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Venice Transfers


Venice is amazing city, but the tourists pay more for privilege of seeing it. While other cities have public airport bus, Uber etc, in Venice there are only boats (public and private).

Some thing to consider for Venice

On arrival, we recommend to take pre-booked transfer with private water taxi and assistant. Consider this: you arrive from overseas with jet lag, tired and trust me, you do not want to negotiate public transportation. I travel to Europe every 2 months and I am not a stranger to Venice. Last trip a month ago, I planned to arrive Venice during the day, and take public transportation. My flight has been re-routed from Frankfurt to Zurich due to Lufthansa strike and I arrived later in the day. So much for planning! My hotel was in Lido.

I used Alialaguna (public boats service) before. They are going every half an hour from airport to Lido and Venice Island. After getting my suitcase, bought the ticket at Alialaguna counter (15 euros) and asked when and where is next boat. The lady told me: the dock and next boat will be in 12 minutes (8:30pm boat, 1 hour ride). I got my suitcase, and ran. I followed the signs and got in 8 minutes instead of 10. I congratulated myself on maraphon run and settled in the boat for 1 hour ride to Lido. Then, looking at my purse, to my horror I realized that I do not have a wallet! I left it at Alialaguna counter! I notified the captain of the boat and he already knew about it! The ticket office called him. I needed to get off at 9pm at next stop, Murano and to take next boat back to the airport. Next boat came at 9:40pm. Murano is commuter island and in the evening there are no people. I was sitting at the dock alone. I thought I should not worry about being robbed since I did not have a wallet! Next boat came and I started to explain that I do not have money to pay for a ticket, but they already knew! It took another 30 min go back to airport and kind Alilaguna employees brought my wallet to the dock. I applaud them! They are my heroes!

So, in any case, the boat took me to Lido and what would have been 1 hour trip, turned out to be 3 hours.

So the morale of the story is – take a private transfer! I would not have to deal with ticket, taking out my wallet and if I would need to go back to airport for some reason, I would just tell private boat captain to turn around and go back!

Why assistant? Assistant will meet you at the terminal and will go to the dock and will escort you to you your private boat. Since location of private boat is not fixed, you will need to communicate with captain over the phone. You might find it, but there are possibilities for failure. As your private travel designer, we are responsible for your transfer and we do not want any possibilities for failure. So if you do not want an assistant, we would rather not take chance and will not book water taxi only.

Pay attention which hotel you book at Venice Island if you have considerate amount of luggage.

Some hotels, if better priced and seem centrally located, but might not have access to the dock. In some cases, you will need to take your luggage from the nearest dock to hotel and it might be crossing some foot bridges. If you cannot handle it, check with us for hotel with an easy access. Also hotels which a located on smaller, side canals, and sometimes they cannot be reached by water taxi depending on tides. Also some hotels even located on Grand Canal, but not with private dock, but they use other landing area. Which brings me to the next subject – if you can travel light to Venice, please do. It will simplify your life.

So here are our list of services for transfers. All transfers include private boat, if needed vehicle (for example from port), and luggage up to 6 suitcases. Please inquire for prices – advise date, time, flight or train or cruise ship info, number of people and we will give you exact price. There is a supplement for late night transfer and holiday supplement.

Meet & Greet from Marco Polo airport to Your Hotel
Meet your personal assistant at the arrival hall and, together with your chauffeur, head towards Venice. First by car and then by boat. Your personal assistant will give you first orientation information. Location of your hotel, main attractions to see during your stay, meeting with the guide and so on. While on the boat, enjoy a panoramic short tour of Venice, riding towards your hotel you’ll get to shoot some pictures of the Grand Canal.
(Includes: a personal assistant, Mercedes car with a private chauffeur, porterage service and a private water boat)

Meet & Greet from Marco Polo airport to Your Cruise Ship
Meet your personal assistant at the arrival hall and, together with your chauffeur, head towards your Cruise Ship in Venice. Your personal assistant will give you first orientation information, main attractions to see during your stay, meeting with the guide and so on.
(Includes: a personal assistant, Mercedes car with a private chauffeur and porterage service)

Airport VIP Meet & Greet – it is a great service and clients love it
You will be met and welcomed at the door of the aircraft by our staff. You’ll be then accompanied straight through passport control and baggage claim, to meet your personal assistant and chauffeur, which will wait for you at the arrival hall. Continue with the Mercedes towards your boat, having a porter service for your luggage and enjoy a short ride by boat towards your hotel. Your personal assistant will give you orientation info with all the interesting things going on in town during these days.
(Includes: a VIP service from the door of the craft, a personal assistant, a chauffeur, porterage service and a private water boat)

From Train Station to your hotel
Meet your personal assistant and your porterage service at your arrival platform and head straight to your private water limo. Together, head towards your hotel passing through the Grand Canal. Your personal assistant will give you
first orientation information.
(Includes: a personal assistant, porterage service and a water boat)


Please note – we provide transfer services together with hotel and sightseeing.

Dalmatia Blog September 2016


This report covers my latest trip to Croatia – to Dalmatian Coast. I visited Split, Trogir, Brac, few wineries and Zadar. Other parts of Croatia which I visited before are Dubrovnik and Zagreb which are also worth to visit but not visited this time.

The sites listed here are not in particular order.

