August 1, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

When your family insists that you hop on a two-hour flight to meet them in Florence, Italy, you say “yes.”


Oops, at first I said “no,” but I quickly came to my senses. After all, the two-day trip to Tuscany would be filled with a bike ride through wine country, and enough good food to cancel out every last calorie burnt on said excursion. So – clearly – off I went to my favorite Italian city to meet up with my aunt, uncle and two cousins. Would you like to come along for the (virtual) ride?

Like any good trip to Italy, my latest began with pizza. That is, soft pillowy dough covered in melty disks of mozzarella, a smattering of pesto and slathered in chuggable tomato sauce. Served with a side of wine, my trip could have ended right there with that meal and have been well worth the journey.

Fortunately, though, that was just my first taste. After devouring every last bite, we digested our carb-tastic meal by taking a short trek down the street, where the sun had just dropped below the horizon, casting an ethereal glow on the Ponte Vecchio (photo above). Gelato may have also been involved in this picture of Florentine perfection, but the truth is that I scarfed it down so fast that there just wasn’t time for photos.

The next morning, we set off for Tuscany, piling into vans for a 45-minute drive into the countryside. But not before kick-starting our systems Italian-style with my beloved caffe shakerato — espresso, ice and sugar, all martini-shaken and served in a fancy glass. Honestly, any day that starts with this, is sure to be a good one, don’t you think?

A twisty and turny drive later and we were almost ready to go – almost. But first, we toured a 12th century castle, followed by a sip-and-nosh fest on wine and olive-oil-topped bread. OK, now we were ready to go.

So over the vineyard- and orchard-covered hills we went, zipping through the thick and sticky near 100-degree air. Single file, we shifted gears, grinding up inclines and coasting down into valleys, savoring the momentary and much-needed breeze. Tuscany was as picture-perfect as ever, but perhaps not at its finest for hitting the asphalt by bike.

And then we were done, returning to Florence to finish our weekend of biking, wine, caffe shakeratos and pasta just as perfectly as it had begun. From atop the Piazzale Michelangelo, we took in a panoramic view of the Arno River, twinkling with reflections as it crept under the Ponte Vecchio and across town, with the Duomo lit up in the background like a giant centuries-old Fabergé egg. Not too shabby for an impromptu weekend away with the family.

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September 28, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

I’m not joking, either. My recent and sixth trip to the shoe-shaped country was Guido-filled. But not the way you’re thinking. I’m actually talking about my host – one of my best friends, who also happens to have a name with a certain fame in the US (I had the pleasure of breaking that news to him).


This latest trip brought me to Guido’s hometown of Cesena, a city near the Adriatic Sea and about 50 minutes southeast of Bologna.


Home to the Europe’s first public library and a hilltop castle, the town definitely met my charming Italian pueblo criteria. High-end fashion shops dominate the tiny streets of the affluent city, making for one painful window-shopping-only visit. And rather than tourists, the village teems with bikes as locals go from one place to another (I’m assuming from the pizzeria to the gelateria, as that only makes sense since they’re Italian and all).






From Cesena, we hit the Italian road. Our road-tripping was punctuated by me trying to convince Guido that I had “moves like Jagger” (because I do), me educating him on the key features of American bologna versus the Italian city (by singing the Oscar Mayer wiener song – yeah, that happened), and me interrogating him about the landscape and various crops. I’m almost certain he had an amazing time.


And then of course we ate. We devoured homemade pasta at least once a day made by his drop-dead gorgeous Italian mamma. We noshed on the regional pita-like bread called piadina. Then we drank the famous spritz – a mix of prosecco, bitter liqueur and carbonated water. Of course I also consumed cappuccinos and caffe shakeratos (shaken and iced espresso awesomeness) like it were my sixth and final trip to Italy – the smart thing to do, really.


Now don’t you worry – I’ve got more Italian goodness coming your way. Stay tuned for the rundown on our road-trip stops – minus my moves and the songs about American B.O.L.O.G.N.A.

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November 17, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions

Growing up we all had our version of normal and I’m pretty sure we thought the world worked just the same way that we did. Everything was just fine and dandy until we traveled abroad and suddenly realized that normal looks completely different somewhere else – maybe the cars drive on the opposite side of the street, or perhaps dinner isn’t served at 7:00pm but instead at 10:00pm. In many cases, these differences might be somewhat expected, but every once and awhile we’ve surely come across something that has just made us go “what the…??” I had a moment like this in Vietnam when at first the I-carry-my-world-on-my-motorbike concept seemed ridiculous, but then, upon closer consideration, it indeed made sense. With that in mind, it made me think – don’t we all have cultural quirks that make others do a double take? Since I surely can’t travel the world to discover all of these idiosyncrasies on my own, I thought who better to pose such a curiosity than to the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas? So, that’s what I did and here’s what they had to say:


“I admit, we, Filipinos, love to sing,” admits Claire over at First Time Travel. But she’s not just talking about in the shower and along with the radio in the car. According to Claire, “do not be surprised to find karaoke and videoke machines along the seaside or by the narrow streets in a remote town.” Before you become too charmed by the Filipinos’ passion for belting out their favorite tunes, you best read more about their hospitality, or else you should expect to be singing right along with them.


