Category Archives: Europe

Sophia’s Travel Travel Agents Fam trip to Naples

Naples, Italy Oct 15-22, 2015

This was just the third part of our Italy trip in October.  Our trip started with a Travel Market business meeting in Rimini,  a seaside town of 145K inhabitants on the Adriatic Sea.  My partner and I  then split up.  I went to Cinqua Terre region and he spent time in Florence and the surrounding Tuscany region.  We finally met up days later in Florence and rented a car.  The next few days, we checked out properties in Tuscany and Umbria and finally, we took a 4-hour drive down the Autostrade on A1 to Naples.

Our base for the 5 night experience was the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, a 4* built in 1900.  It is right on the Bay of Naples, with the vista including: the seaside fortress of Castel dell’Ovo, a 19th century small fishing village, and Mt Vesuvius. The Castle is the location of the first Greek fortification in the 6th Century BC, and has been rebuilt many times. The castle’s name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in medieval times as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events would have transpired in the city of Naples.

A bit about Naples.

Naples’ historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its museums boast some of Europe’s best archeology. The city’s history remains a fundamental component of present day society.This  is revealed in numerous archaeological ruins, monuments and buildings. The people are friendly, and Neapolitan cuisine is honest, authentic and most delicious. Proud birthplace of pizza, which is midway between refined cuisine and a traditional working-class meal, Neapolitan pizza has been one of the region’s main dishes and a symbol of Neapolitan gastronomy since the 18th Century. The region also boasts: the best pasta and coffee, fresh and delicious seafood dishes, and street snacks and sweet treats — from thick-crusted rectangular pizzas to deep-fried sugared dough. We intend to look beyond the grime and graffiti and discover amazing frescoes, sculptures, magnificent vistas of Vesuvius, and warm people with lively and thought-provoking conversations filled with legends and humanity.

October 17,  Saturday.

Antonella, my partner in Amalfi Coast and tour organizer for this trip, advised us against taking a car into Naples and instructed us, instead, to drop it off at  the airport. This  was a very wise decision. It was relatively easy drive to the airport and drop off the car.  I called Antonella, and she was, in fact, on the way to pick us up. (Naples airport is only 30 min or so from the ciy center.)
We were off to hotel to meet our tour participants – a group of travel agents for a week- long educational tour of Naples and the surrounding area.

After we had some time to check-in and explore the vistas and waterfront promenade/exercise path, the group met for personal  introductions and an orientation. Then, we departed to familiarize ourselves with this region,  new even to me region – Phlegraean Peninsula.

 

Naples Phlegraean Amphitheatre

Antonella invited local experts for this area, which included a geologist, an anthropologist, and a historian and archeologist to join us for that evening.

 

The day was like a mini seminar or rather a candy store of information for your mind.

Phlegraean Peninsula, located just north of Naples on the coast, had: two amphitheaters, ancient ruins, an old Greek fishing market, and an array of underwater artifacts from a long ago forgotten home submerged in very shallow water.  There are snorkel and scuba dive centers locally that will gladly help you visit the protected sites. You can also learnLearn about the geology of the region, especially the cauldron and then you can actually  visit an ancient aquifer used by the Greeks, Romans, and all the conquerors through the centuries.   While in this area, we visited the Church of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.  His blood has reportedly been saved in a vial and kept in the church.  It allegedly liquefies once a year.  This is the same San Gennaro, for whom  the feast is  celebrated in New York’s Little Italy.  There is no place in Italy where street food, espresso, and friendly people do not enhance your experience.

Naples Macellum

 

October 18, Sunday.

Capri by private boat.

After breakfast, our driver picked us up for our departure to Sorrento, where we  boarded a private boat for day trip to Capri.  You can also take a ferry from Sorrento to Capri but the best way to do is to explore by private boat. We had a captain at our disposal, and he told us he would sail around island and will dock where we wish.

A boat trip across the scintillating waters of the Bay of Naples leads to this stunning and legendary island, surrounded by rose-tinted rocks and coves washed by a translucent sea, giving it the look of a precious marine gem.

Over the years, enchanting Capri has attracted its fair share of superstars. Cesar Augustus had a particular love for the island and, more recently, its guest list has included Naomi Campbell and George Clooney.

We arrived at Capri, docked, went up by funicalr to Anacapri, with its spectacular vistas. The whitewashed houses, cobbled stone streets, and the views over the Amalfi coast are jaw-dropping.  We had lunch in one of the outside cafés, shopped for souvenirs, including the famous “Capri Watch”. One highlight is the Church of San Michele, which was once part of an ancient monastery. Decending, we hopped into two open-air taxis, pink colored (!) Cuban style!

While in Capri, you must take the time to visit the enchanting Blue Grotto, one of the island’s wonders. The visit inside the sea cave by row boat is remarkable, but alas, there were very long boat lines to get in, so we skipped it. For clients we usually prebook it but we kept for this day itinerary flexible.

Back to the boat, the captain set sail to the beautiful east side, to see the subject of one of the most famous postcards of Capri, Monte Solaro, the Bay of Marina Piccola, and the Faraglioni.

It was an enjoyable day and the weather also cooperated.

In the evening, we journeyed to the Tunnels which were a sneak-peek preview of the Museum to be opened in December. The volunteers did an amazing job! We wandered on, through the interconnected passageways, below the bustling Neapolitan streets, and saw aqueducts that had been used for 23 centuries. Then, we descended 121 steps deeper to the air-raid shelters. In 1941, almost 250 miles of tunnels and waterways under Naples were cleared of water and refuse, most wells were sealed, and stairways were built and electricity installed. The Neapolitans, who waited in the shelters as bombs pounded overhead, left markers of their tense days and weeks there: drawings on walls of bombs and planes, and the word “aiuto” (help).

Afterwards, we had dinner in one of the waterfront cafés near our hotel.

October 19, Monday: Naples walking.

10:00am. After breakfast, we took our minibus  into the center of town to meet our local guide Roberto.

We began with  a panoramic tour to the  top. Here, at the observation point, Roberto explained  the history of Naples – from a Greek settlement in 470 bc  it grew and expanded and was  therefore  called “Neapolis” – “New City”.

Naples is very ancient city, built layer over layer on  volcanic stone called “tufo”.  Later, the Romans came and excavated the tufo and building aqueducts. We saw samples of the Roman excavations also. Then we went to see Roman Theater.  It has exceptional views from  hillto sea.

We continued on to Fontanella cemetery, where Roberto, with local flair and exuberance, relished us with old stories and legends of love and the unfortunate “little skull” venerated by the Neapolitan people and linked to  Neapolitan tradition. This is where, in the 1600s, they interned all the victims of the black plague.  It has recently been rearranged, with 40,000 skulls sitting on a 1 meter bed of long bones, lined up along the walls of the catacombs.  Locals visit the place light candles and “adopt” skulls, thinking they will grant them wishes.

Naples Plagues skulls closeup

We were back in town to see the typical streets and alley ways of the Naples – with the laundry hanging to dry. These narrow streets  are actually a UNESCO World Heritage site and thetrue heart of the city.

By now we  were hungry and Roberto took us to the really local places, where we enjoyed local food. Of  course this included pizza in different forms – fried pizza, baked pizza and the city specialty “arancini” –fried rice balls with meat filling.  That was at the famous “Pizzeria del Presidente” which former president Clinton visited years ago.

After pizza, we went outside and sampled delicious deserts from street vendors, and we were just on time to have a sweet little break to try the real Neapolitan coffee with the famous “sfogliatella “, in one of the oldest bakery of Naples.

Afterwards, we continued to Piazza Dante, where we will entered the ancient heart of Naples, through Port’Alba, one of the four citygates..  We passed among the old craftmen’s shops: the luthiers, the artisans making cribs, the booksellers, the potters, the Hospital of dolls. We passed through the famous “Spaccanapoli” and in  particular, the Via San Gregorio Armeno, famous for its “Christmas shopping”. We ended up in the historic center of the city a beautiful place, with monuments. . It was an unique opportunity to learn about the peculiar everyday customs  of the people of Naples!

Next we went to the synagogue, where Roberto gave us and in-depth inspection, and also talked  about the Jewish community in Naples, of which he, himself is a member.

Afterwards, we visited the famous Cappella Sansevero – a museum, built in the late-Baroque style, which houses almost 30 works of art..  The A Christ Veiled under a Shroud (also called Veiled Christ), shows the influence of the veiled Modesty. Itwas completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino.  This piece alone was worth the time and cost of the visit!

veiled jesus

 

In the evening, we joined together for our welcome pizza dinner. It featured the famous Neapolitan Pizza in an old, traditional pizzeria, withspecial historic, conic-shaped ovens.

October 20, Tuesday: Sorrento – Positano

We drove to Sorrento after breakfast.

Heading south from Naples along the Bay ,with is vistas of the Isle of Capri and Mt Vesuvius, was majestic thrill. The road propels  you long the side of the bare cliff –  the mountain on one side and a shear drop to the Bay of Naples on the other.

Pastel-washed towns spill down the cliffs towards the sea. Beautiful trailing bougainvillea and zesty lemon groves add the perfect finishing touches. Sorrento is a picturesque town with a vibrant population, cafés, stores, artisans, an opera house and historic grand hotels with terraces that offer impressive views.  Our local guide, Angie, took us for brief walk to show us her hometown. Besides the street scenes, we visited a cameo shop and watched the artisans perform their craft.

There is a lift that takes you down from the mountain height to the beach and marina.  Once down, we then took our minibus further south to Positano.

We arrived in time for our lunch appointment in the famous  5* hotel, Le Sirenuse

 

Le Sirenuse commands one of the premier spots on the southernmost side of the town.  It has been used as the location in several movies, most recently the 1994 film “Only You” starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. The restaurant boasts a Michelin-starred chef and hosted our magnificent lunch.  Positano is cut into and built up along both sides of the  mountain cliffs.  The cut looks as though it was made through the ages by a river, which once led to the sea.  Positano’s near-vertical alleys, crammed with cafés and boutiques, shower down the cliff-side, each one with its own perfect view  We got to experience this from an insider’s perspective with our local guide, Lucia. She took us on a walking tour where we visited some off-beat, un-touristy, unique places in the nooks and crannies of the hillside.

October 21, Wednesday: Irpinia wine tasting.

Naples is the capital of the Campania region of Italy. The region itself has numerous calls to fame.  These include the sun drenched Amalfi Coast, aka the Italian Riviera, with its old Castles set in the mountains and picturesque villages hidden behind the rocks.  The region is also known as a place for skiing, strolling through the woods, and tasting good cheese and great wines.  The wine region centers around the town of Irpinia, about 40 km east of Naples, where you can relax, while drinking a glass of wine in the garden and admiring the views of vineyards and olive trees over the surrounding hills.

We traveled to Irpinia and  met Gaetano, a local wine producer. He first took us to  a farm to see how Mozzarella is made, and we sampled some mozzarella and another local specialty cheese.

We then proceeded  to a small farmhouse, which also has few rooms and functions as B&B. The grapes were still plump on the vines.  We tasted both red and white, and with each, the flavor exploded in our mouths. These over-ripened grapes were left to harvest later for sweeter desert wines.  We were served a wonderful home cooked meal with local wines.  Italy has this “zero kilometer agrotourismo policy”.  Everything you eat is grown and consumed locally.  Nothing is consumed outside the range,  except for certain staples like sugar, salt, and pepper.

We continued to a working winery, to sample more wine, local olive oil and cheese.

We napped a bit on the hour’s drive back to  Naples. Then, we got ready for another wonderful evening – a  show and dinner in a very typical Neapolitan restaurant, where performers  sing and dance to old Neapolitan music, as they move among the tables. They even sang Sinatra for us as they announced for “Antonella’s Americani”!J

October 22, Thursday: Hercolaneum and Vesuvio.

After our hotel breakfast, we met today’s local guide, Ludovica to go Hercolaneum.

When Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79, it engulfed two flourishing Roman towns, leaving an impression of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthier citizens of the Early Roman Empire. Most people are aware of the destruction of Pompeii that occurred on August 24, 79 A.D. The ruins of Pompeii are world famous. Each year thousands of visitors flock to Italy to view the archeological wonder, and they are one of the most visited attractions in the country.  We visited the lesser known town of Herculaneum,  on the other side of Vesuvius.  While the mountain spurted out rocks and ash, the heavy materials carried by the prevailing winds crashed down upon Pompeii, crushing most of it.  Herculaneum, on the other side of the mountain, was upwind and spared of its sister city’ss wrath of raining debris.  Instead it was flooded with mud and filled from the bottom up.  It was not immediately excavated because the Romans had no way for digging into the hardened mud and meters of covering ash.  So the city sat, and when it was finally uncovered some buildings still had their roofs intact. The marble statues were where they had been, and the plaster on the walls was mostly preserved, including the frescos!  It’s smaller than Pompeii, less crowded and easier to navigate.

We then visited a working winery on this sameside of Mt Vesuvius.  The sulfur from the mountain eruptions concentrates in the local soil, making for a very robust grape and hearty wine.  We had a wonderful meal and enjoyed the wine very much.

After lunch, we continued our tour to the top of Vesuvius where the tragedy had begun. We visited and walked through the lava fields and learned the history. We visited the big crater and enjoyed panoramic views over the Bay of Naples.

We still had time before to goingto airport, so ventured to historic Naples to look at B&B Neapolis Bellini, which Antonella and her partner Lisa own. It is located in a meticulously  restored historic building which used to be stables centuries ago. It does have a small elevator, but the marble stairs are beautiful. The 6 rooms are generous in size, but we only were able to see one, as the rest were occupied. We had some cofee, refreshed and departed for  the airport for our next destination, Palermo, Sicily.

That concluded our wonderful trip to the Naples area and Amalfi Coast, I strongly recommend it for anyone’s bucket list.

Link to the slideshow  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KXQHyZPjvk

copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, division of EMCO Travel, LLC

 

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Sophia’s Travel Agent’s fam trip to Sicily

 

October 23, Friday – Palermo – Paceco, Trapani

We stayed at Grand Hotel Des Palmes which is the Grand dame of Palermo.

Breakfast at this hotel was one I will long remember.  The Grand Hotel des Palmes was a stately  old hotel that showed its age, but the large room that held the breakfast buffet was exceptional — if for no other reason than they had a make-your-own cannoli station.

