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Posts in ‘Things to do in Europe’

Cool things for American Expats to do on 4th of July in London.

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“Yankee Doodle came to London, just to ride the ponies…”

You are that Yankee Doodle Boy! (or Girl!)

While I am not aware of any upcoming pony parades through Parliament, I can offer my fellow American expats some festive suggestions re: things to do on the upcoming day o’ independence…

What: The Great American Beer Festival
Where: White Horse Pub, 1 – 3 Parsons Green, London, SW6 4UL
When: July 4th-6th, 2008.

No, no, no—not just a bunch of bottles of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra (AKA ‘water’). Tons of specialty American microbreweries (with some British favourites mixed in) will be represented at the famous White Horse Pub on the weekend of the 4th. From Chicago’s ‘Goose Island’ Beer Company to Denver’s ‘Flying Dog’ Brewery, there will be tons of flavors to whet your palette as you soak in the youthful vibrancy (and, hopefully, sunshine!) of Parson’s Green. Get ready for, beers, BBQ, line dancing, live music, and more!

What: O2 Wireless Festival
Where: Hyde Park, London
When: July 3rd – 6th, 2008.

There’s something for every homesick Yankee at the 02 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park; this 4-day extravaganza features performances by Counting Crows, Jay-Z, Goo Goo Dolls and Beck…to name a few. With 5 stages and 100 + performances, this is the biggest London music festival of the year! Again, let’s hope for sunshine…

What: 4th of July Barbeque (Organized by the London Expat American Meetup Group)
Where: Mile End Park, Grove Road & Clinton Road, London, E3 4PE
When: July 5th, 2008 from 2: 30 pm.

If you are looking for something a bit more casual and relaxing, why not whip together Grandma’s best potato salad recipe, grab a case of beer, and join in on the patriotic, picknicking fun with some fellow Americans on Saturday afternoon?

But first, you must join the American Expat Meetup Group (just Google it)—a very useful forum, especially for London newbies!

(And yes, bring your kids, but leave your fireworks at home.)

Know of any other 4th of July events going on in London? Then post below!

HAPPY 4th!!!

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The Fountain of Youth.

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Fountain of Youth Ponce de LeonFountain of Youth Ponce de LeonFountain of Youth Ponce de Leon

“When I arrived, I was 135 years old, and now I feel 60 again!” remarked my father after tasting some authentic, sulphur-saturated water from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida.  Our tour guide assured us that, had Spanish explorer Ponce de León not been shot in the thigh during battle circa age 60, he surely would have, given his daily Fountain bathing regimen, lived to be at least 100, too…

And no, the sexy diorama above—complete with a statue of old Juan in his fatal, thigh-exposing get up (“the shorter the skirt, the higher the nobility!” –  our tour guide)—is, sadly, not the actual Fountain of Youth, but rather, a tourist mock up.  The actual historic site of the famed, bubbling source of vitality, as sought and discovered by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, now appears as a pit in the ground; the rejuvenating “Water of Life” is currently filtered through a man-made tap for tourist-consuming purposes.  Ever smelled and/or tasted warm sulphur water on a scorching summer day? Yummm…

Fountain of Youth tour guide

The Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine actually provided several hours of amusement for my not-so-keen-on-sightseeing parents (and for my super touristy self!).  I actually did—as cheesy as it sounds—feel somewhat connected to my country’s 400 + year old history of European inhabitation while perusing the 15 acre grounds. 

Upon entering the Park, you will be brainwashed—i.e. “America is so old” and “La Florida came first!”—as the resident historians emphasize their favorite take home lesson: Chris Columbus may have “discovered” the “New World,” but it was good old Juan who established the first European settlement on American soil—St Augustine.

And what a charming little city he left behind!

Do take the St. Augustine historic trolley tour and stop off at the Fountain of Youth Park, which provides enough activities to entertain a family of 10— an archaeological park, a planetarium, and a discovery globe, to name a few.

Oh yeah, and there are tons of beautiful peacocks (which are actually kind of scary, in my opinion…).  Stay tuned for the upcoming peacock blog if you would like to view some more images of these fascinating creatures!

