, now also nicknamed the ‘Royal Rat.’

Everyone speaks English and takes US dollars. I feel like some travelers harbor fear of foreign countries due to the language barrier. Perhaps a fear of not being able to make yourself understood? In any case, there’s no need to worry in Belize as everyone speaks English. And you can pay with US dollars anywhere, even in small towns or on local buses (although you’ll often get change in BZD, with 2 Belize dollars equaling $1).

Visitors Centers are mostly in English. Although there are quite a lot of Spanish speakers around, interestingly the Visitors Centers I popped into seemed to cater exclusively to English speakers. That said, they were quite helpful.

Some expected groups….
Maya tribes still exist. For some reason I always lumped the Maya in my head with the now-extinct Aztec and Inca Empires. However while the Maya experienced a decline, their culture and traditions continue on across Belize and some nearby countries. I got my most personal experience on a tour of a Mayan chocolate producer, carrying on the traditions of many centuries ago.

And some unexpected ones…
The Chinese. Originally brought to Belize from China as laborers, many of those original Chinese stayed. Today there is also a more recent influx of Chinese looking to build businesses and wealth, or to use Belize as a stepping stone for ultimate relocation to the United States.

Mennonites. It was a surprise when I spotted my first Mennonite family in Belize – the wife in a bonnet and long dress & the husband in denim overalls with a wide-brimmed straw hat. Just like in other places, they also shun technology in Belize and focus on hard work and farming the land.

Belize has the lowest population density in Central America. There are a lot of natural reserves and open, lush swaths of green as you make your way across the country. Enjoy!

Featured Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0353

And it’s a peace-loving country, one of the few in the region that has not had a civil war. You may associate Central America with some violent conflicts, but it is a point of pride in Belize that handover of power has been a peaceful affair.

Belize also boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The reef system is just off the coast along most of the country, and is so lengthy that even Charles Darwin was impressed. Opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive abound.

Like anywhere I’ve ever visited, Belize has a bunch of quirks that come with any country, along with some pretty impressive products and traditions and diversity for such a small nation.

    READ MORE: 9 Reasons Belize Should Be Your Next Travel Destination!

But Belize also had so many things that surprised me along the way – I was already jotting down some observations on my first taxi ride from the airport to the bus station!

What’s the most interesting thing you learned about a place while visiting? Anything else you discovered about Belize if you’ve traveled there? Or anything else you’d like to know before you go? Share away in the ‘Comments’ below!

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Fun Facts - Things to Know About Belize Before You Go

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Best Bites: Where to Eat in Rome

Best Bites: Where to Eat in Rome

Rome is a feast for the senses. The iconic sights, the sounds of the city, and the feel of the cobblestone under your feet as you stroll. And yes, of course, all of that delicious food.

You might sense a great restaurant first by the enticing aroma wafting toward you as you happen past. Or perhaps spying that gelateria with a line snaking out the door on a weekday afternoon.

Although I did a fair bit of planning before all of my trips to Rome, in the end it was the combination of my research, geography, and my senses telling me the signals were right that led to my favorite spots and my most delicious meals.

Sometimes I was at a museum or doing some sightseeing, then found a nearby gem. Other times I trekked across town to sample the food of a particular restaurant, and then got lost exploring the nearby neighborhood. All wonderful ways to really explore the wonders a city like Rome has to offer.

Read on for the results of my culinary wanderings and the delicious bites I enjoyed along the way.

Top Restaurant Picks

Al Vecchio Galeone

Al Vecchio Galeone Where to Eat in Rome Italy 20161001_205221

I went when I stayed at a guesthouse nearby, and the “Old Galleon” was quite the seafood gem out of the heart of the city. I dined here solo and the staff were nothing but welcoming, and the food was Italian comfort food. There is definitely a relaxed vibe with the décor and friendliness, and lots of families were enjoying communal meals here as a place out where you can still get a pretty traditional home-cooked meal out of the house.

C’è pasta e pasta

C'e' Pasta e Pasta Where to Eat in Rome Italy 20160929_142320C'e' Pasta e Pasta Where to Eat in Rome Italy 20160929_142514

This is probably the most casual spot on my list, with food served cafeteria style. It’s piled high on your plate, heated up for you, then offered on a plastic cafeteria tray. There are an array of dishes coming from the 2,000+ year-old Roman Jewish culinary traditions, and this was what I came to sample. And it was delicious! Just ask the helpful staff to point you in the direction of the traditional options being offered that day, and it’s all certified kosher. And even though it’s cafeteria style, this is Italy after all, so enjoy your meal with a glass of wine.

Cesare al Casaletto

This is the place to go for slightly upscale Roman cuisine, with the price and quality to match. Conveniently located at the end of a tram line from central Rome, you’ll savor impeccable service and well-executed dishes, although for me as a solo traveler it was a bit formal compared to the places I usually prefer.