We met our local guide, Bianca in the hotel lobby.

We began with a private walking tour through the old squares and street markets of the city center that date back to the Arab period.  We experienced local specialty foods – from street vendors and in old establishments frequented by locals. We meandered through the Mercato del Capo’s spider web-like alleys located behind the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house and the casbah-style Ballarò food Market (our favorite). Of course we had the opportunity to sample some of the aforementioned specialties as well as street vendor favorites, such as panelle (fried chickpea rectangles) and crocché (perfectly-fried ovals of mashed potato and egg). We made our way to the main Cathedral, representing the best of Arab-Norman architecture and then to  the Renaissance period fountain of Piazza Pretoria. We then continued to  I Quattro Canti, the church of San Cataldo and the Baroque church of Santa Caterina.

The hospitality of “chez-Anna” was most memorable.   She invited us into her home, along a beautiful square with a picture perfect  view. Her relatives and friends were there, and she fed us and treated us as family, with the most wonderful family-style lunch.

In the afternoon we visited the Inquisition Museum.  Then, we departed towards Trapani for our accommodation in agroturismo Baglio Fontanasalsa.

I visited here previously  in February on and exploratory  trip with Barbara, my partner in Sicily.  In February, it was under construction/renovation, but the manager Collette and the lovely surroundings made an impression on me. They have olive trees, especially one 800 year old olive tree still bearing fruit. They have a a grapevine that is at least 120 years old and still producing sweet grapes. These hang from a trellis over the dining table and continue draping over a romantic courtyard.   Collette, with her hospitality and unique personality, is an attraction herself. There are 3 dogs running around. One is  a “talking dog,” who actually communicates with Collette.

Arriving agin now, there was  a bit of  commotion,  but we  quickly settled into the rooms. Then we came downstairs to explore the property and have some wine before dinner.

Fontanasalsa’s olive oils are exported to prestigious stores in Paris.  The complex is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, lemon, orange and pomegranate orchard gardens..  We arrived in late afternoon and sat in the courtyard, enjoying the sunset with wine.  It looked like scene from a movie set.

Soon  it was dinnertime, with local simple food served family-style accompanied with Fontanasalsa’s local wine.  We lingered a bit after dinner and then went to sleep.

October 24, Saturday. Erice – Salt Route – Mozia

After ample breakfast at Fontanasalsa (I liked their jams), we left to explore local area.

 

Our first stop was Erice, a wonderfully preserved Medieval town, offering the most breathtaking views with a palpable sense of history. Strolling through the narrow streets, we admired its 60 churches and the ruins of the Pepoli Castle. We took  a “gourmet break” to taste the marzipan, cinnamon and sugar pastries  at Maria Grammatico‘s bake shop.  Maria  was born to a poor family, so her mother sent her to live in the convent with the nuns. From the nuns, she learned  how to make pastry, and it turned out she was really talented at it. We enjoyed her fresh baked pastries right from the oven.

Next,  we headed to the sea to follow the historic salt route. Blue skies highlighted the  scenery that incorporates shelter for migration birds via windmills and the so-called “salt houses,” which are actually mountains of salt-covered with protective tiles. The salt pans and windmills still function as they have for centuries.  Located just feet away, we had lunch in a wonderful trattoria.  Then we jumped on a boat, while singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island”, and took a 15-minute excursion to the Phoenician isle of Mozia (Motya) to see the collection of Joseph Whitaker, the famed archaeologist and ornithologist, whose family made a fortune producing Marsala wine. The island was founded by the Phonecians in approximately 8BC. It has a small museum with the beautiful marble statue “The youth of Motya”.

Back on land after a return boat trip, we headed to taste Marsala wines in the oldest regional winery, Florio.  In this expansive place, replete with history and artifacts, we partook in a choreographed tasting led by our very  knowledgeable hostesses.

We returned to Fontanalasa for dinner.

October 25, Sunday – Valle dei Templi, Agrigento

In the morning, we toured Fontanasalasa.   We had a lovely snack alfresco in the olive garden with an invited musician, who played local folk music.  We even had the chance to harvest our own olives and watch as they were processed into cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.  Afterwards, Colette gifted us with abottle of our own product!  We finished with lunch and more wine and olive oil.

After lunch, we bid  farewell to Colette, her staff and dogs and  departed for our next destination.

Agrigento VOTT city vista

We traveled southeast around the Island of Sicily towards Agrigento.  I was surprised the most by the lack of traffic;, there were hardly any other vehicles along the way.  We passed majestic  rolling hills dotted  with farms producing either wine or olives.  The ambience was peacefully serene, as though we were back in time.  After 2 hours and 15 minutes, we arrived and  met our local guide on cue,as we got off the minibus to visit the Valley of the Temples.

The temples were erected in the Fifth century BC, following the ancient principle (Greek as well as Roman), “face East”. In this way, the rising sun would first illuminate the statue of the Divinity, as a principle of life. The archaeological area known as the Valley of the Temples is one of the most important archeological sites in the world. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1998. Along an outstretched rocky scarp, chosen as the southern limit of the town, are still sited the great temples of ancient Akragas. These include the Temple of Hera (Juno) Lacinia, Concordia, Heracles (Hercules), Olympian Zeus (Jupiter), Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri) and Hephaistos (Vulcan). Further down, on the bank of the Akragas River, near a medical spring, stood the Temple dedicated to Asklepius (Eusculapius), the god of medicine. At the mouth of the river there was the harbor and emporium (trading-post) of the ancient city.  These Temples were built along one line and a single pathway led us past each one.  These are older than the Acropolis of Athens but still, some of the temples were very much intact. The British did not borrow the frieze from these Temples as they did with the Parthenon, which was also damaged in 1687 by the Venetians during the Morean War.

Dinner was in local restaurant with a beautiful view overlooking the temples.

October 26, Sunday. Piazza Armerina, Caltagirone, Siracusa

We stayed in an old Arab style Kasbah, Baglio de La Luna, with breathtaking night views of the Valley.

We then took an inland route, passing by two very notable sights that were the focus of our touring today. Upon arrival in the mountain town of Piazza Armerina, we visited the renowned Villa Romana del Casale, one of the grand attractions of Sicily, boasting the largest and best preserved collection of Roman Mosaics in the world. This place was thought to be the summer palace of the regional Roman commander. It was lost then found and the artistry is impressive.

We left and continued 45 minutes to Caltagirone, famous for its pottery production. Here the main sights include an Aragonese Castle, built at the end of the Fourteenth century and an imposing, Eighteenth Century Duomo. The architectural highlight is undoubtedly the 142 steps of the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte that connect the lower town with the older upper town. Each step is decorated with ceramic tiles. We visited a pottery factory and learned the secrets of this ancient art.

Finally we drove off to the east to Siracusa with accommodations in the historic center, Ortigia.

October 27, Monday, Siracusa, Noto

Our driver and guide picked us up from the hotel, and we departed for a 30-minute drive to Noto.  I was amazed by the beauty of the Sicilian Baroque as we explored Noto. Noto is one of the seven villages, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. The flowing ornate buildings and balconies were intricate and beautiful works of art.  The small café in town ranks one of the best coffee shops in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal.  It was time to sit down and  enjoy the local espresso and specialty of the region, granitas.  The location in the town square across from

 

the Cathedral was perfect.

We shopped in the local artisan stores.  We plunged  ourselves in the Iblean local life, and we delved our hands into a very special cooking experience. With Chef Andrea we learned how to cook an authentic Sicilian meal in a unique location, an ancient watermill.

Driven by the expertise of the chef, we immersed ourselves “mani o” with the ingredients to create our own meal —  from fresh homemade pasta to desert.  A selection of Sicilian wines completed the menu. We enjoyed the results of our group effort with the chef in the relaxing tranquility of the terrace, with the spectacular view of the falls and the smooth sound of the river in the background.

Here is a link to video of our cooking experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6RszzUivy8

That afternoon we met our local guide in Ortigia and had an in-depth walking tour of Ortigia. We admired the Cathedral, built on the ruins of the Temple of Athena; the Palazzo Beneventano, and the Temple of Apollo. It was one legend after another. Our visit also included the Archaeological Park in Syracusa, the Greek Theatre and the Dionysus Ear.

October 28, Tuesday : ETNA North experience with the wine tasting

Aetna lava walk fog

We were transferred from our comfortable Mercedes minibus into two four by fours — a Land Rover and a Toyota. We proceeded with our geologist driver/guide through the northern side of the volcano, between forest trails and fun off-road paths of ancient lava flows to the inside the “Etna Park”. We discovered Etna and its history. We started with a delightful walk on the edge of the ancient extinct craters to better understand the structure of the volcano. Then, we continued with the exciting discovery of a lava flow cave. Finally, we made the ascent by jeep, off the road and on to the top of an ancient lava flow to the great Mount Belvedere. From here we could admire the whole “Valle del Bove,” where lava flows from the last eruptions are collected. Then, we proceeded onward, where we reached the territory of Linguaglossa, home to the vineyards of Etna DOC. We visited a Sicilian cave, revealing all stages of the supply chain, from harvesting to bottling to the finishing touch – a tasting of 3 wine labels and a wonderful lunch. It seems the high sulfer content of the soil on the sides of this active volcano gives the grapes a unique taste that makes these wines special.  Note: Since we left, the volcano has experienced another active stage.  We only hope no person nor property was damaged.  Seeing the actual areas consumed by the lava flows in the past, gave us a special insight into the devastation that can and does occur.

We arrived Taormina, our last evening in Sicily.

October 29, Wednesday, Taormina

Taormina? The best I can say “wow”. It is a seaside city build up the side of a mountain. There is just one winding road that goes up and another (on the north side of the town) that goes down. It is a pedestrian-only city with some room, but not much for delivery and infrastructure vehicles.  The vistas are remarkable. The streets are clean and packed with restaurants and shops.  There is an ancient theater on the uppermost bluff and several historical churches. We had a little time at night to enjoy the city, including a wonderful meal in an outside trattoria. The next morning we had about four hours to further explore before our ride came to take us to the airport.

I would like to thank Barbara for being with us for a whole week and arranging such a wonderful tour. Also, thanks to Simona and her geologist guides who provided an enriching educational day and the robust wine in Aetna.

For more photos, see our slideshow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aspEtA8X4Hs

copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, division of EMCO Travel, LLC

 

 

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Wales 2014

Day 1, October 14, Amsterdam – Cardiff

We had an easy 75 min flight to from Amsterdam to Cardiff, Wales.

Welcome to Wales, Croeso i Gymru!

We took an airport bus which took us right to the front door of our hotel, Radisson Blu in town center.

Sophia stocks

 

 

Sophia Cardiff castle falconry

Cardiff castle1

Cardiff castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived before check in so we left the bags and headed out. We had hop on/off bus tours waiting at hotel. The weather was rainy, light rain but it did not stop us for exploration. First we had breakfast in one of the local restaurants, where I tasted my first Welsh Rarebit. It had too much taste of beer or mustard I think but I enjoyed it anyway. Fortified, we walked through the light rain and 54F degrees through a pedestrian area to Cardiff Castle.

The pedestrian road was called St Mary’s and we plan on revisiting that area again tonight.

We arrived on time for our 1 hour guided tour of the castle. This castle had 17th to 19th century decorations with history spanned over 2000 years. It was given to the city by Bute family. The decorations were not gold painted but 18 carat gold leaf and a lot of it!  We saw most of the castle keep. The rooftop garden was beautiful with tiles.  After the tour, we walked the castle grounds and saw the falcon handlers with their 2 beautiful specimens. I could not hold the falcon, but the handler got it closer to my shoulder so we could take photos. We skipped the military museum.

After exiting castle, we found the hop on hop off two decker bus ride to familiarize ourselves to the city, and then on the second go round, we got off in front of the national gallery/museum. This museum is beautiful and it is free! We saw some fine pieces including the Davis Sisters collection of Rodin sculptures and impressionistic pieces – Monet, Cezanne, Sisley, and Pissarro. There were three Monet paintings that were made in Giverny.

The museum also has Natural History sections and other exhibits including fine porcelain for those who inclined to see other than art. It is very nice museum overall.

We took another hop on and off bus to rest our feet J which dropped us off at stop near our hotel. We checked in. To our surprise and delight, the nice folks at Wales tourism board, whom I’ve been working closely, with were kind enough to leave a bottle of fine Welsh single malt whiskey!

We passed by a specially constructed facility in Cardiff’s Porth Teigr – near the studios where Doctor Who is filmed – the Doctor Who Experience. I did not see this show but few times I was asked by my clients. This facility offers a journey into fifty years of adventures in space and time.  http://www.doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience/ .

After we checked in and refreshed ourselves we decided to take a taxi to well know pub in Cardiff, Y Mochyn Du http://www.ymochyndu.com/   for dinner.  (Located at Sophia’s Gardens so how could I miss it? 🙂  )

It is also possible to walk there for about 30 mins but we did not want to walk through the park in the rain at night. Anyway, the taxi cost was under $10, so it was not bad. The pub was atmospheric, not too many people on this weekday night and this early. We learned that in pubs, we order at the bar and they bring food and drink to our table, then you go and pay at the bar cashier. We got local ale, and of course fish and chips!  We sampled two types of beer. They came with chipBeer tasting Y Mochyn Du Cardiffs and Mash (chips means fries and mash means mashed peas). We also took appetizer fish cakes. For desert we had bread pudding and apple crumb. It was very hearty dinner so when we took taxi back, we were ready to collapse after this very busy day!

 

Day 2, October 15, Cardiff – Abergavenny – Cardiff

We decided to visit small town Abergavenny by train. We had breakfast on the way in Great Western restaurant which was across our hotel on the way to the train station. It was only 5-10 min to go to train station so I can comment location of Radission Blu was very good. The restaurant was in traditional building, with comfortable chairs and tables, newspapers. We had Welsh cakes for breakfast and porridge. I liked cakes.Abergevenny Wales

Then we rushed to the train, since we only had few minutes left, otherwise we would have to wait for next 30 minutes. We were waived on by the ticket people who told us to buy ticket on the train. The journey took about 20 minutes, we got off at Abergavenny. It is medieval city circa 12C. Very friendly train station attendant chatted with us and directed us where to go. I like maps but there were no maps besides the one on the wall and he pointed to us “just go that way”. In about 15 min of walk (I took some photos on the way), we arrived to the center. The local tourist office had very recently moved their office to another location by St. Mary church, but it needed better signs. While we got lost, by serendipity, we found out bustling local flea market, so we spent some time there. After that we indeed found tourist office which is in the very nice building, refurbished barn – combined tourist office, café and some tourist shops and historical museum. In the second floor of the museum, we saw ladies from a local church  at display of their tapestry. It was beautiful tapestry and looked like it was new, with has various pictures of Wales. After talking to ladies, they said it is indeed new. 60 local volunteers were working on this project and took about 4 years to complete from 2002 to 2006. It was impressive and I took photos with ladies, two of them were a part of tapestry project.

