Packupine, My Custom Designed Packing App

Every year at the Rick Steves tour guide reunion, we spend time planning, but also socializing. This is when the plotting begins. Ideas crafted over a few beers are often the best. And so it was, that my colleague Fabian Rueger and I came up with Packupine, a packing app.

As you know, packing an efficient bag based on weight is one of my passions. I’ve written and spoken about my crazy strategies. But how can I help people use that strategy more effectively? This is the idea of this packing app.

The app starts by helping you generate a list of items to pack. This list is based on criteria you give it, and based on our years of international travel. The list will pop up, and a projected weight will be calculated, based on the average weight of items. You can export the list to email or notes on your phone to print it out.

But the closet is where the fun starts.

The closet function takes you to categories of items, and lists generic things, like pants or dresses. In each category, you can add your own items. In the item description, you can name, photograph, and add the actual weight.

When you’ve customized all of your favorite travel items, you can tap them and drop them into your packing list, which will eventually give you a pretty accurate estimation of the weight.

So the idea is this: you can sit in a cafe a day before your trip, browse your closet on your phone, then drop all of your belongings in your bag for a real list of your own things, with an actual weight. I’m hoping this method will help people see where they spend their weight and make better packing choices.

This is our first release of the app, available on iPhone and iPad for the low, low price of $1.99. I hope you’ll give it a try and let us know how it goes. We will be continually improving it based on your feedback. Sorry, no Android version…yet.

The interface is simple, and I’ve drawn a little mascot to guide your way, Packupine. After all, if a cute little porcupine can pack a great bag, so can you.

Buy it here: Packupine!

Travel Shoes – Reader Favorites

Every year around this time, the mad search for good travel shoes begins anew. As all travelers, I walk many miles while on the road and must have good shoes to get me where I’m going. So I present you with travel shoes 2018–not only my latest finds, but the suggestions of my well-traveled readers.

My Travel Shoes

I’ve already been out and about this year, leading tours in Thailand and Sicily. I needed very different shoes for those trips, as Sicily was really cold. I found some great picks that I’m pretty happy with.

Uggs

Because I was in Italy in March during the snowpocalypse, I really went crazy with good boots. I generally love Uggs, and even if I shouldn’t have, I brought two pairs.

The Simmens boot was a perfect combination of style and function. The look is like a motorcycle boot. The interior wasn’t as soft as a regular Ugg, but still had a nice layer of warm wool. Best of all, they were waterproof!

At the last minute, I came upon a great price on Ugg Shala Slouch Boot. They are suede, have that soft lining, and are a slimmer boot than the normal Ugg style. I haven’t bought ankle boots before, but now I’m hooked. They were so comfy, warm, and looked great even at a nice restaurant. Even with a wedge heel, they were not as heavy as they could have been.

After many suggestions from readers, I finally broke down and bought Allbirds. I think they are a little expensive, but they are so cozy. The upper and footbed are brushed wool, and I didn’t even need socks with them in chilly weather. They say the shoes work great in hot weather, but I’m skeptical. I’m also a little concerned they will stretch over time. But comfort level was high and my tootsies were toasty.

I put the question out to readers, and here are their suggestions.

Reader Suggestions for Travel Shoes 2018

“Love, love, love my Finn Comfort shoes!!  They have served me well in the last 15 years traveling throughout Europe.  Even better when paired with cute compression socks from Vim & Vigr.  They’ll be my go to shoes again this year!  Pricey, but they stand the test of time.” – Beth

“For waterproof and attractive ankle boots, tennis shoes and flats check out Blondo. Except for the ankle boots, shoes can be worn for all 4 seasons and look great. When I travel I never have to worry about a sudden rain ruining my shoes. Can buy them at Nordstrom’s or Zappos. Still searching for the perfect travel sandal.” -Gail

–Note about Blondo, they get great reviews but when I went to try them, they ran very small. The 12 was much more like a 10. WOn’t work for me but they were cute.

