Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Three)

When in Italy, you must eat! And that we did. We were gluttons and could not turn down all that homemade pasta, gelato, pastries, fresh lake fish and other seafood we gorged on. We’re paying dearly for it now that we’re back.

Real Italian food is simple and usually has no more than five ingredients in their dishes. Anything more than that makes it questionable if it’s truly authentic.  Things like Fettuccini Alfredo and “Italian” dressing are examples of American inventions. I honestly didn’t know any differently until I visited Europe for the first time in 2008. My taste palette has certainly changed since then!

The food at our B&B was fantastic; the breakfasts were so so good.  One evening they offered a home-cooked four course meal and it turned out to be the best meal during this trip to Italy. We were spoiled. Our typical breakfast spread had omelettes, fresh vegetables and fruits from their garden, homemade olive oil harvested from their olive groves, homemade pastries and jams, cheeses, Italian cured meats, and yogurt made fresh every morning. It was a feast that filled our happy tummies until it was time to eat again.

Now, let me get to our best and favorite meal of our stay. The innkeepers offered a four course meal for all of their guests for a nominal fee, which is normal for an agriturismo in Italy. The lake fish caught fresh that morning to the homemade lasagna made with fresh noodles and herbs from the garden were so incredibly delicious. And even after our return, we’re still dreaming about it. Do yourself a favor and eat your way through Italy- you won’t regret it!

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Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part One)

I absolutely love Italy. I’ve been several times and have explored many areas of this beautiful country. Hubs and I just got back from eight nights on Lake Como. We flew into Milan Malpensa Airport, rented our adventure wagon and headed towards our destination – only about 60-90 minutes North. We stayed at the most incredible B&B, which happens to be in the same town that Mussolini and his mistress were executed when they tried to escape to Switzerland. We talked more with the innkeepers, and found out there are several unofficial stories of that fateful night. Apparently, Mussolini and his mistress were staying overnight at the same house where our inn is today, and were shot where we had breakfast every morning on the terrace.  The Italian partisans (resistance group) then moved their bodies down the street, to Villa Belmonte, and were shot again (by the right people this time…). Such a fascinating piece of WWII history!

In our eight days, we explored the famous towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio, Como and some little known ones such as Lenno, Tremezzo, Laglio and Mezzegra. Hubs and I had time to squeeze in two day trips – one on the Bernina Express from Tirano, Italy to St Moritz, Switzerland and a driving trip to Lugano, Switzerland. We also drove by George Clooney’s villa to see if we could visit the twins, but sadly, they weren’t home. Even with so much ground to cover, it was a very relaxing and low-key trip.

Bellagio was as charming as everyone has described it. The hotel in Las Vegas is based on the town. It’s definitely very touristy, but a must when visiting Lake Como. Como, the city, is known for its silk, so if you want a nice souvenir head over to the shop called Azalea (there’s two locations on the same street). It’s a family owned business that has an amazing collection of handmade and handprinted scarves and ties – all at reasonable prices. After all that silk shopping, hop on next door and have lunch at Bilacus or walk five minutes in the other direction for Barchetta. Beware of all the awful restaurants on the water. They’re tourist traps and the only thing you’ll remember is the view. 

Another popular lake town is Varenna. It’s not as popular as Bellagio, but I found that I loved it much more. Hubs and I loved getting lost in all the nooks and crannies. Our innkeepers told us to go to a restaurant called Al Prato and it didn’t disappoint! It was nice that it seemed there were more locals than tourists. There’s no waterview, but the service and food make up for it. While in Varenna, you must make a visit to Villa Monastero. Even if you’re not interested in the interior, just purchase the tickets for the garden. There’s an incredible amount of flora to walk through. Most importantly, the views across the lake are unsurpassed.

Moving further south, in the village of Lenno, there’s the well known Villa Balbianello. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787, it was used for a while by Allied commanders toward the end of WWII. The villa has also been made famous as a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond – Casino Royale. Its dramatic landscape makes for, in my opinion, the best views of the lake – even better than Villa Monastero. It’s definitely a must and my favorite villa during our visit.  Here’s a tip – you can get to Villa Balbianello by taking a 10-20 minute walk over a hill, or use the water taxi from Lido di Lenno.  We took the water taxi there (€7/rt or €5/oneway), and walked back.  Arriving by boat makes it feel like a more “grand” entrance, plus the walk back has more downhills – easier on a hot day.