Then we went to the castle, or castle’s ruins to be exact. It had small museum where we tried medieval clothes and heavy chainmail shirt! Then we strolled castle grounds and took some photos. After that we got hungry, what else is new? Someone in town recommended The Angel Hotel. They had from what they told us a famous seafood platter, so we took it. It was delicious but too big for us. After that we walked back to the train station and returned to Cardiff. It was another day well spent!

Sophia Abergavenny Castle WalesAbergavanny Castle Wales

After some rest at hotel, we walked pedestrian district again. We visited Cardiff market and sampled some local cheeses and bread. We bought them for next day breakfast at hotel. These Welsh cakes tasted better than in Great Western…. Also, my Swiss watch needed a replacement of battery and we found in the market a jeweler who had a replacement battery for my watch. We chatted with him, as with all the people in Wales, he was very friendly. He mentioned that his daughter is looking for au pair in USA so I told him I know some people who need au pair and left him my card.  Then we stopped in few stores on the way back to hotel. They have TJ Maxx but it was called TX Maxx. We needed another power adapter. The sales people there did not know why it is different name from TJ Maxx.

We were not hungry for dinner after that seafood platter, but it was time to eat and explore more pubs J. We walked to the Duke of Wellington http://www.dukeofwellingtoncardiff.com/  , it has really nice masculine interior, very cozy and service was friendly. We started with ales but then gave up and ordered fish and chips again.  L  I also tried their dragon burger and it has some sort of chili, spicy..

Day 3, October 16, Cardiff – Brecon Beacons National Park – Cardiff

Since we travel as tourist professionals, we needed to explore all ways of touring – city tours, trains, hop on/off. My next exploration was before we will leave Cardiff on our own to try local tour operator with minivan tours. We booked a small minivan tour offered by Where When Wales company. It was A Valleys Tour.

Here is description from company’s brochure:

“Travel as far north as Mid Wales for a sightseeing tour of Brecon Beacons National Park. Visit the central region of the Brecon Beacons and in the late afternoon, the Black Mountains to the east.  Stop for lunch in Brecon, followed by a tour of the cathedral in the town.  Have a photo stop and get the history of Castell Coch — a medieval castle and the former hunting lodge of the Marquis of Bute — followed by a journey through ancient woodland to the Mountain Road to enter the town of Caerphilly. At the town enjoy a guided tour at Wales’ largest castle with a tower that leans more than Pisa.  “.

There were only two of us and 2 more ladies from Australia.

The husband and wife team Jan (guide) and John (the driver, but he is also guide by profession), did a great job. Jan was wealth of information. We learned about history, culture, saw sheep, stopped and chatted with people who were sailing canals on their charters canal boat. We visited 2 castles. One small castle was a hunting castle. Jan gave great historical info on castles, sheep  and Brecon cathedrals. Such details on masons and how they left their marks in stone were really fascinating…

Castle leaning tower

Caerphilly Castle

There was indeed one castle with leaning tower! Each castle was unique in its own way.  One was being used to film the current Dr Who episodes on BBC series. By the way, Dr. Who series are very popular there, so for its fans, they can also visit the brand new Dr. Who exhibit in Cardiff – big centre plus castle on countryside.

The last castle was in the middle of filming a U.S. Movie DaVinci Devils so access was limited , but Jan got us there anyway to mingle with movie crew. 🙂

We had about 1 hour free time in Brecon for lunch, in local cafe we had tea, soup and pie.

I highly recommend this tour for people who come to Cardiff for few days, so they can visit countryside….

After we came back to Cardiff, we decided to take break from fish and chips and we ate in Brazilian meat restaurant Viva Brazil. I had meat menu and Michael vegetarian. It has usual Brazilian meat restaurant fare. We did not have place for desert since meat was all you can eat plus buffet….

Day 4, October 17, Cardiff – St. David, Pembrokeshire.

We had breakfast again at Great Western. I found out I was not a fan of the full English breakfast with sausages, bacon etc so we stuck with porridge and Welsh cakes, and we enjoyed them. Porridge was like our Irish oatmeal, but not processed Quaker type, more like Irish whole oats type, served with milk or cream and some sugar.

After breakfast we were ready to leave Cardiff to start our driving adventure! Cardiff Europcar office was kind enough to come and pick us up.

GPS advice.

Since built in GPS is usually expensive, we opted instead to use phone navigation application Waze, which we use it at home. But it required internet connection for that. So we got Wi-fi device from Tep Wireless. I highly recommend it. It cost about $70 for a week including extra battery. It does drain power from the device so extra battery helped. It worked fine for directions. They only deliver locally, so once we bought it, the device was sent to our hotel and we prepaid for return shipment. All you need to do is to drop it off in any mailbox (more on that later!!) . http://www.tepwireless.com/  . It had good internet connection in most places (except some remote coastal areas, but Waze used downloaded directions).

Europcar people showed us directions to get out of town – it was very close to highway and we went off.

Our final destination for a day was St. David on the coast of Pembrokeshire National Park. It is the smallest town in UK. St. David’s was designated as a conservation area by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in 1972, it is named after St. David, the patron Saint of Wales.seaside Pembrokeshire NR Wales

On the way, we stopped in small town Tenby, steeped in ancient history surrounded by an imposing medieval stone wall. Through the passages of time Tenby has seen many changes but it has been on the leisure map for nearly 200 years. Fox News selected Tenby as one of the “coolest small towns in Europe.”

We had lunch on the coast outside Tenby “Coast restaurant” with gourmet food. Chef was excellent there, with seafood dishes. After that, arrived Tenby, walked few hours, and then went off to St. David’s. Sometimes the road hugged coast with really spectacular scenery. More or less, so far weather cooperated. We passed another beautiful town Solva with pastel like houses. We arrived St. David just about sundown. On our first driving day, we did not want to arrive in the dark.

Our hotel for this night was Warpool Court, http://www.warpoolcourthotel.com/ , a member of Welsh Rarebits collection of distinct hotels. Their choices for properties were excellent. They represent the essence of country hotels, each unique i???????????????????????????????n each own way…

Like they boast Location, Location, and Location! Warpool court is located on 15 seafront acres of prime coastal views and walking trails of Pembrokeshire National Park. I wished to stay 1 day longer so we enjoyed walking trails more. Especially with beautiful fall colors, the views were picture perfect.hotel entrance St Davids Wales

We planned to go in town (about 10 min walk) for dinner, but it was strong wind and rain outside, so we decided to eat at the hotel. Unlike our previous pub dinners we had, this one was gourmet. I liked goat cheese cheesecake.  We ate by the fireplace with beautiful tiles. We had some scotch, beer and local ales before dinner. The staff was Eastern European so I was able to speak my language.

St Davids Hotel seaside walkIt is very nice hotel, however few con points: it does not have elevator, so it is not accessible for clients with some mobility issues. Check out was at 10:30am! Later we found out other hotels have check out at 11as well. The room was cozy, but small with Victorian interior. Not enough plugs to charge our devices.  I did not have opportunity to inspect more rooms, maybe larger room or better category will be nicer.  The tea service had nice teas though and staff was very nice. And viDoor to Magic Garden Pembrokeshire Walesew from the room to die for!

 

Day 5, October 18. St. David  – Aberaeron

In the morning the weather improved. We had breakfast at hotel (included in rooms stay). I tried smoked haddock. They cooked eggs to the order and we enjoyed a nice buffet.

We still had about 1 hour before check out, so walked out to use trails in the dunes, lovely. It must be outstanding in summer. The winds were blowing and we took into consideration how far we can go so then we will need to come back.

Then we checked out and left to explore St. David’s. We visited St. David’s cathedral and remains of bishop’s palace. The setup was beautiful and we saw a group of artists drawing from the scenery.

Then we had a walk in the St. David’s village and had a tea with scones in local tea room.

Sophia Michael Whitesands beach Pembrokeshire Wales

We drove to White Sands Beach and admired scenery.

Then we left for next destination – Aberaeron going north.

Fishguard was a small coastal town with picturesque harbor and quayside known as Lower Fishguard.  This was where Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood was filmed in the 1970s as well as Moby Dick.

The coast between Strumble Head and Fishguard was the site of the last invasion of Britain in 1797 by Franco-Irish soldiers but. The landed on the beach, the troops got drunk and never made it any further!

Guess they like the local wine, beer and ale!  I was always amazed at the local history.

The drive continued through the rural area with sheep and cows.  We were driving through one especially secluded sunken roadway with high hedgerows on each side with barely room for one car let alone the occasional oncoming cars.

Pentre Ifan Sign

We went by an ancient 2800 BC ceremonial Druid grave site of stones named Pentre Ifan, very impressive.Michael pentre ifan

We arrived Aberaeron where we were booked at a hotel Harbormaster, also a Welsh Rarebit property. http://www.harbour-master.com/

 

Aberaeron from its description: “is picture-postcard pretty with its colorful Georgian style houses and graceful architecture. Built in the early 1800’s, Aberaeron is one of Wales’ first ‘planned’ towns, and the brainchild of the Rev. Alban Jones-Gwynne.  http://www.aberaeron.info/ “.

Aberaeron turned out to be a delightful small harbor town where a river runs into a manmade harbor circa 19C. The hotel/ bar were built in 1810 in this site and right on the harbor. It was a bit difficult to find a parking space, but eventually we made it. This small hotel is also a well known pub and restaurant for locals. Reception desk is in the pub! Michael particularly liked to go to our room through pub 🙂 .

Sophia Harborside HotelWhile we were parking, we were welcomed by local ladies sitting on the bench and enjoying the sun. They “supervised” our parking and were so welcoming and lovely, so we took photos with them. This is the Aberaeron’s welcoming committee!

 

 

Fishing Wales Style

Harborside hotel balconyMichaelSophia Harborside

Our room had a balcony overlooking the breakwater on the entrance into the harbor. The weather was nice and we had the doors open all night.  The Stars were out in force that night and they seemed so close.

The people are so friendly and honestly interested in what we think of their country. Such a lovely change of pace. It was Sunday and we joined locals on their walks, took some pictures of local streets, people, dogs, etc. I loved this town even more than previous St. David’s.

In the afternoon, we had a snack – local oysters and sample beers at the bar from hotel/pub manager. It ended up being a taste testing event.  It was also marked by some exceptionally large and sweet oysters.

For dinner we chose to eat in the restaurant, since they had lobster on the menu. Alas, lobster was not caught that day and we ended up eating other fish. Otherwise we would prefer bar, it was more lively setting.

Hotel was excellent as well. It has lift access for those inclined not to walk. Our room was very comfortable, modern, with huge bath. We had balcony overlooking harbor. If we would choose not to go outside, we would watch all harbor action from the balcony! I liked this hotel the best so far.

Day 6, October 19, Aberaeron – Devils Bridge – Portmerion.

After breakfast we met with Sioned from Welsh Rarebits, who arranged our stays and she was interested to hear our feedback. We babbled enthusiastically about people, food, villages we experienced. She gave us few sightseeing tips and we sadly said goodbye to Aberaeron.

We drove further up north along the coast and had another full day of leisurely stops.  Farm stands and cheese stands were along the way. There are 12 million sheep in Wales, 3 million people.

Our plan for today was to drive through Aberystwyth.

 Description  “Home to the University of Wales Aberystwyth and the National Library, the town is nestled between three hills and two beaches, and hosts castle ruins, a pier and a harbor.  The surrounding hills hold the visible remains of an iron-age fort and also a monument to Wellington. Climb the hills to find stunning views of Cardigan Bay.”

We though to take Vale of Rheidol Railway to Devil’s Bridge and return
Sophia Devils Bridge signdevils bridge sophBut somehow we got lost (lost Wi-Fi connection) and missed it and never made to Abersyswyth, so we continued to the Devils Bridge by car.  The weather was good and the sun highlighted beautiful fall colors. The bridge was very interesting, it had 3 levels and attracted tourists since the 18th century. You can pay to see it from the falls side or from the gorge side. We parked and walked through the turnstile gates to admire nature, three bridges and the gorge.

We drove on and into Snowdonia National Trust Park later on, the road was winding with beautiful vistas… We wanted to stop to eat lunch, but the places to eat where somewhat apart and by the time we would see it, we passed it. As result, and being hungry, we decided to go straight to Portmerion. Even after we lost connection once more time, Portmerion was clearly marked. It is well known place in Wales, like Disneyworld in Florida.

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PortMeirion main Hotel

 

We arrived in Portmerion village. What can I say? It is a different property, again suggested by Welsh Rarebits. It is not my style (we do not like Disneyworld either!). But I was glad to see it, otherwise I would always wonder. Mr. Meurig Jones, attraction manager, gave us a tour of the village in the golf cart. I definitely understand its appeal for some travelers. Snuggled onto a peninsula on the Snowdonia Coast, Portmeirion was the dream of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who designed the resort to engage the visitor with interesting views wherever they should stop.  It also provided the perfect backdrop for the TV series The Prisoner in the late 1960’s.  www.portmeirion-village.com/ . He built it for 50 years and was lucky enough to live to see it to completion through delays due to the war, and financial difficulties.  The TV in the rooms continuously shows The Prisoner.

Estuary Portmeirion Wales

Estuary Portmeirion Wales

 

It was a site with neglected garden, and a mansion. He acquired it for about 5,000 pounds. It is located on the estuary and faces the mountains, the scenery changes during the day depending on tides, just like Mont St. Michel. The idea was to build a tightly grouped coastal village. I am an architecture lover, and this village is somewhat eclectic and sometimes even weird. You really need to know what you are looking at, for example, some of the windows are just painted, the façade is just a façade and in the back, there is nothing. Some shapes of few houses were curved, like Gaudi’s. He also collected discarded statues from everywhere, so for example, Asian statue of Buddha. The structures on the way to the sea are on of Mediterranean castles type. Overall it somehow fits together. There is Victorian hotel (where we stayed) plus various cottages pastel color around the village. Rich and famous stayed there. They also built a castle (circa 20c). The castle reminded me Dracula castle hotel I stayed in Romania.

