Scotland 2017: Exploring the Highlands

Our second day in Scotland involved lots of driving, several waterfalls, one particularly rainy hike, and a few drams of whisky (naturally).

We headed north out of Inverness along the A835 to Rogie Falls. It was a short hike to the powerful cascades with a child-friendly interpretive sign about the life cycle of salmon.

hike to Rogie Falls  Rogie Falls

Rogie Falls

While driving along, we saw a parking area near another falls that wasn’t on our list, but Blackwater Falls and the pretty roadside falls around the corner were a nice photo stop.

Black Water Falls  falls off A835

The Falls Of Mesach are located in Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. The large parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived (yeah!) and there was a food truck selling burgers and other snacks near the first entry gate. The gorge itself was surprisingly steep and the view from the limited-person bridge was breath-taking (or terrifying depending how you feel about heights or swaying bridges).

swinging bridge capacity

Corrieshalloch Gorge  Corrieshalloch Gorge

selfie w/ Falls Of Mesach

A little further up the road is this spectacular view of the Scottish highlands…

peekaboo view of Loch Broom

Our next stop was the Lael Forest and although we weren’t entirely sure we had the correct parking lot, we decided to go exploring. Thankfully the cows didn’t seem to mind.

hello cows!

After about a mile, we found a small waterfall next to a water-driven hydro station.

Lael Forest Falls

Feeling hungry, we stopped at the Arch Hotel in Ullapool for lunch. I had the blue cheese tart while Leandra opted for the (traditionally Scottish) Cullen Skink (cream-based soup with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions). Everything was tasty.

downtown Ullapool

On our way out of town, we took a quick detour to the Rhue Lighthouse and then continued on to Knockan Crag. The views from the top were spectacular but the drizzle that changed into rain halfway through the hike was not so great.

Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve

panoramic views

Given the weather we decided to begin our return back to Inverness along A837. In Invercassley we stopped at a small turnout for Achness Falls, which we had all to ourselves.

Achness Falls

Further down the road are the Falls of Shin, which appear to be recently developed with a parking lot and a new ramp and viewing platform. Unfortunately, the view is of top of falls, so it is not a great photo spot – hopefully they will complete a second viewing platform a little further downstream that will provide a much better vantage soon.

Falls of Shin

Given the time we decided to have dinner at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which is known to have a nice whisky selection. Leandra had the mussels and I had the (very light and fluffy) goat cheese fritter salad (which was larger than expected, and quite tasty). Leandra had a few mistakes happen during dinner, including the wrong wine delivered to the table and leaving off the toasted bread on the mussels, but thankfully, everything was fixed quickly.

Dornoch Castle  mussels @ Dornoch Castle

After dinner we were lucky to snag a couch in the Whisky Bar while we perused the whisky list. Leandra tried a Clynelish 15 year cask in her long-standing challenge to identify a whisky like her beloved Benrinnes. Eric started with a local, Glenmorangie 12 year port finish, then went for a Laphroaig Scotch Malt Whisky Society‎ 29.175 16yr. This was lovely, with chocolate, burnt marshmallows, light fruit, nice smokiness.

scotch by candlelight @ Dornoch Castle

All in all, a long but satisfying day exploring Scotland.

Italy 2017: food & drink in Rome

Sunday

Looking for a late lunch, we quizzed our hotel guy for options nearby. One of his recommendations was Lo Zozzone, hidden in an alleyway off a tourist restaurant street. There were many sandwich & pizza choices, all a slight variation of meat / cheese / toppings – and everything was delicious!  I ordered #24 – salami, smoked mozzarella, olive tapenade and rocket greens while Eric had #17 – speck (ham), smoked mozzerella and tomato. The sandwiches were enormous (and a reasonable 7,50 each) and we enjoyed the people watching that sitting outside afforded us.

delicious sandwiches @ Lo Zozzone

family selfie in Rome!
before we walked all over the city and wore ourselves out!

Eric had marked gelato places all across the city on our map, so when we discovered a popular place was nearby we got in line. Worth it! Eric had mint and the namesake flavor (a caramel cookie concoction) while I tried the nutella and chocolate.

waiting in line for gelato  enjoying gelato

It was definitely worth the 10 minute wait in line, and good enough that we returned the next day too!

By Sunday evening Mom was pretty tired, so the rest of us headed up the street to Fermento, near our hotel, for dinner. It is a swanky little place with mood lighting and a hipster vibe. I had the beef tartare that was chunky and tasty with a glass of prosecco and Eric enjoyed the paccheri (large tube pasta) with bacon. The service was efficient and polite and we would return on a future trip.

Monday

After spending the morning and most of the afternoon exploring ancient Rome, we needed some nourishment.  Eric suggested a sandwich and beer at a tiny brewpub, My Ale, near the Campo de’ Fiori area. Thankfully, we found a place to sit (taking up half the seats in the process!) and decided to split a “red” sandwich with ham, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil.  We each ordered an Italian beer, Eric the Lariano Falesia (bock) which was really good and me the Bruton Momus (scotch ale) which was okay. It grew on me but I wouldn’t order it again. Regardless, I would return to this place for the sandwich bread alone – it was the best of the trip!

beers @ My Ale

While exploring the Trastevere neighborhood, we gave our feet a break for a quick glass of wine at Essenza Wine Bar. The food menu looked good as well, but I stuck with bubbles and Eric had his second pecorino of the trip.

Essenza Wine Bar  pecorino by candlelight

Our least pleasant (and overall strangest) meal of the trip was at Al Palazzaccio.  I have no idea if it was just an off night but our waitress seemed to want to be anywhere but there: communication was difficult (wines listed by the glass were not actually available by the glass, the bread basket kept reappearing after we had said we didn’t want any) and the food took forever to come out despite the restaurant being nearly empty. Add a drunk old man banging on the window, being overcharged a few euros for Mom’s dish, and the fact that the food was just okay and well, we wouldn’t come back here.

