Colonia del Sacramento: Uruguay’s Historical Gem

When I started to plan my trip to Argentina for my trek, I thought maybe I’d arrive a couple of days early and do something other than eat and walk in Buenos Aires.  Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with those things!  Those are indeed very noble activities in my book in that great city.  But I was looking to just do something different.  I looked at one-day or half-day tours, and I looked at museums and other similar attractions.  One thing caught my eye due to my eternal wanderlust:  Uruguay was just across the river and it would be really easy to cross by boat.

I was aware of Montevideo and Punta del Este.  The latter seemed to require an overnight.  Montevideo seemed a tad boring but I thought, “why not?  it’s the capital?”  And then I ran into Colonia del Sacramento (or simply, “Colonia”).  I had never heard of this place.  Quick research led me to find out it was listed in “1,000 Places to See before You Die” so I had to learn more.

Funny how history runs its course…

Colonia del Sacramento was established by the Portuguese across the river from another small town called Buenos Aires in the late 17th century.  The town was part of a ping-pong match in terms of who ruled it:  Spain, Portugal, Spain, Portugal, …, Brazil, and then independent Uruguay.  Must have been exhausting!  The modern town’s old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a population of roughly 25,000 folks.

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, old map

French map dating from the 1740s made into a mural

Getting to Colonia del Sacramento

Certainly one can get there by road from Montevideo but, if you are in Buenos Aires, the Buquebus ferry leaving from Puerto Madero is quite efficient and convenient.  There are fast ferries that make the crossing in one hour (the river, at that point, is really no longer a river but the sea meeting the river) and slow-poke boats that make the crossing in three hours.  Needless to say, three hours on a boat when I can do it in one was a no-brainer….  The one hour ferry was at 8:30 AM so that was a bit of a sacrifice since there was a line or two to make at the port… But it was the right choice.  On the way back, since we wanted to have dinner in Buenos Aires, we took the ferry that arrived around 6 PM.  One thing to mind is that there IS a time zone difference between Uruguay and Argentina (crazy).

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, ferry, Buquebus

The walkway to the ferry in the port in Buenos Aires

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, ferry, arrival, port

Welcome to Uruguay!

Oh, and another thing to mind is that you MUST bring with you the reciprocity fee receipt for Argentina (if you are a U.S. citizen)… When you leave Uruguay, right at the port in Colonia, you will go through BOTH Uruguayan and Argentine immigration officers.  When you get to the Argentine officer, if you do not have it, you are in a for a nervous wait to see what the officer will do with you.  No, it did not happen to me, but it happened to a friend.  Note:  the other friend hanging with her volunteered to the officer “Oh, I don’t have mine either” – lol!  Somehow, the officer did not care about her but did about the other one.

The town – ruins

The thing to see in Colonia is the old quarter.  When you exit the very modern port facility, you go out of the port and go on that same street uphill and, eventually, you will hit the main street where you will make a left and walk for like five minutes before you hit the old quarter.  (There is a tourism info office outside the main building of the port but I did not go in.)

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, map

The old quarter is on the left side of the map

The old buildings have been beautifully kept up or maintained and the quarter is easy to walk around in.  The old quarter is in a peninsula so you can’t go too far without hitting the water except in one direction (as you can see in the map above).   The old quarter has ruins of fortifications from those centuries when the European powers were trying to take control of the river.  You can also see parts of the foundation of the former Portuguese governor’s house and ruins of the old convent.  Most of these ruins are, one could say, ruins of ruins but, nevertheless, they help understand how the town was set up and defended.

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, travel, photo, architecture, lighthouse

Ruins of San Francisco Convent in front of the lighthouse

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, travel, photo, ruins, Bastion San Miguel

Ruins of Bastión de San Miguel

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture, ruins

Ruins of the Portuguese Governor House in the Plaza de Armas

The town – buildings and structures

There old church, the Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento (Basilica of the Sacred Sacrament) was heavily restored starting in the 1950s.  It is simple in its design and decor.

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, basilica, church

Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, basilica, church

Inside of the basilica

The town is clearly oriented to visitors from Uruguay and abroad with many cafés, restaurants, gifts shops, and art shops.

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture

Local shop

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, café

Outdoor café near the basilica

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, café

Eclectic café chair and table

But the best this charming town offers is just the simple yet beautiful architecture of the streets in or near its old quarter.  A peaceful setting graced by history and architecture!

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture

House near the lighthouse

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture

Shop in Calle de los Suspiros

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture

House in Calle de los Suspiros

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture

Detail of the local architecture by the Plaza de Armas

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture


Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, UNESCO, World Heritage, Places to See, travel, photo, architecture, trees

A local street right outside the heart of the old quarter

Lunch time in Colonia!

Of course, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed an incredible pasta dish and we all enjoyed trying Uruguayan red wine – an unexpected treat (later followed by a cup of Freddos ice cream!)

Colonia, Sacramento, Uruguay, colonial, food, pasta, foodporn, butternut squash,travel, photo,

Lunch was this delicious butternut squash gnocchi in a pancetta cream sauce!

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Surprised at how good the local wine was!

A resident enjoying summer…

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Dog days of summer in Colonia are awesome!



2014: A Year of Travel and Food in Review

Well, 2014 is now for the history books.  Lots happened in this crazy world of ours and, likely, lots in each of our worlds.  My year started planning my big trips for the year:  Iceland and doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain (the latter with Trekking for Kids, a charity I am involved with and with whom I do a yearly trek somewhere around the world to improve the lives of orphaned children).  But the year brought me a few unexpected destinations and a return to some favorites.

Lake Placid – winter wonderland

But my first trip of the year was to wonderful Lake Placid, New York best known for hosting the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

Lake Placid, Olympic museum, New York, Olympus

Welcome to the museum!

There, I explored local food and beverages at great places like the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, the bar at the Whiteface Lodge, and at Lisa G’s (with its delicious chicken wings!).  I also got to skate on the Miracle on Ice skating Herb Brooks arena (after over a decade of not ice skating!), and got to do a luge run in the indoor training facility for the U.S. Olympic team!

 New York City

Business took me to NYC but only for an overnight visit.  I managed to squeeze in seeing my cousins A and Z and enjoyed a great meal with them.  One great outcome of this trip was this neat photo from my business partners’ office.

Empire State Building, New York City, NYC, Manhattan, blue sky, clouds, architecture

Picture perfect day!