Do you remember your thermos? I do. Do you remember the last time that you used it? Probably not. This apparently long forgotten product seems to, however, have been given new life in Peru according to Jason of AlpacaSuitcase. Jason, who now looks at the “lowly termo (thermos) in exalted light,” tells how the undrinkable water in the country has resulted in a thermos resurrection of sorts that will have you singing its praises all the live long day. Read more about why you should consider starting a new love affair with your thermos.


Amy over at The Q Family Adventures Travel Blog brings new meaning to the family road-trip. Gone are the days of traveling across your country and stopping on the side of the roadway for some fresh-from-the-farm fruit while the kiddies romp around in the back seat. Oh no, not when you’re road-tripping it through Thailand!! While driving through the country, Amy recalls,“From a far, we saw several bags hung from the pole. As we got closer we noticed that those bags held something that moved.” It turns out that a few of these roadside stands boasted live lizards, buckets of frogs, and toad skewers for purchase.Take a virtual road-trip through Thailand’s array of unique roadside goodies. You know you’re hungry.



Who’s tired of tame and safe cultural gatherings? I think I am. Good thing Todd at Todd’s Wanderings has pulled together some of the gnarliest matsuris (festivals) that take place in Japan. And let me tell you, these gatherings aren’t for the weak. One of them seems to take on some parade-like characteristics, but don’t be fooled, this isn’t Disneyland. Todd explains, “When other floats are encountered each side spins their one ton float in a show of strength culminating in a mad dash at top speed into each other in a bone crunching crash. Teams battle for dominance until one float has pinned the other to the ground.” Fabulous! Who’s up for a trip to Japan? OK, maybe let’s just pretend – read more here.


There is an unfortunate similarity between the robes certain Latin countries wear during their Holy Week processions and those that are worn by the KKK. Yes, that KKK. The tragic infamy of the cone-shaped hood was most definitely not lost on a couple of Lonely Planet Bloggers. Abigail, from Inside the Travel Lab, who witnessed the processions in Sevilla, Spain, reflects, “It’s a shame that the outfits, a tradition that dates back to the 14th century,…now trigger images of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, fire and fear to those of us more familiar with stories from America than Andalucía.” Here, Abigail brings to life images of Spain’s most famous Holy Week processions in hopes of creating new and more positive memories of the historic and controversial costume.


Meanwhile, Tanya of Are we there yet? World Travels with Three Kids recounts her experience witnessing similar processions in a Brazilian town. Here, she tells how she battled with whether to purchase her children the keepsake puppets (with demonically lit-up red eyes) and also sheds light on the tradition and where it comes from. She explains, “It turns out that the symbolism…is actually quite sinister. They, after all, are the bad guys in the story as they are the ones hunting down Jesus to crucify him. This background helps to explain a bit this unique custom.”



Captured in photos, the duo over at Photito’s Blog take you on a journey into the watery wonderland of Venice. Through their words and pictures, it becomes evident that Venice is more than just the canal-filled city that we may all know it to be, but rather a city that lives with water in so many more ways than we can imagine. “People have adopted a way of coping with the ever present water ways which means that they all own a pair of hard core, waist high wellington boots. They all know what it means when the tidal alarm sounds…,” tells Vibeke. See for yourself a side of Venice that you may not have yet discovered.


I don’t know about you, but my parents have never called ME “mom” or “dad,” but perhaps if I were Lebanese, they might just have. According to Georgia of Ginger Beirut, “Lebanese dads call their kids ‘daddy’ and mums call their kids ‘mummy.’” This is only but one of the strange yet humorous quirks that she has encountered during her year living in Lebanon. Read more about why you should get rid of your credit cards and start investing in couture gowns here.


Bird hunting, deer hunting, head hunting – those are all so yesterday. It’s time to get on board with mushroom hunting like those in Catalunya, Spain. “Most Catalans wake up early on the weekend morning and drive to forests with baskets in tow to collect mushrooms,” comments Jennifer of Orange Polka Dot. She goes on to tell about her “master mushroom hunter” gardner and even her own attempt at tracking down the potentially deadly delicacy. Indulge your curiosity for fungi by reading more about this peculiar Catalan tradition here.


