Travel in Europe

Tour de Ballbach: A Family Cycling Holiday through Piedmont, Italy

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There were two things we knew when we decided to take a week long family cycling trip through Italy in late May/early June 2018.  First, we knew it would require more planning and preparation than any of our four-wheeled trips.  In a car, it’s an inconvenience when you pick the wrong route or an off the beaten track hotel.  On a bike, you risk family mutiny.  Not to mention saddle sores.  We also had a hunch that because two of the four of us lacked any measurable time spent on a bike on actual roads we *might* be biting off slightly more than we could chew.

We were right on both counts.

Yet, it was exactly those things that made the Tour de Ballbach (with a nod to Lynette Martin for coining the phrase) a smashing success.  The intensity of preparation (travel anticipation is a subject I wrote about here) combined with a plan that was certain to get us out of our comfort zones — all in different ways — made for a family trip that will linger longer and sweeter in our collective memories.  It’s the kind of trip I would whole-heartedly recommend and do again. 

With that in mind, my hope is this blog might offer specific suggestions if cycling Piedmont’s is on your bucket list but perhaps more importantly, offer a few tips and lessons learned for planning a family cycling holiday that could be anywhere. Just don’t expect as many excellent options for carbo loading outside of Italy. 

T-Minus 10 Months:  Planning

The more sensible route for a first time cycling holiday would be to work through a touring company who provide the bicycles, the routes and shuttle your luggage from point A to B.  While it was an easy google search to find some of those companies, we quickly decided to take the full plunge by going it ourselves so that we could have more autonomy with the routes and places to stay.  I did however use this touring company’s website for some general guidance on good areas for cycling.

Once we made that decision the next order of business was insuring that all of us had road bikes.  That mountain bike your 13 year old has or that 3 speed cruiser bike you love to ride around town is not going to get the job done.  In our case, that meant buying two new bikes — my first ever road bike and a bigger framed road bike for our sprouting teenager.   While we thought about potentially bringing two bikes and renting the other two bikes, the logistics of that plan — and insuring that the quality of the rented bikes would be comparable to the owned bikes -- quickly became untenable when details like airline travel and bike store hours came into play.  So Tip #1: Do not go hybrid with your sourcing.   Either choose to rent all your bikes or bring all your bikes.

(After exhaustive research I did not actively participate in until sizing specs and a color choice needed to be made, Brett bought both of our new road bikes from the German company Canyon.  If truth be told, it was a much better bike than I needed but it also made me feel like a real roadie.  Tip #2: Get Mom the best bike.

The second order of business was figuring out how to transport our bikes from London to Turin, the nearest airport in Piedmont.  There were two ways to do this: ship our bikes ahead or take our bikes with us as checked bags.  We decided to go the checked bags route which then influenced which airline we choice.  British Airways (in comparison to the lower cost airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet)  had the most generous bags allowance as they consider a bike bag the same as any other regular sized checked bag.  We booked way in advance which made the fares reasonable (£150 round trip per person.)  Tip #3:  Skip the low cost airline and book early.

(We also had an option for renting or buying bike boxes/bags for airline travel.  After another research project on benefits of hard sided boxes versus soft sided bags and factoring in plans for future trips like these, Brett decided to buy these EVOC bike travel bags and was able to get them off Amazon UK.  They were shockingly easy to wheel around and did their advertised job in protecting all the bike components.  Tip #4:  Please borrow our bike travel bags.)

The third decision was figuring out how we would transport our stuff.  Bike panniers for all of us or one bike trailer for Brett to pull?  As if this was really a decision.  Here's the Aevon bike trailer Brett found.  Aside from some back and forth on getting the right hitch,  Brett was wowed by quality of the French/German company's excellent product.  Tip #5:  Please borrow our bike trailer too.  Your use will help to amortize the cost faster and make us feel better.

Once our biking gear was in place, we moved to planning the route and places to stay.  We had everything booked by the end of September 2017.  Finding places to stay is my research jam and because I was booking everything 10 months in advance, we didn't have any issues in not getting our first choice.  

Day 1: Bon Courage

You know your teenager is living in an alternate universe when the day before departure he says, “Wait, we’re taking the bike bags on the plane?”  Apparently some important details were missed when communicating how we’d be traveling to Italy for our cycling holiday.  I only wished for a log of the 87 tasks completed including biking attire, spare inner tubes, bike tools, etc before Day 1 to wave in his face.

Bike bags packed, we hailed two cabs from our house in London to Victoria Station.   Brett called me from the other cab saying his driver suggested we be dropped off at the "Back of Palace Road" for step free access at Victoria Station to the Gatwick Express. He called back 30 seconds later to say that his driver was actually saying "Buckingham Palace Road."  Heavy British accents are not always easy to understand.  Miscommunication averted. 

Four big green bags on rollers in a crowded train station is its own kind of celebrity.   People stare and point and ask questions.   And while we managed dodging people through the train station, on to the Gatwick Express, and through Gatwick Airport, it was a relief to say goodbye to the big green bags at the airline check in counter.   Tip #6:  Have a good made up story for what's in the bag.  It's surprising how many people don't guess bikes.

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After the 1 hour 45 minute flight to Turin, we arranged to have a van transfer to the hotel.  Watching four people and four bike bags squeeze into a van is what I imagine making Italian sausage is like.  I did however send bike bag measurements in advance and our driver was imbued with confidence that is was "ok!"   And it was.

In Turin, we stayed at TownHouse 70, a centrally located hotel that was easily accessible to the train station where we would be departing from the next morning.  In our planning it became clear that we needed a solution for storing our bike bags while we were cycling around Italy. The easiest solution we could come up with was to chose a hotel for our first and last nights that would be willing to store our bags for the week.  TownHouse 70 was happy to do that for us along with arrange our airport transfer both directions.  And while we didn't know to ask, the hotel rooms had plenty of non carpeted floor space so it was no problem to assemble and break down the bikes in our rooms.  Tip #7:  Pick one customer friendly hotel to bookend your trip and then tip them well because you will be a presence.

We arrived to the hotel early in the afternoon which gave Brett time to get two of the bikes and the trailer assembled before dinner.   Colin stayed in the hotel to do homework revisions and Lawton and I went out for gelato plus spontaneous outlet store shoe shopping.   Because why not buy some new Italian wedges on a cycling trip when a) we have no room for extra stuff and b) I have a foot injury and shouldn't be wearing wedges.   

We had dinner at Pastificio Defilippis, a pasta restaurant that started in 1872.  We carbo loaded on traditional ravioli with meat and sage,  gnocchi with sausage and rosemary ragu, ovali with chicken, olive and oregano, tajarin with bacon and smoked burratina and our first Piedmont red - a Barbera d'Alba.  Fortified for the journey until ...

If the teenager started the day being clueless, the 11 year old ended it after dinner with an air of blah when he announced: "I'm not really ready for a holiday." 

Bon courage would be needed for us all ...

Day 2: Grind it Out

Brett, who has a history of being intimidated by anything mechanical,  finished assembling the last two bikes before breakfast.  It was impressive how organized and thorough he was with all the equipment and tools.  Once the trailer was packed we realized we were running a little heavy and so we jettisoned a few more things to store with the bike bags.  Like my new wedges.   And maybe the second pair of sandals I bought outlet shopping.

By 11am we had checked out and were on our bikes in route to the Porta Nuova Train Station.  We stopped in this Turin square to capture the start of our journey.  This was a highlight moment for Brett.  After all the planning, the gear, the self-instruction, he had got everything to work. 

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At the train station we bought tickets to Carmagnola which was a 30 minute train ride to get outside the city.  By 12:30 we had started cycling.  We arrived at our hotel at 8:30pm.  It was 8 hours of cycling with one cafe stop and lots of "catch your breath" stops.   Tip #8: There's no better place for your 15 year old to order their first cappuccino. Cycling and cappuccinos are a thing.

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We rode 70 km and the last 20 km was virtually all uphill, much of it at 12% grade.  The larger point being: IT WAS AN AMBITIOUS FIRST DAY.  When planning, it's easy to think you're going to take the fastest route but once you are on the road, the best route for cycles is usually not the shortest route.  And I now know to notice elevation on a map when picking hotels.  Tip #9: Do not use Google Maps for cycling.  You need detailed paper maps. 

We got our detailed maps before we left from Stanfords.  They were well worn by the end of our trip.  The rocks on the map are our start and end points for the first day.  From Camagnola through Guarene and Neive to the pink highlighted X at Benevello was our route along the yellow highlighted top line.  The goal is to avoid red roads and find the white roads. 

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It was a day that required all of us to grind it out.  Colin learning to use his clips to avoid a clipastrophy.  Lawton understanding what it means to endure when you are physically spent.  And me learning to not freak out watching truck drivers going 90kph pass my babies who are no longer babies.  Honestly I hated the first 15 kms which were on busy, poorly paved service roads but when we turned onto our first "white road" and the rolling hills of Piedmont came into our first view, I had my highlight moment.  Colin had his highlight moment on his first long serpentine downhill where his need for speed for satisfied.  And Lawton had his when he pulled up to the hotel and realized he had done it.     

Day 3: Divide So Some Can Conquer

We stayed at Villa D'Amelia , a charming very Italian hotel with restaurant and pool, for our second and third nights.  We all walked into the small hilltown of Benevello that looks over the Langhe Valley - home to hazelnuts, beans, and lean beef -  in the morning.  Lawton and I lounged around the hotel pool which we had to ourselves in the afternoon while Brett and Colin rode a picturesque 55km loop to Monforte d'Alba.  They saw more cyclists on that stretch of road than anywhere else during our week.  Monforte d' Alba is also the town my good friend Jeannie stayed in and she recommended both Dimora I Manichei and Hotel Villa Beccaris as two places to stay.  

Tip 10: Spending two nights at the same hotel is a great way to plan a cycling trip.  It's nice to have the second day to have an out and back ride for those who want it and a rest day for those who don't.  