In conclusion:

Gracias, Sr. Ponce de Leon….queremos beber de la fuente de la juventud cada día!

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Get your golf on…

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Tee off in Fuerteventura

Golfderdash: (n) An artful pastime that combines elements of the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) board game of Balderdash with the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) sporting activity of Golf.

The game of Golfderdash was created 18 minutes before this blog was posted, on the premise that one’s successful participation in the game of Golf (+ Balderdash) is dependent upon one’s ability to feign knowledge of obscure terminology (basically, both games involve lots of BS’ing).Please participate in the trial run of Golfderdash by posting your best answer to the following golf-related questions at the end of this blog.

1: What is an ‘Elephant Burial Ground’?

Choose from:

a. An ancient site of ritual sacrifice, several of which have are embedded beneath the fairways of golf courses near Durban, South Africa.

b. A large, mysterious mound encountered by golfers—usually on the green of a course—where good scores tend to ‘die’.

c. A sacred place where dead elephants are buried.

d. A Las Vegas Casino, known for its extensive range of golf-themed machines, in which gamblers ‘bury’ large quantities of money.

Go ahead, take a guess! Post below—all winners get virtual ‘high fives’. How about it?

2: What is a ‘Yank’?

Choose from:

Nothing. I’m leaving this one open-ended. Hit me with your best shot, below.

3: Can you eat a ‘Texas Wedge’?

…obviously not.

Folks, there’s more where that came from…

So I’ll admit it—I’m not much of a golfer. However, as a young girl I did own a fluorescent pink golf bag and a putter; I used to tag along to the 9 hole practice course with my dad and brother, who, of course, always inverted the scoring system to cater to my 28 put sinks.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking—I would like to take up this beloved pastime as a serious adult…mainly so I can meet some cute guys I mean become a well-rounded athlete/person.Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

How to become a golfer:

Step 1 – Learn lingo (check.)

Step 2 – Take a bunch of lessons (er…)

Step 3 – Exercise newfound skills on courses in exotic locales (yes, please!)

Step 4 – Become well-rounded athlete/person (on my way.)Let’s skip straight to the most crucial step, shall we?

Putting through paradise: Hot golfing destinations ’08…

1. Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria:

Sun, sand, turquoise blue…oh, and of course an enormous expanse of green for your golfing pleasure!The Fuerteventura Golf Club contains over 1,500,000 square meters of open playing space—including a state-of-the-art driving range, putting green and chipping green—making it the largest green area of the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

Tee off in paradise as you watch the sunrise over the Atlantic; drive, chip, and put your way to the 18th green, as you admire the sparkling lakes, lush palm trees and glorious scenery; relax into the late afternoon on a peaceful catamaran cruise.Venture beyond the fairways to experience a huge range of sightseeing activities, including deep sea fishing trips, scenic bike safaris, volcano excursions, and family cruises.

2. Akaroa, New Zealand.

Mix a bit of culture—and breathtaking South Island scenery—into your golfing adventure by embarking on a trip to the historic French whaling village of Akaroa. The adjacent 18 hole Akaroa golf course (par: 67M, 70W), overlooking the Akaroa Harbor, is considered one of the most picturesque courses in Canterbury.

This sightseeing tour of Akaroa includes hotel pick up and drop off, lunch, a visit to a local cheese factory (?), and, of course, a round of golf!

End your trip with a splash by taking swim with rare dolphins in AkaroaHarbor.

3. Selborne Estate, South Africa

Live in luxury at the exclusive Selborne Hotel, Spa and Golf Estate, as you soak in the subtropical warmth of the Indian Ocean, just 30 miles south of Durban.Their 18-hole golf course has been described by some as one of the finest in South Africa, where “wild coastal forest frames a superbly manicured course…where the only disturbance may be one of nature’s creatures” (- an elephant ghost?)

Suitable for professionals and amateurs alike, Selborne even has its own resident PGA instructor and indoor golf academy.

