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SAY CHEESE!

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And by “cheese,” we mean the very best — the Italian varieties.  Provolone, Grana Padano, Asiago, Caciotte, and a whole variety of delicious others we were fortunate to experience. How did that happen? Here’s the story of one more trip highlight from our recent Italy travels (click for previous posts).

Our dear friend, client and well-known restauranteur Giacomino Drago was our go-to for how to make this cheese tour happen. He connected us with the amazing folks at Monti Trentini.

From our hotel in Venice, the drive was under two hours. When one considers this included a water taxi and endless tolls, we made it to the destination fairly fast. Italy is not shy about collecting money for use of their roadways, but at least they are extremely well maintained. Thus, driving is easy (outside of major cities, that is).

The factory location in the Dolomite mountains (although barely above sea level) is breathtaking.  It is in the northeast region of Italy. Most impressive is the business began in 1925 and continues today with current family members actively working. Our tour was conducted by cousins Mavi and Pietro, both of whom answered every question flawlessly. We saw all aspects of the operations. Mavi’s father (below working with provolone) and Pietro’s father arrive each morning at 3am. Obviously they love what they do.

Below, provolone in various stages of aging.

There are currently about 100-110 employees. Many had already finished their shifts by the time we toured. The family did everything possible during the height of Covid to maintain the staff; not an easy feat. Some 50 cheeses are made at the factory (see the full list here), and each requires a different process.

Many know Parmigiana Reggiano as “the king of cheese.” Why is it not produced here? First, it comes from a different region in Italy and is made from a different type of milk. The aging process is longer; thus it is generally more expensive. Grana Padano, on the other hand, has a shorter aging process and Monti Trentini produces vast quantities all year. For comparison of the two, I use a good olive oil for cooking but a great olive oil for finishing a dish. The same could be said for the two cheeses.

Below, the enormous copper vats are only used in the production of Grana Padano.

Above, the mold used to imprint critical information on each wheel. Below, the wheels “rest” in huge tubs of salt water as part of the process. 

We were delighted to taste many of their products as seen below. Their retail shop on the premises offers their cheeses along with spreads, crackers, sweets, wine and more. My favorite was the Asiago! What a delicious treat.

So, after seeing row after row in room after room of finished product, just one thought remained. Who else is craving pizza?

Below, NOT in Italy but at a restaurant in Southern California!  Wonderful reminder.

International TravelThings I Love

MY PUBLISHED STORY!

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When the Wall Street Journal asked readers to respond with a favorite travel story, I thought long and hard about what to submit.

Maybe the one from Auckland when we were cruising some local islands and stopped for a bit.  I stayed onboard and the hubby went to explore.  After the captain (who I had been speaking to) determined that everyone was back, we sailed away.  A fellow passenger said to me, “Isn’t that your husband back there waving to us?” Oh my God, I didn’t realize we left without him! Needless to say, the captain turned around and collected him…

Or when we went to a baseball game in Seoul and couldn’t read our reservation sheet.  A Korean noticed our confusion, offered to help. He then not only took us to will call and translated so we could get our tickets, but then escorted us to our seats. I will never forget his kindness.

No, the clear winner happened just last year. And, months after my submission, I was happily told it would be included!  Thank you, Demetria Gallegos, for publishing mine.

Enjoy below (reprinted from the Wall Street Journal August 18 online; print version August 20).  If you’re a subsciber, click on this link.  And for my blog post on the entire Uganda travel, click here.

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International TravelThings You Should Know

VENICE! SPRING TRIP PART 6

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What a day.

Getting from Florence (see last post) to Venice isn’t really all that complicated.  One can fly, hire a driver, take the train, or rent a car and do the driving.  With all we wanted to accomplish, option 4 got the nod.

Except on this and every Sunday, one needs to backtrack to the airport to access most car rentals.  No problem as we were heading in that direction.  But then the words, “Is this the biggest car you have?”  Well, we’ll manage.  Four adults, four full size suitcases and one carry-on each required some engineering to make it all fit.  All I can say is, the hubby is one helluva good sport (see below).  I drove, Sam navigated and the hubby and Hannah were in the back, wedged in between luggage.