We then took a cab into the lovely, "moneyed' town of Alba in the early evening to wander (while the boys sat in the square and did revisions) and then have dinner.  We ate at La Piola, the modern restaurant on one of Alba's main squares with a simple chalkboard menu and Piedmont specialities.  

Day 4: The Day the Wheels Came Off

Day 4 had us leaving the Langhe region (home of Barbaresco & Barolo) heading into the Monferrato region. The first 35km was beautiful riding along a ridge line and up and down moderate hills.  The roads were quiet and we were outriding the rain clouds.  Everything was going splendidly until the last 3km steep descent into the town of Canelli. 

On the descent, Lawton lost control of his bike on a tight turn and crashed into a wall.  Thankfully he wasn't badly hurt, only banged up but he blew his front tire and was pretty shaken.  We didn't see it happen as Brett was ahead and I was behind but we heard his screams.  A young English guy who saw the crash stopped to help Lawton.  What was less helpful was him telling me: "That was horrid. Sickening to see."

Brett fixed Lawton's tire and we rode slowly into Canelli to find lunch.  Lawton was naturally timid to get back on his bike but he pushed through.  He pushed through finding a bike store to buy him a new helmet, through 2 more flat tires on his bike post crash, through a costly wrong turn. At 55km in, when we knew there was something more wrong with his tire, we called our destination hotel for help. A car came for Lawton and I just as a thunderstorm rolled in. Meanwhile, Brett and Colin carried on riding in search of a bike mechanic. 

Unfortunately the bike mechanic determined that there was something permanently wrong with the tire but they didn't have a replacement one in the right size and it was unlikely that any bike store in the area did.  Our only option was to order it from Amazon Italy and hope that priority delivery worked.

The route was from the rock on the left up along the yellow highlighted line to Canelli up to Nizza Monferrato and to the pink X at Casalotto.

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Adventures do have their highs and lows and Day 4 was a low day for all of us.  But it was also the kind of day that shows character.  Brett's calmness and ability to problem solve through any issue was on full display.  His judgment is always sound, his temperament always kind and stressful situations only magnify those qualities about him.  Colin, in growing maturity, stepped up to take a leadership role for the family like finding a lunch spot while Brett was busy fixing the bike.  Lawton had to ride on when the last thing he wanted to do was get back on the bike.  And I did not let fear take hold and make me spiral (something I am prone to.)  

It helped too that our landing place that night was at La Villa Hotel.  The hotel (which is mostly a romantic getaway for couples) is owned by an English family who bought it 13 years ago and beautifully restored it.  The outdoor space and gardens are particularly lovely.  It's a gem of a place with an outstanding set four course dinner at their restaurant La Vie for those who wish to eat in.  We most certainly did.  

Tip 11:  Book hotels that have excellent restaurants on site so you have flexibility on staying in or out depending on how tired you are.

Day 5: Chewing the Handlebars

With Lawton's bike out of commission, he and I were forced to take a second rest day.  After a morning at the pool, we took a nice hour long walk into the nearby hilltown of Mombaruzzo.  The plan was to meet up with Brett and Colin after their ride for lunch.

The guys had another incredible ride but rolled in to lunch an unacceptable 50 minutes late and chewing the handlebars in pain.  The second wrong turn of the trip meant several kms of unexpected uphills between them and the doghouse. Although with a turn success rate of something like 68 out of 70, it was hard to be annoyed for long.

After a sweaty lunch at a charming La Marlera we stopped by Moriondo Virgilio, a local cafe where they serve fresh amaretti cookies. (Mombaruzzo is actually the town where the amaretti cookie started.)  After the walk back and a late afternoon ping pong tournament, we dined in again at La Vie.  Us with all the couples.

Tip 12: If you do take a rest day, take a walk instead.  Something about walking and the fresh air is great for conversation.

Day 6: Amazon Delivers!

Back in the saddle! Checkout was at 11am and the Amazon package with Lawton’s new tire arrived at 10:58! No plan B or C needed. We had a smooth 60km ride to our next destination, not even a snake in the road made us flinch (for me, this is growth!) 

Day 6 was about heading North from Casalotto to Grazzano Badogli which is still in the Monferrato region. This area of Monferrato was particularly beautiful.

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We stayed at a gorgeous guesthouse on a vineyard called Tenuta Santa Caterina.  The guesthouse has only six rooms and only one of the other rooms was occupied when we were there.  

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The guesthouse doesn't have a restaurant on site but it's in a small village and so we walked to the local osteria for a late dinner.  The breakfast in the morning was excellent but we didn't have time to enjoy the guesthouse or tour the vineyard as this was the only place we stayed for one night.  (I did however order some of their wine to be shipped back to London.)  It's definitely a place to come back to for an adults only weekend.

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Day 7: Save the Best for Last

The last day of riding was perhaps the one I was looking forward to least.  We had to make our way back to Turin and it was too far to cycle the whole way back so we knew a train would be involved.  After much map huddling we decided to train back to Turin from Asti which meant that we could do a cycling loop near the area we we staying.

At these things often go, our last 60km ride before we hopped the train in Asti was the best ride of the trip.  Fewer cars, gorgeous scenery, just right lumpy terrain.  We had also found our riding grove.  With Colin leading and then lying in the grass like a lion in wait for all of us to catch up, Brett shredding the granny gears to pull the 60 pound trailer up the hills, Lawton finally relaxing on the downhills, and me no longer worrying that we sometimes had to share the road with cars.

Of all the maps I've shown here, this yellow loop is the one not to miss.  (Asti is the red area in the lower left corner where we caught the train.)

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We did have a snafu in Asti on the first intercity train we tried to take.  Apparently you can't bring bikes on the intercity train but no one told us and so we got kicked off.  A very angry woman literally pushed us and our children off the train.  It was actually bizarre how physical it was.  Lawton suggested the woman might have been part bull dog.  An hour later, we were on another (bike legal) train in route to Turin.  The conductor on the second train however was so friendly and restored our faith in Italian train travel. 

In Turin, we zigzagged through a busy city center to get back to our hotel.  We had a fabulous final dinner at Ristorante Consorzio.  After a week of traditional Piedmont food (which we loved more than any other region in Italy) it was nice to have a modern take on it.  We might have licked our plates.  Lawton especially enjoyed his starter which was anchovies four ways (not pictured.)

The next morning we got everything packed back up in their bike bags and flew back to London in the afternoon.  It was notably how much easier it seemed to all of us wheeling the green bags on the journey home.  After a week of much harder challenges, that part seemed like a piece of cake.  

Tip 13:  If you are half-wheeling the idea of a cycling trip, it's time to get out of the saddle!  Ping us with specific questions and remember - we have gear to borrow!

Exploring our own Treasure Island on Mauritius

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Happy GDPR Day!  Rather than opting in to stay in touch with those now desperate websites I did business with two years ago, I'm opting for finally getting around to blogging about our 10 day trip to Mauritius over Easter Break.

I totally feel you.  I had to google "Where is Mauritius?" too.

Mauritius is an island African country in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Getting there from London is not for the faint of heart, although if you have 18 hours of air travel ahead of you with a mid way stop in Dubai -- Emirates is the airline to do it with.   Best airline for a movie hangover.  Getting there from the USA is ... well, google it.  This may explain why of the 1.3M visitors to Mauritius in 2016, only 10k or less than 1% were from the USA.

We spent the first three days at a resort called the Zilwa Attitude Hotel.  It was nice as resorts go but truthfully we aren't good resort people.  That was confirmed at check in when they insisted we wait 20 minutes for the golf cart to take us to our rooms because it was "too far to walk" when what we really wanted after a 24 hour travel day was to make a run for the shower.  We did rent a car and so were able to leave the compound for a couple of local dinners to call attention to the fact that pasta bolognese isn't exactly a local speciality.   I completely appreciate that some people like and want the convenience of an all-inclusive resort and that it can be a lifesaver for weary parents who need a vacation from the little people they are vacationing with.  

The second place we stayed however, a partially serviced villa called Villa L'ilot with a Saturday to Saturday rental, was 100% our speed.  So much so that we chucked the list of things we wanted to see in Mauritius and decided to simply relax.  Mauritius, like so many island cultures, quietly insists (and then reinforces with only two motorways) that you put down your to-do list and kick back.  

A few thoughts from our week exploring our own treasure island on Mauritius where reef shoes (and my husband's occasional running shoes) were the only footwear. 

Note: In writing this blog, I discovered I lost all my photos (!!) from our trip save for the two above that I posted to Instagram while we were there.  While I'm incredibly frustrated by my own technical mistake, I need to let it go and hopefully try to paint a word picture of the trip that doesn't depend on photos.  Besides, 200 photos of a family relaxing is only so interesting.

Trading Fumes for Fresh Air

Escaping London or any other big urban area's air pollution isn't necessarily a reason to go to Mauritius (unless you're like my 15 year old son who has oversized anxiety about London pollution) but it certainly is a boast to your mood and immune system.  The average American is reported to spend 93% of their lives indoors where indoor air quality can be even worse.  A week on an island is sure to turn that metric on it's head when the outdoor space looks like this.  There's no better way to shed stress (something my husband needed) and improve your sleep (something I needed) when every window in in the house is inviting you to come out and mingle with the natural world.  

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The Many Places of Refuge

If you need a reminder about the nature of life's hurricanes, hang out on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is constantly vulnerable to weather and the elements.  The sun is blazing hot, intense rain storms that don't last long regularly pass through and many mosquitoes (though not the malaria carrying kind) call Mauritius home.   The inherent caution with the beauty of the natural world is - like the journey of life - we are flimsy in it without places of protection.  At Villa L'ilot, we spent the week canvassing all the spots we could find shade from the sun, or a cool breeze from the mosquitoes, or a comfy dry place to sit and watch the rain roll through.  So plentiful were the carefully constructed places of refuge that no external element forced us to retreat back inside.  And our view never got obstructed. 