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Throwback Thursdays: Healing in Hong Kong

A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.

Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.

The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of  the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do.  If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain.  Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!

We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater.  The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.

I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong.  It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.

During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.

In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.

Spectacular Santorini (Part Two)

It’s not a trip recap without food pictures! Santorini is the perfect island getaway. Everything is within walking distance and the food was “out of this world” delicious.  Hubs, not usually a seafood person, couldn’t get enough of the Greek mussels.  Neither could I.  We mostly ordered from the starter menus while we were there, so we could taste as many things as possible.  Hopefully our pictures do the cuisine justice:

 

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A Long Weekend in Lisbon

One by one we’re checking places off our European bucket list, with Lisbon being our latest adventure. It’s a coastal city which has elements of Mediterranean cities we’ve visited. It’s also commonly likened to its sister city, San Francisco. Having visited both, I can see the similarities of the hills, cable cars, and even having the same architect that built the famous Golden Gate bridge with a similar one of their own.  It is also considered one of the oldest cities in the world, predating other modern European capitals such as London and Rome by centuries.

Hubs and I left on Wednesday night and came back Sunday afternoon. We did a lot of sightseeing and eating, but felt like we’ve only scratched the surface. We even took a day trip to the suburbs of Lisbon – a UNESCO town of Sintra, strolled the streets of Cascais and saw the most western point of the European continent.  Does it merit another visit in the future? Maybe. But for now, I’ll let the pictures speak for how beautiful and tasty Lisbon was/is.

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Chocoholics Rejoice!

Belgium is mostly famous for two things: chocolate and beer. I don’t drink, but Hubs is a huge beer connoisseur. With that in mind, I had arranged for us to spend a Sunday afternoon, apart, tasting our favorite things.

When I first arrived in Brussels I was overwhelmed with all the chocolate shops. Every other store was a chocolate shop. You had your mainstream ones such as Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas and the smaller chocolatiers that are only available in Belgium. Even with all my research, it was hard to tell which ones were special and which ones would be generic enough to find at a grocery store. I signed myself up for a chocolate tasting tour that explored shops, which took us from the low to high end of the scale. Honestly, I had no expectations going in, but I was surprised how much I learned about chocolate and how to use your palette to taste. It’s akin to differentiating between wine brands.

For instance, the longer the expiration date, the lower quality chocolate brand. Usually, an extended expiration date would indicate the products include preservatives and fillers. For the really good stuff, there’s none of that crap.  Fresh chocolates with all natural products have to be eaten in less than two weeks. You know the famous brand Godiva? You will never find a Belgian wandering in those stores in Belgium or anywhere abroad for that matter. According to our guide, it has the worst value for the money. Surprising.

When I think of good chocolate I expect handmade, preservative-free quality goodness. And this tour went beyond my expectations. We even tasted a chocolate that goes through a 25 step process to be made! It was well worth the €25 for a box of nine pieces I came home with. You only live once, right?

Overall, it was a fun and informative experience and I got to see parts of the city I hadn’t yet explored. The downside to this, is, that I can never look at chocolate the same way again. I am now officially a chocolate snob!

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It took a lot of restraint not to bring home more than what I bought. We’ve already gone through the box to the far left and right.

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Fun in Formosa

It’s been 18 months since our last trip to Taiwan. It seemed like ages ago, especially for our family and friends there. Again, Hubs and I coordinated with my immediate family so that we could all be there around the same time. This time we were only there for about two weeks (a far cry from almost a month visit last time).

Hubs and I flew the well respected Emirates Airlines and the customer service, which the carrier is known for, did not disappoint on all of our flights. We came to the conclusion, a long time ago, that most international carriers still have some form of customer service and we have avoided flying on any American based carrier for years now. It really makes the flying experience much more pleasant.

Taipei has always been a second home to me. After all, I spent all my summers there while growing up. My roots are there. I’ve always been proud to say that I’m Taiwanese. I was really excited for this trip and to see my family. Hubs and I had such a great time again that it was really hard to leave. Hubs has even said “My heart is in Taipei”, which really surprised me.

