Shopping

International TravelThings You Should Know

VENICE! SPRING TRIP PART 6

Venice 7

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 …

Things I LoveU.S. TravelWining/Dining

BACK IN THE WINDY CITY

IMG_20210830_215831

I absolutely love visiting Chicago.  It is a world-class city with great people, shopping, culture, baseball (none for us this trip) and fabulous food.  I have visited many times, first due to working for a company headquartered in Chicago (from their L.A. office), then for a variety of reasons — an All-Star game at the ballpark formerly known as Comiskey; another baseball trip for Wrigley; a trade show; a conference, etc.  It doesn’t take much prodding for me to visit.

This year’s road trip stopped first in Cleveland and Detroit, so the proximity to Chicago was an easy decision as the place of choice to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary (previous posts and links in bold).  Below are two different views from our hotel — of Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan.

So what was on the itinerary for the 3-night stay?  Pretty much everything listed above, plus a first:  a boat tour on the Chicago River to view the city’s stunning, historic and iconic architecture. Chicago is known for having some of the most interesting buildings, and many of the great talents in the field have contributed and continue contributing to this day.  Among those greats are the names Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Skidmore, Owings, Merrill.  (Click here for more about the buildings.)  And the weather gods cooperated by providing a perfect day in Chicago; timing is everything as they say.  Neither cold nor hot nor humid nor windy.  If only there were more of these days. Some of the photos from the tour:

Above — 333 West Wacker Street; below – Willis Tower (110 stories)

Above – Marina City complex; below – Wrigley building

Eating and shopping were next up on the agenda, even if the latter was mostly of the window type.  As for the eating, a great deal of advance research was done in order to savor each meal (three lunches and two dinners).

RL Chicago was first up.  Ralph Lauren has a penchant for doing everything “just so,” and that includes his namesake restaurants (NY and Chicago).  While it may be considered a “scene” by some, we found the service very hospitable and welcoming and the food is delicious.  Finding Pigs in a Blanket on an “upscale” menu might be surprising, but they were perfection which is not surprising in hindsight.  The other dishes we tried followed suit.  And, yes, it was fun taking in the scene.

A tried-and-true spot is Shaw’s Crab House, part of the epic group of restaurants from Lettuce Entertain You. It is amazing that they can do so many different cuisines so well. But they do, and we’ve tried enough of their restaurants to know that is the case.

Searching for Chicago’s “best” pizza might result in a debate over thin crust (my preference) vs. a classic deep dish, and many other types in between.  I read about a place called Spacca Napoli and decided that was the winner for us.

For our anniversary dinner, a Chicago stalwart was selected — Le Colonial — recently relocated from Rush Street to fashionable Oak Street (think upper Madison Avenue and all those glorious boutiques).  I loved the food in Vietnam and thought this would be ideal.  And it was.  Just a word about the dessert — it is up there in the annals of dessert perfection.  A chewy and crispy base of oatmeal and coconut and chocolate with a perfect scoop of vanilla gelato on top.  I’d make a trip back just for that (hence the top billing below).

A last lunch was squeezed in en route to O’Hare and recommended by an LA friend who is often in Chicago.  Gibson’s Italia combines the best of their reputation for steak with surprisingly delicious Italian food.  Both were excellent and a terrific way to bid the city goodbye (but hopefully not for long).  And that view of the river from the restaurant is just beautiful!  Separately, did you ever see two happier people around food?  I think not.

If the fondest visual is saved for last, then this shot of Michigan Avenue taken from our room qualifies.  I could just stare and stare ..

 

 

 

Things I LoveTo-Do List

WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO …

IMG_20200314_111849_2

Suffice it to say, we don’t know what we don’t know.  How profound is that?  When it comes to upcoming travel, that is certainly going to change.  And no one knows for sure just how much.

The Italy trip previously written about certainly isn’t happening now. We’re looking at November as we speak.  It’s usually a good time to travel, well in advance of the holiday season.