Where Stillness Meets With Noisy Exuberance

When you first arrive at Villa L'ilot, it's the stillness that strikes you. There's no road noise or human voices you don't recognise.  That is until your ears quickly acclimate to another frequency.  There's actually a lot of sound going on when you tune in to nature's applause.  There are the waves crashing on the rocks, the steady beat of the water gently lapping on the shore, the birds chirping in constant conversation and a 30 minute choral performance by more birds than you can count every evening before sunset.   So unchanging and joyful is nature's soundtrack that it makes you want to remember how to listen for the sounds of holiday in the day to day noise.

Catch of the Day

I'm not saying I want to go back to the days when people foraged for their own food but watching the local fisherman out on the rocks every morning and then having them wade through the water to sell you their catch of the day for dinner is kinda awesome.  The boys got to know one of the local fisherman named Paul and we bought a carangue (rainbow runner) two of the days to grill up for dinner.  Another day we got a moped delivery of some fresh langoustines that had been caught within the hour.   Ocean to table, baby.

The Hunt for Thyme

Villas in Mauritius often come with some staff.  Our villa was staffed part of the day (9am-3pm) with two wonderful woman - one woman Melini who cooked our lunches and another woman Latta who cleaned.  We weren't sure if we were going to like the concept of having help around but their quiet presence, along with easing any stress of responsibility, was so delightful.  They have worked at this particular villa for almost 10 years.  We got to know Melini especially who was a fabulous cook and introduced us to Mauritian cooking and street food.  One of the funny moments of the week was the afternoon Brett and I spent on what could only be called  "The Hunt for Thyme." 

Early in our week, Melini came with us to the local grocery store and markets to educate us and help us buy food for the week.  Towards the end of the week she had run out of fresh thyme (a common herb in Mauritian cuisine) and asked us to go get some for a dish she was preparing.  Having seen it in abundance on arrival, we were up for the task.  What we didn't know that getting thyme the day before a religious holiday weekend was going to take time (3 towns and 10th stop is a charm!) and would illuminate the kindness of the Mauritian people.  The thyme finally came -- at no charge - when one of the farmers at a market stand asked us how much we needed and then said "wait here."  Without further explanation, he sped off on his moped, returning 5 minutes later with a small bunch of thyme he had collected from his home garden.  Thyme never tasted as good as it did in Melini's prawn eggplant curry that afternoon.

Shifting Tides

Of all the many pleasures of staying at Villa L'ilot, it was observing the constant presence and action of the water that was so special.  The warm, clear ocean invited us to swim, to wade, to look for fish, to kayak, and to watch the tides come in and out.  It was like having you own private, giant swimming pool except one that drained on its own every night to reveal hundreds of treasures -- too many starfish to count! --  you didn't know had been underfoot all day.  What's hidden becomes clear ... on repeat.

The Band of Angels

Islands give you permission to gorge on reading.  The first book I finished in Mauritius was Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams and Jeannine Amber.  It seemed an odd choice to be reading the autobiography of a woman who grew up in the hood while I was comfortably reclining in paradise.  Except Ms. Pat's story was a tough, funny and beautiful reminder that hope and bands of angels operate all over the world: "I realize the answer [to how I turned my life around] is really pretty simple.  I wanted to turn my life around and what got me there was love."

So whether you make it to Mauritius or your own treasured island one day or not,  your Band of Angels will follow wherever you go.  And if the tide is too high for you to see it now, I can encourage you -- based on what I saw on repeat - that when the tide goes out -- you may discover more treasure and fortified rock than you knew was there.  It just may not include lost digital photos.

Slovenia: A 7 Day Hiking and Eating Itinerary

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Everyone knows Switzerland is beautiful but Slovenia might be the most beautiful country you’ve never heard of.   Slovenia's tourism industry was re-birthed only 25 years ago when it gained independence from the former socialist Yugoslavia.   

If my pictures don’t do it justice, consider the chance of beauty in a country where 55% of it is covered by forests making it one of the greenest countries in the world.  Bordered by its well-known neighbors - Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia - Slovenia got a heaping serving of big mountains, enough Mediterranean coastline to be meaningful, and more than 260 waterfalls.  All contained in an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.   And with a population of just over 2 million people, there is plenty of room to spread out.  It’s enough to make you say ahhhhhhhhhhh and for no one to hear how loudly you say it.

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I’m guessing you’ve never been there since of the 4.3 million tourists to Slovenia in 2016 only 2% of them were from North America.  Tourism has been rising steadily since 2012 but most of that has come from visitors within Europe.  However that trend is now changing.  This summer Croatia was crushed with tourists who were avoiding other destinations in Europe due to terrorism fears in Greece, Italy and Turkey, and that increased volume spilled over to Slovenia.  We heard a number of people tell us that it was their busiest summer on record.  So my advice is to "Just Do It" before the secret is fully out.

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Slovenia also has a vibrant food and wine scene.   Travel and Leisure's story called "Why Slovenia Has Become One of Europe's Best Food Destinations" is an interesting read.   Part of that reputation is likely because the Slovenian people are very open to other cultures and they are proud to take inspiration and ingredients from their Italian and Austrian neighbors.    While nature and fresh air has been the cornerstone of Slovenia’s tourist draw, it’s homegrown red and white wines (90% of which are consumed in country) and inventive cooking have been creating a good deal of international buzz.

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So with outdoor activity and good eating as our dual mission, we spent a week in Slovenia in mid-October (for our school Half Term Break.)  We crafted an itinerary that had us touch down in four different locations with roughly two days in each spot.  Here’s where we went and did and what we might recommend if you were to do the same.   The country so exceeded our expectations that we have an itch to go back for a second trip to cover some areas we missed like the Southwest wine region and the Soca River valley. 

Day 1: Ljubljana

We started our trip in the capital city of Ljubljana.   We flew from London Stansted on easyJet to Ljubljana airport.    EasyJet is our least favorite airline but for £75 per person round trip, they are hard to pass up.   For this trip, easyJet was unusually hassle free and the arrival, rental car pickup and 30 minute drive into the city was easier than many commutes in LA.

You actually don’t need a car in Ljubljana which is completely manageable on foot but it was easier to pick it up and park it since we were only spending 24 hours in the city.  With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana is a charming town along a river with a castle on a hill and green space in every direction.  It’s picturesque and lovely and you’ll feel like you are in a storybook (in a good way) but you don’t need more than a day to see it all.  I know this to be true because I, being hopelessly directionally challenged, never get lost.  

Lodging

We stayed at the boutique hotel Hotel Cubo which I would highly recommend.   We got a double room with an interconnecting junior suite for the four of us with breakfast included.   There are cheaper options but the location and view from the third floor was great and nothing says “welcome to vacation” quite like a honeymoon circular bed.  

One of the first things we discovered in Slovenia is that like the Dutch, the Slovenians almost to a person speak very good English. English is the first foreign language they learn in primary school followed by German or Italian depending where in Slovenia they live.   It’s the default language spoken with even the European tourists.  As the guy at the Hotel Cubo desk told us, “In a country of 2 million people, to survive we need English.”    We found this to be true everywhere we traveled and it obviously made for easier communication.  

Eating

We decided to splurge on our first night in Slovenia so I booked a reservation ten days before our trip at one of the city’s current top five restaurants, Monstera Bistro.  Unimpressive from an ambiance standpoint, the contemporary but casual bistro is a destination place for a true foodie experience.   On weekends only they offer a 5 or 7 course tasting menu for dinner.  We did the 5 course tasting menu which started with a rye cracker with marinated anchovy and pork, a ceviche-like shrimp dish with dehydrated carrots, beef carpaccio, broccoli three ways, and venison with black currant reduction.  The boys liked everything as much as we did but as these gastro restaurants sometimes go, we did find our way towards ice cream afterwards to “top up.” 

The next day we had lunch at the Pivo (Beer)& Burger Fest that was going on in the center of town.  Unlike German festivals where every brat and curry wurst is basically the same because the point is more about the festival than the food,  this festival in Slovenia was totally about unique craft beers and very unusual burger creations.  Last minute intel helped us dodge the horse burger.  We just couldn’t.  I went for a (confirmed beef) unagi burger that looked better than it tasted but my Human Fish pale ale made up for the miss.   The boys had better burger luck. 

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Much to my husband’s delight, the Slovenians embrace their reputation as the environmental capital of Europe.  It was demonstrated to us not only by having well-marked rubbish and recycling bins at the festival but they also had staff at each station to insure the protocol was followed.  With the trash police's eyes on me,  I found the correct food waste bin for the unagi burger.

Day 2 and 3: The Savinjske Alps

Our next destination was in the small village town of Luce at the base of the Kamnisko Savinjske Alps.   This was the “off the beaten track” portion of our trip.   If truth be told I picked this area because I had read about a guest house called Hisa Radhua but we found this area to be as gorgeous, if not more, than the more popular destinations.

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Lodging and Eating

Hisa Raduha is a boutique family-run guest house and restaurant set in a small village on a river.  It has been in the family for five generations and started first receiving guests in 1875.  That tradition along with the modernization of an old barn, hayrack and tree houses as guest quarters – each with their own hot tub – makes it a romantic weekend destination spot for people coming from Ljubljana. 

The highlight at Hisa Raduha is their gastronomic four course dinners prepared by the current owner Martina with help from her husband and daughter.  Hisa Raduha was voted one of the top 5 regional restaurants in Slovenia in 2017.  The dining room which feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant only seats 20 people and it was booked full both nights we were there (even in shoulder season.)   Slovenian wines are paired with the locally sourced dinners and given the family run operation element, service is slow but warm.  Our first night we had black risotto with vegetables and trout, apple soup,  “paper” pork with leek sauce and chestnut pie.   It is simple food prepared so well that you have to keep from licking your plate.  It is no wonder this tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere is getting a lot of attention.   (Note: While our kids were old enough to enjoy it, it’s more a couples rather than family guest house.)

