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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Oktoberfest 2008 – share your crazy stories!

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Oktoberfest Prost PhotoI got a lot of responses to the blog about Oktoberfest that I wrote back in July, which emphasized the importance of ‘planning ahead’ – i.e. months before embarking on your weekends of debauchery – so that you would avoid fronting huge amounts of cash, sleeping on train station benches, etc.

Many of you probably missed the blog or ignored my advice. Totally fine by me, as long as you will now share the details of your crazy adventures with us!  Who has the best story to tell?  What did you lose?  Where did you sleep?  Who did you meet?  Did you manage to experience some cool parts of Munich?

Tell us, tell us. (By posting below…)

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Prince Harry, Part II: Mahiki Madness

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I was pumped when my close friend from college announced that she would be having her “hen party” (British term for bachelorette) at MAHIKI (reportedly Prince Harry’s favourite club).  We thought for sure that we would have some royal/celeb sightings at this famous London hotspot.  What geeky American tourists we are…

You know, in all honesty, we could have seen Madonna, Harry and the Dalai Lama by the time we finally hit the dance floor…that is, after emerging from our tropical “submersion” in champagne-filled treasure chests, flaming booze lava fountains and enormous conch shells, spilling over with red rum fruity goodness…

But let’s back up for a minute…

Mahiki Hens: the adventure begins…

9:33 pm:  Eleven, dolled up twenty-somethings arrive to the door of London’s most famous club.  One sparkling bride-to-be, flanked by eight fellow Americans, one Canadian and two authentic “hens” (only one Brit and one Aussie in attendance…but we called it a hen party anyway…). Three are giggling, one is hobbling on crutches (me), and two are scheming re: the fact that we have missed the free entry cut off time by 3 minutes—how to get around this?

9:34 pm:  “Ten pound entry fee, five hundred pound minimum per table” asserts chic, blonde woman at door. 

I repeat, woman at door. We definitely aren’t getting around this…

9:35 pm: Julia Allison, long time friend of bride-to-be reveals her true colors as celeb. mag columnist and lifestyle/entertainment guru.  So much for her night of undercover debauchery with the girls.  Julia flashes biz card, dishes PR schpeel to chic blonde woman, who, after 38 seconds of conversing with Julia, officially loves us.  “Such lovely girls…’ she coos.  Free table, complementary drinks—yes, yes can all be arranged.

We’re in.

9:40 pm:  We are escorted to a large, tropical bungalow-esque table by a camp cabana boy waiter.  We keep our eyes peeled for Harry and co.

9:50pm: Against our better judgement, we order THE TREASURE CHEST (pictures to come ASAP).

10:00pm: THE TREASURE CHEST arrives, filled with ice, fruit, an unidentifiable concoction of hard liquor and 11 straws.  A pirate queen’s dream come true.  Camp cabana boys pour champagne into chest.  We assemble into a giggling circle and sip.

10:10pm: Still sipping…

10:20pm: Still sipping…

10:30pm: Is this a bottomless chest?

Circa 10:40pm: Cabana boys arrive with two flaming “volcanoes” of booze.  And, of course, 11 straws.  We’ve just (barely) finished our treasure chest, and the bride is drunk.  My fractured foot is, magically, “all better!”……

??:??pm: Cabana boys return with two of  the largest conch shells I have ever seen, filled with red, fruity mystery punch.  One of which is now the centrepiece of the bride’s work desk back in Oxford.

??:??pm: Dance floor…

Circa 12:15am: Bride and her crew from Oxford realize that they are not going to make it to the station in time for their 12:15am train home (why they booked a 12:15 train, I will never know….).

??:??am:  … ???

Right, so, in conclusion, Mahiki is an absolute blast; however, I will probably never be able to go there again: I’ll never be able to top our amazing hen party adventure—I’ll never again receive the same, superb degree of service (thank you, Julia!)…  

Well…maybe I’ll go when I get married.  Or next time Harry comes to town.  Or both, if you catch my drift? J

 

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Globe trotters unite: a journey with a purpose.

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Our ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest entries have been rolling in! A few of you got very creative with your responses, crafting globe trotting itineraries with inventive themes. Here are some of our favourites thus far:

1. ‘Southern Music Odyssey’, by Greg Davies

A road trip with a difference—i.e. not your usual ‘Route 66’ or ‘Coast to Coast’ American Dream. Due to my late grandfather’s musical obsession that he passed onto me, my dream holiday would be to drive the southern United States, visiting and enjoying some of the famous sights and sounds of Country music—the Grand Ol’ Opry, Memphis, Tupelo, Austin, Nashville—all in an old convertible…staying at old-style motels along the way and enjoying southern hospitality and good ol’ time music, the way it’s meant to be enjoyed!

