Umbria — The Green Heart of Italy

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Wandering the back roads through the interior of Italy, a lucky traveler will find Umbria, north of Rome and south of the more familiar Tuscany. Known as the Green Heart of Italy, this region offers a healthy dose of Italian charm, fabulous wineries, world class chocolate, and a calm retreat off the tourist path.

To get off the main road, book a short-term holiday lodging like  La Passionata, a 16th century convent in the very small – microscopic, even – village of Upper Bazzano, near Spoleto. Don’t look for it on Google maps; you may have to ask a local for directions to find the apartment.

At the convent, an iron gate leads up a dozen steps to the door of the old structure. Off of a utilitarian kitchen hewn out of the rock, the library and prayer room are framed with six huge arched windows. The view shows a patchwork of green that stretches out to the horizon. The main room features a huge stone fireplace and an elegant 16th century fresco, allegedly by Lo Spagna, who also has works in the Duomo in Spoleto and in the Vatican. A spectacular private garden, outfitted with four hammocks, greets visitors who have arrived in vacation heaven.


Spoleto Cathedral, Umbria

Nearby is a fascinating medieval hill town known for its world-famous music event, Festival dei Due Mondi. To get to the majestic La Rocca Albornoziana, built in the 14th century, visitors file into an escalator for the 15-minute ride up to the fortress. This was a prison until late in the 20th century, and it still has a stark prison vibe.

Looking for a meal? Walk up the narrow street from Piazza Garibaldi toward the upper part of the old city of Spoleto to find Cento, a combination restaurant, coffee shop, and wine bar. Cheeses and meats were the start of a memorable meal in the small restaurant, and the house wine was served with a huge array of fresh hot and cold assorted local specialties. The Norcia truffle pasta and wild boar pappardelle are both iconic dishes of the region and are done very well at 9 Cento.

Wine… and chocolate kisses

Wine is always a welcome requirement of any Italian trip, and Umbria offers several notable varietals, including the white Orvieto and the lesser-known red Sagrantino di Montefalco. Montefalco is another small walled city in Umbria and the hub of the wine-growing region. The Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG (or Montefalco Sagrantino) is the rising star of Italian red wines; try to find a bottle or two to take home and cellar.

Another spot for great wine is Torgiano, yet another small town with medieval walls and an impressive defensive tower located on a hill overlooking the Chiascio and Tiber rivers. This is where you’ll find the Museo del Vino Torgiano, founded by the Lungarotti family in 1974. Lungarotti is one the best-known producers in Umbria and have been largely responsible for putting and keeping Torgiano on the world map of top wine regions. Leading the tour of their winery was Chiara Lungarotti, daughter of the founder. The 30-minute tour of the property featured a combination of modern technology and centuries old techniques. Best of all, however, is the wine tasting, accompanied by Umbrian bread and Lungarotti extra virgin olive oil.

The only thing left to complete your Umbrian vacation is a guided tour of the PerugiChocolate House on the outskirts of the city of the same name. While the factory is now owned by food giant Nestlé, it still maintains its reputation for quality. Some 1500 of the famous silver-wrapped chocolate-and-hazelnut confections called Baci – Italian for “kisses” – are created each minute during production. Visitors can sample to their heart’s content at the end of the tour. Serious fanatics can enroll in chocolate school, a four-hour course that teaches the secrets of chocolate making.

Umbria is a bright gem of a travel destination, with unique places to stay, charming cities to tour, terrific food, and outstanding wine. A stay in Italy’s “Green Heart” leaves the visitor with the sweet taste of a chocolate kiss.

Budapest — Hip, historic and reasonably priced

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The Danube winds its way through this ancient city, the capital of Hungary—actually, two cities, Buda and Pest, facing each other across its riverbanks. For 1000 years, ancient people settled here, first the Celts and then the Romans. Being overrun by the Mongols, led to some 150 years of Ottoman rule and then becoming the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each people left their mark on this global city, where art and culture meet food, wine and relaxation in equal measure.

The Four Seasons Gresham Palace

#1 Why Not the Best?
For a real splurge, book a room at the Fours Season Gresham Palace, on the banks of the Danube with the famous Chain Bridge within view. All of the thoughtfulness and ultra luxury of the chain combines with this magnificent Art Nouveau landmark building. Built in 1906, Gresham Palace was abandoned and ultimately restored in 1998 by the best local craftspeople the Fours Seasons could employ. A two million-piece mosaic tile floor, a grand, sweeping staircase, stained-glass floors, and a wrought iron elevator are just a few features of this stunning hotel. The spa ranks at the top of its class in a city of spas, and the Kollázs Brasserie & Bar off of the lobby provided an outstanding dining choice. We really liked breakfast, ordering Hungarian scrambled eggs – pepper, onion, and homemade sausage.