Sophia PortMeirion gardens WalesPortmerion gardens Wales nice photo.

We also drove through the garden in the golf cart and it was very beautiful. Mr. Jones said most people never get to the garden, only stay in the village. It was Japanese gazebo and fall colors were beautiful.

People usually stay there and do not leave the village. Dinner was included in our stay. We also had afternoon tea there. Service was very good. Our room faced the estuary and it had beautiful views of the sea, and we witnessed the quick and impressive tidal change. There was a stoned ship moored by the hotel, a tribute to the previous one that was dragged out by the current to sink close to shore.  This one was a dummy. What was strange is that during our 2 days there we did not see any birds or traces of fish in the sea. We were told the estuary was dead. No fish, shellfish and therefore no seabirds.

And, I almost forgot to mention – there is Victorian dog cemetery! Not by Clough but from the previous long time owner.

DAY 7 – Monday, 20 October Portmerion – Anglesey Isle.

After breakfast, we left Portmerion for our next destination – Chateau Rhianfa on Anglesey Isle.

On our schedule we had Caernarfon Castle, one of the impressive castles constructed by King Edward Ist of England in 13C, but we “castled out” and went through to Chateaux Rhianfa, where Welsh Rarebits booked us for next night. It is a real castle hotel!   Wow!  http://www.amazingvenues.co.uk/

Anglesey is an island, or Ynys Mon as it is known in Welsh, covers an area of 276-square miles, and has a coastline some 125 miles in length. Two thirds of the coastal path is in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.  Anglesey was also known as Mon, Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales, because its fertile lands were considered capable of providing sufficient food for the whole of Wales.  castle sophia turret room

 I took a tour of facilities with sales manager. It is only in business as hotel for 2 years and before was private castle. This Chateau was inspired by a Chateau in the Loire Valley and sitting in a commanding setting overlooking the Menai Straits, and is very romantic, 18C, built for Sir John Hay Williams, and it was in the family until 1957. Later on it was sold and few years now it is a hotel for lucky guests.

Our room at the chateau is facing the water we have also an extra round turret room with lovely windows and built in bench. It seems we have the tower room I always wondered what was in those round towers so common in the corners of the castles and chateaus. Now I know.  Here is a photo of me reclining in the room reading a book in the afternoon.

We  met with my Italian friend Antonella and her local Welsh friend Steve. We left our car (what a relief!) and Steve showed us “his Wales”.  We saw yes you guessed it another castle, Beaumaris, this one built by King Edward 1st, who ran out of money before it was completed.

IMG_7062 Anglesey Beaumaris Castle Beaumaris Lighthouse Anglesey Wales

We saw the village and train station with the longest name and took obligatory picture. It has 54 letters. .

 

Llanfair­pwllgwyn­gyllgo­gery­chwyrn­drobwll­llanty­silio­gogo­goch.Sophia long name2

 

Steve taught us how to pronounce it. There is a song written to teach kids how to say it, here is the link from youtube  if you wish to practice 🙂

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BXKsQ2nbno   (credit video to donwoodswirral).

Then we went to Beaumaris and saw the lighthouse on the point and a small Puffin Island off the coast with puffins and seals. The seals are cubing, but neither animal came out to say hello.

We had a nice lunch and another local pint of beer from Snowdonia brewery was very smooth. The seafood mussels and haddock were very good.

On the road we saw more sheep then people. I made a mental note to have lamb for dinner. 🙂

SNOWDONIA mountain lake Wales Sheep Snowdonia Wales sheep field stone fence

We visited another very old monastery with a story, about a local person who became a saint in 1200 or something like that.

We have breakfast in our chateau tomorrow before we trek out over a bridge through Bangor which is spelled the same but pronounced very differently by the Welsh than our city in Maine. The Welsh language is very alive and spoken by all very melodically and impossible to understand.  Everyone speaks English as well and I am always so pleasantly surprised by their friendliness. We head out to Bodnant Gardens in Snowdonia mountains national trust.

Back to Chateau, we took a nap. We missed our scheduled visit to the welsh custom of boys choir practice, but we needed to rest.

We did not feel like eating at the chateau since we had already so many dinners and meals… so we skipped the dinner. Another five course meal with wine, aperitif and such is not sounding good to either of us at this time.  I would not mind having afternoon tea however the reception at chateau said it has to be booked a day in advance.  This and the dinner is the only one negative thing about Chateau. I would think they should have an option of lighter meal or room service or some kind of sandwiches available. Especially since everything else I believe is in driving distance.

DAY 8 – Tuesday, 21 October. Anglesey – Bodnant Food Centre – Llandudno.

Today we had a breakfast in the Chateau and it was an experience. You sit at a large table in an ornate formal dining room with other people and multi course formal breakfast is served. You select from the menu. The serving lady was in maid outfit and said in pronounced British accent: “What else can I get for you before I go downstairs to kitchen? “

Once I got over the shock, we were able to talk to other people (British) and we had a lovely conversation though.  We learned that it was a hurricane went through Northern Wales from USA and it brought strong gusty winds and bands of rain. The chateau was built so sturdy we hardly knew that it happened.

We checked out and went to Llandudno, our last 2 nights stay in Wales.

Our commute was not far and the road was four lanes most of the way.  Before Llandudno, we had an appointment at Bodnant Welsh food center. It is a destination by itself for foodies. You would think British food is boring? Think again.

It is located in Conwy, North Wales, in beautiful Snowdonia Mountains, with panoramic views. Prince Charles was present at the opening. As we’ve were told, he is very much into “slow food” movement, organic locally grown food.

Shphia crew bodnant chef Sopia crew cheese room take 2

A month ago I attended yearly trade seminar on Britain in Las Vegas and Wales was showcased there. They brought cheeses and other delicacies from WaSophia Bodnant foodsles and a renowned chef Dai from Bodnant center gave us cooking class. Therefore we came to his territory to sample food see the center by ourselves. We’ve met there with Judith from Wales tourist board and Rebecca from Bodnant center. All the produce food and supplies are strictly local. They make their own cheeses from the milk of the cows we saw across the Conwy River. We met the master cheese maker who showed us the process and the let us into the giant cheese fridge where the cheeses are aged.  They have their own bee farm and learning center. Vegetarian and kosher meals can be provided there as well.

We met with the master chef Dai who was kind enough to prepare a sea bass lunch for us, with steamed vegetables and salad, all beautifully presented, and outstanding taste. Judith and Rebecca showed us around.  The master butcher talked to us on the local products and cuts.  The adjacent store was like a playground for foodies.  Some noticeable items I found amusing.  The fresh vegetables were not washed; potatoes, carrots etc had fresh dirt on them so the patrons can see it’s fresh and without any pesticides. The same thing with the meats, they had the cuts still red and bloody showing they were freshly prepared.

Fresh breads, cheeses, jellies, jams and everything you could possibly want fresh every day.  The deli made fresh meat pies in their varied forms daily.  Move over, Wholefoods! We took many photos. But they would just make you salivate and prevent you from finishing this blog.  If your interested just ask us and we will set you up with a link to the images.

After that, we went to the coastal city Llandudno, a Victorian resort about 30 minutes away.

We checked into St. Tudno hotel, http://www.st-tudno.co.uk/ on waterfront. Besides being a part of Welsh Rarebits collection, it is a historic hotel, but it is also famous that Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the ‘Alice’ in Wonderland character in the books, stayed in Llandudno in 1861. She was eight years old, and on holiday with her family when Charles Lutwidge Dodson (Lewis Carroll) visited the family. Alice Little sat on Lewis Carroll’s lap and told him of her dream the night before.  That dream was written down and we now know it as “Alice in Wonderland ”

st tudnoalice

Sophia Llandudno Pier

Sophia Llandudno Wales

 

 

 

 

 

Day 9, October 22, Llandudno

Llandudno (pronounced “Chlon dud no” ) is a Victorian city that has kept intact its integrity since 1850’s. We walked the lovely Victorian styled and aged pier to the end with its unique shops and arcade style game rooms. At this season, however most of the shops were closed. This is reportedly the best holiday seaside resort in the UK. Its mountainous bookends called the greater and lesser Orme, protects the city’s  climate.  It is also has the legend of stopping and protecting the inhabitants against the Viking raids that plagued other coastal towns and villages in bygone eras.  Queen Victoria brought a present of Cashmere goats whose descendants we saw wondering the greater Orme.

Next morning, we walked at waterfront. There were benches with plaques of people whose family dedicated to departed who loved to be in this pier.  Very thoughtful.

We found a small synagogue that was being used as a retreat by some Jewish school from Manchester, where we chatted with students.

In the afternoon, we met with a driver guide John from VIP services, who wanted to show us “his Wales”.  We were glad to have the day off from driving.  The weather was not raining and less windy but colder about 50’s.  John was born and raised here and was armed with that integral knowledge of the area, history and local stories/fables.

Before we headed out of Llandudno, we passed a restaurant near our hotel and John stopped to talk to the restaurant owner, and introduced him to us as his brother. I had this restaurant on my list to try and asked if he has lobsters. He said will get few for us for dinner.

Sophia Snowdonia tea room GEM entrance church graveyard SNOWDONIA wales Sophia Michael Falls Snowdonia Wales 1 SNOWDONIA mountain lake Wales

He took us through little known roads into the towns, villages, and Snowdonia National Park.  As we mentioned before, Three million people in Wales, 12 million sheep! Beautiful vistas narrow roads and old buildings.

We had a wonderful afternoon with John. We visited some interested churches; he drove us in Snowdonia hills above Llandudno. We went to woolen factory Trefriw Woollen Mill  which was running on turn of the century machinery and hydroelectric power from the local stream through its antiquated water turbines.

We had a tea in a very unique small place “Tu Hnwt I’r Bont “ – Tea Room Gallery,  National Trust Property,  http://www.tuhwntirbont.co.uk/   a very characteristic place in 12th century building. We had tea and welsh rarebits with scones. This was the best Welsh Rarebit I tasted in Wales. We discussed qualities of rarebits (food, not the hotels :-). John said it depends how much beer and mustard it is used by each cook. This one was perfect in my opinion. Scones were hot from the oven, tea was just perfectly brewed and homemade jams and cream were delicious. I started a conversation with two ladies who represent some kind of other tourist attraction nearby which was filmed in the series “Amazing Race”.

As for building itself, it had so much character that it was unreal.  The ceiling was low that Michael had to bend to watch out for the rafters.  It used to be the city hall.  It was right by a 15th century bridge.  Remember with all the rain the water was almost at flood level. We felt like I had visited the Prancing Pony from JRR Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” in the city of Bree.  The place is so entrenched and famous there was photos of the Prince of WalesTu Hwnt I'R Bont Tea room Autumn – Prince Charles enjoying his afternoon tea.  Scones were fresh baked, cream and jam just perfect. We asked for second scone and it came hot from the oven.  Tea was well brewed.

We then finished in an ancient town Betws-y-Coed, with it’s a must see old church 12 century and its waterfalls.   The town itself is quaint but had the usual junky touristy shops. John knew all these small side roads not on maps, the shepherds let us onto their farms observing them corralling the sheep and we went to view this high mountain lake that had wonderful Druid legends from bygone times surrounding it.

We saw another tea room “Ugly House” and visited there beautiful gardens in the back. We saw a waterfall and walked on suspension Foot Bridge.

We saw Conwy castle on the Conwy River in the medieval town of Conwy. It is a mostly intact castle made in four years for Edward I in 1283-89.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle back side

Conwy Castle back

We returned to Llandudno and we had dinner at Seahorse restaurant where John’s brother/  the chef kept his promise and fed us lobster for dinner. It was not on the menu. It was excellent dinner at our last day and we sat and talked with chef afterwards, left him our cards and he said he might take advantage of our offer to come fishing to Florida. I liked his sign at restaurant “Never trust a thin cook!”

Back at the hotel, there was preparation for event “Alice in Wonderland”  new application launch. There were Alice dressed up characters in strategic locations all over town and they camped in our hotel’s lobby. The application is called “White Rabbit” and will be available on apple and android phones. It will be interactive touring in the town starting from hotel where Alice vacationed, a great sightseeing resource for the families.

For more info, see http://www.alicecic.co.uk/town-trail/ .

It seems that every day there were interesting events for us. Never boring!

Day 10, October 23.

After breakfast together with the Alice characters, we checked out and drove to Liverpool. On the way, we stopped in Roman town Chester. It had interesting Roman history. We took hop on/off bus and we visited military museum there. Then after last lunch of fish and chips (sigh), we drove to Liverpool airport. After we left Wales, the roads became busy. We arrived at the airport and had some difficulty in finding the rental car return – they were not well marked. Finally we made it. We returned the car and then realized we need to find a mail box to return our Wi-Fi device. The rental car clerk suggested we take a car and drive 5 min to the office to return it since they are not allowed to take package. We said “we do not want to drive anymore!”. The city driving in Liverpool was a bit exhausting… He took pity on us, and drove us to the post office where we dropped off the package. Then we walked to the terminal (it is small airport but still some walk…). There was yellow submarine outside of terminal – we are at John Lennon airport!  Lyrics from his songs were everywhere on the walls. His music was even playing quietly in the background throughout the airport atrium. That completed our stay in Wales…. I am sure we will come back next time.

Final thoughts.

Why Wales?

I’ve been thinking about visiting Wales for last few years. While most of travelers in UK tend to gravitate to London including some day trips from there, Wales opened my eyes for other opportunities for a destination  rich Norman and Roman heritage, and an unique culture shaped through years of history.

It is one of the most popular European destinations now but Americans only started to discover it. It is not overrun by tourists yet. It offers 641 castles, amazing scenery, steam trains, sheep, national parks with coastal and mountain scenery, excellent local flavors of seafood, lamb and cheeses.

Wales’ greatest contribution to European literature is The Mabinogion – medieval Welsh folk tales came to prominence in the mid 19th century. Their most famous literary figure is Dylan Thomas who wrote poems and short stories including ‘Under Milk Wood’. Other writers to come from Wales include children’s favorite Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff to Norwegian parents and Sarah Waters shortlisted for the Booker and Orange prize for her novel ‘Fingersmith’.  Or for fans of British show Dr. Who or “The Prisoner”.