Below — our engineering feat; a very compliant hubby; and finally in the Venice water taxi

What a day.  Did I mention this was Mother’s Day?

Our ambitious itinerary: First to Pisa (how can one not see Pisa?) for the photo op.  Then the walled city of Lucca, but that didn’t happen.  A marathon was taking place and access was impossible. Then to the designer outlet mall (again, how can one not? But where will we fit any purchases??).  Then an attempt at Bologna, but the timing was terrible.  No parking.  I mean NONE.

So, on to Venice.  Here’s a tip:  Do not show up in Venice without first securing parking!  It is easy. We needed the car for our tour the following day so we kept it overnight. And then walking the bags from the garage to the water taxis.  And then the ride to the hotel, the Bauer Palazzo on the Grand Canal.  Here’s some irony:  the rooms were larger and less expensive than in Florence.  A win/win for sure.  But between the endless tolls and the water taxi, it was a lot of euros.  A lot.

As a Venice aside, in case one wonders about the future of this magnificent destination, two luxury hotel brands are making major investments as we speak.  The Bauer Palazzo where we stayed was just acquired.  It will shut down at the end of this year and reopen in 2025 as a Rosewood Hotel property.  Likewise, the Danieli — a few doors away also on the Grand Canal — is shutting down and reopening in 2025 as a Four Seasons.  So it seems the future of Venice is bright.

What was on our itinerary?  A visit to see the artistry of Murano glass being created.  A visit to the remarkable Peggy Guggenheim Museum.  Several strolls through St. Marks square (Piazza San Marco).  Photo ops everywhere.  A gondola ride (I know, but how can one not?) And one helluva dinner (among some great meals).

Above, a Murano artist at work; below, outstanding pizza at 1000 Gourmet

Da Ivo is famous most notably for being a celebrity go-to, long before George Clooney and his pals dined there the night before his wedding.  If one is to believe the proprietor, the group just showed up, with maybe a five-minute advance warning.  One can enter the restaurant directly from a small canal, as in stepping off a water taxi right next to where I happened to be sitting (see below).  There’s also an entrance from the front walkway.  It is very small inside with maybe seating for 40 people.  It is both formal (as in staff in suits and ties) but not stuffy.  An LA restauranteur friend connected us with the propietor Giovanni Fracassi.

That introduction led to a tour of the kitchen — modern, upgraded and producing incredible food in such a small space.  He also took us into the wine cellar, which is out the back and over a small bridge to a nearby building.  Oh, the magic of what is required to run a restaurant in Venice.  It is eye-popping.  That was a wonderful experience.

Above, simply delicious tuna tartare; below, the jam-packed wine cellar.

With Gianni in the kitchen above; words to live by below.

Venice doesn’t require much pre-planning to be enjoyed.  The views, the strolling, the people-watching, the endless shops.  Just go where the mood takes you.  As we did until it was time to say good-bye.  The hubby and I headed home after 24 days of travel; the kids headed to Milan via the train for a couple of days to wind up their two-week trip.  One final water taxi for all, with the last stop at the airport.  Suffice it to say, where else can one take a water taxi to get on an airplane?  Only in Venice …

International TravelThings I Love

FLORENCE! Spring Trip Part 5

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When it comes to travel stories, there’s likely an element of uncertainty.  We appreciate everything unfolding like “clockwork” and let go of anything that might not work out so well.

Thus, seeing our kids Sam & Hannah waiting outside our hotel in Florence felt like a victory!  Us coming from four prior countries (see previous posts here) and them coming from a few days in Rome (see below) required lots of coordination.  This trip was postponed from 2020 for obvious reasons, so the fact that it finally happened only enhanced the joy.  And it was the beginning of eight wonderful days together, first in Florence and then Venice.

Florence was the second stop on a 2001 trip for me and the hubby.  Those accommodations were at the superb Villa La Massa, a short drive away.  Having accommodations this trip on the Arno with the ability to walk virtually anywhere is an entirely difference experience.  While the Westin Excelsior “excelled” at taking care of all of our needs with very professional staff, the hotel is a bit “long in the tooth.”  Nevertheless, the location and aforementioned personnel more than made up for the smallish bathrooms.  The sweeping rooftop view is below.