Finally, if you’ve been tuned into my blog, then you already know that last week I introduced you to another one of Spain’s unique customs, which just so happens to come in the form of an extra trashy tip for finding good Spanish food.



With that, I leave you to your own comfortable surroundings, unique customs and whatever oddly normal tradition it is that you have in your corner of the world. Considering that I’m in Spain, I’m going to go to my local tapas bar and throw some dirty napkins and cigarette butts on the ground just so that I can feel right at home. What makes your part of the planet strangely special?


To read up on other LonelyPlanet BlogSherpa carnivals, you can visit the previous one hosted by Travel with Den Den, in which the BlogSherpas shared memorable moments from their travels. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next carnival on regrettable trips, which will be hosted by The Turkish Life.

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October 17, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Europe

Alright everyone, brace yourselves for a sappy, romantic recount of our trip to Venice….


I’d been hinting to Jacob for a long time about my desire to finally visit Venice as neither of us I had ever been. So, months ago, he managed to let it slip that we would be making the long awaited trip for my birthday. I knew nothing about what he had planned other than that we would be in Venice.


We arrived there Saturday morning lugging our carry-on suitcases and somewhat disillusioned by the rain pouring down outside. Fortunately, we had anticipated the gloomy weather and came prepared with the right clothes and the right attitude – we would discover the city despite the weather.

A car taxi ride and a water taxi ride later, and we finally arrived at the hotel Ca’ Sagredo which was situated on the river-like bustling grand canal. The hotel blended in with the other buildings along side it, nondescript in comparison. We attempted to check in, but apparently our room was not yet available, so we journeyed off for lunch. And a journey it was – the first of many efforts to find something and then get lost in Venice. We had checked our bags with the front desk at the hotel, but Jacob decided to carry his backpack which he guarded carefully throughout lunch. Hmmm.
We arrived back at the hotel to check into our room. What appeared as a standard European hotel lobby with peculiar little flower arrangements and Euro decor, quickly turned into something that more closely resembled a tour of the Royal Palace in Madrid. We ascended the sprawling staircase and looked up to see murals on the ceiling that seemed miles above. Arriving at the door of our room – a normal, un-special door – my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I discovered what hid behind it. It was basically our own private palace. The ceiling, fully covered with a colorful several-hundred-year-old mural, towered above us nearly two stories above. The room was furnished with sparkling rococo furniture – gold-trimmed chairs with floral upholstery, twinkling murano glass chandeliers, plush velvet benches and so on. A large flat screen TV sat across from the bed, but honestly, you would most certainly need binoculars to see it from such a distance. The massive windows cast light across the room, and behind them awaited an expansive view of the grand canal. In such a large room, I hardly noticed the tree of long stem roses beside the couch.

The first words out of my mouth, as Jacob likes to quote, were “are all the rooms like this?” followed by, “I just don’t think this is big enough.” I instinctively began to tend to the wrapped up flowers. Meanwhile, Jacob scurried off to another room (yes, there were multiple areas to scurry to in the place). Before I knew it, he was back, and down on his knee proposing to me. You must keep in mind that this is NOT the Spanish tradition, which made it all the more perfect and special because he really had to do his homework. In front of me was this amazing man, with a stunning ring, in our own personal palace, along the canal in one of the most romantic cities in the world. So yeah, I said “yes!”

The next day the sun shined down on Venice, as if to say that it was ok for us to come out and enjoy the city now. This was especially fortunate because Jacob has a friend who lives in Venice and has a gondola! So during the afternoon, we headed to their rooftop apartment. In a city full of aging and shifting buildings that tend to show their age more than most cities, their apartment was completely unexpected. Fresh modern wood floors, a second level with a kitchen that has strip of glass floor that peers down to the floor below, and then a fantastic rooftop terrace overlooking the buildings and canals that surround their building. After a quick drink on the terrace, we plodded our way to their boathouse where we moved their gondola out onto the water. Teresa was in front with one paddle, and Didier in back with the other. We then glided through the canals of the city, silently enjoying the perfect weather and the gentle breeze from the canals. We finished the day with dinner at their favorite restaurant in Venice, a place called Enoteca de la Columbina.

We spent the rest of the trip just exploring the city and marveling at our palace on the water. Finally, when it was time to go, we took a water taxi directly from our hotel to the airport, weaving our way first through the quiet, calm canals of the city, and then out to what seemed like a water freeway. It was a cordoned off area in the water where the water taxis and boats speed freely to and from the airport. We felt like we were in a James Bond movie as we glanced back at Venice, fading into the distance with the sun setting behind it. Not a bad way to start the next chapter of our lives together.

