Bom Brasil!

After our Kenyan adventure, we returned home for one day before heading off to our next destination, which may seem like an adventure to many of you, but for us feels pretty normal-Brasil (and yes, this is the correct spelling).  Because of the family we have there, we have made this trek many times, but I have probably never shared too much about what it is like.  Since I detail all our travel these days, it seemed like a good time to share some about Brasil.

Let’s begin with an important note-Brasil is huge.  There are many different cities and many different regional areas which all do have their own typical dishes, traditions, and locations.  Having prefaced with that, we spend our time in the state of Minas Gerais which is in the central to the slightly southeastern part of the country (it is nowhere near the Amazon and 5 hours by car from Rio).  Our family lives in a small city of about 45,000 in Minas state.

Like most cities in Brasil, the city has a praça (square for gathering) in front of a church.

While most of our time is spent at my in-law’s house in the middle of the city, we also do go spend some time at the farm which is on family land.

The hills of coffee surrounding the farmhouse, which is now used for rental and events, once belonged to my husband’s grandfather.   The coffee is still farmed there; though, it has been sold to a distant cousin.  We often stop and see the coffee being processed from washing to drying and shelling.  Many years ago, I also got to see it being picked as well.

In addition to visiting family and friends and going to the farm, no visit would be complete without eating some of our favorite dishes.

Typically, breakfast consists of several types of breads (the most common being small french bread) and/or cake along with cheese, deli meat, and fruit.  We often eat the french bread with requeijão (a spreadable cheese).  The one we eat is made in the city where my in-laws live.

And our favorite thing at breakfast: pão de queijo

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Below is a cheese from the region that was often out at breakfast but also goes well with doce de leite (similar to what many of you know as dulce de leche-it’s Spanish name).

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Lunch is generally a much bigger meal than dinner and usually features rice and beans in addition to a meat dish and maybe some other vegetable or pasta of some sort (as we were feeding many people at lunch, there are quite a few dishes in this picture).  My husband’s family almost always has freshly made juice (pineapple, passion fruit, orange, etc.) with the meal.

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There is always dessert at the end of lunch.  Here is one of them, canudo de doce de leite, which is a crunchy cone kind of like a fried wonton consistency, filled with doce de leite.

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Some of the other desserts we had were passion fruit mousse, pudim (flan with a caramel sauce), and pé de moleque (a candy made from peanuts and unrefined cane sugar).

Another important meal in Brasil is lanche or afternoon snack also called cafe da tarde (afternoon coffee) which often occurs fairly late in the afternoon.  The following are some of our favorites (curau which is like a corn pudding and broa which is a bread made from cornmeal, pamonha which is kind of like a corn tamale -we like one with cheese inside, and pastel which is a fried dough with a filling inside-generally cheese or meat but we also like heart of palm which is called palmito).  Often though, lanche often features bread or a cake and coffee.

We also had a few fun snacks while we were there:

cajuzinho-a peanut sweet from the city famous for pé de moleque

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and brigadeiro candies (several types at a birthday party):

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Another important event for Brasilians is churrasco.  I say event because, while it means grilled meats and side dishes, it is not just a meal as it can be a several hours long affair including drinking, socializing, and often the card game, Truco.  The meat is placed on skewers and cooked on the grill (special type of grill).  The fire is kept going so skewers are placed on and meat is brought out throughout the time of the event.  The sides such as rice, maionese de batata (potato salad),  salpicão (a mayonaise-based dish with chicken, olives, carrots, peppers and apple covered with shoestring potatoes) are left out the whole time.  There is also often garlic bread, vinagrete (tomato, onion, oil, vinegar, and seasonings), and farofa (ground mandioca flour).

On this visit, we also had the opportunity to experience a cultural event referred to as Festa Junina.  While this normally takes place in the month of June, Covid in the area caused the festivities to be delayed until July this year.  Festa Junina is basically a celebration of the harvest that originated in Portugal in the 16th century.  Children dress up in traditional “farmer” outfits and put on dances that are somewhat akin to square dances.  The parties and dances usually occur at school.  We went to a party at our nephew’s school and our family put a small one on at the house so that we could eat the traditional foods.

The food of Festa Junina features quite a bit of corn, so for our party, we had popcorn, corn cake, and canjiquinha (a corn soup) as well as canjica (a corn dessert). We also had caldo de feijão (a bean soup) and caldo verde (a vegetable soup).

Aside from the parties and family time, we saw a few other fun things during this trip.  We saw several tucans in trees, tons of parrots (several of which were Yellow Headed Amazon parrots), canaries and zebu (a type of cow that can be found often in Brasil).  Sadly, on this trip, we didn’t get to see any capybaras as we have before.

All in all, we had a nice time with our family and while our trip was fairly low key this time around, we have a lot of experience with Brasil so if anyone ever has any questions or would like to know more, you can always let us know.  But for now, tchau!

“Out of Africa”-Safari Adventure

This year is shaping up to be a year of adventure with our travels.  To kick it off, we just returned from a weeklong safari in Africa; Kenya to be exact.  We spent time in two different camps in the Maasai Mara National Park (for those that are not familiar with this park, it is the same area as the Serengeti but that is the Tanzanian side while the Maasai Mara is the Kenyan side).  Our first camp was located in the government-run area of the Mara while the second camp was in the North Conservancy which is land owned by the Maasai people.  It was an incredible trip in which we saw so many animals and learned a lot about them as well as the Maasai culture.  