Merrill Moab Vent hiking shoe. I wear them year-round. Just returned from a trip to Paris. Wore these most days, along with SmartWool socks. I managed to avoid blisters for 5 days or our 10 day trip. That is simply amazing for me!” -Terry

“For walking shoe and flats: Skechers Go Walk flats – they’ve let me walk many more miles in London and elsewhere than any other shoe would.” – Carlotta

“I wore Allbirds for a week in Amsterdam for spring break and my feet never got sore or tired. (And my feet always get sore and tired!) Love them!” – Shelley

“I’m a ballet flats kinda girl. I prefer Butterfly Twists brand, any model. Most of them fold up and come with a little pouch. They have a gel memory insole and are ridiculous comfy. Start at $45 and go to $90.” – Emily

“I am in love with my new shoes. Sketchers Synergy 2.0 Side-Step Fashion Sneaker. I recently had foot surgery and needed new shoes that would be healing for my feet and enable me to stand and walk for longer and longer periods of time. I tried on different shoes in stores for days until I found these Sketchers with Air-Cooled Memory Foam that make me feel like I’m walking on a cloud. They feel really light weight for sneakers. used my “Sarah” Kitchen Scale and they are 7oz. With just a tiny S on the side they look dressier than regular sneakers, so they can be worn with dress pants and silk scarves and look more like dress shoes. The Nubuck makes them look like a gorgeous dark rich black.” – Kathy

“I’m a Keen Rose fan for comfort, practicality and great service! I wear a size 11 or 42 which is hard to find. The Rose can go from the water to a hike to a casual dinner in a city.” – Ann

Finn Comfort Garmisch … best boots I have ever owned … my wife wears them too … last year before one of our trips to Europe a friend asked my wife how many pairs of shoes she was taking … her answer was “Only the ones I am wearing” … she had on her Finn Comfort’s … and that is why I married her … PACK LIGHT !!!” – David

Olu Kai’s. Made in Hawaii and different types from sandals to shoes. Very comfortable and don’t need socks so one less thing to pack. You can wear them in the water and at night. Hiked the Cinque Terre trails, jumped in the water with them and hit up the bars in Florence afterwards. Bag just got lighter with having 1 shoe for all now. ” – Robert

vivobarefoot jingjings have been a godsend to a size 7.5 W with gnarly bunions. alot of their shoes are definitely way sportier-looking than i am (athleisure makes no sense on a person who prefers sundresses and “glowing” rather than sweating), but this one is ok- kind of a utilitarian, forgettable ballet flat.” – Jen

“I have Plantar Fasciitis and wear orthotics. My Hoka OneOne Running Shoes https://www.hokaoneone.com/ made all of the miles and miles in Rome easy! Fly London Yito Wedges are a great shoe and are super cute as well.” – Jennifer

Thanks to everyone who sent in suggestions. I’m waiting for my summer choices to arrive. Based on your suggestions from last year, I’m trying Vionic Tide II sandals and Trotter’s wedges for my next trip. Will report back on how they work!

How to Choose a Great Hotel

I’ve been researching guidebooks for almost two decades and have learned something about how to choose a great hotel. No matter where you are going, what your age or price range is, you can always find a place to sleep that will work well, as long as you don’t mind putting in a bit of time researching. Obviously, a shortcut is buying a great guidebook (like Rick Steves!) where the work has already been done for you. But if those hotels are booked or you’re going off the grid, the following are some strategies I’ve learned the hard way.

What are YOU Looking For?

Not every hotel can please every traveler. The first thing to consider is what you need in a hotel and neighborhood. Do you like lively areas where you can walk everywhere? Are you a light sleeper that needs silence? Will you have a car? These criteria will shape which type of neighborhood you choose.

How to choose a great hotelStart with the Neighborhood

Where you stay in a city will impact your visit almost as much as the specific hotel you’re in. A perfect example is in Paris– I’d take a barebones budget place near the Eiffel Tower any day over a nicer place in the red light district.

Start by looking into which neighborhoods are most convenient for sightseeing. Staying reasonably close to big museums or attractions will cut your commute time, but also may save you money. Big attractions typically have more hotels near by, meaning more competition.

If you need peace and quiet, or you prefer staying away from the touristy areas, you’ll want to evaluate the public transit situation.  Find a quiet neighborhood that is well served by a rapid transit line. Take a look at maps to find out if your neighborhood has an unusual number of bars, which tend to be noisy at night.

If you’ll have a car, you’ll need to focus on hotels that offer parking. Make sure to ask if that parking is included. Public transit will also be important in this case, as many hotels that offer parking are away from the center of cities, and it will likely be easier to park and bus into town.

Palazzo Brunaccini, PalermoChoose Your Price Range

Make an overall budget of what you plan to spend for your whole trip and come up with a per day average. My personal strategy is to hit that range most days, spend less a few days, and then splash out once or twice.

If you’re a backpacker, you could aim to stay in hostels most nights, then save up your money a bit and throw in a cheap hotel occasionally for a bit of privacy.

