Munich Encounters

A First Date with Spaten

Ravenous from a 5 ½ hour drive from Luxembourg, food was the first order of business upon arriving in Munich early afternoon.  Though a Hofbrauhaus would do, some of us wanted better which sent us on a trek for Spatenhaus  a well-known brewery with above average food overlooking the Opera House.  Mingling with locals in their Sunday finest, we scored a prime table in a private nook provided we could finish in 90 minutes.  AS IF that would be a problem with this American crew of boy.  We devoured plates of typical Bavarian food:  goulash, spaetzle, wiener schnitzel, and cucumber salad washed down with an-always-the-right-time pint of the restaurant’s own beer, Spaten-Franziskaner-Bier and a budding notion that we very much liked Munich.

The Arrival of Krampus

Some people are lucky enough to win the lottery and some people land at the right place at the right time even when they have no idea what to make of it.  On our first night, we walked into Munich’s main Christkindlmarkt  just as a herd of costumed beasts – with polices escorts and a mob of camera carrying followers - came charging in our direction.  Adorned in stinky animal hide and carrying a switch, one of the masked beasts gently patted my youngest on the head as he blazed past and the crowd swell continued down market.   Too fast and too weird to make a lasting impression, we drowned our bewilderment in 150g of warm candied almonds.  Later that night, thanks to a serendipitous NY Times article, the mystery of the old and recently revived Bavarian tradition of Krampus (the anti- St. Nicolas) was solved.  The devilish goblins with masked costumes made exclusively from materials and animal hides in the Alps (hence the stink) only show up at the Christkindlmarkts on the second and third Sundays before Christmas.  Lottery-like timing.  [No photos of Krampus were snapped in time.]

From Mine to Massage

We began our experience of the world of science and technology in a fantastic, not-as-claustrophobic-as-feared replica Mine in the basement of the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science museum.  From there we barely skimmed the surface of 50 (!) exhibits covering 50,000 square meters in four hours.  One of the children rightly surmised that we’d be wicked smart if could live there.  Landing on the top floor unable to process another scientific fact, we dropped a 2 euro coin in a Motel 6 style massage chair and divvied up the ten minutes between us.  As far as we can tell, no new brain cells resulted from the massage.

Typically Munich

Inspired by the Deutsches Museum, we rolled the dice for a second museum the next day –  the Munich City Museum (Munich Stadtmuseum.)   We toured the “Typically Munich” permanent exhibit, a cultural history of Munich from the beginnings of the city to the present – understood best by those already living in Munich, who unfortunately weren’t there to offer us any explanation of what we were seeing.  Disjointed and not very interesting, we redirected to the National Socialism Exhibit which was better.  Either the excellent City Museum in Amsterdam has ruined us with unrealistic expectations or the much too quiet museum told us that we weren’t all together wrong.

A Trio of Party Santas

Nothing says Christmas spirit like a chorus singing carols from the balcony the Neues Rathaus high above a gazillion wooden stalls selling Christmas wares and crepes with Nutella.    Zigzagging through crowds of people balancing two gluhweins and a kinder punch, I came upon my waiting children just as a trio of party Santas were passing.   More interested in Santa than kinder punch, my youngest shouted Santa’s name.  Clearly in a hurry to a Christmas kid-free bash but obliged by their chosen attire, they stopped, straightened their beards, and offered the young lad a photo.   [One Santa not photoed.]      


Meeting up with Americans

On the U-Bahn (the old but superefficient, not oversubscribed subway) five stops north of Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, given away by voices that carry a youngish retired couple in tennis shoes inquires, “So where in the US are you from?”  Without wanting to overcomplicate, we answer “Seattle, and you?”  “Illinois. Joliet.” “Oh,” we politely respond, “We went to school in Illinois.  Wheaton.”  “Sure.  Wheaton.  We know it.”  Not knowing where to go from there, they quicken their pace and we follow in silence, until they peel off for the Marriot and us for the Melia.

Outdoor Livin’

If ever you wondered how Germans are able to walk in any weather condition, happen upon a German Outdoor Store and be ready to have choice overload and a keyed up husband.   Choosing a down jacket in Germany is like choosing a college in the US.  Way too many options for anyone without a plan or decisive wife.  Except of course when you ask for a snow boot in men, size 14.  Then you have two choices.  Both in black.  (For non sports shopping,  check out Reichenbachstrasse near the Deutsches Museum for some great boutiques.)

Bah Humbug

On a crowded sidewalk in the center of Munich four days before Christmas, as can happen on forced Christmas shopping marches, a brotherly spat broke out.  A fist or two might have been involved.  Obvious immediate parental action was taken diffusing any further altercation while a well-dressed German Grandma - not even in the fray – took it upon herself to shout her angriest German at my already scolded children.  Too bad she wasn’t looking 50 meters later when brotherly love broke out.  [Photo not available.]

German Surfers & Burritos

Sausaged out by the month of December, we bee lined to the neighborhood of Maxvorstadt for lunch at a place called Burrito Company.  With a  total California vibe down to the ordering system,  hot sauce in brown bags on the table, recycling bins, avocados for sale and surfboard in the corner we learned the place was opened by a couple of Germans who spent a few years surfing in California.  They then came back to Munich with an idea to spread burrito goodness.   It worked.


We made it out to the Allianz Arena for the last tour on the last day before the holiday.  The last English tour was hours before so we settled for the German version, figuring that Football was universal and Dad and Colin’s limited bi/tri-lingualism might suffice.  Dad’s German skills were enough to react to the “I assume everyone here speaks German” that afforded us a bonus, condensed English version at the end of each section of the tour.  We saw the team shower rooms, the tunnel to the field, and learned lots of fun facts about Bayern Munich (team of Lawton's goalie hero.)  We even scored 45 minutes before the start of the tour in an excellent, modern, and interactive team museum.  The boys were in football heaven.

Old Traditions in New Places

Our holiday tradition in Seattle is to go to the Pike's Place Market every Christmas Eve morning with our extended family to hunt and gather for the evening's meal.   We brought that tradition to Munich by doing a similar thing in a fabulous outdoor and indoor market (Schrannenhalle) before driving back to Luxembourg loaded down with goodies for Christmas Eve.   If only we could have transported the extended family. 


A Concert, London, and Travel

I came to London to see a concert. If it sounds a touch extravagant or like a middle-aged reach for a missed groupie youth, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. My husband however was already going to be in London for work - lodging solved! – and among other things, age has a way of drawing out one’s desire to make more effort to rally around passionate people, especially those who have done the work of their craft. I know nothing about music really but I'm getting better at recognizing the scent of authenticity in whatever form it comes by.  Having seen the Brooklyn-born, now Seattle-based Augustines leave a part of themselves in Heidelberg this spring, something told me the trek to London for their last show of their current European tour would be worth the investment.  It was.

My favorite part of the concert was the encore when the band came out to the middle of the crowd to perform a couple songs unplugged.  Made possible by the iconic and intimate venue of London's Roundhouse, it wasn't just a "let's change up the set" decision but a reflection of the band's relationship with their fans - even though the choice further exposed what little voice singer Billy had left after weeks of pummeling.  A woman pastor I heard on a podcast recently talked about how their church is set up in the round as an intention of sharing in the accountability of presence. These guys were the doing the same thing - giving of their grief and longing and joy and then receiving it back as a sort of collective offering.  In that way, we were treated not just to a memorable show but also gifted a two hour hall pass from whatever ailed us when we walked in.

Grade A experiences have this way of giving you temporary water wings that carry you into the next day. My next day was still in London, on my own, until the meet up with my husband for dinner.  Though aching for the American pancakes staring back at me from the hotel breakfast menu, I made a last minute commitment to the veggie works filling me with enough omega3 to power past any temptation to cede my walking agenda to the Underground.  Credit:  water wings.  Normally in the morning company of global news where missives of despair come flying off the page, I am easy target.  However in my buoyed and now nourished state, nothing landed dangerously.