Tip: Reserve a room with river view; the lights of the city are worth it. For a splurge, get a River-View Park Suite which is a huge open concept room with a king bed, sitting area or two queens complete with a marble bathroom and a soaking tub!


#2 The all-day bus pass
We usually start any visit to a new city with a Hop On Hop Off Bus trip. We stayed on for the entire two-hour circuit with views of Heroes’ Square, noted for its iconic statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the towering dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Then the next day we rode the bus to the stops we wanted to see like the baths.


#3 Spa City
If you like spas like I do, this is a city for you. There are 118 thermal springs feeding 15 public baths, as well as spas like the one at the Four Seasons and several other hotels. We tried two public baths including the Széchenyi Thermal Bath located in the City Park. It is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Be careful of the Thai massage bookers, however. They grabbed us in the lobby and aren’t a part of the formal spa.

The Gellért Thermal Bath has a succession of pools, inside and outside. We enjoyed sitting on the outside deck with a beverage, watching people at the wave pool. My Swedish massage at the Gellert fully met my expectations, and I’d book a repeat. With so many more spas to try, I’ll definitely be back to work my way through the remaining dozen or so.


#4 Castle Hill and a traditional Hungarian meal
We were looking for a traditional meal and found Pest Buda Bistro in the heart of the castle district, the oldest section of the city. What else do you order but goulash at this cheerful restaurant with its red-checkered tablecloths? Pest Buda offers a Hungarian home-cuisine approach to their entrees. We sat outside and took in the medieval feel of the district centered around the old Royal Palace. After stuffing ourselves, we took a leisurely stroll including visiting the Matthias Church.


#5 Walking the Vaci utca to the Central Market Hall
A vital shopping and dining thoroughfare in the heart of the city winds its way to the Central Market Hall. The Market includes lots of shops to pop into for shopping of all kinds—upscale clothing, gadgets, or a cup of coffee (and, of course, paprika). The Central Market Hall is a bustling two-story building stuffed with stalls selling just about everything from foodstuffs to souvenirs to clothing. Food fills the first floor, with other goods upstairs. It was very crowded when we visited, but was still a great place to pick up souvenirs.


#6 St. Stephen’s Basilica
One of the must-see sites, St. Stephen’s is a Roman Catholic Basilica, named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). Although we didn’t see it, his hand is supposedly resting in the reliquary.


#7 A lovely evening stroll to Rezkakas Bistro
In the evening, we wanted to take a brief walk, dine outside and sample traditional cuisine. The concierge directed us to this charming restaurant where all three goals were met. High concept goulash!

#8 A nighttime cruise on the Danube
Along with our two-day bus pass, came a nighttime cruise on the Danube. This was a remarkable way to see the lights of this romantic city on our last night in Budapest. The boat was a little crowded, but the views of this UNESCO World Heritage city were remarkable.


#9 Who knew Hungarian wine was terrific and inexpensive?
One of the reasons no one knows about Hungarian wine is that they drink almost all that they produce within their own country, which boasts nine wine producing regions. Hungarian wine production dates back to at least Roman times. Outside of Hungary, the best-known wines are the white dessert wine, Tokaji, and the red wine, Bull’s Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér). Domestic wines include superb syrahs and cabernets. Plan a visit to The Tasting Table (Brody Sandor, Utca 9) to taste a great range of local wine and to snack on the bounty of a tasty local cheese and charcuterie board. Our favorite wine was a lovely Bulls Blood, Kovacs Nimrod, Rhapsody (2012).

Tip: Buy a wine that isn’t exported and bring home at least two bottles per person.


#10 Paprika
Finally, who knew there were so many types of paprika? Mild and sweet, to fiery spicy were just a few of the choices. Most importantly, we learned that we should throw out the paprika we had at home since it is a spice that does not keep its flavor once open to the air. As a spice, it is almost synonymous with Hungarian cuisine especially paprikash and goulash.

Visiting Paris Post-Attacks

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

12977213_10153582672734537_4317183048242907704_oParis has always been one of my favorite cities in the world, since I first visited with my father at age 15. Preparing for travel, however, becomes more problematic when the U.S. State Department posts a warning on its France travel page, “Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation.”