After arriving in Nairobi, we stayed in a hotel before leaving the next morning to the Mara via a very small plane.  The plane could seat 12 people plus the pilot and second officer (though our flight only had 11 people) and the size of everyone’s baggage was restricted.  The plane takes off and lands at several stops along its path.  We were the final (and third) stop so we took off and landed three times (by our final takeoff there were only six passengers on board).  After the initial airport in Nairobi, the airstrips consisted of a small building and a dirt runway (one runway was surrounded by wildebeests).  It was a bit nerve-racking at first, but after the first stop, it wasn’t so bad.  The great thing was; because it stopped so many times, it never got very high, and, from the plane, we were able to see a ton of animals like elephant herds with babies, a huge bull elephant, wildebeests, ostriches, gazelles, and lions.  

Once we arrived, we were met at the airstrip by our guide who drove us out into the bush for a drink before taking us to the camp.

At the camp, we were greeted by the staff beating drums and singing a Hakuna Matata song (not the Disney one).  It was a fun welcome. 

The camp was a smallish camp in the bush with 8 luxury tents and a common space for meals/relaxation and a small spa.  It was a self-sustaining camp, so all the energy was generated from solar power, the water was filtered and reused and the vehicles were electric vehicles running on solar power as well. They also recycled and upcycled a bunch of products such as empty wine bottles that were turned into drinking glasses.   

In addition, the meals at the camp were generated from locally grown items with a focus on non-meat dishes.  And they were really delicious.  Every day we had breakfast at 9am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner at 8:30pm (dinner was preceded by drinks around a fire while chatting with staff and other guests). Breakfast and lunch were served outside at tables placed around the trees, overlooking the river.   Dinner was served inside the common space which was lit with candles and always had a bat flying around.  

Lunch on the first day featured Kenyan beer, a Kenyan mango vegetable salad, plantains, Kenyan lentils, and a version of tiramisu for dessert.  It was so good.

Dinner was leek and carrot soup, a Kenyan bread and polenta with vegetable stew and creamed spinach.  Dessert was a banana fritter and a green coconut-type bar dessert.  We also had some Kenyan wine and a Masaai mule.  Another outstanding meal.

On our second day, we had an avocado and pineapple salad and vegetarian lasagna with an ice cream pie for dessert. 

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Dinner was butternut squash steaks with a sauce, fried zucchini fritters, and a nut butter and jam ball for dessert.  We also tried some Kenyan gin called Procera.  

Our breakfasts were different breads, pancakes, eggs to order, watermelon juice, fruit, baked beans, and fried potatoes.  Also, one of the days, they brought some zucchini with fried insects in it (maybe cricket)-we didn’t eat it.

At this camp, a free 30-minute massage per room was included, so my husband and I each got one.  The spa was an open room overlooking the river.  The massage table had a mirror underneath angled so that you could look at the river while receiving the massage.  It was fun to have a little pampering!  We also had some time to play some games in the common space with the kids which was fun.  

After two nights at the camp, we moved to the second camp in the conservancy.  When we left, the staff again sang a song and played the drums.  They had all been so nice (one of them even played chess with our children and spent time chatting with them) that it felt like leaving friends.

The second camp was much larger with 22 tents and a larger common space for dinner.  At this camp, breakfast and lunch were also served outside overlooking the river.  The difference was that at this river, there were resident hippos that were always there and giraffes, elephants, monkeys, and impalas that visited often.  There were a couple crocodiles too.

The food at the second camp that we stayed at paled in comparison and was nothing worth writing about.  The dinners and lunches were mainly pasta or Indian food.  The breakfasts were similar to the first camp with made-to-order eggs with beans and potatoes, fruit, and various breads.  The difference was that instead of watermelon juice, they served tree tomato juice.

At both camps, beer, wine, gin, and soft drinks were included as well as coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

But now, to the real purpose of the trip-the safari drives.  Each day we had two drives (with a couple of exceptions).  The morning drive would begin at around 6:30am each day after a quick drink of hot chocolate or coffee (around the campfire at the first camp).  We would be back by around 9am.  The afternoon drive would begin around 4:30pm and we would return by 6:30-7pm.  The afternoon drive always included a brief stop for drinks and a snack in the car.  

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To give you an idea of where we were driving and what is common there, here are some signs from the two camps:

They have lists of the top 5 for various animals.  

The big five overall is: lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinoceros and wildebeests.

The ugly five is: hyenas, warthogs, wildebeests, vultures and marabou stork.

We saw all of them!

So, without further ado, here are pictures of the many animals we saw.  It was surreal to see them and really hard at times to remember that they were in their natural environment, roaming free without caretaking from humans, and not in a drive-through safari park.

We’ll start with the mammals:

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How about some baby mammals?  We saw so many!  In fact, we saw the baby of a majority of the mammals that we saw (though we couldn’t get good photos of them all), and they were all so cute.  Some of the babies were very young.  According to our guide, the baby gazelle we saw was just hours old and a baby buffalo was born the night before.  We also saw a week-old giraffe and others that were just three weeks and a month-old elephant.  

Now the birds (there were so many- more than we have pictured here- and most were very interesting and beautiful):

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Finally, even the reptiles and insects made their appearances:

 

And while the animals were the highlight, the landscape itself was also impressive.