Trogir is a small town and harbor, UNESCO Heritage site. It is the city with 2300 years of tradition. Its rich culture is created under the influence of old Greeks, Romans, Venetians. It is located within medieval walls on small island, connected to mainland by one bridge and to the island of Ciovo by second bridge. .    Its Patron is St. John.   As it can be expected authentic Trogir dishes (like all Dalmatian cuisine) are oriented to the seafood.

Below are some images of beautiful  Trogir.


We’ve met a chef Tatiana at the market and went shopping. Dalmatian food is light and healthy, based on Mediterranean diet. Characteristic of Dalmatian coastal cuisine is its digestibility and simple preparation. Fish, meat, or other cooked dishes are grilled or roasted, or lightly sautéed with adding some olive oil. Of course, taste depends on ingredients and all food we were shopping for our cooking class and lunch were on the market, fresh local vegetables, fruit, bread, cheese and seafood. We got sea bream, vegetables and fruit for salad, berries for desert, local cheese and bread. We went to Tatiana’s home which is a wonderful cozy house in the center if medieval town, within the walls, housed in former 13C palace. The tourists were sticking their heads in the front yard…

We dropped food at the house, and while Tatiana’s husband Kiah was setting the table, we went to see this small town. You can see it one hour, but the town was amazing with narrow picturesque cobblestone streets. In the main square, in the center, at the Cathedral, the  men quarter was singing traditional songs. We went to the harbor and saw large castle. We returned, and started to cook. We made staffed eggplant with vegetables and cheese and roasted in the oven, sautéed seabream, salad from fresh ingredients, Dalmatian version of ratatouille, cheese with honey and nuts, mascarpone cream, figs and pomegranate seeds for desert. This was supplemented by local wine, and great conversations.

After lunch, we reluctantly parted with Tatiana (I liked the fact that she has one room upstairs and maybe once I will get back to stay there for few nights. Breakfast and access to refrigerator is included so I can have all cooking classes leftovers!) . But we needed to go to next place.

We went back to Split, and took a ferry from the harbor to island Brac.  Brac is known for its stunning beach Zlatni Rat, on the South Coast of the island in the village of Bol. By getting on the jeep to the top of the island, we enjoyed great views. We visited new hotel Lemongarden (children not allowed there), it is nice upscale hotel on waterfront of Bol.

We saw the hermitage of the Glagolitic Order (Glagoljica – Croatian ancient alphabet) raised on the steep cliff. Blaca were established by Glagolitic priests from Poljica that fled to island of Brac running away from the Turks. In 1552. they established monastic community and in 1570 they got permission from the bishop to raise monastery and church. They produced wine, honey and other cultures – by time they became very powerful and rich. Being wealthy, they built a world known astronomic observatory.  Very unique place!

We continued to Senkovic winery on the island and had wine tasting with paired food. The food was cooked by owner’s young wife and she had the talent of Michelin Chef. The dishes were exquisitely prepared and presented.

We got back to Split by ferry and this concluded our busy and interesting day.

Here is the video of Trogir, market, cooking and lunch.



Split. We had a morning tour of Split with local guide and inspected some hotels in Old Town. Split is unique because the ancient center lies within the walls of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s summer palace which was built in 3c ad. Later on, XV-18C it was ruled by Venice and became as one of the major trading ports and there were built magnificent Renaissance palaces. Habsburg took control in XIX century, and it was well integrated in their empire.

So it is a very interesting town to explore (called Grad), all historic monuments lay within walls of Diocletian Palace and they even have s Sphinx from Egypt. Diocletian owned Egypt, so he could take from there whatever he wanted.  Jewish travelers find of interest a synagogue of Split. We even have a Jewish guide, member of Jewish community to conduct tour and introduce you to local community.

Game of Throne fans will see many spots which were featured in the movie. So Split has everything for everyone!

Here is video of Split

After Split, we left the town for Zadar. One the way we visited Bibich winery in Sibenik  but it the food paired with wine was more like commercial (of course were spoiled by small Senkovich winery) but the wines were good. Looks more like California winery..

We arrived Zadar and checked into hotel 4* Relais and Chateaux Bastion.

Zadar was yet another small town, located on a small peninsula 4 km long and 500 meters wide. It has beautiful Roman ruins, medieval churches and palaces. It had lovely promenade where we spent some time and had a dinner. I loved Sea Organ – so unusual! Designed by local Architect Nicola Basic, it has pipes in stairs, descending into the sea. When water moves, the pipes produce sounds. The sounds increase when large ship or ferry sails by.  We went there by sunset and enjoyed music and lights color.

Here is a slideshow of my trip.



Copyrights of Sophia’s Travel, 2016


Review of Zaika restaurant London

Today I tried Indian restaurant Zaika in Kensington. It is part of Tamarind Collection in Mayfair, which was the first fine dining Indian restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star.  I settled on tasting menu which makes choices easy: they bring you everything on sample menu so different dishes can be tasted.

From their website quote:

True to the name, Zaika of Kensington offers authentic flavours of the subcontinent with an emphasis on refined, creative and contemporary cuisine from the Awadhi traditions of Northern India. Awadhi is heavily influenced by the Mughal and Nawabi styles and offers preparations that are an indulgent mix of flavours and spices, creating gourmet spreads that may be described as nothing less than royal. Served in fitting ambience too.