But the most wonderful asset of Wales it’s friendly, relaxed people. Whenever we went, we experienced good service with smile, and even from people on the street who did not need our business. For example, ladies in Aberaeron “welcoming committee”. The people wanted to know where we came from and were genuinely interested how we loved their land.

Food – was excellent. From regular UK fare fish and chips which we ate a lot – to gourmet cuisine in upscale restaurants, it was well prepared and presented with emphasis on local home grown food.  I liked the most Welsh rarebit, scones, Welsh cakes, and seafood. Michael enjoyed scotch and beers. Cheeses were on a par with French. I liked especially Caerphilly cheese.

Accommodations.

From well known city hotels like Radisson Blue to unique countryside properties of Welsh Rarebit collection, all of them offered good quality hospitality and were unique in its own way.

It is matter of personal opinion, but out of all accommodations, we loved the Harbourmaster the most. It was characteristic, modern, comfortable, and reflected the mood and spirit of local people. We also liked that the pub is the center of life in the town.  We loved of course other hotels but the Harbormaster was just our style.

Itinerary. We covered a lot of Wales in 9 days but if I would have more time, I would add on central part with Beacon Brecon national park. Sometime people just to come to Cardiff and stay there, but it is a large city and while it does offer a castle and museums but countryside is the best.

How to get there?

We came from Amsterdam by air – There is nonstop flight on DL/KLM from USA via Amsterdam.

From London, it is about 2.5 hour by train but for people who already been in London and interested only in Wales, it is better to fly to Manchester or Liverpool. It is also cheaper since London is much more expensive.

Wales also combines very well with Ireland since there are ferries in 2 ports of Wales from Ireland.

Touring

As my profession requests, I always explore different ways of travel so I can recommend to my clients the best choice based on their needs.

We tried:

  • City stay on our own with hop on/off bus, and visit of Castle and Museum
  • Day trip out of Cardiff with Wales Where When minivan tour
  • Self-drive
  • Using local driver/guide
  • Using local friend

My suggestion would be to use local driver/guides. Even though it was interesting to explore on our own, but 3 days with local people really made our touring very special.

We did not mind driving but I can see that the best way to be in a new country is to be with a local guide who loves his country and loves sharing his culture and history. Because you can drive does not mean you should drive. We enjoyed the scenery more at the day with local guide than any other day on our own.  Plus it meant we could also have a beer in the local pub.  All guides we used were excellent with good local knowledge, shared the secret places to see and eat, knew access to special sites and told local legends.

Special thanks to Welsh tourist board and the people who helped us to plan trip discover Wales.

Lauren Summers and Jennifer Minella in New York Wales office

Judith Newton and Tracey Rogers in Wales tourist board

Sioned Williams of Welsh Rarebits

Rebecca Williams and Chef Dai from Bodnant Food Center

John Hadwin from VIP travel services

Jan Williams of Wales Where When

Our local friends Steve and Antonella

Apologies if I missed anyone.

I will definitely will recommend it to visit Wales to all people I will be talking too and hope to come back in near future.

Click here to to our slideshow.

 

Conclusion : I hope this review of Wales will want you to visit it!

Contact me with any questions at info@mytravelfind.com

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’ve been there…. Tastes Differ…
Copyrights Sophia’s Travel Agency, division of EMCO Travel, LLC…@2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luxury escorted tour of Engadine and Piedmont

This is not your usual escorted tour. Created for food and luxury sports car enthusiasts.  Passion for fine motorization – elegant convertibles might be the appropriate choice – surely helps. So does a genuine interest in refined and artful cuisine.

We offer pure fun on some of the most beautiful mountain roads of the Piedmont, the Gotthard and Stelvio region and the Engadine Valley. We also offer enlightening insight views into the the work of two top chefs of Italian and Alpine cuisine – Antonino Cannavacciuolo (Villa Crespi, Lake Orta, 2 Michelin stars) will give you insights into his kitchen while Martin Goeschel (L‘Autezza, Ftan, 1 Michelin star, 18 points Gault Millau) will take you to the world’s highest culinary school where you will experience cooking at first hand.

You will be traveling in escorted small group (maximum 6 vehicles).
We have at our disposal some of the most exclusive sports cars such as AUDI (S5 + R8-V8 + R8-V10), BENTLEY (GT + GTC), LAMBORGHINI (Gallardo + Aventador),PORSCHE (Boxster S + 911 S + 911 4S + 911 Turbo + 911 Turbo conv. + Panamera GTS + Panamera 4S + Panamera Turbo), ASTON MARTIN (Vantage V8 Roadster
+ Vantage V8 S + DB 9 Volante), FERRARI (California + F430 + F458 Italia + F458 Italia Spider), MASERATI (GT + GranCabrio + MC Stradale), MERCEDES BENZ (SLK + SL 63 AMG), MINI (Roadster S), BMW (Z4 M-pack) and JAGUAR (XKR + F-Type V8-S).

Please click here   to see details.

Client’s report on European trip April – May

It is always nice to hear good feedback from satisfied clients . However most of all, we appreciate effort and time taken to write a great long feedback. Hope it will tell our future clients help with travel to Balkans, Germany and Switzerland.

Enjoy!

http://www.emcoinc.com/travel/html/ClientEurope1monthCR.htm

Languedoc-Rossilion, France October 2012 trip report

Languedoc-Rossilion Trip report

October, 2012

Day 1, October 8.

France is one of my specialty destinations and I’ve been many times in South of France and Spain but somehow I never got to see Montpelier and Languedoc-Rossilion area – Mediterranean Southern France between Marseilles and Spain.

Opportunity came up when I completed Languedoc – Roussillon study and needed to visit the region to complete my knowledge. In addition I had some business to do in Spain so it fitted me well to come after Granada to Barcelona to France.

I arrived Montpellier from Perpignan (see my Barcelona trip report  ).

In next few years there will be high-speed TGV train which will link Barcelona with Montpellier in 1.5 hours but for now I took train from Perpignan which Salvador Dali called “center of the world” . I do not think so but this is my humble opinion. Nevertheless, trip was comfortable enough and they announced train stations on the way so I did not miss Montpelier. Otherwise I might end up at final destination Avignon.

My hotel was in walking distance from train station but I did not want to drag suitcase and I took taxi for 7 euros. My hotel Pullman Montpellier, 4*, located next to the shopping center Antigone adjacent to Gallerie Lafayette – my favorite department store!

The rest of the group were supposed to arrive next day but I booked one extra night before trip to explore city on my own including Jewish Heritage.

I walked through the mall to the Place de al Comedie, which is the main square. It has Opera house called “Comedie”, and the square was lovely, in the shape of the egg, that’s why it I’s called “l’Oeuf” (The egg). There was a lot’s of pedestrian areas with cafes. The town had nice building like in Paris or Nice, with neoclassic 19 century architecture. The colorful trams were circling the city and there was nice boulevard with trees like small Champs Elysees and Tulleries Garden in Paris. I had some delicious food at mall’s court.

Day 2, October 9

After breakfast I’ve met Christine, the tourist board representative. Christine and I have been corresponding for some time and she had been very helpful in my research on Jewish Heritage in Montpelier. She’s been successful in arranging few meetings for me.

We went to the synagogue where was Succot service. The synagogue was Sephardic with separate men and women seating. We were on top floor and I watched Simcha’s Torah service.

Afterwards we went to Maimonides Institute where I was introduced to Michael Lancu  who is in charge of Maimonides institute. Michael showed us Medieval Restored Mikweh dated to 13th Century and one of the best preserved in Europe. The Jewish community played an important role in city’s economic development and intellectual influence. First Jews arrived after fall of Massada, in the year of 73 and settled in south of France.  In 11th century, Guilhem rulers of Montpelier declared that who wants to practice medicine, regardless of origin or religion, are welcome to come to Montpelier. As a result, in addition of excellent physicians already practicing in Montpelier, it was influx of doctors from Spain a

nd other parts of France, also teachers, scientists and aphotecaries.  However, there is very strong evidence that medicine was studied in Montpelier long before that, by rabbinical teachers.

The school of medicine was founded in 1220 as a result and it is the oldest surviving Medical School in Western World, being in existence over 700 years. One of the famous students there was Nostradamus.
Currently very popular Museum is the Musée d’Anatomie. The Jewish doctors and teachers played an important role on medical school, as one can see from engravings on the entrance of the school, names of Jewish professors. I saw hallway with its beautiful staircase, a collection of busts of the great doctors going back to Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.), and also plaques showing the names of virtually all the professors of the medical school from the rabbinic period of the 11th century to the present day. I saw a room where graduates took Hipocratic Oath.

In 13th century, Jewish community thrived with synagogues and mikweh were built in the Jewish quarter on the rue de la Barraleir. This lasted until 15 century until Jews were expelled by Charles the V, and they left for Avignon, welcomed by Popes of Avignon.

In modern Montpelier, now, there is small Jewish community, with synagogue and preservation society of Maimonides to preserve Jewish history. That’s where I went with Christine and we toured the medieval treasure – Mikweh, I saw ritual bath, disrobing room and natural water still present there.

We walked through the city, Christine pointed on Vegetarian restaurant (unfortunately no kosher restaurants are available). There was different artwork on the buildings and the street made by local artists. Lot’s of gardens and pedestrian walking spaces and many students.

I parted with Christine until afternoon and did some shopping. I bought some clothes and good walking shoes. It was not time for lunch but I got some delicious pastries in the bakery. I had enough time to get to hotel and meet the rest of the group.

The group had 20 people – agents from USA, all French specialists and all women! It is going to be interesting… Christine came in and we made introductions with Montpelier tourist board. The first activity was a walking tour again but this time we visited 19 century mansion which is now converted in upscale B&B. Then we went to visit Violin maker.

We learned that the first record of violin-makers in Montpellier dates back to 1768, when an anonymous luthier came from Italy to setup a musical instrument and repair shop. In 1792, there were five luthiers, including one woman, with workshops near the theatre, on the Grand Rue and next to the treasury building. By the 19th century this number had grown to over 15 shops selling instruments, though mostly focusing on repairing them.  With its wars, emergence of recorded music and new forms of leisure, the 20th century was hard on the profession. Then local violin making took off again in the 1980′s. Today there are 9 luthiers in Montpellier, providing special orders as artisans and fine instrument-makers. This explains why they are somewhat “hidden” in workshops, rather than on display behind a boutique window. The Violin Maker was 35 year old man his name is Nicholas Gilles and he showed us the parts and process how makes it and he won many awards for his work. These violins are going to professional musicians and cost about $25000. We were told later that he is well know luthier with many orders in USA. It must be very rewarding to have your work used in all countries around the world by famous musicians. Maybe in hundred years, his violins will become thought after like Stradivarius’!

Then we walked back to hotel, also stopping at souvenir shop where we sampled local products and bought souvenirs.

Dinner was at hotel’s restaurant, with various local suppliers taking turn of sitting at each table with agents and talked about their products. There are some interesting offers like biking along Mediterranean cost, wine tasting, and one gentleman owned 4 people barge on canal du Midi. I got good contacts now for clients coming on day trip on cruise ship in Languedoc region ports like Sete for example.

Day 3, October 10.

We checked out from hotel and left for Rivelsaltes, a small town famous for winemaking. We had wine tasting in local winery Caze http://www.cazes-rivesaltes.com/ . It has large estate which produces 14 wines, all of them “bio-dynamic” which I believe translates into organic wines. No chemicals involves in the process or growing, fertilization and natural preparation in rhythm with nature. We had nice lunch there. I liked their muscat.

The lunch was paired with two wines and was delicious. The appetizer was sautéed mushrooms in the puff pastry in delicious sauce. Then came roasted chicken with red wine sauce and mashed potatoes and turnips.. Desert was stewed apples, plum and caramel ice cream.

We bid farewell to winery owners and departed for our next stop Perpignan in about 1 hour drive. This is 2 days in a week I visit this city but at least I saw more than train station!  It has strong Catalan identity. It used to be a Capital of Kingdom of Majorca therefore many cathedrals and manors reflect that heritage. We’ve met local guide there who shown us highlights of the town – Cathedral of St. Jean, a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. We saw a monument to fallen soldiers and victims to Nazi’s occupation. The Catalan Museum built in the town gates in middle ages, looked interesting but we did not have time to go there.

After Perpignan visit, we left for Collioure, small seaside Catalan romantic town in the Eastern part (Pyrenees-Orientales) near Spanish border. It reminded somehow with colors some villages of Cote D’Azur, but without it’s glitz. I read about it but nothing prepared me for the beauty of it at sunset time. The colors of the castle and the fortress on the sea (looked something like Dubrovnik walls), small medieval alley-streets, colorful flowers, sea and mountains in the background were just unreal. No wonder that the King of Majorca in 12th century made it his summer residence. Like other French Catalonia, it became French only in 17th century after Treaty of Pyrenees returned Languedoc to France. It has French and Catalan Heritage (3 languages French, Catalan and Spanish).

The colors of Collioure attracted Matisse who came in 1905, followed by Andre Duran. The town itself has trail of painting of together they produced 242 paintings, drawings and sculptures in and around the village. These works displayed such vibrant colors and brushstrokes that the artists were referred to as ‘la cage aux Fauves’ (wild beasts) and it is from these Collioure  works that the new art movement, Fauvism, was formed.  Some of their work is shown in copies by following a trail that winds itself through the village, with replicas at 20 sites where these Fauvist works were first painted.

The area is also well known for wines and anchovies. Colliore has official 3 languages: French, Catalan and Spanish. There is also forgotten language Occitan.

Speaking and name “Languedoc” – means in “Language of Oc”. Oc was ancient Occitan language which later died. There are only few people left who spoke Occitan in Provence and Languedoc-Rossilion. Nowadays the government encourages to restore heritage and children in school of south of France started studying the language however the generations skipped it is rarely used.

After delightful few hours in Collioure (mental note to myself – come for 3-4 days, do nothing, enjoy fauvism painting, watch the sea, drink inexpensive and very good wine and eat anchovies would be my next ideal vacation)…. Someday… It is a town I can live very happily there.