I might add that the photos/videos from my airplane window seat upon takeoff from La Guardia were pretty neat thanks to the blanket of snow on the ground.  I shared some of them here but here is one example of the great opportunity I had on this flight.

winter, snow, New York City, Manhattan, Hudson River, view from plane, New Jersey, photos, window seat

Right after take-off

Washington, D.C.

I worked in DC for two years right in the heart of the city.  I so enjoyed being in the center of power, arguably, of the world watching people, exploring the various museums and monuments (surprise find:  the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery right by the White House, which I got to visit!), enjoying great cocktails (especially at Le Bar in the Sofitel) and savoring all the great food around town (like at Granville Moore’s or Café Mozart).

German food, Washington, DC; Cafe Mozart, delicious, food, foodie, foodporn, travel, Smsung Galaxy

Delicious German fare at Café Mozart!

I got to return on a winter weekend in 2014 as I just love the town and I got to attend the travel show held yearly in town.  I got to visit my former workplace and say hi to my former colleagues as well which was a nice touch.  I finally got to do a slow “walkaround” of Lafayette Square, a place I often went to to eat my lunch during workdays but that I never paid close attention to.   And then I got to hang out with a couple of friends and fellow trekkers from Trekking for Kids – icing on the proverbial cake!

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A pile of snow in front of the White House

Finally, I love when taking off from Reagan National airport affords me a neat view!

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A “close” look at the Pentagon

Traverse City

I had not heard about Traverse City ever until a couple of months before I went.  How could it be that this world traveler who had also seen a good bit of the States had never heard of this place??  I was pleasantly surprised at all there was to see and do around Traverse City.  From good food, great local beer, plenty of nature and outdoors, and excellent drives.  On top of it all, I actually ran into Cuban pork (one of my favorite dishes) at a local winery in the Leelanau Peninsula while exploring the area’s wine with the Sip & Savor festival – an event I greatly enjoyed.  Traverse City, Michigan, wine, food, festival, Sip and Savor, Leelanau Peninsula

But my favorite part of the whole trip was driving around the peninsulas, taking in the vistas and checking out the architecture of the area.  I did not get to see the dunes that are not far from Traverse City but that, my friends, will be for a future visit.


My trip to Iceland was special.  It is a place I have always wanted to explore but I got to do it with dear friends and their two kids.  In addition, one of them had second (or was it third??) cousins there and she connected with them.  They hosted us for a great evening of food and wine and, more importantly, warmth and great company!

Iceland, dinner table, photo, Olympus

Sadly, I didn’t take pix of the great spread but here is the table we ate at!

I enjoyed seeing the diverse landscapes of the island.  There are not enough posts I could write about it to convey how majestic it is and I am not yet done writing about it (I did write about the South Shore, Reykjavik and its main church, the site of its first parliament, and the Blue Lagoon).  But here are a couple of the sights I enjoyed.  In the meantime, stay tuned for more posts about Iceland!

Akureyri, Iceland, view, mountains, water, travel, photo, view, vista, Canon EOS Rebel

The view from our house in the northern town of Akureyri

Puerto Rico

As some of you may know from prior posts, I moved to Puerto Rico when I was 2 years old until I finished high school when I came back to the mainland U.S.  This year I went back to P.R. for a high school reunion.  Given many commitments, I had to keep it to a 2.5-day weekend visit centered on the reunion activities and my classmates.  Of course, and it goes without saying (or typing), that EVERYONE looks the same.  (You never know who is reading these things… best to be careful and say that.  LOL).

Sagrado Corazon, Santurce, Puerto Rico, reunion

OK, not a typical travel pic but I wanted to honor my classmates. Me? The one front & center!

We stayed at a resort in Rio Grande which was OK but did not compare to other resorts in terms of service, cleanliness, or quality of food and beaches.  But, what made the weekend perfect was sharing with so many wonderful people – I truly was happy to see them and try to catch up.

I did enjoy two things about this trip besides the reunion:  sunset at the resort and the landing in San Juan which was like a trip down memory lane seeing all the places I knew (on my side of the plane), so  much so on the latter that I dedicated a post to share the views from the landing!  Check it out here.

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The start of sunset. Picture perfect.

Santa Barbara, California

There are so many places you hear about constantly and sometimes you just never think anything of them.  Santa Barbara is a name I have heard so much yet never made it a point of going there.  That is, until  my friends Chris and Wendy invited me to join them on a trip to Cali.  I only could take a long weekend not the whole week of their trip but I decided to go with them and explore Santa Barbara with them.  I am so glad I did, even if the trip was so short. The trip started with lunch at The Hat in Simi Valley where I enjoyed a delicious hot pastrami sandwich and an obscenely (and deliciously) large bag of onion rings!

pastrami, The Hat, Simi Valley, onion rings, California, food, foodporn, foodie

Look at THAT!

The food, the wine and the company were excellent.  But the sights of Santa Barbara were indeed worth the effort:  the Presidio, the Old Mission, and -of course- the beach!  This is a place I would love to get back to just to relax!

sunset, Santa Barbara, pier, California, photo, travel, Olympus

At the pier, ready to watch the sun set

Spain:  Madrid, León, Santiago and the Camino

Oh, Spain!  Where to begin.  León, where the trip began?  Any of the number of towns along the Camino de Santiago, where we walked and experienced a millennial pilgrimage?  Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrimage ends and near where my great-grandfather was born?  Or, Madrid, the grand dame of Spain?

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León captivated me

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Detail of the massive Plaza Mayor in the heart of Madrid

beef, steak, sea salt, Madrid, cafe, Spain, food, foodie, foodporn, Samsung Galaxy, travel, photo

Well, I can’t talk about Spain without talking food!


Unfortunately, my visit to Morocco was short as I was headed to Spain to do the Camino de Santiago.  I got to experience a little bit of Marrakesh but the bulk of the visit was spent in Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco – quite an unexpected vibe to a Moroccan city for me (I knew little about Morocco before this visit!).  It is a little weird that I am writing about Morocco in the year in review before I have even finished writing about my visit there last summer!

As is usually my reaction to Arab countries, I loved the architecture.  The red of Marrakesh was a stark contrast to the white and some blue of Essaouira.  And just the same, Marrakesh was intense whereas Essaouira was relaxed – another sharp contrast.  I felt like I could live in Essaouira quite easily though Marrakesh would require a significant adjustment.  What a neat experience to see these big differences within Morocco!