With ear buds in for a second encore, I set out for a long unhurried walk to a photography exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.  I could have chosen a hundred different destinations in London, but somehow returning to place I’d once been and enjoyed seemed like as good as any way to spend the day.  Engrossed in my playlist and not trusting myself to look the wrong way, I fastidiously obeyed pedestrian signals or stuck close to the shoulder of trailblazers in the know.   

Indeed there are lots of suits and the best looking prams money can buy, but London is a place where everything goes and everyone is welcome, if not for reals at least at first blush.  English language schools round many neighborhood corners and coupling norms are as unexpected as a young Arab hipster offering to share his table with you.  (I said “yes, thanks!”) While the common urban denominator may be scarves, the rest is an opportunity to see the world in six city blocks. 

The day was cold in a way the weather report misrepresented, wind causing chill beneath layers of thoughtful preparation.  After a while, I joined the chorus of people taking cover in coffee shops and tea salons for a mid-morning shot of warmth.  Behind the glass case of my chosen pit stop, gingerbread men squatted on pillows of whipped frosting and cinnamon buns swirled freely in pronouncement of their hand crafted care.  Not obliged to order my joe to go, I marked the moment by cracking open (what’s the Kindle word for that?) a new book and eavesdropping on conversations I could finally understand.  It was lovely and totally unrevealing.

Back on the street, I slackened whatever pace I had to follow herds of people on side streets (most, I learned, on their way to an office building not a secret sample sale) or catch slices of sunlight breaking through (causing an erratic number of street crossings.)   Like a cyclist obliged “Do Not Overtake Buses,” I had not overtaken a single soul who set out for the National Portrait Gallery at roughly the same time I did.  This was meandering at its finest.   Although even with my head partway in the clouds and partway in people watching mode, marketing muscle made it impossible for me to ignore:  “Night of the Museum 3” will be in theatres soon.

Finally ducking in to the exhibit, I was treated to sixty portraits selected from over 4,000 submissions by a wide range of contemporary photographers.   As remarkable photos can, these portraits revealed not just an interesting face but a flash of a life story.   In the permanent collection, one particular amplified oil on canvas caught my attention as I noticed the subject and I shared birth years.  Like me, her face was at the beginning of new groves but her gaze was confident and her teeth excellent.  She also happened to be an Olympic sprinter, a stitch of reassurance that no amount of training can stem the tide of growing older.

Building on the healthy start to the day, I stopped in Soho for a Peruvian lunch of ceviche and causa (cold potato cakes.)  I made conversation with the affable waiter from my counter stool resulting in the purchase of signed copy of their best-selling Peruvian cookbook and shamelessly listened in on an interesting conversation among three young Americans who’d come to London for acting school. 

Revived by the late lunch, I turned my attention toward a little must do Christmas shopping along the circus that is Oxford Street.  Nothing pops you out of your good cheer like a futile search of a soccer kit (Liverpool) not endorsed (hated) in these boroughs.  Draining faster than a phone battery working overtime on maps and music, I did manage a minor success at the Nike Store and a few others.  With the morning marvelousness of humans dimming in a late afternoon queue for the loo and the consumption chatter that all of a sudden surrounds you like an unwanted red bow, I soon veered off in search of a pump for my deflating wings. 

Meeting up for a before dinner drink near my husband’s office, my spirit inflated with a taste of home in a bottled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and in the company of my most cherished.   From a Peruvian lunch to a Pakistani dinner we hustled across town to Whitechapel to make our 9pm booking. 

Arriving at the largest, most chaotic queue I’ve ever seen at a restaurant – on a Tuesday night no less – I was glad for the reinforcement.  Not yet with the benefit of having tasted the ridiculously good food or seen the ridiculously low 24 pound tab, it was good humor – not necessarily a booking – you needed to secure a seat.  Whatever the case, it quickly became clear we were once again rallying around passionate people working incredibly hard and turning out naan faster than a prolific tweeter .  Once seated we couldn’t help but notice that even in the sea of hungry diners, several of the wait staff had this practice of gently tapping my husband on the shoulder to make sure everything was ok.  It most definitely was.

Travel is wonderful, and should you need any specific details on the above – ping me – but there is another kind of travel that comes in the wake of another soul’s exuberance for life.  Go there.


Croatia, Croatia, Croatia

I’ve been hearing about Croatia for years with a steep escalation once we moved to Europe.   The Greek Islands however have stolen my summer heart and without a sailboat we kept putting Croatia off.  Enticed by the promise of warmish weather, we finally decided to visit Croatia in the off season.  Instead of swimming suits we packed our hiking boots for nine days in October.

Croatia has 1100 miles of coastline and as many islands (the legend is that God cried on bare rocks where his tears turned into islands) and so the project of figuring out “How to do Croatia” was a bit like a plodding jog after an undigested lunch.   The travel guides are helpful until the moment that you have compiled two dozen places you want to see and then realize that half of them require ferries – which logically won’t be running in October.  This meant crossing the Southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Brac and Korcula off our list.  (Glamorous Hvar was already o$$ our list.)

Our best and cheapest flight option was into Zadar and so that became our jumping off point for a driving tour down the Dalmatian Coast.  (Northern Zagreb, on many Best of Europe lists, was also crossed off to make way for a southward journey.)  Always the optimist (and never the driver), I booked our first place on the island of Pag which was conveniently connected to the mainland by a bridge but a not-so-convenient 1 hour 40 minute drive from the airport.  [Take note:  Car renting in Croatia is not at all like car renting in the USA.   In and out efficiency is not their sweet spot.   If you lean towards beating someone to a spot in line, this is absolutely the time to engage those quick twitch muscles.]  


Like a lonely swing set on the edge of nowhere (especially in the dark) is perhaps the first impression you might have of the long, skinny island of Pag with its moonscape, rocky terrain.  The second impression is sheep.  Pag is home to around 8,000 people and three times as many sheep.  If you miss your first photo of sheep, be assured – you’ll be grazed with another.  Roaming the slopes in search of edible herbs like sage, Pag is home to famous Paskisir sheep cheese that is every bit as delicious and earthy as their diet would suggest.   


When you travel off season rates are obviously better which means you might be able to book a place one star higher than you would during peak season.   That advantage allowed us to stay at HOTEL BOŠKINAC, an 11 room family run hotel with gourmet restaurant & winery in a beautiful peaceful setting among vineyards and olive trees.  I’d like to take credit for finding such a gem, but Anthony Bourdain found it first and his word has a way of traveling the blogosphere.  He was also right.  It’s an awesome self-contained place (important when traveling to an area where much has already closed for the year) with wonderful but unfussy service, huge, nicely oriented rooms, a wedding-worthy terrace, and indeed tasty food (octopus carpaccio, roasted lamb, risotto with shrimps, squid and potatoes ) and wine. 

We were Hotel Boskinac’s very last guests of the season though not the loudest.  Credit that to the local dinner guests the night we arrived who were celebrating a 60something birthday party with two guitars and a whole table singing traditional Dalmation music long into the evening.  Not only was the music lovely, but there was something about watching an older group of Croatians who had likely been around for the conflict only thirty years prior and now living in a tourist boom sing every word to every song with an intensity that was mesmerizing.  My family’s sweet Happy Birthday serenade the following evening was meek by comparison but loud enough to wake the kitchen into a special dessert. 


People come to Pag to party.  Often called the Croatian Ibiza, most of the partying radiates around one of the three main beaches near the non-descript town of Novalja.  Even without the crowds (not a soul in fact), it was easy to imagine that the “scene” is more of a draw than the “scenery” as the beaches are relatively small and pebbled.  Call me a snob but I like my beaches with sand and minus the floating party dock.  But, then again, we were here to hike and hike we did.