Next stop was dinner in seaside restaurant La Littorine in Banyuls-sur-mer. The restaurant was nothing remarkable from outside, location is on the water (it was dark and cool already when we arrived), but food pleasantly surprised us. For appetizer, they served local specialty, anchovies. I use to like them growing in Ukraine and could not find anything as lightly salted small fish for years. These were just perfect. Some of my travel companions, probably used to Italian anchovies, asked for more salt and salted it!  The main course was cod, again not everybody’s favorite but I loved it. The desert was Tart Tatin (apple tart) and ice cream. Like our Apple pie with sorbet, only pastry is delicate.

We went to our hotel in La Faucelle 4*  http://www.lafauceille.com/  in Perpignan. On arrival, in the room I found welcome present – delicious macaroons.

Day 4, October 11

In the morning I struggled with bathroom to get shower work. I am getting tired of trying to figure out different shower technology! I almost gave up and sat down in the tub, decided to take quick bath and then I noticed instruction to turn one faucet in certain direction. I did it and it worked, however, the small shower head turned on with such force that it jumped out of my hands and wet everything outside the bath. Quite exhausted after this shower adventure, I dressed up and went downstairs to restaurant. Other people were not that lucky with shower head, it hit something in the bath and shortened fuze and plunged a room into darkness. We laughed it off, however, a mental note – maybe this hotel is not for some of my picky clients.

We are departing for Aude – department of 5 lands named after River Aude with rich history Cathar country, castles and abbeys, cradle of Christianity.

Our first destination was Narbonne, the first town in Christian Community. It is divided in the middle by Canal de La Robine. We visited Roman excavation site and Cathedral St, Jeast et St. Pasteur in gothic style, that cathedral was never finished. Then we visited local covered market with beautiful displays of food.

After Narbonne, we left for Abbaye de Fontroide, privately owned by Fayet family who bought it and restored it. Now it is a cultural center, beautiful gardens. It was founded in 11c by Benedictine monks and later on became Cictercian. It was very interesting monastic town, with everything necessary for simple living. We visited cloister with beautiful flowers, church, rose and herbal gardens. There are also other numerous abbeys in the region – the largest concentration of abbeys in France are in Languedoc-Rossilion.

We had lunch at Abbey’s restaurant  – delicious vegetable tart with goat cheese on top, chicken with curry sauce and Polenta Cakes and mushrooms. French toast in Chantilly sauce and ice cream

After lunch, we departed for our next destination – Canal Du Midi, very popular destination in France, the masterpiece of engineering and Unesco Heritage site. I took barge cruises before and I can tell you it is the most relaxed, quiet and peaceful type of traveling. In summer, lot’s of tourists British, Russian and Dutch tourists come to navigate in the waters of history. Americans mostly take barge cruises with captain and crew, either shared or chartered. Canal was built from 1666 to 1681 to link the river Garonne to the Mediterranean sea, this explains the name “Canal of the Two Seas”,  Now it is flows from Sete to Toulouse over 240 km through idyllic villages, old trees and vineyards. People get of at locks, and bike or walk on the canal banks, used many years ago by horses who pulled barges. The complex system of locks, aqueducts  and bridges, built by Pierre Paul Riquet engineer/builder. He spent 14 years of his life, and fortune into project. It was said that it defied rules of engineering and physics. 4 centuries later it still functions.

On arrival to Carcassone, we took 1 hour barge ride on Canal, admiring scenery and listening to history and engineering explanation.

Afterwards, we went to the medieval town of Carcassonne which was our place for the evening and overnight. Carcassonne built on both sides of the River Aude, occupied since 6C BC. The lower city, called La Cite, is on the right bank of the River and it is Unesco Heritage site, the medieval walled fortress from 11th century with 3 km long walls and 52 tower, impressive military architecture and 1000 years of history. It is perfectly restored medieval town, no cars are allowed within walls, lucky 47 people live there and millions of tourists visit it every year. Every turn afforded new photo opportunity. Tourist must pay entrance fee to enter it, but walk on the the walls is free. There are numerous souvenirs shops with knights and swords which holds romantic warrior memories of the past. At the end of the Cite, there is a beautiful Romanesque and Gothic cathedral.  No wonder Carcassonne was often use for setting of movies, mostly French in 1920’s and most recently, 1991, American Movie “Robin Hood” was filmed there. Walt Disney drew inspiration from the fortress in his adaption of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”.

We checked into 2 hotels in the Cite, Hotel Le Donjon and Hotel De La Cite. I was lucky to be at hotel de La Cite 5*, it is best hotel within the walls, perfect place to savor fairytale atmosphere. It had so many nooks and crannies to explore and I got lost many times, but every time I lost, I found some other photo opportunities like beautiful garden or nice view of ramparts. The room I had was French country style, green and pastel colors, which was facing the yard. I only stayed in castles few times in my life and this one definitely was one to remember! IN the evening when the Cite became illuminated, it was beautiful site. We walked to the local restaurant Brasserie Le Donjon where we’ve met for dinner with local tourism officials. The dinner was local specialty food, Foie Gras on the toast with salad greens, paired with sweet muscat and figs. It followed by Duck cassoulet with sausage, it was delicious. Dessert was Pistachio ice cream.

After dinner, we gathered for drinks at Library bar for digestif.

We had nice breakfast at restaurant adjacent to the hotel. It started to drizzle.. Our luggage was loaded in  small cars to take it to the gates and very soon we were leaving Carcasson towards Gard region – the western part of Languedoc-Rossillion. First stop was small town Uzes, it was pretty and we spent there about one hour. We sat at café and did some browsing in stores in medieval streets.

We continued to Pont-Du-Gard, so well known landmark in France that it is displayed on 5 euro bill. It was built in 50 ad by Romans to allow the aqueduct of Nimes to cross the Gard River. It is a genius of Roman architecture and engineering. It was built to provide the city with water, to create fountains, roman bath and make it prestigious town in Roman Empire. Bridge has 64 arches spread over three levels rising 48 meters above the river and spanning 490 meters. It is a highest Aqueduct Bridge of Roman era. A height commanded by the slope and required water pressure to carry it upward even though the gradient was not regular. As a result, Romans built a structure weighing several million tones with a slope of less than 25 cm per km. It was operating without problems for 140 years! Later on, on second level, the bridge was built.

We had lunch at Pont Du Gard restaurant (region specialty was Bull – tasted like beef). Then we’ve met Pont du Gard monument manager who introduced us to the guide. After learning about history and architecture, we were invited to walk aqueduct. This special activity is not possible for regular tourist and not part of the admission – if you want to do it, it has to be made in advance with Pont Du Gard management and they assign you a guide. We walked 95 steps up on left bank and then walk through aqueduct on higher level. We descended the other bank of the river 75 steps down (spiral stairs). We had great opportunities for photos. Then we walked around the river for more photos and went to the museum. It had interactive exhibits, movies and general information on construction. It is great destination for nature, walks, engineering minded clients, and families. Special group activities also can be arranged. It is indeed is unique site.

We continued to Nimes – Roman town where we scheduled to stay overnight.

Nimes is another ancient Roman city dating back 2500 years ago. It was very important city. Like in Rome, but on smaller scale, it boasts The Magne Tower – part of Roman walls, Roman Temple which dominated city forum, Temple of Diana and old Roman Baths, and the Arene (Amhitheatre). Amphitheatre was built in first century AD and measuring 133 meters long and 21 meters high. It hosted gladiators and other type of ancient fights. Now it is used for bullfights and musical events. We were lucky that one our guides, Danielle who was leading our group all week, she is originally from Nimes, so gave very detailed tour. One of the interesting facts that coat of arms of the city has crocodile and palm which is very unusual for Roman cities. Turned out that celebrating Anthony’s victory against Cleopatra, Emperor Augustus commissioned a coin. One side of the coin showed crocodile with a Palm leaf at his tail, symbolizing Egypt submission.

We had dinner in local restaurant – Onion tart for appetizer and cod in butter sauce with mashed potatoes, desert was flan in a sauce with plums.

We stayed overnight in Novotel in historic center. Good location, but hotel was un-inspiring.

Next morning we left for Monpelier – our final destination.

However on the way, we had one more surprise – the town of Pezenas. It was beautiful small town located in the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc’s vineyards. During 12 years, Molière and his fellow comedians performed in Languedoc and Guyenne. Pézenas was his favorite place of stay because his protector lived there. It is very artistic town. We visited beautiful mansions, one of them housed Louis Xvi on the way to get married.

Pezenas also had good size Jewish community in medieval times, Jews were found in the manufactures and sales of glass, perfume, oil. We walked through medieval Jewish district. There is a sign ghetto but we were told, it is not right – Jews lived in their own community, not ghetto. There is also archeological find of Mikweh, but not officially confirmed yet.

We had lunch in the restaurant/wine bar of new 4* hotel, La Distillierie. The local wines were very good. There was vegetable appetizer with roasted vegetables potato and hardboiled egg. The main course was delicious duck burger. I forgot what we had for desert but I enjoyed it.. J . We inspected hotel and I liked it. It is just short walk bridge on the river and it is very quiet place. Many of the rooms had kitchen so it is perfect to enjoy local market specialties and do light cooking. The town was delightful.

We continued back to Montpelier. On arrival we checked into 4* Hotel Crown Plaza and went for another tour of the city. The highlight of this tour was going on top of Arc de Triomphe and see the magnificient views of the city. We also visited local art museum. There was an exhibit of Carravagio – his work brought from various museums in Europe. The large line of locals, many with children were waiting to enter to the exhibit. Since we did regular museum exhibits, we did not have to stay in line. It has collection of paintings and sculptures 17-19 century and some contemporary sculptures.

The farewell dinner was at restaurant Giraffe in the historic town and it was very nice, we reminisced on the trip, thanked Languedoc tourist members and our guides who made this trip possible. On the way back we took group photo.

Most people left next morning, and I had some time until my 4pm flight. It was Sunday so all stores were closed. I went for a last morning walk in the city. It was animated on Saturday, but today, on Sunday it was marathon and many people were on the street. I did find Monoprix supermarket where I did some food souvenirs shopping. I watched marathon runners at street side café, the weather was perfect. At Art museum Montpilerieans still were lined up, with small children in tow, in the lines for Caravaggio!  I was impressed by their commitment to the art! It is really nice, easygoing city. I will be back for longer time!

Same driver Jean-Paul who was with us the week, came to transfer me to airport, and I left for Gatwick on EasyJet. Flight was on time. I spent the rest of the day at Sofitel Gatwick, too tired to go somewhere and had light meal at Chinese restaurant. Next morning, I went to the terminal by foot. My flight was delayed few hours but I was comfortable settled at business lounge with food and internet. The flight to Tampa was uneventful.

It concluded my next successful trip to Europe.

Special thanks again to Christine Combet of Montpelier tourist board for arranging synagogue visit and opening of MIkweh site and providing all interesting touring of the city! Also to our guides Diane and Danielle from Montpelier sharing their love and knowledge of the region with us for the week.

Photos

Granada and Andalucia, Spain October 2012 trip report

Granada, Spain October 2012

I arrived Malaga from London October 3rd for Cultour conference. This is yearly International conference which showcases different culture region of the world each year. In 2012 it was Granada.

Most participants were European travel professionals and journalists.

I was met with others arriving participants at airport and it took about 1.5 hours to transfer to Granada. On the way I took pictures of pretty Andalusian countryside with white house villages.

My hotel in Granada was Alhambra Palace. It is beautiful 4* palace historic hotel, near, you guessed it,  Alhambra Palace. It was established in 1910, used to be casino, then hospital during civil war in 1930’s, and later a hotel. It is located on the hill and commands great views of the city below. My room had balcony and large bath with Moorish tiles.

I had some time to refresh before going for reception at Alhambra Palace itself (not hotel). I am saying it because some tourists looking for Alhambra Palace, walked into hotel’s lobby and asking if it was THE  palace.  :=)

I was happy to be back in Granada since in previous trips I only visited Alhambra Palace on the way to the next destination in Spain.

Granada was established by Moors in 8th century. At that time Andalusia was called Al-Andalus. It thrived in 13th century ruled by Nasrid dynasty, when many scientists, artisans, merchants and scholars contributed to city’s reputation of culture. 

3 religions – Christian, Muslim and Jewish lived peacefully side by side and prospered until mid-15th century when they had to leave  after Moorish King Boabdil lost to Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. The Catholic Kings expelled Moors and Jews.  Under Christian rule, the city undergone Renaissance in 15 century, however declined in 19th.   The Moorish legacy is dominant in the city’s architecture. Fortresses, walls, mosques and water cisterns, were merged into churches, convents and palaces in a mix of diverse styles as Mudejar, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.

Today it is a beautiful, vibrant city with many tourists and university students. Half of the city’s population is students and there is famous Spanish language University.

Number one visited attraction is Alhambra Palace, Unesco Heritage site. It was built by rulers of Nasrid dynasty and they created their idea of paradise on Earth. It is a magnificent work together of display of water, gardens, fountains and palaces. The brochure provided with your entrance ticket gives some itineraries to better explore it but good guide is essential since it is a large place.  One of the oldest parts of palace is the military area, Alcazaba, then there are also three Nasrid Palaces built in 14th century. Lower and Generalife  Gardens were constructed to be the recreation area for the Granada’s Kings.

Please note, we book many clients there and Alhambra Palace has limited number of people to admit, so it is essential to book tickets in advance.

Other most visited sight in Granada includes Cathedral, it is the first Renaissance church in Spain.

There are also many palaces for example Madrassa Palace in Moorish style, and renaissance and gothic churches and monasteries.

Very interesting in Albaicin old town quarter which we planned to visit after return to Granada in next two days. Also Sacromonte, where gypsies settled is very picturesque and famous for Flamenco.

In the evening, there was reception at the patio of Alhambra Palace at sunset time which afforded beautiful photo opportunities. After that, we went on private after hour tour of the  palace. I never seen it in the dark and it added to almost surreal experience to be there .

Next day work started with full day tradeshow in Granada’s convention center. There were only few Americans, the rest were from all European countries. I have met my colleague from Spain which whom I work for many years. I also met new suppliers from Brussels, Malta, Turkey, Russia, and South Africa. This was small but well organized trade show and I’ve learned about other areas of Andalusia which I have not been yet, for example Jaen.

Second evening receiption and dinner was at Andalusian mansion . We walked back to hotel. I sat at the table with Slovakians, Russian, Latvian and Spanish. Almost no Spanish agents spoke English but they tried to translate menu for us. It was enjoyable dinner.