Marrakesh, Morocco, red, Olympus, travel, photo, architecture, bicycles

The red of Marrakesh in the city’s walls

Essaouira, Morocco, blue, fort, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Essaouira and its blue

The Florida Gulf Coast near Tampa

I visit Tampa where I have a good bit of family a few times a year.  Usually, this means hanging out together or doing things nearby.  But I rarely go beyond the area of Tampa where they all live.  Christmas 2014 was the time, given the length of my visit, to go beyond.  We did a couple of day trips to “sample” places like Naples (about 2.5 hrs away from north Tampa), Lido Key, Longboat Key, and Anna Maria Island.  The latter seemed like a great community to live in but otherwise, not that charming.  St. Armand at Lido Key did strike me as a neat place to go and walk around and sit back and relax.  We checked out the park at the southern tip of the key and walk to the beach.  Later we drove the length of Longboat Key (pretty long indeed!) but we “broke it up” by stopping at The Lazy Lobster for an outdoor lunch centered on, guess what, lobster!

lobster, Longboat Key, seafood, foodie, delicious, travel, food, Samsung Galaxy

This delicious dish is called the lazy man’s lobster – served all cracked up!

But 2014 was also a year of exploring not only far off places but also places near my own hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

Michigan Wine Country: Unexpected and Beautiful

I was looking forward to visiting Traverse City, Michigan and exploring the neighboring areas but little did I know my timing was going to be SO good.  You see, that weekend, the Leelanau Peninsula Spring Sip & Wine was taking place (check here for other events!).  Over 20 wineries participated and the ticket included a small appetizer and several tastings of wine at each participating winery.  Heaven!Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting

I did have to mind how many places I visited as I only had one afternoon and I would not want to rush just to score more wineries!   (<- crazy talk)  Plus, it was my first time in the area so I wanted to also admire the scenery.

Upon entering Leelanau Peninsula, our first stop was the Ciccone Vineyards.

Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting, Ciccone, Madonna

If the last name sounds familiar, it is Madonna‘s last name:  it is her Dad’s winery.  I don’t know the full story but I know at some point (and maybe still) they are not close.  The “savor” part at this winery was the homemade chili by the owner.  It was delicious and perfect given the rainy weather at that point in the day.  We enjoyed chatting with the staff!

Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting, Ciccone, Madonna

The grounds of the Ciccone vineyards

My partner-in-crime, er, fellow traveler and I moved on to Blustone Vineyards which stole a piece of my heart…  Why?  They were serving CUBAN PERNIL (pork)!!!!  As a 100% Cuban-blooded human being and cook of Cuban pork myself I was impressed with the quality of the pork.  The pork was from Georgina‘s in Traverse City (I looked at their menu online and I immediately started salivating!!  Next time in TC, I will HAVE to visit!).  Kudos!

Michigan, winery, vineyard, Traverse City,  Blustone winery, Leelanau Peninsula, wine tasting, wine tasting room

Plus, the wine at Blustone was the most impressive of the whole lot I sampled on this visit.  I also did love the space:  modern, spacious, and well lit with natural light.  It got quite packed after we arrived but there still was plenty of space to hang around.  Good job, Blustone!

Michigan, winery, vineyard, Traverse City,  Blustone winery, Leelanau Peninsula, wine tasting, wine tasting room

Random driving led us to encounter 45 North winery.  “What’s with the name?,” you may say?  Well, it is near the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole!

45 Parallel, Michigan, road sign, halfway

The place was festive on the inside and out as you can see!  We enjoyed being served our tastings there and watching the “hat scene”.  Good job, 45 North!

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The tasting area and the bottle tree that greets visitors – pretty cool!

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What greeted us upon entering the testing room!

Michigan, wine, vineyard, winery, 45 North, wine bottle, Leelanau, hat, clever

One of the cleverest hats I saw!

It was time to keep on trucking along and we decided to go to Old Mission Peninsula to try a winery that was recommended, Brys Estate.  I enjoyed their reds – and the view of the east bay.  Though there was a great outdoor seating area with Adirondack chairs, because of the slightly weather, we did not partake of the outdoor.  But that was fine because we enjoy chatting with our server and some of the other visitors.

Brys, Estate, winery, vineyard, Old Mission, peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan

Brys, Estate, winery, vineyard, Old Mission, peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan

A view of the east bay

So, after this Saturday spent driving around these and other Michigan wineries, I can safely say it is a GREAT way to explore the beauty of Michigan – and enjoying delicious food and wines!  I do hope to return as there were many wineries I did not get to check out.  I love having a reason to go back to places I like!

Great Drives Series – Around Bordeaux

I have done a couple of trips into Bordeaux where I have explored the region by car.  There really is no better way to explore the diversity of the region (and its wines!), which may seem at first to be more homogenous than it actually is.  To venture inland, near where Bordeaux runs into the Dordogne is to see a totally different Bordeaux than you may see in the Médoc.  To drive around Sauternes is definitely different than going to Saint-Émilion.

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Beautiful countryside in Bordeaux

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Fields of sunflowers dot the landscape in parts of Bordeaux

Both times I went were in the pre-GPS era but that did not make it difficult to drive around.  A good map (and a good map reader somewhere in the vehicle) is all you need to be able to explore this area without too much trouble.

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Plenty of markers/signs help the visitor find their way around!

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With helpful markers like this one, you know you are in wine country!

One of our stops was the Château Ducru-Beaucaillou where we were taken on a private tour of this grand winemaker (through which I would run the next day when I ran in the Bordeaux marathon!).

Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Bordeaux, Medoc, France, winery, vineyard, chateaux, wine, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou (I would run right past this spot the next day!)

If you are somewhat interested in wine, there will be plenty for you to do and explore. The town of Saint-Émilion is one of the gems of the region.  Walk around but climb up to the top of the town.  There are cafés up there too and nowhere better to be when the sun sets, glass of wine in hand – of course!

St. Emilion, Bordeaux, French town, France, sign, vines, photo,Saint-Émilion, Canon EOS Rebel

The way to Saint-Émilion!

St. Emilion, Bordeaux, French town, France, sign, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Always remember where you parked in a new town! In this case, a nice map at the town entrance helped!

St. Emilion, Bordeaux, French town, France, view , photo, Canon EOS Rebel

View from the upper part of Saint-Émilion down to its main square

We enjoyed some of the big (and seemingly more commercial) chateaux but we also loved to more “rural” areas on roads less traveled and discovering the smaller vineyards and winemakers.  Some of the information offices and hotels had displays full of cards of the many chateaux in the area such as the one below.

wine, Bordeaux, France, card, chateau, travel

It was one of these cards that led us to discover a gem of a château in SauternesChâteau Sahuc Les Tours.