If you’re a mid-range traveler, go cheap where it makes sense. I never spend lots on my arrival hotel, since I’m just going to be sleeping and recovering. Big cities are often overpriced in the mid to upper-mid ranges, save money there by staying somewhere basic or renting an apartment. I like to spend where the extra money will get me much more, like a luxurious countryside hotel.

How to choose a great hotel

Look at a Map

Once you’ve identified a neighborhood you want to stay in, bring up that zone on Google Maps. Make a list of hotels that are in a good location for you. It’s smart to start here, because not every hotel is listed on the big booking sites, like booking.com. Looking at maps may bring up something you would not have seen otherwise. Make a list of hotels that look interesting to you based on the map.

Booking.com

Now Go to Booking Engines

Once you are informed about your choices, then go look at the booking sites. Compare the list you made on Google Maps to what is available, and narrow your choices based on what is in your price range.

Have a look at the amenities of each property. Do they have everything you need? Are there things you’ll be paying for that you don’t need? For instance, hotels that have a restaurant are often given more stars and can be more expensive. Do you need a restaurant in your hotel? Likewise, some hotels may not be able to offer breakfast. I don’t actually eat breakfast, so that’s not a priority for me. (Please don’t send me well-meaning notes on how I should eat breakfast, I’ve become too Italian for my own good!)

Ignore the Star System, a Great Hotel Can Have None

I’ve stayed in five-star hotels and I’ve stayed in zero star hotels. The star system is bogus. It doesn’t have anything to do with the level of quality, only the amenities offered, such as restaurants, 24-hour concierge, and minibars.

I once stayed in a four star hotel called Hotel Ritz. Boy, was I deceived. It was no better than a fleabag hotel…but it had safes in the closets! One of my favorite hotels in Venice will always be a one star hotel because the owner refuses to put TVs in the rooms. He says that you don’t need a TV in Venice, and I can’t argue with that. The number of stars has nothing to do with cleanliness or how well run a hotel is.

Read Review Scores, BUT Don’t Believe Them

The booking sites will tell you that they know how to choose a great hotel. I will admit, I do look at review scores when evaluating places for guidebooks. But I have some rules:

  1. TripAdvisor is off the table. I don’t even look at it, as anyone can comment even if they haven’t stayed there. I have stories on this one. Competing hotels can poison each other’s ratings. I have seen entire towns turn against each other over Tripadvisor ratings. It’s infuriating.
  2. Booking.com, Expedia.com and Hotels.com are more reliable. Their ratings are based on reviews by people who have actually stayed. I find Booking.com to be the most truthful.
  3. Overly positive reviews are suspicious. Consider that some hotels practically force their guests to submit positive reviews. I stayed in a hotel last year where the staff hovered over me at breakfast to make sure I was happy, and then they badgered me to review them. It was so irritating. I respect hotels that don’t go hunting for good reviews, they simply earn them.
  4. Look at reviews of people from the country the hotel is in. Let’s say you’re going to Germany. Look at the German language reviews first. Germans may have different standards and priorities than you would, but they have a better sense of what is normal and standard for their country.
  5. Look for the grain of truth. Really good reviews and really bad reviews are not going to tell you anything other than about the reviewer. Mediocre reviews are usually the most truthful, even of great places.
  6. Don’t count out the hotels with bad scores. A great hotel can have bad reviews. In my years in the travel industry I’ve learned that people tend to turn in evaluations way more often when they are unhappy than when they are happy. Read the reviews and find out why they got bad scores. Maybe they just don’t care about online scores and don’t encourage happy customers to write. Maybe the manager is grumpy. If the hotel is clean, well located and cheap, I can live with that.
  7. The key phrases to look for are “clean” and “good value”. Also look for the deal breakers, like complaints about noise level if you’re a light sleeper, or “skimpy breakfast” if you need more to eat in the morning.

How to choose a great hotelGoogle the Hotel Name

Once you’ve picked your top choices, Google them. Go to “Images” and look at the photos of the hotel. I look for pictures taken by customers, not the hotel glamor shots, with the roses scattered on the bed and the lighting just so. I want the ugly version, with suitcases scattered all over and the bed unmade. That’s what the room will actually look like when I’m in it, so we may as well know the truth.

Money Saving-Strategies

If you’re not in a hurry, try emailing the hotel to ask for the best price. If you’ve done your homework, you can tell them what you’re finding online and see if they can match it or give you a better deal.

