Espectacular España: Madrid

Alas, our last stop on our whirlwind Spanish adventure. I’m not going to lie, we came to Madrid for the art, food and shopping!

The Prado Museum was a huge must on our list. But, instead of roaming around on our own, we hired a private guide (our tour group consisted of just four people). Hubs and I wanted to see all the important masterpieces of Velázquez and Goya, but not spend a huge chunk of time just running around or relying on time consuming audio guides. Instead, our guide focused on the history of 25 famous pieces in 1.5 hours. It was a perfect way to enjoy the highlights of the Prado and our guide was so passionate and knowledgable on everything about the artists and paintings we saw. His passion and enthusiasm definitely helped us enjoy and understand the pieces even more. After the art portion of the tour, we continued on to the second part: the food.  Our guide brought us over to the oldest (consistently running) restaurant in the world for lunch: Sobrino de Botín.  We had the privilege of entering the restaurant before it opened to get an all access tour of the place.   All of us had a delicious meal filled with laughter and very full bellies!

(**no pictures or video were permitted inside the Prado, so it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture of the outside.**)

If you’ve followed me on my blog or on Instagram, you know that I post a fair amount of food pictures. So it may come as a surprise that I’ve only mentioned one of our meals in my previous posts in Granada. There’s definitely a good food scene in Madrid. We went to a lot of markets and even tried Venezuelan food for the very first time! Even after 17 days in Spain, we still can’t get used to the fact that dinner time starts at 9pm! But, we did get the hang of having tapas sized portions every few hours to keep our energy up for all the walking (ahem, shopping) we did.

After all the shopping and the Prado there wasn’t much time for too many other things.  We explored Retiro Park and several neighborhoods. My favorites were La Latina and Cheuco/Malasaña areas. I’m a sucker for boutique-y, locally made, handmade, one of a kind type, independently-owned shops and there were plenty of them dotted all around the city! You could say that I helped the Spanish economy a bit with all my “Made in Spain” purchases. We will definitely be back to Madrid for a long weekend soon for more exploring, eating, and shopping!

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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.

Baltic/Scandinavian Adventure: St Petersburg

This city was a major highlight of this trip, and one of the few times I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  We had two full days to visit all the “must-sees” and honestly, it’s just enough time. We had beautiful, but hot weather both days. It got a bit uncomfortable, but nothing we haven’t experienced. Hubs and I opted to hire a private company for our two day tour and were grouped with a fun Malaysian family.   They were our friends for the duration of our cruise.

 

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to see the Church on Spilled Blood (aka  “onion” domes). It was spectacular and I am so glad I can cross it off my bucket list!

 

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However, I was most awestruck by our walk through the Peterhof gardens. It’s so impressive, not only of the sculptures, but how the water fountains are operated based on pressure and not pumps.

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Catherine’s Palace was also on our itinerary and it was extraordinary as well. In fact, everything we saw left us amazed. I highly recommend this city for art and history lovers all around.

 

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We also got a real glimpse into everyday life by exploring a local market and taking a ride on the commie era metro system.

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Lastly, no trip to St Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Hermitage Museum.

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Baltic/Scandinavian Adventure: Stockholm

After much deliberation, Hubs and I figured the best way (and most economical) to experience some of the northern European cities was via a cruise. We had found an amazing itinerary that had THREE overnights. That’s not very common for cruises. We also added a few pre and post cruise nights in Stockholm and Copenhagen. The whole experience was incredible and I’m extremely grateful for the memories that Hubs and I continue to make with our travels.

Now, onto our first stop: Stockholm. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous city but I didn’t exactly fall in love with it. It’s probably because we were there during record high temperatures. After dealing with an extremely hot and uncomfortable summer last year, we wanted to go up north to escape the heat this year.  There were also two other factors that left a bad taste in my mouth, but I won’t get into that. I’m so glad that we got to see all the touristy sights that Stockholm had to offer and more. Did you know that Stockholm has one of the prettiest subway systems? The art we found in some of the stations we explored was really cool and a nice reprieve from the heat. We also found an absolutely amazing sushi place and visited it twice!

 

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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”.