Italy 2017: Bologna

Wednesday

After checking into our hotel we headed out to explore the town. But first, we needed some lunch, so we stopped into a small deli, Borgo979.

Borgo979 (snacks and wine)

They had a number of tigella, 4″ round flatbreads, with various fillings or on the side. We choose three filled tigella (ham, mushroom/truffle, sausage) and then several with an antipasti platter. Our server was very nice, a little baffled by us in our first hours of Italy. Leandra paired hers with a Lambrusco, and I with a pignoletto (white).

After filling up we walked around town, stopping to check out the landmark Two Towers.

Bologna  one of the two towers has a bit of a lean

Just next door was the well-regarded il Gelato di San Crispino Valrhona, so we tried out first gelatos of the trip and were not disappointed at all! I choose a chocolate, coffee and stracciatella for my three flavors, while Leandra went for the ginger and cinnamon. From there we walked along the scenic side streets to the Piazza Maggiore.

Bologna

The Basilica di San Petronio dominates one side of the piazza – the outside is a strange mix of brick and marble. Free entry, but they wanted 2 euros for photo pass… nah.

Basilica di San Petronio

Since it was our first day we headed back to the hotel for nap.

Refreshed, we started our evening with wine at Medulla Vini. Though empty when we arrived it filled up after 7p. The lone person working the bar took his time with each group, discussing the various options and providing small tastes. My Prosecco was yeasty and dry, quite pleasant, so I went with that. Leandra liked her red, which started fruity and became more intense and dry over time. Interestingly, they fill jugs here too – 7eu for 1.5 L is a great deal!

Medulla Vini

With only one meal in Bologna we decided to go traditional and choose Ristorante Donatello. This was a big dinner, with primi and secondi! Given where we were, I had to try the Ragu Bolognese and cutlet Bolognese (in a white sauce), and both were great. Leandra started with the Parmesan risotto – a little al dente for her tastes. Her secondi was carpaccio, though here it was a large slice of meat covered in mountain of Parmesan slices and arugula. We split a lemon sorbetto to finish – rich, acidic and creamy, yum, one of the most memorable tastes of the trip. The entire interior is covered with signed photographs that go many years back… made for some interesting viewing!

beef carpaccio hiding under a mound of fresh parmesan  Ristorante Donatello

Thursday

Leandra and my dad went to cooking class in the morning. Given the nice day I wanted to climb the 498 steps of the tower.

It was worth it:

view from the top of Two Towers

steep wooden stairs...  top of Two Towers

view from the top of Two Towers

Afterwards I went back to the hotel to pick up my mom so we could explore more of the old town. We were disappointed in the lack of water in the canals, but we found several other beautiful spots including the Basilica di San Domenico.

Basilica di San Domenico  Basilica di San Domenico

typical covered walkway in Bologna

On our way back we stopped for a drink at Rosarose Bistrot, where I tried my first pecorino wine of the trip – I liked the pecorino quite a bit, a nice mineral and stone fruit character, and ended up finding it in several other places on the trip. We were lucky to score an outdoor table and quite enjoyed watching the mix of tourists, Italians, and the occasional motor vehicle going through the laneway. Several snacks came with our drinks which made for a nice light lunch too!

Italy 2017: overview

Last summer (2016) we noticed several good sales to Europe, so we contacted my parents to see if they wanted to go on another trip with us. Italy was their favorite option so we booked a week-long trip starting in Bologna and ending in Rome. They’ve traveled with us before so they knew what they were getting into! We ended up spending one night in Bologna, three in Florence and three in Rome.

Tidbits:

  • Bologna has lots of covered walkways with beautiful stone floors.
  • If you are on the train in Economy Plus, you must get your snack and drink on their first pass, otherwise it costs money.
  • In March the crowds weren’t too bad, so we probably didn’t need to pre-purchase our Vatican and Uffizi tickets.
  • Watching people park in Rome is oddly fascinating, as it takes quite a bit of skill and daring to get into some of the available ‘spots.’
  • Unexpectedly, we enjoyed Rome more than Florence.

Where we stayed

Hotel Metropolitan, Bologna

This hotel was in a really good location for us — a 5 minute walk to the main piazza and less than 10 minutes to the train station. Check-in was quick and both rooms were ready before 10am. The front desk was quite friendly, providing suggestions to sights around and town and making a dinner reservation at Donatello’s for us.

Our room was on the smaller side with a white leather couch and a reasonably comfortable bed. We faced the alley, and while traffic on the nearby road was light, we could easily hear each vehicle go by. The interior of the hotel was also noisy with quite a few banging doors early in the morning. All of that was even more surprising since the interiors felt new, so we thought the door and window would have been better sealed. We definitely suggest earplugs.