 

We also did a couple of excursions during our visit.  The first was to a Maasai village where we were shown inside one of the typical Maasai homes (a mud-walled home with a roof made from sticks and dung).  The house we were in belonged to the chief. It seemed very small, but it had three bedrooms and the kitchen/common space.  We were also invited to join in a dance and they showed us how they make fire.  In addition to this visit, throughout the week, we learned a lot about the people and how they live from our guides.  We also saw the Maasai shepherds taking care of the cows, which they value greatly, throughout the bush.  

Our second excursion was a night drive.  As it got dark, we saw the huge herds of zebra, gazelle, impala, and topi coming down the mountain in lines to gather together and head closer to the villages for the night.  After dark, our driver took us with a red light to try to find nocturnal animals.  We didn’t see many new animals, but we did see a hare, a kangaroo hare, white-tailed mongoose, and jackals.  We also drove up to a group of 12 lionesses with cubs.  One was chewing on a bone.  It was a bit scary to be so close to them in the dark (we couldn’t have been more than 6-7 feet).  It was especially nerve-racking when they got up and left, and we were driving along, and, when the driver shined his light in that direction, they were walking not too far from the car, and we couldn’t even see them without light!  But, aside from the animals, the night sky was amazing-so many stars!

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Our third excursion was a hot air balloon ride over the Mara.  I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, so we were pretty excited.  We had to get up at 4am to drive to the location, be checked in and briefed, and to watch the balloons be inflated.  The basket we were in held 16 people plus the driver.  I’m not going to lie, we got a little nervous when they told us that on landing we might topple over and we had to buckle ourselves in, grab some handles, sit all the way back and keep our “neck strong.”  Luckily, the conditions were favorable, and we stayed upright (they said it was the first upright landing in a month and an hour later, the conditions were back to unfavorable).  The views from the balloon were awesome, and it was fun to see the area from a different vantage point.  We got to see several animals from the balloon including one we had not seen yet-a serval cat.  I think we interrupted it hunting because, as we came over, it looked up and a few feet away a hare ran off.  After the hour-long balloon ride, we were driven to a location for a bush breakfast.  The location was apparently the area where they filmed scenes from the film “Out of Africa”.  They greeted us at the breakfast with champagne and orange juice, and the breakfast itself was huge and very good.

After our breakfast, we spent the day with our guide in the Mara Triangle, another area of the park.  He drove us to the border with Tanzania (we crossed into Tanzania for a while, and thus, we were also in the Serengeti).  In this area, we saw several of the crossing points for the wildebeests during the Great Migration.  We even got lucky and, though it was a week or two before the migrating wildebeests would arrive, some resident wildebeests decided to cross. It was funny watching them head toward the crossing, slow down, head back away and repeat this over and over before deciding to actually go.    

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A couple of interesting experiences:

  1. On our first night sleeping in the tents, we had all the sides open so that it was just the screen sides.  The boys slept in one tent, the girls in the other.  During the night we could hear so many noises-hyenas repeatedly, a lion growling a few times.  At about 4 in the morning, we were awoken by sounds of the nightwatch guards talking and flashing their flashlights around.  Strange, but we didn’t really know if that was normal or not as it was our first night.  In the morning when we joined the boys, we found out that they had been awoken during the night by loud sounds right outside their tent.  They weren’t sure what to do but were quite afraid of what it was.  They also heard the nightwatch, but didn’t find out until the morning that a hippo had come up from the river into camp, and its path was right next to the tent.  The guards had been using their lights and talking to it to get it to head back to the river.  
  2. On one of our drives, as we were going along the path, a large growling noise suddenly occurred right next to my side of the car.  The car was pretty low to the ground, so, for a split second, I was sure we were getting attacked, but when I turned my head I saw three warthogs jumping out of a hole in the ground.  Even our driver said that was scary.
  3. We were driving from the Maasai village and got stuck in some mud.  Our driver floored it to get out, and mud sprayed everywhere next to the car and on the inside back flaps of the car.  Then our son turned around from looking at the tires spinning, and his face was covered with splattered mud!
  4. We saw lions eating many of their kills-hippo, baby buffalo, warthog, baby zebra.
  5. We saw some hyenas go after a baby gazelle.  The mother gazelle tried desperately to stop them; she even chased them for some minutes after they caught the baby, but it was too late.  This was a bit difficult to watch, especially for the kids, but we tried to remind ourselves that this is part of life in the wild. 20220630_064330
  6. We watched an impala with its baby not notice a cheetah.  The driver kept saying, “that impala needs to get out of here; she’s risking her baby”.  The cheetah noticed and was watching for quite a while.  Suddenly, when the cheetah was not looking, the impala and the baby dashed off.  We were a bit relieved not to have to see another killing.
  7. While having dinner one night, there was a sudden screeching in one of the trees.  A bush baby was running through the branches.  We didn’t think we would get to see one, so that was fun!
  8. The people were so friendly.  When we would drive by the villages or people walking, they would always wave, especially the children.  Our son loved waving to them.
  9. We saw some disgusting stuff like hippos that live in a pool of their own feces.  20220628_070422Hippos also apparently use their tail like a fan while they are defecating which causes it to spray everywhere.  We saw one hippo doing this while another was right behind it with its mouth open.
  10. We also got a front-row seat to more hippos being created at the river viewing area at our camp.
  11. The only way we were able to see the rhinos was by driving into a “sanctuary” where the only two white rhinos in the Mara live.  In this sanctuary, they are still free to roam and take care of themselves as they would in the wild, but they are followed 24/7 by armed rangers who protect them from poachers.  That is very sad.  The rangers told us that they are now mature, so they hope they will produce offspring soon.  We never saw a black rhino because there are less than 20 of them left in the Mara due to poaching.