Selborne Estate South Africa

Should you desire to venture beyond the comforts of the estate, you may opt for a bit of local culture at the Phezulu Village or in the city of Durban.

Get your golf on.

I hope that I’ve inspired you to plan en exotic golfing adventure.

In the mean time, let’s keep the Golfderdash tradition going strong. I await your answers.

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The best long haul flight option? London – Florida.

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I would firstly like to note that this blog reflects only my personal views regarding certain air carriers and not necessarily the views of my colleagues; I write in hopes that you will find my experiences useful in planning your next trip from the UK to the American Southeast (specifically, to Florida) and that you will share your own pond hopping insights and experiences by commenting below.

 

Right…so, I was recently faced with the task of booking a last minute flight from London to America.  As, previously, I had only flown between Heathrow and Philadelphia or Baltimore (and subsequently travelled by car to my home in Delaware.  And yes, Delaware is a state…in which there are no major airports…), I never had to worry about domestic flight connections upon arrival to the US.  But, this time, I was going to visit family in Jacksonville, Florida.  Had I been visiting one of the major southeastern destinations—say, Atlanta, Miami or Orlando—a non-stop flight would have been feasible.  But for other popular vacation spots, such as St. Augustine, Charleston, New Orleans (and, in my case, Jacksonlle)—finding an affordable, low-hassle flight becomes quite difficult.

The point here is that you shouldn’t narrow your US travel destinations to cities that seem to pose the least complicated flight routes.  There are so many lovely, coastal spots in the southeastern states that require just a bit more effort—a few more minutes of crafty internet searching and an extra hour or two of travel time.  In my case, Delta Airlines provided the most affordable, reliable and comfortable way of getting from London to Jacksonville. 

First, a note on baggage…

Perhaps some of you, like me, have made the pond hop several times: then there’s a good chance that you, or people that you know, have experienced problems with recovering baggage.

Last time I flew from Philadelphia to Heathrow, using a certain air carrier that shall remain nameless, over $300 worth of valuables were stolen from my suitcase in transit, for which, the airline refused to compensate me.  The incident was, the customer relations agent informed me, not the airline’s fault, for I, the traveler, had chosen to place valuables in my suitcase.  Point taken, but with all of the hand baggage restrictions these days—and all of our technological obsessions—it is nearly impossible keep every digital device, Apple gadget, and Nintendo gaming accessory slung over our shoulders for a 17 hour door-to-door journey.

The moral of this story: proceed with caution when indulging in the dollar discount…

(My friend Natalie also wanted me to add: “mind the gap between the airport employee, and the conveyer belt: next stop, ‘Charring Loss’”—I can’t take credit for her genius).

Finding an affordable flight with easy connections…

With my normal go-to airline out of the question, I had to start from scratch. As always, my first points of research were skyscanner.net, and lastminute.co.uk.  Between these two sites, I was able to get a general idea of which airlines flew directly from London to Jacksonville…none!

 

I first considered taking a direct flight to Miami or Orlando…and then switching to a US low cost air carrier such as Southwest to get to Jacksonville (Florida is much bigger than it seems: Miami is a 5 hour + drive from Jacksonville).  The combined cost of these flights was way, way, way beyond my budget.

 

After about 2 hours of online research, I concluded that Delta Airlines was my best option: they offer several routes—with changes in Atlanta—to cities across the southeast, including Jacksonville.  Their prices were also the lowest, and, significantly, they offered plenty of layover flight times.  This is key, as, depending on the size of your travel party—and your country of citizenship—you may require more time to get through passport control and through customs before embarking on your domestic flight.  As a solo traveler with a US passport, 45 minutes probably would have been enough, but I chose a 2-hour layover, just to be safe.

The actual flight:

…was great!  We departed on time, my meals were decent (a choice between chicken and pasta, followed by pizza), and the movie selection was good.  We landed on time, and the Delta representatives were very specific and concise in their instructions for passengers needing to board transfer flights in Atlanta.  The route from the plane gate, to passport control, to baggage claim, through customs, to baggage re-check, and back through security was clearly mapped out and jet lag/idiot proof.  I was back through security with enough time to purchase a Father’s Day gift and to relax and stretch before boarding my connector flight to Jacksonville, which actually arrived early.