Here’s an upside:  I recently wrote about the importance of brand loyalty.  You know all those horror stories about waiting on hold to get through to the airlines?  American Airlines actually called me! True enough, they inquired how we wanted to handle our April 17 departure to Italy with return May 11, from Bucharest to LA, via overnight at Heathrow.  Would we prefer a voucher for future travel or a refund for taxes and fees?  While these were mileage tickets, the fees were still significant.  Not less than 24 hours after the call, the miles (140K per peson) were reinstated and fees refunded.  Loyalty pays.

The hubby and I might yet do something in May depending on when baseball resumes.  We’ve explored everything from an island trip to road trip including Mt. Rushmore (if the National Parks reopen). It’s still fluid.  No doubt, we’ll certainly notice how surfaces are cleaned, who’s wearing gloves, and have a heightened sense of our surroundings.

I feel blessed to have three passions at home to keep me busy.  It’s amazing how the hobbies keep those pesky things on the “to-do” list undone.  Someday I’ll rearrange the bookshelves and clean out bathroom drawers.  Just not now.

#1 ORCHIDS

This has been a passion since the 90’s when there was even a home greenhouse (long since given way to an outdoor kitchen).  I now keep it simple.  Cut back healthy plants after blooming; water and feed them in a low tray with pebbles (creates humidity) positioned with good indirect light; watch for regrowth.

With more available time, I decided to investigate why I continue to get those dreaded spider mites (fuzzy white bugs) — especially this time of year.  Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) in a spray bottle is as good as anything to get rid of these creatures.  It’s tedious but necessary to look under each leaf and wipe away traces to fully eradicate.  Be sure to also clean containers, pots and plant supports.

There’s currently 15 plants in my house in various stages, containers and arrangements.  They make me happy — so happy I clearly have a problem discarding them (where’s Marie Kondo?).  Trader Joe’s makes this habit way too easy … thankfully.

Simple is best. Store bought plants; arranged at home.
Same as above.
Round container holds three plants — good for at least two months.

 

My re-blooms! Three plants in one container.
My re-blooms! Three plants in one container.
These gorgeous stems are from a cymbidium plant that blooms faithfully every year. They last for weeks after cutting.

#2 PRODUCE GARDEN

The hubby loves to comment on a $20 (home-grown) cucumber.  Only he would amortize the total cost of installation, maintenance, plant material, pest deterrents, etc.  But can one really put a price on joy?  I say no.  My collaborator-in-chief Javier amended all the beds, installed a new drip system, and planted.  Upside to no April travel:  Earlier planting.  Being at home means I can keep an eye out for early trouble signs.

Plant selection; my collaborator Javier; Japanese eggplant (first ever!); one of the beds.
Waiting for beans to sprout; heirloom tomato; first blackberry; fig plant.

#3 COOKING/BAKING

Even the Wall Street Journal had a front-page story on the scarcity of flour and yeast in stores!  Is that the craziest?  I bake and then look for recipients to get the goodies out of the house (neighbors have been great as has my gardener and his team).  Making soups from the contents of my weekly produce delivery is fun (my freezer is FULL!)  And a first attempt at pizza was inspired by purchasing the type of flour I see used on cooking shows (00 Artisan).  My daughter shared a fantastic local gourmet distributor housed in a nearby warehouse that mostly sells to restaurants and caterers.  Pricey?  Yes.  But if you’re looking for 50 types of olive oil and nearly as many mustards, then go.  Oh, and cheese selection, the french butters ..

Immaculate and FULL shelves at Epicurious Gourmet
From top left: Pizza ingredients; dough overflowed; before and after of pizza with calabrese sausage and classic margherita.

Explore your passions until we can share a meal and some wine together.  At home or away. In person.