Zaika first opened its doors to diners back in 1999 and is one of the few Indian restaurants to hold two prestigious AA rosettes. It wasn’t until November of 2012, that Zaika joined the ranks of Tamarind Collection. And the reimagined Zaika is now ready to welcome guests with a menu that features all the usual favourites and some new ones. Under the able guidance of Head Chef Shoeb Haider, Zaika is all set to serve epicurean delights that are sure to satisfy even the most sophisticated of palates.

That alone get me drawn to this place to try it.

First came chips which had pleasant unusual taste, and light texture. They were potato/chick peas chips and came with 3 types of chutney, one of which was bettroot.


First starter was a plate with 3 items:  Channat Chaat – siced chickpeas, with yogurt ad tamarind chutney, POtato and Green Peas cake , and Malai Tikka – Tamarind chicken. All of them very good. They were complimented by spicy mint sauce.


Second started had Tiger Prawn and Smoked salmon baked in Tandoori oven. Prawn was large and had texture of lobster. I think Prawn was overpowered by Tandoori Sauce but salmon was nice and tender. These are all small sample by the way!


Next came Main course with samples:

  1. chicken tikka simmered in sauce of browned garlic, tomato, cream and spices. It was very good.
  2. Lamb simmered with spices , yougurt and red chile paste. It was a little dry at least more dry as I expected. Sauce was good.
  3. Saag Paneer with spinach, garlic and cumin  , it was good
  4. Very tasty vegetarian dish – black tiny lentils –

The main course was served in attractive stainless steel small pots and accompanied by Naan bread with truffles (at least it tasted like truffles), and basmati rice. It was good to soak sauces in rice and naan.



I washed this meal down with a glass of Rose wine.

Desert was brownie and hazelnuts, somewhat moist. I prefr haselnutys crispy. I am i general not fond of brownies, but they were on the bed of very good chocolate sauce and it helped 🙂 . And, Mango Ice cream was delicious.


After dinner, they also served raspberry petit-fours and small chocolate shells with cinnamon cream inside. Delicious.


The sophisticated decor is a mix of modern and British colonial , with large windows, nice photos on the walls.  Bathrooms have Occitane toiletries and very nice. There is touch of incense smell in the air.

I recommend to try it even if you are not usually eating Indian food, it is a great experience.






Review of KItchen W8 restaurant, London

Kitchen W8 report, London, Kensigton

In search of interesting restaurants in London, I came across this one:  Kitchen W8, which is One Michelin Star restaurant.

Chef is British, but it is modern European cuisine. Décor is bright and modern. Good service. I came for lunch so I opted for 3 course tasting menu.

The bread and butter came in. Bread was excellent, whole wheat, crispy crust and light texture inside. Butter had few salt specks on top.

For appetizer/first course I chose Mackerel.  It was listed as “scorched fillet of Mackerel, Peanut, Blood Orange, Seaweed, Mussel and Monks Beard”.

Mackerel was exquisite, very tender. It was somewhat salted, with hint of herring taste, very light. It was placed on top of delicious white sauce with trace of seaweed taste and some delicious small pieces of either marinated apple or something similar in taste.  On the sides were mussels baked in pastry.  Everything was delicious, and I used that excellent bread to soak the rest of the sauce.


Second course I chose Slow cooked duck leg with Tokyo Turnip, Young Chard and Smoked beetroot.

Duck leg was small, perfectly cooked, with crispy skin, not too much fat underneath, maybe it was young duckling? The meat was tender and was just falling of bones. It was perfectly complemented with smoked beetroot. I never tasted smoked beetroot, but it was delicious.  Sautéed Swiss chard was surprisingly very good.


There was though turnip which I was not excited about. I tried to savor it, it was perfectly prepared, but I still think some small potato dish would work better especially with smoked beetroot. There is Russian potato beet salad which I like so this taste combo is familiar to me. Maybe not for everybody though. But duck was excellent.  I again, cleaned plate with bread.

Desert was  Pont D’Yeu – it is very nice and tender French goat cheese, served with carrot chutney, sunflower seeds , few springs of rocket and wafers. Wafers were toasted Hazelnut bread slices crispy, but at the same time brittle. It was again excellent choice.


I did not order wine, and had sparking water with lemon – local KIngsdown water bottle.


I finished with cup of tea. It was steeped in the teakettle, just I like. I only wish they had thin porcelain cups not thick ones. I believe tea is better sampled in thin cups.


Bill came in with chocolate truffles, crispy outside and some liquid chocolate inside, delicious. Looked like homemade..

The best part, the price is bargain for London, especially for 1 Michelin star restaurant. It was 25 GBP. Plus mandatory 12.5% gratuity but I would pay for it anyway.  Tea and mineral water was extra.

It is located in a 11-13 Abingdon Rd off High Kensigton st.

Service was very good and bathrooms are clean and nice.



Highclere Castle – Downton Abbey and Ritz Carlton

We are delighted to announce an exclusive experience with Ritz Carlton with Highclere Castle or ‘The Real Downton Abbey’, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  Guests will enjoy a three -course lunch accompanied with wine in the state dining room at Highclere Castle.

An expert guide will give a private tour of The Egyptian Exhibition, (which explores the fascinating discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1922), followed by a selection of the magnificent state rooms. Guests will also be able to explore the grounds of the Castle.

Downton Abbey has developed a close relationship with The Ritz, beginning in the fourth season, when a young footman won a place at the prestigious Ritz Academy to receive training in the hotel’s kitchens and, culminating in the finale of series six, where key scenes were filmed in the beautiful Ritz Restaurant.