Friends and family were definitely priority number one for our visit.  However, priority “1a” was the food.  There are so many dishes there that remind me of “home”, that you can’t get in Vienna (or Maryland, too).  There was Shabu Shabu (hot pot), beef or pork chop noodle soup, dim sum, ‘xiaolongbao’, and also Taiwanese dishes only served on the island.  What we can’t get here, we made sure to have plenty of times to hold us over until our next visit.  We are hoping to make another trip back soon, and not wait 18-24 months again.

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Irresistible Italy: Emilia-Romagna Region

This region is not yet crowded with tourists, but it’s one worth checking out and putting on your next Italian itinerary. Many people affectionately call it the “land of motors” . Just to name a few: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ducati factories are all housed here. To all the foodies out there, it’s also the home of Parmesan Reggiano and Balsamic Vinegar. There’s also plenty of cool medieval towns all around.

As an early anniversary gift, I surprised Hubs with a visit to both Ferrari museums and a test drive of a Ferrari 458. I enjoyed it and was so happy to see such a huge grin on Hubs face after his drive. Priceless!

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Did you know that real Parmesan Reggiano is only produced in Italy? So the stuff you buy at the grocery store called “Parmesan” is not really it. It’s an imitation of the real thing.  Under Italian law, only cheese produced in this region may be labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano”. We got a chance to tour a factory and witness the process from beginning and the aging process. Of course, the tasting was our favorite parts. 

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This holds true with Balsamic Vinegar. It has to have “D.O.P” labeled and when you get the 25 year aged kind, it has to be in a specific shaped bottle.  European countries, especially Italy, take their sourced food specialties very seriously. Balsamic Vinegar production is passed down through generations here. Most households have at last five barrels, each corresponding to a different part of the aging process. We visited a family owned small factory and was fascinated with the process and passion that they take in their balsamic vinegar.

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During our stay in this region, we also explored the towns of Modena and Bologna. Both with medieval characteristics and tons of charm. It was a nice part of our Italian adventure.

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We were "checkmated".

We were “checkmated”.

Irresistible Italy: Florence

I fell in love with this city ever since the first time I visited in 2010 and vowed to come back one day. Never in my wildest dreams would I have known I’d be living in a bordering country four years later.  Florence is a city for art history lovers, foodies and a shopping mecca for fashionistas. We checked off all those things. Hubs and I had a visit with The David, did a foodie tour, quite a bit of shopping (for me :)), and we also took in all the important sites that this city has to offer. The weather was absolutely gorgeous.

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Tasty Tuesdays: Italian Edition (Part Three)

This is not only the last of the Tasty Tuesdays in Italy, it happens to have been my favorite part of the trip-food wise. We’ve been back for a couple of days now, and I’m still thinking of some of the best meals I’ve had so far in my life. When I was planning this trip back in August 2013 ( not so surprising if you know me), I stumbled upon a really awesome farmhouse in the outskirts of Modena. Not one for nature or being in the middle of nowhere,  I was still really drawn to it.  So, I booked Hubs and I a room for four nights. Fast forward to a couple days ago, as we were driving towards this farmhouse, even Hubs was like “why the heck did you put us in the middle of nowheresville?”. I had to agree with him, but when we arrived, all of those unsettling thoughts quickly disappeared. The setting was like out of a movie and the views were gorgeous. It was a quintessential Italian farmhouse that’s been perfectly restored with modern touches.

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Now, let me get to the food, because that’s what you’re here for. We opted to partake in our innkeeper’s dinners for three of the nights we were there. I wanted to take her home, so she could cook for us for the rest of our lives. All the meals we had in neighboring  towns were just “meh” compared to our innkeeper’s meals!

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Cured meats from the innkeeper’s neighbor, homemade Parmesan biscuits, cheese drizzled with her own balsamic vinegar, toast with a lovely onion concoction

Next up, lasagna made with fresh noodle sheets using chard from her garden, béchamel sauce, and Parmesan reggiano. Absolutely divine!

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Main dish of chicken and greens followed by homemade cake using berries from her garden

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Tortellini made with fresh ricotta cheese that the innkeeper made that very morning! Oh my heavens!!!

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Next up, Osso Bucco with greens picked from the garden

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whipped ricotta dessert (crema) using fresh ricotta cheese that's made fresh the same morning!

whipped ricotta dessert (crema) using fresh ricotta cheese that’s made fresh the same morning! Drizzled with homemade aged balsamic vinegar.

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