Chateau, Sahuc Les Tours, Sauternes, Graves, Bordeaux, France, travel, wine, vin, countryside, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The beautiful Château Sahuc Les Tours

The owners even sat down with us to share a bottle of their Sauternes and spent a good hour chatting with us about every topic that could concern French and American alike (they spoke excellent English).  Sauternes (in the Graves area), if you are not familiar, produces a sweet white wine bearing the same name made from sémillon, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle grapes that have Botrytis cinerea (or “noble rot”) which concentrates the sugars.  We got to see the grapes up front as they began to look like raisins.  But don’t let the thought of rot keep you from drinking this wine!

Sauternes,  Botrytis cinerea, noble rot, wine, grapes, Bordeaux, Graves, Semillon, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Before and after…

That was such a good experience that I returned 7 years later to that chateau – and to my delight, one of the owners was there and, though she clearly could not remember me, realized I really had been there before as I recounted some of the things they had told us the first visit.  Connecting with locals in a real way is one of the rewards of venturing out and exploring this world!

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The friendly owner of Sahuc Les Tours with a delicious bottle in hand

So while this post is about great drives, let’s not forget that this drive is about wine!  Cheers!

wine, Bordeaux, France, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

A beautiful wine in Bordeaux


The Highlights of Food and Wine in 2012. Mostly Food.

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…

BBQ anyone?

At Salt Lick, outside of Austin, Texas, the year started with some phenomenal BBQ!

Salt Lick BBQ in Texas

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!

WIne from Virginia's wineries: Pollock, Cardinal Point, Barboursville, King, Veritas

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 from Moldavia, Moldova, Romania

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork – typical food dish

Papanași papanash from Romania

Papanași (papanash)

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 always good for a wine tasting

Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!

Lobster dip from Costco served in cucumbers

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 from The OVal Room in Washington, D.C. smore

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!!!

Mofongo from Puerto Rico in Tampa, Florida

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!).

Potato and egg salad in Montmartre

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.

Chocolates and macarons from Paris' finest Jean-Paul Hevin

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 from Rome, Italy

Suppli fried rice ball – mmm!!

White wine from Italy with Campo de Fiore reflected

I love how the Campo de Fiore is reflected in this glass of wine

Bucatini all'Amatriciana in Rome, Italy

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Carbonara and red wine in Rome, Italy

Carbonara rocks!!

Coffee in Rome, Italy

Coffee the AM I arrived… dropped our luggage at the apt and went out for breakfast. SO. GOOD.

Rome, Italy food:  artichoke, buffalo cheese, tomato, basil

My plate full of our appetizers on our first night in Roma

Sweets from Rome, Italy


Gelato in Rome, Italy

Sublime gelato

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!

Cooking Cuban black beans

Cooking Cuban pernil for Christmas eve (Nochebuena)

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!

Country fried steak, green beens and sweet potatoes - great southern food

The year ends

The year went away like the dessert from this plate – it leaves me wanting more.  What a year it was!

Empty dessert plate

A Year (or the World?) Ends… Either Way, I Travel

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!

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

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!

Statue of skier in Vail, Colorado

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.

View from up high of Kotor Bay in Montenegro

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.

Posing in front of the Bean in Chicago at Millenium Park

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!

Sphinx-like rock in the Bucegi Mountains near Omu Peak, Romania

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

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!

Virginia is for lovers. Wine lovers.

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!

Wine being poured at a winery in Virginia wine country

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!

Octagon from Barboursville Vineyards - a great Virginia wine

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

Jefferson Vineyards

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.

At Jefferson Vineyard in Virginia wine country

A wine wall:  wine bottles!

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.

Barboursville Vineyards

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!

Vines and ground of Barboursville Vineyard in Virginia wine country

Beautiful grounds at Barbousville Vineyard in Virginia wine country

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 Barbour mansion's ruins in Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia wine country

The ruins of the Barbour home


The grounds in Barboursville Vineyard in Virginia wine country great for picnics

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.

Nice leather couch in the tasting room at Veritas winery in Virginia wine country

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!

The grounds at Veritas Vineyard - great fall colors in Virginia wine country

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 in Virginia wine country

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!

King Family Vineyard in Virginia Wine Country

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!!).

King Family vineyards' Seven - a great wine from Virginia!

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??

International Atlanta – A Food Story

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!


Sampling Wines in Moldova – and a One-of-a-Kind Wine Cellar

In deciding to go to Moldova, the last thing that occurred to me was that I could go and do wine tastings of the local wines – because I had NO idea Moldova made any amount of wine!  A month before the idea was in my head, I would have laughed – blessed (or cursed) ignorance!  I was to re-learn the lesson to look for the un-expected such as olive oil ice cream or wine from Michigan.

As I e-mailed with the guide I had found on what could be an itinerary for a 2-3 day visit, he mentioned visiting wineries.  As I talked about the possibility of this trip, a fellow travel blogger mentioned that her husband had been to Moldova and had enjoyed the wineries he visited.  Huh.  Well, maybe I should check them out…  In doing some research, Moldova ranked 22nd in the list of wine producing countries but its production is mainly for export since the Middle Ages!!  Moldova was the largest wine producing region in the Russian empire.  I guess as the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Moldova was the wine barrel of Russia!  (Who knew, right??)  Sadly, the two World Wars, among all the destruction, destroyed the wine industry which only got re-started during the 1950s.

Moldova grows grape varietals that are local or from the region as well as varietals introduced from France around the 19th century (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.).

Chateau Vartely – Excellent Setting, Great Food and Good Wine

Chateau Vartely was on my first day’s schedule.  It was going to also be where we would have lunch.  Besides the building with the restaurant & rooms for events, and besides the winemaking & storage buildings, Chateau Vartely also has accommodations on offer, both rooms and VIP apartments with all the amenities of a hotel/resort – probably a great idea if one is planning to sample lots of wines!  Vartely is located on a hillside which offers a great view of the land around.  It was a real treat to take in the views!

Chateau Vartely, a winery in Moldova

We were rather hungry so we proceeded first to eat.  We chose to sit outside on a large balcony that overlooked some of the property.  A very pleasant place to sit down for a leisurely lunch.

Chateau Vartely winery - balcony area

This meal was my first in Moldova but it would not differ much from my meal the night before in Iasi, Romania.  That makes sense as both countries are very similar in culture and history.  My meal started with a delicious broth – just right to open up the appetite!