 Hike #1

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Our first hike was in the Logarska Dolina valley, one of the three valleys in the Savinjske Alps and one of Europe's most beautiful alpine glacial valleys.   A la the USA park system, we paid a small fee to enter the Logarska Valley National Park and drove to the end of the road.   We hiked up to Slovenia 's second highest waterfall (Slap Rinka) then up past the treeline and up as far as we could go before rock climbing was our only option.   The boys discovered they very much like straight up/straight down hikes whereas my knees and ankles were less sure.  This hike was also the first but not last time a local, noting our American accent, proudly mentioned First Lady Melania Trump (who is from Slovenia.)

Hike #2

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Our second hike was out of another valley, Robanov Kot, which is not a national park but is protected land with a few working mountain farms.  We parked at the last mountain farm and then climbed 3 miles and 3,000 feet, through steep alpine sections and along ridge lines, to finish on the ridge of Mt. Strelovec where we also got to sign the registry.  At the summit we were treated to an unbelievable 360 degree view of both the Robanov Kot and Logarska Dolina valleys.  We saw only one other person on the trail which speaks to how much of a hidden gem this valley is.  

Day 4 and 5: Lake Bohinj

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Our next destination was Lake Bohinj which was was less than a 2.5 hour drive.  Lake Bled, Slovenia's most iconic tourist attraction with a lake, castle and church, was in route to Lake Bohinj.  Lake Bled is beautiful but with it's proximity to the motorway and easy access from Ljubljana, the area was more built up than I expected.  Lake Bohinj on the other hand is surrounded by a national park, less a tourist attraction and more of an outdoor recreation area.   Home to what looked like a number of large camps, Lake Bohinj has all the outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, rowing, kayaking, canoeing, rope courses, rock climbing, etc.

Lodging and Eating  

Changing it up, we stayed at a self-catering apartment called Alpik Apartments in Ukanc, a small recreational community at the Southwest corner of Lake Bohinj. We were the only lodgers the nights we were there.  The apartments (of various sizes) are simple, clean, and cozy. It was a great base camp and groceries were only 10 minutes away in the main town of Lake Bohinj called Ribcev Laz.  

There were only two restaurants in Ukanc which made our two dinners easy to decide on.  Though a departure from our fancier eating earlier in the week, traditional Slovenian food is actually quite nice.  We had trout from the Lake and beef medallion cooked on the "Green Egg" (who knew the Green Egg had found distribution in Slovenia!) with local porcini mushrooms at Gostice Erlah.  Better yet was the jovial waiter Marco who sang Slovenia's praises and told us this had been the busiest summer in the restaurant's 24 years. 

Hike #3

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After two hikes with a lot of elevation gain, the boys were kind enough to oblige me with a flat hike from the apartment and around Lake Bohinj.   Bohinj is enormous, warm during the summer due to it not being very deep, home to ten types of fish, and not lined with any holiday homes.  What started as a meander around the lake on a well-groomed trail somehow turned into a duathlon day where we rented bikes and ended up walking/riding 20 miles on our “rest day.”  We rented cruiser bikes for 1.5 hours from AlpinSport in Ribcev Laz to do a loop around the valley that takes you through some traditional towns and meadows.  Highly recommend but probably only for older children as there are some sections along curvy two lane roads.    

Hike #4

Our fourth hike was climbing again but this time in the Triglav National Park where we did a 7 mile hut to hut alpine hike.  We drove to the highest trailhead in the park and did a couple of trails that took us through rocky trails and meadows.  The huts were closed for the season but it is also known as the “cheese route” as the huts serve local mountain cheeses.  We called it the “Marco Supper Club hike” as we saw two groups we had seen the night before at Marco's restaurant.

Day 6 and 7: Kranjska Gora

It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive from Lake Bohinj to Kransjka Gora, the cute village skiing resort at the foot of the other side of the Triglav National Park.  In addition to being a fantastic fall hiking spot, Kransjka Gora is best known as the destination in Slovenia for skiing and they are proud to have hosted the World Cup ski jumping championship for many years.

Lodging and Eating

The Skipass Hotel is another family run, boutique hotel but this one was built only 5 years ago. It's a 10 room/suites, modern, and very comfortable hotel run by a ski-loving family who started a travel business in Kransjka Gora 10 years before they opened the hotel. We aren’t skiers but Kranjska Gora is apparently the cheapest resort in Europe for skiing and roughly half the cost of a similar trip to Switzerland. 

Like Hisa Raduha the hotel also has an excellent restaurant that is run by one of Slovenia's best young chefs.  It's a fine dining kind of experience where as Hisa Raduha is more like being in some one's home.   Offering a set chef's menu, a set Slovenian menu, a set Italian menu, a set Austrian menu or ala carte mash up of the individual dishes, so good was the food that we ate both dinners at the restaurant.

Hike #5

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When we go flat, we go long.  For our fifth hike we did 10 miles following a river valley from the hotel to a mountain hut.  The hut (which was open) is the base camp to the start of a climb of two of the biggest peaks in the area.  Though mostly flat, you had a feeling of being up close to the peaks.

Hike #6

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For our last hike we drove from Kranjska Gora to Vrsic Pass along a well-known road with 24 marked hairpin turns on cobblestones.  The road which is only open  7 months out of the year is also known as the Russian Road because over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war built it during WW1.  Unlike all our other hikes where we felt like we had the mountains to ourselves, this was a festive hike where we saw streams of people of all ages on the trails enjoying one of the last beautiful weekends in October.  Cars in the parking lot had license plates from Slovenia, Croatia and Italy.  Most of the people were doing the same hike we choose that took you up a high climb, through a saddle and up to a grassy viewpoint that gave you beautiful vistas the entire way.   It was a glorious way to end a week of epic hikes.

Travel Tips:

  • You absolutely need a rental car to get around Slovenia but the roads are good and given that the country is only about the size of the state of Massachusetts, nothing is too far away and so you won’t be wasting precious hours in the car.

  • We flew into Ljubljana which was convenient from London but a local told us that the best value flights to Slovenia are via Venice or Munich.  Who knew?!  International flights to Venice are much cheaper and more frequent.  The Venice airport is outside the city towards Slovenia and only a 2 hour drive to Kranjska Gora.  The Munich airport is only 3 hours away.

  • Given the above point, an interesting way to visit Slovenia would be to make it part of an itinerary that included Venice, Munich, and Salzburg Austria OR going the other direction with an itinerary that included Zagreb, the Croatian coastline and Montenegro. 

  • There is not much information online about specific hiking trails but we would highly recommend purchasing regional hiking maps from KART GRAFIJA (or borrow ours!)  We bought ones for Bohinj and Kranjska Gora from the travel bookstore Stanfords in London which were excellent.   The maps combined with local advice helped us discern how to best select from the many hike options available so no day was wasted.

  • Slovenia is one of those places has something to offer almost any time of year.  High alpine hiking is as we learned fabulous in fall; late spring/early summer would be a great time for low country hiking, river rafting and the wine region; and winter for skiing and alpine sports.

The Stages of a Dream (Holiday House)

Stage 1: A seed is planted.

Careful accounting of a potential extra income stream was not the reason we started talking about the prospect of a holiday house.  This view was. 

This picture was taken in Andalucia, Spain in 2013 on one of our very first trips in Europe.  It was young love at first sight.  Here’s the story of our first date.

Stage 2:  Fire hose watering.

What generous people would call the brainstorming phase, husband’s of wives with an internet connection and blind love for the words “villa” and “finca”would might call the crazy house hunting phase.  This was about a year long period when I found about 30 *perfect* houses where search parameters = nil and I seemed to keep forgetting the reality of three still to pay college tuitions.

Stage 3: Plan to paper.

Adhoc approaches may work in finding your next vacation destination but once Spanish property law starts encroaching on your intraweb searching, you know it’s time to get sangria-serious.  At some point, wanting to buy a holiday house in Spain because of the climate, friendly people and olive trees isn’t enough direction for the search box.  It was through this phase and the accumulation of many more travel experiences in Spain and elsewhere that brought necessary parameters to the search.  Honestly, we wanted to find a place that brought us a sense of rest and peace that our first trip to Andalucia inspired and to be able to share that experience with others.

The parameters ... The vast majority of foreigners considering property in Spain naturally look along the coast, particularly the Costa del Sol which is much like Florida.  We however went the less popular direction and narrowed our search to inland property in either Granada or Cadiz province, a property within 5-10 minutes of a village, 10-20 minutes to a town with services, less than 90 minutes (ideally 60 minutes) to the coast, a major tourist attraction in Spain, and to an airport.  We were also looking for a smaller sized property surrounded by protected land with open vistas of hills and/or mountains, and an already redone comfortable property connected to water, electrical and high speed internet with an existing holiday rental track record.   In short, we were looking to find a needle in a sea of white villages.

Stage 4:   The Wait.

This is the phase where week after week you get the “Sorry, we don't currently have any property matching your criteria.” and you start to think that maybe it was Italy you really fell in love with.

Stage 5:   A Match.

When you are least expecting it, a casual refresh button on a dream sometimes yields a result that looks like this.   After several years of casual browsing, this was the first and best priced property that ticked all of our boxes and then some.

The matching proof ... Not only does this property have the most stunning views of the Andalucian countryside but it also has views of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas.  It’s within a 10 minute drive to Montefrio, recently named as one of the ten best views in the world by the National Geographic magazine.  It is a 40 minute drive to the major tourist attraction of Granada and the Alhambra, a 60 minute drive to the coast, and 90 minutes from Malaga airport.  The property is less than one acre with 6 olive trees, 15 almond trees, and 3 fig trees in production but with the acres of protected land around it – it feels like the mountain version of being on your own deserted island.  Comfort, connections, and turn-key rental business also checked.

Stage 6:  The Preparation.

This is when the spreadsheet comes out and you gather the courage to send your first inquiry email.  In this case it was directly to the private seller who is a British family who restored the cortijo themselves and who patiently answered all my detailed questions.  Through the back and forth, it was clear it was a property I needed to see in person.  I also sent an email to Andrew Forbes, the owner of the first house we stayed in in Andalucia.  As a foreigner who has bought a house in Spain and a travel compatriot, Andrew had lots of good advice including this:  “Buy the house or any house in Spain because you love it - don't buy for investment - too big a risk.”  He also told me to be aware that this part of Spain is very, very hot in summer.  And as serendipity would have it, Andrew had actually visited this property once when a friend was renting it and had written glowingly about it on his blog.   