Hotel Metropolitan  our room @ Hotel Metropolitan 

The bathroom shower was fairly large but suffered from weak pressure, and given the setup, water tends to leak on the floor. Our room featured a tub that looked nice but we didn’t get a chance to try it.

Breakfast was OK – fruit, yogurt, toast. Unfortunately the milk was spoiled so cereal was a no-go. Good number of pastries, and coffees made to order were good.

Overall, the hotel has a great location and was fine for a night – we’d consider other options for a longer stay.

Residenza Castiglioni, Florence

Residenza Castiglioni is a small B&B occupying part of the third floor in a mixed-use building. It was only a few minutes walk from the train station, and about five minutes to the main plaza for Santa Maria. Getting in is a bit involved with a locked gate and an (slow) elevator or stairs. Once we made it to reception we were assigned four keys to get into the building and room!

Our rooms were just off the reception room and rather stuffy. Thankfully, the big windows open wide for air movement. The room itself was a good size with a wardrobe in one corner, a small chair in the other, and a teeny TV over the desk by the window. Bathroom was fine, a little small but serviceable.

room #25 @ Residenza Castiglioni  bathroom @ Residenza Castiglioni

We had two main problems here. One, the windows were not sealed, so it was very noisy at night – we could easily hear the dishwashing from the restaurant down the street for example. Plus, internal noise started at 7am with breakfast setup. Earplugs are definitely needed here.

Secondly, the wifi was terrible. The main option was to login with your social media. Right away that feels sketchy, but even worse, it just wouldn’t work for our phones. After 20 minutes of struggling we went back to the front desk and got a passcode from the reluctant front desk person. Once we were on the network we still needed to login every time we returned to the room and the service was slow.

Breakfast was OK – a few cheese and meat options, cereal, and some pastries. Coffee and hot chocolate was quite good, and served with a smile(y face).

 
our assortment of keys; latte with a smiley face

Overall there were too many issues, and we would definitely not return to this B&B.

Om2Rome

Om2Rome is in the Prati neighborhood of Rome, near the Vatican, and about 10min walk to the metro. Once again, this B&B is in a mixed-use building, with business offices on other floors.  Both reception people were quite friendly and had several good pieces of advice for exploring town (where to catch bus for coliseum, restaurants, taxi, etc.)

We were assigned room 16, quite good-sized with minimal contemporary furniture: bed (firm but comfortable), desk, small nightstands.  One of the nicest parts was the large terrace looking onto an interior courtyard. Thankfully this room was very quiet!

 

Breakfast was very small – toast and croissants, with a few other items. Weakest offerings of the trip, but it’s so easy to find tasty food in Italy that it wasn’t a big deal. The space was tight when there were a few people eating at the same time but the room was whimsically decorated.

We would suggest wine glasses and corkscrew in rooms, or at least accessible. Also note that this was the only place we stayed in Italy without a fridge but it got chilly at night so we kept the bottle of wine out on the patio.

Overall, we enjoyed our stay at Om2Rome and would definitely consider them for a future stay.

Winter Weekend in London: Sunday

For our last day in London we planned an itinerary that took us to four separate neighborhoods. First, we walked along Bayswater Road for the weekly Sunday Art Exhibition. Unfortunately, not many artists were displaying by 10am due to weather. We’ll need to re-try at a different time of year perhaps.

Bayswater Road Sunday Art Exhibition

Next up was Islington. Our original plan was to use the Lancaster Gate tube station, which we found closed. A quick check of Google maps suggested the 274 bus so we hopped on. The 30 minute ride gave us a new view of several neighborhoods that we normally miss on the underground and dropped us off within a block of our first street art stop.

We got off the bus in Barnsbury, then walked to Islington, looking for street art. We did find some murals, but it looked like many had been painted over. Overall, a bit disappointing compared to other neighborhoods in London.

london-extra-6

london-extra-7  hubba hubba!

I had picked out a French Bistro for lunch, Le Sacre Coeur, but it was mysteriously closed at noon despite the hours on their sign stating otherwise. Thankfully, there were several neighboring restaurants open, and we opted for the bustling Spanish place, La Farola, on the corner. Trendy (lots of customers with yoga pants and hipster haircuts), but friendly service and tasty food.

 

La Farola

From Islington we took another bus down to South Bank/Waterloo, first to see the Falling Shawls exhibit, then to procure a Cadbury Creme Egg s’more!

Falling Shawls exhibit @ Southbank Centre

Cadbury Creme Egg S'mores!  Beware of Poachers

On the way back to the room we had a quick stop at V&A Museum to check out a few exhibits we missed on the previous visit.

