2012 will be remembered by me for many reasons. Certainly the travel I did in 2012 ranks up there as do the many fun memories with family and friends. But another memorable aspect of 2012 will be the food and wine! Here is a small tour of the most memorable ones… mostly food…
At Salt Lick, outside of Austin, Texas, the year started with some phenomenal BBQ!
Wine, wine, wine
A few wine tastings with friends and some touring allowed me to cover a lot of ground here! Virginia and Moldova stand out as unexpected wine places for me. While I was not able to bring a lot of wine from Moldova, Virginia was a different story!
All but one of the bottles I bought in VA! The state can thank me later.
Deliciousness from Moldavia
As far as I understand, northeastern Romania and Moldova are known as Moldavia. The region was an independent/autonomous state between the 14th century and the 19th. I could see quite a few similarities between the two modern areas when I visited Iasi (Romania) and Moldova. One of the similarities I saw was in the food. My favorite dish was pork and mamaliga (a sort of polenta). And my favorite dessert papanași (papanash; a fried pastry stuffed with jam and soft cheese). I could eat these every day (an almost did!).
Mamaliga (polenta) and pork – typical food dish
A homestyle wine tasting
One of my favorite events is the quarterly wine tasting with friends. Our Frog’s Leap wine tasting (normally, we do not focus on one winery in these tastings) was outstanding and the food was a large part of that. After looking at the following pictures, could you disagree?
Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!
Lobster dip served in cucumbers
Chocolate bomb anyone?
I got to try one mean chocolate dessert at The Oval Room, across Lafayette Square from the White House (which I also got to tour this year!). This picture -no- no picture, can ever do this magnificent monument to desserts justice…
Chocolate S’more Bomb with cookie crumble and salted caramel
Mofongo from Puerto Rico – in Tampa!
I have written about having great Cuban food in Tampa but over Thanksgiving weekend, I went for my favorite Puerto Rican dish: mofongo with fried pork chunks!! MMM!!!
Paris, oh, Paris
Forget the fancy restaurants and all that frou-frou stuff. Paris has awesome small “mere-et-pere” type of places with deliciousness galore. I am lucky to be an eternal Paris visitor and past resident. This allows me and my friends to enjoy these little-known places whenever I visit. However, I still enjoy discovering a new unpolished jewel, like the place in Montmartre where I had this delicious potato-and-egg-topped salad (along with a mini carafe of red wine!).
Of course, Paris’ chocolate houses are a must – and a tour of them should be de rigeur unless you are allergic to the stuff! I always stop by to enjoy some of Paris’ finest chocolate crafts.
Italy. What can I say?
No words are needed when it comes to Italy and food. Here are some of the images from my visit there in April (discovering new and re-visiting old places).
Suppli fried rice ball – mmm!!
I love how the Campo de Fiore is reflected in this glass of wine
Coffee the AM I arrived… dropped our luggage at the apt and went out for breakfast. SO. GOOD.
My plate full of our appetizers on our first night in Roma
Year end: always a time for food!
For Christmas eve (Nochebuena), I cook the traditional Cuban meal. Instead of showing a beautiful serving plate or bowl with the end result, I decided to leave the end result to the imagination and show you the work in progress. I love making my black beans and Cuban pernil!
Now good food didn’t end on Nochebuena. On our day trip to the charming southern towns of Newnan and Senoia, we had some really good southern food (always comfort food!) right at the square in Newnan. Those sweet potatoes were outstanding!
The year ends
The year went away like the dessert from this plate – it leaves me wanting more. What a year it was!
Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen. I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet. BUT, if the end did happen, guess what? I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story. Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story. Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).
So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…
A Texas tweetup in January
January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online. At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it? But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with. So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup! There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco. Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!
Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?
Normal in February – and other months
Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February. Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year. Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen. I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St. DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore. Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.
March Madness: Mile High Skiing
The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years. The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010. Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell. The bowls of Vail where incredible: one bowl, then another one behind it, then another. It seemed to never end!
How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!
Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April
April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends. Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary. It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.
But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored: Dubrovnik, Croatia. Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me. Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro! These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.
One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro
Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago
May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile. The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything: from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob. It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.
Being tourists at The Bean
More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings
In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!). Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others. Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!): @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.