Hike #1:  The Super Windy Hike

October is the month of bora winds which blow down from the mountains along the eastern Adriatic.   The gusty winds keep fisherman grounded (hence the dinners of squid and octopus which are the only fish that they freeze) and *may* have caused me to bark a few too many inaudible commands to stay away from the edge.  Our first hike was on Metajna, a rocky stone outcropping on the east of the island.  The roughly 3.5 mile rugged coastline hike takes you along four distinct sections:  a long rocky beach, a moonscape rock scramble on a point, a pine forest with small beaches, and a narrow walkway along a rock cliff that ends in a small village.  It’s not a groomed hike with trail signs.  Great for rock climbers. Even great in wind. 

Hike #2:  The “When Can We … Go Skinny Dipping?” Hike

Never suggest the remote possibility of skinny dipping before a hike begins.   It impedes leisurely progress.  Our second hike was on a botanical reserve of olive trees on the northern tip of the island called Lun.  Developed into a reserve by the UN in 2013, the Lun Olive Garden has more than 80,000 olive trees including the oldest olive tree at 1,600 years old.  A 7 km trail runs through the garden – part of which is along coast with great places to picnic and an interior part with some elevation and great views – with a surreal mix of rocky undergrowth, dense groves, and sheep crisscrossing through dry stone wall pens.  It’s absolutely stunning.  On both hikes, we never saw another person.  Had the water temperature been more agreeable (and the begging less relentless), it could have been ideal for skinny dipping.

One of the highlights from our time on Pag was touring and tasting at the Sirana Gligora dairy to see how the Paskisir sheep cheese was made.   Naturally this called for a hazmat suit.  Like so many things during shoulder season with the hives of tourists gone, it ended up being a private tour which meant that we didn’t have to conserve our questions.  At the start of the tour the guide asked Lawton, “Where does milk come from?” to which Lawton replied, “Mom.”  Clearly, we needed the tour and the full airspace for questions.

From the island of Pag we drove down the Dalmation Coast to Croatia’s second largest city, Split.  Instead of the motorway, we took a slower route that hugged the coast which was well worth the time investment.  Packing a picnic lunch is always advised when taking the scenic route.   We’d been advised to stopover in Sibenik on the way down for a few hours but got seriously lost on a tangle of steep streets that seemed to be going everywhere but the medieval centre and sucking all collective will from the car. 

We carried on to Split where we booked an apartment at Divota Apartment Hotel – a scattering of restored stone houses in the center of old town Split near the harbor.  The location could absolutely not be better.  They have apartment configurations for all sizes and budgets and they are wonderfully managed properties.  (We stayed in House 800.)  Highly, highly recommend.

As the second largest city, Split is obviously a year round place that doesn’t shut down for the season.  There is a pride among people from Split as well as a disproportionate number of Olympic athletes.  With its cobblestoned old town and great seafront promenade, like Budapest did, Split was lively and fun and exceeded our expectations.  We did some of the recommended site seeing, challenged ourselves to find above average food (Konoba Marjan, Villa Spiza, Uje Oil Bar, Wine& Cheese Bar Paradox, and Restaurant Dvor were all solid triples) and of course hiked. 


Hike #3:  The Urban Hike in Cute Shoes

A favorite hike you must do in Split is climb Marjan Hill which is located on the city’s peninsula with the city to one side and the sea on the other.  A longer and steeper climb with footpaths most but not all the way, it is advised to ditch the cute shoes in favor of running shoes.  Ballbach shoes that weren’t mine were also found running up Marjan Hill several mornings.

Hike #4:  The Unfortunate Hike to Dinner

Some walks turn into hikes when maps don’t help you anticipate walking the long way around bodies of water in the dark.  Those are never fun on an empty stomach and 15 minutes past your reservation.  Then again, who needs reservations in the off season except the one time you don’t.  So if you want to have dinner at Restaurant Dvor, call a cab and if you want to get a table at Tavern Matejuska, make a reservation.  Thankfully before dinner that night, we finally got our swim in (though with suits on.)

Leaving Split in route to Zadar for one night before our flight home, the plan was to drive into Bosnia-Hercegovina to add another country to the kids expanding list and then either make a second attempt in Sibenik or head for a final hike in Krka National Park.  The Bosnia plan was thwarted when we drove out of our way deep into the hills to a lonely border crossing only to be inexplicably sent away in gruff Croatian (USA citizens don’t need visas and so our passports should have been enough.)  Watching the next car pass through the border in our rear view mirror, our only conclusion was that maybe we needed to pay a bribe.  Honestly, I was a bit relieved as there was something eerie being in a place so desolate and disquieting to read constant reminders about care when walking off trail due to mines left from the Balkan War. 

Hike #5:  The There Could be Snakes Hike

After that, we opted for Krka National Park which was totally the right choice.  Visited by almost 750,000 people a year, the cascading waterfalls of Krka National Park are not to be missed.  You enter the park by car, park and then hike along elevated foot paths.  At the beginning of the hike, you will see signage of the types of flora and fauna found in the habitat and there WILL be pictures of snakes.  This was deeply troubling to some members of our family who shall remain nameless.  Like the eternity of a spiritless basketball game that only turns on in the last two minutes of the game is a hike with someone you love with a phobia who finally releases the death grip in the last hundred meters.

Hike #6:  The Itty Bitty Hike

Zadar is tiny and sleepy and aside from the The Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun light tiles is an overnight kind of place.  Then again, maybe we were just tired. 


Eating through Paris's Canal St Martin

I had my first passing encounter with the Canal St. Martin back in March of this year when I was in Paris for the day with my French-speaking expat friend Angela.   We started our day having coffee at the Hotel du Nord (102 quai de Jemmapes), the epicenter of this popular bohemian neighborhood.   Engrossed in conversation, I don’t remember much about the coffee but I do remember taking pictures of the beautiful tile floor and mentally recording that this was Angela’s favorite neighborhood in Paris.  I determined then to come back. 

This past Thursday was that day.  My impression of the 10th arrondisement up until Angela’s swoon was that it was home to two of Paris’s main train stations – the Gare du Nord and  the Gare de ‘Est – and therefore best to be avoided.  Tis true that there’s a lot of unsavoriness around those quarters, but a quick walk east from the Gare de ‘Est through the Jardin Villemin lands you right in the heart of the happening section of the 4.5 km long Canal.  I first headed north on the Canal towards Place de Stalingrad, but unless its exercise you’re after – that would be the wrong direction.  Everything worth seeing in the neighborhood is tightly compacted south between Rue Des Recollets and Rue Du Faubourg du Temple and straddles a few streets deep on both sides of the Canal meaning you have a nice manageable area to master.   (The goal posts are Boulevard de Magneta to the east Rue Saint Maur to the west.)  It was my lightest walking Paris day and truly the only day where I never got lost.

In the spirit of truthiness, the waterway itself for me was honestly a little underwhelming.  The still operational hydraulic life bridges were a fun throwback to a different time, but there’s something very sad and angst producing about non-moving water.   With traffic whizzing by on both sides of the Canal, even with the bordering of trees in fall colors, it’s loud and a bit scruffy by day.  Unlike along the Seine, I saw no lovers on a midday stroll.   On the plus side, it’s less crowded than many other parts of the city and though home to a hipster crowd (especially at night with bars and clubs) it’s not overrun by them.  It’s a neighborhood in that sweet spot of gentrification where everyone still seems welcome and beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.