Then, for my main course, I took the advice of Dumitru, my guide (and a super guy!), and went with the mamaliga along with pork (nothing better for a Cuban!).  Mamaliga is polenta and, as you can see in the picture below, it is accompanied by sour cream and sheep cheese (a bit salty).  Here it was also accompanied by a small serving of eggs. The whole thing was simply delicious!

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork - typical food dish from Moldova

After the lunch, we toured the winemaking facility.  Nothing new to me  in the tour itself.  We moved to the wine tasting rooms.  They had one with bottles of wines from all over the world for those interested in comparing the Chateau’s wines with comparables from other parts of the world (the World Collection Room).  I was not there to do that as I wanted to maximize tasting Moldovan wines so we moved to the other room.

Chateau Vartely wine tasting room

In this tasting, I was introduced to the Feteasca Alba grape that yields a nice dry white wine that is quite fruity and fresh – a white wine I can drink!  The Feteasca Regala and the Merlot also merit a mention as I enjoyed them too – especially because I took the leftover from the tasting with me <grin>…

Chateau Vartely was a very pleasant experience from the food to the wine, though I have to say that the food was simply superb.  It is a newer winery that combines the wine experiencing with tourism but done well and in a beautiful setting.

Milestii Mici – Great Wine and an Amazing Wine Cellar

Milestii Mici is in a category of its own when it comes to wineries – anywhere that I’ve been (Stellenbosch, Bordeaux, Hunter Valley, Sonoma, Tuscany, Mendoza, …).  I do not know where to being but let me begin with what I saw first:  I saw entrances at the bottom of the hill to my right that looked like small tunnels…  More on that as this writeup progresses…

Tunnels in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Garden and Fountains

My first stop out of the car was the amazing little garden area near the store and offices.  Besides the pretty flower and all that stuff relevant to a well-designed garden, what caught my eye were the two fountains in the midst of the flowers… One for red and one for white…

Fountains in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Milestii Mici winery garden in Moldova - large wine glasses

Is anyone else having heart palpitations looking at this ungodly scene???

Fountain in the gardens of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

There ARE more sober pictures of me from this trip.  Somewhere.  OK, let me get past the garden, I have quenched my thirst…

On to the store, which is built into a tunnel itself.  It not only sells the wine, but also shows a few of the tools used in older times to make the wine.

Store at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Tunnels and Cellars

So on we go and we get back in the car to begin our tour.   Yes, back in the car so we can enter the tunnels of this incredible winery.  You see, this winery is using the tunnels dug up when limestone was being mined here to build all those “lovely” Sovietish buildings and other structures with better looks and uses.

To be more precise, this winery has 160 miles (250 km) worth of tunnels out of which 75 miles (120 km) are currently being used to store over 2 million bottles of wine, making Milestii Mici the world’s biggest wine cellar.  (My basement cellar pales a little.)  These limestone tunnels keep a constant humidity and temperature throughout the year.  Bottles are cellared here for DECADES before they are sold.  And many an important collector actually pay to store their wines here (not just their Milestii Mici wines).

Dusty wine botles in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Dust on bottles CANNOT be faked!

Wine cellar wall in the tunnels of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

“99 bottles of wine in the wall, 99 bottles of wine.  Take one down, and pass it around…  98 bottles of wine in the wall…”” (never mind, I WON’T pass it around – it’s mine to keep!)

Wine cellar in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Private wine collection stored in Milestii Mici's tunnels in Moldova

Private wine stored in the wine cellars

We drove along the road (another tunnel) and got off at different points to see the different areas of the wine cellars.  One of these had a false wall that looks like the ones above built in the 1980s.  See, Gorbachev decided then that alcohol was a problem in the good ole Soviet Union and banned alcohol <the reader gasps>.  The folks in this winery held a treasure trove of good wine so they built this fake wall so they could hide all these bottles which otherwise would have been destroyed.

Finally, the great moment:  the wine tasting!!  I could have done a lunch paired with the different wines but, alas, my time was short that afternoon as I had a plane to catch to return to Bucharest.

Entrance to wine tasting area at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Entrance to wine tasting area

So, a simple wine tasting was it for me.  My favorite:  the dessert wineMargaritar.

Milestii Mici's dessert wine (Moldova)

Nectar of the gods. Or this god, at least.

I love dessert wines and this one delivered!  I waited until I was in duty free at the airport to buy some as I was not clear  on security requirements/constraints at the airport so I did not feel like risking buy a bottle to lose it at the airport…


When I decide to open that dessert wine from Milestii Mici, I will remember that amazing winery with one of the most unique wine cellars I have ever seen!  If you make it to Moldova, do NOT miss Milestii Mici and make sure you also check out Chateau Vartely and other wineries in Moldova!




When the Winery Comes to You – Frog’s Leap Wine Tasting

Normally, I write about going somewhere but Frog’s Leap winery just came to me instead of me going to it – a phenomenal wine tasting with friends and good food!

Since 2001, I have been part of a wine tasting group of friends.  Some have cycled out when they moved out of town but the group has mostly been the same since 2003/2004.  It makes for a great night of tasting wines, catching up, and getting a little silly.  And usually, discovery of some good wines.  This past weekend we had one of these tastings.  And that night was not to be different!

The Setup

Our friends J&J were in charge of the tasting and it was held at my house.  Being in charge meant they picked the theme,  the wine to go with the theme, and munchies to go with the wine (cheeses, chocolate, fruits, etc.).  In 11 yrs we have done “new world” vs. “old world” wines, blind tasting of reds with high typicity (how well a wine represents the grape varietal’s “agreed-upon” traits), wines of country X (“Italian reds”), wine X across several wine regions that make it (“Cabs from Australia, California and Chile”), and so on.

This time, our hosts decided to do wines from one winery.  We had never done that!  They picked Frog’s Leap as J1 is a
Fellow of the Frog“.  I have had Frog’s Leap before (Rutherford!!) and liked it a lot but had not tried, for example, their whites.  So this was going to be a new way of sampling wines for our group.  I linked their site above and it will take you to an intro.  Normally, I skip intros but this one is playful!  Ribbit.  (But don’t go there now – finish reading this and THEN go.)

Frog's Leap wine cork

Cork by Frog’s Leap, Fingers by Schmitt

The Food

As part of the tasting, we have munchies.  Partly so stomachs don’t empty throughout the evening (most people eat a light dinner beforehand), and partly to help the tasting of the wines as some foods help highlight the flavors of the wine (whereas others can make the wine flat; that is part of the learning to do in a wine group!).