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September 6, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe

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When an email showed up in my inbox a few weeks ago from Robin asking if I’d be interested in meeting up in Italy, my answer was an emphatic “YES!” Jacob and I originally had plans to head to Northern Spain, but when the opportunity came up to go on an international double date with one of my best friends, that was just too good to pass up.


So we got online and pretty quickly settled on Florence. While I’d been before, I had told myself when I went years ago that I must return as I never had the chance to visit the famous Uffizi museum the first time around. Jacob had never been before, so he was of course on board.


We headed out to Florence almost immediately after Iris’s departure. We were exhausted, but eager to have three days of pasta, wine and relaxation. We arrived in Florence Sunday afternoon and met up with Robin and her boyfriend Karthik for dinner. Walking through the city, I found it to be even more charming than I had remembered. It’s like Rome but more quaint and less intimidating.


Dinner was of course amazing – each of us enjoying our different pasta dishes. What I continue to enjoy about Italy is how both the Italian and Spanish languages are doable – Jacob spent the dinner speaking to the waiter in Spanish, and the waiter in Italian, and as usual, all was understood (even by me….I’m thinking Italian might be my next language, especially with my extensive vocabulary of Italian food items, and now swear words – thanks Guido!).


The next day we met up with Robin and Karthik at their hotel at 10AM in order to be chauffeured through the Tuscan wine country. Little did we know the highlight of this journey would be our amazing driver Luigi – a charming, humorous man who made the most phenomenal tour guide.


Our first stop was the incredibly sweet little town of San Gimignano, followed by a stop in another little town for lunch (its name escapes me :( ). After this we stopped in the city of Siena where we learned about the famous horse racing that happens in the main city plaza – the plaza was constructed such that the races could take place within the city walls. We also visited the cathedral in Siena as well.


And finally it was time for the wine tasting. We first stopped at small little tasting room along the side of a winding little road. There we tasted several different wines, from roses, to chiantis, to cabernet and sangiovese. All very good, but I have to admit, I prefer Spanish wines. I just don’t find the Italian wines to be quite as balanced. But hey, the world can keep on loving the Italian wines….I’m fine with prices of Spanish wines remaining nice and low.


This was followed by another stop at the Antinori winery, a wine that I’ve actually had in the States in Napa, ironically. We tasted three wines, all good of course, but still not quite Spanish :).


For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended to us by good ol’ Luigi, called Pandehohio, and oh my heaven! The pasta was stupidly, ridiculously, amazingly good, and all topped off by a darling “mama” who was constantly showering us with kisses and cute little comments like, “if you don’t like, you don’t eat it, I eat it!” If anyone heads to Florence, this place is a must.


The following day we made the long awaited trip to the Uffizi. It was a nice museum with lots and lots of Jesus paintings (which honestly, for me, grows quite old after a handful of them), but what I really wanted to see, what I always wanted to see since my high school Humanities class, were a couple of the paintings by Boticelli – The Primavera and The Birth of Venus. They totally didn’t disappoint. Both were so refreshing and beautiful. They were incredibly large, such that I could just stare at them forever, picking out all the details of each painting.


Later that day, Jacob and I headed to the Academia, to see the famous “David.” I had seen him the first time I came to Florence and remembered clearly that I had been blown away that first time I saw him. This time was no different – he was still breathtaking. To better explain, let’s take the Mona Lisa for example – you see it in books your whole life, to the point that she is actually larger than life….then you go to the Louvre, and the painting is like the size of a dictionary (I’m exaggerating), in a dark room, with people swarming around it. The David on the other hand, while you see him your whole life, I think we naturally assume he’s human-sized. But he’s not – nothing even close to the size of a human. He’s massive, and perfect, housed under spotlights at the end of a dimly lit, airy hallway, such that when you turn the corner, you see him at the end like some sort of god. You might think that I’m overstating it, but I’m not. Long story short, it was worth 10 euros to see the first time and the second as well, and I really hope I’ll have the opportunity again.


That night we headed out for our final dinner at a “steakhouse” recommended by a friend of Robin. This wasn’t any Outback though, but rather a small, kitchen-like restaurant, with casual communal tables. We ended up a table where English, Italian, French and Spanish were all be spoken. We ordered a mixture of pasta, veggies and steak. All delicious of course.


And so was our trip to Florence. Somehow those last minute trips are always the best. We truly had a spectacular time. It was a nice little preview for our trip to Venice coming up in October for my birthday :).


Next stop for me will be SF at the end of September. Can’t wait!

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