I felt very strange riding the Metro in from Charles De Gaulle Airport this time, wondering how any city keeps miles of rail lines safe, much less major airports. I expected to find a city under siege, streets deserted, doors firmly closed with shades pulled down.

Instead I found the Paris of my memory – people filling the streets, bars overflowing and a strong sense that this is not a country that will give in to a bully. And neither should any American planning a visit.

I did notice the armed military presence in the subway stations and soldiers walking the streets in groups of two to four. Fully armed with automatic weapons and in camouflage with jaunty berets, these men and women had not been part of the Paris I remembered, but were very comforting to see.

We chose a lovely hotel, Relais des Halles, with 19 rooms. Moderate in price for Paris (less than $150 a night), the room was typically small, but very nicely furnished with an extremely comfortable queen-sized bed. What size rooms can you expect in a 17th century building?

No visit to Paris is complete without a trip to one of the many open-air markets and shopping streets. Nearby, the Rue Montorgueil had the advantage of being open every day with lots of bakeries, gourmet stores and fish stands as well as restaurants and bars. Another favorite, not too far away, was the Marché des Enfant Rouges, named after a 16th century orphanage. This market had all the wonderful fresh fruit, cheese and bread one expects in Paris and also a terrific selection of “foreign” food – Lebanese, African and even Japanese.

We happened upon the Brasserie Le Petit Marcel on Rue Rambuteau. A hearty bowl of onion soup and an open-faced toasted cheese sandwich were perfect. The place was very busy, but the waiter didn’t rush us.

Our favorite splurge meal was a prix fixe lunch ($45 each) at Benoit, a restaurant owned by the famous French chef Alain Ducasse. It has a rich history, first opening its doors in 1912. One family had owned it for 93 years until they sold to Ducasse in 2005. Benoit had a very classic bistro feel with red velvet seats and shiny brass railings. The meal had three courses, with a crispy leek tart to start, followed by Guinea fowl fricassee and an Armagnac savarin with lightly whipped cream. Heaven!

A visit to the Louvre Museum, one of the world’s finest, took up the better part of a day. There is now a great shopping mall underground next to the museum, the Carousel de Louvre. Our favorite nearby museum is the Musée D’Orsay, which features the most incredible collection of the French Impressionist painters.

On a whim, we decided to visit the famous flea market, Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. We wandered for hours through the stalls with antique jewelry, furniture, old books, records and vintage clothes, looking for that perfect something. Luckily, our suitcases were already too stuffed to bring home anything but one small vase.

Eating, drinking, great art and culture, Paris remains a world-class tourist destination, always welcoming any traveler. As I learned on this visit, it is also a city of strength and determination against any threat. Vive la France.

Scottish Fling

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

We set off to trace our Scottish roots this summer, the clan Webb in tow, consisting of my 85 year-IMG_6248old father, husband and daughter. Webb is actually an English name, and we were looking for the Glenns, my great grandmother’s people. Family lore said we were descended from the oldest daughter of Robert the Bruce, a towering historical figure. My father, the family genealogist, had never been to Scotland, and we were looking for a family experience to remember. On so many levels, we found exactly that in Scotland.

Traveling with multiple generations is an adventure, and we were concerned how my father would fare on his extra plane trip from Los Angeles. He arrived in Chicago, eager to go, the wheelchair attendant pushing him speedily down the concourse at O’Hare airport where we all met for the non-stop, overnight flight to Edinburgh. The airline was very accommodating of his travel needs, bumping us both up to the front the economy section with seats together.

Arrival at the Edinburgh airport meant another mad wheelchair ride through customs and passport control; pushed by a lovely man who’s accent made him almost unintelligible. He, however, got us to the taxi stand in record time. We were so early in fact that I woke up the rental agent to ask her to meet us at the apartment with the key. She groggily agreed.

Edinburgh has an array of lodging from bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels. We choose a self-catered (meaning you cook) apartment in New Town, the heart of Edinburgh, built in the 1800s. I wanted a place that had a sleeping room on the first floor so my Dad didn’t have too many steps. Traveling with a cane now, he was a bit unsteady on his feet. The stone steps to the front door were the first challenge.

It was right then we were introduced to the kindness of the Scottish people, which became a repeating theme throughout our week. The cab driver was very concerned that the agent wasn’t standing at the door when we got to Royal Crescent Street, and the row of grey stone townhouses. He insisted on parking the cab and helping my Dad up the stairs to the door. Then he unloaded the bags and waited with us.

