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: Saturday

We were hoping to see another show on our trip and checking the usual discount ticket sites wasn’t getting us the results we wanted for Saturday evening. The Gielgud Theatre offers £15 same day tickets for the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so we made the trek to stand in line before the 10am ticket office opening. We were the tenth or so group in line but there were only restricted view seats left for the 7th group onward, so we decided to skip it. We probably needed to be there ~30 minutes earlier to get the better offers.

There was a Whole Foods nearby so I used that opportunity to pick up a large box of my favorite tea — Teapigs peppermint — and we stopped by Simit Sarayi for breakfast, a chocolate simit (Eric) and meat pie (me).

When we sat down in Piccadilly Circus to eat our snacks, we noticed a play called “The Comedy About A Bank Robbery” at the The Criterion Theatre. Curious, we stopped inside to view ticket prices and decided to try our luck online for the following evening. Back in our room we searched for tickets and thought we had found a good option when I noticed a discount code for half-off tickets on “Band A” seats for Sunday performances. Luckily, we managed to snag two excellent seats for about £25 each, half the price we had expected to pay!

Feeling a bit giddy, we hopped on the Tube to Paddington station to meet Eric’s UK co-workers for lunch.

me with Paddington Bear!
I could not pass up the opportunity to pose with Paddington!

From Paddington Station, we walked up to Little Venice for lunch and drinks at The Bridge House. This area of London was previously unexplored by us and we found the old canals with lots of small gardens quiet and quaint.

a moody day for walking around Little Venice

Just a few minutes walk away has created a very modern steel and glass corridor as well.

Paddington Basin

The weather was definitely not in our favor, so after wandering around looking for the ‘snail’ bridge (hard to find due to construction and then it was locked down. Disappointing) we took shelter at The Mad Bishop & Bear pub inside Paddington Station for more conversation before they headed back toward Reading.

We relaxed in the room for a while before deciding to visit the Tate Modern Museum since it was open until 11pm and we weren’t quite ready for dinner at 7pm. While the Tate Modern is not our favorite museum, as quite a few pieces induce eye-rolling for their ‘artfulness,’ several sections were still enjoyable.

Tate Museum artwork

Plus, the views of London at night are always good.

London at night

London at night

Working up an appetite, we walked to dinner at Est. India. My house lamb curry was very good, with a nice bit of spice. The tikka masala that Eric ordered was OK, a little sweet and underspiced, but with a generous amount of chicken. Eric found that mixing in a bit of my spicier sauce helped his dish considerably. My rose was a good choice with the heavier curry and Eric’s Hitachino Nest White Ale was also good. The restaurant itself was very loud due to a few boisterous tables around us so I wouldn’t recommend this place for a romantic dinner date, but it worked for a quick dinner.

Winter Weekend in London: Friday

Friday was definitely a day of culture! First up was the famous Natural History Museum, with all manner of mineral, animals, and lots of other science. I spent a half day here a couple years back when I had the day to myself waiting for Eric to fly in from France, so I wanted to show him around. Unsurprisingly, there were a LOT of school groups in attendance, so we tried to choose rooms they weren’t in…

what do scientists do?
hard to tell, really

A few hours later we got hungry so we walked a few blocks to the nearby Gloucester Arms for lunch, where we split a meat and ale pie.

Next up was a quick visit to the V&A Museum, specifically to see the small Beatrix Potter illustrations exhibit. I had no idea she was such an accomplished illustrator at such a young age!

Beatrix Potter @ V&A Museum 

After this we split up for a few hours… Eric walked through Green Park, then ducked into National Gallery to hang out with a few masterpieces by Monet, Van Gogh, etc. Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene, a special exhibit, was quite impressive.