A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR
Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing. Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me. A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world. We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s! An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!
Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??
Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova. So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship. I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!
The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe. Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!
Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August
August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC! I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!
Rest in September
In September, I took a break from travel. Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!
Architecture and Wine: Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say? No, Virginia in October!
I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them. I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way. I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country. And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by! As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines. And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored! I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).
Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day
OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November
So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food! Someone STOP the madness!
I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see. And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC! The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about. I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!
This past weekend, I got to explore an area most will never think of visiting when looking for wine country: Virginia! Virginia may be for lovers, but Virginia is DEFINITELY for wine lovers!
I have been very lucky as a wine lover AND a traveler to have visited some primo wine country in my travel lifetime. Bordeaux, Hunter Valley, Sonoma/Napa, Mendoza, Stellenbosch, Burgundy, Moldova, Mosel Valley, the Loire Valley, Tuscany, etc. I have never thought the U.S. had any good wine regions besides California and Oregon. And I don’t know but Virginia would have never been in my top guess list… But some Virginia friends introduced me to Virginia wine with one named Octagon from Barboursville winery, north of Charlottesville, VA. It was good!
We had talked over the last couple of years of getting together and making a trip to Virginia wine country. FINALLY, we scheduled it for this past weekend.
My friends suggested we head to the wine region in the Piedmont area, on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of their favorite wines, the Octagon referred to above, is from the area and they had not been to the winery so I, of course, happily went along with the suggestion! Of course, going to see Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home on the countryside) and University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson) were of interest so it was a great destination choice.
The Vineyards and the Wine
After visiting Monticello, we stopped at Jefferson Vineyards since it was very close to Monticello. Of course, this likely means it is more touristy and the price tag for the wine tasting showed that (it was $10 whereas the rest of the wineries were $5; oh, and they do not take AMEX in this day and age…). However, you can take your large Riedel wine glass after the tasting which makes it an OK price.
Some of the staff was very friendly but our server, though he shared information, just seemed to be going through the motions – he was not rude by any means, just uninspiring. It was the only winery at which I did not buy a bottle (and I ended up buying no less than 3 at least per winery…). . Wineries, remember, your servers are the front line. It applies to your business as to any other business! But I did not buy wine because of him. The primary reason was that it was just not for me. Most of the wines seem too light for me. That may be what others find enjoyable in a wine but the whites and reds were not robust enough for me. Also, the wines, even the Riesling, were generally drier than my preference. However, it surely is worth a stop – you may enjoy their lighter and drier wines and end up with one of the friendlier servers.
Fortunately, the story gets better from here on! We had planned our first day (of two) in the area with two anchors: an early visit to Monticello (more about it in another post) and a late lunch at Barboursville Vineyard’s Palladio Restaurant which features northern Italian style cuisine. The lunch can be done with wine pairings but we were going to do tastings after lunch since we did not have enough time between the Monticello visit and the available slot for lunch. Therefore, we opted to save a little money by not doing the pairings with the lunch and instead going for that delicious Octagon wine of theirs. The wine tasting of 21 wines would come afterwards – but only after we walked the grounds to help push our digestion!
The good thing is that Barboursville offers more than food and wine. It also gives you a helping of history. See, Mr. Barbour was a governor of Virginia in the times around Jefferson. Jefferson designed Barbour’s house which unfortunately burnt down one Christmas Day in 1884. However, ruins remain of the skeleton of the house which allow you to see yet more columns and another octagon. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was rather predictable. (Unfortunately, Charlottesville and UVA keep thing more columns and octagons make tons of sense…) Anyway, Barboursville offers this and plenty of space and grounds to grab a bottle of wine and hang out some more.
The ruins of the Barbour home
Perfect spot for a wine picnic!
The wines were overall very good. We also enjoyed having a lady named Jessica as one of our servers. She was extremely knowledgeable and truly shared that knowledge with us. We had a good time asking her questions people had just asked her and she obliged with a fun attitude right back – wineries, this is the kind of person you want facing your customers!
Surprisingly for me, I enjoyed Barboursville’s Chardonnay (aged in steel barrels) better than their Chardonnay Reserve (aged in oak barrels). I especially like their Cabernet Franc Reserve (intense dark fruit flavors), Octagon (which I already knew and loved), and their Malvaxia Passito Reserve dessert wine (nice!!! sweet but overly so). I departed with a good 6 bottles wishing I could take more (had to pace myself, still had 4 wineries to visit the next day!). How do they manage to make so many good wines???