Tuesday

With one more chance for a panini sandwich before heading home we stopped into Duecento Gradi on the way to the Vatican Museums. Eric had the Irnerio (Tirolese smoked ham, buffalo mozzarella, and pachino tomato) with a Ritual Lab Lemon Ale that was really an APA. I had the Pigneto (bacon, pecorino and porchini mushrooms) with a malty ale, the Be Four Paradise Red.  I should have stuck with “ham” vs. “bacon” as the texture was a bit too raw for me in this sandwich. Everyone else loved their choices.

We left the museums too late to get into St Peter’s so our consolation prize was gelato at the Old Bridge Gelateria. Darn.

  

Eric’s parents were resting before our dinner reservations, so we picked up a few snacks for the plane trip tomorrow at a local grocery, then stopped into Lumiere for a pre-dinner drink. For future reference, the free potato chips that came with our wine were nice but $10 would have gotten us a nice plate of appetizers – good to know for next time! Eric got to try another pecorino and I had yet another lovely prosecco. Curious about the reds on the glass list, we split the Malandrino (Multipulciano d’Abruzzo) – it had nice fruit with a touch of green pepper on the finish.

me and a glass of prosecco @ Lumiere  tonnarelli cacio e pepe (bottom) and gnocchi bolognese (top)

Our final dinner of the trip at Su e Giù was great! I ordered a Chianti Classico for the table that went with all of our delicious pasta dishes. Eric had the traditional tonnarelli cacio e pepe and I had the gnocchi bolognese (with a much redder sauce than the ones up north). For our main, we split a plate of hot sliced beef with rosemary, vinegar, garlic and olive oil. Now I know where my much-loved (Chicago-style) Italian beef sandwiches come from! A lovely lemon sorbetto with cookies for dessert rounded out the meal.

Italy 2017: food & drink in Florence

Thursday

Our only dinner reservation in Florence was at La Buchetta on our first evening, largely because we didn’t know what to expect amongst restaurants there. We were seated promptly in the back room under a video monitor that showed the plating action in the kitchen. While the waitstaff seemed a bit harried, our waiter spent some time with us describing all the dishes in English which we really appreciated! Eric and I decided to each get a pasta appetizer and then split a main course. I opted for the Gnocchi Angeli e Demoni and Eric had the Tagliatelle al Cinghiale. We then split a lovely beef filet with walnuts as our main. I also picked out a fruity red to compliment the meal. Overall it was quite tasty and we left stuffed!

'heaven and hell' gnocchi @ La Buchetta  bolognese @ La Buchetta

Friday

Our first gelato stop in Florence was GROM where I was seduced by the salted caramel flavor. Eric chose both coffee and chocolate. Even the small size allows you two flavor options and at 2€ it’s a great deal.

salted caramel gelato @ GROM

Later in the day, after a bit of shopping and between museum visits, we stopped in for a glass of wine and to rest our feet at Enotecca Alessi, across the street from GROM.

Eric tried a Vernaccia (ver-nach-e-ah) di San Gimignano (notes: green, earthy, peppery, med acidity, melon, full bodied with light bitterness on finish) and I chose the one rose by the glass (notes: deep pink color, berry nose, light cream, quite nice). We also split the Florentine pate with blue cheese. The cheese was great but the pate was rather liquidy and lacking flavor. Overpriced at 10€ but at least the bread was good and it gave us a boost for the afternoon museum visit.

glasses of wine @ Enoteca Alessi

After visiting the Uffuzi Gallery, we decided to check the lines at the popular All’Antico Vinaio panini shop near the duomo. There was no wait at 5:30pm, so we grabbed a quick sandwich to split. The Schiacciata del Boss (‘crushed boss’) sandwich includes prosciutto, truffle spread and pecorino cheese on bread that was a perfect blend of crunchy crust and soft interior – delicious.

All'Antico Vinaio panini

After a quick rest in the room, we decided to explore the other side of the river. On the way to dinner we stopped into Caffe Neri for a take-away chocolate cannoli.

cannolis @ Caffe Neri

Our original wine bar choice, Le volpi e l’uva, was packed so we choose the nearby Signor Vino instead. We found a place to sit in the retail area and after ordering our wines at the bar (and paying) we had a plate of free snacks delivered. How nice! In the mood for sparkling, I tried the Pinot Bianco Cuvee Brut and Eric got a traditional Prosecco. Both were very drinkable. For the second round (we had snacks left!) Eric went for a Ribola (notes: flinty, fairly light, light lime with some acid on the finish) and I tried a rose (notes: very light, drinks more like a medium body white; good value at 12 euros a bottle).

 

After dropping Eric’s parents off at the hotel (and polishing off the above cannoli), we wandered around looking for somewhere to enjoy a nightcap. After passing a few lively places, we circled back to Le Cappelle Medicee. Eric tried another white varietal, a Pia de Remole (notes: little funk on the nose, light honey tone (very mild sweetness) with some acidity; pleasant aperitivo) and I had my third rose of the trip, a Rosatello Prima Cuvee (notes: medium color, nice acidity and medium body with a bit of spice and fruit).

nightcap @ Le Cappelle

Saturday

We spent most of the day outside of the city touring Tuscany, so the only meal we had in Florence was dinner. We were still a bit full from our extensive winery lunch, so we stayed close to our hotel and tried Fermento Food & Beer where we split two pizzas. We sat outside but the heat lamps and rain shields did their jobs to keep us comfortable.

dinner @ Fermento

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!

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!