Stage 7: Reality Meets Dream.

It is wise to bring a wing man when you are chasing a dream.   As my husband was working, he suggested our 19 year old son come as his surrogate.  Not only was Quinn a fantastic traveling companion and navigator but in one of those parenting inversions, he was the voice of reason and comfort when my anxiety got the better of me a couple of times.   

The flight time from London to Malaga is normally a manageable 3 hours but for our journey … the trains to Gatwick were delayed ... the computers for passport control weren’t operational when we landed in Malaga causing queue unrest ... then there was my driving for the first time in 7 months .. in the dark… with the GPS not working …  me yelling at my son instead of the GPS …around spaghetti freeways … in a tiny Fiat that had no pick up when I floored it … getting pulled over by a police officer for having the brights on and saying “Merci” instead of “Gracias” … needless to say, in your dreams – you forget the travel hassles.  And we were only coming from London.

Right, the flight time from Seattle to Malaga is 15 hours.  Noted.

The 90 minute drive to the property the next morning was better.  We arrived exactly on time and were greeted by the owners who graciously toured us around this place they had so lovingly invested the last 10 years in.  Quinn eagerly snapped photos and videos as I asked questions.  The property, and especially the setting, was even better in person than in photos.   We called Brett excitedly after the house visit and our lunch in Montefrio. 

But, by afternoon the known reservations we had talked about during the paper exercise hit me like a two-by-four.  Quinn hashed it out with me for hours as we spent that evening walking the streets of Granada.  As much as I loved the property and the potential, I couldn’t image my family and friends from the USA spending the time or money to get there.  I couldn’t imagine us getting there when we move back to Seattle.  And even though there was a great rental history and support infrastructure, I couldn’t imagine managing a property from that far away.   I didn’t want what started as a dream of a place of rest to become a burden.  And Andrew wasn’t kidding:  it was hot.  Too hot.   But it took me being there to understand it at a heart level.

Right, to embrace the slow life we have found in Spain, it isn’t about a place as much as it is about intention.  We can unplug and enjoy the scenery where ever we find ourselves.   So the dream of owning a holiday house has died – not because we didn’t find one – but because we did and it told us, “Not now.”

Sardinia, Italy: Beyond Flip-flops and the Costa Smeralda

Italy is always a good idea.  An island in Italy before the heat and crowds of July and August is a jolly brilliant Half Term School Break idea.

In terms of island size, Sardinia is like the Ohio State of universities.  In the same way you would only know a small percentage of your classmates after 4 years you can only cover a fraction of Sardinia’s vast natural beauty in 4 days.  Sicily, another place we have seen a sliver of, is bigger but Sardinia is still the third largest region in Italy with almost 2,000 meters of coastline.  This then is fair warning to balance this post with a more authoritative source on what not to miss in Sardinia.

However, if you should fly into Olbia in the North of Sardinia … a few suggestions:

First, don’t assume because the Olbia airport is small you will transit through it quickly.  Even if you are the only flight to land at 8:30pm on a quiet Wednesday night.  It took us one hour, a portion of it (weirdly? unsafely?) standing outside adjacent to the tarmac, to get through the two men/one chatty supervisor passport control line.  Either it’s payback for having chosen EasyJet or a welcome to island time.   I wish I could report I managed the wait time with an attitude of dolce vita that every other person not holding an American passport seemed to be capable of but my countenance was unmistakably prima donna.  My Global Entry passport carrying husband wasn’t doing much better.  Thankfully our children, who haven’t had as many years to be conditioned for efficiency and customer service, recognized the daggers darting from our eyes to the supervisor and redirected us.  By the time we reached the front of the line, our impatience had melted but our hunger for pasta had kicked in.

Second, because it is Italy and food is central, a late arrival is “no problem” for the kitchen.  Not only was the restaurant at the farmhouse we stayed at happy to serve us dinner at 10pm but the owner delayed her departure home for the evening so she could welcome us.   Guided by our gracious, grey-haired, quadrilingual Italian waiter, our first bottle of big but not bossy Sardinian red wine was at our table by 10:10pm.

There are many agritourismos/farmhouses scattered throughout Sardinia.  We choose Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru, a relaxing rural hotel with 10 suites, a great pool and grounds, and easy car access to a variety of sites in Sardinia’s northern tip.  It was a lovely choice and one we would recommend but there are probably many in the same vein.  Like the masserias in Puglia where you can follow coastline for miles on end, if you had the time and inclination Sardinia is the ideal place to cover more ground by hopping from farmhouse to farmhouse by car, motorcycle or road bike.  

Unlike other trips where we work to find special restaurants, we allowed ourselves to settle in to Stazzo Lu Ciaccuru for all but one of our four dinners.  We all took turns ordering the risotto with local pecorino cheese (80% of Italy’s pecorino comes from Sardinia), gnocchi with sausage ragu, tempura sardines, and the highlight was a Friday night grilled fish set dinner.  While Sardinian food didn't stand out as much as the food from other Italian regions, it did offer a little bit of everything.  We skipped the maggot cheese and donkey meat.

Rather than park ourselves at one of the stunning beaches along the Costa Smeralda to soak up the sun (which was in full supply in early June), we decided to hit the hiking trails along the Northern coastline and mountainous interior.    A car rental and a willing driver is therefore critical for this kind of trip.   However, as Sardinia is the only region in Italy without a motorway, the continuous landscape payoffs along winding but mostly generous two lane roads appeals to even back seat passengers.

Day 1: Hiking a village town and the natural beaches of the Costa Smeralda

Lucky for us, the traditional village of San Pantaleo which sits high between movie-set like granite mountains, has a weekly market on Thursdays which was one of the days we were there.   We were expecting fruits and vegetables but this was that plus truly special artisan crafts, clothing and jewelry.  We later learned that San Pantaleo is the inland playground for the glamorous people who come to the Costa Smeralda. 

After wishing there was room in our suitcases to bring something back and a lunch at the local pizzeria, we spent the afternoon scrambling around rocks, cliffs, and sand to see the best jaw-dropping natural beaches (the ones that don’t rent beach chairs and often require a short walk to get there) along the Costa Smeralda: the interconnecting beaches of Capriccioli, Romazzino, and Portu Li Coggi.   With only one afternoon, we intentionally avoided glitzy Porto Cervo, the resort heart of the area but we wished we had made it to the long walking beach of Liscia Ruia.

Day 2: Hiking inland on Monte Limbara

Designated national parks and wildlife reserves take up 25% of the island.   When we were told by the farmhouse (we think erroneously) the only way to tour the main islands of the Maddalena Archipelago was via chartered boat, we opted instead to drive inland to Monte Limbara.  It was a place that jumped off the map at my husband but largely skimmed over by the guidebooks.  The husband was right.

From Vallicciola which is roughly 2/3 up the mountain, there are several well signed trails that lead you through dense forests and ridge lines to the highest point in Northern Sardinia for some grand views.  Apart from an epic thunderstorm that had us take cover for 45+ minutes, the 5 mile hike we choose was one of the best hikes we’ve had in Europe. 

In route from the farmhouse to Monte Limbara, we detoured to see a lake we had read about as a hidden gem which was ho hum (Lago di Liscia), stopped in a cork forest near Calangianus,  and circled a number of out of the way, gorgeous roads on the map should we ever return on bikes.  With the delay and drenching of the thunderstorms, we skated by the town of Tempio on our way back but it seemed a look-see town.

 Day 3: Coastal hiking in “Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa” in Santa Teresa Gallura

Trading the inland mountains for coastal granite rocks, we spent our last day hiking in the Northwest corner of the island in an area called Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa a few kilometers from the town of Santa Teresa Gallura.  A small isthmus separates the two areas, best described as massive granite rock sculpture gardens. 

We passed on the easy “A” and “B” routes in favor of the more challenging but rewarding “brown Natural Trail hike” which dipped and turned through rocky outcrops and scrubby vegetation, delivering countless dramatic views of nearby Corsica, for about 4 miles.   It was the kind of hike that makes you glad for a large camera memory card and sympathetic companions for when you inevitably twist your ankle because you are too busy looking out instead of down at your scrambling feet. 

The town of Santa Teresa is an easy one to navigate and enjoy for a post hike lunch and a good pivot point for the nearby beach and dunes of Rena Maiore.  Like so many places in Sardinia, it turns out that Rena Maiore deserved more than an afternoon drive by.  Though gelato fueled, there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to hike the cliff hike trail that extended generously in both directions but it was a great place for a late afternoon swim and a circle on the map for another time.

Cadiz, Spain: Cortijos, Wild Beaches, and Finding your Travel Brand

When we first started traveling as a family, I remember asking a seasoned veteran for advice and she said: “Learn your family’s brand of travel.”  What she meant was it’s easy to be seduced by guidebooks or someone’s amazing photo album or to plan a trip based on what you think you should do and see and so it’s important to overlay a filter on what you know about yourself and your family before you book anything.  I know my family does not appreciate classical music.   This is helpful filtering information when people keep telling you not to miss the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

After several years of experience, we’ve developed our family brand of travel.  It revolves around lots of activity, walking/beach hiking, good restaurants and special, usually small, places to stay outside of big cities where food features and there’s a pool.   It doesn’t even have to be a good pool.   It’s not to say that we don’t do city vacations or lay on the beach vacations but we have found our sweet spot in comfortable country inns in unique settings that take pride in feeding their guests what’s local.  It’s the B&B version of agrotourism.  What we might term B&D – Bed and Dinner. 

The best of the bunch are places with plenty of nearby activities to do by car including an iconic tourist site/city in day trip distance and ideally within a 90 minute radius of an airport.   If your family does not appreciate set menus, wants to be invisible to other guests, or is uncomfortable with “don’t know until we get there” cell phone service, please remember to filter what I’m telling you.