However, what might be lost in visual appeal is more than made up for in food options.  Nowhere else in Paris have I seen more cool coffee shops, bakeries, ethnic eats, traditional bistros, and chic bistros clustered so close together.  It felt a bit like the fashionable Shoreditch area of East London, albeit a smaller footprint with less curbside appeal.  I researched where to eat and drink from several local Paris blogs and sampled a lot.   There really aren’t any sites or museums to see in the area – so you won’t feel any guilt about missing something when you’re hanging out in your third café.   There is also boutique shopping in the neighborhood notably around Rue Beaurepaire and Rue de Marseille that I casually checked out, but any peek at my closet would prove I gravitate towards chasing another coffee shop over shoes any day.

Here’s what I sampled :

Ten Belles (10, Rue de la Grange aux Belles).  It’s a minor let down when your first destination is even smaller than described and across the street from a laundry mat, but any place that announces where your coffee beans are from (mine were from Kenya) deserve a second look.  On that second look, I spotted some homemade scones on the pint size service counter and killer granola (high praise from this granola snob) on the table I almost took down while standing in line.  Not necessarily a place for journal writing, it is definitely, definitely a place to throw around your bean knowledge and nibble on whatever they are serving.  Chez Adele (10, Rue de la Grande aux Belles), a well-lived in spot for live music is next door as is the Pink Flamingo (67 Rue Bichat), a late night pizza joint where the most popular pizza is called “L’Obama.”  Quiet for most of the day, you could tell that come evening this corner would be hopping.

Holybelly (19, rue Lucien Sampaix).  Porland has come to Paris.  “Is it local?” you ask yourself. According to the menu, not just fresh and local, also nothing frozen or microwaved.   BAM to France’s industrial food reputation!  Serious coffee + serious breakfast.  And when I mean serious breakfast I don’t mean soft boiled eggs and toast.  I mean pancakes and eggs with sides.  I didn’t eat because I was still digesting my scones but was so profoundly moved seeing the hearty pancakes lathered in butter and real maple syrup and smelling authentic bacon that I accidentally oversugared my cappuccino.  Conveniently opened on weekends for hangovers.  Closed Tues and Wed.  Be prepared to hear an abundance of English.  Bob’s Juice Bar (15, rue Lucien Sampaix.)  Just a few doors down the street from Holybelly is this organic juice bar that also serves food.  Go for the juice (so I hear), not the ambiance. 

Du Pain et des Idées (34, rue Yves Toudic ).  You know you’re at the right bakery when there’s a queue at an off peak time and a couple of Japanese tourists in front of you.   I skipped the delicious looking and varied loaves of bread in favor of the spread of pastries including pinwheels filled with pistachio and thin crusted seasonal apple tarts (to take home I might add, lest you think you I went all oompa loompa.)   This place is clearly an institution and their uncommon selection of pastries explains why.   Worth crossing town for if you’re looking to expand beyond pain au chocolat.

Craft (24, rue des Vinaigriers).  On the other side of the Canal from Ten Belles is this coffee shop/co-working space.  Coffee was above average but the place is really all about plugging in your laptop and paying 3 euros per hour to so.  Great for road warriors who need to get work done, but less appealing for those who want to cozy up with a book or friend.  If you’ve come to Paris to eat healthy or run a marathon, Sol Semilla (23, rue des Vinaigries) – a vegan superfood restaurant across the street looked v. good.

Liberte (39, rue de Vinaigriers).  Different than most French bakeries, Liberte is a swanky year old bakery situated on a corner with small platoon of bakers working in an open mostly white industrial kitchen.  There’s something to love about bread baking on site.  It was hard to choose what to bring home between the breads, loads of pastries, and stuffed savory breads but settled on their grainiest loaf and a per kilo chunk of their house crusty bread.  You know you’ve lived in Europe for a while when you request a specific piece (not the end, please) that suits your fancy.   Also tried their chocolate loaf which looked amazing but only tasted so-so.  More savory options than Du Pain et des Idees.   If fast food is what you’re after, right next door is The Sunken Chip (39, rue des Vinaigriers), Paris’s first British run fish and chips shop.

La Chambre aux Oiseaux (48, Rue Bichat.)  Cozy like your grandmother’s living room complete with heavy wallpaper and mismatched mugs for an afternoon cup of loose tea.  Crisscrossing this spot several times during the day and landing in the late afternoon when I need a comfy chair to rest in, it was always full of women chatting and MacBook screens glowing.  They also have a nice looking simple breakfast menu along with their own house jams and open early.

Philou (12, rue Richerand).  Given all the cafe options it was hard to settle on a lunch spot, but Philou was one the places that consistently showed up on all the blogs.  A traditional French bistro using seasonal ingredients, Philou is a neighborhood favorite and now I know why.  I ordered the three course Menu du Midi for 19 euros which came with: a petite mushroom quiche and small perfectly dressed salad with herbs, the best beef burgundy I have ever known, and a crème caramel with a compote of apples and touch of mint.  Not only delicious but also perfectly sized.  Nice service too which in Paris is not a given.  Cross town for this one.  Last minute booking worked for me.

Le Petit Cambodge (20, rue Alibert).  Continuously open through lunch and dinner, this is a great spot for take away Cambodian noodles which I did for dinner on the train.  Packed at lunch everyone orders the bobun (similar to a Vietnamese Bun Bo Xao noodle salad with a few less herbs) for a well spent 10 euros.  I had read about the passion fruit/hazelnut tart at the gluten-free bakery next door, Helmut Newcake but then decided against it.  If you’re not gluten free already I reasoned, no sense starting in Paris. 

Two other places I didn’t try but you won’t miss given their prime real estate and blog chatter are Chez Prune (36, rue Beaurepaire) the café  that put this neighborhood on the map and L’Atmosphere.  Another popular spot I’d read a lot about and went to have a late afternoon glass of wine is Le Verre Vole (67, rue Lancry).  Unfortunately for me, I was sent away (though kindly I might add) as they are a restaurant/wine shop but not a bar.  Watching a woman peel potatoes at one of the tables, I wished I could stay and help.   Had I known Le Verre Vole wasn’t a bar, I may have stayed on the other side of the Canal near Le Petit Cambodge  to sample a cocktail at Le Zelda (6, rue Bichat) which opens at 6pm.

And there you have it.  A day of very good eats.

Travel Quiz: Is this destination right for you?

Most of us love a beach.  Here’s a summer beach holiday worth looking into if …

1.       “Unspoilt” is not a scary word.  Zahara de los Atunes is on 20 km of white sandy beautiful coastline along the Atlantic (Costa de la Luz) in Southwest Spain without a through road and still free of high rise condos.   It is much less well known than the popular with Brits, highly developed area of the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean. 

2.       You lean towards authentic and away from resort.   Zahara is a true beach destination not a glammed up resort town catering to sun seeking Europeans.   You’ll find way fewer sunbeds per capita, but have more chance of soaking up the culture. (And feel completely safe I might add as an American woman traveling alone with her children.)  Google it and you’ll see that most of the available information/reviews are in Spanish.  We literally heard a language other than Spanish only a handful of times.


3.       Laying on a beach qualifies as an activity.  Trip Advisor lists 5 activities you can do in Zahara and all of them are located on the beach.  Flying a kite is one of them.

4.       You underpacked.  Shorts, tee-shirts, flip flops, tanning lotion, and bikini top (optional).  If anywhere in Zahara had a dress code, no one was abiding it.  You can even drip dry while eating lunch in the sand at one of the beach shack chiringuitos, which you will definitely want to do because you should miss no meal while in Zahara.  

5.       You have hyper sensitive feet.  Beautiful clear sand combined with winds to keep it cool mean you can look cool getting from beach towel to the water’s edge.

6.       You have modest surfing aspirations.  The wind was good enough for body surfing (without significant undertow), but didn’t seem strong enough for surfing.  Most serious surfers go 30 km further south to Tarifa.

7.       You’ve seen photos of beach running in Runner’s World and made a plan.   Zahara’s one main beach is wide, flat and 9 km long – a dream beach for walking or running at low tide.  With a beach that long, you also won’t feel bad about carving out your own full size beach volleyball/soccer pitch.   