Booking directly with the hotel is much nicer, even if it is more work, because the booking sites take huge commissions. That’s ok for bigger hotel chains, but it kills the small, family owned hotels. When you book directly, many smaller hotels will thank you in some way, either by upgrading you, giving you a welcome glass of wine or giving a discount. If they don’t seem to offer anything for booking directly, ask. If you’re staying three or more nights, almost every hotel I know will give you some kind of discount if you ask for it. Some will give further discounts for cash.

Hotels are a Personal Thing

Above all, the best strategy on how to choose a great hotel is understanding your needs. Your opinion is the most important one, and every hotel has pluses and minuses. Decide what you can live with, and what you can’t live without. Do you need character? Do you need charm and friendly hosts? I have basic needs, am most happy in a safe neighborhood with a spotlessly clean room. My biggest pet peeve is smell, especially man smell in the sheets (Blech!). Know what you can live with and what you can’t do, that will shape your best experience.

For more on lessons learned while inspecting hotels for guidebooks, see https://adventureswithsarah.net/what-makes-a-great-hotel/

The Buzz on Slovenia: Bee Keeping

Part of the joy I find in travel these days is finding ways to support sustainable travel. Working with local artisans and producers, connecting locals with my travelers is a great way to make a positive impact with tourism. My friend Andrew has been doing just that for some years now, and supporting bee keeping in Slovenia is a fun way to do it.

Another fun blog from Andrew, on bee keeping in Slovenia.

One of the things I’ve always known about Slovenians as long I’ve been coming here is their love affair with honey and all things bees. Nearly everywhere in the country you can find honey in all varieties (spruce, fir, linden, cherry blossom, acacia, chestnut just to name a few) and for sale at numerous private houses, kiosks and gift shops.

Roaming the popular outdoor market in Ljubljana, in addition to the stalls upon stalls of honey, you’ll also come across elongated wooden panels with colorful, folksy paintings on them.  This unique local art are actually replicas of what 18th and 19th century beekeepers in Slovenia would paint to decorate the front of their hives with motifs ranging from humorous, religious and mythical.

If it seems like this small country (barely 2 million inhabitants) has always been a nation of beekeepers then you’d be correct. There are five beekeepers per 1,000 inhabitants, which places Slovenia at the top of the world in terms of beekeepers per population.

Less than a mile away from Slovenia’s most popular tourism destination of Lake Bled lies the tiny village of Selo. It’s here where my friend Blaž lives and shows off his passion and knowledge of bees and special Slovenian bee-keeping traditions to an ever-increasing amount of travelers.

Whether it’s a love for the way local honeys taste, fascination with the stories behind the beehive panels or awareness for the current global plight of bees, an educational and delicious meeting with Blaž is quickly becoming a favorite stop with my guests.

Wrap Your Brain Around These Bee Facts

To make one kilogram of honey, a single bee would have to visit 4 million flowers and fly four times the distance around the world

Every third spoon of world food depends on pollination

Honey bees’ wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, thus making their distinctive buzz

The queen bee is the only one that lays eggs. She lays up to 2,000 eggs per day

Bees pollinate as many as 170,000 species of plants and without them, there would not be so many different kinds of fruits and vegetables, or such beautiful colors on the lawn

Blaž and his wife Danijela have 130 bee hives which, in peak bee season, could mean a total of 6.5 million bees. Blaž got his start 16 years ago when a swarm of bees came into an empty hive that he inherited from his uncle, a beekeeper. Aprehensive at first, Blaž got a little convincing from a family friend and a few more bee families as a birthday present and since then, him and his whole family has been “addicted to bees” as he puts it.

In addition to hosting guests and handing out samples of the award-winning honeys, Danijela paints the brightly colored panels that are so distinctive and Blaž is now the president of the Section for Beekeeping Tourism at the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association.

I chatted with him regarding the recent big news: after quite a few years of pestering, the U.N. has finally adopted Slovenia’s resolution of a World Bee Day. The first annual celebration will be this May on the 20th of the month. It’s no coincidence that May 20th is the birthdate of Anton Janša, the Slovenian beekeeper who was the first to teach what are now modern-day beekeeping ideals to the whole of the Habsburg empire.

1) Why are bee-keeping and bees so important for Slovenian culture? Is it true that something like 1 in every 100 Slovenians are beekeepers?

In the past, almost every farm had a beehive with bees, as bee crops (honey, wax) were very important and in those times hard to access. Already during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Maria Theresa recognized the well-being of bees, and also that Slovenians have a lot of knowledge about this. That is why Anton Janša got a job in Vienna and was the first apprentice of beekeeping in the world. Simply put, Slovenes like bees and bees with heart, so every 200 Slovenes are beekeepers.