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Brett and I have been talking about this and one of the reasons we think we enjoy this kind of travel is that it allows us to “turn off” the paralysis of having too many choices to make.   While wonderful, big cities come with a long list of must see attractions which unless carefully managed can lead to a “choice overload problem.” The problem with too many choices is that is can cause family friction in decision making and chip away at your sense of satisfaction and relaxation.   The list is always longer than the time.  Museums in our family are usually less than seamless negotiations and the so-called agony we’ve put our children through in “finding the perfect restaurant” is certain to be remembered years from now.

When we are in these more rural settings, our choices - things to do, places to eat - are naturally more limited which safeguards against feelings of regret or the fear of missing out on something important or awesome.  Fewer choices also frees up mental RAM space to really absorb the local culture.  We want to know we don’t have to go in search of a good meal and that coming downstairs will be enough to make that happen.   Not to mention that if your goal for vacation was to disconnect from the day to day noise of work and social media, the need to be glued to your phone in a city for navigation and real time research makes it harder to follow through on that intention. 

Finding these unique places does take more planning and research and so word of mouth helps.  I’ve shared about previous trips we’ve taken in this vein to Puglia, Northern Portugal, and Croatia.  We hit the jackpot again this past October over a 4 day weekend in Cadiz, Spain.   I got behind in writing about this because of our move to London but this is another gem you should know about.  

Let’s imagine that you are living in Europe and want to escape the cold (or madness of the world) and get some sand in your toes.  But you don’t want to fly all the way to the Greek islands to get it and you’d rather something different than Marbella and the Costa del Sol.   The province of Cadiz in Southern Spain and the unspoiled beaches of the Costa de la Luz might be your ticket.

We stayed outside the white village of of Vejer de la Frontera  in one of these country inn like places called Casa La Siesta.  The rustic Andalucian cortijo style building has eight spacious guest rooms, a separate yurt and a secluded family cottage on beautiful grounds with extra special food and wine.  Since it was October, it was too cold for the unheated pool but that didn’t matter.  It’s one of those sites where the modesty of the neighboring village masks the broad place waiting on the other side of the narrow gate.  

The abundance of indoor and outdoor common space with fruit trees, a working vegetable garden, an honesty bar and an open fire in the lounge area all make if feel more like a home away from home than a hotel.   Most of the year it is adults only but children are welcome on selected family weeks and always welcome in the family cottage.  We were there during a family week in two of the rooms.   I booked way in advance as the place does fill up especially during summer when the whole place if often booked out for destination weddings.  A generous breakfast is included and delicious three course set dinners are offered five nights a week.  The dinners were so tasty and relaxed (ie the boys could head up to bed on their own when they were tired allowing us to finish the long meal with an espresso), we ended up eating in three of the four nights.

In terms of activities, we spent every day discovering a new beach and then landing in a beach town or white hill town for lunch.   We spent one day walking miles on the long, straight golden sands of El Palmar Beach known for surfing and wind-based watersports.

We spent another day in the small but gorgeous cliff faced beach of Los Canos de Meca.

And we spent a third day in what might be the best beach we’ve seen in continental Europe, the coastal village and beach of Bolonia.  Bolonia is about a 45 minute drive from where we were staying and only 20km north of the popular destination of Tarifa

Bolonia has been voted one of Europe’s top 25 beaches on Trip Advisor but it’s mostly only known to Spanish tourists.  Here’s why Bolonia is so fab:

  • Geography is in its favor.  Bolonia sits within Estrecho National Park.  From the main highway, you need to drive 7km to get there.  There is no drive through traffic making it like a Greek island without having to take a ferry. 
  • With a population of only 117, there is little nearby accommodation which means it is unspoiled and not commercialized.  Military land nearby will insure further development won’t happen.
  • Yet, it’s not entirely remote.  There are no chairs or services on the beach but there are enough restaurants and bars, a few small grocery stores, and surfboards to hire to make it possible to spend the whole day there.   It’s also a popular place for camper vans to overnight.  It gets busy on the weekends and we heard the summer months do get crowded.
  • The beach itself has everything.  It is equally good for wading and waves.  The sand is soft and golden.   It’s a destination spot for water sports and leisure.  It’s long enough for a walk or run. 
  • The setting is gorgeous.  The beach has a natural cove on one end and is surrounded by huge white sand dunes which spread out into a forest of pine trees on the other end.  There is something good for the soul about running up and tumbling down sand dunes.
  • Not only can you look out over views of the channel between Spain & Africa, but just to show off its excellence behind the beach are some Roman ruins you can explore.  You don’t see that in Florida.

We didn’t make it to Tarifa but that would be a worthwhile day trip with more time.  As would a visit back to Zahara de los Atunes, the place where I first met and feel in love with Cadiz.  We flew into Jerez, the nearest airport, where we hired a car and drove 50 minutes to Casa La Siesta.  If you had more time, I would recommend that you fly into Seville to spend a couple of days there and then hire a car from Seville and drive 1.5 hours to Casa La Siesta. 

If countryside cortijos and wild beaches are your travel brand ... Cadiz might be worth a look see/sea.

Berlin Marathon Weekend is Here!

Finally! The Berlin Marathon is this Sunday. I’ve done the training with Maureen and Holly but now all sorts of pains – both real and phantom – have been creeping in. A course of Advil is helping as is thinking about this:

My dear Dad has been living with Parkinsons for over 12 years. David Olmsted, the strong Army Officer who was always in PT ready shape my whole growing up. Though he is resilient and still playing some respectable golf, there are many, and increasingly more, hard days. Recently he has been having trouble walking and more specifically, stopping. He tells his brain he wants to stop which causes his legs to slow to a shuffle but his upper body doesn’t seem to get the message, intent instead on keeping the forward motion. It’s like a freight truck discovering too late the brakes don’t work.

But as people who love you do, before I could swallow the latest devastation of his disease, he brightly told me he found a work around. He said as long as he tells his brain to “stride out” instead of “stop" his lower body keeps from shuffling and he is able to stay upright through a stop. This simple instruction to his brain has made a huge difference. It reminds me that our brain is a powerful thing with more connection to our bodies than we will ever understand.

If my heroic Dad can find a work around surely I can too. Conventional wisdom might suggest that short choppy steps of a shuffle might be more cautionary and appropriate when you see a road block ahead but the upper body – the residence of the head and heart – have other ideas. Whether it’s a progressive disease like Parkinsons, a task beyond your capability like a marathon, a dream with no discernible progress -- when stopping is all you want to do – the better thing to tell yourself (assuming you are not directly facing a brick wall – “the imaginary wall” does not count here) is to stride out. It just might be the difference between a graceful finish and a broken rib.

Thanks to all those who have supported me through donations for the awesome cause of World Vision, friendship runs and encouragement. It means so much! And Daddy, I’ll especially be thinking of you as I stride out those last miles on the pavement.

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I'll be running with Team World Vision! 

Greek Isles, Big Smiles Part 2: Naxos Travel Guide

The more we travel the more I agree with my friend Megan who says “the thing we will most take away from our experience is less WHERE to travel and more HOW to travel.”  That is until it comes to Greece.  This is where I get on my high horse and tell you WHERE to travel.

I did that with the Greek Island of Paros which has turned out to be my most read blog of all time and my only post that still gets daily visitors.  Enough people have taken that trip now that Chrys from the Paliomylos Hotel in Naoussa recently sent us a gift by way of one of Brett’s London colleagues.

NOW WHERE, NAXOS?

While we would have gladly gone back to Paros for a third time, this summer we decided to mix up the magic by heading to the neighboring island of Naxos.  We’d heard glowing reviews about Naxos from people who also knew and loved Paros and so it seemed the natural next destination among the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.

More than one local explained while beautiful neighboring Santorini and lively Mykonos have both been overrun by tourism - “the Disneyland of the Greek Islands” they said – Naxos and Paros are tourist friendly but have managed to retain more of their Greekness.   Naxos in particular is the largest and most fertile of the islands with a good supply of water allowing it to be self-sufficient from an agricultural point of view (think beef and cheese not just fish!)  As if to signal the historic appeal of the island, the looming ruins of the Temple of Apollo welcome you to Naxos Town (also called Chora.)

2 for 1: BEACH + CULTURE

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There are lots of places you can go in the world to find a beach but the additional opportunity for culture makes a trip to a place like Naxos something extra special.  In our nine days on the island, we witnessed small examples of the Greek love for family, their care for others and their glass half full approach to life. 

There was the young woman at the local bakery in Agios Prokopius who lovingly described in great detail all the baked goods her Mother had made and offering us tastes of something new each morning.  Her mother’s not-too-sweet baklava was hands down the best we’ve ever tasted, something we would have missed had it not been for her proud daughter.  

There was the smiling bus driver who stopped for two very late people running to catch it when he clearly didn’t need to and in many other countries would not have, a small kindness met with large appreciation. 

There was the informal and friendly exchange each morning where dark-skinned migrants would clean the trash off the beach in front of the restaurants and beach bars and then come in for a coffee and small amount of money.  

There was the owner of Meltemi, a restaurant in Naxos Town since 1970, who we watched patiently, unmistakably teaching two young inexperienced waiters the higher calling of service as if they were his own sons. 

WHEN TO GO:

June and September are the absolute best months to go.  July and August are the busiest and most expensive months.  Locals told us August can also be quite windy.  Naxos is heavy with Scandinavians in June, Greeks from Athens in July, and a mix of Europeans and a smattering of Americans in August.

LODGING:

Initially our goal was to find a place within walking distance to Naxos Town.   We had done that in Paros and really enjoyed the proximity.  A travel writer I know had highly recommended the Niassaki Beach Hotel.  (Travel Babbo spent three weeks with his family on Naxos and wrote about it here.)  When I tried to book there they had told me they were changing their policy and not accepting any children under 12 years old.   They have since reversed that policy but in the meantime I booked elsewhere.  It looks like a great hotel if you hoping to be within walking distance to town.