Ditirambo

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This gem wasn’t on any list, but a quaint spot I stumbled upon on a centrally located pedestrian side street. Ask for what dishes are best that day, and you’ll be reward with beautifully presented and delicious food. Don’t miss the biscottini on offer at the end of the meal.

READ MORE: An Encounter in Rome

Osteria Bonelli

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This spot is wayyyyy off the beaten path for most tourists to Rome, but was hands-down my favorite meal in the city. Although I trekked quite a bit to eat here, I was rewarded with exploring a neighborhood on foot, and a prime viewing position by a quite intact section of the Aurelian wall around Rome. Plan an extended time to fit Osteria Bonelli into your itinerary, but it will be worth it for the down home traditional cooking that you order off the hand-written menu on a chalkboard – and a taste of what it’s like to experience Italy like a local.

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TIP! Reserve a table in advance so you’re not disappointed when you arrive. It may be far away from most tourists, but this place seems like it’s always packed!

Pizzarium Bonci

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Roman pizza may not be the image of pizza that first comes to mind. Most people conjure up the familiar round Neapolitan concoction, while Roman pizza is made in rectangular slabs. The good news? Unlike having to pick a single flavor for a round pizza all to yourself, you can mix and match different flavors, directing them behind the counter to cut each section in the size you’d like. This was my last stop before the train back to Milan, so I loaded up on several flavors I enjoyed en route and once I arrived, and they were all incredible.

TIP! Although I think that Roman pizza is best enjoyed in Rome, Pizzarium actually just opened an American outpost in Chicago this week for my American readers!

Trattoria del Gato Bianco

It’s central, and it’s some high-quality traditional Italian cuisine. There are lots of dishes to sample local Roman specialties, but really anything you order will be delicious. One of the better authentic options close to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and in the case of me and my sister, served by a welcoming Italian grandmother who doted on us.

Fancy Spots to Check out Next Time

As per usual, I left Rome on my last visit with a list of places for next time. Despite multiple trips, I haven’t yet experienced Rome’s fine dining scene. When I do, two places top my list:

La Pergola

This is your three-star Michelin dining, for the really exceptional splurge while in Rome. The tasting menu price will set you back quite a few Euros, but this is the foodie experience many dream of. This is the ultimate in fancy Rome dining for the truly special occasion.

Pataclara

Pataclara is my top pick for a splurge on my next visit to Rome. Although the website is entirely in Italian, you can see how each dish is a work of art when you click the link above. There are quite a number of options of dishes a la carte as well as 3 degustazioni, or tasting menus at different price points. You can certainly eat in Rome for less, but I get the impression that both the 45 and 60 tasting menus are an absolute bargain for how much you’ll enjoy the food here.

Gelato Spots

There are a lot of gelaterie in Rome, and I tried many more than made this list. For me, that perfect gelato has a combination of silky smooth texture mixed with intense flavor that gives you pause. Here are two spots where you’ll have that gelato epiphany:

Gelateria Fatamorgana

Think of the most crazy flavor combination you can. It’s probably one of your choices at any Fatamorgana branch around Rome, in addition to more traditional flavors. The good news is that wherever you are in the city, there’s probably one relatively close. I visited a branch not terribly far from the Colisseum, but just a far enough stroll that it was filled with neighborhood locals with barely another tourist in sight.

Gelateria dei Gracchi

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This is the only gelateria in Rome that wowed me so much that I visited twice in two days. There are a couple of centrally located outposts. I visited the one by the Lepanto metro stop, and was instantly transported to foodie heaven as I enjoyed their crema di pinoli flavor, which is luxuriously creamy and perfectly flavored with pine nut intensity. There’s a reason you’ll be lined up here with the locals.

There’s certainly no shortage of places to eat in Rome, but of course if you want a wonderful meal, that narrows the field considerably. Even if you’re limited on time and sticking to the tourist highlights, there are lots of great restaurants in close proximity – you just need to know where to go.

What are your favorite places to eat in Rome? Have you been to anywhere from the list? Any other restaurants I should try? Help me decide which spots to savor on my next visit!

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Best Bites - Where to Eat in Rome Italy

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10 Things to Know About Kangaroos Before You Visit Australia

10 Things to Know About Kangaroos Before You Visit Australia

I’m an educated person. I took biology in both high school and college, lots of it. So how is it that when I moved to Australia 5 years ago, I was so woefully ignorant about that beloved creature and national symbol, the kangaroo?

If you’re planning to visit Australia – or even if you just like kangaroos or enjoy some fun trivia – there are all sorts of things you’ll want to know about kangaroos (and probably have never heard before). So let’s temper expectations here before you visit as I tell it like it really is.