International TravelThings You Should Know

HIGHLIGHTS FROM HANOI

IMG_1928 Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi (or Ha Noi), the capital city of Vietnam, was the first of our three stops in nine days following Taipei where this this spring journey began.  Hanoi’s landmark hotel is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, established in 1901.  The original building retains the era’s characteristics while the newer Opera Wing (where we stayed) has more modern rooms and architecture.  The hotel is walking distance to the Old Quarter of the city.  It is very safe to walk in Hanoi but one has to be mindful of the ubiquitous motorbikes!  Our first and lasting impression of this country is the how very friendly the people are.

Hotel Metropole, you had me at this note in the room. Love at first sight.

We randomly picked a restaurant in the Old Quarter for dinner and it was just delicious.  Besides the terrific food, it was just $18 total for three courses and a bit of ice cream.  Welcome to Vietnam …

Old Quarter Hanoi

Around the lake

I had arranged in advance for a daylong tour to Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage Site, roughly 2 hours from Hanoi via a fairly new highway.  Many people do overnight trips to the area for a short getaway.  Once there, the endless stream of boats in the bay is evidence of the area’s popularity and status as a must-see destination.  Our guide Tien led us to our small charter with a staff of three for lunch and a few hours’ tour on the bay.  It turned out to be a perfect amount of time (for us).  Prior to the cruise, we were given a brief tour of a pearl farm and shown how the pearls are grown.  Not surprisingly, there was a big showroom right there!  Anyone who tours in this area of the world is accustomed to having a tutorial of some sort and then an “opportunity” to make purchases — whether it’s pearls, jade or even tea.  I passed this time but they had some very beautiful items and were quite willing to negotiate, with calculator in hand.

Hai Phong Port
Pearl farm demonstration
With Tien, our Ha Long Bay guide
Cruising Ha Long Bay
Lunch on the boat
In deep thought
“Kissing cousins”
From a distance, the island foliage fades to different shades of grey

After a long day, we opted for a restaurant near the hotel with pretty good Italian food.  It rained a decent amount in the evening, providing some cooler temps for our city tour the next day.  By “cooler” I mean lower 90’s … No point in going into the heat and humidity; it’s a known fact but one goes with the flow as best as one can.  That’s the deal; otherwise it means missing many parts of the world where the weather is less than optimal when we travel in April/May. For that matter, it would mean forgoing much of Asia where there’s little variance at all in the course of a year.  It’s either hot or wet or both.

Our young (just 21) guide Nam met us the next morning for a half-day tour of Hanoi highlights:  Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison (commonly referred by Americans as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”), the “notorious black market” area — with store after store of bike and car parts, electronics and other items — and finally some of the famous street food for lunch.  The first thought was obviously the food isn’t being handled in a sanitary way — raw meat and poultry with no gloves as an example.  Nam told us that it is typical for locals to shop twice daily; thus the ingredients are cooked and consumed so quickly that refrigeration is not an issue.  In fact, we had the chance to go down one street where there were (still but not for long) live chickens, but I passed on that one.

Temple of Literature
Such gorgeous faces and such lovely people
Typical black market stall — so many with so much stuff!
Similar to our home remotes (so many …)
Lunchtime
Very delicious
Amazing fresh fruits for sale

Living conditions around these small streets are another reminder of how good so many of us have it at home.  The last stop was the famous Railroad Street, where folks live just feet from the tracks.  Trains go by six times a day.  It is pretty amazing.

One water tank per renter or family
Railroad Street where the trains run by these homes six times daily
With young Nam, who is already very dedicated to his profession!

Our big dinner was at the well-known Press Club, located across the street from The Metropole.  That was more of a splurge with fancy service and stemware, with obviously a steeper price.  The place was empty save for a couple of Brits and a large tour group.  Our fellow travelers provided some good tips and things we must see at our next stop.  Whether or not we follow suggestions, the input is always welcome — it’s interesting to hear how others traverse a given area.

Spinach ravioli and bruschetta
Banana “log”
Serene setting in a hectic city.