This package includes:

  • Two nights’ accommodation at The Ritz with arrival on Monday 29th February 2016
  • Dinner in The Ritz Restaurant on Monday 29th February 2016
  • English Breakfast each morning
  • Coach transfer to Highclere Castle on Tuesday 1st March 2016
  • Three-course lunch with wine in the state dining room at Highclere Castle
  • Private tour of Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and setting of acclaimed British television drama Downton Abbey
  • A private photographer and your own photographs to take home
  • An exclusive Ritz Gift

This two-night stay starts from $6400  for one of Ritz Carlton beautifully appointed Deluxe Rooms, inclusive of Value Added Tax, based on two people sharing, and is available for guests arriving on 29th February 2016.

Reservations are non-refundable and must be pre-paid and confirmed by 29th January 2016.
Email for reservations: or call 1-877-466-2934

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

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


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:

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

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



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Africa Travel – Safety tips

In light of recent events, We would like to express condolences to the tourist killed by lion in South Africa’s park. We feel sorry about loss of the life of young woman.

The tragedy happened in Lion Park which is not a National Park, but a tourist facility which basically operates like safaris in vehicle in USA. Our clients are not booked there.

For tourists traveling to Africa on safari, we would like to remind about safety rules.

Every safari has an element of danger but it is one of the life’s great adventures. Surrounded by open landscape, amazing scenery and untouched beauty, trip to sub-Saharan Africa changes your life.

While most animals on safari you will meet are dangerous, especially watch for the lion, elephant, hippo, buffalo and crocodiles.  Also watch for a baboon – these are more like pests, but they can attack you for food or camera. They have sharp teeth!

Wildlife is potentially dangerous, but as long as you adhere to what you guide tells you, you will be safe.

Your guide knows animals, and he tells you exactly when it is safe to approach some animalsor when it is not. Example: A young elephant in mating mode is dangerous. A female elephant or lion are dangerous. Other situations with can be safe. Listen to your guide! Africa is not a zoo and the animals might attack you.

  1. In National Park (for example, Kruger, Serengeti), always folllow the rules of the Park
  • If you are not in a open safari jeep, keep your windows closed and doors locked.
  • We recommend tour with the guide and appropriate vehicle. Some tourists were seen in Kruger National park in red cars. It might trigger animals attack.

However, IMHO I personally would avoid parks which allow tourists to drive their own cars.  I would stick with safaris in private reserves with their own guides and rangers. While it is huge territory, private reserve’s rangers and guides know it well.

  1. On Safari in private reserves (usually done in open air vehicles like Land Rover Jeep):
    • Sit in the car, until you are allowed by guide to stand up or leave the car. The animals are used to the car since birth and they consider it as one unit. When something changes, it can trigger attack.
    • When allowed to leave the car (sundowner for example), stay with the group.
    • If need to use “a bush”, ask for designated spot. The guide will check it for you first, then tell you where to go.
    • Do not wear bright clothes especially red.
    • Pay attention to the guide (again!!!)
    • Do not leave any waste
    • When walking, always stay with a group and watch your back. The group usually has a guide in front and in the back.
    • Never tease animals.
    • Never feed animals and do not eat until you are allowed to get out and eat in safe place.
    • Keep your voice down
  2. In wilderness lodges or tented camps, remember – you are on animal’s territory. People and animals live side by side in harmony. With that in mind:
  • In the dark, guests are not allowed to walk themselves. They are walked by lodge’s staff. This is regardless of whether it is a simple tented camp or even a luxurious safari lodge, you will be escorted. This is because many of these lodge are in prime spots close to rivers or waterholes which are obviously attractive for the wildlife. Everyone wants to be able to see wildlife from their deck but that means that safety at night is very important.
    • Close your door or zip your tent. This is also to avoid of getting of those pest monkeys into your room and going through your things.
    • Never feed animals
  1. Always wear sneakers and socks when walking around the bush, there are can be snakes and scorpions that could bite you.

Besides safety rules, a reminder: Just because you paid for safari, it does not mean you will see all animals. Remember, it is not a zoo! They are not paid to show up at your convenience. Be patient.

I hope you will enjoy your trip and be safe.

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’s been there….
Copyrights Emco Travel, LLC..

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Tuscan Spas Report

Review of Fonteverde Spa Collection resorts


I am a travel consultant so I travel on business trips often. I inspect hotels so that I may personally recommend and promote my favorite properties. I know, tough life   but someone has to do it!

I do not take chances of sending client to places I have not personally been.
Our motto is “We know what we sell!”


When I met the Fonteverde marketing representatives on Luxury Travel show, we’ve discussed why it is difficult to get Americans to these luxury spas. These are gorgeous hotels, each in their own right, in beautiful locales, with great food and mineral waters.

While they are very popular with Europeans, for some reasons Americans are not interested in them, even though they are looking for spas in USA and Caribbean. Maybe it is a cultural thing. I was brought up in Europe and spa meant to stay in resort for at least a week, drink mineral waters or bathe in it, have massages and mud wraps. Different mineral waters are used for different illnesses (liver, arthritis, etc…).

Americans like to go to spa only for massages, relaxation, diet and vigorous exercise.  In Europe and Israel, people like to eat healthy but well, recharge, relax, drink waters and use massages and mud.

We concluded that when going to Europe, Americans are very busy, sightseeing and running from one place to another trying not to miss anything. That’s why spas are popular with Americans only on cruise ships since clients are “captives” of the ship and have time to relax.

