Tag Archives: Europe

A Sojourn in Sicily – Part 1

Traveling to Europe from Austin is usually an adventure unto itself, and this trip was no exception.

We’d opted to fly in/out of Houston to avoid the missed or much-too-lengthy connections that occur when landing somewhere else in the US.

After a last-minute switch of hotels (note to airport travelers: do not book the Houston airport Holiday Inn, which is filthy and reeks of smoke!), we check in at the airport Marriott and have dinner at highly recommended Chez Nous in nearby Humble. I learn that the town is pronounced “umble” – perhaps to avoid the obvious jokes about pie?

The meal is excellent and we’re off to a good start.

Next morning, we check in for our flights: Houston to Newark and then on to Milan. Board the plane, settle in, and… nothing happens. After three “we’ll be slightly delayed” announcements we’re told of a “mechanical issue” (airline code for “we have no freakin’ clue what’s wrong”) and herded off the plane to scramble for new flights, as many on board are clearly going to miss their connection.

Several hours later we’re en route to Munich, where we’ll connect via Lufthansa to Milan. We arrive safely – still shivering from the insanely cold airplane – way behind schedule. Our luggage does not.

This necessitates another hour filling in paperwork while the lost luggage clerk tries to figure out whether United or Lufthansa is responsible for locating it and getting it to the hotel before we leave for our next destination.

BUT, intrepid travelers that we are, we head to our hotel, the very lovely Grand Hotel Et De Milan, and set off wandering this sophisticated and stylish city.

Day 1

Since we’re both opera fans, the main reason we’ve stopped in Milan this trip is to see a performance at La Scala the following night. Today, we head over to the opera house museum, which is pretty much a shrine to Maria Callas, patron saint of warblers worldwide. There are costumes, posters, videos, photos, portraits, you name it. Also set and costume designs from various other performances.

We scarf down a delicious dinner of trenette with pesto and cacio e pepe (here’s one recipe, though it’s even simpler and better if you use grated cacio cheese, olive oil, pasta water and freshly ground pepper) at nearby ristorante Salumiao, which we like so much we eat there the next night as well.

Day 2

Having been awakened at 1 a.m. by my dear husband (DH) who was obsessing about the missing luggage and wanting me to call someone (who in god’s name is working at that hour? but sure, why not!), I’m not as rested as I could be. Still, off we go to walk around and shop for a shirt and tie for DH to wear to La Scala in case the bags don’t arrive (it’s looking bleak).

Best discovery of the day: Museo Novecento, showcasing major art movements from 1910-1960’s, including some interesting political pieces.

After an afternoon drink at the hotel bar we return to our room to change for the opera and – mirabile dictu – bags have arrived!

At La Scala we see a silly opera (Von Weber’s Die Freischutz; about a hapless suitor, magic bullets, and the devil) with pleasant, mostly forgettable music, but we share a box with a nice couple and can now cross it off DH’s bucket list.

Days 3-6

We take the train to Florence – our 4th visit to this beautiful city, which is sadly overrun with selfie-stick-brandishing tourists even in October. Our hotel (a private palazzo nicely located near the Duomo) turns out to be lovely despite its unprepossessing exterior: ancient gate/courtyard with faint “eau de urine” from generations of animals and a dirty welcome mat in front of the battered industrial elevator which takes you upstairs to …

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Some highlights: Eating at Del Fagioli and Alla Vecchia Bettola, admiring fresh vegetables at the market and frescos at the Pitti Palace and Santa Maria Novella, and window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio,”considering” whether we need to buy the Buccellati lifelike silver crab serving dish that’s “only” 3600 euros after the VAT refund. Hey, let’s take two!

Day 7: Arrival in Sicily!

Alitalia seamlessly transfers our luggage from Florence to Rome to Palermo (take note, United!), where our Stanley Tucci lookalike driver takes us to our modern (aka no frills) hotel at 11:30 pm. I’d bought a sandwich to eat on the plane but DH has not eaten – he’s been fighting a cold and wasn’t hungry until now– and dines on minibar bottles and potato chips. Who says travel isn’t glamorous!

Next up: Palermo….

Do’s and Don’ts for Your Visit to Lisbon, Porto and Beyond

For my last post about our recent trip to Portugal, I was inspired by the wonderful photography and stories of blogger The Insatiable Traveler and want to share some of my photos along with a few suggestions and observations.

DO pack hiking boots or sturdy shoes to manage the steep hills. I can’t say this enough!

DO eat a hearty breakfast. All our hotels included lavish buffets in the room rate, which set us up perfectly for a day of exploring.

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DON’T be intimidated if you don’t speak Portuguese. Learn a few key phrases and politely ask someone if he or she speaks English. Most do, especially in the larger cities.

DON’T speak Spanish instead. There’s a long history of discord with Spain, and Portuguese is not a dialect but its own distinct language.

DO venture into grocery stores. I love seeing how local products are different from the brands I get at home, and people are friendly and helpful.

DO rent a car and tour the beautiful countryside.

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DON’T expect world-class museums. If you’re used to the Louvre, Prado, British Museum, Met or Uffizi, you’ll find museums in Lisbon to be charming but not on the same level.

DON’T forget to look up, down and sideways. Many buildings still retain their original azulejos (tiles) and the cobbled streets often have intricate designs.

DON’T you wish your commute was this stunning? The São Bento train station in Porto is covered with tiles depicting festivals, transportation and historic scenes.

DO visit the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia and go wine tasting in the Douro Valley.

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DO try vinho verde, the light, refreshing “green” wine that’s young and slightly effervescent.

DON’T expect high-end shopping. Instead, splurge on local crafts and designers.

DO bring home some hand-painted pottery. Prices are way lower than in the States and the quality is magnificent.

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DO have lunch at Casa do Leão when you’re exploring the Castel São Jorge in Lisbon. The food is good and the view over the city is spectacular.

DO visit historic Coimbra, a short drive from Lisbon. It’s home to one of the world’s oldest universities — worth the trip for the ornate chapel and examination hall, medieval library (which maintains a bat colony to eat insects that could destroy the books) and academic prison, where misbehaving students served time. (Good thing this wasn’t my alma mater!)

DO try local specialties, such as porco à alentejana, an unlikely but delicious combination of chopped pork and tiny clams.

DO ride the tram (especially #28), an inexpensive way to tour Lisbon. However, DON’T bother with the pedi-cabs unless you negotiate a price; they can be more costly than a taxi.

DO visit the markets for the vast array of produce, snacks or lunch among the locals, and great people watching.

DO be aware that tips aren’t generally included in the bill. Leave 10%.

DON’T plan on eating dinner early, though it won’t be as late as in Spain. Most restaurants, even in hotels, open around 7:30 p.m.

DO have a fantastic trip and tell us all about it!