Cardinal Point, Veritas, and Pollak Vineyards
We hit these two wineries first on the next day. At Cardinal Point, we enjoyed talking to the two ladies at the tasting room and found their wines nice. I ended up with a box of 3 to take home. At Veritas, we got to sit in a nice leather couch for our tasting and soak in the ambiance of the tasting room.
Comfy seating to enjoy wines!
The winery has a large tasting room and it was built in the 2000s – the vines themselves were planted in 1999 (quite recently when you think of vineyards in Europe!!). Their White Star blend of white grapes (Viognier, Traminette, Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc) was pleasantly surprised me – low on residual sugar I think it is a wine to be enjoyed on its own for sure. Let me re-state that, it very pleasantly surprised me!
Best time of the year to visit – just look at this!
We made our way to Pollak Vineyards, which has a spacious tasting room and outdoor terrace. Its vines were planted in 2003. Casey was our server. We learned from her a good bit and enjoyed talking to her – great job! I especially enjoyed the Petit Verdot and the Cabernet Franc (nice hints of chocolate and coffee) wines.
Pollak Vineyards’ outdoor space
King Family Vineyards
Our final stop in wine country before going to the airport was King Family. We promised ourselves a short visit to ensure we were on time but we enjoyed our visit so much we stayed longer at the tasting room. This vineyard has a great setting and outdoor open spaces that are great to hang out – we stayed indoors sampling and talking wine though for a good 45mins to an hour (who was keeping track of time?!) (I did make it to the airport with plenty of time, by the way!). In the summertime polo matches are played Sundays on the grounds of the winery!
The grounds of King Family Vineyards
At King Family we were treated to awesome wines. I liked just about each of the wines I tasted! The Viognier had nice mango/peach overtones. The Chardonnay, though aged in oak, was very enjoyable for me (a rarity). Their Cabernet Franc was lighter than I expected and, as I prefer fuller-bodied wines, was not one I would have bought definitely had good flavors so I would drink it. The next 4 wines were all outstanding: the Meritage (a Bordeaux-style existing mainly in the U.S., created to not infringe on the French region’s ownership of the destination of origin), the Seven (a red wine with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla), the Loreley (excellent level of sweetness: some but not too much), and the Petit Verdot (incredible power!!).
What Did I Think of Virginia Wine Country?
Well, as you may glean, I enjoyed it! However, with a visit to 6 wineries I have barely scratched the surface of wine country in Virginia. I love Virginia and its wines!
Have you visited wine country anywhere in the U.S. or abroad? Which ones? How did you find the experience, the wineries, and the wines??
Last year, I visited Curacao, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, with a couple of friends after spending a few days in Trinidad and Tobago. Curacao is an interesting place – the Netherlands in the Caribbean, for sure, but also an incredible melting pot – many folks speak Spanish due to its proximity to and semi-shared history with nearby South America. Yet it also shares a lot with the other Dutch islands in the hood as well with Surinam, another former Dutch colony.
Even the license plate shows off the beautiful architecture
There is much to write about this island. I struggled with how to not write about it all in one long post. So this post will focus on the food, fun and beach as I experienced in a very short visit. I did not get to scratch the surface of what Curacao has to offer so I will, upfront, tell you that and then challenge you to discover Curacao yourself and perhaps share back with me what you discovered!
An upcoming post will focus more on the incredible charming architecture of this island. Enjoy!
First, Curacao’s capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has two sides along the canal that splits it: Punda and Otrobanda. Punda is the better known side with the pretty pictures folks normally see whenever Curacao is mentioned (more on this in the next post!). Otrobanda is or was the poorer side though it contains some neat/charming architecture too.
I chose the Renaissance in Curacao (part of the Marriott family) as my hotel, located in Otrobanda right by the canal entrance. While the hotel was not an all-around knock-out (e.g., the confusion at breakfast on what was included in my rate and what was not), there were a couple of things that hit it out of the ballpark. One was the upgrade they welcomed me with. A corner suite was definitely a great way to greet a Platinum guest. Thank you for that!! I wish I had had others sharing the room with me but that was not the case so the space was not taken advantage of. But what I did greatly enjoy was the humongous bathroom! Larger than my master bedroom at home!