Our apartment was very stylishly furnished and included the ground and lower ground floors of a magnificent Georgian “A” listed building. Built over a period of some 85 years, between 1765 and 1850, New Town was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had made one small error, which was not checking that the half bath was actually on the first floor. My Dad had to navigate half a spiral stone staircase to get to the facilities. Note to self—never do that again!

We organized our week by two day-long guided bus trips and sight seeing in the city. The skyline in the Scottish capital city Edinburgh is dominated by the Castle for the last 1,000 years. Not very accessible to a man with cane, the three of us visited while Dad rested. The other royal residence, Holyrood Palace, however, offered free wheelchairs and was very accommodating. This is one of the official residences of Queen Elizabeth although she is in residence one week a year when she throws a 8000 person garden party. Our invitation must have been lost in the mail. The palace was built by King James IV of Scotland and improved by his successors into the marvelous building it is today. Mary Queen of Scots lived in this palace and married both her husbands within its walls.

We selected Rabies Tour Company to escort us  into the countryside on our family history quest. Rabies offered small 16 passenger buses and lots of personal attention that suited us perfectly.

It seemed that Robert the Bruce was similar to George Washington in the U.S., every place in the country had some claim to this national hero. Our first trip was into the Kingdom of Fife where our illustrious ancestor had ruled as king. A quick stop at St Andrews golf course was not really part of our historical visit but was fun to see the windswept golf links. Our second trip took us to the ruins of Melrose Abbey where Robert’s heart was buried, brought back from the Crusades. Melrose was founded in the 12th century by the Cistercians order. Walking among the stones and half walls, we got sense of what life was like in the earliest days. Our last visit was to Rosslyn Chapel, of DaVinci code fame, a perfectly preserved 15th century family chapel.

Our trip wasn’t in search of the HolyGrail. Instead, we were looking for some important family time to make new memories. Scotland proved to be a wonderful place for that and much more.


Spending the Day with J.K. Rowling in Edinburgh

Published in The Battle Creek Enquirer

It was a glorious, sunny morning in Edinburgh, Scotland, a hilly town of about 500,000 residents with a long and fascinating history. Our family had crossed the Atlantic to spend some time in a truly unique destination. The view upon our arrival did not disappoint. Edinburgh’s iconic castle, atop an extinct volcano, is visible from almost all parts of the city.

As part of our week-long itinerary, we had planned a trip to Rosslyn Chapel, an active church since 1466. Some might remember it from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, “The Da Vinci Code.” Instead, a snafu with our tour company resulted in a completely empty and unplanned day.

A friend recommended breakfast at the Elephant House Café. Not only are the lattes very good, but it was one of the cafes where J.K. Rowling wrote the first of the Harry Potter series. As big fans of Harry, we thought this was a wonderful start to our day. Ms. Rowling has lived in Edinburgh since 1993 and wrote many of her books there.

A big sign on the front window proclaimed that “Harry Potter was born here,” although this may not be entirely accurate, as the author says the idea for her first book came to her on a train.

IMG_5267Several news clips on a bulletin board added details to the café’s story, including that, as a single mother, Rowling had brought her infant daughter to the café because it was easier there to get her daughter to sleep so Rowling could write.

As we looked out the window from our wooden table in the cheery café, we saw Greyfriars Kirkyard, a 16th century graveyard surrounding the church of the same name. Why not visit the grave of Thomas Riddell? He was a real person buried in the cemetery, but more on point for our visit, the namesake of one of the most important characters in Rowling’s series — the boy who would become Lord Voldemort, Tom Riddle.

Once in the churchyard, we wandered by the slate gray monuments to the Mackenzies and the Murrays. A nice lady took pity on us and directed us through an archway to a small, enclosed corner of the graveyard.

“You’ll know the grave because all the grass is worn away,” she said with a smile. Sure enough, there was the grave of Thomas Riddell. Some IMG_5300clever fan had spray painted the name of another Potter character, Sirius Black, on a nearby tomb.

We decided to have high tea in the hotel where the final Harry Potter book had been written, the five-star Balmoral. If you’ve never had high tea, put it on your bucket list. At the Balmoral, tea starts with an amuse bouche, a small treat from the chef. In this case it was a minted pea soup served in a tiny Chinese teacup. Pots of steaming tea were poured, followed by a three-tiered tray of savories that included cheese sticks, chicken curry tarts, pastrami wraps, Scottish smoked salmon on rye and, of course, cucumber sandwiches.