For the afternoon we knew we wanted to try Gordon’s Wine Bar and their famous basement cave. We got there around 4pm and managed to grab the last empty table! Leandra’s Aunt Kim met us for wine and a delicious cheese tray a short time later. All food and wine is ordered at the bar and then you bring it to your table. The cheese guy was chatty and helpful, offering Leandra generous samples so she could choose a cheese. For wines, there is a good selection by the glass, and a fairly extensive bottle selection that was reasonably priced. Additionally, they did have a good selection of sherries. Definitely recommended if you can get a table.

drinking wine in the cave @ Gordon's Wine Bar

  wine and cheese @ Gordon's Wine Bar

Around 6:30p we bid our goodbyes and walked up the street to Piccadilly Circus to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Great word-play, sight gags, and overall silliness had us gasping for breath at parts and elicited several rounds of applause from the highly amused audience. We absolutely loved it, and a great way to end our weekend in London!

Winter Weekend in London: Overview and Thursday

In November we found an outstanding deal for the direct flight from RDU to London, so we booked a long weekend trip for February. London is a favorite city to visit (2016201520142013, 2012…) so we knew it wouldn’t be hard to fill our time! For this trip we based ourselves near the Earl’s Court tube stop and focused on culture (museums and theater) and exploring a few new-to-us neighborhoods (Little Venice and Angel/Islington).

Where We Stayed

This was our third stay at the Hotel Indigo and it was fraught with issues. Our room was ready at 8:30am which was a huge bonus. However, we were located in the basement through a series of fire doors and uneven steps; our location also meant that the window was below ground and next to the sidewalk, so we had the curtains drawn the whole time. The air vent in the room rattled on and off consistently for our entire four-night stay (even after complaining to the front deck twice), and the internet was spotty at best (with multiple trips to the front desk for fixes – they said they were getting a new provider soon).  On the upside, the bed was comfortable, and as usual, the location works well for us.

our bedroom @ Hotel Indigo London - Kensington  our personalized message
our room; even the TV’s personalized room message was broken

Thursday

Our flight across the pond was uneventful and after checking in we headed out into the brisk morning to Borough Market for cheese, bread and snacks. But first! The iconic views of London — Big Ben and the London Eye.

Big Ben and Westminsterthe Eye (sponsored by Coca Cola) 

We also wanted to check out the Leake Street graffiti tunnel. There were a few choice murals and paste-ups but mostly basic tagging.

gas mask  El Trumpo

make my day  he's mine at least 

A few stops later on the Jubilee line and we arrived at Borough Market just as things were opening to pick up a second breakfast. We found fresh raspberries, British cheese and a baguette, plus a Venison meat stick for Leandra, which she snacked on for the remainder of the trip.

tasty cheese @ Borough Market cheese @ Borough Market

We stopped in briefly to the Southwark Cathedral to see if we could eat our lunch in the courtyard but no food was allowed. Instead we admired the architecture and the sleepy resident cat curled up on a comfy chair near the altar.

Wooden Effigy of a Knight @ Southwark Cathedral

Another few stops on the Jubilee line took us to Canary Wharf and the Museum of London Docklands. Free, as most museums are in London, this museum explained the interesting history of London along the Thames – development, labor strikes, WWII, etc, with lots of displays and artifacts across the centuries. We enjoyed our visit to this quirky museum, and would definitely recommend it for history buffs.

It was terribly windy in London on Thursday but nowhere more so than the docklands around the museum. Crossing the North Dock footbridge to the museum and waiting for the West India Quay Overground train left us completely wind-blown.

Dragging after the long overnight flight, we headed back to the room for a quick nap, then beers at our old favorite, Cask Pub & Kitchen. We arrived just in time to grab a table and the place filled up quickly as people got off from work. Leandra choose small pours of the Atom Neutron Star, an imperial stout, and the Tiny Rebel Dirty Stop Out, a smoked oat stout. I was very happy that one of my favorite beers was on tap, Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus, so that was a definite first for me. For my second, I tried the Wyper & True Mimosa, a Berliner Weisse that was a bit too light after my delicious lambic.

dressed up for beers @ Cask Pub & Kitchen  red, blonde and dark beers
Leandra in a dress (!) drinking beer; a red, a blonde and a brunette

Finally, we met Kim and Jules for late dinner at Boisdale of Belgravia, a boisterous restaurant with live jazz and a Scottish menu. Pricey but classy and tasty.

jazz @ Boisdale of Belgravia

After a long day we slept very well that evening!