Resorts listed in the order visited.

Grotta Guista October 3-5, 2013

Day 1. I arrived to Italy after traveling in Bulgaria,  Macedonia, Romania and Moldova for about 3 weeks. It was intense exploring, meeting with my suppliers, walking a lot and moving almost every night to next place. Therefore I was looking forward to stay in spa for 2 days before moving to my next exploration assignment in Italy.

My plane landed in Fumicino, Rome airport from Chisinau, Moldova. Flight took only 2 hours and was uneventful.  Probably only Eastern Europeans clap when plane landed 🙂 .  Passport control was almost nonexistent for me, he just waved me through with my American Passport (they paid more attention to Moldovan and Romanian passports for some reason). I proceeded to exit to train station.  I asked the cashier for first class ticket through to Montecatini Terme Monsummano but later I realized she sold me second class. I thought it was too cheap. For some reason she asked 60 euro by credit card and 6 euro cash. Not sure why and she could not explain to me.

Fumicino train station does not have good signs. I was looking for Leonardo Express. There was some ticket official taking tickets and pointed to the train. I asked few Anglos  If this is to Termini and no one seemed to be sure, they just were herded like me to the train. Finally I noticed sign on the train, Leonardo. The ride took 20 minutes to Termini and then I was changing  for my train to Firenze.  Few info booths had long lines. I only had 20 minutes. I was able to figure out from ticket machine train and info. The track was number 2. But nothing on the display. Finally about 10 minutes before departure, the track showed up but it was 9. I had to move to track 9. I congratulated myself for traveling with a small suitcase.  I knew I need to look at train no, and not direction, since my train final destination was Venezia not Firenze. Anyway I got on the train and 2 hours later I arrived to Florence and same way in info machine figured out which train goes to Montecatini (train to Lucca direction).

That was regional old train and no announcements in English. Italian would be good as well (names are names) however it was lot’s of static. No tourists were on my train but kind Italians told me when to get off. I got off at Montecatini, it was already 8pm and called hotel to send a taxi. The taxi came in few minutes – 30 euros for taxi (it is a bit off town). I still had time for dinner which was included in my room cost.

So I arrived! While it was OK for me, I do advice to my clients to avoid stress of using public transportation and schlepping your luggage – book a private driver instead. After all, it is supposed to be your relaxed vacation!

The food was beautifully presented. I opted for Rabbit and Greens with truffle salad and risotto for second course. Desert was forest berries in apricot sauce.

I went to my hotel room and started figuring out how things work. Finally after previous countries I’ve traveled these weeks, I got new and easy to use safe.  Hotel is a former noble mansion so it has high ceilings and tall windows.

Nice touch was that in the bathroom there was a separate faucet with mineral water if one wants to take a mineral bath in the room! Later on I found out, this amenity starts on only their deluxe rooms.

The room was lovely but not business traveler friendly. Lights were not that bright and outlets not convenient. I had to climb under the table to set them up.  Also my European plugs did not work, hotel had Italian plugs. I called the front desk and they delivered local adapters.  My usual routine in new hotel room to settle – to set up my chargers, internet was finished.

Internet was only with cable for my laptop but wifi did not work (even though they gave me a code). I left it this task to fix for the next morning.

Someone prepared my room for sleep and closed shutters in the windows (from outside –wooden ones and from inside shutters plus heavy curtains). It darkened the room. I tried to open windows – I like to sleep with windows open when possible and wake up with natural light. After few minutes fight with the window, I gave up and went to bed.

At night I woke up with really bad toe cramps. I do not think I was dehydrated since I almost finished large bottle of Pelegrino and did not have any wine. I know wine dehydrates me. That also disturbed my sleep. Maybe too much of walking and climbing hills, cemeteries, monasteries. I promised to take care of myself for the next few days.

In the morning, I woke up at 6:30am.  I managed to open windows and it offered beautiful tranquil view of the garden. So mission 1 is accomplished windows are open and there is light.

I had breakfast, it was usual breakfast fare. Few things stood out – fresh squeezed red orange juice – darker than blood orange – it was delicious! I also loved ricotta and Italian bread.

After breakfast I went to the reception and figured out where wi-fi is. It was at the bar, so at least I was able to upload some of my phone photos online. They also have their own computer with printer for use if needed. I asked for local information and was given maps and shuttle info.

At 8:30am I promptly appeared at reception where supposedly daily walks took place. Turned out only I was there so instructor took me for a private walk. I had to work harder:-)  . We walked 30 minutes in the trails of hotel’s large property and there also were many stations where you stop and exercise. Walk was  mostly up and downhill and some parts in woods with rocks and roots so it was a good workout. I am not a stranger to climbing and walking, so it went well.  Beautiful Tuscan fall weather made the whole workout very energizing.

After walk I came to hotel and went to check out Grotto. It is natural phenomenon  – a thermal steam bath .