Instead I booked at the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas and Suites.   It’s a countryside setting two miles from Naxos Town and less than one mile from the nearest beach (Agios Prokopius.)  We ended up loving the privacy, views and private pool which more than made up for having to get a car.  It’s a truly fantastic place to stay for a family.   The owner Maria who is also a high school teacher has created a modern, authentically Greek villa retreat and she loves Americans.  Her husband and co-owner is the mayor of Naxos and their staff is wonderfully warm.   Antonio, one of Maria’s high school graduates, was especially kind and also impressive as he was on his way to take a job with the Prime Minister of Greece in Athens for 2 years in the fall.   No egg order is one too many for the women who serve the included and excellent breakfast every morning.  Opened in 2010 and recently visited by Anthony Bourdain, the Naxian Collection has 8 villas each with their own pool and 8 suites.   Everything is done well.   If I had any complaint at all it would only be that the initial booking and communication was a little spotty (but I now know they have other jobs out of season) but once there the service is very attentive and they love kids. 

While we were there they had just opened a sister hotel, Naxian on the Beach.   It’s an adults only hotel with 10 suites just 10 meters from the quietest part of Plaka Beach.   One of the perks of being a guest at the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas and Suites is that you are able to use the sun beds and services at their sister hotel which we took full advantage of.

If you click on their website or read their reviews, you’ll understand why you might be hard pressed to find a better place to stay on Naxos. Book well in advance as they have a large repeat customer base.

TRANSPORTATION:

You’ll need and want a rental car if you stay at the Naxian Collection.   When we arrived at Naxos Airport, we assumed we’d be picking up the rental car from there.  That would not be correct.   The Naxos Airport is smaller than the average house in Seattle.  Instead there was a car waiting for us from the Naxian Collection who took us to the hotel and Brett into Naxos Town to pick up our rental car from Sixt.  We noticed during the week that many of the rental car companies will actually come to the hotel and deliver the car to you in the event that you only wanted to rent a car for a few days.  You get the rental cars without gas and are expected to return them that way.  We made the mistake of filling up the gas tank of our rental car (one of the only 7 seat cars on the island) on the first day and using a quarter of a tank in 9 days.  It’s a big island but when the beaches are as good as they are nearby there isn’t as much incentive to drive to the other side of the island.

BEACHES:

Different than Paros where the beaches are spread out, many of the destination beaches in Naxos are clustered along the western coast and are connected – a great thing for those who enjoy long walks on the beach.  This website describes all 18 beaches in great detail but these were the ones we liked:

Plaka Beach.  Because of the access to our hotel’s sun beds we spent most of our time on Plaka Beach.  It’s significantly less crowded that neighboring Agia Anna and Agios Prokopios and partial organized with sun beds and umbrellas.  Much of the beach has sand dune behind it which make it feel more remote than it is. You should be aware that the last, most southern section of the beach has a lot of full-on nudity.  Grandpas and all.

Below: Beach Olympics on Plaka Beach with our good friends from Norway.  5 events: long jump, plank, hit the target, beach tennis, and egg toss.

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Migra Vigla Beach.  Our second favorite beach was Migra Vigla.  It’s visible from Plaka Beach but it takes 35 minutes to drive around to get there.  With much fewer services and a little rockier sand, a portion of the beach is for wind surfers and the other portion around the rocks is great for swimming and snorkeling.  There are more Greeks on this beach.  There is a small town with a grocery store which we used to have a picnic lunch on the rocks.

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Agios Prokopios Beach.  This was the beach closest to our hotel.  The sand, swimming and services are great and it’s beautiful but also crowded.  Unlike Plaka Beach there is not rock shelf as you get into the water which makes it very family friendly.  No nudity.

Even though the interior of Naxos is mountainous, the continuation of Agios Prokopios Beach to Agia Anna Beach to Plaka Beach make for great, flat running along mostly paved and dirt roads.  There is also a fabulous, easy walk from Agios Prokopios Beach heading north around the point along a rocky trail.  You’ll have to walk past some stinky salt flats to get there but don’t miss this.   You’ll even get to see a ship wrecked from 20 years ago that is still on the rocks.

EATING:

Naxos is proud of their food and local ingredients.  We had some really good meals and only a couple of misses.  Here is our top eating out picks:

Antamoma, Naxos Town.   Modern Greek restaurant with view of water but not on harbor.  Opened two years ago it’s an informal atmosphere with patio setting and a definite modern vibe.  Closest to a “special meal” we had. The chef is from Naxos but went to Athens for cooking school for one year, returned to Naxos and now cooks with his Mom.  The menu is smaller and dishes a little more interesting than traditional Naxian food like homemade pasta with smoked pork and risotto with vegetables and Naxian cheese.  Great starters and house wine.  It was the only place we went to twice.

Meltemi, Naxos Town.  Solid traditional Greek restaurant in center of town without views.  Best dishes we had were the kleftiko (veal, pork and lamb cooked in paper with eggplant, tomatoes and peppers) and excellent cheese pies with herbs.   

Mythodea, Naxos Town.  Family run tradition Greek restaurant slightly off main part of harbor with spectacular views.  We ordered off “Mama’s Specials” which included lamb in yogurt sauce and lamb in grease paper with peppers.  Best Greek Salad for our trip. 

1739, Naxos Town Rooftop bar opened in July 2015 and recommended by Travel Babbo.  You climb up from main town and get a nice view of harbor.   Worth the trip up to watch the sunset.   The other bar we didn’t try but the swank vibe and setting looked really nice was 520 Bar.

The restaurants we might recommend skipping were Typografio in Naxos Town and Metaxi Mas in the Old Town.  The first was overpriced and the second was just ok.

Palatia, Agia Anna Beach.   Recommended to us by a father/son who worked in a grocery store.   Lovely, rustic setting right on the beach where they specialize in locally caught fish.  The night we were there service was more relaxed (slow) than normal but the grilled dorado, grilled sardines, salad with octopus and calamari with tomatoes were all excellent.   At the end of the meal the waiter brought out free cake and shots.   Right next door is the Banana Beach Bar which looked to be a very popular spot.

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Patatosporos, Agia Anna Beach.  Another beachside fish restaurant on the other side of the Banana Bar.   Better service and pacing than Palatia and most importantly, the simply grilled dorado and sea bass was even more delicious.  Ditto that for the zucchini balls and fried saganaki cheese.   Kids got the ocean basket, fried king prawns, calamari and fish fillets with fries.    Stick with the fresh fish options.  Though the early reviews on Trip Advisor were mixed the more recent reviews have been better.

Kahula Bar, Agios Prokopius Beach.   A great spot on the beach for a coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening.  It's the last place along the restaurants and bars on Prokopius beach.  We much preferred this bar to the more talked about (and smokier) nearby Mojito Beach Bar.

Petrino, Plaka Beach.  Focus on Naxian dishes with local products on the far end of Plaka Beach.  Vine clad terrace that is more restaurant than beach bar.  You pick from case with specials of the day like spicy meatballs wrapped in eggplant or fisherman’s rice plus three different slow roasted meat options.   Good for lunch or dinner.  They also opened a terrific homemade ice cream shop called Mitatos run by a husband and wife right next door to Petrino which is better than the one that everyone talks about in Naxos Town called Milkato Gelateria (which is also good.) 

Souvlucky, Plaka Beach.  Great pork + chicken gyros made to order with the I-still-don’t-understand topping of French fries.  Family business.  Clean, well located along Plaka Beach.  Can sit in with your bathing suit or better to take away and hope the sand stays out.  €14 for 6 gyros make it a very budget friendly lunch.  According to two local teen boys we asked, best souvlaki is in Naxos Town at either The Spitiko or Kozi.  

Picasso, Plaka Beach.  I know it sounds sacrilegious to suggest Mexican food but the setting and margaritas make the busy Picasso a worthwhile lunch stop to mix things up.   The clearly beloved Picasso recently had their 20 year anniversary.  Ample seating, kids area for playing, shade for margarita sipping.  Right next door to Souvlucky.

GETTING THERE:

It takes a long time to get to Naxos.  For this trip, we decided to skip the ferry and fly one of the small planes from Athens to Naxos.  It was totally worth it.   It was an easy, not turbulent, absolutely gorgeous flight.  And it saves so much time as it’s hard to get around overnighting in Athens if you are going the ferry route.  The connecting flights from Athens to the islands book up fast so don’t leave this until the last minute.

NAXOS OR PAROS:

I know this will sound like a cop out but my advice between Naxos and Paros is this:  Do both.  If you are already making the effort to get to the Greek Islands, you should split your time between the islands.  It’s only an hour ferry ride between the two islands but you’ll want to overnight in both places and not just go for the day.  Naxos has more to do and better beaches but Naoussa in Paros is a bit more charming than Naxos Town and the restaurants are better overall (especially for fish lovers). 

 

Anticipation: Where's your next trip?

Few things live up to the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning when you are a kid. Buying a plane ticket for a vacation, the grown up version of Santa’s big gift under the tree, might come close. People care not for the airlines but there is an undeniable tremor of delight every time you book a trip (business and bereavement travel excluded.) Once your flight is booked or some other measurable (ideally non-refundable) step is taken towards planning a trip, anticipation sets in and carries you toward your departure date. Even the airlines stoke our excitement by believing we may have as many as 6 email addresses to share our itinerary with.

As Thomas Swick says in his excellent travel book The Joys of Travel and Stories that Illuminate Them: “Anticipation is to a journey what infatuation is to a romance: an uncritical but crucial prelude to reality.”

Anticipation may be the least documented portion of your journey but it’s no doubt the frame in which your experiences will fit into. Planners will engross themselves into guidebooks and maps and travel underwear. Dreamers will immerse themselves through books, music, or movies set in their destination. Connectors will reach out to their friends and friends of friends and the grocery store clerk for tips. Fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantsers will assume their travel companion is taking care of things. Most everyone will look at pretty pictures, choose one as their screen saver, and drool until touch down. Social media junkies will then “check in” at the airport and continue to do so daily until they’ve returned to work.