The Ponte Vecchio below, a tourist must-see for sure, with the countless jewelry shops from end to end.   Built in 1345!

Son Sam definitely has the “foodie” gene and did lots of research for meals.  It is a pleasure to not be making all the decisions!  Of course finding good food anywhere in Italy is fairly easy.  And the gelato .. oh, my.  Some places get higher ratings than others, but it is difficult to discern.  Vivoli came highly recommended and did not disappoint.  One can just admire the longevity, having first opened in 1929.  We met a fellow American who ate there sometimes twice a day, every day of his Florence stay which was not short.  My flavors below (chocolate mint and coconut).

BELOW:  Repeat visit to Osteria Cinghiale Bianco

Hearing all about the state of hospitality in Italy with proprietor Massimo Masselli above; delicious pastas, ribollita and truffles below. 

I will be devoting a separate blog from our cooking class, which took most of our first day.  A phenomenal and fun experience!  Without question, the other “high point” of Florence was seeing Michelangelo’s David (again for the hubby and me).  This towering masterpiece stands 17′ tall.  David is simply exquisite.  It just takes one’s breath away. And it was created out of a single block of  marble. “How in the world” is all one can ponder …

What else did we do?  Walking, walking, walking.  A bit of shopping but mostly just the windows.  Photos.  And eating.  See for yourself with the included re-caps below.  Not much else is necessary to have a damn good time roaming around this gorgeous, delicious, and historic destination.

Above at Osteria de’Cicalini and below at Le Volte Ristorante — so simple; so delicious.
Favorite meal alert below (if I had to pick) at Ristorante Belcore where we savored the classic “Bistecca alla Fiorentina.”  So good!!

Next post:  The crazy drive to and the how we spent our time in Venice.  Stay tuned.

International TravelThings You Should Know

STOCKHOLM! SPRING TRIP PART 4

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Surprised.  In a word, surprised — but only in the most joyous sense.  And that was the reaction to experiencing the beauty of Stockholm, the fourth destination on our Spring Trip.  (Click HERE for previous posts). Separately, Sweden is the last one of the Scandinavian countries to visit.

High-speed train was the transportation of choice from Oslo to Stockholm (just under 6 hours with one change).  Wifi, meals, spacious seating all provided the opportunity to see a bit more of both countries and some downtime as well.  Now, if we only could read our tickets to actually travel in the first-class car on the train for which we paid.  “This is first class?  Oh, well, fine.” Interesting that the conductor mentioned nothing to us when he took our tickets.

Once in Stockholm’s station, we hailed a taxi for the relatively short ride to the hotel.  But not one of the innumerable Tesla taxis, another surprise.  Teslas receive a substantial tax break so many of the taxis are Teslas.  There are charging stations conveniently located.   Some models are very fancy with expensive matte paint.  Go figure.

As I am sometimes inclined to do, I switched hotels two days prior to arrival.  It was a very good decision.

Grand Hotel Stockholm is a member of Leading Hotels of the World.  It is “grand” in the sense of design, but in no way haughty or stuffy.  The staff was amazing, given that they cater to many “famous” guests.  The hubby loved talking Foo Fighters with one of the staff as they have stayed there many times.  Both Mr. Grohl and the late Mr. Hawkins were a joy to receive there.  But I digress.

Below, the view from our room; the very “grand” hotel bar and insanely delicious schnitzel

The hotel is ideally situated on one of Stockholm’s countless waterways, with a beautiful view of the Royal Palace.  That building, like the one in Oslo, is the official residence but likewise functions  as a center of government and is open to the public.  Still, the structure is beautiful as seen below.  Tulips were planted everywhere and in full bloom!

Most fascinating was watching people fishing in the shallow water right in front of us.  As in, we’re in the middle of the city and people are out catching their dinner.  Can anyone translate the photo below?  I gave up trying.

Below, the fisherman from a different angle.  Our hotel is seen in the distance (green roof). 

The architecture is beautiful, like Paris or Prague or other major European capitals.  Where Oslo is quite modern, Stockholm has more of an “old world” feel.  Both are excellent cities in which to meander into different areas, including very high end shopping and quaint shops in the old town area.