2. ‘A Taste for Travel’, by Lydia Houghton

I’d have lobster in Cancun, cocktails in New York, A balti in Bombay, A Guinness in County Cork, coq au vin in Paris, a pizza in fair Rome, a chop suey in Beijing, and Swedish meatballs in Stockholm.

It would be such a treat to take a break from all the cooking, but the only problem is… my tummy might need tucking!

3. ‘Natural World Wonders’, by Chris Woodroofe

My Perfect Holiday would be a tour around all of the natural world wonders: Serengeti Migration, Galápagos Islands, Grand Canyon, Iguazu Falls, Amazon Rainforest, Ngorongoro Crater, Great Barrier Reef, Bora Bora Cappadocia and Victoria Falls. All I would need would be a backpack, a diary, and a camera…this would be my perfect holiday—very simple, but very rewarding, as the natural world wonders are being destroyed…

That’s all for now!

The official shortlist will be posted on the isango! website very soon. Be sure to vote!

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Mama Mia! Mania: Behind the Scenes in Greece

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“(I would) fly to the beautiful Greek Isles, to a quiet marina, where I could introduce my wife to the boat that would take us island hopping – sailing from fishing village to fishing village…local ports fringed with tavernas…seafood washed down with the native wine whilst the blood-red sun kisses the Mediterranean sea `good night’…”

– Fred Harper, ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest Entrant

Sparkling blue water, rugged coastal terrain, sailboats, sunshine, serenity, and fresh seafood (mmm…..)

…not to mention a strutting, overall-clad Meryl Streep, a feisty Julie Walters, a singing Pierce Brosnan, a glowing Amanda Seyfried……and, of course, a non-stop ABBA marathon.

Who’s seen Mama Mia! And doesn’t want to go to Greece?

I’m always skeptical of movie renditions of musicals, but, in this case, the big screen certainly exploits what the West End can’t: the absolutely breathtaking scenery of the Greek Islands.

Behind the Scenes in Skiathos and Skopelos

Just over a year ago, Streep, Brosnan, and the rest of the multi-talented Mama Mia! cast were staging 1970’s ABBA mayhem on remote islands of the Aegean sea…

It’s time to follow in the footsteps of the stars (and as well as the imagination of our contest entrant Fred) on the following tours:

1. Romantic Sunset Cruise in Skiathos.

If you’ve seen the film, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself as a blissful, young bride or groom to be, sheltered from the realities of the world on a little Greek slice of paradise. The amorous atmosphere of the Sophie’s dream island wedding lingers on the island of Skiathos, where a Calypso fishing boat awaits the next pair of lovebirds that desire a taste of Aegean seaside culture, music, cuisine and scenery.

The Skiathos ‘Music and Moonlight’ Sunset Cruise departs Tuesdays from 15 May – 15 October and is the perfect romantic outing for the adventurous duo. Indulge in freshly prepared island cuisine, feel the rhythms of the traditional Greek folk music, and dance your way into the sunset…..

2. Tour of Skopelos

Explore the magnificent setting of Donna’s infamously ‘rustic’ hotel—‘the greenest island in Greece’—by embarking on the Sporades Island Hopping Tour, which includes a stop at ‘Kalokairi Island’, or rather, Skopelos!

Your adventure will begin as you board a boat in the harbour of Skiathos, where some of Mama Mia’s most lively scenes were created. Coast across the sparkling Aegean until you arrive at what was, just under a year ago, the central hub of ABBA action—where Pierce Brosnan’s flip flops are now on display…and where the film’s fairytale church, Agios Ioannis, juts out over the sea on a magnificent, towering rock formation.

Your day will end with a stop at neighbouring Alonissos; you will return to Skiathos in time for a relaxing sunset meal.

Mama Mia! Here we go again…

May your romantic, island hopping adventure leave you ‘stranded’ at an isolated taverna…complete with a staff that breaks out into spontaneous song and dance…

Other great behind-the-scenes film tour ideas:

The ‘Film Tours: Hollywood and Beyond’ Blog

The ‘Hollywood, Bollywood and Beyond’ Blog (a favourite!)

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When in Rome?

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The restaurant has around 600 types of wine in its cellarTraditional Roman food is often hard to come by, but Checchino dal 1887 brings it to you on a platter.

Dishes include Quinto Quarto, Il Padellotto, I Rigatoni con la Pajata, L”insalata di Zampi, La Trippa, Le Animelle, Il Cervello and Gli Schienali, together with Bue Garofolato, the ancient rural dish whose original recipe is owned by the restaurant.