The take home advice:

Don’t be put off from planning a holiday to a non-major US city because of complicated flight routes.  Chances are, if you are traveling to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, or Tennessee, that Delta offers an affordable route through Atlanta

Good luck and happy planning!

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Squirrel Mania!

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Once upon a time, two naïve, young Americans resided in an isolated garden amidst thousands of Britons. For years, they cohabited peacefully, frolicking through the flowers, making the most of available resources, scavenging what they could and protecting themselves from the inclimate weather with drab, grey (yet functional) attire.

They remained blissfully unaware of their neighbouring British brethren, who, steeped in age-old tradition, upheld their distinctive, refined set of food and fashion tastes…

Then, one day, some idiot let those Americans loose.

The Yankees invade.

The Grey Squirrels have taken over— ‘those big, ugly rats’, as some of my British friends call them, are destroying the native population of beloved, beautiful Red Squirrels.

continue reading

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“Avenue Q” changed my life.

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Avenue Q BA English

“What do you do with a BA in English?

- Move to one of the most expensive cities in the world, clearly.

What is my life going to be?

- Unfulfilling!

Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree!

- Indeed.

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

- So, take out a loan…and go to grad school?

But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the huuu-maaan raaaaace…..”

Avenue Q is probably the most life-changing work of art that I have encountered since moving to London. I bow in piety to writers Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez: your words are my new gospel, your songs my holy hymns, your Trekkie Monster, my Messiah…

Trekkie Monster Avenue Q

Beyond re-connecting me with my homeland and re-kindling my love for Sesame Street, this masterpiece of a musical actually transformed my perspective on what it means to be alive. I stand reborn.

“It sucks to be me!”

The key underlying question/theme of show: how does one reconcile the pervasive feelings of unfulfillment that characterize life post-college?

A series of hilarious coping strategies are delivered to you by a mishmash of over-stereotyped characters, colorful puppets, fuzzy monsters, and even a pseudo-Gary Coleman…

The worst thing about Avenue Q? A lot of people might cite the scandalous puppet sex scene. Others might have a strong distaste for hit song, “The Internet is for Porn.” But in my opinion, the worst thing about Avenue Q is that: the more controversial and offensive the lyrics—the more ludicrous the puppets’ behaviours—the more real it actually becomes.

Marx and Lopez have brilliantly extrapolated the most unutterable desires and contemplations of the human psyche, transcribed them into a kitschy, musical parody, and hurled them into the public arena, full force. It is impossible not to laugh out loud when you see one of your own life obstacles being candidly recreated by a furry puppet.

If you haven’t already, you must. If you already have, go again—it’s even funnier the second time. Oh, and did I mention that Avenue Q is one of the most affordable musicals playing in the West End? Get cheap tickets here.

Do it.

Cast of Avenue Q London

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Thank You, Sex and the City

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FIRST OF ALL, I want to thank Sarah Jessica Parker (and Candace Bushnell) for making my name so trendy and cool. I am sure all of the (real!) Carries and Aidans out there can relate: we are now the (tragic!) victims of subconscious associations with sex, good looks and high fashion.

It’s amazing, the responses I get when I introduce myself to people—it’s almost like the general public has been hypnotized by SJP’s flouncy skirts and witty voiceover rants.

When I was a little girl, I never, ever imagined that when I grew up, a notable percentage of my introductory handshakes would involve the word “sex.” Instead, I was brainstorming ways to resolve the ongoing confusion in my family home: I was named after my dad (whose mother was incidentally a Cary Grant fan).

This may sound endearing—a baby girl named after her father—but picture yourself as an awkward preteen. What would you do if all incoming calls from potential suitors were filtered by your goofy dad, who refused to acknowledge the word “boyfriend” as a part of the English language?

“Yes, speaking” he would chirp into the receiver; “of couse this is Cary. Who did you think…?”