It was after we had tucked into the sandwiches that my daughter noticed a blond woman sitting across the restaurant.

Could it be?
Could it be?


“That looks like J.K. Rowling,” she said.

“It couldn’t be,” I answered, until she showed me a picture of the famous author on her iPhone. While we couldn’t really tell from across the room, it certainly looked like the author. We decided we couldn’t march over and ask for her autograph; plus, the sweet course had just arrived.

This three-tiered plate of treats included strawberry cheesecake on a spoon, pear smoothie in a shot glass, chocolate millefeuille, passion fruit tarts and traditional current scones. After that, we were offered slices of cake!

We did keep sneaking glances across the room, as the Ms. Rowling lookalike and her party enjoyed the same menu. After the last cake crumb had been eaten and the last drop of tea consumed, I braved a question to our waiter.

“Is that possibly J.K. Rowling across the room?”

He asked me to repeat the name. “It’s our policy that we don’t divulge the names of any of our guests.”

Then, I swear, he winked at me—or maybe it was a nervous tick.

What had started as day without a destination had turned into a spectacular and memorable day with one of our favorite writers. How many people can say they had tea with J.K. Rowling in Edinburgh, Scotland? Maybe we can.

Magical temple tour in Agrigento

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Bumping over dusty roads for more than two hours in a van that seemed to lack any springs or air conditioning made me cranky. Why had I agreed on a day trip to Agrigento, on the other side of the triangular island of Sicily, when I could have spent the day lounging on the terrace of our seaside hotel?

I began to understand why we had made the trip as we were seated for lunch al fresco on the Terrace of the Gods at the five-star Villa Athena hotel. The multi-course lunch featured incredible seafood pasta, followed by crab-stuffed whitefish. Dessert was a pistachio semi-fredo, a cross between ice cream and a soufflé. Many glasses of a lovely cold white Alta Villa Grillo wine followed. Our luncheon on the terrace was fit for any of the Greek gods whose temples we would soon visit.

The Villa, built as a magnificent private home at the end of the 18th century, became a hotel in 1972. The gardens of the villa surrounding the vivid blue swimming pool blended into the landscape of almond and olive trees. Our table overlooked the Temple of Concordia, an incredible masterpiece of Doric art from 5th century B.C.

Seeing this first temple took my breath away, framed by the bright blue sky. It rivaled any Greek temple I have seen anywhere else in the world, even in Greece itself. It owed its preservation to being turned into a church in the 6th century, which saved the fundamental structure of the original temple.

I don’t know if it was the five-course lunch that softened me up, or the free-flowing Sicilian wine, but my mood had lightened considerably when we set off on our two-hour walking tour of the Archaeological Park of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997, just outside of Agrigento.

That city, founded in 582 B.C., was one of the most important and most culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean.

The archaeological park consisted of seven temples (and various other remains) built between about 510 B.C. and 430 BC: the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Hephaestos and the Temple of Demeter. All are situated in the same area on a rocky crest, not really in a valley at all.

Ancient Akragas, as it was known, attracted philosophers and poets who described it as “the most beautiful of mortal cities.” Today, it attracts visitors from all over the world, who stroll through the temple ruins, imagining their past glory. It does take a bit of imagination. Only eight columns remained at the Temple of Heracles, one of the most ancient in the Valley. For the Temple of Castor and Pollux, only four columns remained.

We wandered through the ruins along the Via Sacra, at a leisurely pace, walking off our enormous lunch. The Temple of Concordia was even more impressive close up, its elegant and airy colonnade six columns by 13 columns. We rested in the shade of a gnarled olive tree.

Ancient Akragas, as it was known, attracted philosophers and poets who described it as “the most beautiful of mortal cities.” Today, it attracts visitors from all over the world, who stroll through the temple ruins, imagining their past glory. It does take a bit of imagination. Only eight columns remained at the Temple of Heracles, one of the most ancient in the Valley. For the Temple of Castor and Pollux, only four columns remained.

We wandered through the ruins along the Via Sacra, at a leisurely pace, walking off our enormous lunch. The Temple of Concordia was even more impressive close up, its elegant and airy colonnade six columns by 13 columns. We rested in the shade of a gnarled olive tree.