It was unique experience, however I wish they spent more attention on explaining how this grotto treatment works. The attendant at grotto did not speak English. He told me to change into robe. Robe was from very nice, soft material and was warmed… He told me to leave my bag with personal things at the lockers. I had my phone there so I hoped it will be still there. …Then he pointed me to go to grotto and mentioned something re: time limits. Not knowing what to take, for how long (he did tell me the limit in Italian but my limited Italian did not register that number).  Finally he gave up and sent me with another Italian guest – just follow her. I asked if I should take my glasses (for example, I do not use glasses in sauna or hammam). He said no. Then I saw the lady I was following had glasses, so I took mine anyway. I was glad I did. The walk through grotto took about 10 mins and I would not see well. The temperature and breathing pattern was changing as we walked. I was not sure how long we walked until I saw group of people in robes like me sitting in chairs doing nothing. Some read under dimmed lights. Some had water. Now It would be nice for me to have water at least!  The Italian lady sat down. I thought it is grotto to swim and I asked if I can find swimming area but got reply – no swimming.  It was not what I expected. In hammam I do not like to sit more than 15 min. Here I did not have watch, no water . It was  a cave , with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites .  So I sat and then in a while I started to sweat. I was not sure how much time passed. I can tell you for claustrophobic people it would not have been positive experience. I am not claustrophobic though. But… I sweated enough in my robe and I think it was time for me to go back. Besides main road, there are other cave paths so I was afraid to get lost. I have bad sense of direction in nature. In cities I am better and in airports the best  🙂  .  Michael usually leads in woods..  but I was alone here. I imagined my robed body left in cave for long time 🙂 . So I decided to wait until someone will go back and I will follow that person. This did not happen.  So I started my journey back. I remembered some landmarks. I only got lost once.  I got back and retraced myself on main road and exited. The attendant was there and he met me like a long lost friend. I asked him to take photo of me in the robe…

So my recommendations later on to management of this hotel was:  Would be nice for them to put some signs and explanations in English.

But this is my job to inspect, test properties and then tell my clients what to do and give recommendations to hotels and tour organizers . There is some dangerous element in this job and I accept it.  🙂 .

After my grotto adventure,  I tried to find spa reception – it was kind of large area but most attendants did not speak English. Finally I found one with decent English and she showed me around. There were some lockers but no signs for men or women (maybe they were unisex – private ones).  I went to the thermal outdoor pool which was nice temperature 90F and air temperature was 60F .  I met a couple from Israel and we ended talking for about 30 minutes. They already been in many Tuscan spas. They told me to go and check out Montecatini Terme spa Tetuccio which I already had plans to check out tomorrow.  They warned me it cleanses body so one needs to be near the bathroom. Would not work for me.  I “got no time for this”  LOL .  After pool I went to spa reception and made appointment for 2 massages – one neuromuscular body massage and second facial toning massage back to back. It was very pleasant and made me relaxed. In fact so relaxed that when I started dressing up, I lost one of my rings – it bounced on marble floor and I started crawling all over the floor to find it.  It was semi dark. I felt level of stress raising, finally I called massage attendant and she found it for me. I also asked her to put back necklace on me since I did not want to get stressed again!

So hopefully this massage will help me with feet cramps. I decided to skip lunch since they had delicious apples at reception so I will have apples until dinner. I will also try to catch up on my sleep. How  nice is today so I do not need to go anywhere!!  Instead of going back to mineral pool, I will probably just run mineral water in my bathtub…. Life is good.

On the way to my room, I met housekeeper and asked (in sign language plus some italian words) to change my wet spa towel and also showed her window and said do not close anything. So with night bed turndown it worked, however I realized there are some mosquitoes and ran back to the room before dinner to close it . The housekeeper was there and we again concurred that it is better to keep windows closed because of mosquitoes.  But without wooden shutters!

Dinner was again antipasti buffet. Excellent tasty vegetables and bread. For dinner courses I chose Tuscan bread and tomatoes soup and steak with foie gras dressing and it came with small roasted potato , sweet yams puree and string beans. All beautifully presented and delicious. Steak, as I requested, was rare.  I complemented it with Montalcino glass of red wine (suggested by sommelier).  For desert I chose chocolate soufflé, and it was delicious.

I watched the clientele, most were well healed Italians. Casually but nicely dressed, women better dressed then men. No shorts allowed but many wore jeans. I saw some guests with small dogs but I did not noticed dogs in the dining room. Only one family with 9-10 year old and he was well behaved.

Spa unlike in Germany is with swimsuits.  Even for massages they either give you underwear or you can keep yours. Italians I guess are more prude then Germans or Eastern Europeans.

After massage and dinner I went to the room, and soon fell asleep.  Once I turned lights off, I opened windows and fresh air was pleasant.

Day 2.

Morning was breakfast buffet similar to yesterdays. Most items are included in half board but there are some extras for payment prepared on request.  After breakfast I went to the thermal pool and enjoyed it without crowds, mostly being by myself.  I discovered different jet areas with different massage jets. The temperature outside was about 60F but the water was so nice and warm and jets massaged whole body. You can even float and being massaged by jets. Very clever. In about one hour, the guests started coming in, so I left.

At 12:15pm I went downstairs to get hotel’s shuttle to the town to explore Montecatini Terme.

montecatini termeThe driver dropped off some people at train station and next step left me at Municipio. I walked on main street, pleasant town something like Baden Baden.  I went to main spa complex Tetuccio  where people drink water (not for swimming).  I walked nice boulevard with many trees. Something was going in the  town, with police showcasing their car – Lamborghini!  Italians took photos seating in it.  They have nice stores but most of them were closing from 1:30 to 3:30pm. Siesta! Rain started and I took refuge at Restaurant Don Chihotte where I had nice pizza. There were some Americans sitting and talking over each other’s tables which somewhat disturbed my tranquility. One woman was talking with her hands and knocked down bottle of wine.. After finishing my pizza, I went towards minicipio where driver was supposed to pick me up in 30 minutes. Rain continued so I went to another café to get espresso and some cookies which looked like American biscotti but they were soft and delicious.  So I passed time and caught the shuttle and got to hotel.police car1

I went for dinner, that evening I chose Homemade Tuscan pasta with wild boar sauce and tomatoes, it had small chunks of boar meat and it was very tender. For main course I chose Seafood – Prawns and shrimps and it was very good.  Desert I chose crème Brule vs. spa offered fruit … I did not make best food choices but they tasted so good…

I fell asleep immediately after I got to my bed.