The view from my room includes passing cruise ships!
But what really blew me away was the infinity pool. Now you may say “seen one, seen them all” but, my friends, this was no ordinary infinity pool: it was a beach on an infinity pool! You walked into it as you would on a beach from the sand and the beach chairs. It was huge and at the far end, the wall dropped down to the rocks by the sea. When I first exited the hotel and looked at the pool, it seemed the sea was part of the water in the pool – I did not realize it was a pool at all!! Bravo, Renaissance!
Curacao has lots of beaches to choose from, 38 or so. Some of the best are on the west end of the island. Beaches in Curacao are not the typical long stretches of sand and surf that we typically envision. Instead they are smaller, less obscenely huge places to enjoy the sun and surf! We picked Mambo Beach just for being convenient to us as we were staying in Willemstad and had not rented a car. I imagine it is far from the best beach but it was definitely enjoyable.
Food and Entertainment
We ate at a couple of places that also doubled as entertainment with live music. I could have kept returning to these places except I ran out of nights!
On our first night, we decided to watch sunset at a high vantage point on the fortress walls in Otrobanda at the entrance to the canal leading to the bay/port. It was very near to the hotel and these places offered the right angle at sunset to look -or stare- at beautiful Punda!
Beautiful Punda at sunset
Wine sets the right mood…
Along the city wall we were lounging at
Later that night, we went to Avila Blues Bar for both dinner and entertainment. The hotel is well known for hosting the Dutch royal family (allegedly, the heir to the throne comes to play here, wink, wink). The blues bar is on a pier by itself so you are sitting above the sea. The band plays on a loft-like second story above the bar. The food was great and so was the music. More importantly: great atmosphere!
For lunch one day, we sat at one of the average cafés right by the canal that is the entrance to large bay (St. Anna Bay). While the food was not spectacular, watching people, ships and the movable-floating bridge (aka, Queen Emma Bridge) was fascinating or, at least, entertaining (notice the mist in the picture below coming out under some umbrellas).
The floating bridge passes us by as we ate lunch
When not pulled away to let boats pass, the Queen Emma “floating” bridge is for pedestrians
Another night, we went to a Cuban place near the old fortress walls in Willemstad called Mr. Congas. Its owner is a friendly but serious Cuban guy – the music is authentic (take it from this son of Cubans!) and the food is decent (but I have had and can cook it better!). The place has an indoor space built into the former fortress walls and an outdoor area where the live music plays. It was a great evening to sit outside, listen to music (dance for those so inclined), eat, and have a few drinks!
Curacao has a lot to offer – much beyond beaches. Beautiful architecture, sun, surf, food and a lively entertainment scene. It is a definite must-see in the Caribbean!
Most people would NEVER think Atlanta is anything but a southern city that hosts CNN, the place where Coca-Cola was invented, and where Delta, one of the largest airlines in the world, operates from. And perhaps that it has one of the top two airports in the world (which, to me, a taxpayer in Atlanta will ONLY be Hartsfield airport). But people do not think of Atlanta typically as an international city.
Today, I took my Mom, stepdad, aunt, and uncle to a place that belies the view that Atlanta is just a southern provincial capital (which it was back in the 80s when I got here!): the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market on Buford Highway right outside I-285. I am not sure who the owners are but I find it more “real” than the more popular Dekalb Farmer’s Market where it feels people go just to show they are “cosmopolitan” and hip. It is full of people from all ethnic backgrounds and I am not just talking about the staff.
In any case, my visitors were astounded by the great variety of Latin products (every product they know and/or use in cooking Cuban food; quenepas/mamoncillo that I used to eat as a kid; papaya, one of my Mom’s favorites; etc.), the large Eastern European section (with its incredible Russian product suite including ice cream!), and the incredible Asian section with aisles (one or more) for each of the following: Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, and on and on. The ONLY thing I begrudge is the too-limited wine section. I expected to find Bulgarian, Chilean, Greek, and other wines. The wine section was tiny and with only the typical countries represented (Chile was but only a handful of wines).