8.       You like tuna.   Zahara is the tuna capital of the world and it’s served on every menu, but the preparations are even more varied and delicious than you could imagine.  Red tuna is the specialty.

9.       You like to walk to tuna.  There are 70 or so restaurants in Zahara, all within walking distance.  You don’t have to be choosy as the eating is categorically amazing and affordable.  The driving and parking is less than amazing, so leave your car as soon as you arrive.

10.   You probably already live in Europe.   Zahara remains “unspoilt” in part because it’s not easy to access.  Only small planes, most coming from Madrid, fly into the airport of Jerez which is a little more than an hour’s drive to Zahara.   The next nearest airport is in Seville. 

11.   You’ve been to Barcelona and now have a thing for Spain.  Zahara will only make you like it that much more. 

South of France

Week in South of France (Dordogne/Lot) where there’s less doing and more being, where there’s a daily farmers market somewhere within 30 km, where the day’s biggest decision is which country road to run or bike, where the only TV viewing is to follow the Tour de France, where there’s enough unscheduled time to have your teen say over a hand of cards “You know what I’ve never told anyone…”, where your husband has quiet space to work 10 hour days and then jump in the pool after dinner and then jump in the car to drive 90 minutes to Toulouse airport to spend a couple of working days in London, where boys spend hours making “cool catch” videos, where you meander through cute French villages and stopover in Paris for lunch on the drive home, and where you come home to rain and it’s totally, 100% ok.   

We used Pure France to find our villa. 

The rest of the photos:

Greek Isles, Big Smiles: Paros Travel Guide


Paros is one of the islands in the Cyclades.  Many people have heard of the nearby islands of Santorini (purty!), Mykonos (party!) and Naxos (big!) but fewer have heard of Paros.  One of the reasons for its lack of star recognition is that there isn’t a large airport in Paros.  There are however plans to build up the airport to receive international flights in about five years, so go before then!  Today, Paros must be reached by ferry meaning the island is equipped for tourists but not teeming with them.  Thanks to a recent Italian film set in Paros, we were told that most tourists are from Italy, France, Norway and Australia.  Further down the list are the (pastier) Americans and Brits.

Most people island hop every three to four days.  We choose instead to “settle in” on Paros and didn’t run out of things to do with nine days.  If you like the idea of “settling in” but still have an itch to see some of the other islands, there are tons of guided or unguided day trips by boat/ferry to the nearby islands. 


June and September are the absolute best months to go.  The water is warm and the pace more relaxed.  The height of busy season is July 10 – August 25 where the average age of the island drops to 18-25 years old and the temperature increases a few degrees with hottest temps in July.   Thankfully, Paros generally enjoys a light breeze (though it was unseasonably windy a few days we were there) to keep you cooler on the hotter days.  For families especially, you should try to grab one of tail ends of the season which gets you all the benefits (including lower rates) without the crowds.


The Paliomylos Hotel in Naoussa, a complex of 25 studios and suites with a hearty breakfast for an extra charge is a gem of a place.  The rooms are simple but well equipped and clean, and the staff especially owner Chrys is attentive and friendly.  The other owner Kostas focuses less on guest services but is always working to keep the hotel facilities in top shape.  While we were there they were in the process of opening up a small spa.  The hotel is 50 meters from Piperi Beach and a 7 minute walk into the seaside town of Naoussa – the “destination town” of the island.   Paliomylos is opened from April – October and books out the entire summer well in advance.  They have a lot of repeat business.  Only downside is that the pool is small (though of less consequence given the island’s great beaches) and the rooms adjacent to the pool don’t have a terrace or balcony.  If you book, just be clear on whether sea view is important to you.   We typically gravitate towards apartment rentals as a family of five, but when the food is so good and cheap in Greece you don’t need to save a buck by cooking in making a hotel studio option ideal.  We only used the frig to store cold drinks.

I don’t insist that you stay at Paliomylos but I do insist that you stay somewhere close to Naoussa.   Located on the northern shore of Paros, Naoussa village has countless options for dining, more outdoor cafes that you’d have time to linger in, and lovely boutiques.  We referred to it as “Sun Valley Light” – charming but without the out-of-reach wealth.   The absolute highlight of our stay was being able to walk into Naoussa in the early morning for coffee and every evening for dinner.  It’s the kind of safe that makes you comfortable to have you kids walk around on their own. 


If you stay close to Naoussa, a rental car isn’t entirely necessary.  We opted to rent a car as needed which ended up being 3 of the 9 days we were there.  Each time the rental car (with varying levels of gas in the tank) was delivered to the hotel for us and the cost was around 55 euros for the day.  We left the keys at the hotel front desk for the car to be picked up the next morning with “approximately” the same amount of gas.  A few days we took a taxi to and from a destination beach which was fun as we got to know a couple of local taxi drivers.  If you don’t have young kids, most people rent scooters or quads to get around the island. The narrow streets and the one main road that rings the island are all shared by cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians – so beware and go      s l o w.


You don’t go to Greece to surf, but if beautiful sandy beaches are what you are looking for Paros has them in spades.  And, they have a good mix of “organized” beaches and small private-like beaches.   Here are our top beach picks:

1) Kolimbithres Beach. A protected beach 4 km from Naoussa which is especially good for families and windy days.   It can be accessed by car/scooter or more fun, by fishing boat from Naoussa Village.  The boat leaves twice an hour and gives you awesome views of Naoussa.  There are two tavernas behind the beach for lunch.   Another boat also leaves for nearby Monastiri Beach, though this beach is even smaller and more protected and best for families with very small children.  “Laid back beach close to town with boat ride.” – Quinn “Small, nice beach.  Stays shallow for a long time with lots of rocks.” – Lawton “Least favorite of three.  Quite small, umbrellas too close to water.” - Colin

Kolimbithres Beach

Kolimbithres Beach

2) Santa Maria Beach.  An “organized” long beach 5km from Naoussa on Northeast tip of the island looking out on Naxos.  It can be accessed by car/scooter or for a fast ride -  by taxi for 12 euros.  Santa Maria has services (umbrellas and chairs to rent), a beach bar, beach toys to rent, dance club music and lots of beautiful people.  “Big popular beach but really nice.” – Quinn “Nice big beach.  You should swim out to see coral reef.  Lemonade is amazing.” – Lawton “My favorite beach because you can go out so far and still stand.”  -  Colin

Santa Maria Beach

Santa Maria Beach

3) Faragas Beach.  An “organized” beach (spelled at least four different ways) 25 km from Naoussa on the Southern tip of the island with two private beaches adjacent to it.  It must be accessed by car/scooter or a family willing to run a hot almost marathon together.  Where Santa Maria is club music, Faragas is classical music by morning and soft rock by afternoon with an excellent bar and toilets that were being cleaned 3 out of 4 times we used them.  But it’s the private beaches just over the rocks from the clean toilets and the Frappa Coffee that make this beach our #1.  It also helped that on our second visit to this beach we met some new (much younger) Greek friends who played hours of football and paddleball with us.   “Fancy beach.  Not as convenient, nicest bar. Fun place to go exploring.” – Quinn “My favorite beach because of three different parts.  Water was the warmest.  Lots of space to play soccer.” – Lawton “Best water, most comfortable to be in, best bathrooms.  Lemonade also really good.”  - Colin

Faragas Beach

Faragas Beach


You do go to Greece to eat, and Paros has lots of excellent restaurants to choose from.  With a cumulative of 20 days in Paros over the last two summers, we have been to a number of restaurants.  Most of them are really, really good.  Fresh fish is hard to beat.  Here are our top eating out picks:

1.  Taverna Glafkos - special food in very special setting.  Book in advance.  (Because we weren't in peak season we were able to call day of for every restaurant with the exception of Sosa which we unfortunately missed on this trip.)