And the infamous: “oh, I see…you must be looking for Little Carrie. This is Big Cary. Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

(You’d probably think about changing your name to “Boyfriend,” too…)

SECONDLY, I’d like to thank the producers of the beloved Sex and the City Movie for spreading the buzz overseas, thus securing my sex appeal abroad. You even followed me to London with your glamourous international premiere, which was amazing! PICTURES HERE.

Right. It was actually terrible—I couldn’t see a thing, and I think that I experienced the second most claustrophobic moment of my life (first being Mardi Gras ’03) when I was trying to exit through one of the side streets. That was the last movie premiere I’ll go to in Leicester Square, or maybe anywhere…ever.

I applaud those who braved the cinema queues for the film’s 28 May opening night in London…I really do. I just might have to settle for the reviews (and a few good photos of Carrie’s wedding dress, of course.)

LASTLY, I would like to thank my co-worker Daniele for suggesting, to the sheer delight of the girls in my office ( – not!), that we be featured in the recent “Sex in Many Cities” Newsletter (which went out to over 600,000 people) as corporate counterparts to characters Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda.

For all of you die hard fans, the newsletter, which can be viewed here, discusses several behind-the-scenes and personalized Sex and the City Tours.

Sex and the City, you sure do make life interesting!

Let the Carrie Bradshaw Madness continue.

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The Republic of Happiness.

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“We have the friendliest border police in the world,” the officer smiled as he handed me back my landing card, “you can start your story with that?”

I’m in love with Ireland. And I’m not just saying this because I still have traces of Guinness lurking in my synapses (folk ballads ringing in my ears, 40 shades of green flashing through my hazy subconscious…). I just met some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. It was their personalities—their enthusiasm for life and for those around them—that defined my travel experience. My most vivid memories of the Emerald Isle will thus linger as a series of encounters with lively locals, namely the following…

1. Michael O’Leary

Not the famed, fiery chief executive of Ryanair—or his son, as insinuated by friends (unless Mike Sr. secretly spawned at age 10)—but nonetheless a most charismatic guru of Dublin nightlife.

Mr. O’Leary’s mantra—“those who have no fear are truly free” (repeated several times, over several pints)—will never be forgotten. Amen, brother. Amen…

“The way I see it, girls,” he grandly gestured toward the window of The Bailey, a trendy, laid back Dublin watering hole—a crossroads for pub-going lads and cocktail-sipping ladies (a good place for the former to take and (attempt to) impress the latter), “is that you have two choices—two potential paths, if you will.”

We sipped our glasses of chardonnay in anticipation.

“But you must first tell me,” he leaned forward: “What is it that you truly hope for?”

In life…or from the bartender? We just wanted to know which, uh, pub we should go to next?

“You see, you have choices.

choices?

“Yes, choices. You can either walk through that door, and turn left…”

He grabbed a pen from his pocket and quickly charted a hyper-detailed route to Café en Seine, a posh French café-turned-disco, on my damp napkin.

“Or, you can go…right.”

The difference being…?

“Well, if you choose left, you choose…suits.”

French cafes and suits? You’ve gotta be kidding. We want a banjo-picking, sham-rocking hoe down. This is Ireland for G’sake…

“But if you turn right…”

He carefully folded the napkin map into my friend’s palm.

“Well, that’s for you to discover.”

Two paths diverged in a green, drunken wood…

And we obviously chose right.

2. Mary O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan was genuinely concerned with our well-being from the moment we stumbled into her Killarney Bicycle Shop—we appeared as two lost, giggling (hung over) tourists on an eager quest to “discover the Ring of Kerry” by bicycle…in four hours…right.

Mary saw how excited we were, though, and graciously offered us extra cycling time—she would come back to meet as after evening mass at 7.15pm on the dot (the shop closed at 6pm that night).

We had no idea where we were going, what to do with our bulky handbags or how to strap on our helmets. But Mary had us covered—she took care of everything. It took her 15 minutes to get us situated on our pink-trimmed town bikes, an amount of time in which, she informed us, “I can usually get 30 people out the door and on the road.” But she didn’t seem to mind mothering us—in fact, I think she really enjoyed it. She pointed out that she had good training for this type of thing, having raised 3 sons.