Whatever the method, there is a positive buzz about this stage of our trip because we anticipate all the good parts and take a mental hall pass on all the hassles, crowds, misfires and grumpy people who were not waiting with a fresh Hawaiian leis to welcome us. As Thomas Swick says, “Anticipation of travel is always more idyllic than travel itself.” Not being able to find a restroom when you need it never comes up for consideration when you are dreaming about your beach vacation. Nor do you think about (or later admit to) days like this as described by a brave travel comrade: “Kraków Day 2 giant FAIL. 2 hour wait at Wieliczka Salt Mines + 2 hour wait at Schindler Factory Museum plus torrential downpour + sleepy kids = afternoon spent in a mall eating at a super crap restaurant. You win some. You lose some.”

It almost doesn’t matter how long the countdown is as the jolt of anticipation will gladly fill the space given. “Where’s your next trip?” is also a serviceable conversation starter in virtually any social setting and infinitely more interesting than the weather. Strangely, people are often more interested in where you are going than where you’ve been. A cynical view of this might be that’s because we have short attention spans but maybe it’s because anticipation is largely all reasonably positive and retell is too many details edited either for only the AMAZING! or every horrible thing done to you in a place like the Maldives. Also there are no photo albums to endure during pre-trip conversations.

Reality should not temper the golden hues of anticipation. We need the fantasy to go through the hassle of leaving our house and handing over our credit cards. Home base is full with enough reality that you shouldn’t care if the award winning photo of your destination has cropped out a power plant in the distance or that the darling monkeys you’ve read about will cease to be cute after 15 minutes. If aware, the anticipation buildup can be a kind of goodwill that might actually come in handy when the reality on the ground isn’t mapping to the pretty picture.

Because anticipation does however raise the expectation bar, it does behoove you to KNOW THYSELF when planning a trip. If you like to be led and cared for, pre-book with a tour group. If you hyperventilate in crowds, skip Florence in July. If history bores you to tears, you won’t be cured by sacrificing a day in the Churchhill War Rooms because someone included it in a list of “Top 5 Things Not to Miss.” If you have children, remember you have children. Resilience training does not happen on the fly.

There was a widely-referenced study conducted in the Netherlands about the link between vacations and happiness and the conclusion was that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning. Apparently the old adage “the best is yet to come” does not necessarily apply to vacations. Even though happiness peaks before you’ve reached 10,000 feet, the happiness halo returns to baseline roughly 8 weeks after a trip. While this may sound discouraging a better takeaway is perhaps to take shorter, more frequent trips so that you have something on the horizon.

Anticipating a trip is obviously easier with both financial resources and in places with more liberal vacation practices than the US.  The Netherlands study showed however that the happiness boast isn’t linked with how far, long, or luxurious the travel but rather simply planning a break away from your normal routine. While the study didn’t suggest this, my own experience proves that the payoffs for planning a trip to the overlooked and less traveled places are almost always higher. So while I can’t guarantee that planning a weekend getaway to Waco, Texas will yield an 8 week happiness halo it’s worth a shot.

Where’s your next trip?

Sicily in Seven Acts

We spent 72 hours in Sicily this past weekend.  Here's a few of our most memorable encounters from the trip.

Act 1: Giacomo, the sweeper

Early one morning on the terrace, a cheerful, Sicilian man in his early 60s came to sweep. “English? Deutsch?” he asked.   We answered “English.”  He nodded, said "No English" and proceeded to talk to us in German. Thanks to the ein bisschen German my husband knows we learned the sweeper’s name was Giacomo, he had worked for Interpol for 7 years in Wiesbaden, Germany but was now retired from the police force and collecting his pension.  After 15 minutes of careful sweeping and constant chatter in the second language he was proud to know, he downed an espresso, bid us "Arrivederci" and hopped in his car, on to the next terrace.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 2: Lovers at Sea

One afternoon we were trekking along a long, mostly deserted beach with sand dunes and a scented eucalyptus park on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.  So strong was the head wind that we bundled up in all the clothes we had, only our toes in the water.   After not seeing a soul for a long time, we spotted a couple in the distance who were changing into their bathing suits – she only half of one and he in a very small one.  Locals, we reasoned.  By the time we reached them, which was truly no time at all, they had already run into the sea and were kissing, seemingly unaware of the wind or water temp.  Love does, cold water be damned.  Not long after, wind now at our back, two young emboldened American boys shed their wind breakers and took the plunge too.

The beach of the Forest Reserve, Randello - Sicily

Act 3: The American

While playing cards in the hotel lobby I overhead a conversation at the front desk.  Without line of sight, the accent confirmed the guest was a fellow American, though from the opposite and more candid coast than I.  Said she to the obliging woman at the front desk:  “We don’t want a late dinner.  Does this restaurant have their menu online?” Stuffing down laughter given what even I knew to be an absurd question in Sicily, the woman at the front desk did not miss a beat when she responded: “No, no menu online … but if you’d like, I can call them …” What happened next was a protracted three-way conversation where dinner was pre-ordered and would be ready on arrival but not before the American asked, “Can you ask them if they have anything with beans.  My husband likes beans.” It is hard to make slow food go fast, but some are willing to try.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 4: Roberto, the waiter

Speaking of slow food, one night we were seated at a four top in a much too brightly lit restaurant at 8pm.  In walked a man, who took off his coat, spoke to the hostess and made a bee-line for our table.  Roberto had been called in from his night off to speak to the Americans.   Dinner he explained was a set menu of 12 starters, two pastas and a whole fish.  The only question was whether we wanted a mix of cooked and uncooked seafood.  We said we’d take both, our two boys included, and he turned to the hostess and said with conviction, “QUATTRO.”   When we jokingly asked Roberto why the restaurant was full of men, he said without a note of sarcasm: “It’s like that every day except Saturday night and Sunday brunch.”  “By the way” he continued, “the only rules are to say STOP when you are done."

During the next four hours we tasted everything the sea had to offer, several things requiring explanation, twice involving Roberto’s wife feeding me with a spoon.  As our adventuress children eventually fatigued, Roberto’s wife serendipitously poured them half a glass of Coke Zero while she bounced between the tables of men, sipping the rest of what was left of the can.  The Owner, whose photos on the wall suggested he was both restaurateur and local politician, roamed the tables of the men he clearly knew well, helping himself to their mussels as he went.  

By time the eleventh starter came, or so we thought, our middle son asleep at the table, with his long checked out younger brother, woke briefly and laughed out loud when three more starters came all at once. After our third attempt at STOP was insistent enough to be received, the second pasta and whole fish were waved off.  It came as no shock at the end of the meal, given the squishy counting of starters, when there was a shotgun exchange between the servers.  Out came a calculator, a shrug of approval and the presentation of the calculator screen in lieu of a bill with the final question:  “Lemoncello?  Grappa?” 

Skallelo, Scoglitti - Sicily

Act 5: Antonio, the shopkeeper

At 2:10 pm in the central square of a Baroque town in Southern Sicily, gelatos in hand, we stood nose to glass at a trendy little t-shirt shop.  It teased us come hither with its colorful window signage only to find on approach it closed for siesta.   Sensing our curiosity and perhaps our wallets, the shopkeeper unlocked the door and invited us in.  Right away it was clear Antonio was less interested in our wallets and more interested in telling us the story of the shop. 

The shop was mostly t-shirts with unique pithy Sicilian proverbs – such as “The more you think about something, the bigger will be your mistake.”—which had been given life in an ironic way through their designs.   Started in this small town there were now 43 of their shops across Sicily.  Proud of their proverbs, Antonio showed and explained each one of the “joking” shirts which we heard as “jogging” shirts until about the 4th one. Once our private consultation with the lively Antonio was finished, we left the store that should have been closed for siesta with a souvenir of Sicilian wisdom: “If you want the bike.  You have to pedal.” 

Siculamente, Ragusa Ibla - Sicily

Act 6: airport passengers

Before the plane had come to a full stop, in a collective disregard for the seat belt sign the Sicilians stormed the aisle.  Only when we deplaned into the brilliant Sicilian sun did I understand.  The prize they were racing for was coming home.  When we were boarding the plane 72 hours later, I chatted up a friendly looking passenger.  “Are you from here?”, I asked.  “Yes, but it had been 10 years since I’ve been back.” he said without a note of longing.  “How was it?” I asked.  “The same as when I left 30 years ago.  Same roads.  Same problems.  Same everything.” No matter where you're from, I remembered, coming home can cut both ways.  

Comiso Airport - Sicily

Act 7: Anna's father

At breakfast one morning we had a lovely conversation with some people:  Anna, a Sicilian born, now living in Brussels part owner of the hotel we were staying in; her husband Carlos who of all things was head of Tourism & Emerging and Creative Industries for the European Commission; and Anna’s elderly father who was still living in Sicily only 30 kilometers away.  Anna's father eagerly shared with us many of his favorite places in the nearby towns. 

Later that day after repeatedly striking out in search of a simple pizza lunch, we ended up at a fish restaurant by the sea mentioned by Anna’s father.  Given the bleak exterior we only went in because we were dejected and it was recommended.  As is often the case when we judge a book by its cover, we were led upstairs to a beautiful dining room full of well-dressed families overlooking the sea.  Lunch, the server explained, was either pasta or fish.  After, he said - in a barely audible voice - 22 starters. Believing our marathon dinner the night before to be a once in a lifetime experience, we agreed to chuck our desire for “simple” and tucked in for remainder of the afternoon.  If we were going to have back to back epic meals at least we were following a true Mediterranean diet.

An hour into an even better meal than the first, a group obviously well-known to the restaurant staff and clientele walked in.  It was Anna and company.  Only 6 hours into our friendship we were the first people they warmly greeted.  Anna’s father, whose zest for life and people reminded me of my Sicilian grandfather, told the waiter to bring us the best bottle of Sicilian champagne. Maybe it was the 22 starters or the champagne or both but for the hours that followed my vision blurred between restaurant and family table. 

Viri Ku C'e, Scoglitti - Sicily

In loving memory of my Sicilian Poppop, James Baldanza.  At the table of course.