Though I have been there before to buy all the ingredients for the Easter lunch I make for my friends or Christmas Eve dinner for my family (Cuban pernil), I had never stepped back to really gape at the diversity. Sometimes, you have to see things through others’ eyes to discover them!! As I had not expected to want to take pictures, I did not take my camera so the pictures I ended up taking were with my smartphone. I include them here to share some of the sights at this awesome place – and I have special pictures that I hope my friend Pola will recognize… Enjoy!
CLICK ON THE PICTURE TO SEE THE FULL IMAGE!
I used to eat these as a kid but w/o my Grandma knowing as they are a choking hazard!
Tampa, Florida may not be at the top of your destination list but being close to great beaches and other attractions such as Busch Gardens – and close enough to Orlando - it may be a place you will visit some day. And if you do, do NOT miss out on the great hole-in-the-wall Cuban food places in the city! I have been going to Tampa regularly for over 20 yrs. and I enjoy eating the real stuff.
Masitas de cerdo! (Photo credit: http://necessaryindulgences.com/2010/12/el-ambia-cubano/)
La Teresita (http://www.lateresitarestaurant.com/) (in Columbus Ave.) used to be the grand dame of Cuban restaurants in Tampa about 20 yrs ago. Grand dame does NOT mean elegant or fancy. That would be all wrong for a Cuban restaurant. But it was the place with the best food and where everyone went. However, somewhere down the road, it became different. Other places came up. And some of us stopped going.
Florida Bakery (http://local.yahoo.com/info-14447698-florida-bakery-tampa) (also in Columbus Ave.) has been a long standing place to go to for typical Cuban pastries, cakes, and sandwiches such as the famous Cuban sandwiches. Of course, Cuban coffee too; nothing like a cortadito (expreso with leche).
But other alternatives have come up so the typical places are not the ONLY ones around town anymore. And the other places are, in my opinion, better.
Arco Iris (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/30/340198/restaurant/Tampa-Bay/West-Tampa/Arco-Iris-Tampa), also in Columbus Ave. and almost next door to Florida Bakery, offers really good food in a very homestyle environment. It is spacious and I typically haven’t had a problem getting a table.
Las Margaritas (http://www.allmenus.com/fl/tampa/60687-las-margaritas/menu/) in Hillsborough Ave. is a much smaller place and no frills. But the food is delicious – and cheap!
Pipo’s (http://pipos.com/) which, at last count, has 2 locations offers simple choices that are delicious. It has been around for a while and always consistent. Walk to the counter so you see what’s available and they serve you cafeteria style.
Angelito’s Bakery (http://www.cakes.com/bakeries/angelitos-at-la-caridad-bkry-5386/, where the former La Caridad was; the street sign still exists for La Caridad) has phenomenal pastries and seems a lot cleaner than Florida Bakery. And this one is in Hillsborough as well.
Mr. Empanada (several locations http://www.mrempanada.com/), while not strictly Cuban, deserves a mention. The fried empanadas are very similar to the ones I would eat for lunch in high school (ground beef, cheese, or pizza fillings). Except here, besides the ground beef ones, they have fillings I didn’t have as an option in high school such as guava, and cream cheese.
So if you go to Tampa, be ready to eat GOOD Cuban food and eat well – I do!
Any other favorite Cuban places in Tampa that you like? I am sure there are plenty I haven’t even discovered yet!
Salvador Dali, one of the most interesting painters of the 20th century was, let’s say, a tad eccentric – but a genius nevertheless. The new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL does a great job of presenting of how Salvador Dali evolved his style in a way that a layperson like me can grasp and enjoy. Guided tour and/or audio guide are included in the price of the ticket which makes it an easy decision – and makes the experience and appreciation VASTLY more meaningful. I left with a better understanding of Dali, his motivators, and his evolution.
Here are some pix of the museum and its grounds (but none of the art!).
The cars at the entrance of the museum (not sure the purpose)
The entrance to the museum on a beautiful day
The top of the spiral staircase which reminded me of the tip of Dali’s mustache
Looking towards the staircase and the ceiling on the 3rd floor
The glass ceiling
Trying out Dali’s mustache
The back of the museum
This serranita sandwich at the museum cafe was good but those olives were really outstanding!!
Entry wrist tags at the wish tree – clever idea to avoid trash around the parking lot!