2016 Travel Overview

Previous years-in-review – 201520142013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009

Some of our travel stats for the year:

  • 82k total air miles on 11 airlines: American Airlines, Southwest, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Dragon Air, Air New Zealand, Vietnam Airlines, Etihad, Qatar, Icelandair, and Jetblue.
  • 11 countries visited: we returned to the UK, New Zealand, and Spain, plus we added several new-to-us: Oman, UAE (Abu Dhabi), Vietnam, and Iceland (marking our 40th country visited!)
  • Domestically, we made return trips to San Diego, Chicago, New York, Portland, Florida and Asheville.

2016_travelmap

And, of course, our 2016 end of year video featuring “Search Party” by Sam Bruno. Enjoy!

Leandra’s 40th: Silver Falls State Park

We’ve been wanting to go to Silver Falls State Park since our very first trip to Oregon, but it always fell off the list for one reason or another. This trip we set out to rectify our previous oversite, setting out early on Sunday morning. After 1.5 hours of back country roads (and a quick stop for gas) we arrived at the south station where we procured a parking pass via credit card, then headed to the smaller North Falls Trailhead lot to hike to the first two falls. Since it was early we easily snagged a parking spot and began our walk of the ~1 mile top loop.

Upper North Falls @ Silver Falls State Park North Falls @ Silver Falls State Park
Upper North Falls, North Falls

Looking at the trail map we figured we could save our feet a mile or two if we hiked to the next set of falls from the Winter Falls Trailhead. Lucky for us, we managed to get the last spot (of about 8).

so strong!  Middle North Falls @ Silver Falls State ParkMiddle North Falls @ Silver Falls State Park  no trail

Six falls in a four mile hike is a great day for us!

On our way out of the park we stopped back at the South Falls lot, which at noon was now quite busy and filling up rapidly. As to be expected given the parking lot, South Falls itself was very busy with lots of families, strollers, and dogs. Thankfully it was still (barely) in the shade.

South Falls @ Silver Falls State Park

Since we had a wine tasting reservation that afternoon we skipped Lower South Falls in favor of a shower. Overall, Silver Falls State Park was a great day trip, with quite a dense collection of falls and views. We definitely need to get back on a future trip, perhaps at a different time of year with more water flow.

Leandra’s 40th: Mt. Hood

On this trip to Oregon we originally intended to spend Friday wine tasting in Willamette Valley. However, with an expected temperature of 95F, we decided to escape to a higher elevation in search of cooler temperatures.

After a 1h drive, plus a bit of camp traffic, we parked at the Little Zigzag Falls trailhead and made the short half mile round-trip hike to a beautifully shady falls with very cool water, quite refreshing on a warm day.

Little Zigzag Falls

Our next stop was Mirror Lake, a moderately strenuous 1.5 mile uphill (o/w) hike. Most of the trail takes you through forest, but eventually loops around the small Mirror Lake. As the name indicates, there are nice views of Mt. Hood, plus lots of flowers (and bugs!) too.

Mirror Lake living up to its name

in bloom   wildlife

Now mid afternoon, were ready for a bit of shade, so we stopped at Glacier Haus Bistro in Government Camp for a snack of croquettes for me and house-smoked salmon for Leandra. After the Mirror Lake hike and the dry conditions the free water outside was quite welcome!

Refreshed, we headed to the trail-head for Umbrella and Sahalie falls. Both can be accessed via a 4.7 mile hike, or as we found out, you can drive much closer! From the main parking area we did the one mile roundtrip hike to Sahale Falls, where I clambered down the cliffside to a rocky overlook while Leandra stayed on the trail and swatted flies.

Sahale Falls

Alternatively, you can continue driving along the Elk Meadows trail road to the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, and as you drive over a small stone bridge you will see Sahale Falls on your right.

If you continue up that same road there is a small pull-out just before the resort parking area with a small trail through the meadow. The trail to the beautifully bendy Umbrella Falls is maybe .2 miles, and winds through a meadow that was in full bloom in mid-August.

wildflower meadow

Umbrella Falls

And the view of Mt. Hood is quite excellent too.

Mt Hood

By now it was late afternoon, so we began driving back to Newberg. On the way we stopped to try the beers at Bunsenbrewer. I enjoyed the Wit (cinnamon and coriander) and Leandra sampled the tasty sour stout.

Beeriodic Table menu @ Bunsenbrewer

On the way we fortuitously saw a sign for the Jonsrud View Point, and it was quite picturesque.

Mt Hood from the Jonsrud View Point

Knowing we wouldn’t get to Newberg until after dark, and fearing most of the restaurants would be closed, we decided to stop at Oregon City Brewing for some pretzels and and apricot sour for me, plus a porter for Leandra.

beers @ Oregon City Brewing

All told, a pleasant day trip to escape the unexpected heat.