Next day we checked out and took luggage back to convention center. After half day continuation and conclusion of trade show, we were divided into separate groups depending on which routes we selected for post-show study trip. During registration, I was pondering between 2 itineraries – cultural Jaen and more nature bound Alpujarra Sierra Nevada mountains and I decided to go to Alpujarra .

2 day adventure to Alpujarra  and Guadix – The “Other” Andalusia!

We left for Alpujarra at about noon. Raúl from Granada Promotion and tourist board, led the study trip. The group consisted of 20 people, travel agents and journalists. I was the only one American. Even though English was a common language, about 6 Spanish agents did not speak it and the guides had to repeat everything in two languages.

On the way we were told about this romantic and tranquil area. It was Moors last stronghold in Iberian peninsula and thanks to its isolation, it still relatively unspoiled. High Peaks of Sierra Nevada and Mediterranean breezes protect Alpujarras. The area’s villages are perked on the mountains in different heights, climate varies. Once we were going up in the mountains, the landscape changed, the tropical plants on sea level gave way to fertile farmland in the valleys. On higher land, crops were grown on terraces and large areas were covered by forests. On peaks – up to 3,400 m, only bare rocks were visible.

First stop was Lanjaron, a small one street town, well known in Spain for its mineral water and spa. The quality of waters was attracting visitors since 19th century. We visited spa with mineral waters and did “water tasting”. There were 5 springs of water with different water springs and we were explained that they are all with different characteristics and some waters help with digestive illnesses, some with others. The waters indeed tasted differently.  The spa has treatment programs utilizing waters for drinking and skin treatments.

We stopped in a nice 3* family owned hotel where they did presentation on local cooking and served variety of food. It was delicious. We had some time to rest and talked. After escaping of some political discussion with Brits, I settled with sangria on the sun enjoying beautiful views and talked to lady agent of Denmark. We first exchanged photos and names of our dogs (mine is Timmy, her is Oscar) and then introduced themselves.  Other people came by and we had nice few hours.

Then we needed to go back to the bus. Raúl was trying hard to herd all to the bus on time but some people were wondering in local store. We were a bit behind schedule.

Originally next stop was supposed to be Buddhist monastery. Very unusual for Spain and we were told, located in the beautiful surroundings. However some rains destroyed road there and they visit has been cancelled.

We arrived to Poquiera Valley – entrance to quaint Alpujarras villages. The road was very winding. Fertile valley had abundance of chestnut, walnut and poplar trees – these are Southern Slopes of Sierra Nevada, and the beginning of National Park. The architecture of this villages is organic – they are fitted into slopes of the mountains and irregular shaped house with tall chimneys coming from gray flat roofs – were fitted to build around and into mountains. The villages on steep terraced hillside, were all white, with a lot’s of flower pots.

We got off the bus in first village Pampaneira where we were met by local guide. He told us that village conserves the local tradition of flat-roofed whitewashed houses with crowned chimneys and typical whitewashed stones. There were quite few tourists in this village but it was not that crowded. We saw small shops with local products: ceramics, cane, basket-work and colorful rugs. We visited local bodega to buy local food products. We sampled wine and local specialties – cured ham and cheese. Everything was delicious and the village was beautiful. They are self sustained. The guide explained that the colorful rugs which are specialty of the region – are made from recycled old clothes. They re-use everything.

Then we got on the bus again and went to next village Bubion where one part of our group stayed at “Casa Rural” houses in Bubion village where we were scheduled for dinner. The owners of the Casa in Bubion met us. We had delicious dinner with local specialties. Then Raúl announced who is staying in this place – Bubion Village – and who is going to sleep in next village. Most people stayed in Bubion. The accommodations were houses and some people had to share bath – in 2 bedroom villa, but other houses had more than one bath. 5 people including Myself, one Russian, German, Danish lady (mommy of Oscar), and Hungarian lady were supposed to go to next village small hotel. We went to the bus and we asked Raúl – should not the Bubion people take their luggage? – He said, oh yes, it is a great idea. Leave it to German/Danish/American to worry about logistics!  :=)  . The Bubion group came out and got their suitcases but left their shopping bags.  5 of us got on the bus. We observed shopping packages left from the Bubion group and contemplated to taste their shopping delicacies :- )  – but we ate too much already and decided against it. We arrived to our village Capiliera and saw  a small charming hotel. The name was Finca Los Llannos  Unlike Bubion villas, this is small hotel with rooms, no villas. Someone came down from the hill and helped us with luggage and we got into our rooms. It had free wifi, I checked my messages, I was so tired, and fell asleep.  The room was small – it was single, but very pretty and all material were natural wood and stone.

Next morning I woke up and took shower. I realized that my hair dryer does not work. I called reception, but no one was there. I dressed up and went to reception (all rooms are going to the patio so you need to go outside), it was rather cold. Reception was closed and the sign said it opens at 8. Near my room there were some sounds from restaurant and nice smell of coffee so I concluded there is some staff there. I knocked on Danish woman’s door to complain but she was taking shower and said will be out soon. At 8am indeed someone came to reception and I replaced my hair dryer and went for breakfast. Breakfast buffer while not that much of variety as in Alhambra Palace but good vegetables, cheeses and fruit and they made eggs made to order. German guy and Hungarian lady came out and we compared our experiences. We liked rooms but they were small. Russian came out and complained lack of signs and lack of waiter service at restaurant. I wanted to explain to him it is “Casa Rural” not city hotel but thought better of it.

We finished breakfast and I went to pack. The Bubion village group came on the bus and we were given presentation of Finca Los Llanos.  It was really nice, built in traditional style respecting the Alpujarrean architecture and using local materials with cobblestone walkways.  Besides our small rooms, there were also larger doubles and some suites. They have a swimming pool with pretty views, beautiful chestnut streets, nice gardens with fountains and waterfalls. The scenery around it was spectacular. The hotel manager said there are a lot’s of trekking and walks in the area. The water was used from ancient Moorish irrigation channels. People come here from Granada to stay in the mountains, skiing in winter and only few hours away from Costa del Sol for beaches and water activities. Such a diversity of Andalusia. The area of Alpujarra by the way, is declared by Unesco “Biosphere Reserve” National Park. It is really nice place to rest if you want to be close to the nature. 

We went to Guadix to take jeeps for our next activity was Jeep driving in the desert Marquesado area  of Guadix, about an hour drive from Alpujarras, which is called the troglodyte capital of Spain. The soft local rock lends itself to tunneling, and in bygone centuries, all round Guadix, people built themselves houses not only on the ground, but in the ground.

On the way the Bubion group told us that they had nice nightcap with drinks yesterday night.  The complained on lack of sleep… We even were shown some compromising video of members of the group who drank over limit.  🙂 . On request of person who was compromised, the video was erased.

We took a day trip in 4×4 across the desert in the desert with a visit to the Megalithic Interpretation Center and a tour through the famous scenery of the 70’s spaghetti western.

We had a convoy of Jeeps, 4 people in each Jeep (two people were driving and two were passengers). Raul asked in advance day before who is driving and divided geoup by 4 people in each jeep. I did not want to drive in desert and did not want to drive manual. Our 4 people jeep team was great, 2 guys, one from Prague (originally from Phillipines), and another journalist driver from Hungary. Myself and Hungarian lady were passengers.

There was separate convoy Jeep with the guides. The scenery was breathtaking. It reminded me of Cappadocia in Turkey – same formation shapes with chimneys.  We took breaks getting out, taking photos and admiring the nature.

Here are some photos from the desert.

After desert, we came back to jeeps location and boarded bus to visit have lunch and visit a Restaurant/Hotel which is located in a cave! http://www.cuevas.org/

Probably Tolkien was inspired in these houses to write Lord of the Rings… They are Hobbiton style! We had nice lunch and we were shown apartments made in caves.

Afterwards we came back to Granada. On arrival, we checked into hotel Carmen 4* in the historical center of Granada and we were ready for last activity – walking tour of Albaicin quarter. It is very characteristic Moorish neighborhood in Granada, located on the hill apposite of Alhambra Palace. Jewish people used to live there before expulsion together with Berbers and Arabs. It is the most characteristic Moorish neighborhood left. It resembles old cities of Morocco. The guide was very good, very animated and told us in short time about history, culture, architecture and gave us a perception of the current city. It was Saturday evening and the music bands played in historic center and people danced.

Afterwards we came back to hotel and had farewell dinner at hotel’s Carmen’s restaurant. It was buffet dinner and was somewhat commercial hotel and restaurant but at that point I just needed a restful comfortable accommodation.

That concluded my exploration of Granada and “other” Andalusia.

Conclusion.

I love Andalucia and toured it few times. But besides Seville, Cordoba, whitewashed villages and Costa Del Sol, Granada province has something else to offer. Most people come to Granada to see Alhambra, but there is much more to see in the city and outside in the province… I was impressed by diversity of the area. It has mainland Europe’s southern tip, the highest mountain in western Europe outside the Alps, Europe’s only desert, one of its most important wetlands, some amazing wildlife, a world-famous vineyards and so much more. It is also the home of Flamenco, and of a race of horses that were once the mounts of kings and princes throughout Europe. Even in the mountains, accommodations while rustic, were very comfortable and had internet connection.  It has delicious food, beautiful landscapes and lots of activities to offer to any visitor.  Highly recommended!

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James Bond Tour in London!!!

October 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Bond film, Dr No. Many UK locations have featured in Bond films over the last 50 years and the latest movie, Skyfall, features some of London’s most iconic landmarks.

A special tour in a private vehicle will whisk you away from the crowded streets to some fascinating Bond sites, including:

London Highlights

•              The real-life MI6 building, the HQ of the Secret Intelligence Service

•              The Aston Martin dealership in Park Lane.

•              Ian Fleming’s private club, Boodles where the line, “Dry Martini, shaken not stirred” is said to have originated

•              Shops where Bond buys his clothes, such as Lock & Co. Hatters on St. James’s Street and Turnbull & Asser, the world renowned Jermyn Street shirt maker.

Plus dozens of world famous London film locations used in the Bond movies, including the Bank of England, the Houses of Parliament, De Beers Jewelers, Sotheby’s Auction, Harrods, Lloyd’s, Scotland Yard, Tower Bridge, the Old Bailey, the National Gallery, the British Museum…

Southern England

Sumptuous Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, was the place where the epic golf duel between Bond and Goldfinger was filmed. The giant domeshaped greenhouses at Eden Project in Cornwall were featured in Die Another Day.

Scotland

From Russia with Love was the second of the early James Bond films and the helicopter and boat chase scenes near the end of the movie were filmed in Argyll. Eilean Donan Castle in Wester Ross was the ‘British secret service HQ’ in The World Is Not Enough.

Taking a private sightseeing tour with a driver guide is the way to see these locations in style. Blue Badge Driver Guides give personal attention and courtesy, including hotel pick up/drop off, numerous photo opportunities, and of course the chance to savour each location at a more leisurely and intimate pace.

Email is at infomytravelfind.com   or call 877-466-2934  for your London Tour!

See Rome from the back seat of a classic Vespa!

Discover Rome in an altogether different way by experiencing it on two wheels! http://emcoinc.com/travel/html/Europe/RomeVespaTour.htm

 

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Iceland Trip report

Iceland Trip Report, November 5-10, 2011
Intro
I always wanted to visit Iceland, so when opportunity came up from Icelandair fam trip, I jumped on it.
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. The first inhabitants arrived from Norway in 9th century so Icelanders have Viking/Celt Heritage and culture. Language is Icelandic, which is derived from Old Norse (German-Scandinavian). The present population is approximately 325,000 and about half of them live in capital Reykjavik. Most people speak English so it is easy to communicate. Contrary to expectation that Iceland is cold and covered by ice, the temperatures are mild, average in winter it is 35-45 F. Icelandic climate is temperate. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Iceland’s winters are mild and windy while the summers are cool. Also Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge dividing European and American tectonic plates, slowly pushing the two in separate directions. The ridge runs through the whole country, resulting in volcanic eruptions, geothermal activity such as geysers and hot springs, and earthquakes. There are many volcanoes and glaciers around the country. The landscape is surreal, like being on another planet, with volcanic lava and little vegetation.
So we were off to Iceland! Flight to Reykjavik from Washington took 5.5 hours and there is difference in time 4 hrs (without daylight savings time taken into consideration). Icelandair does not serve food included in economy class, only for sale. So first surprise is – Iceland is closer then it seems and easier to get to. Jet lag is not a big issue comparing with coming from European continent.
Hotel.
Icelandair booked us into their hotel Natura owned by Icelandair. It is a bit off center but we have not had the choice. We took Flybus to hotel. As promised the room was ready at 9am and we had breakfast before getting into room and taking a short nap. I discovered that My t-mobile (Deutsche telecom in Europe) does not work here. But Michael’s AT&T worked. Fortunately, hotel provided free internet so we were OK with communication. Natura is solid 4* hotel. Staff was friendly, but there are no extra services like valet, concierge, etc. The design is Scandinavian minimalist style. It have been recently renovated. The room was small, with a little of closet space. Only shower, no bath tub. No small travel size toiletries, they had two large dispensers – one is soap in the sink and another shampoo in the shower. But it smelled heavenly. It has description on the bottles that it contains natural herbs and oils used in the hotel’s spa. It felt good on body and hair. It is very clean hotel, even outside windows were cleaned and we were on 3rd floor. Hotel is located next to small domestic airport but now I cannot remember any noise from airplanes so sound insulation was good. The Drawback is that it is 20-30 min walk from center. Better stay in the city itself, for example Radission Blu. We ended up taking taxis for about $15 each ride. I checked with reception how to change money but they said we can use credit cards. Indeed, on this trip, I never had to use cash, always credit cards. Even taxi drivers took credit cards and small vendors like water and hot dogs all took credit card. I do not even know how their money look like. It was very convenient.
We had a nap, woke up, dressed to go downstairs for whale watching tour only to find out it has been cancelled. We took cab to the center and enjoyed nice clear though cold weather. We saw flea market, browsed some stores, walked to Art museum. They have 3 art museums and the one we visited was modern art which did not impress us. We walked through the old part of the town, very picturesque, but not like European towns, more like Nordic. Saw “Occupy Reykjavik” tents. It must be cold there. Went for early dinner at Café Paris. Nice meal, busy place. We enjoyed seafood soup, very well prepared Icelandic lamb and potatoes, vegetables. Back to hotel by cab.