Next morning, I went to breakfast in my robe (it is allowed by hotel – nice touch). I was going to enjoy my book with meal but neighboring table had 6 Russians who disturbed my tranquility… I did overhead their conversations that they love bread so much so they will look at opportunity to start French and Italian bakeries chain delivering bread daily. Must have been some business men with their wives.

After breakfast I still had 1 hour to enjoy mineral pool and at 10am I checked out and took taxi to my next destination – Pisa De Bagna, in Guliano Terme.

Need improvement: Wi-fi in rooms, Better light Better adapters to charge – need to crawl under the table to plug them in. Would be nice to have spa orientation (grotto, pool, treatments, more signs) in English especially grotto instructions

I loved: Thermal pools, Food and service, Apples and water , herbal tea available during the day, Robe and slippers size to order. Mineral water faucet in my room (not in all rooms, starting at deluxe)

Bagni di Pisa

After being relaxed for few days in the spa, I did not feel like schlepping by train. Hotel booked for me a driver to get to the next spa In Pisa, which took about 35 minutes.

There was some antique fair / market in front of hotel. Later I understood the village is very small and everything is outside of hotel.

Receptionist greeted me and announced that they upgraded me to a suite. The suite was tremendous, living room with TV, hallway, bath with separate shower and huge bagnipisamyroombedroom with another TV. It had historic value I believe because ceiling had frescoes. They were lighted by special lights in the corner. It was gorgeous however kind of wasted on me since I have small suitcase, cannot remember where I put my things for 2 days, so I kept my things near me in the bedroom.  I can watch only 1 TV 🙂 . But it was very kind of them. I loved huge bed, high ceilings and large windows which I opened and it was nice view .

Each guest is given kit (slippers to size), robe and bag to carry with you. They give you a cap, and require to wear them in the pool.

There is a safe in the room to keep all valuables.

I went for the spa orientation with  Spa Manager Edouardo. They do it for each new arriving guest.

Spa is large. It has section for hotel guests only and also for outside guests (robes color are different).

The main attraction of course, are mineral pools. They have 2 parts – Eastern and Western. There are different mineral pools with hydro massages. One is saline water. Various jets are positioned in the thermal pool so they good for massaging back, feet  and legs. Some jets produced bubbling water so I just floated on it. Even outdoor pools are used year round because it is naturally warm water.

There are various treatment rooms for massages, inhalation, mud therapy, etc.bagnidipisa

There are herbal teas stations in the spa – loose herbal tea – three varieties. You put them in the bag and add hot water from dispenser, so in few minutes your herbal tea steeped in… Also water and apples and oranges available.

There is also ancient hammam – grotto (Grand Dukes Hammam), a small natural cave with thermal water pool for thermal water steam bath.  This grotto was discovered only few years ago. The attendant took me there and left for 20 min (this is max recommended)

They have weight loss packages with delicious low calorie food, deter body and exercise.

There is internet (cable connection in the room), wi-fi in the bar. Also computer in the lobby . You cannot really call it lobby, it is like palace parlor with very cozy corners and couches. It is historic hotel.

Room had good lights,  Italian plugs but some rooms also have round European plugs (schuko outlets).

TV’s have same program, as Grotto Guisto, enough channels in English and other languages.

Food  is gourmet. There is vegetarian menu, wine pairing menu, low calorie menu.  Other choices are available as well. On my first night I chose Appetizer – Octopus in tomato culis, with almonds. Second – risotto with tomatoes (not tomato sauce but really infusion of tomatoes).  Main course was sea bass with mussels and small patch of mashed potato with saffron in the middle. Kind of strange combination but it came off very well together. They also offered complimentary Proseco to taste and small appetizer compliments of the chef – some tartlet with salmon. For desert I chose Panna Cota with berries. Everything was good. The waiters are very attentive especially for me as a woman traveling alone. They draw in a stool for a purse, gave me some tourist info to read while I was waiting for my course and waitress was taking care of clients immediately as needed. I was watching how carefully waiters moved and worked.

20131007_082554Breakfast was nice as well, with organic produce, items for Mueslix, excellent breads and sweets. There was separate table with gluten –free products. Gluten free diet requirements are also accommodated here.  Very health oriented.

Overall, this hotel had very refined atmosphere with mansion – high ceilings, large windows, lots of air, and beautiful gardens with olive and citrus trees. Like Grotto Guisti, they also offered walk in the morning.

I needed to go to airport early for 6:30am flight, so they told me will wake me up and will prepare tea and breakfast box. Very thoughtful.