Taverna Glafkos

Taverna Glafkos

2.  Siparos - not in Naoussa but on way to Santa Maria Beach.  Great pastas and great setting.  Book in advance.



3.  Yemeni - interior restaurant in village.  More interesting preparations of Greek fare.  Book in advance.

Not Yemeni, but this happened a lot in the evenings.  This was at Karina's All Day Tavern - a place with good food but slow service.

Not Yemeni, but this happened a lot in the evenings.  This was at Karina's All Day Tavern - a place with good food but slow service.

4.  Cafe Karinos - cafe in main square.  Lots of restaurants start with "K" so make sure it's this one.  Best coffee on island.  We went every morning for coffee and got to know the family who runs it.  In the evenings they bring out two big TVs to show the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Tour de France.  We went every night there was a football match.  Great spot to relax with a cold beverage and also above average food (breakfast food in particular.)  No need to book.

Cafe Karinos

Cafe Karinos

5.  S.Cream - tasty Italian gelato served by our friend Koco.  Tell him the Ballbachs say hello!  No need to deprive yourself.  We tried to go daily.

S. Cream

S. Cream


Getting to Paros is not easy.  It’s pretty much a 24 hour proposition even from Central Europe.  The first time we went it also made our head hurt trying to figure it out, so hopefully these tips will save you a few steps. The complicating factor is that you need to catch one of the two daily Blue Star Ferries (which must be booked in advance) out of Piraeus; one that leaves at 7:25am and the second that leaves at 5:30pm and it’s an good 45 minute to 1 hour commute cross town from the Athens airport.  Given that, it’s advisable to overnight in Athens (or Piraeus) on your inbound and outbound legs.  You’ll likely want to see Athens anyway on one end of your trip.  We did our 36 hours in Athens on the return leg on our first trip to Paros. 

We flew Lufthansa from Lux > Munich > Athens.  On the way back, we flew SwissAir from Athens > Zurich > Lux.  Both times we had 45 minute layovers that were no problem for us or our luggage.  Booking well in advance, we got airfare for 260 euros per person.   The 4 hour ferry ride (Paros is the first stop followed by Naxos and then Santorini) on Blue Star Ferries is 70 euros per person (round trip) with assigned seats.  Highly recommend you pay for assigned rather than open seating on the ferry if traveling with kids.  (We left our kids in our assigned seats and went on to the deck to mingle with the fresh air and not-so-fresh cigarette smoke.) There is also a High Speed Ferry that cuts the time by at least half, but the prices are closer to airfare pricing.  

Another more expensive option is to fly into Santorini and then ferry 45 minutes to Paros. 

Arriving Paros

Arriving Paros


On our first trip, we mistakenly bused (not busted) it across town from the Athens airport (after driving to and flying out of Brussels Charleroi instead of Luxembourg) to make the evening ferry.  This is not a grand idea.  For one, the buses from the airport are all commuter buses so incredibly slow, jam packed and not conducive for riders with luggage and cranky mothers worried about missing the ferry.  For two, the ferry ride should be a highlight of the travel not something to endure after a long day.   This time we cabbed it across town (in two cabs) to a hotel near the ferry for a flat rate of 46 euros per cab.  An uber good idea.  (With some additional planning, you can arrange for a van and save a few euros for gyros which we did on our airport return.) 

We overnighted on both legs in a quadruple room at the budget but very clean Phidias Piraeus Hotel for 69 euros.  Our room included the best wifi of the trip and a free shuttle to the ferry the next morning.  The hard-working Piraeus port isn’t a place known for great anything, but Brett found an awesome neighborhood restaurant he’d read about on a local food blog (a mystery location to our cab driver both times we went) that was worth the 5 euro cab fare.  Also worth walking around the nearby marina to see the incredible yachts which on our visit included a spotting of the 5th most expensive yacht in the world owned by the former Qatar Prime Minister.

The reward for getting there is to be SUN KISSED.

The reward for getting there is to be SUN KISSED.

Paris in June

I haven't made it to Paris for a few months now, but Paris is on my mind.  My beautiful friend Alessandra asked me (trusted me!) to make her an agenda for a day trip this week.  She's been many times before, but with an imminent move to Seattle in a few weeks she didn't have the mind space to make a plan.  What a gift to me to be asked!  Ale is a talented photographer, so the day centers around two photography exhibits.  If you are in Paris this summer, here's an idea or two.


9:00 – Arrive in Gare de l’Est.  Take Metro M5 (dark orange) towards Place d’Italie and get off at Bastille (6th stop) then walk 7 minutes to Saint Paul Saint Louis Church (99 Rue St-Antoine). 

9:30 –Saint-Paul Saint-Louis Church (99 Rue St-Antoine).   As you know, I like to start my morning off in a church to meditate and pray.  Quiet ones like this one are best.  Jesuit church on one of the main streets in the Marais.  Famous for Delacroix’s work “Christ in the Garden of Olives.”

10:00 Walk through Ile St Louis.  Walk 10 minutes crossing Seine to Ile St Louis to enjoy quiet of morning in a residential area.  Stroll down the Rue St Louis.  I then love crossing Pont St Louis bridge to take in back of Notre Dame and sit in the The Square Jean XXII.  When ready for coffee, cross back over Seine to great coffee shop on Hotel de Ville. 

10:30 Coffee in Marais at Cafeotheque  (52, rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th). The coffee shop is run by a woman from Guatemala.  This is serious coffee where they do tastings in the evening.  You can get coffee at the bar in the back or sit down at one of the many cozy tables.  It’s pricey coffee but worth it.  After coffee, walk only 5 minutes to photography exhibit.

11:00 Francoise Huguier photography exhibit at Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP)  (5-7 rue de Fourcy in 4th.)  Exhibit opens at 11am and costs  €6.50  Exhibit is described as: “Straddling the boundary between fantasy and factual reportage, the photographs of Françoise Huguier present the viewer with a kind of veiled reality. Her work for such publications as Vogue and the New York Times sent Huguier to some of the most remote corners of the globe to snap everything from the Siberian tundra to a community of Colombian nuns; never content to photograph her subjects at face value, she injected an dreamlike energy into her images that raises them above the average.”

1:00 Casual not “proper” lunch in Marais. Three options for lunch heading away from Seine and into Marais: 1) Candaleria (mexican tacos)  52, rue de Saintonge (3rd) The taqueria is open all day, every day, Sunday-Wednesday 12:30pm-11pm .  Limited seating.  2) L’As du Fallafel 34, rue des Rosiers , closed Friday pm and Saturday. No seating, buy from window. Opens at noon. 3) Poliane Cuisine de Bar (sandwiches on Paris’s most famous bread) 38, rue Debelleyme (3rd).  Ample seating.  Any one of these places is a good option for dining solo.

3:00 Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit at the Grand Palais.  Exhibit opens at 10 and costs €12.  Metro or walk (25 minute walk) to the Grand Palais from the Marais.  Exhibit is described as “Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the great masters of art photography. He produced highly stylised black and white portraits, nudes and still lifes. Over and above the erotic power that made Mapplethorpe’s work famous, the exhibition presents the classic dimension of the artist’s work and his search for aesthetic perfection, through over 200 images that span his career from the early 1970s to his untimely death in 1989.” (Consider buying tickets online before you go.)

5:00 Walk through the Jardin des Tuileries  to the Palais-Royal garden to people watch and get inspired by the specialty shops and galleries around the square (10-15 minute walk from Grand Palais.)   A last trip to Paris isn’t complete without this favorite Parisian stop. 

6:00 Glass of wine and nibble at Verjus Bar à Vin (47 rue de Montpensier, 75001).  It’s only 5 minutes walking from Palais-Royal and one of the few places that opens at 6pm!  The restaurant doesn’t open until 7 but the wine bar opens at 6.  It’s a small plate, no-reservations wine bar.  I haven’t been but it’s an “absolute favorite” from Paris by Mouth.