As the name suggests, the restaurant opened in 1887 when a young couple, who ran a wine shop in the Testaccio caves, decided to replace it with an Osteria con cucina (a tavern with kitchen) because a slaughter-house was being made opposite it.

When the new slaughter-house was ready (1890), its workers got used to coming to the tavern to cook the meat that they received as a part of their incomes.

Thus dishes like La Pajata alla Romana, La coda alla Vaccinara, Il Padellotto were born.

Located in the Testaccio district, you can enjoy your meal with a bottle of wine from the cellar which stores around 600 different types.

Special Interest – Nightlife – From an extravagant meal to an eerie ghost walk – plenty of things to keep you entertained after the sun goes down.
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Where to Dine in Nice, France

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This is the second, juicy post in the Nice, France, series (check out the Nice, Part I blog here). In fact, this will probably be the juicest post of all, given that it’s all about food and wine!

After 7 years living in Nice, I’ve experienced lots of good restaurants…and lots of places to avoid!

I’ll save you 7 years of exploration with these few lines.

Local Specialties

The local cuisine is strongly Mediterranean – think olive oils, vegetables, fresh fish and delicious, roasted meats. Local specialties include the socca, a thin waffle made of chick peas, the pissaladiere, a thin, pizza-like bread with onion and olives, petits farcis, which are roasted vegetables stuffed with flavored meats, and, one of my favorites, la daube, which is basically beef stewed in red wine and served with fresh tagliatelle or ravioli.

There are many small restaurants in the Old City serving local specialties at decent prices – just ask around for a place that serves fresh socca. To try most local specialties in one sitting, look for L’Estocaficada, which has prices around 35 euros and serves 12 or so local specialties.

For some more upscale cuisine, try to get a seat at the bustling La Merenda. They don’t take reservations and only accept cash – it’s very small and always packed, so you can imagine how good the food is!

Local tip: just behind the Nice Etoile shopping centre (tramway stop Jean Medecin), there is a small, hidden street called rue Biscarra with 4-5 small restaurants that have terraces and small tables. These restaurants are beyond the typical tourist radar – definitely worth a visit! The best one is Vin Sur Vin, a winery serving wine (yes), cheese and sausages platters, fantastic meat and a consistently tasty dish du jour.

The old town is also full of hidden surprises. If you want join some locals for a few drinks, look for Les Distilleries Idéales or La Civette du Cours.

A (Michelin Star) Japanese Chef in Nice.

Yes, Keisuke Matsushima is a Japanese chef who has practiced French cuisine with top culinary experts; lucky for us, he ended up in Nice, where he setup a comfortable Zen-style restaurant, “Keisuke Matsushima” (previously called Kei’s Passion). This French restaurant – with a Japanese twist – is definitely worth a visit: think wasabi beef or fried zucchini with green tea sauce. Yum. His Michelin Star means prices are in the range of: 40-50 euros (lunch) and 130-150 euros (dinner).

(If you can’t live without your Japanese food while on holiday, there are plenty of sushi/Japanese restaurants in Nice, but they are mostly managed by Vietnamese or Chinese staff. In fact, there is only one real Japanese restaurant called Kamogawa, with real Japanese staff. Sushi-ya is a decent sushi shop with a Chinese chef, who did actually work for years making sushi in Japan. MySushi in the old town has a real Japanese chef but it’s overpriced , probably due to it’s centural location.)

Italian Restaurants in Nice

Given Nice’s proximity to Italy (and remembering that the Nice region was once part of the Italian Kingdom!), it’s not a surprise to find a flurry of Italian restaurants – pasta, pizza and all the rest – scattered throughout the city. But beware! Most of them are pale imitations, copying the Italian menus but delivering bland versions of the dishes. For a relatively safe bet, try La Villa d’Este and La Voglia (same owners, different locations – the first in the pedestrian rue Massena and the second just next to the Cours Saleya or “flowers market” in the Old Town). Both places serve wood oven-fired pizzas, abundant antipastis and pasta al dente. Unbeatable is their spaghetti ai frutti di mare (with seafood), served in the perhaps the largest individual bowl I’ve ever seen. Also delicious is their tiramisu dessert.

For something upscale, right across the street from Villa d’Este is the Boccaccio, famous for its seafood platters. For fresh seafood, don’t miss the traditional Cafe de Turin in Garibaldi Square. Another nice pick is the vegetarian-friendly La Zucca Magica, next to the port, with a fixed price menu (around 30 euros) changing every day.

Ice Cream (French – glace ; Italian – gelato) in Nice

Despite its proximity to Italy, the vast majority of ice cream shops in the French Riviera are rip off joints, only serving scoops of the same industrial ice cream that you can buy yourself in any supermarket.