Read on for some of the craziest things I learned about kangaroos during my time living there…

Baby kangaroos (joeys) don’t just sit in the pouch looking cute

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I’ll admit it, a decent amount of my knowledge pre-conceived notions about kangaroos might have come from watching Winnie-the-Pooh as a child. It all looked so simple. Little Roo would sit in Kanga’s pouch and hang out as she hopped around (don’t worry people, I knew real kangaroos didn’t wear t-shirts like in the cartoon).

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The reality of carting around a baby kangaroo? Sitting upright is kind of a human thing, and kangaroos just do their own thing. Often all 4 of the joey’s limbs and its tail are coming straight out of the pouch, with no head or body in sight. They just scrunch themselves right in there and get comfortable!

There are albino kangaroos!

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I guess it makes sense that like other animals, you could have a kangaroo lacking pigment. But honestly, the thought didn’t even cross my mind once until I saw one in person at a wildlife park outside of Perth, Australia, where I was living at the time. They’re pretty cute-looking =)

A kangaroo’s tail is like another foot

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Watch out folks, a kangaroo’s tail is a lode-bearing appendage. As of just a few years ago, scientists are calling it a fifth leg and saying that it makes hopping more efficient. Not only can a kangaroo’s tail be used as leverage, but they can also balance on it to kick with both legs at once!

Kangaroos have an alternating walk

This might have been the most interesting thing that I was really fascinated by and couldn’t stop watching, and seemed typical of some other marsupials as well. I don’t know how else to describe it, but there is this little hop kangaroos do while balanced on their tail, moving both legs forward together, and alternating that with advancing the tail on the ground.  Yes, kangaroos hop too, but you’re just as likely to see one advancing slowly using this method.

Kangaroos can be vicious

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You do not want to piss off a kangaroo. When kangaroos get angry or male kangaroos are vying for mating privileges with the females, they will essentially box, both punching and kicking at each other for superiority.

Kangaroos live in the wild, even in big cities

These are not just another Outback creature. In addition to finding plenty of kangaroos when you’re visiting at zoos and wildlife parks, there are also kangaroos that just live and hang out in green spaces across Australia’s cities. In Perth where I lived, you could see the kangaroos in their natural habitat just a short stroll from the city center.

Kangaroos are a pest in the Outback

Many consider kangaroos a pest in the Outback, and some kangaroo populations are growing so quickly without natural predators of days gone by, that the population is subject to culling. It’s not a practice you hear much about overseas, but each year over 1,000,000 kangaroos are legally killed in an effort to control the population and protect the native environment. It is disputed whether efforts help, and in many cases a mother is killed, leaving a joey alive in the pouch, which many Australians will try to foster back to health if they find it in time.

Head out at dawn or dusk to spot them

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I don’t know what it is about Australian critters, but like the sharks that roam Australia’s waters, kangaroos are also partial to hanging out at dawn and dusk. Anywhere you visit, find out where the local kangaroo spots are, and plan a visit at the right time of day.

You’ll see a bull bar on many Australian cars

Image by: Wikimedia Commons
Image by: Wikimedia Commons

Also known locally in Australia as a ‘roo bar,’ this additional section of bumper on the car is meant to protect the front of the vehicle from collisions with kangaroos (and other animals). Thousands of kangaroos are hit by cars and killed each year, and it is such a prevalent danger that you’ll see the front of many Australian cars equipped with a bull bar as a result.

Kangaroo meat . . . available at your local supermarket

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I learned this one on day one. I’m the kind of person who likes to cook, so the day I arrived in Australia, I stocked up on supplies at the local supermarket to cook dinner. The big surprise was when I entered the meat section, and alongside the more typical chicken and beef sections there was a section of kangaroo meat, too. Butchered into different steaks and cuts depending on its ultimate use.

I didn’t eat kangaroo meat often – and didn’t buy it that first night in country – but I definitely had it a bunch of times while living there. It is gamey, kind of like venison, and very lean. My favorite preparations were cooked like a steak on the barbie (barbecue) and as part of a curry, on its own or inside a meat pie. Kangaroo is also lately being touted as the most environmentally-friendly red meat to eat in Australia.

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Most of the kangaroos I encountered were quite friendly and approachable, and I loved getting up close and personal and petting their soft fur. And I definitely also tried to embrace locally available food, by trying kangaroo meat as well. However adventurous you decide to be in your travels, kangaroos are definitely fascinating creatures!

Have you seen a kangaroo in Australia before? What do you love most about them? Anything else you’d add to my list of crazy facts?