7:00 High tail it back to the Gare de l’Est by metro or bus the 7:40 train.

Portugal: Lisbon and the Lisbon Coast

A brief review of places we visited during our five days in and around Lisbon and the Lisbon Coast.   (For the rest of our Portugal trip in Porto and the Douro Wine Valley, read here.)


We made Cascais, the coastal resort town west of Lisbon, our home base for the five days.  There we rented a historic apartment on a pedestrian street in the city center which was 80 meters from the beach, next door to a McDonalds (this I did not know in advance), and entirely too close to the Train Station (except on the day we walked out our door and hopped on the train to Lisbon which was a 40 minute ride along the coast and cost 18 euros for the five of us.) If you wonder about garbage collection practices in Portugal, I can confirm that they are on it.  It was my conclusion that all the trash in China was being collected on our street every morning at 6am. 



Offering beaches over culture, Cascais is really a sprawling suburb of Lisbon with several sand beaches intermixed with cliff like shoreline and countless resorts (directions are given with resorts as land marks).   The cobbled street Center reflects the wealth that is forcing its way into Cascais with trinkets and trash next door to designer boutiques.   The boardwalk from Cascais to Estoril is a lovely place to walk or run, and because we were there in April the gorgeous beaches were empty enough to serve as a soccer pitch most mornings and several evenings.     

Eating: Mar do Infermo for a killer seafood platter (sea bream, mussels, three kinds of shrimp); House of Wonders for a rooftop vegetarian lunch (the kids inhaled a vegetable lasagna and mushroom tofu pasta); Moules & Gin for a fun if not formulaic casual modern bistro serving mussels a dozen different ways; Armazen22 for a Brazilian steak dinner (surprisingly a nice change up from our fishy ways), our favorite: Dom Diniz for an unforgettable evening of they-just-bring-em tapas (flaming chorizo, cold cod salad, stuffed mushrooms, etc.) in a tiny two table deli restaurant.   It’s not gourmet, chef-prepared stuff just good eats in what feels like someone’s living room.  A bottle of red wine – any from the Douro valley – is mandatory with all dinners.  Reservations a must for every place but House of Wonders.   We topped off every meal with gelato at Santini Cascais (the one with the reputation and long lines) or on the same block Gelateria Italiana Fabio (the one with the great service and our new friend Phillip.)

Dom Diniz

Dom Diniz


I shudder to tell you this, but I did not love Lisbon.  Granted we were there only one full day and we took a second afternoon to explore Belem (an outlying neighborhood of Lisbon.)  With that kind of limited time I realize that one’s reaction to a place is so dependent on the walking path they choose for that day.  Then again, Brett walked the same path I did and He LOVED Lisbon.  It is therefore possible that I was hormonal or wearing the wrong shoes.



We knew our walking path would involve San Francisco like hills (which we enjoyed), and we oriented ourselves toward the humble and compact Alfama quarter which all the guidebooks said not to miss.  There we did find windy streets and great views, but mostly we saw a lot of poverty in the middle of a gentrifying construction zone on steroids.  We felt like uncomfortable voyeurs with a camera.   Castelo de Sao Jorge, the hilltop citadel used as a royal residence and then arms depot, was worth the price of admission for the views of the city.  Tram28 – the “must do” for all tourists – was good for those who don’t mind being packed in like sardines and can clutch their purse at the same time they are enjoying the blocked views.  I watched a pickpocketing scheme unfold with a woman and a 6 year old boy on the tram that made my heart ache so much that I couldn’t wait to get off.   Brett thought the tram was awesome.  Clearly it can’t be just my shoes.  

Waterfront promenade in Ribeira

Waterfront promenade in Ribeira

I did like the Chiado neighborhood and area around Comercio Square, Lisbon's monumental riverside.  We didn’t have time to see Fado, the music of Lisbon, but there was quite a bit of live music (always fun) playing on the streets of Baixa and Chiado.  The waterfront promenade in Ribeira to the west of Comercio Square is being built up and is quite a lovely place to be on a nice evening.  There they have a beverage kiosk where you can get something to sip on and take to sit down in some chairs looking out over the water.   We saw another one of these beverage kiosks (a great idea) in Praça Luíz de Camões .  We oft heard Lisbon described as the new Barcelona, just a few years behind in development.   Apparently I also prefer older, more developed cities.

You do have to see the outlying neighborhood of Belem for several worthwhile sites (the Monument to the Discoveries and the elevator up it for views is great) and well-connected parks, just save your eating for in town.  We attempted a stop at the Pasteis de Belem – the pastry shop on the Rua de Belem that people make a pilgrimage to Lisbon for – but the queue was so long and complicated plus I made the mistake of saying “custard” when describing the pastries to my boys and they were certain “custard was not worth waiting for.”  We did however hit the Confeitaria National, a pastry shop on the busy Praça da Figueira that’s been around since 1829 (in Baixa), and we buffet styled Portugese pastries and every version of chocolate cake they had.

Eating:  Turns out I’m a sucker for any restaurant with the menu written on a chalkboard.   I had read about Taberna Da Rua Das Flores (in the Baixa Chiado neighborhood and very close to the train station) on a food blog and knew this was where we’d be eating if we had only one dinner in Lisbon.   We sampled more than half of the small plates on chalkboard – Portuguese fare with a twist of something unexpected – while locals popped their head in to buy bottles of their house olive oil.  The pacing of the meal was a bit slow as dishes came out one by one, but each dish also deserved to be the center of the table.  Aside from the fried goat cheese with special sauces, we had to elbow the boys to get our fair share.



Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

I’m losing steam on this blog, so here’s what you need to know:  Sintra Rocks.  We spent two days there.  The first day we spent hiking from the main city center straight up 2 kilometers to the Castelo dos Mouros, a Moorish castle.  Different than any other castle we’ve seen, this castle is beautifully built into the landscape.  You can climb along the jagged battlements and up a handful of towers for some absolutely breathtaking views.  Because it’s harder to access, there are fewer tourists and it’s a great spot to bring a picnic lunch.   Brett deemed it one of his top 5 most spectacular (and certainly unexpected) spots in our travels.

Palacio da Pena

Palacio da Pena

The next day we came back and drove up past the castle to the Palacio da Pena which is a palace and enclosed park.  Tour buses let off here and you will queue for tickets.  The exterior of the palace is Disneyland-like in its grandeur and the interior has been preserved from when the last royal family lived there in 1910.   We especially enjoyed hiking, both on footpaths and hiking trails, in the 495 acre walled park with its lush vegetation and fine collection of trees.  This time we remembered our picnic.




The day we headed back North to the Douro Valley, we stopped off in Obidos and Nazare on the way.  Obidos is one of those preserved hilltowns enclosed within 14th century walls.  It’s beautiful and built for tourists.  Like a smaller Assisi in Italy, Obidos is not only a day trip destination but also set up with hotels, a pasada (guest house) set in a Castle, and restaurants for overnight visitors.  They are also a couple of cool bookstores.  I kept thinking that there must be a strong homeowners association in Obidos.  In addition to be swept clean, there was a uniformity of blue, red, and yellow paint blocks on all the white washed buildings.  And green thumb of not, you will be expected to have potted plants hanging from your window.




Nazare is an old fishing village whose only attraction is a very long beach, and it’s a great one.  It’s a wide and long beach with awesome waves set against the backdrop of steep cliffs.  It’s apparently teaming with tourists in the summer.   The boys played soccer on the beach while I went in search of an espresso.   I snapped exactly one picture in Nazare.   The balance of the car ride involved lots of sand and me complaining about the espresso that was causing me a stomach ache.


Brett:  “Boys, we just passed Peniche.”  Quinn:  “Was it big?”