A high point was exploring Fotografiska, a unique museum of photography and light installations.  Our visit coincided with an exhibition of more than 100 photographs by Andy Warhol, much from his infamous Studio 54 era.  Rather eye-opening to say the least was this surprising Warhol quote:  “I told them I didn’t believe in art, that I believed in photography.”  Perhaps I’m naive, but I think of him first as an artist (as in canvases) rather than photographer.   Some snaps of the work on display follow.

Photo booth “self portrait”

Socialite/fashion muse Maria Schiano with Jack (no last name necessary), circa 1978.

My personal fashion icon, Carolina Herrera, with whom I share my birthday (not to mention Elvis and David Bowie – Jan. 8).

 

Sweden’s greatest export?? Stunning Ingrid Bergman, circa 1950, as photographed by Lennart Nilsson (from the National Museum)

Finally, we asked a restaurant owner why Stockholm doesn’t do a better job of promoting itself as a world-class city of beauty.  His response?  “We’re a humble people.”  That’s one way to maintain a sense of elegance….  Below, our transportation to the restaurant that evening via the hotel “courtesy car.”

Next stop:  Part 5 takes us to Florence and our kids!

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

NORWAY! – SPRING TRIP PART 3

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Did you know it’s barely more than an hour flight to get from The Faroes to Norway’s capital city of Oslo?  Well, I didn’t either.  After a couple of days in the scenic Faroes (see last post HERE), we did just that.  It’s important to give a shout out to Atlantic Airways, a very efficient service in this part of the world.

Below, Karl Johans Gate — sort of a main boulevard — leading up to the Royal Palace

No plans were on tap unlike the prior detailed itineraries (especially Iceland — read about it HERE).  Seeing the iconic fjords was preeminent.  My thinking is always that a good concierge is best employed in these matters.

Thus, with guidance we made a quick decision to experience “Norway in a Nutshell.”

The tour embarks in Oslo and ends up in Bergen (Norway’s second largest city), with our choice for a short flight back to Oslo. Other options are either train or car, but a flight seemed like the obvious choice.

Definition of Norway in a Nutshell — the fjords

So out of our four days in Norway, a day and a half would be spent on every type of transportation possible.  That means trains (2), a boat (cruising the fjords), a bus (a relatively short ride), another train to Bergen, and the next day’s flight.  We left most everything in our room at the Oslo hotel (the excellent Hotel Continental).    Our room and belongings were just as we left them upon our return.

Near the town of Voss

The plan went exceedingly well, until .. a train delay from Voss to Bergen. And then a flight delay back to Oslo.  A 45-minute flight took off three hours later.  But we did get food vouchers at the airport, so there’s that.  And then I left my jacket in the Oslo train station.   H&M in Oslo to the rescue!

And why share all of this?  Because this is the stuff of travel, no matter how well one plans.  To me it is building a portfolio of memories and experiences, which is a privilege.  The best is getting to interact with people from everywhere.

Below, only one of these two men has been to a Dodger game.  (The other just liked the cap)

As for Oslo, it’s very modern, very easy to navigate and very friendly.  Spring flowers were just becoming visible. Food offerings (not only Norwegian salmon) are plentiful and delicious. As for the salmon, it’s basically the first thing you see for sale at the airport — it’s EVERYWHERE.  As an aside, how “smart” are the airport designers who have travelers exit security directly into a Duty Free store!  Below, my one salmon meal — at a Turkish restaurant.

Above and below, glimpses of Norway’s very modern capital city.

Below, the clear winner for “Best Meal in Norway (Oslo)” goes to Lofoten.  

Hamachi with soy jelly; excellent wine (credit the hubby); bouillabaisse and outstanding halibut.

Below, from our visit to the Nobel Peace Center where the Peace Prize is awarded annually. 

All of the other Nobel prizes originate in Stockholm.  Alfred Nobel’s story is told along with a history of the recipients.

Above, the original medal first given in 1921 (prior winners did not receive this).  Below, recipient Elie Weisel; no words necessary.

As we head to our next stop completing our Scandinavian visit, enjoy a few more photos of the fjords.  On to Stockholm!