In Rome, once again, we enjoyed Italian cuisine (carbonara, mi amore!), wine, gelato, architecture, history, and watching people (tourists and locals alike). It seems like those are reason ENOUGH to go to Roma! Nothing like Rome to appreciate cultural diversity and food delights!
When I travel with friends, I don’t just travel with anyone. I travel with folks who love wine, food, exploring, and chilling – like me. One of my friend’s is a personal chef and she and her husband are big foodies (and so will be their baby one day!). Before the trip, they looked for opportunities to sample food beyond lunch/dinner. They found an awesome food tour in the Testaccio area of Rome, an area I had not explored or had even heard of before. The tour is organized by Eating Italy Food Tours, founded by a native from Philly. Domenico, also from Philly, was our tour guide that day and he was definitely the right guy to show us around! (Check them out at http://www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com/ .)
We arrived to the Testaccio area after passing a pyramid by a cemetery. Rome’s city walls seem to have been built around it. I had no idea there was a pyramid in Rome! It is called the Pyramid of Cestius as it was built as a tomb for a guy with that name. What was incredible to me is that it was built 10-20 yrs BEFORE Christ. It is incredible!
The food tour took us to the cemetery on the side of the pyramid which used to be where foreigners were interred in Rome in the not so distant past. It is referred to as the Protestants’ or the Englishmen’s cemetery. One of its most famous “eternal residents” is the poet Keats who died very young (I did learn something, see??). You must be wondering when am I getting to the food. So am I. So let me get back on track.
The route and targets of the tour
We started at the old local market which is marked for demolition in the very near future as they have built a brand new place for these folks. Sounded wonderful until our tour guide told us the vendors’ rent will be doubled which will likely put a few of them out of business. Yes, the old market wasn’t a beacon of perfection but it definitely had charm! Among the things we sampled was real mozzarella di bufala made by a lady named Lina - now I know how real mozzarella di bufala is supposed to taste like!! Here are some of the sights at the market:
This fish guy has been there for decades and his son and grandson now work with him.
Whose legs are those? It’s rude to put your feet out the window!
All sorts of goodness! (Where’s the chocolate??)
Carne Equina – an interesting stand…
After the local market, we meandered towards Volpetti which, as soon as I saw the sign, I recognized from an Anthony Bourdain episode I had recently watched! Volpetti is this piece of heaven on Via Marmorata, near the Pyramid. All sorts of cheeses, balsamic vinergars, cured and dried meats like prosciutto, etc. We got to sample (as we did everywhere in this tour) and my favorite was the San Daniele prosciutto (vs. Parma prosciutto – which was still good!). The San Daniele had a certain tinge of sweetness that I enjoyed. Needless to say, we loaded up on some goodies for that evening’s dinner (we decided there were too many good things not to devote one dinner in the apartment to them!). Prosciutto is worth reading about and sampling – here is a quick overview of this delicious piece of ham: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosciutto. An another that covers the difference between pancetta (bacon) and prosciutto (ham): http://italianalmanac.org/06may/ham.htm
Goodness at Volpetti
Right after Volpetti and further down Marmorata, we stopped at Barberini’s were the pastries all were calling my name, winking at me. Not being a cultural chauvinist, I understood they were tempting me. Of course I accepted the morsels we were given to sample including tiramisu in a tiny cup made of chocolate (modeled here by my friend Chris):
A nice array of pastries at Barberini
On our way to further destinations in the tour, we passed a hill called Monte Testaccio. If you don’t know any better, you walk right past it. It has vegetation and was behind a fence when we hit upon it. However, our tour guide stopped to tell us about it. Folks, it is not a real hill that mother nature (or Mother Nature, lest lightning strike me) created. In the old days, and I mean, the OLD days, people used amphoras to store and carry things. However, when they were used for olive oil, the amphoras were not really re-usable for long. So, they would break them up and pile them on what became a hill over time. Vegetation grew and the hill – someone discovered – would offer in its innards a great place to store wine at the perfect temperature! So in old days (not OLD days), small caves were built for this purpose. It no longer seems to be used for this but remains a great witness to how the old Romans did things. The area has become trendy with nightclubs while still hosting traditional trades like butchers.