Finally, after our six days in the bush, we took our little plane back to Nairobi.  We arrived at the dirt path airstrip where we just waited until some guys sitting around told us that it was our plane.  As the plane came in for landing, one of the guys drove off on his dirtbike to shoo all the animals away from the landing strip.  Once back in Nairobi, we had a driver to take us to dinner and the airport.  He shared information about Nairobi and Kenya which was nice.  

Overall, I think we all had a great time.  It’s not an experience for everyone I’m sure, but we really loved it.  Seeing all of the nature was amazing and learning about life there was enlightening.  The people were seriously some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever seen.  They told us that we need to come back, and, while I don’t know if that will ever happen or when, I would definitely be willing to go.  What an exciting start to our travels in our fifth year abroad!  See you all soon as more adventures await!

 

A Wee Bit o’ Ireland

This past week we took a quick jaunt to Ireland to enjoy a long weekend on the Emerald Isle.

Our journey began with a three-hour vacation in the airport thanks to staff shortages and a busy travel weekend.  After making it through the almost 2-hour line for security (really when you stand in a line that long there needs to be a very fun ride at the other end and the cramped Ryanair flight really didn’t fit the bill!), we were able to board our flight (which was shorter than the line) to arrive in Dublin.  By the time we made it out of the airport and to our apartment, there was only enough time for a quick snack and bed.

Our day in Dublin began the next morning with a trip to the Glasnevin Cemetery.  It was a nice cemetery with a lot of Celtic crosses and a large tower, but the wind was strong and cold so we didn’t stay for more than about 30 minutes before making our way toward the city center.

Our first stop in the center was Trinity College.  We didn’t go into any buildings but took a quick look around the grounds before moving on to the Molly Malone statue.

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After snapping an obligatory picture, we walked toward the Stag’s Head where we had our lunch.  It was a cozy pub-style restaurant, so we got comfortable and ordered some Smithwick’s Red Ale while we ate our Seafood Chowder, Irish Stew and Seafood Pie accompanied with truffle fries.

Everything was very good and after eating our fill, we made our way to Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We decided to only go inside St. Patrick’s.  It wasn’t the most beautiful cathedral we have ever seen, but there were some nice historical ties to the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift.

After the cathedral, we made our way to St. Stephen’s Green, the large park in the city.

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The weather was pleasant, so we strolled through the park a bit before heading to look for some souvenirs in a shopping area.  We made our way to a sidewalk cafe for some coffee and tea before entering the Temple Bar area where we looked around at some interesting art installations and some information about the famous writers from Ireland.  Before going to dinner, we took a peek at Ha’ Penny Bridge and O’Connell Bridge.

Then, it was on to a favorite restaurant of ours from past times in Dublin, Gallagher’s Boxty House.  We enjoyed the Traditional Corned Beef, Corned Beef Boxty and Irish Stew along with some Murphy’s Red before trying some Brown Bread Ice Cream for dessert.

The next day, we took a bus tour to Northern Ireland which is actually a part of the UK, not the Republic of Ireland.  After boarding our bus, we drove an hour and a half into Belfast to pick up a few other passengers.  We got a quick look at the city from the bus before moving on to the Dark Hedges (never having watched Game of Thrones, this wasn’t familiar to me, but I’m told that those of you that watched the show will recognize this location).

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We had a brief stop to walk around the area before heading further north to Dunluce Castle whose kitchen, along with all the servants working in it, fell into the sea many years ago.  The views of the castle and the sea were very pretty.

Then it was back on to the bus to go to the Giant’s Causeway.  This is an area along the coast that is made up of many hexagonal rocks formed from volcanic activity.  Of course, the Irish have their own legend about a giant using them to cross the sea.  Nonetheless, the area is very interesting, and (as the luck of the Irish was with us) we had very nice weather which allowed us to see Scotland from the shore.  The views were great, and, walking through the rock formations, we were able to see many “tide pool” areas with various forms of life from fish to anemones which we all enjoyed.

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We were taken to lunch near the area.  We once again had some Irish Stew and Seafood Chowder, but the real highlight was the bread that came with it- really good.  We also had some Guinness with our lunch.

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Then, it was back on the bus to the Carrick a Rede bridge.  Tourist buses are no longer allowed to go to the bridge over the sea, but we could see it along with some really beautiful views before heading back to Belfast.

As we drove through the city, our driver pointed out the shipyard where the Titanic was built, the largest Celtic cross in the world, a leaning clock tower (due to the sand that the city is built on), the most bombed hotel in the world, the Europa, some monuments to Titanic and other ships built in Belfast, a memorial for the Titanic victims and various other buildings.

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The buildings in the city were pretty interesting looking, and the City Hall Building was very nice.  There was a street fair going on in front of it, so there was a festive atmosphere.

We walked around for a bit and walked some side streets to Belfast Cathedral (St. Anne’s), but as there was a service for the Queen’s jubilee happening inside, we couldn’t go in.