What was served?  Well, here, let me tell you…

  • Camembert and Chevre from Calyroad Creamery in Sandy Springs For the apricot/chevre, dried apricots were diced up with the chevre in a food processor.
  • Cheddar – Cabot Reserve Aged Cheddar
  • Prosciutto rolls from Costco
  • Savannah Bee’s Honey from Whole Foods for the cheeses or the prosciutto rolls
  • 3 types of Ghirardelli chocolates
  • Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and dried cherries
  • Baguette from Breadwinner Cafe in Sandy Springs, GA
  • Cucumbers and parsley were from Split Cedar Farm from North Georgia (bought at the Sandy Springs Farmers’ Market)
  • Maine Lobster Dip was from Costco and it was served in cucumber slices!
Lobster dip from Costco served in cucumbers

The Maine lobster dip

Cheese and crackers always good for a wine tasting

Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!

Pistachios served while enjoying a wine tasting of Frog's Leap wines

Pistachios and other items ready for the tasting

Ghirardelli dark chocolate awaiting the start of a wine tasting
Delicious chocolates await us…

The Winery

Briefly, Frog’s Leap was founded in Napa Valley about 30 or so years ago at a place known as Frog Farm.  It is claimed that frogs were raised there for sale to the big city (San Fran).  Don’t worry, that’s a long time ago and the vines are free from any frog-smell!  It produces – organically – both whites and reds, with an annual production as of this writing of about 60,000 cases.  Besides the wine, the next best thing they have is their motto:  “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

The Wines

The moment we have been waiting for:  the wines!  The stars of the evening were:

  • 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2009 Chardonnay
  • 2009 Zinfandel
  • 2007 Merlot
  • 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon


Bottles of Frog's Leap red wines

Half the stars of the show! Let the games begin!

Both Sauvignon Blancs were well received by the group.  Clearly one being 2 yrs younger than the other would translate into more of an edge on the younger one but everyone felt that fit well if you are wanting to drink a white wine outside on a hot day.  It felt more refreshing than the 2011 and someone said it sort of popped on your tongue, alluding to a slight sense of effervescence without actually being effervescent.  The 2009 had nice acidity and stronger fruit flavors – it paired very well with the raspberries but not with the blackberries, something we couldn’t quite understand.  I feel I could drink these on a summer day but also other times of the year with certain dishes, especially strong-flavored fishes (e.g., salmon) as it would help counter those flavors.

The Chardonnay was a pleasant surprise as it wasn’t as oaky as many of us expected – which was good in our book.  It almost had an old world style which explains at least why I liked it as I generally do not like California Chardonnays but do like French ones.  It had a buttery sensation to it but it was not too strong along with good fruit flavors.  Very mineral and crisp.  We noted the pistachios went well with it.

We moved on to the reds at this point and first in line:  the Zinfandel.  It had a nice bouquet and light tannins.  While it has a spicy start, it was not overly spicy.  We found out it went well with the raspberries too.  As with the prior wines, it had a short finish.  I really enjoyed this Zinfandel.

On the Merlot, I can tell you it was the one wine the majority said was their favorite of the group because it felt well-balanced.  It went really well with Ghirardelli’s Cabernet Matinee which we kept calling Cabernet Manatee (initially, someone WAS really confused!).  It had a strong scent of grapes and probably the strongest finish of the group.  Probably the extra years helped make it the favorite – wine, after all, gets better with age!

Finally, we hit the Cabernet Sauvignon.  It had strong flavors of cherry and wasn’t a full-bodied red which pleased most in the group though a couple of us gravitate towards full-bodied reds.  It was well-balanced like the Merlot and a pleasure to drink.

What struck us all was how good the wines were across the board.  One cannot go wrong choosing any Frog’s Leap wine, it seems, and that is good to know!  Now we all think we are fellows of the frog (lower case as it is unofficial) and continue to be best friends with the Fellow of the Frog in the group, J1, for having chosen well and introduced us more fully to this winery.

And the Non-Sensical!

Oh, and what is a wine tasting with this group (or others, I am sure) without the non-sensical things that are said or done.  OK, not all are for this blog, and not all do I remember why they were said (except I jotted them down in my handy notepad) but they are part of what makes a wine tasting with friends so much more fun than one at another venue.  A very small sample to keep this blog from being banned… and to protect the innocent:

  • Reminiscing about a wine someone had had elsewhere, the descriptor was “sweaty sock” – wish I knew what wine that was to not try it!
  • Overheard:  “Can you pour some honey on my prosciutto?”
  • Overheard:  “Come from the backside”
  • All fun and games until someone breaks a chair…

The main explanation of the non-sensical:

Before and after at a wine tasting of Frog's Leap wines

Before and after…


If you are interested in starting a group like ours, feel free to drop me a note here or in my Facebook page

How I Roll – The ABCs of Travel

A set of questions about my approach to travel – fascinating set!   Posted by Leah (check out her post: who in turn received it from someone else who got it from someone else, … you get the pic.  Thanks, Leah!  And in turn, I will say other important “thanks” as I respond.  Here it goes!

A. Age you went on your first international trip

Technically going to PR from Miami as a toddler doesn’t count since it is U.S. territory…  My first trip abroad was when I was eleven.  I went to visit my aunt and her family in Panama.  I went with my grandmother and my sister.  It was SO cool.  We flew to Miami and then to Panama.  We either flew Eastern or Pan Am to Miami but it must have been the latter since we then flew Pan Am to our final destination.  I remember my grandmother was a little nervous.  I?  I was on an adventure!  I remember that on the Pan Am flight to Panama (that’s an alliteration!) each passenger was given a small bottle of wine (not the mini ones but maybe a 0.5L bottle) – and that included, apparently, 11 yr olds too!  My grandmother made me give it to my uncle once I arrived in Panama since I clearly couldn’t drink it.  I knew she was right but I sorta felt cheated…  Thanks, Abuela!

B. Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where

A Belgian Trappist beer called Chimay.  The blue label one.  It then became my goal to get a Chimay glass (way before they started selling them).  I got one but to hear the story, well, I will have to tell you in person because I am not typing how I got it 😉  Just want to say, thanks Joy!

I first tasted it when I lived in France in 1999.  Upon my return to the wonderful state of Georgia, I discovered that it was not sold here because of its higher alcohol content.  Ridiculous!  A co-worker who commuted every week to Atlanta from DC would bring me a batch every so often in her carry-on (this was in 2000).  Now THAT is a friend.  We are still friends today, needless to say – thanks, Laura!  (P.S. – A few years ago Georgia left the Middle Ages and I can get Chimay here any time I want.  Thanks, legislators.)