 

Next up:  stop #2 in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

GREECE FOR A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY – Part 2 Mykonos

IMG_1348

It takes a grand total of 20 minutes in the air to fly from Athens (visit in previous post) to Mykonos.  Other modes of arrival are by cruise ship or ferry from a neighboring island (most likely Santorini, our next stop) or via one’s yacht (sigh).  But flying was the least amount of total time required and the ticket is very reasonable via Agean Air.

Bill & Coo Resort in Mykonos

Anyone else wonder why every building on the island is white?  Aesthetics?  A means of keeping buildings cool in hot weather (yes, that’s a main factor).  How about because it’s the law?  Yes, every building is required to be painted white.  Best part about that is touch-up’s are a cinch because your neighbors all have the same paint!

From the resort toward Mykonos town.
Sunset view from our balcony

The island population is a mere 10,000, but approximately one million visitors experience Mykonos annually during “the season” — April through early November.  Obviously the bulk visit during the true summer months which is precisely why a late September visit was ideal (for us, anyway).  Mykonos town is a series of very narrow, pedestrian-only streets — more like pathways.  It’s hard to imagine navigating during the height of the season when it’s really hot and really crowded.

Classic Greek style

I checked the weather from home and saw mid-70’s.  When we arrived, however, the winds were really strong — gusts up to 35mph and the temp more like the high 60’s.  Planes and ferries were canceled for two days due to the rough waters and winds.  Sitting by the pool was out so that allowed for more time for pure relaxation which is the point of being on vacation.  Fabulous massage, reading, walking to the nearby town for shopping, great food, people watching, etc.  Then there was following the news at home — baseball and hearings.  We didn’t leave the planet after all.

Choppy waters all around
Justin Turner (separated-at-birth) lookalike, complete with Dodger cap
Deep contemplation at sunset

Fortunately, our scheduled ferry to our next and last destination, Santorini, was available, more or less as planned.  The ferry itself was very nice with spacious seats on the top level.  When we departed Mykonos it was quite rainy.  But all that gave way to glorious sunshine upon arriving in Santorini.  Hooray.

Our Mykonos departure with some soggy travelers.
On the ferry

 

Hip, hip hooray! On approach to Fira in Santorini.

Alas, the sunshine was about the only good part of the arrival.  Our luggage was stored in the ship’s lowest level, right next to where the cars park.  Everyone was crowded together, gathering their bags, and tightly packed in waiting to exit.  Curiously, they were boarding passengers at the same time we were exiting.  Total chaos even before we all were on land searching for our respective transportation — either large groups finding buses, or individuals like us looking for our drivers.  An absolute mass of travelers all trying to get out.  Total travel time door-to-door:  Seven hours!  Most of that was spent on the Santorini end.

The traffic snafus as a result of the over-crowded ferries were remarkable.  The line of vehicles to get their passengers was backed up probably a good two hours.  There’s only one very steep road (think California’s Highway 1) to the ferry dock area with continuous hairpin curves, usually with two enormous buses passing simultaneously — one down and one up.  We saw quite a few people obviously so concerned about missing their departing ferry that they gave up and WALKED down the road with their luggage.  They deserve a lot of credit for that!

But we made it to a beautiful resort.  My report on our Santorini stay in the next post.

At Kalita Restaurant in Mykonos, absolutely empty at 8pm except for us (the Americans!)
Fabulous fresh sea bass with zucchini ribbons in foamy sauce. Yum!

Below — what I’ve read so far.  Two wonderful books.  Two wonderful love stories.  Lots of tissue required.

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, PART 4 — BEAUTIFUL VILNIUS

IMG_0538

After an overnight stay in the Baltic Sea coastal town of Klaipeda (popular for cruise ships), we met up with our pre-arranged and excellent guide Regina Kopilevich (Vilnius-based and fluent in four languages: English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish).  At Regina’s suggestion, our meeting place was the city of Kaunas (formerly Kovna) for the start of our tour.  I had emailed Regina information I had on the hubby’s family history, emanating from the nearby towns of Marijampole and Simnas.   She traveled by bus to the impressive war memorial, Ninth Fort.  As you can see below, it is something to behold.  From there we drove to the other cities — Marijampole is the largest and most affluent.  We can’t say for sure that we pinpointed distant relatives, but just being in the area gave us a sense of them.