I don’t know why I was so surprised at finding the quality and quantity of Greek ruins, unprotected and uncovered, jutting into the Sicilian sky. After all, the island was once a critical and important component of the Greek Empire. Now the Valley of the Temples provided just one more reason for a visit to modern day Sicily.

Sicily offers great value, great beauty

DSCN2680 Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Over the years, I didn’t consider visiting Sicily, a large triangular island off the boot of Italy. Now that I’ve visited, I can’t wait to go back. Abundant sunshine, great beaches, crystalline waters, fresh local food and the largest active volcano in Europe — what more could you ask for?

We started in Taormina, on the eastern side of the island. Perched high above the sea, this small city has been a required stop for tourists, from composer Johannes Brahms to comedian Woody Allen, all of whom enjoyed its restored Medieval buildings and stunning ocean views.

The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish — all came to Taormina and left their mark.

I could feel the city’s history as we walked along the winding streets to the Teatro Greco, a third century Greco-Roman amphitheater, still hosting a variety of events today. We sat on the seats, and Mt. Etna rose in the distance, still smoking from an eruption the day before.

We took a short cable car ride down to the water where our hotel — the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay — clung to a cliff. The hotel was themed after the lost city of the same name, and the lobby and hallways felt grotto-like. Sipping a glass of local wine on our patio overlooking the Ionian Sea, I knew that we arrived somewhere special.

Breakfast was served on a patio right above the pool and the sea. I never wanted to leave. But there were sights to be seen and meals to be eaten.

DSCN2586Up the winding road was Patria, one of the largest privately-owned wineries in Sicily. The rich volcanic soil provided a unique terroir for wines.

A tour took us to the volcanic cave with its layers of eruptions clearly displayed.

Sitting around a huge table for a feast with the vineyard owner, it was easy to lose track of the courses (maybe seven). Fabulous wines were paired with each offering — Neri d’Avola, Etna Rosso, Cabernet, Etna Bianco, and their vintage 2001 Etna Rosso. Multiple kinds of antipasti, both hot and cold, were followed by wild mushroom risotto, then seafood pasta, then grilled boar medallions.DSCN2578

Some Norwegian tourists, sitting at another table, burst into song half-way through our three-hour meal, which provided an unusual musical accompaniment to a wonderful Sicilian experience.

The length of lunch put our visit to Mt. Etna behind schedule, which meant that we had to satisfy ourselves with a very short hike around one of the many craters left from previous eruptions.

DSCN2613The lava fields looked like how I imagined the moon’s surface might appear, blasted and cratered lava rock stretching downhill for miles.

That evening we sat on the deck of a charming local restaurant, Al Saraceno, perched high above the bay.

We watched the lights come on below and enjoyed another meal, especially selected by owner Alfio Puglia. Fresh local fish was part of our menu.

With so much more of the island to explore, I can easily imagine choosing Sicily for another visit, when I am seeking sparking blue water and tremendous hospitality.

Italian adventure: Tips for group travel

Published Oct. 19, 2012

Planning a vacation with another family poses opportunities and challenges. Organizing a trip to a foreign country that you have visited and they haven’t makes it even more interesting. Our friendship was decades old and able to withstand anything — we hoped.

Umbria is known as the green heart of Italy.

They picked the country, Italy. We picked the part, Umbria in the province of Perugia. That was all the discussion we had about location before booking. Umbria, north of Rome and south of the better-known Tuscany, was a place to explore the back roads where we hadn’t visited; for our friends it was a place they had never heard of, in a country they had never visited.

• Tip 1: Be clear who is going to decide what, and what level of consultation is needed before money is paid.

The apartment in lower Bazzano, a converted convent clinging to the hillside.

When we called from the Rome airport they told us “you’ll never find the apartments.” I should have guessed my choice of lodging was too far off the beaten track. We rented two apartments in an old convent in the very small — microscopic even — village of Lower Bazzano, near Spoleto. Recommended by British friends, the Internet description and pictures displayed a place that was both charming and cheap ($750 per week). Reality matched. With a spectacular private garden, outfitted with four hammocks, it was heaven when we finally found the place. I was content to send out for food and never leave again.

• Tip 2: If the budget allows, get two of everything: two rooms, two rental cars. Families can do their own thing and no one waits around for anyone else.

Our friends, filled with the zeal of first-time visitors, wanted to see Florence, Venice, and the entire country it seemed. Unfortunately, I had chosen a location that was far from everywhere.