C.  Cuisine – favorite

Well, duh, Cuban!  All that garlic, pork, fried stuff, and black beans.  I am working myself into hunger as I type…  Italian is a good runner up for sure.  And could I turn down Peruvian??  But Cuban it is.  My Mom cooks it VERY well.  She must have learned from her grandmother, whom we called Doña as kids for some reason.  I remember her cooking still.  For teaching her granddaughters to cook well so I could enjoy Cuban food, thanks Doña!

D.  Destinations:  favorite, least favorite, and why

Favorite:  Chilean Patagonia followed closely by the southern island of New Zealand.  Why?  Breathtaking examples of God’s work.  A+!  Check the pix out!  Thanks, God.

Cueva del Milodón in Chile's Patagonia

View from la Cueva del Milodón

Least favorite:  I tend to find something I like about most places.  It may not be pretty but the people make it likable, or the food, or who I was traveling with.  But if I search for places that didn’t impress me (not that I did not like being there), Copenhagen was one.   It had some nice things, it wasn’t unlikable.  But it seemed bland (maybe I was comparing it to Stockholm and Oslo which did impress me).  Beijing was an absolute disappointment with the terrible pollution.  Of course, it had some sites that were worth seeing but overall as a city, my least favorite.  San Marino seemed to be only a duty-free zone or a tourist trap zone, except for the church.  Oh, I was the one in the group who wanted to drive through it – and I heard it a few times…  Thanks, Me.

E.  Event you experienced above that made you say “wow”

Several things come to mind.  Seeing Holy Week processions and events in Malta was pretty awesome.  Being in Chile during a historical year:  first time in the World Cup in 40 odd years, a historical election seeing the right come to power for the first time since the dictatorship ended, the trapped miners, the massive and terrible earthquake, and there was a fifth one but it escapes me… Seeing the emotion of Chileans watching their national team with such joy was a wow.  Seeing the very civilized behaviors between election winner and loser (which made me feel for my country…) was a wow.  I wasn’t there on the day of the earthquake otherwise that would have won THE wow.  But being there for the miners’ rescue was one of those moments that truly was a wow.  Gracias, Chile!

F.  Favorite mode of transportation

Well, a plane.  I don’t totally enjoy the ride but when time is limited, nothing like getting there fast!  First class preferred, of course.  Thanks, Wright bros.

G.  Greatest feeling when traveling

Discovering something new that blows me away.  Like the landscapes of southern New Zealand.  Or phenomenal hole-in-the-wall eateries like La Porta in Montecchiello in Tuscany.  Thanks to my passport!

Osteria La Porta, Montecchiello in Tuscany, Italy

Osteria La Porta, Montecchiello

H.  Hottest place you have traveled to

At the World Expo in Sevilla in 1992 it was over 40C (over 104F).  That ranks up there though my hometown sometimes can feel hotter than hell.  Well, really, it is because of the humidity.  Thanks, H2O

I.  Incredible service you have experienced and where

Quite a few but in my over 20 round trips to Chile a couple of years ago, I tended to coincide with a flight crew every other week or so.  These flight attendants took GREAT care of me, even though I flew coach.  Let’s just say, at some point, I no longer was served coach wine…  Thanks, Delta for having flight attendants that know how to treat your valuable frequent flyers even when your rules prevent the Delta staff from doing the right thing…

J.  Journey that took the longest

I would like to say going to Australia but that wasn’t the longest.  Nor was it driving from Atlanta to Denver with my college roommate.  My actual longest journey was when I went to Tanzania.  I went with work, an international NGO, so I thought I had to absolutely get the cheapest possible itinerary.  So I ended with a 2-stop (not awful per se) trip to get to Dar es Salaam (via London and Dubai; a 6 and 9 hr layover respectively).  I learned later that policy was to get the cheapest flight with a reasonable duration which meant I could have gone for the cheapest 1-stop route…   Overall the journey was over 30 hrs. and I was supremely beat though when I landed in Dar, the tiredness dissipated for a little bit as I soaked in everything around me!  Thanks, former employer for laying out the rules clearly – grrrr….

K.  Keepsake from your travels

I always bring back money from the countries I visit for me and for kids I know.  I do it to perhaps stir curiosity of the world in them much as stamps did for me when I was a kid.  I also mail post cards (though not many) to share a little of trip with people close to me.  Other than that, photos, photos, and more photos!  On occasion, if I find a particular item that grabs a hold of me, then I get it.  But I am not a big shopper usually because it means I have to carry it all back!  One of my prized acquisitions was a wood carving I bought at Los Dominicos in Santiago, Chile.  Gracias, Señor Salazar.

L.  Let-down sight, why and where

Stonehenge, hands down.  A pile of big stones, yes, put up by people long ago for mystical/spiritual purposes when there wasn’t machinery to make things easy.  But it wasn’t just that.  The place is cordoned off so you watch them from a distance.  Not that touching them would mean something but if I could have walked amongst them or at least get close enough to “feel” their size.  It’s not like watching the Great Pyramids at a distance.  It is watching large stones at a distance.  It is not watching the giant heads in Easter Island.  Those are carved.  It is watching large stones at a distance.  Get it?  But, of course, I am glad I saw them so no one can tell about them.  Thanks to my college roommate, Andreas, for driving us there and checking it off the list.  One-and-done. No repeat visit.  (P.S. – I am not sure if I have been clear on what I think about Stonehenge…)

M.  Moment where you fell in love with travel

None.  I was born loving travel as far as I can tell.  The thrill of going somewhere new, exploring.  Or of getting back to a place I really like (Paris, Chile, Venice).  Now the wanderlust was created by my childhood hobby of stamp collecting.  I wanted to know about all these places, I relished seeing new stamps that told me something about each country.  I HAD to see them!  Thanks to my Mom, Dad, tío Ernesto and all those who used to save stamps for me for supporting me in this hobby that stirred this passion!  (Hence, the wallpaper on my Twitter page!)

N.  Nicest hotel you have stayed in

I would say the Four Seasons in Dallas but it was an overnight stay for work and I arrived very late the night before.  The Loew’s in Miami Beach for a work conference was very nice.  But my favorite was the Boca Raton Beach Resort where we went a couple of years for work “retreats”.  Thanks, Andersen Consulting!