“Sorry, all married!” She responded…before I could even ask…while fastening my helmet (for the second time). Damn, she was good.

I should note that our cycling tour of Killarney National Park—a topic for another blog—was the unquestionable highlight of our trip to Ireland. Despite a *tiny* setback (we got lost and had to backtrack 15km to a vaguely familiar cow pasture, from which we miraculously navigated our ways back to the main road and into the city center), we had an amazing, scenic, and exhilarating journey through the enormous park and surrounds.

We even managed to make it back to Mary’s shop on time; actually, we were early. Mary informed us that our good fortune was a result of the prayer she said for us at mass.

Honestly, what would we have done without her? Mary O’Sullivan = our saviour.

3. Crazy Tom

Crazy Tom was the acoustic guitarist that stole our hearts with his country ballads and quirky cover selections at that little pub on College Street in downtown Killarney. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes doing crafty Google searches, trying to track down the name of the rustic little venue in which Tom’s musical magic transpired on the evening of May 25th, 2008. But I have failed miserably. Sorry kids—I just don’t remember where I was. But I remember the music…promise.

Fortunately, Killarney is the type of town where you could go door to door and say something like: “Do you know where I can find Tom, the crazy old, guitarist with the crazy hair? He’s incredibly talented and really nice to tourists? He sometimes plays Bob Marley…” And you would probably figure out a way to catch one of Tom’s gigs in less than an hour.

But if you can’t manage to track down Tom, fear not: the Killarney nightlife scene is live music. Just stroll through the city center on a weekend evening—you are bound to encounter tons of traditional/folk + country + rock cover bands in various little pubs and bars. I’ve never seen so many banjos in one weekend. Greatness.

We listened to Tom play for nearly three hours—he dedicated a song to us. We love Crazy Tom. And Irish music. And Killarney. And Ireland. And life…

Your turn

These are just a few of the many wonderful people that I met on a weekend trip to Ireland. I am still shrouded in a happy, boozy haze; I vow to return to the friendliest, leafiest little land in Europe as soon as I possibly can.

‘Tis the perfect season for an Irish jaunt. Get involved!

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Dating Advice from Birdman

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It’s springtime, and love is in the air…

My undergraduate biology professor was, I recall fondly, the most eager ornithologist alive; I’ve never, ever experienced a person with such passion for his field. His descriptions, slideshows and enactments of Bowerbird courtship nesting rituals were more animated than the dances of a Broadway ‘Simba’ on acid. I just wish I could remember his name….let’s call him Birdman.

“He’s a bird watcheeer…he’s a bird watcher…watchin’ birds go by: my, my, myyyy…”

I learned a thing or two from Birdman; first of all, that, if all men behaved like Bowerbirds, the world would truly be a better place—meaning that women would constantly be showered with attention, affection and personalized, heartfelt gifts (sigh!). The elaborate nest-constructing rituals of the Bowerbird are like none other on the planet.

Picture this scenario:

It’s a warm, bright spring afternoon on beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, and romance is in the air. Benny, the blue Satin continue reading

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Wine and Cheese, Please?

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If I had a billion dollars, I would transform all tedious errands into luxury weekend getaways. For example, instead of going to Wal-Mart for basic household supplies, I would just hop on a private jet to China. For new work clothes, I’d skip the Zara sales rack and head to Spain. And to gather refreshments for my upcoming housewarming party, I’d bypass the supermarket crowds and take my shopping list straight to the hillside villages of Tuscany.

But then again, if I had a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t be shopping for my own wine, cheese and canapés to begin with. I also wouldn’t be lying about the housewarming party and, in reality, while writing this, be sipping boxed wine atop my luxurious, fifth floor air mattress in my shared London “bedsit” …

Regarding Tuscany, I can actually vouch from personal experience: I have been, and it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and relaxing places on the planet. If I have managed to make it over there, you easily can, too.