A couple of exceptions can be found in Nice: Fenocchio and Crema di Gelato.

Ice Cream in Nice, France

Fenocchio has 2 shops in the old city, the largest one on the small square Rossetti, where they serve many flavors including local herbs (and even flowers!), such as tomato, garlic, lavander, thyme, violet, or rose. A must try experience.

Fenocchio’s icecream is produced in-house and is colder and icier than the real Italian gelato (if you squeeze it with your teeth you will feel like you are crunching many microscopic ice crystals….)

Crema di Gelato, on the sqare facing the Justice Palace, is totally Italian (so Italian that the owners barely speak French) and only serves 15-20 flavors, but the quality is divine. Unmissable are nocciola (hazelnut) and amarena (sour cherry and cream).

(Italian gelato is softer and smoother than ice cream as you may know it…)

Two other excellent gelato shops, which are located less central, are La Gelateria Torinese in Avenue Gambetta, and Arlequin on Avenue Malaussena.

Nice’s Nicest Beach Restaurants

Don’t expect to find fancy food here, but the charm and atmosphere of dining on the beach – overlooking the blue sea and sailboats zigzagging around the bay – is unmissable. I guess this is why the food is generally overpriced.

I’ll never remember a beach restaurant for the food that they served me…but they are worth the extra cash for the scenery, especially if you’re with good friends or on a romantic getaway.

Two are worth noting here: the first one is the Castel Plage, which the ‘leftmost restaurant’ on the Nice beach (when you’re staring at the sea). It’s quite posh and located just below the rocks, which makes the scenery even more beautiful.

The second one is the Hi Plage. This is brand new – just opened in the summer 2008, and I haven’t tried it, but it sounds great: the interior is apparently designed by the uber-trendy Hi Hotel, and the food is prepared by the one and only Keisuke Matsushima – him again! Can’t wait to try this one!

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What’s for Breakfast?

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Good morning! Awake yet? Hungry? Ready for some stir fried noodles? How about some blackened cow’s blood? Some fried, mushed up pig’s ears?

Mmm, mmm, mmmm…..

I’ve noticed that, when I am traveling, breakfast is often the most difficult meal for me to compromise—it’s early, I’m tired, I may or may not be hungover, and I just want a bowl of Cheerios and a skinny cappuccino to go (yes, to go!). The morning is not the best time for me to be testing my gastronomical limits…..

I find that it’s easier to psych myself up for an exotic, adventurous dinner—or even a crazy lunch—but there’s something sacred about breakfast foods and morning rituals.

Just think about it—we all like our AM dosages of caffeine to be prepared in certain ways, whether small and concentrated, medium and diluted, or large and in charge with 3 added flavors, Starbucks style.

Take a New Yorker out of his or her nest, and you will be hearing about H & H bagels for weeks.

Go on a coffee date with an Aussie, and you’ll doubtlessly depart well-versed in the delightful nuances of ‘flat whites’ and Gloria Jean’s hazelnut lattes.

How do you start your day? One man’s commonplace routine can be another’s most memorable adventure (or worst stomach ache). I’ve surveyed some colleagues and friends, and here are some of the interesting breakfast destinations (Breakinations?) that we came up with……

1. Anchovies, anyone?

Forget your Frosted Flakes …how about a fresh bowl of sweet rice…topped with anchovies?

Yum…

If you’re craving new and exciting cultural and culinary experiences, take a jaunt down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and kick off your travel adventure by stopping at a roadside stall to delight in the country’s most popular breakfast dish: nasi lemak. The sweet, coconut creamy rice base is typically served with eggs, pickled vegetables, cucumbers, roasted peanuts, spicy sauce, and, of course, anchovies!

2. It’s spicy, it’s sweet, it’s deep fried…it’s Delhi!

If you’re hungry for more adventure, skip over to Delhi, India to sample one of their most popular mid-morning snacks: kachori with aloo dum.

One of my colleagues, originally from Delhi, describes this as one of his favourite breakfast dishes. Basically, a kachori is a deep fried, hollow bread made of wheat and lentils. Kachoris can be filled with various different meat and vegetarian ingredients; in this case, they are stuffed with spicy potato concoction and typically followed by an orange, spiderweb-shaped sweet called a jalebi.

Mmm…

4. Health nuts to Sydney.

Are you turned off by all of the fried, spicy, sweet aforementioned craziness?

Then I suggest going Down Under for some healthy, beachside cooking….