O.  Obsession, what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling

In one trip to Italy, I was obsessed with capturing a nun in motion (her habits flowing as she walked).  I didn’t take any great picture.  That I knew of…  When I got home and developed the film, a nun had crossed the street in one of my pix.  You see, I must have missed the fact she was there because I was switching lenses to take a picture of the same view with and without zoom lens to see how the two pix would contrast.  I probably was so engrossed in not dropping the lens I wasn’t using and in focusing on the arch far away that I missed what was in front of me:  a nun in motion!  Thanks, miracle nun!

But that was only for that trip.  Generally, I like to take pictures of people doing nothing in particular.  Just walking, sitting, being…  But I have developed a little interest in taking pictures of people taking or posing for pictures for others when I go to very touristy areas.  It is interesting to watch people touristing!

Happiness at the feet of the Torres del Paine in Chile's Patagonia

P.  Passport stamps – how many and from where

In the current passport or in all my passports??!!  I do not plan to count them, especially since one very full passport was stolen during a home break-in a dozen years ago.  Plus I have more than one stamp of some countries.  Which led to requiring new pages added to the passport…  Thanks Chile for stamping my passport EACH AND EVERY time I entered and departed 26 times in 2010…

I have visited 49 countries and thanks to the breakup of Yugoslavia, in April I won’t just hit 50, I will get to 52!  Thanks, Marshall Tito!

Q.  Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where

I want to say somewhere in the middle of Kansas through one of my drives to/from Boulder.  But nothing comes to mind.  Or something in Central Florida.  That sounds right, right?  The Big Chicken in Marietta – is that an attraction or just a fast food place?  Thanks to no one for quirky attractions.

R.  Recommended sight, event, or experience

Leah said the Scavi tour under St. Peter’s Basilica and I would agree.  I have done it twice but will pass on this next trip to Rome.  Other things to see!  The Great Pyramids are an obvious answer to this.  In terms of views, seeing Rio from the Corcovado is tops.  The view of Cape Town from Table Mountain is also outstanding.  And experiencing the peacefulness and breathtaking landscapes of the Chilean Patagonia rounds up my answer.  Thanks to these eyes for letting me soak it all in…

Looking at Cape Point in the Cape of Good Hope in Africa

Outstanding views near the Cape of Good Hope! (Cape Point)

S.  Splurge, something you have no problem forking over for while traveling

A great meal!!  I don’t mean going to the Maxim’s or some other fancy-schmancy restaurant.  I mean at a local place with great food like La Porta in Montecchielo or the restaurant in Venice we so enjoyed or at Cuero Vaca in Santiago.  Once I am there, the price on the menu is ignored.  Oh, that’s for the food part.  You DO have to look at the price of a bottle of wine – don’t intend to fork $500 any time soon for a bottle of wine – plenty of good stuff out there for much less thanks to many great winemakers!

T.  Touristy thing you’ve done

Throwing a coin over my shoulder in the Trevi Fountain in Rome to make sure I return!  But it has worked twice already!  Grazie, Trevi!  Bella!

U.  Unforgettable travel memory

A few for sure.  Typically when standing in front of magnificent scenery many of which I have cited above and many that I have left out.  Another is my first helicopter ride to see the 12 Apostles near Melbourne and then my second ride to land on Franz Josef Glacier in NZ.

But one of the most unforgettable travel memories for me is when I walked into the room where the future John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland.  There was a large picture of him as a toddler and I got goose bumps thinking who would have told that child, that family, those neighbors that this child would become a giant in the faith of millions and a giant in the battle against oppression in the Communist world, etc.  It hit me that the potential of ANY child is about infinite.  It only starts narrowing with every passing year, depending on circumstances, education, health, etc.  Very unexpected moment for me.

V.  Visas, how many and for where?

One, from CapitalOne.  What’s in your wallet?

W.  Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?

A glass or two of Sauternes at of Chateau Sahuc-Lestours.  We randomly visited this winery and met the owners who sat down with us to sip Sauternes (they sipped, I almost gulped) in the garden of their home/winery.  At the end of the visit, they corked the unlabelled bottle we had drunk, and gave it to us (plus the bottle we each had bought).  Fast forward 8 yrs, and I return.  The husband wasn’t there but the wife was.  I recounted not only the visit but the things they had told us and she knew it was true that I had been there before.  I don’t recall her name but we called her Margaret on that first visit for some reason.  Merci beaucoup et au revoir, Margaret!

X.  eXcellent view and from where?

So I mentioned earlier the views from Corcovado in Rio, Table Mountain in Cape Town, and any view in Chilean Patagonia.  I will add:

–   the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower which puts all of Paris at your footsteps

–   the view from Pienza in Tuscany where you can see the rolling hills of the region and the neighboring mountain town

–  the view as you fly over the Andes – endless mountain range (and I mean east-west, not just north-south!)

–  the view from my apt building in Paris:  the Arc d’Triomphe almost right across the street with the Eiffel Tower behind it in the distance

–  the view from the executive lounge of the Santiago Marriott at sunset looking at the Andes

and I could keep on going… thanks for letting me list more than one!

Crossing the Andes

Flying over the glorious Andes

Y.  Years spent traveling

Since I was a toddler ilivetotravel!   My first trip to Europe was when I was 25.  Kids are spoiled today, they get to go younger, thanks to deregulation.  Who says deregulation is bad???

Z.  Zealous sports fans and where?

Have never been to a World Cup.  Have been to a World Series game but, it is baseball.  Have been to 2 Olympics.  But the best memory is watching fans of many countries who made it to the 2010 World Cup work together and compare notes as the World Cup took place was fun.  Unfortunately, my bragging rights ended on the earlier side so then it was fun to throw ambers on the fires around me 🙂  Those Brazilians, Chileans, Spanish, Argentines, and Mexicans definitely showed zealotry and good spirit.  Thanks to my client in Chile for installing flat screen TVs around the building so people could peek at matches during work hours.

Thanks for reading some or all of the above!! 

Just as I was tagged, I get to tag others. So…

Pola at

Tawny at

Henie at

Mark at


Photo of the Week – Grapes of Bordeaux

Visiting Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou in St. Julien was a neat experience since we got a private tour.  But, of course, my eyes go to the grapes and the vines.  Thinking how these little round things will produce a wonderful liquid for us humans to enjoy…  This picture is to not me about perfection in photographic technique but about the grapes, full of color, full of pulp, and ready to be taken…

grapes, vine, Bordeaux, France


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