Culture Vultures in Florence

After several days on the Cinque Terre coast, our next stop was Florence. We were ready for history, art and architecture. When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was sweltering hot — felt like 100 degrees. We walked from the train station (Santa Maria Novella), with one rolling luggage each in tow, to Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast, across the River Arno.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

We were dripping from sweat. We could have taken the air-conditioned taxi, but decided we might as well from the get-go get a flavor of the city, since 3 days would go by so quickly. We dodged throngs of tourists and passed by many fashionable clothing shops (lots on sale), pizzerias, gelaterias, Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. We did not stop because our first priority was to get rid of our load and to cool off in our air-conditioned rooms. Eduardo and Vary, the friendly, gracious owners, welcomed us with ice-cold bottles of water. Ahhh! Water never tasted so good! After the 2 1/2-hour train ride, heat and crowded streets from the Cinque Terre coast, we plopped ourselves on the beds and expressed a sigh of relief, savoring the cool air. Our next thought was, wow, we have arrived in the historical city of Florence, the cultural center of Italy.

Here are the highlights of an amazing 3 days:

– the River Arno

florenceriver

– Pitti Palace (former home of the Pitti and Medici families)

– Piazza Signora (grand statues)

piazzasignora

– Uffizi Gallery (the Botticelli paintings were our favorites). I would highly recommend getting a private tour guide to take you through the gallery. We appreciated the history and background he shared in front of selected paintings. Otherwise, the Gallery becomes overwhelming if you tried to look at everything.

– Palazzo Vecchio (with the massive and artful Salone dei 500)

sala2

– La Accademia (with the original David statue)

The "pink" David in the outside courtyard.

The “pink” David in the outside courtyard.

– the Duomo

duomo

– the Baptistery (with Ghiberti’s door)

baptistery

San Francisco, Not Just for Tourists

I live in a small town 40 miles south of San Francisco. When I have the urge for culture and action, the city is a quick drive and I come home feeling exhilarated.

I do have my favorites that I highly recommend. Many are off the beaten path — a rewarding way of experiencing any city.

Restaurants

Nob Hill Cafe — not in Little Italy. On Taylor Street, steps away from Grace Cathedral. No reservations taken, so best to get there early. Otherwise, enjoy a glass of wine outside while you wait. This small restaurant has all your favorite pasta dishes; casual, cozy environment perfect with kids. It definitely is a favorite amongst the local residents.

home_nob_hill_cafe_restaurant

Cafe de la Presse — just off Union Square. On the corner, across the street from the Chinatown gate on Grant Avenue. This restaurant is perfect for any meal of the day. With it’s French flair, you can pretend you’re in Paris as you watch the shoppers go by. I went with my daughter on a night when it seemed all the big name restaurants around Union Square (e.g. Cheesecake Factory, E&O) were completely full — 45-minute waits! I have no patience for that.

cdlp_299_place_interior

Grand Cafe — near the Theater District. It truly is grand! Reminds me of the grand cafes in Paris and Vienna. Perfect place to have an early dinner before your 8:00 show. Make sure you sit in the main dining room to experience the elegance and refinement of this restaurant.

grandcafe

Mocca — A lunch cafe off Union Square. Located on the quaint Maiden Lane. Beautifully presented salads, quick, and delicious. Go when the weather is warm, so you can sit outside.

mocca

La Boulange — Neighborhood breakfast hang out on Polk Street. Perfect for a big bowl of coffee or mocha and scrumptious breakfast.

Park

huntingtonpark

Huntington Park — top of Nob Hill. Great, small park for taking in the Nob Hill scene — famous hotels, Grace Cathedral, ringing bells from cable cars. A nice respite for the kids where they can ride on the swings, go down the slide, watch dogs being walked, eat a necessary snack.

Activities

Gourmet food trucks — How about a quick lunch or dinner from a gourmet food truck? Not only will you get a tasty and affordable meal, you will also have a chance to enjoy the great San Francisco weather and hang out with the locals. Click here to find the schedule and locations around San Francisco.  My favorite location is the United Nation Plaza. On a warm day, you might be entertained by a rock band.

lands-end

Land’s End Trail

Combine exercise with amazing views of the San Francisco coast, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Spa

Huntington Hotel — for the urban spa experience. Nob Hill at its best, this hotel and spa are an example of classic hospitality and modern luxury. Massage therapies, body treatments, nail care, hot tub and pool are part of the spa services. You can also order food (and champagne!) and have it rolled to you on a cart and served at the tables around the pool. Continue luxuriating in your white robe. Ahhh. The spa is closed for an upgrade from March 18 – 29.

huntingtonspa

Top 12 Trips to Take Your Family

The March issue of Travel + Leisure outlined the “12 trips to take before you’re twelve”. With Easter and summer vacations on the horizon, perhaps one of these could be your destination. Contact me to plan your itinerary for any of these trips, or other exciting locations.