So let’s just pretend that my bedsit is actually a newly refurbished, mansion block split level, in need of some freshly imported Italian flavours. Here’s where I would go…

A Taste of Tuscany

Firenze

If you have never been to Tuscany, or for that matter, Italy, you will likely want to see Florence. With direct links to a variety of countryside tours and villages, this well preserved historic (and delectable!) city could, with good planning, could be the perfect kick-start for further sightseeing and gastronomic adventures.

Prepare for sensory overload: you will be inundated with the highest concentration of Renaissance art and architecture in the world, along with bustling markets, crowded shopping streets, zipping vespas, outdoor concerts, and tourists galore. Yet happily, you will drink loads of Chianti and get your first taste of authentic, delicious Tuscan cooking.

So go ahead and hit all of the main sights (you can do this in a day, on a private tour, if you like), and then, for bit of local flavor, head to the south of the Arno river to some of the quieter and more residential areas. Be sure to spend an afternoon at Piazza Santo Spirito, which is arguably the most delightful, friendly and laid back square in the city. With several cafes, a beautiful Augustinian church, frequent specialty markets, and plenty of shady places to sit, it is the perfect place to sip a glass of wine and admire the easy pace of Florentine life.

Turn the corner and grab a delicious panini and a (deliciously inexpensive) bottle of Chianti and from Gustapanino—the best sandwich shop in town, hands down (trust me, just go). For some home style cooking with a creative twist, you could wander a few blocks north to friendly, family-owned Trattoria 4 Leoni. Try the Fiocchetti di pere con salsa di taleggio e asparagi, and change your understanding of pasta (and pears) forever (I’ll let you discover the deliciousness for yourself). I recommend sticking to their own-label house Chianti, but they do provide an extensive selection of wines from all over the region.

Feeling full? The adventure has just begun! Now it’s time to grab your posh party “grocery lists” and head to….

Montepulciano

Florence isn’t for everyone, and neither is Chianti. But it is impossible not to fall in love with the Tuscan countryside. Picture miles of quiet open road, surrounded by endless rolling meadows, lush vineyards, wild flowers and olive orchards. And suddenly, when life couldn’t be more beautiful, you are faced with a majestic, tiered hillside village that looks like a giant medieval castle from a fairy tale book. You find out from the tour guide that you are about to go frolic through its cobblestone alleyways and into its cavernous, 13th century vaults to sip some of the best wines that Italy has to offer. Magic.

Enter Montepulciano, an enchanting cascade of renaissance and medieval architecture, which, perched high upon a hill and surrounded by bountiful, endless countryside, is one of the most memorable and magnificent places in Tuscany.

And most importantly, its wines are world famous.

Wander through the village until you reach the 1000-year old Contucci enoteca, where thousands of barrels preserve the delicate balance of its renowned Vino Nobile. You can then savour the fermented richness of Italy’s finest Sangiovese grapes, with hints of vanilla oak and red berry that will tempt most wine novices (like me!) into connoisseurship.

Emerge from your tasting spree to bask in the afternoon sun and admire breathtaking, panoramic views of the region.

Pienza

I have been to a ritzy party or two and am accustomed to the occasional brie and stilton platter, but I had never delved into the nuances of cheese tasting before visiting Pienza. This tiny village actually smells like a giant wheel of Pecorino Toscano and is indeed famous for its unique, sheep’s milk (or to get technical, ewes’ milk), herb-infused concoction.

A short distance outside of Florence, this tiny hilltop village, unique in its “pure” Renaissance design and layout, can be easily navigated in a matter of hours. With its friendly shop owners, quaint cobblestone streets, and seemingly trouble-free lifestyle, Pienza, in my opinion, captures the true essence of Tuscany.

Wander in and out of the many food shops on the main street to taste the different varieties of pecorino, reflective of seasonal changes and the unique plants and herbs scattered throughout the surrounding pastureland.

view-of-tuscan-countryside-from-pienza.jpg

What next?

Well, that’s a start. You could then return home ready to schmooze it up with your bottiglie di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, to be authentically complimented by the savoury taste of 100% ewes’ milk Pecorino Toscano. Or you could carry on adventuring. Or even better, stay in Tuscany forever. I know I could…

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