After a little meandering, we next came to 00100 Pizza where we were in for a real treat: suppli – a cheesy fried rice ball that was a foodie’s dream.
As our mouths continued to water, we made it to the place, Da Bucatino, where we would have a traditional Italian lunch centered around bucatini, a thick and hollow spaghetti-like pasta (not common here in the States) in amatriciana sauce (my favorite red sauce). I did my best to clean the plate though all the sampling along the way was competing for space in my stomach!
Finally, after the day of sampling great cheeses, meats, pasta, and the like we ended up at a neighborhood gelato place called Giolitti. It has been there since the early 20th century. A place where the gelato and the panna are all homemade – true artisans! What a difference a homemade makes.
So, a little more off the beaten path than the Rome that most tourists see (including me in my first 2 trips there), yet a stone’s throw away from all those places, the Testaccio area offers not only great food but a different scene with history and charm to along with it. Don’t miss it next time in Rome!
Other things I enjoyed in Rome:
What other lesser known areas of Rome have you seen and would you recommend them to others?
(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel T1I)
In my recent trip from Rome to Dubrovnik, I had to connect through the excellent Munich airport. I had chosen a 3+ hr layover so I wouldn’t be worried about a tight connection. It was the right airport choice for a 3 hr layover!
Munich, as other airports in Europe, has a lot more going on than the average U.S. airport. Munich is one of the airports in Europe with the best setup for connecting through it. They say you can easily make very short connections. Though coming from Italy and going to Croatia, I had to go through immigration which had a line so I am not sure I would risk a 45 min. connection!
Soon after arriving I spotted a massage place offering from manicures to full-body massages. I decided I would take a back and neck massage for 30 mins to help me relax from an early start to my day (woke up around 530 AM!) and also since I was still sick with a cold. I figured anything that helped my body was a good thing – and it was.
After the massage, I sat down for lunch at a place offering typical German fare. I enjoyed wursts, sauerkraut, a pretzel with mustard, and, of course, a beer! Mmm!
Then, with still some time to kill, and with no real sense of purpose, I snapped a few odd shots with my mobile phone camera (which I admit is not the best). But I sort of like the shots as they do give a sense of the airport movement or activity . Looking at these, I wish I HAD taken them with the real camera! I love the reflections on the shiny floor!
Pink macaron has Angelina Jolie lips. The purple macaron has macaron-envy. The pink macaron sticks its tongue out. Instigator. The wine glass stays out of it – so Switzerland.
From the Sofitel Water Tower in Chicago during the Windy City Tweetup.
A lot of my international travels have been part of or enabled by work. Whether is being asked if in 24 hours I could leave for Helsinki to spend 3 weeks there in the middle of winter, or whether the miles accumulated by years of sometimes-weekly travel have allowed me to go out of the country for vacation, work has always been a key factor in my exploring. I would say it is second only to my zest for travel and exploring!
As part of this reflection, I thought it would be cool to capture where all have I been to related to work whether for a one-day meeting to year+ assignments. Here it goes!
In Germany, my discoveries were how great German food is (not just the ones I had known like wursts). Also, my colleagues made it a point of making sure they were showing me places like beer halls and good restaurants and that hospitality -no offense intended- took me by surprise, especially when compared to other countries where I had expected a warmer culture.
Sulzbach/Bad Soden (outside of Frankfurt, Germany)
I have been to a good bit of France but for work these two sites were it. In the Riviera, I enjoyed being by the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean and yet seeing the Alps at a distance, staying in Cannes or Nice, depending on the week and the mood! Paris, well, what can I say. An incredible city even if it was hard to develop social contacts due to the long hours at work and perhaps the language barrier (I spoke basic French then; medium after I left there and focused on learning the language).
View from the terrace of the apartment building where I lived in Paris!
Basically shuttling between client offices in both towns. I was amazed at how small the country is and yet how exotic it felt to me. Den Haag much more subdued than Amsterdam. Amsterdam, just phenomenally interesting. Getting to work with the Dutch allowed to see how their cultural traits are unique and how some of the stereotypes I had heard of showed up in work settings.
Den Haag (The Netherlands)
Amsterdam (The Netherlamnds)
The rest of the European work sites were of shorter durations than the ones above with the longest being 3 weeks. But they all allowed me to explore each of the places and/or visit with friends who lived in those places. Work definitely gave me a good opportunity to see more of Europe. How else would I have spent 3 weeks in Helsinki had it not been for work?!