London  Memorial

Meanwhile, I met my Aunt Kim at London Fashion Week for some ‘window’ shopping and the Mother of Pearl catwalk show. We had far less time than my experience three years ago at the Somerset House location, but I still enjoyed hanging out with my aunt and admiring the clothes and bags. Next time we need the full day to experience the champagne bar and complimentary manicures! :)

London Fashion Week

We had regular tickets for the catwalk show but a nice lady in front of us had two extra front row seats and gave them to us. We thanked her and hurried across the aisle just before the show started.

selfie w/ my aunt  London Fashion Week - Mother of Pearl catwalk
my aunt Kim and I; women who are way taller than me wearing expensive clothes

After the show, I texted Eric and he sent me his location (a wine bar) via Google Maps – love it! I covered the half-mile walk through crowds in about ten minutes, picked up the hubby and headed over to The Duke of York’s Theatre to see The Glass Menagerie, a Tennessee Williams play. The acting was mostly good (the brother was the weakest part, IMHO) but I really love the play so I was probably more into it than Eric was. For the price, I still think it was a good way to spend a few hours. We had third row seats in the first balcony and could really appreciate the staging from up there.

The Glass Managerie

Unfortunately, we didn’t make post-dinner reservations, and several places we tried were either full or had hour-long waits… thankfully, Les Deux Salons (the wine bar I met Eric in earlier) had some open tables in the informal bar area and we were seated just before the kitchen closed. We split a carafe of white wine and ordered a light dinner – Croque Monsieur for Eric and steak tartare & delicious crispy fries for me.

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!

Malaysia: a day in Hong Kong

On trips to Asia it often makes sense to spend a long layover in Hong Kong on the way back (much like we do for London on return trips from Europe) so we don’t have to catch crazy early flights for positioning.

Upon landing at the airport, I was delighted by all of the CNY decorations and couldn’t pass up standing in a short line for a free sample of dragon beard candy. :)

waiting for dragon beard candy at the airport  dragon beard candy prep

We’ve been to Hong Kong many times (2015, 2015 again, 2013, and 2011) so for this trip we made a point to explore a different neighborhood by staying in the Wan Chai area for the night. While we liked our room at the Hotel Indigo, we found the restaurants and shops to be a bit pricier than other neighborhoods like SoHo/Sheung Wan and

our charming room @ Hotel Indigo Hong Kong Island  the view from our room
our bedroom; the view from our room

Once we checked in and got our bearings, we walked around a bit through the Wan Chai market area picking up some socks and gifts in the street market, plus a curry puff and BBQ puff from Kee Wah Bakery. The quickly eaten pineapple cake also caused us to return and buy four more!

Wan Chai, Hong Kong  lanterns!
Chinese lanterns during the day and lit up at night

We checked out the hotel bar happy hour – it had some nice panoramic views of the city but the “buy one get one free” special couldn’t be split between two people, and since we didn’t want two drinks each we skipped it. Instead, we had a pint at Roundhouse – Chicken+Beer where they apparently don’t want you to know how much their beer costs. The prices are not listed on the website or their tap board. So! To be helpful I will tell you that pretty much every beer — even the locally brewed choices — were 88HKD or about $11USD. For a pint of beer.  Considering the prices in Malaysia, Hong Kong was a bit of a shock to our system.

taps @ Roundhouse - Chicken + Beer

After our pricey pint, we walked to Central Plaza for 46th floor panoramic views of the city. It was very hazy so the views were just okay but on a clear day I think it would be worth the stop.

view from 46th Floor Sky Lobby, Central Plaza

For dinner, we got a light meal at 22 Ships, I had the beef tartare (too salty) and Eric had a delicious strawberry and marshmallow dessert with a glass each of a pleasant rose wine. I wanted to see the laser show from a different vantage point so I hiked to the Golden Bauhinia Square around 8pm. The show is definitely better from the Kowloon side – don’t bother with the Hong Kong side!

dessert @ 22 Ships

As usual, we enjoyed our long layover in Hong Kong. Next time we will probably stay on the Kowloon side, likely in the Mong Kok neighborhood.

on our way home...