Outside is a small village San Guiliano Terme and it is about 10 min walk to the train station (1 stop to Pisa San Rossore 5 min ride). I was contemplating to go there but the lure of spa and thermal pool was stronger. I did walk the village and ended in nice pizzeria, I had pizza there – excellent crust and I chose Marinara topping (like American but instead of tomato sauce – real crushed tomatoes, and mozzarella).  I ate only half of it and the rest they packaged to go. I crossed the street and found gelateria and treated myself to gelato.  Now I have snack until dinner – half pizza J

Clientele: Italian (some families), German,  Russian, Israelis… People who appreciate balneotherapy. Mostly well-heeled.

Fonteverde Spa.

It was my last spa on this trip. I found it so far the best and more comprehensive hotel.

I got privilege valley room, small but well appointed. Great working space and plugs right at the desk, very convenient. The window afforded beautiful valley view as description promised. It came with 2 robes and 2 pairs of slippers, very handy.fonteverde

I met with sales manager Ursula and we went on a tour of the spa. She suggested to Etruscan circuit – an area with hot plate, hammam and sauna which was included in my package.

First I tried hot plate, it is kind of in between hammam and sauna. It was nice and warm to sit there and watch lights changing color.  Next I went to Sauna and then to Turkish steam room. It was so far best hammam I ever tried, right temperature, fog, quite large (2 other people came in too ) , and with water for cool off to splash.

After that I decided to splurge and try Kneip treatment for feet, I needed it after all this walking and climbing. It took total 20 mins. You walk on stones forward and back, then walk in 2 pools – one is warm water with jets and another in cold. After some walking minutes it did not seem so cold. You must walk both pools. It was excellent.

Next I went to the pool with waterfall shower massages, spine back, shoulders, and 2 pools for hotel guests and outside.fonreverde2

Clientele was mostly Russian and Italians. I did not see any Germans and I was told they have their own spas which covered by health insurance. There were some families with grandparents and nannies. All children were well behaved. I saw people with dogs, I did not dare ask for permission taking picture of a dog. It’s like asking Americans to take picture of their children. I can warn Americans re: swimsuits “Costumo di Bagno” – most wore speedo or short shorts not like ours long shorts until knees. Women wear 2  piece, except little girls with one piece. The hotel had quite large Russian staff since well heeled Russian tourist are getting common in Europe. Newspapers were available in all languages including International Herald Tribune (overseas version of New York Times), and Republica for Italians.

There are separate pools for hotel guest only and as well for outside guests.

In some pools you can swim out or walk to the pool area and use lounges.

Out of 3 hotels I visited, Fonteverde had the largest and extensive pools, even some beds in the pools  with jets. It tried one and the switch turned on bubbles for 3 beds. I pushed the button and woke up Italian on one bed with water jets. Water is about 98.6F . In October it was nice sitting outside in a pool. There was one indoor pool with colors changing in them.

Food is excellent gourmet with many selection (gluten free available), emphasis on local organic (bio) produce. I ate first dinner – salmon tartar antipasti, ravioli for first course, and local steak . I wanted famous Chianina beef but it came only 1KG for 2 people portion. Waiter suggested steak it was good but not as soft as Chianina as I remember. For desert I chose Baba Rum with fruit. Second day – fried salted cod for antipasti,  tortellini with ricotta and spinach for first course, and lamb chops for main. desertsDesert chocolate gateaux with ice cream, needed to wait 7 min but it was worth it.

There is also chefs compliments – small starter – first day was smoked swordfish and second some fish with ricotta.

Everything was delicious and well presented. I tried red wine Montalcino and it was good.

Water here is excellent sparking water not know the brand but bottled specifically for Fonteverde.

Location – it is in located in delightful Tuscan Village San Casciano. I walked there (about 20 minutes pleasant walk) and enjoyed very much few hours there. san casicano3

Conclusion : I hope this review of spas will bring to attention what Americans are missing and hopefully they will slow down and enjoy their European spa vacation.

Contact me with any questions at

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…










Toronto trip report



I had a successful trip to Toronto. Today, I went to downtown and met a client who is working in town center (court) and I was given impromptu tour of town hall and court building. Interesting architecture. There are also statues of Wei Wei Chinese artist/dissident and his exposition in Art museum. I was able to get to the Ontario Art Gallery at membership of my client and even for preview of WeiWei exihibit (members only). There are interesting sculptures of WeiWeiwork (signs of zodiac) in the center.

I enjoyed visit of art museum including “Group of Seven” Canadian artists who are Canadian landscape painters . Also I found European painters there including my favorite: Chagall’s “Over Vitebsk”.  Also Monet, Sisley, Pisarro Van Gogh, Gaugin were a pleasure to see. Nice painting of French artists Dufy with many palms! Also Ireland’s Lavery….  It turned out very enjoyable morning. I took subway there from hotel. It was very clean subway with nice helpful people (workers and passers by). Art and malls in subway , city hall – not  such art as in Russia but very impressive.

I spent some time in the underground mall too and had some healthy meals including fresh squeezed juices. I opted for combo citrus/pomegranate just like in Israel.  I liked Canadians, friendly, sophisticated, well dressed people.

I liked the city very much. Very artisitic relaxed friendly city.

I took airport bus from the center and for $27.60 CAD , friendly chatty driver, free wi-fi, tissues, outlets for charging, it was better than taxi. Great food with lot’s of healthy options.  Highly recommended.

In Toronto airport, you check into USA while you are still in Canada.  Global entry was again a breeze…  One thing I did not like though – entrance and exit of Canada was very slow and it took forever for them to clear me. Maybe it was just me!!




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