View of Oslo Fjord
My experiences in Latin America have been phenomenal. Perhaps the cultural affinity or the approach to life, especially in Brazil, but I have seldom been disappointed or failed to enjoy my stay.
Chile trumps all other places in L.A. by sheer duration of my work experience there (over a year). I had worked there many, many yrs before (check my other blog entries) and I got to see more of the country in that year. What a beautiful country!
In Peru, I got to explore more off the beaten path locations by the nature of the work assignment. I got to see many places the average tourist sees and many they would never get to. And, I got to enjoy the food of Lima which is just outstanding!
Brazil offered me good food and great fun besides the work. Spending weekends in Rio or going out for the nightlife of Sao Paulo, Brazil never disappointed.
Sao Paulo (Brazil)
Buenos Aires (Argentina)
Panama City (Panama)
Church in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago
Here I definitely got to see some diverse places from Muslim and Arab Egypt, to deep Africa in Tanzania, to cosmopolitan cities in South Africa (I visited Cape Town too but not for work). I have enjoyed the unique experiences each offered whether it was visiting HIV/AIDS patients in the rural areas around Mwanza, to going for food in very local places in massive Cairo, to getting into the history of apartheid in Joburg.
Johannesburg (South Africa)
Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and Stone Town (Tanzania)
At the Apartheid Museum in Joburg
I got to spend a LOT of time in Toronto and had a lot of fun with a great crew of Canadians whose key contribution to my skill sets was to have me start calling a puck “puck” and not “the thing”. I also learned that I needed better pacing drinking Canadian beer as it was stronger than the American variety. Finally, I learned how to curl (as in the game/sport).
What has been your most interesting and rewarding international work experience??
I went to Puerto Rico, where I lived for 15 yrs growing up, for a long weekend after a 5-year absence. It is always an interesting trip when I go with the mix of family, friends, and lots of memories. Most of my family has moved away from there and many friends are no longer there either but I still never have time to see the ones who remain. Also, I never have enough time to see things I want to re-visit or things that I just plain and simple have never seen before (like La Parguera or the Bacardi distillery, must-sees). It is funny how that goes! While this trip was due to a family member’s illness, I did get a little time to go around some.
I had never spent too much time (other than driving through) some of the towns due west of Bayamón. In particular, I saw more of Vega Baja, Vega Alta, and Toa Baja in a day or two of going from place to place this weekend that the sum of the time I ever spent there before. It is interesting to see how densely populated some of these towns can be (and how bad traffic can be!). Yet, along the coast (where the “Baja” towns are) I saw some of the “‘hidden away” beaches I had never been to before, far away from tourist areas and the local crowds (like Los Tubos and Puerto Nuevo, which I hear surfers love).
In terms of food, my Dad took me to a real treat of a place, La Casita Blanca, a small restaurant of typical Puerto Rican food near Barrio Obrero, a neighborhood that had glory days a long time ago but that even in my childhood was already known for higher levels of crime and, therefore, a “must stay away from” area. The restaurant is quaint and picturesque and is located in a semi-residential, semi-commercial street (Ave. Tapia).
When you sit down to eat, they serve you not only the typical basket of garlic bread but also fried cod (“bacalaito“), and a small serving of an awesome chicken soup. When you are done, they serve you a small dose of anise to cleanse the palate. I had to go for the carne frita (friend pork chunks) and mofongo (friend mashed plantains) – one of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes! The place was a really neat hole-in-the-wall that had a lot of character, great food, and friendly staff.
A house in the old part of Barrio Obrero
Finally, I had to have my “quesitos“, a Spanish-influenced pastry filled with cream cheese that I can’t find at home (though I have it whenever I go to Miami or Tampa). My favorite place to eat these in PR is La Ceiba on Ave. Roosevelt. That, a “croqueta de jamón” and a cortadito (coffee and milk) make for a most bodacious breakfast! A sister bakery to La Ceiba is La España, on Ave. Baldorioty near the airport (next to a cemetery and across from another one!). So, not only do I enjoy going to La Ceiba but on the way out of the island, I make a stop at La España to eat some goodies, and take some home with me