Start of your Australian beach holiday with a traditional Sydney breakfast: smoked Tasmanian salmon on sourdough bread, served with spinach, poached eggs, OJ, a shot of wheat grass, and, of course, a skinny ‘flat white’ (glorified term for a latte). You will be feeling fit in no time!

Heading back home…

Right, so, exotic destinations aside, I can’t get over the English tradition of black pudding, which tends to accompany the full English breakfast (of toast, jam, marmite, fried eggs, sausages, bacon, baked beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms…). It’s fried blood, for crying out loud! Who thought that one up? Weird (but actually…not so bad.)

And to finish on a note which is close to my home and heart, I present to you an American delicacy that most of the world has never heard of: SCRAPPLE.

A patty of finely chopped pork scraps and cornmeal, typically fried and served in a breakfast sandwich. Scrapple is unique to the US Mid Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland parts of Pennsylvania).

Here, folks, is a segment of the typical ingredient list for this breakfast dish with a cult-like following:

Pig tongue, skin, brains, eyes, ears, head, heart, and liver.

(The hog entrails du jour will vary from patty to patty…)

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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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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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Oops! We just stumbled across the best Mexican food in London.

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Earlier this week, I was feeling super homesick and so decided I would embark on a quest for the best American Café in London. I know, I know “they’re on every corner,” but I can only go to Starbucks twice a day, alright?

I am talking about authentic American cuisine: huge, diner-style breakfasts, layered club sandwiches, juicy burgers, and real salads, the kind that are loaded with jumbo shrimp (not tiny, frozen ‘prawns’), cheese and fresh veggies….mmm, yummy…

After some crafty Google searches, I was sure that I had found my place: the Chelsea Bun Café, between Fulham Broadway and Sloane Square in SW10. The description was perfect: independently owned, hip, happening, and, most importantly, serving all of my favorite dishes from home. They even had Breakfast for Dinner. Awesome.

I immediately phoned my friend Talina with the news: we had to go to find this little oasis of American glory after work. Certainly she could relate to my enthusiasm: after all, she is from Mexico and has spent much time in north of the border. She agreed. I was pumped.

I cheerfully printed a map and charted a route. Despite the rainy weather and the café’s slightly obscure location in relation to the underground system, we met at Sloane Square, and we were off.

Dearest employees of Chelsea Bun, I hope that you can tell me this: at what time, exactly, does dinner occur in your homes? Because last time I checked, most people in this country dine at 6pm, earliest. Make that as late as 10.30 pm if they’ve had a prolonged, post-work pub jaunt

You’ve advertised yourself as an American/British café that serves dinner. So why, oh why, were you closed at 6pm, after Talina and I trudged for 30 minutes through the rain to find you? And I thought you were American—what a scam.

FINE then, we said, we’ll find someplace EVEN BETTER.

That we can afford…in the poshest neighbourhood in London…right…

After perusing four of the most expensive Italian menus I have seen all year, we were both, officially, starving. “The next place we see, no matter what,” we agreed.

And so we stopped at a brightly lit venue with a yellow awning: Azteca, the window decal read. Talina was elated. Mexican food! But where’s the menu?

Damn, it’s a tequila bar. Tempting, but no way are we throwing back straight Cuervo on empty stomachs.

As we despondently turned away, the door swung open, and a smiling man with a little goatee and a long, shiny ponytail greeted us: “come on, have a drink!”

But we want food. Do you have food?

Talina, take it away…

¿Si? ¿Tienes buena comida? Si…si…pero…pero no hay mucho dinero!

Translation: Really? You do have food? Good food, you say? But listen up dude: we’re cheap.

¡Pero tenemos hambre! But we’re hungry!

And so we braved the menu-less tequila bar in posh Chelsea for dinner. And I satiated my hunger for home with the most American of non-American foods (next to pizza and Chinese takeout): tacos.

Tacos gobernador, to be exact.

Governor’s Tacos. Holy wow, they were awesome. Crispy, handmade flour shells filled with fresh, marinated shrimps, vegetables, salsa and melted cheese.

Talina deemed them exceptional, even in comparison to the tacos back home. She was glowing. At least one of us got to cure a bit of homesickness!

Talina at Azteca Latin Lounge in London

But I’m still a bit confused. Hey, goatee man, the food’s great, but why don’t you have a menu?

“Because we’ve only been serving food for two weeks,” he informed us,“it’s an experiment.”

Well, well…aren’t we privileged to be among the first to grade your taco test.

Azteca, we give you an “A.”

A for Amazing; A for Americans, forget cafés with crappy hours. Go to Azteca!

Don’t you worry, goatee man, we’ll be back for more gobernadores… and maybe even a bit of tequila, too.

Azteca Latin Lounge in Chelsea

¡Que maravilla!

 

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