Ninth Fort Memorial

We then drove to Vilnius for our stay there, where we spent the entire next day with Regina walking from place to place.  Travel companion Julie tracked our steps — we did good over the week!  Among the highlights were the small but impressive Holocaust Museum (The Green House) and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.  When one remembers 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered, it is overwhelming.  But for the grace of God, there were some very brave “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to protect some of the Jews and they are appropriately honored in the State Museum.  Some still survive today.

The photo below is in front of the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official living in Lithuania, who undertook the enormous risk of hand-writing visas to save more than 6,000 Jews during the war.  He was heroic to say the least.

Happy face or sundial?? (Sundial is correct).
Proof we were there ..

Sunday in Vilnius finds the streets bustling with multi-generational families and young people out everywhere, especially with the beautiful weather.  Of the cities visited so far (Helsinki and Tallinn, Riga and Klaipeda), hands-down Vilnius is one I could come to again.  It is a truly beautiful city;  “Paris of Eastern Europe” is an apt description that comes to mind.  But a large part of what makes for a memorable stay anywhere is a great hotel.  The Kempinski Cathedral Square fits that to a “t.”

How does this connect to Jackie O? The Radziwills (who are named on this door) were a powerful Lithuanian family; Jackie’s sister Lee was married to a descendant. #funfacts

Full disclosure:  We did not like a previous Kempinski stay (Munich) — it was the first city we started in for a post-tax-season trip (2007).  It really left a bad impression so we have avoided the chain ever since.  From now on, I will certainly think differently.

We had an absolutely beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Cathedral Square, the central location in Vilnius — particularly the older part of the city.  The staff was extremely helpful with restaurant recommendations, friendly conversation and wonderful service.  Little did we know how much we would come to rely on them …

View from the room of Cathedral Square

 

Curious choice for the password; no?

 

Salmon “cones” filled with mascarpone at Da Antonio. Yum.

 

There was quite a bit of conversation with Regina as to our plans to continue on to our next stop in Minsk via train.  She and others confirmed that a 5-day transit visa for Belarus is automatically granted at the airport, but not the train station.  On that basis, I refunded our train tickets and purchased flights via Belavia Airlines for the short flight to Minsk.  On the day of our departure, we said our goodbyes to Julie who was returning to Tel Aviv before we headed to the airport.  The fun began then when we were asked to produce our Visas for Belarus.  It turns out that the transit Visa has some limitations, specifically when one’s onward travel is to Russia.  Even the words “let me speak to your supervisor” were of no avail.  We were denied the flight.

While attempting to get the flights refunded and purchase tickets from Vilnius to Moscow, I emailed an SOS to the Kempinski:  “Help!  We need a room — we are coming back to the hotel!”  The GM kindly responded that they were full but would find/block a room for us.  And no less than four of their personnel were waiting at the front of the hotel when we returned several hours after departing.  We were so happy to have a place to stay and did not have to go searching.  When some additional rooms opened up the next day, we moved yet again to a wonderful room.  We cannot say enough about their help and look forward to a return visit. As it turned out, we had a much-needed break to do nothing (i.e., roaming the streets, shopping, etc.)  Next, on to Moscow …

::Random photos from roaming around Vilnius::

Two items you will not see side by side in a US convenience store: ice bars and escargot.

 

Larry David comes to a Vilnius skateboard store.
Hmmmmmmmm
Doggie drinking fountain
Relaxed pose on a warm day — last dinner in Vilnius at Fiorentina
When dog lovers are away from their own …
We co-opt whatever we can find.