Undaunted, they began to plan their overnight to Florence and possible side trip to Venice, while I napped in the hammock. My plan was to travel the least distance I could in seven days.

• Tip 3: Have a thorough discussion before you start planning about each family’s expectations for the vacation. That way the café coffee drinkers won’t be competing with the visit-every-museum types.

Winding streets in one of Umbria’s medieval walled cities, Spoleto.

Spoleteo was a wonderful medieval hill town, known for its world famous music event, Festival dei Due Mondi. We rode an outside escalator up to the castle, traveling 15 minutes up the huge hill to the fortress. The majestic La Rocca Albornoziana, built in the 14th century, was a prison until late in the 20th century. It still had the stark prison vibe the afternoon we visited.

• Tip 4: Doing things separately is a good thing, not a signal your friendship has ended.

We walked up the pedestrian street to a charming small restaurant 9 Cento, where the very helpful owner spoke flawless English and had a large selection of Italian wine you could drink in or take home. Wine was one theme of the trip, including the white Orvieto and the lesser-known red Sagrantino di Montefalco. We spent an afternoon in Montefalco, a small walled city and the hub of the wine-growing region.

Chocolate was the other. We ate as much as Perugia chocolate as we could, known worldwide for its crunchy hazelnut flavor.

• Tip 5: Make sure you do have things you want to do together as a whole group. Otherwise, plan your own trip.

What could be a better vacation? Wine, chocolate and good friends who didn’t have to spend every minute together.

I relaxed in the sun, soaking up the green heart of Italy, and they went off to see the rest.

A tasting day in Bordeaux

Published September 2012  Battle Creek Enquirer

Testing room

Any serious wine aficionado (particularly among the AARP set) considers the Bordeaux region of France as the holy grail of wine. Those who know my husband affectionately call him the Wily Wino, so a stop in this region of France was a requirement this summer when we visited France.  Luckily for him, Bordeaux was only a two-hour drive from where we were staying and perfect for a day trip.

The French have been growing grapes in this region for 2000 years; today there are some 8500 wine producing châteaux. Picking a few to visit was difficult, especially since you have to make reservations ahead of time. To ease the pain, we decided to start our visit in the city of Bordeaux itself at the Maison du Vin, a one-stop shop for regional tastings. A flight of Bordeaux wines was a terrific introduction to the complex flavors of the area. While my husband would have tasted all afternoon, the French have a lovely habit of closing for lunch. We sought out a good meal before heading out to the vineyards.

Our choice for lunch was a unique restaurant called L’Entrecôte, a group of family-owned restaurants, which serve only one menu at one price, an economical 22 euros. Under the black and yellow sign, the line started forming at 11 a.m. A stern lady guarded the front door, where were we entered into a typical French brasserie with wood paneling and wall mirrors, closely spaced tables, and bench seating in red upholstery.

I had eaten at a sister restaurant on my first visit to France forty years ago, and the meal was just as I remembered it—the same lettuce-and-walnut salad as a starter; the same steak-frites (French fries), the same sliced steak with the same butter sauce as the main course. The steak was cooked to order and kept warm at the table. The slim, crispy frites were served in a golden mound. We pushed ourselves away before they tempted us with desert.  And off we went to taste the five major grapes of Bordeaux: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Priere de Chine winery

We followed a scenic and winding two-lane road north of the city. Small villages boasted their own vineyards and tasting rooms. Our appointment was at the Chateau Prieure-Lichine in the Margaux appellation, in the town of Cantenac. Certain wineries are classified as “Grand Cru,” a designation that goes back to 1855 and the first effort to categorize levels of excellence in local wineries.  Chateaux Prieure-Lichine lived up to its reputation, with an exceptional sampling of wines in a modern tasting room next door to the production facility and remnants of the priory that housed the original winemaking on the premises.

We decided to make a second stop at Chateau Kirwan, another Grand Cru chateau that also is one of the few wineries that is still family-owned.  Chateau Kirwan’s wines were excellent, and their marketing savvy showed in the creative way they offered a single-serving of their Margaux blend in a glass test-tube container with a screw-top.

Before heading home, we drove by some of huge Bordeaux names, Chateau Palmer and Chateau Margaux. One day was just too short to get more than a drive-by sensation of this historic wine region.  According to the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux, American sales of Bordeaux wines were down last year. With U.S. wine drinking at an all time high, it may be that many younger Americans simply haven’t sampled the beauty of these famous French wines.  So many wines, so little time.