1. Costa Rica’s rain forest

2. Skiing in Colorado

3. Kauai by land, sea, and air

4. Disney done right

5. Alaska’s inside passage

6. Maine family camp

7. A great urban getaway — Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City

8. Your family’s annual destination

9. Yellowstone adventure

10. Affordable Atlantis

11. Colonial Williamsburg

12. Ultimate road trips — Florida Keys, Utah’s National Parks, Olympic National Park, Washington

Siena’s il Palio — short, thrilling horse race

While in Florence, we took a day trip by bus to the medieval town of Siena. On a previous visit, my husband and I remember it as having the most picturesque piazza — the Piazza del Campo.

The highlight of our day was watching the preliminary events of il Palio, a popular horse race in which jockeys ride bareback, circle del Campo 3 times, lasting less than 2 minutes. It is held twice a year, July 2 and August 16. This is the most celebrated event in Siena and we were part of the thousands gathered in del Campo on the day of the lottery, which determines which of the 10 horses will run for each contrada (district). (Seventeen contrade in all, but only 10 are selected to race each year.) Originating in 1656, il Palio continues to be one of pageantry, allegiance, competition, celebration, and pride. The winner of the July 2nd race is onda (wave).

Bugles announce the start of the lottery

Horses are paraded in del Campo

Jockeys await to hear which horse they will ride

The pageantry…

The crowds…

The winner…onda

The onda contrada decorates its streets

Sample Itineraries

I’ve taken many trips over the years (U.S. and overseas), quite a few with my family. Each trip has had its own unique experiences, like riding an elephant or renting an RV. Here is a sampling of itineraries including the U.S., Europe, and Asia, from as few as 5 days to as long as 4 weeks. If you are inspired to take any of them, or have other destinations in mind, please contact me and I can plan an itinerary to suit your preferences.

EUROPE

Spain, Italy, Croatia (4 weeks), Madrid, Santa Margherita Ligure, Cinque Terre, Florence, Siena, Verona, Lake Garda, Venice, Rovinj, Opatija, Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb

Italy (10 days), Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome

Switzerland (1 week), Zurich, Andermatt, Bellinzona, Ascona, Lake Lugano

Tenerife, Canary Islands (1 – 2 weeks), Puerto de la Cruz, Santa Cruz, La Laguna, Los Gigantes, Icod, Garachico, Costa Adeje

Barcelona (9 days), Barri Gotic, Tibidabo, Las Ramblas, Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi buidlings, Parc Guell, Montjuic, seafront, Picasso museum,

London and Paris (via Chunnel) (7 days), London Eye, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower, Musee D’Orsay

ASIA

Thailand and Cambodia (4 weeks), Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Siem Reap

Bali, Lombok, Gili Air (2 weeks)

U.S.A.

U.S. History, plus outdoor adventures (2 weeks), Washington D.C., Virginia (Charlottesville, Shenandoah Valley, Winchester), Pennsylvania (Hershey, Philadelphia), New Jersey Shore

Glacier National Park with an RV (2 weeks), Washington (Spokane, Seattle, Anacortes Island), Montana (Glacier National Park), Idaho (Coeur d’Alene, Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail)

Anza-Borrego Desert with an RV (5 days), San Diego, Anza-Borrego, La Jolla

California Coast (5 days), Monterey, San Simeon, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach

Kauai (1 to 4 weeks), Hanalei, Haena, Poipu Beach, Waimea Canyon, Princeville, Kapaa, Kilauea, Hanapepe

San Francisco and the Bay Area (5 to 10 days), Nob Hill, Golden Gate Park, Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Angel Island, Tiburon, Marin Headlands, Point Bonita Lighthouse, Golden Gate Bridge, Point Reyes National Seashore, Palo Alto, Apple headquarters, Napa Valley

Scallops to Admire, Not to Eat

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

When one thinks of Venice, images of gondolas and canals, Piazza San Marco, and perhaps Carnevale come to mind. Certainly, these have been the most photographed icons of this unique tourist destination. But, what about something that’s off the beaten path?

This summer, my family visited Venice and, at the recommendation of our b&b owner, stopped at the Mercato di Rialto. Just off the Rialto bridge along the Grand Canal, this market is a favorite of locals, where one can find fresh, gorgeous fruits — the sweetest cantaloupe I have tasted — vegetables in all shapes and sizes, and all kinds of seafood in the Pescheria (fish market). Exotic fish, giant octopus, slimy squid, and these colorful, shapely scallops, called cappesante. Just beautiful! I’ve bought scallops before, but just the white meat. I don’t remember ever seeing the actual shells.

When you’re tired of being jostled by the crowds in all the usual tourist spots, a stroll through the Mercato will give you a glimpse into the unhurried and tasteful lives of Venetians.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

For the Shoe Fashionista

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

Madrid. A blend of history, art and fashion. While I have so many fond memories of this lively city — Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia museum, the throne room at the Palacio Real, the impressive grandeur of the Plaza Mayor, and the ubiquitous jamon y queso — what I remember most were the giant, 10-foot shoes decorating Calle Serrano, Madrid’s most fashionable street. A temporary exhibition in June called “Shoe Street Art” lined the sidewalks with about 25 stiletto shoes made from fiberglass and polyester. Each shoe had a unique design, exploding with color. The exhibition was a delightful expression of contemporary art and fashion, in the midst of a city rich in tradition and culture.

Manolo Blahnik, eat your heart out.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

Evening Glow Along Croatia’s Coast

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

Rovinj was our first stop in Croatia after two weeks in Italy. It felt like forever getting there. Altogether, an almost 5-hour journey from our hotel in Venice, combining vaporetto, trains and bus, and two border crossings into Slovenia and Croatia. Needless to say, we were anxious to arrive.

Rovinj is on the coast in the Istrian region of Croatia, facing the Adriatic Sea. It has a rich history, occupied by first the Romans, then Venetians, Austrians, Italians. With the rest of Croatia, it became part of Yugoslavia before Croatia gained its independence. The old town has many narrow cobblestone streets, which lead to its most famous site, the Basilica of St. Euphemia. Many fishing and sightseeing boats dot the harbor. If you love seafood, this is where to splurge. Simple, yet fresh and delicious dishes.

On our third evening, we joined a sunset sailboat ride and enjoyed the view from the sea. We were tickled by the breeze, which cooled us from the day’s high temperatures and humidity. The reflection of lights on the water from the road, restaurants and bars was a stunning sight. The church had a soothing and serene glow. Restaurants at the waterfront had special tables teetering on the rocks. Very romantic, yet one wrong move and you and your spaghetti vongole would make an unplanned dip into the Adriatic. My husband and I had a drink at Valentino Bar, where we drank our mojitos on colorful cushions, inches from the sea.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

Some Enchanted Evening

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

Shakespeare’s tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, will forever immortalize the words, “in fair Verona”. The town where these two lovers met is not just for the romantic, but also for the history and opera aficionado. I am not an expert in either subject, but was determined that my family would take part in this town’s summer tradition — an evening of opera in a 2,000-year old Roman amphitheater. I really didn’t care which opera we were seeing, but was relieved that it was Carmen, since I would at least recognize some of the music.

The scene was breathtaking. Close your eyes and imagine. Sitting where Roman spectators gathered as early as AD 30; as the sun dips behind the theater, lighting each other’s tiny candle (thousands) to welcome the opening act; gazing at the twinkly stars; listening to beautiful voices magnified naturally by the theater’s outstanding acoustics; and oohing at the colorful pageantry of costumes and stage sets. I still get goosebumps whenever I remember this enchanted evening.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

An Italian Kaleidoscope of Color

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

My family was in Venice for just 2 nights, so I squeezed in one island to visit just to get away from the crowds. I decided on Burano because I wanted to see the multi-colored houses I had seen in so many travel magazines. And, I knew that the farther away it was from Venice, the fewer the tourists.

We took a 45-minute vaporetto ride from Fondamenta Nove station in Venice and arrived at about 6:30 in the evening. What a treat! Burano definitely has character and charm. By the time we got there, tourists had come and gone earlier in the day, so it was very quiet. We walked up and down the streets, which were lined with brightly painted houses. The people are certainly not timid about their colors. Each house color contrasting perfectly to the next. Every street was like this. Certainly a feast for the eyes. No cars, but motor boats lining the canals. We caught glimpses of the lagoon from so many different spots. Senior residents pulled chairs out of their houses to sit outdoors and enjoy the refreshing breeze and evening conversation. The quaint piazza centrale has a small church and no more than a dozen restaurants and stores.

The vaporetto ride back to Venice at night could have been romantic, if my husband and I were not traveling with our three kids. Nonetheless, it was wonderful seeing the lagoon lit up by lamps, and the glow of Venice.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.