Update:My Portuguese neighbor Sergio just told that it's impossible to understand Lisbon without being there at night ... which I missed on this trip.  He also said there was some great cherry liqueur I should have tried in Obidos.


Northern Portugal: Porto and Douro Wine Valley

Generally we stay in Airbnb properties when we travel because it’s cheaper for a family and we like the independence that comes with our own space.   Airbnb rentals however don’t make as much sense for short stays as many properties have a three night minimum.   We decided we wanted to tour as much of Portugal via car as we could over our nine Spring Break days pushing us into short stays and therefore hotels on the bookends of our trip.  (We stayed in an adequate though not great Airbnb property in Cascais for the five middle days using it as our home base for touring Lisbon and the Lisbon Coast.  That portion of the trip will follow in a separate blog.)  When we do stay in hotels, Brett labors over finding small boutique ones.  Big hotels are avoided at all cost.  Our kids don’t love that about us (what kid doesn’t like a hotel pool), but we have come to an understanding that “this is how we do it.” 

We flew out of Franfurt-Hahn on the budget Ryan Airlines into Porto, rented a car at the airport, and drove 30 minutes into Porto for a two night stay.  (Note:  Avis runs a friendly, though not turn-key operation in Portugal.  Included in your rental is your salesperson running out to the lot to collect your car, a how to instruction for operating the car (?) and a several minute documentation of the scratches on your Skoda wagon.)  A car is not necessary in Porto as the city is best accessible on foot, but the logistics were easier for renting a car at the airport and leaving it in a city parking garage for 48 hours.   This will take some explaining to your concerned children, but be warned that you should take care of this before departing the car rental as you will be busy navigating at least eight freeway changes from airport to city.

 I admit to coming to Porto with low expectations, saving up my enthusiasm for the second half of the trip in and around Lisbon.  I however was pleasantly surprised by this city perched on a rock gorge above the Douro River mostly because of where we stayed.  I don’t generally write hotel reviews, but the Guest House we stayed in so framed our experience that it deserves an exception.   It is rare to find a place that is luxurious but affordable and where you are treated as family.

You only really need two days in Porto: one day to tour the sites and the second day to tour the Port wine caves across the river.  We only had one full day (Saturday) and a ½ day on Sunday.  Given our traveling configuration with three children and my confession that I don’t care much for Port, we skipped the Port wine caves. 

Hotel Review: Guest House Douro, Porto Portugal

Rates:  130-190 euros/night including breakfast.  Our double occupancy room with river view was 185 euros/night and the triple occupancy room for boys on the same floor with a 13th century street view was 170 euros/night.

Guest House Douro

Guest House Douro

Basics:  Ranked #1 out of 96 B&Bs in Porto, the simple but classy eight room guest house with magnificent Douro River views has been gutted and gorgeously designed with a modern flare to maximize its space.   It is run by a lovely Portuguese couple, Carmen and Joao, who spent twenty years living and working professionally in Montreal before coming back to Portugal to open this guest house.

View from our room

View from our room

Location:   As my boys would say:  “The location is beast!”  Guest House Douro is located in Porto's  Unesco World Heritage listed and lively waterfront  Ribeira area.  Waterfront doesn’t always conjure up best images of a place to inhabit after hours, but aside from the noisy seagulls in the morning, the Ribeira promenade is a delightful place to stay.  It offers easy (though steep) access to all the historical monuments, Douro boat tours (we didn’t take go on one but we saw the queue from our window), as well as two solid traditional Portuguese restaurants within a stones throw.  Agrade is the better of two restaurants in terms of food, though next door neighbor Adega xxx (can't remember it's full name) is better in terms of outdoor seating. There are plenty more restaurants to choose from in the area too.  You can see the Vegas-like signs for all the Port wine caves across the river for easy plotting of a foot tour.  There are countless outdoor cafes along the promenade, and the running along the Douro River- the life blood of this port city- is outstanding.  Flat with a wide birth and dotted with early morning fishermen, you can do a long 8 mile out and back run to the Atlantic Ocean in one direction (Brett and Quinn’s direction) or a 4 mile out and back run the other direction (my direction). 

Morning run along Douro

Morning run along Douro

The Room:  The rooms are small, but what it lacks in space is made up for in every other way.  The immaculate rooms are light filled with large French windows that open, wood floors, and a plush bed.  The marble bathrooms have everything you need, which in my case is a shower with good water pressure and big fluffy white towels.  Long and narrow, the Guest House has four floors with two rooms on each floor.  Since we were in two rooms, we had the 4th floor all to ourselves and they encouraged us to utilize the corridor between them for some additional space.  We always need more space for our collection of shoes so we took them up on this offer.  They moved out some furniture to accommodate an extra futon like bed in the boys’ room, which was disguised with equally luxurious linens that made it feel less “third wheel” like.  Everyone was happy.  Especially us in our own room.

Outdoor seating at Adega

Outdoor seating at Adega

Amenities:   They have all the things you’d expect like TV and hi-speed wireless Internet that works, but one small thing I didn’t expect.  Since it’s a Guest House, we were given keys to our room but not the house.  We had to ring the doorbell every time we came back thereby not being anonymous when someone forgot their hat or returned from a sweaty run.  I soon realized this is by design.  The personalized service of Carmen and Joao is what really makes the place.  Joao sets out a mean breakfast spread (included in the room price) with an array of cakes, breads, cheeses, meats, fresh squeezed orange juice and  a fruit sculpture made up of local fruits that I guarantee you won’t be able to finish.  Joao will not let you leave your papaya uneaten.  Carmen mapped out a well-explained, better than any tour guide walking route for us to see all the important sites noting ones (three outstanding churches, including the “gold one”) we should save for Sunday morning.  She made a booking for our first dinner as we arrived late at 9pm (at their favorite restaurant Agrade) and though we made our second dinner reservation (Adega) on our own, she called anyway to make sure we had the best outdoor table.  Port and iced tea were offered on arrival and every time we came back to the Guest House.  I may not be a Port fan or convert, but when in Porto ... you will have Port.  Very few families stay at the Guest House but it is most definitely family friendly.  Carmen and Joao lavished our boys with attention.  (Shy children beware.)  Carmen taught Lawton a little Portuguese and read him a book, and they made a full court press to have Colin stay with them longer.  AND, the best service of all was that they strongly recommended we change our plan for the tail end of our trip which was to spend two days in the coast town of Aveiro and instead spend two days in the Douro Wine valley.  Naturally they recommended a few Pousadas (country inns set in remote, scenic locations) with one favorite recommendation.  We did a quick Google search on the options they gave us and sprinted back downstairs drooling about their strong recommendation.  Carmen helped book us two nights there while Brett canceled our Aveiro lodging.

Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros

Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros

I could write another full review of Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros, but instead I’ll let the Trip Advisor reviews and my photos tell the story.  Another place with personalized attention that won’t break the bank, but this time set in the countryside where birds not seagulls are nature’s wake up call.  I confessed to not much caring for Port, but the red wines coming out of Douro make me (and the whole country) swoon.  They are outstanding.  We were only at the Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros for about 36 hours, and aside from a hike through the vineyards, we happily put our Guide Books away and hung out on the terraced grounds of the pousada.  We bounced from swimming pool to game room to soccer on the tennis court and we had two fabulous home cooked dinners there.  Apparently you can train 2 hours from Porto to Pinhao (the nearest town to the pousada), but the drive was also easy and spectacular.   After seven days of city hopping, even with chilly weather, the quiet and beauty of this region was a perfect topper to our trip.  Unlike Porto, we wish we had a day or two longer here.

Bottom Line: If you go to Porto, stay with Carmen and Joao.    AND, don’t miss the Douro Wine Valley! 

Photos from Porto:

Photos from Douro Wine Valley: