Road Trip through Spain

Of all the trips I’ve planned none has been more involved than last summer’s almost three week road trip through Spain.   What made it complicated beyond fitting five people, two bikes and weeks of stuff in our small car was the fact that my sister and her family would be traveling from the US to join us for two of the weeks and my husband would need to fly back and forth for work.  Multi-stop logistics are not my strong suit but expectant company and employed spouses have a way of bringing out the best in you.  (In case it was troubling you, the first logistic was telling my sister she would need to also rent a car.)

It was indeed a fabulous, memorable trip in every way.  We covered a lot of ground from the Basque Country up North, through Madrid and down to Andalucía and back home to Luxembourg.   Before this trip Spain had already won my heart as my most favorite European country but this three week route confirmed how much there is to love about Spain’s dramatic scenery, delicious food and special places to stay. 

Everything just worked.   Hunting down antibiotics in rural Andalucia took a little more work.  Parking in central Madrid, with bikes on the car, both did not work and was a very bad idea.  Otherwise the trip, which included my brother in law running with the bulls in Pamplona, was without incident.  My sister and her family got the tour through Spain they were hoping for, my husband made all his trains and planes, and I did not ditch the bikes in Madrid.

The guidebooks can more than adequately fill in all the details of the places we visited.  The “genius” (if there was one to the trip) was the itinerary.   Aside from a marathon first and last day of driving from Luxembourg to the border of Spain, each day was a manageable amount of driving. You could also do this trip in less than 3 weeks.

The Itinerary

Here is the interactive map of our trip minus the first and last long haul days across France.  The red markers are places we stayed and the yellow markers are places we made day trips to.  The blue line is the driving route we took between our lodging hubs.  Below the map is the order of our home base stops with the "+" for easy day trips from each one.

A. BASQUE & Navarre REGION (Larrasoana)

We started the trip by meeting my sister and her family in the North of Spain.  We drove from Luxembourg and they rented a car in Barcelona and drove about 5 hours to Larrasoana. Larrasoana is a small village town located at the base of the Pyrenees (some of us biked the mountains), on the second stage of the Camino de Santiago (some of us walked a portion of the route and met a new wonderful Spanish friend) and 15 minutes from Pamplona.  We rented a village house on Airbnb large enough for all of us with a nearaby jai alai court for indoor wiffle ball competitions, sisters included.

This is the villa house on Airbnb we rented.

+ Pamplona

The capital city of northern Spain's Navarre province.  We were there in July during the multi-day festival of the Running of the Bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín). One of us was brave enough to run.  The rest of us enjoyed the countdown.

+ San Sebastian

The gorgeous, gastronomic resort town in the mountains and on the Bay of Biscay in Basque Country.  One day trip wasn't enough time to enjoy the beach promenades and pintxo bars so we came back for another day on the drive home.  San Sebastian would make for a better home base but because our group was large and biking in the Pyrenees was a priority we made the village house choice.

+ Zarautz/Getaria

A beach town and a fishing village near San Sebastian. I had been obsessing about wanting to get to Getaria for over a year ...and then people rushed me.

b. Burgos

A stopover on the 5 hour drive from Larrasoana to Madrid is the provincial town of Burgos with few tourists and a beautiful French Gothic Cathedral. 


Most non-Europeans flock to Barcelona but most Europeans love Madrid.  Madrid requires a post all its own but if truth be told we didn't do enough of Madrid for me to give it its proper due but it's a place I'd like to visit again.

We rented an Airbnb apartment in the center of Madrid which used to be an old convent.  In terms of quality, location and value, I highly recommend this rental.  For parking, it's a beast.

This is the Airbnb apartment we rented.


We then drove 4.5 hours from Madrid to the Cordoba region of Andalucia for some pool time and relaxation.

We rented a villa in the heart of the a natural park near the small town of Carcabuey through Rustic Blue.  Summer villa rentals on Rustic Blue do require a Saturday to Saturday stay.  You can read my post on "Tips for Renting a Villa in Europe" for more information on how I found this one.

This is the villa we rented through Rustic Blue.

+ Toledo

On the way to Carcabuey the walled old city of Toledo is an easy stopover for lunch.

+ Cordoba

Córdoba and famous La Mezquita mosque is 90 minutes away for an easy day trip.  (One day tripper was a little hot and tired in Cordoba...)

+ Granada

No trip to Andalucia would be complete without a trip to the historic city of Granada and the beautiful Alhambra. It was even more beautiful than we imagined and we had the benefit of meeting up with Spanish friends (my son's girlfriend and her family) who shared their knowledge and history with us.

e.  near madrid/ALCUNEZA

After our day in Granada my sister and her family flew home out of Madrid, our oldest son went to spend a week with his girlfriend's family on the southern Coast of Spain and we took our time driving home.  I picked a few special places to sample on our way back.

The first place was a lovely flour mill turned luxury hotel an hour North of Madrid in Alcuneza.  Parking was much better.  This isn't a place to go out of your way to but it's a a great overnight alternative to staying in Madrid.  We stumbled on a spectacular gorge carved out by the Rio Dulce near Siguenza.

Here's the small hotel we stayed at.

f.  near san sebastian/BIDANIA

The second stop was a countryside hotel called Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania 20 minutes from San Sebastian.  This would be a nice place for an overnight after staying a few days in San Sebastian.

Here's the small countryside hotel we stayed at.

G.  ILE DE RE (France)

The third and last stop was at La Baronnie Hotel & Spa in Ile de Rey's main town of Saint Martin.  This place is France's own version of the Hamptons with miles and miles of flat cycling paths designed with families in minds, quaint villages and beaches.  This island connected to the mainland by bridge deserves it's own trip.

Here's the quaint hotel we stayed at.

Tips for Renting a villa in Europe

Years ago I overheard someone in Seattle talking about their plans to rent a villa in Italy for a week with friends.   Thick in the vortex of the child rearing years and booking out friend dinners three miles away two months in advance I remember thinking “who does that?” and “how… could…you…possibly…” Then I gagged on my not-so-jolly rancher.  

There’s something about the word “villa” that sounds obnoxious and faux European.   Add in Italy and now you’ve created a puddle of Chianti-stained jealousy around you and your friends, all of whom must be the lucky ones with more than 2 weeks of vacation to burn. 

Even if you had the money and time, the thought of planning that kind of vacation seemed daunting and completely out of reach.  I never asked how the trip went but I did file the idea away for later.  I assumed the later would be when I turned 50, when my children fled the nest, or when I sold my screenplay for villa money. 

Then of course I moved to Europe three years ago and became that “someone” who talks about renting villas and then posts pictures of them.  I’ve become that person who no doubt has given you occasions to gag, wonder and lament.  I know this and am sorry for it so please only read on if you’re not in a place of wanting to poke me in the eye. 

My intention is to share what I’ve learned about renting a villa in Europe in a way that could be helpful to those thinking about a trip or aspiring to one in the future.   Most people think about a pan European trip where they travel from big city to big city but if you want to give yourself space to more fully experience the culture, it’s worth considering carving out a portion of your trip for the countryside. 

One important bit of clarification that would have been helpful to me those years ago in Seattle:  When people in Europe say “villa” they are really saying “detached house.”  You need not have sold a screenplay or a company to be villa eligible.  There is a sliding luxury scale from mansion villas with cooks included to modest 2 bedroom villas where linens aren’t always included.  The thing they do generally share in common is that they are somewhere in the countryside where the slow life happens and you really get the chance to use your rusty French, Spanish, Italian or speak the language of hand motions. 

Here then are a few things to consider if you are thinking about renting a villa in Europe:

1.  Most people think about villas in France and Italy and for good reason.  They have a robust rental market and the countryside is full of provincial towns and farmers markets (especially in France) during the summers.  You have to work harder to find villas to rent in Spain that aren’t on the crowded and much less interesting Costa del Sol.  There are lots of websites out there doing villa rentals but the ones I have used are Pure France for France, Tuscany Now for Italy, and Rustic Blue for Spain.  Whatever website you use there is value in having a company that acts as the intermediary between you and the owner and a company that has visited all their properties.  Most of the villas you will find to rent are second homes.

France, exhibit A. (my favorite of all the rentals we have done is this one)

2.  Wherever you choose, you will be driving there.   Of course you can rent a car in Rome, Paris, or Madrid but consider taking a cheap intra-country flight to get closer to your villa and rent a car out of smaller airport which would be easier and potentially cheaper. 

3.  Travel in any month but July or August if you can.  Prices are highest when demand is highest in July and August and you can often get rates 20-30% cheaper in May, June, September, October.  Many US schools get out in mid-June and so if you are school dependent, my strong advice would be to do your Europe travel and villa rental the last two weeks of June if possible.  Most villa rentals also require a Saturday-Saturday stay but may offer some flexibility in the off-season months.

France, exhibit B. ( I loved the summer kitchen in this one.)

4.  Travel with a group.  Generally speaking, the bigger the villa, the more amenities you get.  Many of the villas available to rent are geared towards large parties and we all know how math works.  Two families or a group of friends splitting the cost of one villa opens up a lot more options.   Honestly it doesn’t take much to get the per night charge cheaper than a hotel rate in a big city.

Spain, exhibit C. (a group trip example of remote but excellent villa with promixmity to Granada and Cordoba.)

5.  Book early.  You can find available villas anytime but the good ones get plucked up early, especially the smaller and more affordable ones.  I try to book mine in November for the following summer. 

6.  Pick a villa that is further inland or in a region you’ve heard less about.   You’ll pay top dollar in Tuscany and Provence.  Umbria and Dordogne are lesser known but just as charming regions.   The prices go up the closer you are to the water but given that most villas won’t be directly on the beach who cares if you have to drive 45 minutes or 15 minutes if you get a nicer villa further out.  If they say "remote" they do mean it so just make sure you are prepared for what that entails in terms of eating and necessities.

7.  Pick a villa and then map out what you can see in day trips from there.  Almost anywhere you go in France or Italy will have more options for day trips than you could do in a week.  In Dordogne you can even get to the Basque region in Spain for a day trip.  You can find listings of summer farmers markets online and if in France almost be guaranteed a daily market within a 25 km radius.  It’s great to have dinner out in a city but when you are in the French or Italian countryside, it’s better to have lunch out when you are day tripping and then have dinner in.  You’ll also save money on food and wine if you eat most of your dinners in.  I don’t think that’s just my age talking …

8.  Prioritize the outdoor space.    It’s easy to get taken with beautiful interiors but if you are renting during the summer months you should put more of a premium on the outdoor space.   The pool is an easy one to focus on but I also pay attention to the outdoor eating area, the views, and the proximity of neighbors.   If you are choosing to be in the countryside, setting matters a lot.

9.  Pick a villa that is private but walkable to a village.   They aren’t always easy to find but when you find a villa that has lovely outdoor space with privacy AND is walkable to a village, book it!  There’s something about walking into a village for a coffee or baguette that never ever gets old…

10.  Study the reviews closely.  Most people say generally positive things but you can often tell when a place is “fine” and when it’s “truly special” by the tone of the reviews.  “Thanks for a great holiday” is not a review, it’s a warning.  

11.  Look for newly added villas.  This can be a risk because you won’t have reviews but sometimes you can find a gem before the word gets out.  That happened with this one where we were the first renters and now it is almost fully booked for this upcoming summer.

12.  Look for the cheapest villas on the high end rental sites.  Sometimes I will troll on higher end villa sites looking for their smallest properties as you know the quality will be there but the smaller size may not appeal to those looking for a reunion sized villa.

Fall in Puglia, Italy

I haven't been to Cornwall but I read somewhere that Puglia is like the Cornwall for Italians.  With 800km of beach-lined coast, in the last 10 years Puglia has become a hot destination for for the Italian socialites in summer.  Our boy's research informed us that Justin Timberlake got married in Puglia, not Tuscany or Lake Como, three years ago.   Like our trip to Croatia last October, we decided to chase the last of the sun (Puglia is further south than Naples) and explore Puglia during the quieter shoulder season which aligned with our school Fall Break (October 31-November 8.) 

We loved the time of year for our visit and the warm mid 60 degree weather but if we were to advise others who are coming from further away, we’d recommend you plan your trip to Puglia sometime before November 1 (All Saints Day) which seems to be the official day that things start shutting down.  It didn’t detour us, but many of the towns were dead and we needed assistance in finding open restaurants.   Late September and all of October would be ideal.

To get to Puglia, you can fly into either Bari or Brindisi.  Neither are particularly interesting cities to visit but they are easy in and out places to fly into.  You will definitely need to rent a car to explore the area.  We stayed first outside of Fasano which has a number of interesting hilltowns to visit (or read in, see photos below): Ostuni, Locorotondo, Martina Franca and Pogliano a Mare were white-washed charm even with the quiet.   

We ended up in Martina Franca on a Sunday night when the whole well-dressed town seemed to be out for a Sunday evening stroll.  Due to time, we skipped the “smurftown” of Alberobello with his unique cone roofed stoned houses and the limestone caves of Grotte Castellana in favor of hiking along the gorgeous coast of the Toree Guaceto Nature Reserve. 

The second portion of our trip was further south in the "Salento" region near Otranto and Lecce.  Otranto is a picturesque town with a harbor and castle and Lecce is a lively university town that is often referred to as the “Florence of the South.”   Lecce was still buzzing even in November but Otranto wasn't at full capacity.   Here there are fewer small hilltowns to visit but Otranto and Lecce could keep you busy for a few days.   With a more accessible coastline, there is a spectacular drive (and potential bike route) following limestone cliffs from Otranto to Castro.  Of the two areas, we'd give the nod to the Salento region (also a wine region.)

Puglia is filled with beach clubs in the summer, kite surfing is big, and it would be a fantastic place for a cycling trip.  We met one couple from New York who were bicycling when we were there and it's ideal given the terrain and the sprinkling of guest houses.

More than other places we’ve visited, I would highly recommend you plan your visit around where you want to stay.  Southern Italy is filled with these charming “Masserias” which are farmhouses that were built to function as self-sufficient communities but now have been converted into guest houses. There is a huge range of them, some of them double as spas and some of them double as agriturismos, some are in small villages but most are out in the country.  Unlike a hotel, each Masseria has its own unique vibe and set of services so it’s worth hunting around until you find one that is “your speed.”  We stayed in two of them. The first one near Fasano was fine but the second one Masseria Prosperi, outside of Otranto and Lecce was special. 

Masseria Prosperi, a farmhouse with indoor and outdoor pool near Otranto and located 1.5km from the beach, opened two years ago by the wonderfully relaxed Mercedes (who speaks English) and her husband Antonio (who speaks the language of food.)  You have to be comfortable with communal dining and like animals (it’s on a farm but think chic farm not hippy farm where your children and pets are very much welcomed).  If you are a foodie, having Antonio cook a multi-course Puglian dinner set out on the terrace while you mingle with other guests – sending your children to bed upstairs when they are tired – is an Italian experience you won’t get visiting a big city.  If you like a very quiet night of sleep, this may not be the place for you especially if all the rooms were occupied and you were staying in one of the two downstairs rooms. 

There are six guest rooms (the two upstairs back rooms being the best) and it’s possible to rent out the entire house with a group of friends.  The furnishings are nice but not at all fussy.  The only person worrying about a trail of water from the indoor pool to the room will be an American mother.  Service is attentive and always welcoming, tested by multiple cappuccino orders at breakfast. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of curb appeal when you first arrive at Masseria Prosperi because once you step inside and around to the back, you’ll forgive the tired, unloved property that sits in front of it.   Mercedes' sister and mother run a more well-known nearby Masseria called Masseria Montelauro.

Other places to recommend:

  • Borgo San Marco – a family-friendly 15th century Masseria with 18 rooms outside Fasano.  Like Masseria Prosperi, one of 16 places to stay in the region recommended on i-escapes (my most reliable website for finding places to stay in Europe) and one we considered.   We ended up staying at Masseria Alchimia instead which is more self-service but given the time of year and the "magic" of the guest house experience, I'd choose a more immersive Masseria.
  • Le Capase Resort Salento – We drove by this resort which has a beautiful natural setting on the Salentine Peninsula.  Prices look reasonable.
  • Borgo Egnazia – a large, village sized Masseria with 63 rooms and the location of Justin Timberlake’s wedding outside Fasano.  Recommended in this recent Conde Naste article which has 10 other Masserias to recommend (Masseria Prosperi among them) which would be an excellent read (and much more helpful than my post) if you were considering a visit.

Walks along the coastline are wonderful, perhaps even more in the off season where you often have the place to yourselves.  If you go, we'd recommend:

  • Beach walk along Toree Guaceto Natural Reserve north of Brindisi or a sandy beach mixed in with rocky coves.  No beach clubs or services except for trash cans. 
  • Baia dei Turchi public beach north of Otranto (probably very crowded in summer)
  • Torre Sant’Andrea north of Otranto (the link here is for a listing of many other beaches in the area.)
  • Along the Salentine peninsula between Otranto and Castro. 

The food in Puglia with it's focus on fish and greens is the best we've had in Italy so far.  Before Antonio's cooking, we were given excellent lunch and dinner recommendations by the woman who owned the first Masseria near Fasano.  The best of those were:

  • Il Punto, an elegant fish restaurant on the water in the ugly - and I mean ugly- town of Torre Canne.  One of the only times traveling when we arrived embarrassingly under-dressed for Sunday brunch.
  • Il Cortiletto, an unassuming place in the small town of Speziale, where you get a 9 course antipasta feast before the main dish.  A truly special dining experience worth going out of the way for.
  • Chichibo, a typical large well-established fish restaurant serving locals and tourists in the heart of Polignano. 


London: A Taste of Two Markets

You can go to a food market and take pictures or you can go to a food market and eat.  It is hard to commit to both things at the same time.   If you happen to be in London and are thinking about visiting the Borough Market (maybe on your list) or Brixton Village Market (probably not on your list) for a bite(s) to eat, do yourself a favor and leave the camera behind.   Based on the few photos I did take, I obviously had my priorities right.

Borough Market is London’s oldest and most well-known market near the London Bridge.  Everyone knows it like they know Pike’s Place Market in my hometown of Seattle.  Set under a rail viaduct, the market snakes around into several sections that you are best to scope out before calorie committing.  Much of the market, which includes traditional food stalls and lots of street food takeaway options, is under cover.  The full market is open Thursday-Sunday with only a portion of it open on Monday-Wednesday.   It seems like the week days are geared toward the food wanderer in search of a £5 lunch and the weekends to the home cook collecting for a gourmet meal.  It certainly was busy with business suits and students at Tuesday lunch time but definitely not unbearable.   There is limited seating in the greenhouse or the garden of the Southwark Cathedral (which you must enter through the Cathedral to access) or you could take your food along to the South Bank.   Or you can inhale it while standing.    

I choose the longest queues, which in one case I had no idea what for until I saw the hog on the split.   After the salty, fennel seed spiked pork goodness on a ciabatta roll with rocket salad and a simple dressing at Roast Hog, I lined up for vegetable pad thai at Khanom Krok (which though tasty really isn’t a pleasure to watch being cooked as street food), and finished with seared scallops topped with a fistful of crunchy bacon bits over a stir fry of veg at Shellseekers.   That all happened in two hours.  I did toss the ciabatta roll to “make room.”  There was a killer toasted cheese sandwich I’d read about, Ethiopian food that looked delicious and so.much.more but without a partner in dining crime, I had to surrender until dinner.

On Wednesday morning I was back in Borough Market for a slow filter coffee at the seriously good Monmouth Coffee and a to-go piece of ginger cake at Bread Ahead.   Because Borough market is right near the London Bridge Station, it was conveniently on my way to Wednesday’s market exploration further south and outside central London in the up and coming neighborhood of Brixton.

Brixton Village (aka Granville Arcade) is everything Borough Market is not.   While Borough Market is filled with students, young professionals and tourists, Brixton is a multi-ethnic community largely of African and Caribbean descent, musicians and young people.  Brixton is the last Tube stop on the Victoria Line.  You’ll notice you aren’t in central London as soon as you exit the Tube.  There’s a lively street market that runs down the spine of the mixed residential and chain store neighborhood.  You’ll see every kind of fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, and flea market junk along the street market which leads to a covered arcade called Brixton Village.  Quieter and clearly gentrifying, Brixton Village is filled with nice vintage shops and a vibrant range of eateries that would take days to sample.  It’s more casual sit down than take away.  Brixton Village is where you go to eat your heart out and then pick up a few gifts. 

With an article in TimeOut London as my guide, I had a hard time choosing between Caribbean fried fritters at Fish, Wings and Tings, South American empanadas at El Rancho Del Lalo, Pakistani street food at Elephant, dumplings at Mama Lana and thai food at KaoSarn.  I decided on Thai and was blown away by the classic Larb salad of minced chicken with ground roasted rice, chili, mint and lime juice.  Reviews on Trip Advisor (why do I even check anymore?) say prices have gone up and they run you out over the dinner hour, but I still consider a £8.90 a cheap eat and the lunch hour was definitely leisurely and they were happy to chat with me.  It was only a salad but it was the best Thai I’ve had since the US.  If you are hungry and not sure what you want to eat, you will no doubt find something that strikes your fancy and doesn’t hit your wallet at Brixton Village.  And there were several good looking coffee shops too.

Later that night when I was back near the Borough Market, I bellied up to the tapas bar for a glass of wine and waited my turn for a table at very popular Brindisa Tapas Kitchen.  There are 5 locations throughout London.  A cute guy, who also happens to be my husband, met up with me there after his work and my 36 hours of eating.   Finally I had a partner in dining crime and while not as as heavenly as what you'd get in Spain, the fried sea bass with mash and charcuterie and queso plates were terrific.

If you are on a time budget when in London, Borough Market is a sure bet for a quick lunch and an eye-popping food experience.   If you time to commit to a longer lunch, the range of food options available at Brixton Village is well worth the adventure.

Summer in Iceland

If you want to know how small Iceland is consider these two facts:  1) Until moving to Europe, we knew exactly one person from Iceland.  Though Thury now lives in Seattle, we happened to bump into her at the Reykjavik Airport on the day of our departure.   2) A few weeks ago we were at a party seated next to a couple from Iceland.  Though they now live in Luxembourg, not only were they surprised to hear that we visited their tiny hometown in Selfoss during our Iceland trip but that we also had a (bad) photo of their favorite Selfoss restaurant still on our iPhone camera roll.  That’s the kind of chance encounters you have when you visit a country with a population of only 325,000.

So, Iceland.  Rewinding a couple months ago for this post.

One of the many benefits of being an expat is an annual home trip.  We usually take ours in August when European beaches are jammed with the entire European labor force and their brothers, aunts, and second cousins.   Plus there’s no place like Seattle in August, or so I thought. 

This summer we, at my outdoor loving husband’s urging, decided to take Icelandair up on its well-publicized offer for a free stop-over in Iceland from Europe in route to the US.  You can stopover for up to seven days going either direction at no additional airfare.  I, of the outdoor liking kind, agreed to four.  That was before I consulted the Internet for average weather temperatures in August (brrr…..) and before I conferred with my three children who let me know I was in effect robbing them of their Seattle time (grrr….). The good news is it only takes one steamy photo of the Blue Lagoon to turn that frowny face upside down.   

Iceland started heavily promoting themselves as a tourist destination after the 2008 financial crisis as a means to boost revenue but the tipping point for tourism take-off was the 2010 eruption of the Volcanco Eyjafjallajökull.  This was the eruption that temporarily closed the airspace for 6 days and stranded 8 million passengers.  While the situation was unpleasant for those impacted, it did put Iceland and it’s geological wonder front and center in the global news cycle for 6 days.   With a blanket of TV footage, curiosity and interest peaked.   The number of annual tourists to Iceland doubled between 2008 and 2014. 

Chances are good once you tell someone you are heading to Iceland, much like seeing the car you just bought everywhere on the road, you’ll start noticing friends and friends of friends who’ve been.  I don’t know how most people do their Iceland stop-over but if the number of Reykjavik Excursions buses is any indication, many of them seem to be doing packaged bus tours or hitting the Blue Lagoon (near the airport) and Reykjavik and calling it 36 hours.   While there is nothing wrong with that approach, especially if time is limited, in my opinion Iceland is the ideal place to rent a car and do a self-driving tour. 

For starters, there is only one ring road around the entire island making it hard to get lost.  I am sensitive to getting lost and there simply aren’t enough roads in Iceland to make that a possibility.  Second, with a population density of 35 people per square kilometer versus 3 in the US, part of why you you’d visit Iceland is to get a humanity break. Being with a busload of people with selfie sticks would kill that vibe.  Third, while Reykjavik if a fine city - you can totally see it in a day and would be more than able to give out directions by 4pm.  Aside from the unusual looking Cathedral in central Reykjavik and glassed Opera House on the harbor, the architecture is all pretty flat and functional.   City hopping isn’t really an option as towns outside of Reykjavik are more village-sized and gateways to an outdoor attraction.  The reason to go to Iceland is squarely on the vast shoulders of the rugged and wholly unique landscape. 

Given the pride of Iceland is the outdoors, the best words of wisdom are to come prepared for it.  Think layers, waterproof clothing, sturdy shoes and several swimsuits.  Conditions change in a hot minute and usually without much warning.   We had ideal but completely atypical conditions without any rain.  When we have since mentioned that to people from Iceland, they seem to know the precise days in August we were there. 

The nice thing is that without the mental clutter of a long list of competing activities to do, you can give your full attention to the ever changing light.  Bubbling hot springs turn up at unexpected moments.  The vistas alternate between fertile and stark land.  We only scratched the surface touring around South Iceland, the most visited area with many of country’s best natural jewels, but it was enough to quiet the soul and long for another visit.

With the exception of a failed attempt to hike through the Thorsmork National Park past the site of the 2010 volcanic eruption at Eyjafjallajokull and a successful “city mountain” hike up Mount Esja outside of Reykjavik known mostly to locals, we didn’t much venture off the beaten track.  Unlike other places where you might be inclined to try the road not taken, the road around The Golden Circle is worth doing.  Where else can you see a still active geyser, a deafening waterfall, and 6,500 year old volcanic crater now serving as a window on the groundwater – all in the span of an afternoon?

What to do:

A guidebook on Iceland is very helpful as you set out your plan.  Many people like us start with Southwestern Iceland but there is also a lot to see in The West Fjords and Northwest Iceland.  A longer trip around the island would be a fun adventure.  We however made our base camp in Southwestern Iceland and did day trips from there. 

Hveragerdi Hot Springs.  Nothing reminds you that the earth’s core is hot, really hot, like a hot spring with white steam baiting you to come get warm and cozy.  Hveragerdi, 45km east of Reykjavik, is the capital of hot springs and the town we choose to stay in for the first three nights.   They have a geothermal area above the town.  It’s a short hike to the hot river and there are walking paths that continue beyond there.  Free.

Kerio Crater.  A 55m deep volcanic crater.  You can walk around the top of the crater and walk down into it.  Small donation requested to visit.

Gullfoss Waterfall.  A beautiful and powerful waterfall that is worthy of a visit.  Because it’s Iceland and they don’t sweat safety regulations, you can get close enough to feel the spray.  Free.    We saw several other waterfalls in the South but their Iceland names don’t seem to stick with me.

Geysir.  It’s fun to walk around the geothermal field with some dormant hot springs and some still active geysers and wait for the shooting tower of water.  You don’t even have to be patient as the Geyrir performs every few minutes.  As both Gulfoss and Geysir are big tourist attractions, you will be in some company but they do a nice job of not obscuring the beauty of nature’s highlights.  They also have good bathrooms and visitor centers at both stops.

Bruarhloo.  A gorgeous canyon formed by the river Hvita with interesting rock formations.  It’s situated between Geysir and Gulfoss and so very easy to access. For much of the time, we were the only ones there.  Maybe our most favorite stop to scramble around.

Thorsmork National Park.    Situated between mountains and glaciers, this park is endless with hiking trails.  But due to not having a 4x4 vehicle the hike we planned morphed into a less interesting walk through a lava field. 

How to get there:

For those in Luxembourg, we flew Icelandair out of Brussels and found inexpensive (and manageable walking distance close) long term parking.

Getting around:

There are multiple car rental companies on site at the Reykjavik Airport.  You should splurge for the four wheel drive.   We didn’t and regretted it.  Many of the trail heads are over rutted terrain and require a four wheel drive.  A two wheel drive says “I’m here to walk.” A four wheel drive says “Someone in my party is here to hike.”  Also be aware that the maximum speed on the entire island is 90kph.  With the open road and not very many cars, driving this slowly requires constant vigilance or me as a driver.  We did get pulled over (but not ticketed.)  Finally, it’s a bit desolate between Reykjavik and the airport so remember to gas up if needed before heading to the airport. 

Where to stay:

If you are traveling to Iceland in the summer, it is important to get a jump on accommodation.  Hotels and guest houses fill up quickly.

Frost & Fire Hotel, Hverhamar, 810 Hveragerði, Iceland; +354 483 5949;  Simple rooms with even simpler bathrooms in natural setting (each room exits directly to outside) one hour outside of Reykjavík close to sites in south of Iceland.  Well on the beaten path for good reason.  Not fancy.  Excellent breakfast included in rates.  Easy parking.

Kvosin Downtown Hotel, Kirkjutorg 4, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland; +354 571 4460; Nice, clean hip hotel apartments.  Centrally located with a price tag that reminds you of it.  Worth the splurge for one night.   Fixed breakfast with homemade muesli, yogurt and sourdough bread at next door’s cozy Bergsson Mathús included.  Not as easy street parking.

Where to eat:

Iceland portions are more US like than European like.  However like everything else in Iceland, eating out is expensive. Best to pull out a map to remind yourself how far away you are from everything in Iceland and you’ll forgive the high prices.

Kjallarinn Kitchen BarNewish restaurant in Reykjavik tucked in a cave recommended to us by the hotel.  Fish, international fusion heaven on a plate.  Spendy but delicious and inventive dishes.  Best meal.

Apotek Kitchen Bar.  Hard to miss restaurant in the center of Reykjavik with seafood and free range lamb with a twist, 6 course dinner menu with much cheaper lunch and brunch menu.  Went once for brunch and a second time for lunch.  Nice atmosphere minus the ugly American returning her dish because it didn’t come out on a hot plate.   

Tryggvaskali Restaurant.  THE restaurant in Selfoss mentioned above.  Old house converted into charming restaurant where it’s possible you might even be seated in your own room.   Very small menu but the salmon with barley, baby broccoli, caramelized butter and blueberries is really all you need to know. (Also there is a hamburger on the menu.)

Kjot & Kunst.  If large portion size, traditional cooking and eating carrot cake out of thermal oven sounds interesting (and it did to us twice), this restaurant in  Hveragerdi gets the job done.  (We preferred it to restaurant at our hotel.)

Fall Hiking in Switzerland

With so many places to see and limited time, you need travel short cuts.   Person to person recommendations are often the best.  We asked our Swiss friends Christian and Iris for their favorite day hiking destination in the Swiss Alps.  Avid hikers both before and after kids, their favorite spot is LENK IN SIMMENTAL which offers easy valley hiking, more challenging and varied mountain paths, and higher more technical alpine climbs.

GSTAAD is a destination in the Berner Oberland with an international reputation but nearby Lenk in Simmental has the Swiss reputation.  It has been awarded as one of the best Swiss holiday family resorts for both its winter and summer activities.  Like Gstaad it has a charming, picturesque village but it trades the designer label shops for more outdoor stores and a working population.  While it caters to the outdoor enthusiast, it feels like a more authentic Swiss village.  For those of you familiar with recreational areas in Idaho, Lenk is the Hailey to Sun Valley’s Ketchum.

Sitting at an altitude of just over 1000 meters, Lenk is in the Simmental valley about 65km southwest of Interlaken.  The valley has 600km of walking trails and 290 km of mountain bike trails for all levels, so plenty to keep busy for a long weekend.  One of the attractions is the compactness of the outdoor activity which means no time is wasted in getting to your activity.  It's a great destination for both families and older people.

With a recent dusting of snow on the highest peaks and idyllic late September weather, the only challenge was choosing which of the hiking and mountain trails to do.  (We weren't looking to do any of the more advanced alpine or overnight trails, much to my husband's dismay.)  There too we had help from the owner of the hotel that was also recommended to us by Christian and Iris.  (see below in “Where to Stay.”)

On the first day, we took the gondola up to LEITERLI above Lenk.  There is an easy 3km loop hike on the top with beautiful vista views and interesting sign posts (in Swiss) about Lenk’s history.   There are several additional trails to do from the top which, if the weather is good, we’d recommend over hiking back down to Lenk.  From Leiterli back down to Lenk there is a discovery Marmot Trail (3 km) and Lynx Trail (6 km) aimed at kids but its ankle breaking steep and not quite as interesting for older kids.  There is another themed trail called the Alpine Flower Trail with 95 plant species that would have been lovely to do when the wildflowers are in season.

On the second day, we took the bus to IFFIGENALP (which is not accessible by gondola.)  From there we did an up and net down hike past several beautiful waterfalls and lots of cows.  One of the treats of hiking in Switzerland are all the old chalets en route where you can usually stop for a drink and buy some locally made cheese.    We extended what would have been a 3.5 hour mountain hike finishing in Simmenfalle into a leisurely 5 hour stroll.  Had it just been Brett and Lawton on the hike, they would have traded the stroll for a 600 meter add on climb to Flueseehutte.  The two of them are already plotting their return.

Getting there:

It’s a 5.5 hour drive to Lenk in Simmental from Luxembourg without traffic.  Expect some delays near Strasbourg and a few tolls in France.  The last hour of drive is on windy two lane road so it’s advisable to drive in daylight.  You will need to stop and buy the Swiss autobahn toll sticker (cost of 40 Swiss francs for one calendar year) when crossing into Switzerland.  If you fly, nearest airport is in Bern which is 1.5 hours by car or 2.5 hours by train.   From Zurich Airport it is 2.5 hours by car and 3.5 hours by train.

Getting around:

It is nice to have a car but if you are staying in the town center of Lenk, you can easily manage without one.  The Lenk bus leaves regularly from the train station in the town center to many of the trail heads and in some cases (where roads are only open one direction on an hourly schedule) is a better option than driving.  

Where to Stay:

At our friend’s recommendation, we stayed at HOTEL SIMMENHOF, Lenkstrasse 43 | 3775 Lenk Im Simmental, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; +41 33 736 34 34; Family-run hotel 1km from the center of Lenk; large spacious family rooms available; indoor pool with smaller outdoor pool; free and excellent WiFi; exceptionally kid friendly; hearty breakfast offering included; onsite restaurant for dinner; free parking and shuttle service into Lenk; owners are as helpful and good as any tourist office.  90% of guests are Swiss.

If you have a few more francs to rub together or you want to be in town, LENKERHOF GOURMENT SPA RESORT is the highest rated hotel in the area and looked to be a special spot, Badstrasse 20 | Postfach 241, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; :+41 33 736 36 36.

There are numerous other hotels in the town as well as a number of rental properties.  Because it is mostly a skiing destination, you should have ample lodging options for hiking seasons.

Where to Eat:

One does not travel to Switzerland for the food, but a warm Rösti (elevated hashbrowns with cheese and often an egg on top) after a day of hiking goes down easy.   There are 27 restaurants listed on Trip Advisor in Lenk.  We asked around for recommendations, which landed us at these two spots for dinner both of which worked well.

Hirschen Lounge Bar, Oberriedstrasse 1, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; don’t mistake the red and white table clothes for pizza; interesting menu with excellent Rösti and very good vegetarian Spätzle with local chanterelles; average pasta dishes and make your own hamburgers; slightly slow service but the night was also quite busy.

Elk Bar & Restaurant, Oberriedstrasse 13, Lenk-Simmental CH-3775, Switzerland; large more modern than traditional Swiss restaurant with excellent terrace; aside from the parsnip soup and house salad nothing that floated above average but food is simple, service was good and there’s something for everyone on the menu. 


Travel Tip from Rome

For most, summer travel to Rome means a gelato-stained tick sheet of “must sees” a mile long.  My glossy travel guide claims you can see all the major highlights in four days, an ambitious proclamation for a city with ancient remains everywhere you step, over 900 churches and only two metro lines.

A long weekend and third trip to the Eternal City, sans children, means you can put the tick sheet down and (mostly) wing it.   Except if you are like me and you can’t help yourself from doing restaurant research.  If you’re going to commit to a pasta carbonara, you want to enjoy every calorie.  [I have recommendations on this front of course.]

Regardless of your chosen pace, the truth is that you will get caught up in the whirl of a big city like Rome.  You will never see it all or find the best place to have a pair of shoes made.  You will be completely overwhelmed – not just by the size of the city – but the history it holds.

So, my travel tip for whatever new place you travel to this summer.  Find an hour on your busy itinerary where you can escape to a quiet corner of the city and just sit.  I found my spot at the SS Apostoli Church, a second tier tourist attraction not heavily circled on any map.  First time we passed there was a mass going on.  Second time there was a long line of people waiting to take a picture of the apostle James and Phillips tombs, a ridiculous photo really given that you are in a dark crypt.  Third time, it was early Monday morning and there were only two of us in the church.  Complete silence for 30 minutes. 

The travel writer Pico Iyer says, “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.  [In stillness], a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes.”

I recommend you add that to your “must see” list.

Some Recommendations

Three dinners, three winners.  Armondo’s Al Pantheon, a well-known, family run at moderately priced traditional Roman trattoria, adjacent but not on the square near the Pantheon with excellent food and a kitchen staff all over the age of 50.  Recommend view of the kitchen for anyone with an Italian grandfather.  Giulio Passami l’olio, a moderately priced, casual but hip (late arriving bridal shower party confirmed) Mediterranean kitchen with a long wine list and helpful sommelier 600 meters from Piazza Navona recommended to us by a Roman friend of a friend.   Antico Arco, an upscale modern Italian restaurant in Monteverde (taxi required) with a twist on Roman classic dishes and attentive service.   For a glass of wine, research told us to check out Mime e Coco on busy Via del Governo Vecchio but we preferred the lively local vibe of Il Bar del Fico near Piazza Navona and the more quiet but comfortable, Kindle-friendly Etabli.    

No need to put the Pantheon on your tick sheet.  You will pass by it multiple times during your stay and at first you will wonder, “How on earth did they build that 2000 years ago?” then you will start to wander the streets around it for shopping.  Rome is all about leather, cashmere, shoes and other things to drain your travel budget.  There is good shopping for all these things around the Pantheon including Cosimo Colonna where you can dress your man in Euro duds without gasping at price tags or committing to a summer scarf if you don’t want to.  You should however make him get a pair of colorful Gallo socks.  When in Rome … black socks will not do.

The most enjoyable shopping however was in the Monti neighborhood which is behind Piazza Venezia and the ColosseumVia del Boschetto and Via Urbana are lined with designer shops of Italian made goods and vintage shops in a range of price points.   The most fun was being there on the weekend for the MercadoMonti, an indoor urban market we read about in the NY Times March 2015 “36 Hours in Rome.”  With about two dozen young designers selling their handcrafts, my Euro dude was able to pick up a snazzy jacket for under 100 euros.

So, Berlin

One of the great things about writing a personal blog is you have no deadlines.  One of the bad things about writing a personal blog is with enough procrastination you have no one to blame but yourself when you can’t remember the details of that thing you planned to write.  This is especially dangerous when trying to write travel advice with fuzzy details.

 So, Berlin. 

I had to check my calendar to remember exactly when I was there.  It was “this” month (refusing to believe to today is in fact May 1) so the statute of limited memory should allow for more or less accurate recall.  I was also there for a 3 day weekend - with a nasty head cold – back in September 2014.  Congested or breathing normally, the first trip was love at first sneeze so I decided to return “this” month for Spring Break solo with just the two little boys.  (The big boy with the map skills was with his Dad on the East Coast doing college visits which is hard for all of us – more accurately 4/5 of us – to believe.)

I don’t know if it’s the Seattle girl in me or my low threshold for Bavarian food overload, but Berlin wins for best German city in my book.  And I really, really like Munich.  (See my post on Munich.)  Berlin lacks the beauty of Munich but there is an energy about the rapidly changing city that you don’t have to be 21 years old to enjoy.  You are constantly surprised by the amount of cool tucked behind ugly exteriors.  And the city takes their coffee very, very seriously. 


[The two found favorite coffee spots in Berlin were The Barn and Bonanza Coffee Roasters.  Lucky for me, Bonanza was 50 feet from where we stayed and their flat whites were just about perfect.]

So how’d I do?  Totally nailed it.  Beyond being expertly caffeinated, here are a few tips for doing Berlin.

Tip 1: build confidence early by skipping public transportation on arrival and taxi to hotel.  Never mind the cost or the glory of saying you caught the Airport Express to the U-Bahn followed by a 10 minute walk with luggage.  No one will be greeting you at the hotel with a medal for it at 9:30am.   And when you find out the cab fare is only 22 euros, you’ll wonder how big a tip is too big before the taxi driver asks for your number.

[We stayed in a very reasonably priced apartment hotel called Brilliant Apartments in Prenzlauer Berg on what may be one of the best gentrified streets in the neighborhood.   It was a brilliant choice for what we needed never mind what my boys say about the wifi strength and the assaulting water pressure.   The apartment is in the former East Berlin so modernity expectations should be appropriately checked.   I wrote a review of it here if you are in the hunt for lodging while in Berlin.]

Tip 2: pick a hotel next to a great café with pancakes in the AM and wine in the PM.  They don’t have to be good pancakes.  The pancakes will be the siren call you need to wake your kids for a 7am flight.  Be aware however that Europe is a place that loves bookings so even though you wouldn’t expect to need a booking for a weekend breakfast, build confidence and fill stomachs early by making one.  We got the last non-reserved table.  It was my day.

[Café Krone is the café affiliated with Brilliant Apartments.    As of today there are 6,279 restaurants in Berlin on Trip Advisor.  Café Krone is #13.  You will like it.  They have carrot cake.]

Tip 3: strategically select your neighborhood.   Berlin doesn’t really have a center and it’s massively spread out so it takes some planning (or a bike, see below) to pick the area you want to explore.  Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are both popular, creative chic places for great eating and shopping and pervasive use of English.  Kreuzberg is gentrifying but more “edgy” and home to the live music scene.  If you want evidence there are actual children in Berlin, Suedstern is a cute family-friendly neighborhood.

[We stayed at the Casa Camper Berlin in Mitte last fall when it was only my husband and I.  It was a great location for a first visit to Berlin and the hotel was that perfect blend of down-to-earth but cool in a way that doesn’t require mood lighting and fruited water.  Unfortunately for my snotty nose, the toilet paper – as in the rest of Europe – was not up to USA standards.]

 Tip 4: pack biking shorts or your best biking dress.   Everyone knows Amsterdam as a biking city, but that’s really for the locals who know the rules.  Berlin (and Copenhagen) are better biking cities where you have a chance to blend in as a tourist and not be run over.   There are extensive bike lanes and few to zero hills to remind you that you aren’t in shape.  Also, finding a bike rental or guided bike tour in Berlin is as easy as finding a Starbucks in London.  Maybe even similarly priced.

 [On the first trip, we rented bikes from the hotel.  It was a fantastic way to see the city and also means you can more easily ride through the Tiergarten in route to visit Tempelhof Park – a “park” on the site of an old airfield.  There is something about seeing those wide empty runways that kick starts your brain.  And if you are lucky enough you might see men rollerblading in speedos in not warm September.   Now THAT I remembered.]

[On the second trip, we dared not speak of bikes.  We are having ongoing issues convincing our 8 year old that he will EVER learn to ride a bike.   This makes biking an uphill, downhill, and standstill battle with untied shoelaces.  This is the child who will flail his body into the air to save a goal but who fears any *potential* encounter with pavement.  Suggestions welcome.]

Tip 5:  mix in a little fun with all the history.  The history of Berlin is obviously something you can’t miss, but it’s also somber and best absorbed in doses.  There is a surprisingly number of alternative non-history related things to see and do in Berlin.

[You will no doubt go to see the Berlin Wall Memorial – an outdoor museum that is kid/pet/germ phobic friendly.   There is no better way to understand the barrier that divided a city than by traversing the ground where it was.  The signage along a long stretch of the wall on Bernauer Strasse is excellently done.  I wish I could say the same for Checkpoint Charlie.   The only bright spot around the Checkpoint Charlie circus is the Asisi Panometer, an admission-charged impactful panorama exhibit of a part of the Berlin Wall with lights and sound as well as a collective of photographs from the period of the Wall and before its fall in 1989.  Better yet is the The DDR Museum, a free interactive museum that shows what life was like in the first Socialist state in Germany.  An absolute must do.  Also on that must do list, but without young children, is the Topography of Terror – another free museum that shows an unforgiving look at the terror and persecution perpetrated by the Nazi institutions of the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office.  When things start to get too heavy, head over to the Game Science Center (also near Checkpoint Charlie) - a totally fun, small space with 20 exhibits showcasing future interactive technologies.  Good for all ages and for hands that like to touch things.  The Berlin Zoo (for those not overly sensitive to animals in small cages) is an also nice change of pace.]

Tip 6:  Prep the kids for grittiness.  As long as you know to expect open containers, abandoned buildings, and unmanicured parks – it won’t be a surprise when you bring a basketball to Mauerpark for the third day in a row and the court is littered with as many open beer bottles as people waiting to play.  (We did however have the court to ourselves plus one on the first cold morning.)


Tip 7: make a friend in the neighborhood.  Local suggestions from the right person within the right radius is one way to cut down on marathon walks to dinner.   

[Our friend was Sadie.  Sadie runs The Juicery in Prenzlauer Berg (PB), right across the street from Mauerpark, serving some of the tastiest super food smoothies & juices.  The boys were hooked and happy to follow Sadie’s suggestion by eating at two delicious restaurants on our street (Oderberger Strasse): the fancier Ky Sushi for Japanese/Korean and Vietnam Village for tasty eats with great outdoor seating.  PB is a great neighborhood for eating and several food blogs (the best of which was Berlin Food Stories) and careful reading of Trip Advisor rightly pointed us to: Maria Bonita for hole in the wall Mexican, The Bird for a ridiculously right on American burger, Fast Rabbit for vegan wraps and hard core rap, Kochu Karu for Korean/Spanish tapas – who knew?, and Pastificio Tosatti for homemade pasta for take-away or eat-in at two small tables.  Two places we wanted to try but ran out of time were Babel for Lebanese and Lecker Song for Chinese dumplings.]

Tip 8:  If you don’t know what you want to eat, head to Mitte.   It’s as central as you can get in Berlin and it has everything, including over 1,000 places to eat.   Auguststrasse is the street name to know and explore.

[Some good ones we enjoyed:  District Mot for Vietnamese street food (went there both trips), Cocolo Ramen for at-the-counter noodles, Mogg & Melzer Delicatessen – a modern deli in a former Jewish school with a fantastic rueben sandwich you’ll need help finishing, and Lokal for a high end, seasonal modern German dinner.  Lokal, recommended to me by my good Lux friend and fellow eater Angela, is definitely worth crossing town for.  Book ahead for sure.]

I asked my 8 year old what I should include about Berlin and he said:  “Tell them Berlin is cool.  The people have good English and most people are really nice and the zoo has animals you don’t see in every zoo and the Wall is cool and the Science Center is cool …

Like I said, cool. 


Part Italian and part cosmopolitan, Milan feels like a cross between Florence and Berlin.  It's also a city that requires some work to find it's underlying beauty, but it's there in spades as you venture out into the neighborhoods.  Milan is old meets new ...

We stayed at the Palazzo Segreti, an 18 room boutique hotel in the historic center near the  Duomo and the trendy Brera district and within easy walking distance from the train station.  A little pricey and best suited for couples, the prime location (though a bit noisy) and nice rooms made it worth the splurge. 

(NOTE: If you like boutique hotels, I highly recommend finding them on this website.  Palazzo Segreti was the fourth hotel I've stayed in on a recommendation from i-escape - the others in Berlin and Croatia - and all of them have been fantastic.   They also offer a range of prices and have very useful reviews.) 

The Duomo is the third largest church in the world after St Peter's and Seville Cathedral.  It's spectacular from the square, on the inside, but perhaps most especially from the rooftop.  It's well worth the 7 euros and 250 steps to climb to the top.

There's also shopping of course, much of it way too hip for us.  Bring your cutest clothes as you'll want to fit in.  You'll likely start your shopping at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautiful iron and glass shopping arcade near the Duomo and lined with expensive shops but we found shopping everywhere we went. 

There is a well-worn mosaic art of a bull in the center of the shopping center where people take turns spin their heels in three times for good luck.  There is also excellent people watching (and photographing.)

One of our favorite places was 10 Corso  Como - a  store, bookstore, cafe/restaurant, photography gallery tucked away in a courtyard.  The merchandise is high end but it's worth a stroll through and there's a wonderful rooftop deck to sit and relax.  Apparently they have an outlet too which we missed.  We did hit the DMagazine outlets which if you are a savvy high fashion shopper would be worth the hunt.

One of the highlights of the visit was being in Milan over Palm Sunday.   We happened on two churches just as services were ending which was a real treat.

First at the Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio ...

Then at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a late 4th century church in the round.  I have a thing for churches in the round. 

Milan is gearing up to host the World Expo 2015, a world's fair with a food theme.  An event expected to bring around 20 million visitors between May 1 and Oct 31, we were happy to be in the city before the rush.  Evidence of the coming global trade fair was most obvious in the Porta Nuova business district. 


Sometimes you just hit it right.  We scored by being in Milan on the last Sunday of April which meant we got to enjoy strolling through the Naviglio Grande Antique Market.  A very cool part of town with bars and restaurants spilling onto a not so pretty canal on a day when you wish you had a truck.

Of course, we love eating.  If you like risotto, you'll really like eating in Milan.  We had some of the best risotto we've ever eaten including one with nettles.  We got some good recommendations before going.  Here's some places to share:

Pisacco: lunch or dinner.  Former chef of 2 Michelin Star restaurant (but not expensive.)  North Brera neighborhood.  Recommended by a friend of a friend from Milan.   The roasted vegetable starter with pickled rhubarb, romanesco broccoli and a smattering of other perfectly roasted vegetables was an inspiration.  Don't miss.

Taglio: lunch or dinner.  Modern, casual Italian with floor to ceiling open shelves.  Recommended in NY Times.  Great service, fun vibe, excellent food.

Obica: lunch.  Mozzarella Bar.  It's a chain restaurant but still above average for a tasty lunch and a must do if you crave the real mozzarella and didn't realize they were even mozzarella choices.  Recommended by a friend.

N'Ombra de Vin: an informal, destination wine bar in the Brera neighorhood.  Worth a stop before dinner.  Was packed before we left.

El Brellin:  dinner.  Popular in guide books. In Naviglio.   Very good but you'll be in tourist company. 

Carlo e Camillian: dinner.  We couldn't get reservation so book ahead.  Second restaurant of a chef who owns 2 Michelin Star restaurant Cracco.  Recommended by a friend of a friend from Milan.  

More of pretty Milan on this Good Friday.

Trading £s for Lbs: A London Restaurant Guide

There are lots of wonderful food cities in Europe but no other place has the variety of London.  You can eat anything your heart desires and it doesn’t take much frantic searching on Trip Advisor to find something decent. 

In one full week in London, we ate 12 different types of cuisine: Pakistani, Malaysian, Japanese, Lebanese, Thai, British, American, Italian, Indian, Spanish, Turkish, and Mexican. (I know my children have more adventure willing palettes than most kids.)

Given the abundance of good options and the size of the city, recommendations are best sorted by geography.  So if you find yourself in South Kensington (where we stayed) or Soho (where you will find yourself at some point in your trip) here are a few recommendations:


Noor Jahan – upscale North Indian food (so more meat, less curries),  small with neighborhood vibe, apparently where Brad and Angelina eat when in London.   Lick your plate delicious.  An absolute favorite.  Booking required.

Patara – upscale Thai with non-traditional dishes, smaller portions but great flavors.  Another absolute favorite.  Three locations.  Booking required.

Carluccios – Italian diner, good spot for breakfast which they serve all day especially if you like fried eggs, pancetta and mushrooms.  Nice coloring packet for kids.  Several locations.

Comptoir Libanais – sit down communal table Lebanese,  great for lunch, mezze plates and excellent grill.  Several locations.

Fernandez & Wells –casual, order at the counter Spanish inspired breakfast with fried eggs, chorizo and cheese plate options plus excellent cakes, pastries, and coffee.   New next door is Roots & Bulbs for healthy smoothies.

Bosphorus Kebabs – excellent quality take out Turkish grill (no chips here!), very popular.  We did take out on Valentine’s Day since restaurants were packed.  One of the guys working pulled my husband aside and told him to buy me some flowers

Hereford Arms – great neighborhood gastro pub with comfy seating and screens for sport.

Also with several locations for a sweet fix is Gail’s Bakery and Hummingbird Cupcake (which I personally feel are overrated in taste but beautifully packaged.)


Satori – authentic pizza from Napoli, recommended to us by a Londoner originally from Italy.   Large seating area, good for before a show,  very welcoming with kids.

Jackson + Rye – traditional American brunch,  higher end diner feel with good lookin’ brunch cocktails.   Solid food but not anything unexpected except for the outrageously delicious maple bacon slabs.   Booking required.

Honest Burgers – small place always with a queue, simple chalkboard menu of only a handful of burger options, rosemary chips, onion rings and bottled beers.  Worth the wait if a burger is on your mind.  Also tried the chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen which got the thumbs up as a less “healthy tasting” version to Honest Burgers but with the addition of shakes.  (Disclosure: after two years living outside of the US, our burger hurdle has come down.  We're just happy having ground beef that tastes normal.)

Frith Street and streets around it are full of restaurants.  Two recommendations from previous trips:  Ceviche – Peruvian seafood and Koya – Japanese Udon noodles.  Also nearby which were recommended to us but we ran out of time:  Barrafina – Spanish tapas and Yalla Yalla – Lebanese and middle-eastern street food.  (I'd probably do Ceviche and Barrafina without kids given limited seating.)


Satay House (Paddington) – Malaysian, more than satays,  came recommended as best Malaysian from a London transplant, enjoyed with our Seattle friends based in Luxembourg and holidaying in London at the same time.  I don’t know Malaysian food, but this restaurant made fans out of all of us.  Booking required.

Zayna (Marble Arch) – upscale Pakistani, very good but I thought overpriced.  Also hit my pet peeve when waiter asked me to write a review on Trip Advisor.    Booking required.

Crosstown Donuts (Piccadilly) – daily made American style sourdough donuts, opened 9 months ago, first tried at Fernandez & Wells who carries them as does Whole Foods, first location at Piccadilly Circus Tube Station.  Less sweet than most American donuts and delicious.  Way better than the Hummingbird cupcakes.

Craig’s House in Crouch End – We got a special dinner in the home of one of my childhood friends (and as an Army brat, I don’t have many of those!) Julie and Craig were so sweet to host my four man-sized appetites after having just been on holiday themselves and after a full day’s work.  I can’t guarantee a reservation, but Craig’s couple day Pasta Bolognese sauce is worth crossing town for.  :)

If you find yourself in the East End around Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Spittalfields, I previously blogged about some things I sampled on an East End Food Tour .

Happy eating!