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After an hour in the city, we reboarded the bus and headed back to Dublin.  We stopped for our final Irish dinner where we had fish and chips with Guinness and Smithwick’s before ending with some cheesecake and Bailey’s coffee.

Our final day, we were once again treated to a lengthy airport stay, but we made it home feeling like our weekend was a success thanks to some nice sites, good food and friendly people.

Bella Italia

We have recently returned from spending 9 days traveling all over Italy.  This trip, which we lovingly refer to as our Italian Sampler, was both exhausting and really enjoyable and included beautiful sites, delicious food and lots of walking and driving.  This is going to be a long one guys so strap on your helmet, jump on your Vespa and away we go.

Day 1

Our first day was really mostly about driving.  We had to head through Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland before entering Italy.  We had snow in Belgium, France and Switzerland.  Driving through the Alps, the snow was actually coming down and some roads were closed due to the amount of snow.  Not exactly how you want your vacation in mid-April to begin.

Luckily, by the time we entered Italy, while the temperatures were chilly at our destination of Menaggio in the Lake Como region, it was sunny and snow-free.  When we arrived, we took a ferry from Menaggio to Bellagio.  It was really windy and the ferry had some decent waves to traverse, but the ride was quick and the views were quite lovely.

In Bellagio, we walked, or rather climbed, the streets past shops up to a main square with a church.

We continued walking around for a bit before catching the ferry back to Menaggio where we decided to get some dinner.  We began the meal with a local fried cheese with polenta and jam paired with a red house wine.  For the main meal, we had gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese sauce, ravioli with vegetables and a braised beef with polenta.  It was all very good.

Feeling quite tired and cold, we headed to our Air BnB.  We had to drive up a lot of winding roads in the dark and walk with our luggage through very narrow steep streets to get there, but when we arrived it was a very charming place with a rustic kitchen and cozy living room as well as many bedrooms.

Day 2

We woke very early for our drive to the next region and found that where we were staying was actually a very small old village which was very interesting.  And as we walked down to the car, we were treated to some terrific views of the sunrise over Lake Como while the church bells were ringing.

It was time to head on to Cinque Terre, more specifically, Manarola.  Upon arriving, we had to park at a lot and then walk the rest of the way into the town.  We began by walking the narrow streets on the side of the cliff to Billy’s Trattoria for a lunch overlooking the water.  The food was terrific.  We tried a local white wine with Caprese salad.  Then, we moved on to a local pesto dish made with trofie pasta which had potato and green beans in it.  To finish the meal, we had tiramisu along with biscotti which you dipped into Sciacchetra, a local sweet wine.  We also tried two digestifs- limoncello and grappa (the grappa we were not fans of).

After the amazing lunch, we walked down a few of the streets past some amazing views to catch the train to Riomaggiore.

There, we walked some of the streets (and by walked I once again mean climbed) to a church and castle.  The views were terrific, but we did meet a strange old man who ended up calling us ridiculous (always good to have a weird story from your travels)!

We made our way back to Manarola via the train and climbed up through the cliffside vineyard, stopped in a church and climbed back up the 10 minutes to the parking lot to retrieve our bag before heading to dinner.

While dinner was quite cold because it was out on a balcony overlooking the town and a bit of the sea, the atmosphere was nice.  All of the dishes were served on hand-painted plates, and they had some fun music playing including one of our son’s current favorite songs, Mambo Italiano.  We ordered an appetizer of black rice and veggies in a pea sauce-different but good and a gin with local herbs (really nice).  For the main course, we had a pizza with a local-style pesto and cheese, Margherita pizza and a pizza with buffalo mozzarella.  The pizzas were good, but the one pasta dish that was ordered with prawns was not, as the prawns were raw.  We had a local wine with the dinner, and we enjoyed the dessert of lemon cake and tiramisu along with limoncello.  After dinner, it was time to settle in for the night.

Day 3

It was a very early morning climb back up to the parking lot before leaving Cinque Terre behind for what we hoped would be the flatter Tuscany region.  On our way there, we breakfasted on some focaccia that we had purchased at a bakery (plain and with green olives).

Our first stop was in Pisa to see that famous leaning tower.  We only stayed about an hour but it was long enough to see the tower and the Campo dei Miracoli complex, Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knight’s Square) and Santa Maria della Spina along the river.

After our Pisa visit, we moved on to Florence.  Once we found a place to park, we walked into the center of the city to Santa Maria del Fioro (Duomo).  It was completely packed with tourists with a line snaking around the building, so we opted not to go in.

Likewise, the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Capelle Medicee were also packed, so we just looked from the outside.

From there, we moved on to Palazzo Vecchio where we decided to sit in an outside café and have a cappuccino, hot chocolate and cannolis.   It was a nice moment to just watch the people and horse-drawn carriages around the square (and enjoy the sun).

There was a museum on the square which allowed you to walk into a couple of courtyards for free, so we took a quick look before passing by the Basilica Santa Croce.

We crossed the river and walked along it to Ponte Vecchio which was an interesting bridge with houses built onto it, but the bridge itself was packed with people looking at the many jewelry stores on the bridge.

We decided to go back to Palazzo Vecchio for lunch.  We sat outside across from a replica statue of David where we enjoyed a lunch of Pecorino Tuscano (Tuscan Pecorino cheeses including wine flavored, plain and spicy) with pears and honey, Ribolita (a soup made hearty with the bread mixed into it) and a pasta with pappardelle pasta, mushrooms, truffles and a cheese cream.  All very good.

Having had enough of the tourist-packed city, we left Florence behind and made our way to Siena which was a very cute city.  There was climbing involved, but at the top of the city, we went into a really wonderful cathedral which featured a lot of artwork on the walls and ceiling and a library with books that had been hand-painted by monks in the 14th and 15th centuries.

After the cathedral, we made our way to the main square which was very large and tons of people were sitting out on the cement sunning themselves and enjoying the fountain.

Next, we stopped at an Abby for a quick look before making our way back down to the original water supply fountain for the city.

We drove a bit further south to Val d’Orcia.  Along the way, we stopped at some viewpoints of the Tuscan landscape as well as at a small chapel before arriving at our destination of Montichello.

This was another very small village overlooking the Tuscan countryside.  It was really lovely.

We found a small place for dinner that felt like eating inside a cellar but cozier.  Our dinner began with a complimentary tomato, basil and cheese appetizer along with bread and a local olive oil (it must have been like liquid gold because they seriously gave each of us about ¼ teaspoon worth, if that).  Our first course was a mushroom and chestnut soup which we shared before enjoying our pastas of tagliatelle with artichoke and bottarga (fish roe) and pici cacio en pepe (this was a really nice pasta noodle with a pecorino cheese sauce and pepper).  We also had a local red wine and ended the meal with Crème Brulee and limoncello.  This was probably one of our favorite meals.

Day 4

We began our fourth day with a short drive into Montepulciano, a really cool old city.  Because we were there so early, it was very quiet as we hiked up the streets to the piazza and church, and we were treated to some amazing views of the clouds over the Tuscan landscape.

We stopped in a bakery and grabbed some pastries for the car (something like a small pistachio cannoli, a chocolate tart and a cream-filled croissant) before beginning our drive into Rome.

After arriving in Rome and dropping our bags, we walked to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain before finding a streetside restaurant for lunch.

We had some lasagna, carbonara and cacio en pepe along with an Aperol Spritz and Italian beer.  It was not spectacular, but it wasn’t too bad.  We also tried a little pastry for dessert that was a kind of jam tart.

Our next stop was the Colosseum, but we walked by Campidoglio (designed by Michelangelo) and the Foro Romano on the way there.

At the Colosseum, we had tickets to go inside to the arena which provided some nice views but was quite busy.

After leaving the Colosseum, we entered the Foro Romano to have a look at the ancient ruins before stopping in several churches on our way to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.

Here, we selected another streetside restaurant to have Caprese, Carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichoke) and Carciofi alla Romana (an artichoke in a lemon sauce).  Our main meal consisted of a nice red wine with carbonara, gnocchi in a four-cheese sauce, mushroom fettucine and an oil with garlic and peppers pasta.  The dinner was fine, but the tiramisu for dessert was delicious as was the torta della Nonna (custard-style dessert) with limoncello.

After dinner, we decided to walk to Castel St. Angelo and back to the Foro Romano and Colosseum.  They were much quieter, and it was nice to see them by night as well.

As an added bonus, we saw a hedgehog walking around on a grassy hill.

Day 5

After some much-needed rest, we got up more slowly and sat at a street café to have some pastries and a latte macchiato and cappuccino.  We had croissants and a cream-filled pastry as well as some special pastries called sfogliatelle (a little shell-shaped pastry with a custard-like cream inside) and Babu con rum (a spongy pastry in a rum sauce).

After breakfast, it was time to head across the street to Bascillica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.  It didn’t look much like a church from the outside, more like a government building.  Inside, it was full of gold and ornately decorated side rooms-very pretty.

From here, we made our way to the Capuchin Museum and Ossuary.  The first part of the museum was just artifacts and information about the Capuchin monks but the ossuary was really interesting.  We have been to ossuaries before, but this was really different in that the bones had been disassembled and, along with some full skeletons dressed as monks, used to make art communicating various messages.  I really wish I could have taken a picture, but it was not allowed.  I will say that if you have the chance to visit this spot in Rome, I would definitely recommend it as it’s a quick activity, costs little and is really unique.

After the ossuary, we made our way toward the Vatican and had lunch at a street restaurant near there.  We ordered some Italian beer and had the fried artichoke again, and this one was really good.  We also tried fiori di zucca fritti which is fried squash blossoms.  They were so good as they were also stuffed with a little cheese.  Our main plate was cacio en pepe, risotto with burrata cheese, pizza and bucatini (like spaghetti with a hole in the center) with a tomato sauce.  It was all really good, and the beautiful weather outside added to the enjoyment.

After lunch, we stopped for some seasalt caramel gelato on our way to the Vatican.

The Vatican was packed- I think my exact comment was that it was worse than Disneyland.  We made our way through the extensive and elaborate museum rooms filled with paintings and sculptures to the Sistine Chapel (sadly, no pictures allowed of the chapel).

After taking some time to view the chapel, we made our way back out of the complex and to St. Peter’s Basilica.  The line was seriously massive to get inside, so we opted to enjoy the view from the outside only.

Near the basilica, we stopped in a small shop for suppli and arancini (rice ball snack).  They were a bit too oily for us.

Hoping to leave the crowds of the Vatican behind, we walked (past Castel St. Angelo) back toward Trevi Fountain which was equally crowded.

We found a restaurant on a quiet side street and had a beer and some olives and puffed corn snack to kill some time until dinner.  We found a small restaurant that could seat us inside, and it was a good thing we found it when we did because, shortly after we arrived, a line formed outside and the inside was full.  And probably for good reason-the food was really nice.  We decided to start with the fried artichoke and squash blossoms again as well as Caprese salad.  To accompany everything, we had some Chianti.  The main dishes were black truffle pasta, carbonara, tomato gnocchi and a really delicious arancia (orange) ravioli.

After finishing, we walked back to Trevi Fountain to see it illuminated and stopped for gelato (this time I tried tiramisu flavor and arancia (orange) dark chocolate which I highly recommend).

Day 6

On our sixth day, we munched on some black olive and tomato focaccia on our early morning drive to Pompeii.

Pompeii is really cool (I had been before, but this was the first time for my husband and children).  The sheer size is overwhelming, and the level of preservation is amazing when you think about how old it is.

This time, we found our way to the brothel, and I have to say, I really enjoyed the well-preserved naughty pictures illustrating what probably took place there as well as the stone beds.  Let’s just say that some things stand the test of time (both figuratively and literally).

After several hours in Pompeii, we drove up the mountain to the Amalfi Coast area.  We arrived in the area too late for lunch which was a shame since we were all hungry.  We decided to begin the Path of the Gods, but, with nothing in our stomachs, we just couldn’t make it very far.  We decided to stop at a small café built on what must be someone’s house overlooking the sea.  The owner was selling lemon ice from local lemons, and it was really delicious.

After the quick stop, we decided to head back on the path to our car.  The path itself was enjoyable with lots of nice views and tons of lizards and some goats.

At this point, the need for actual food was too great and no dinner restaurants would open for hours, so we drove into a very small town square near the entry point for the path.  One of the restaurants on the square had some bread and pastries, so we grabbed some as well as a beer and an Aperol Spritz and sat for a bit.

Luckily, they also provided some olives and cracker snacks because we devoured them.  We walked around a tiny bit before finding a dinner place overlooking the water.  The dinner began with much promise as we had a local wine, Caprese and an assortment of cheeses which were all good.  Sadly, it went downhill from there as our carbonara, spaghetti with tomato and oil and lemon ravioli were not so great.  The fritto misto di fruit di mare (assortment of fried seafood) was ok as were the fried zucchini flowers.  The views were nice though, and the desserts of tiramisu and a lemon sponge cake were good.  We especially enjoyed the limoncello and the amaro del capo.

Our apartment was overlooking the coast but was very remote, so after dinner, we had to drive some dark winding roads to get there and then climb up some dark stairs to walk through a tiny path with plants growing over it.  Not the best, but the views over the water were really great, and it felt very secluded.

Day 7

We woke up to sit on our balcony overlooking the water and eat some Colomba (a special Italian Easter bread which was kind of orangey in taste and covered in chocolate).

After hiking back through the plant path to our car, we headed off for Arezzo.  Once we arrived, we began the afternoon by looking at the ruins of a Roman theater, walking around the old city and seeing things like churches, shops and the main square.

We decided to grab some gelato (the lemon flavor was quite nice) before heading up to the main cathedral, which was really nice, the palace and through a park to the remains of an old fortress.

After the park, we went to the main square and had a beer and Campari Spritz before heading to our apartment which was outside of the city on a farm.

We found a nearby restaurant for dinner where we had a house wine with some really good mushroom bruschetta and a pecorino bruschetta.  We tried mushroom and asparagus risotto, mushroom ravioli, gnocchi in a cheese sauce and a mixed seafood platter.  It was all pretty good as was the tiramisu, limoncello and amaro del capo.

At this point, exhaustion was really starting to set in, so we made our way back to our apartment and got to bed.

Day 8

Exhaustion being merely a way of existence now, we got up early and drove to Venice.  Upon arriving, things were pretty quiet, and we enjoyed walking through the small streets and canals.

We hired a gondola and spent some time on the small canals and a small piece of the Grand Canal.  We saw the Rialto Bridge as well as many historic homes before embarking on foot to St. Mark’s Square.

Along the way, we stopped in a few different squares with very interesting buildings.

St. Mark’s Square was packed- I thought the Vatican was bad, but this was insane.  We viewed the Basilica from the outside only as we were told the line to get in was an hour at least.

We did go into the Doge’s Palace where we viewed many state and judicial rooms as well as the armory and the prisons.

The rooms were very gaudy with lots of paintings, gold trim and heavy, dark wood.

The prison path took us past the Bridge of Sighs which we also viewed from the outside.

We took a few minutes to view the Grand Canal which was bustling.

We did a quick stop in the Correr Museum which had some nice ancient pieces, particularly sculptures, and some really cool old lampposts.

After leaving the museum, we stopped at a place for lunch where we had chichetti (different fried appetizers/small dishes).  We had the zucchini flowers, artichoke and mozzarella with anchovies on toast.  I also tried a Venetian Spritz which was nice.  Our main meal consisted of a tomato pasta, a seafood pasta, a pasta with artichokes and a local sausage and nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink pasta).

After lunch, we walked back out of the city, and the crowds were ridiculous.  It was a far cry from the quiet of the morning, so we were ready to head to Verona and some quieter areas.  That was a joke- if I thought that the Vatican was bad and St. Mark’s Square was worse, then I have no words for Verona.  It was a madhouse and completely chaotic, which was unfortunate because there were some really neat old buildings and architectural elements- you just couldn’t really see them.

While in Verona, we walked past the old amphitheater to Juliet’s house (being that Juliet was a fictional character, it’s not really her house but rather the house of a family that once did feud with another family in Verona).  Nonetheless, the line to get in was unbelievable and made the street even more packed.

Next, we headed to the main square which had an open-air market, many statues and a fountain and was lined with old buildings.

To escape the hoards, we walked down a side street to a tower and some very interesting raised tombs belonging to an old royal family of the city.

Down another side street was the former home of the other feuding family of the city, dubbed Romeo’s house.

We began walking back to our car at this point and had to walk down a street with wall-to-wall people.  Coming out of Covid era, this felt really weird.  After making it back to our car, we left Verona behind for Bergamo.

Luckily, it was much quieter.  We stopped at a place for dinner and since it was our last meal in Italy we decided to go all out with a local wine, bruschetta and fried polenta sticks.  For the main meal, we had cacio en pepe risotto, homemade pasta with Genoese pesto and a homemade pasta with tomatoes.  It was all very good.  The desserts were a bit of a disappointment, but, nonetheless, we had some tiramisu, tiramisu ice cream and a cannoli with linomcello and amaro del capo.

After dinner, we took the funicular up to the old city where we walked through the little streets to the old square with its tower and cathedral.

We happened upon an Easter service at the cathedral.  The priests were standing outside reciting some things and singing while the people in the church were in complete darkness.  Then the priests lit a huge candle and entered the church where other priests lit the candles of the churchgoers.  At the altar, some other large candles were lit and the whole church was illuminated.

The service continued, but as it was in Italian, we decided to leave and continue exploring the old city.  We saw some really nice artwork and architecture on the baptistery building next to the cathedral.

Then, we walked down to the old city gate where we had some great views of the city below.

The ride down was packed on the funicular- we were standing packed like sardines and at one point our daughter thought she might end up on the lap of the guy sitting next to her.  Definitely a weird and uncomfortable feeling after two years of avoiding being in close contact with others.

Day 9

As it was time to say arrivederci to Italy, this was a day full of driving.  The best part of the day was probably eating the sticky nut pastry and the traditional polenta pastry from Bergamo that we had purchased the night before.  It was a polenta cake outside with chocolate cream inside and an orange layer over the top.

Our drive was long crossing back through the Alps in Switzerland, crisscrossing from Germany to France, back into Luxembourg and Belgium before finally making it back to the Netherlands.  And just like that, the Italian Sampler was over.  While it was a tiring trip, and we covered a lot of ground and saw so many churches that I literally cannot tell them apart, it was really a good trip.  It was great to experience so many things together as a family and to explore many different regions.  I think everyone would be happy to go back to Italy, though, other than a weekend trip to see some museums that we wanted to see in Florence that were closed, I don’t think it will happen in the next few years.  But, for now, everyone is happy to have finally taken this trip that had been planned for two years ago.  And, if you made it this far, I hope that you enjoyed this whirlwind tour of Italy.  Until next time, ciao!

A Perfect Week in Poland

After having to make arrangements for a winter holiday trip to include our dogs because the boarder couldn’t take them and then having to change our plans due to Covid restrictions, we scrambled to find a location we could travel to with the dogs and finally settled on spending five days in Poland.  Then, about a week before the trip, war broke out in neighboring Ukraine (Krakow is about 2 and a half hours from the Ukrainian border).  After closely watching the news and checking with people we know from Poland, we decided it was safe to still go, so we headed off on the twelve hour drive with a car full of people and dogs.

Day 1

We drove through a lot of forested areas and open land to arrive in Krakow.  As we had been driving all day, our first mission was to get some dinner.  We settled on a small restaurant close to our apartment.  It didn’t look like much, but the food was really good.  We kicked the holiday off right with some Polish beer (both wheat and stout), compote which is a fruit punch type drink, mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa), fried Halloumi cheese, sausage and 3 types of  Pierogi (dumplings) which were filled with mushroom and cabbage, spinach, and potato and cheese.

While eating, a demonstration of support for Ukraine marched past the windows of the restaurant.  This seemed like enough excitement since we were tired from driving all day, so we called it a night.

Day 2

After reminding ourselves why we would never want to live on the top floor of an apartment building with dogs, we got them all settled in the apartment and headed out to see Krakow.  We first walked to St. Florian Church passing some old remains of a fort or castle (not sure) and a large monument with many interesting statues.

There was a service going on in the church, so we just took a quick look, but it was very gold inside.

After leaving the church, we walked under St. Florian’s Gate, the old city gate leading to Lost Soul’s Alley or the Royal Way which was the path of coronation of kings in centuries past.  The path led past many shops (and many pretzel stands so we grabbed a few) to the main square (Rynek Glowny) of the Old Town.

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In the main square was the Cloth Hall, this building from the 1500s sits on the location of the market since the 1200s, and St. Mary’s Basilica.  This church is home to the largest Gothic Alter in the world.  Unfortunately, no pictures of the inside were allowed, but it was very gaudy and there was a lot of blue and red coloration.  Outside again, the clock struck the hour and played a trumpet call type of song.

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