Day 2 touring. We met our private guide Oli and went to explore south coast in his 4 wheel drive. He brought cute puppy Loki with him.
First we drove through Reykjavik harbor, we saw new Opera house, very beautiful. We drove past Laugardalshöll Arena where in 1972 World Chess Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer took place and Bobby Fischer defeated Spassky and became chess champion. In my pre-American life I used to play chess professionally and I grew up on studying their games and style so this attraction, maybe not that of much interest to average tourist, was of interest to me. Fischer was a chess genius, despite of his disturbed personality. We talked to Oli about chess and Iceland Grandmaster Fredrik Olaffson, we found out Olaffson was also very popular in Iceland and even served in the Parliament.

We talked about how Bobby Fischer ended up in Reykjavik again after his exile in Europe and then to Japan and USA wanted to extradite him. Iceland offered him citizenship and he arrived to Reykjavik in 2005. He died 3 years later. We asked where he is buried and Oli said in a small church near town Selfoss. It was on our way so we went there. Oli had to ask local policemen for exact location and they talked about 5 minutes about Bobby Fischer. We found the small church and his grave at this church.

We took sandwiches for a road since at this time of the year you have to plan your meal stops. At service station, we got smoked lamb, salmon, herring sandwiches. There were also football (soccer) memorabilia and photos and Oli showed us photo of his father who is a head of country’s soccer federation. We also tasted Icelandic pancake (like crepe) and got Icelandic lemonade with Orange flavor (apelsin).

The weather was changing all the time but it was mostly rain and wind. Oli had a four wheel drive with big wide tires. We went to the famous Volcano Eyjofjallajokul site – which erupted in 2010. On average there is a volcanic eruption every five years and lava fields cover about 11% of the island.

Another 11% is covered by glaciers. We visited Eyjofjallajokul site and we also saw a small waterfall. We continued on south coast and came to small town of Vik where we stopped at woolen factory and bought beautiful sweaters of Icelandic design. Then we went to Black beach where it was dramatic view ocean, waves, volcanic mountains coming out of the sea and black sand. It was raining and windy and the rain was mixed with ocean mist, the colors were all gray and ominous but it was something exciting and dramatic in that view. It is cold for swimming even in summer but the view is spectacular. Oli drove to the beach direct and I started to worry when waves kept coming closer but he got us out just fine.

We continued to glacier Myrdaisjokull, parked there and walked to the ice. It was raining but we got as closer we could get. The ice indeed was white and blue color. Loki followed us.

Northern lights.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights, is unique in nature and for those lucky few who can visit Iceland in winter, there is an adventure worth undertaking. The adventure is far from being realized even under the best circumstances. Besides local condition, low ambient light, no moon, little or no cloud cover, low humidity, rain, snow.

There are other conditions: the number of the sunspots, the suns coronal mass ejections. Given perfect condition, and a substantial amount of luck and timing, you may finally witness the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are the beautiful natural wonder to behold. If this does not give you the expected results, the company has free repeat policy.

Our bus Northern Lights tour was scheduled next day at 9pm but Oli said if the weather will be good, we can watch it from his countryside cottage with coffee and hot tub. However today weather is was bad and we went back to the city. We wanted to eat authentic Icelandic dinner so Oli recommended Sea Baron in the harbor, it was no frills fishermen place, with freshest seafood available, and very basic décor, it is most like lobster harbor shack. They are known for world famous lobster soup. They have display of fish on skewers and you show what you want to be grilled and skewers of vegetables. We had lobster soup which has quite a lot of lobster meat. We also selected salmon, halibut and small potatoes kebabs, and one beer. It cost about $50 for two of us. I considered local delicacy mink whale but was not sure if I like it. The restaurant called us for taxi and we went home. We dried our clothes on the radiator, took a hot shower and went to sleep satisfied with productive day.

Before we went to sleep, we stopped at hotel’s restaurant and completed our progressive dinner with desert: chocolate cake, Apple rhubarb granola cake, ice cream with tea and coffee.

By the way, there are no tips expected in Iceland so there is another plus to paying by credit card and not worry with small bills.

Day 3 touring. Today it was excursion day provided for us in Icelandair package – Gulfoss waterfalls and Geysers. They pick people up at hotel and take them to bus station and the sightseeing bus leaves from gas station. I was concerned about bus tour, but it was not bad. The driver turned out very entertaining, he even sand national anthem. Besides us, there was a young woman from Japan, a woman with two young children from Norway and on the way back we picked up a guy from Taiwan to get them to Reykjavik. I wish we would spend more time there that was my only complaint. First stop was Geysir.
One of the many stories connected with the falls tells about the fight early in the 20th century for their existence, when a foreign enterprise managed to contracted the rights to harness them for electrical production. The spouting hot spring Geysir was claimed to be the biggest one in the world. Its fame spread and other spouting hot springs elsewhere were consequently named Geysir or geyser. The old Geysir has been in retirement for decades, but when it was active its eruptions reached the height of at least 80 m. All around the old Geysir are more spouting hot springs, such as Strokkur, which erupts every 3-5 minutes. The Geysir site has very nice center with museum and interactive exhibits. I especially liked platform where you stand and experience 5.1 Richter scale earthquake shakes. There was a lot’s of information about geological activity but we only had one hour there (more reason to drive yourself or with private guide and go at your own place). We went outside to Geysir site and saw its eruption. Nearby small lagoons had also thermal hot water with different colors.

Our next stop was Gulfoss waterfalls. Gulfoss means “Golden”. It is located on Hvita River. The falls cascade down in two stages. We saw beautiful rainbow near water. There was a photo of waterfalls in winter under snow which was spectacular.

We were driven afterwards through Pingvelir National Park, Unesco Heritage site, it used to be a national parliament of the first settlers, and it is important part of history of the island. The park is also renowned for its geological significance. The area is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, where the continents of Europe and America drift apart, causing earthquakes and volcanic activity. Icelanders believe that this is the place where you can stand between the two continental plates.

After that, we went back to hotel. We had a traditional Icelandic dinner at hotel’s restaurant Satt which was unexpected for hotel’s, excellent Icelandic cuisine. We chose 4 course sampling dinner. The appetizer was smoked goose, tartar of the goose and something else from the goose. It was very good. Second course was lobster with sautéed cauliflower and it was excellent. For main course, I had reindeer with small potatoes, chanterelles mushrooms and various sautéed vegetables and fruit, it was superb. Michael had arctic char and pronounced it also very good, similar in texture to sea bass. Desert was chocolate mousse balls and ice cream. It was excellent dinner.

At 8:30pm we were picked up for Northern Lights tour by bus. There were many people for this tour since few other days before it has been cancelled. The tour took 3 hours and they drove us in countryside, then we had stop in the airport for bathroom break. The night was clear and the moon had strange circle around it. However the full moon condition was not conducive for Northern lights. The company said we can be booked for next tour free of charge until we will see it but we did not have much time. Oli however sent us a photo of Northern Light… The guide on Northern Light tour was entertaining though and told us all kind of Nordic sagas…

Day 3 touring.
We finished Northern Lights tour about 2am so next day was hard to wake up for touring. Fortunately it was private touring with Oli today so we texted him to start one hour late. We had buffet breakfast at hotel restaurant. Speaking about breakfasts, they were included, very good but menu did not change daily. There were soft boiled (4 min) eggs, hard boiled eggs, waffles, cold cuts, great local yogurt skyr, cheeses, herring, muesli and very good breads. I wish though they would have that famous Icelandic salmon.

Oli arrived at 10am and said today will take us to Eastern coast for National Park. We stopped again at service station to get sandwiches just in case food will not be available. Loki the dog did not come this day and we were disappointed. Oli took us to countryside to inspect hotel Ranga. It is considered the best resort hotel in the country. First I thought it is in the middle of nowhere but Oli explained it is a great location for taking day tours. It is about 1 hr from Reykjavik. It is built in the style of mountain lodge and has 52 rooms and suites. We’ve met the manager who showed us hotel.
It is 4* hotel but has a quality of 5*. It has impressive guest list including Bette Midler and John Rockefeller. In addition to regular and superior rooms, we also looked at suites which are themed by continents of the world. The rooms have views of the river or volcano. There are hot tubs (no pool). We were told the restaurant is best destination restaurant in Iceland with locals coming for famous Christmas dinner. The suites were spectacular – for example, Africa suite had all decorations direct from Africa and South America from I think Peru, and North America from Canada and Alaska. Antarctica was a presidential suite in black and white colors and Antarctica theme (nothing was brought from there!). The manager was very enthusiastic and eager to please guests. There are one room and suite for handicapped guests but all suites are on second floor so he said if the guests wish to be in the suite, they will carry them. The hotel has 2 floors and they do not want to have elevators.
There is no spa but there are massages available. Probably lack of pool, elevator and official spa prevents hotel from getting 5* rating, but it is best kept secret in Iceland.

The best thing about this hotel and Northern Lights that guests can see them from their rooms! Provided you have the right view room. Otherwise you come to the lobby but it is not like going in a bus for 3 hours at night searching elusive lights. There was a list for wakeup call for Northern Lights viewing so people ask to wake them up. The hotel has connections with local farmers who will alert hotel re: lights if they see them and hotel wakes guests up to watch from their window. That beats bus tour – this is the way to watch it!

As for activities in summer, there is salmon fishing in the backyard river – the fishing licenses need to be obtained month in advance. Nearby are horseback riding facilities on those special Icelandic horses (considered special isolated breed, gentle and enthusiastic). There are trips to Volcanoes, hiking in the mountains and Glacier walks.

I’ve been looking at it and thought there is the place I can spend 4-5 days and last day in Reykjavik before flying home. I’ve been thinking that for people who considering to go for lodges to Alaska from USA it is great alternative since the weather is warmer, only 5.5 hours to get, Nordic culture, excellent food, European exposure, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, glaciers, volcanoes! And after that people can go back home – easy flight 6 hours or continue to Europe for few more hours’ flight. It is indeed incredible undiscovered destination with friendly English speaking people.

We continued to go East to yet another National Park where glacier melt from 2010 Volcano eruption. To get there, you need to drive through lava fields and rivers. Oli made it with his 4 wheel drive wide tires.
Some of you might remember the crisis that was part of the March 2010 Iceland volcano eruption. The volcano eruption caused ash plumes to flow over much of Europe which created massive airlines no-fly zones. This volcano is just one of the many located in the geologically amazing country of Iceland. Iceland is located and was formed a relatively short time ago on the injunction of the North American and European tectonic plates. Today we visited ground zero and the immediate physical changes of that eruption. Located about 1.5 hour east of Reykjavik National Park approachable by a very rough track of land and rivers that’s accessible by a large tired 4×4 vehicle. I would not recommend it to drive on your own. Few river crossing were scary… His vehicle is called a super jeep and the country worked in conjunction with the auto makers to develop the vehicle specifically for the terrain in Iceland.

The track roughly follows an ancient glacier track and is now a constantly changing riverbed. The river is fed by three separate glaciers. The explosion caused a rift in a huge rock which emptied a lagoon which for 10 of thousands years contained 50 feet deep of water and had small icebergs floating into it. The land we walked on has not seen the light of the sun for countless centuries.

For photos, check our facebook page facebook.com/sophiatravel

The physical ash, small rounded glacially molded rocks and general moonlike craters was beyond belief.

We finished sightseeing by going back to Reykjavik and stopped on the way in a nice lobster restaurant http://www.fjorubordid.is where we had lobster soup and sautéed lobster for main course. It was excellent. Oli dropped us at the hotel and we bid farewell to him. It was time well spent and our guide was terrific. I will definitely will book him again when I will be back in Iceland.

Back to hotel, tired to bed.

Day 4, our last day in Iceland. Breakfast at hotel and check out by 10:30. We were picked up again by Icelandair flybus and they dropped us at Blue Lagoon for few hours of bathing in thermal waters. It was about 35-40F, and raining which was mixed with sleet, and we were sitting in 80F degree mineral lagoon! It was Unreal. The head was a bit cold though especially with snow/sleet falling but the hat would not work  . We left our luggage in storage area and went to swimming area. There are also buckets with lagoon mud so we like other people, spread on our face to use as a mud mask. There was waterfall area as well and special massage area where people are lying down on water mat and being massaged in water by spa staff. There is also restaurant and gift shop on property. I figured that it is better to leave towel inside and use special door going out swimming to lagoon. I did have out in the cold to take photos and it was chilly in swimsuit! Again, incredible activity. I love to use hot springs whenever I had a chance but this was very special.

Afterwards, we showered, dressed up and went back to luggage area and boarded flybus to airport. We checked in flew back home.

Conclusion.
We loved this small country, at perfect location between USA and in Europe. Great food, little crime. We have not seen any homeless people or beggars. It is very clean. Food is good. People speak English. Credit cards accepted. European Scandinavian feel and great scenery and it is close to USA. Icelandair offers stopover packages on the way to Europe with reasonable priced air; therefore you might consider taking advantage it.

It is quite expensive but very much comparable with other European countries and NYC. It is understandably expensive since most goods and food is brought from other countries into Iceland. The local vegetables are only tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. All fruit is imported.

People

Although not that open as for example Italians, nevertheless people are helpful, courteous, and very friendly. The country been somewhat isolated politically from the rest of the Europe. There are discussions in parliament to become members of European Union but there is also an opposition from Nationalists stay separately. They are members of NATO but it is only one member without standing army. In Iceland, army duty is performed Icelandic Coast guard and special sources units for disasters, international peacekeeping and helping. In the airport, customs officers have police badges. During the war, Iceland benefited because occupation forces (British and American) stayed there, built bases, airport and bought local food and services. However, even though Iceland was an ally in WWII but they refused to declare war on Germany since it is against country’s policy. Ironically, 60 years later, they participated in war in Iraq to keep good relationship with USA but US military base left anyway. The people are in tough financial situation after 2009 bank crash and do not like government restrictions, for example they cannot invest abroad and when they travel only allowed taking 200 eur abroad.

Would I come again?

Definitely it is on my list. Maybe on stopover to Europe. Some things I would do different – stay at hotel Ranga or other locations in the country and make a circuit, and finish in Reykjavik for last one or two nights. It is a small city and while is very pretty, the rest of the country is worth spending time there exploring and not coming back to city every night.

See pictures on facebook.com/sophiatravel

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