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How to Spend One Day in Nassau, Bahamas

How to Spend One Day in Nassau, Bahamas

The town of Nassau, Bahamas is probably best known for its famous hotels and luxury offerings in proximity to the cruise port. Like anywhere though, there is the veneer on display in immediate proximity of tourists, and the parts of the city locals typically frequent.

I love to stroll around a new place and just get a feel for the area, the architecture, and do some people watching to see how locals interact. In Nassau it was striking how much of the general decay of the city was visible just walking a block or two away from the main stretch of downtown. I saw a bit of trash lying around, which honestly I found reminiscent of Naples, Italy, a city with a lot of grit and character that is part of its charm.

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For me, I appreciated seeing what felt like a more authentic side of the city, from haphazard wiring on telephone poles to billboards addressing STD prevention (Bahamas has one of the highest AIDS infection rates in the Caribbean). Alongside some of these grittier sections though were flowers in bloom and lush greenery, alongside beautifully colorful buildings.

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An interesting city for a day of exploring for sure!

Things to Do

Parliament Square

Just a few blocks from the water’s edge lies the colorful colonial buildings dating from the early 1800s that house the Parliament of the Bahamas in Nassau, the capital for all of the islands that make up this Caribbean nation. Although still part of the British Commonwealth, the Bahamas became independent in the 1970s, and the decorations you see are celebrating the 44th anniversary of independence.

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Nassau Public Library

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The octagonal Library building is the same lovely pale pink you’ll see on buildings all around town. It was originally used as a colonial jail, and while the ground level now operates as the library, the second floor is a museum tracing the building’s history. Unfortunately the museum upstairs is currently closed, but it’s worth popping in since it’s so close to downtown and other attractions.

Queen’s Staircase

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This 65-step staircase was carved out by slaves in the 1790s as a way to connect the nearby fort to the city. Slavery finally ended under the British Empire under Queen Victoria, so it was later re-named the Queen’s Staircase.

Water Tower How to Spend One Day in Nassau Bahamas DSC_0237TIP! Use the nearby water tower as a landmark to navigate toward them from the city, which is about a 10-15 minute walk from the cruise terminal if you arrive by ship.

TIP! You may find someone giving an oral history of the area when you arrive. Me and the group of friends from the cruise ship enjoyed listening and left a small tip, althogh that is at your discretion.

Fort Fincastle

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Once you climb the Queen’s Staircase, you’ll find Fort Fincastle nearby by looping around to your right. The Fort itself has a few rooms with explanatory signs and some cannons, but the real reason to enter is to see the panoramic view of the city in all directions from the lookout point. It was intended to protect the nearby harbor, but was never used for that purpose, and later became a lighthouse.

TIP! There are lots of people begging for change and hawking souvenirs in this area, be prepared.

TIP! Admission to the Fort can be paid in US dollars. Bring small US change, including coins, if you can – one ticket is US$1.08, including tax.

Shopping

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If you’ve ever taken a cruise before, you know that most cruise ports have plenty of shopping in close proximity, and Nassau, Bahamas is no exception. There are tons of purveyors offering the typical range of souvenirs from t-shirts to knick knacks to local hot sauce, as well as lots of high-end jewelry and other duty-free items. If you arrive on a cruise, you’ll probably get a shopping guide on the ship, otherwise your hotel or resort will certainly be able to point you in the right direction.

Best Bites & Sips – Where to Eat & Drink

Pirate Republic Brewing Company

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Right in downtown Nassau, the Pirate Republic Brewing Company had my favorite craft beer of the trip, and touts itself as the first and only craft brewery in the Bahamas. Don’t let their touristy location fool you, there is some serious brewing going on here, with a hefty dose of creativity, especially with the seasonal brews. If you’re visiting on a cruise ship like I was, there’s no need to do the beer tasting excursion as it’s a short walk to this gem. The food also gets rave reviews although the kitchen closes mid-afternoon, so I was too late to sample anything.

Lukka Kairi

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Most people walk right past this local Bahamian spot to go to the nearby Señor Frogs, but that is a mistake. Overlooking the water, Lukka Kairi is a peaceful spot to enjoy local cocktails and serves up the best conch fritters I’ve ever had! Other dishes pack an equally flavorful punch, with a perfect Caribbean balance of spice and flavor.

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Certainly there are plenty of water and land activities all around the island, but if you’re in downtown Nassau, Bahamas, there is plenty easily accessible by foot in a small area for a day of exploring. And certainly the downtown area is a hub for shopping for anything you might want to bring home with you.

I enjoyed Nassau for getting a taste of the local history and culture, including some delicious food and drink along the way.

Have you been to Nassau, Bahamas? Any other activities you’d recommend for a day there? Let me know in the ‘Comments’ below if there’s anything I should add to this list!

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How to Spend One Day in Nassau Bahamas

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