2) What will happen next May in Slovenia because of UN passing the World Bee Day (events, conferences, media spotlight on Slovenia?

A set of three-day events is being prepared. The World Beekeeping Conference Global Challenges in Beekeeping will start on May 18th and will continue with the World Ministerial Conference on Bees and Pollinators in Brdo pri Kranju on 19 May. On the same day, the commemoration of the Carniolan lavender in Višnja Gora will also be opened. On May 20, Bee’s celebration of the 1st day of the bees will take place in Žirovnica, the birthplace of Anton Janša.

3) What efforts did you contribute to making this World Bee Day happen?

Most of the work was done by the ČZS (Beekeeping Association of Slovenia) and MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food) and their joint commission, which led this project and invested all necessary documents and attended all events. As the president of the Section for Beekeeping, I worked more closely with the Slovenian Tourist Board in preparing and designing a brochure for the promotion of beekeeping tourism, in which the World Bee Day was also highlighted. This brochure was then included in the promotion at  Apimondia conference in Turkey and other apiculture events around the world. In addition, I also present this campaign to all of our visitors in Slovenia.

4) Do you think that creating a World Bee Day will be able to help the problems we (the whole world) face with declining bee population?

For this reason, the importance of bees and the significance of their work, pollination, and, consequently, the reduction of global hunger also need to be discussed. In Africa, for the survival of one family, people already have enough knowledge and rearing of eight bee families and selling their produce. This is just the beginning. Slovenia establishes the Academy of Beekeeping and with it we want to pass on our knowledge of bee breeding to all interested countries of the world. The next objective is to declare the bee at risk because it does not survive in Europe without the help of the beekeeper. So more will be said about bees, we have greater opportunities to reduce the disappearance of bees, since the world must realize that without bees people will not survive.

photos by Blaz Ambrozic and Luka Esenko

Visit Slovenia with me and Andrew on our Italy and Slovenia tour next October!

Storing Travel Gear

My travel season typically ends in October and I’ve got a few months off to plot my next adventures. Storing travel gear isn’t my forte, though. After an exhausting season of fun, my backpack can often sit in the corner for ages and gather cobwebs. Months later, I put on my archaeologist hat and excavate last year’s backpack full of dusty odds and ends.

Not this year! I’ve finally created a system for organizing and putting away my toys for winter. It has lowered my level of travel anxiety.

Here I offer a few thoughts on clean up, organization, storing travel gear and getting prepped for the next round of fun.

Clean It

After a big trip, your bag needs to be emptied and cleaned. Backpacks probably say you can’t wash them, but I have to be honest, I’ve done it. I have a front load washer, so I put my backpack in a pillowcase, then run it on delicate, cold. Along with a gentle detergent I add vinegar to de-stink and a bit of fabric softener for sweeter scents. Don’t ever put luggage items in the dryer, it can melt or mangle plastic parts.

Suitcases need to be cleaned but cannot be tossed in the washer, obviously. A damp cloth with some gentle soap or diluted vinegar will do the trick. Tough stains can be removed by Dawn dish soap. If you’re nervous but your luggage is funky, use diluted white vinegar in a spray bottle, misting it all over and wiping down after.

Smaller bags and backpacks can usually be washed in the washer on gentle, cold water with a gentle detergent. Putting them in a pillowcase that zips will keep the straps and plastic parts from getting broken. Wisdom learned the hard way- check every nook and cranny before washing!

Packing cubes always go in the wash as well before storage. Personally, I like fresh scented clothes, so I like to put a scent booster in like Downey Unstoppables. If the cube has a scent it will often rub off on the clothes and hopefully keep my travel clothes smelling nice longer. I know, fabric scents and softeners are not so good for you, but a fresh scent does so much for my psyche on the road that it’s a trade off I’m willing to make.

My travel clothes go in the wash with a big cup of vinegar and hot water. I’m kind of paranoid of bedbugs, so if my clothes can take it, I put the setting to sanitize.

Organize It

I’ve recently put together a rack in my basement with all of my luggage, stacked by size and shape. It wasn’t a ton of work to throw together, but having everything so organized has made finding thing easy. Above all, it is soothing to have everything at my fingertips.

The containers I use to organize my gear are the tote kind, with flaps instead of a lid. I always lose the lids anyway, and these stack so neatly.

I’ve broken my gear into categories to organize. I have several large totes and a few small ones.

In one large tote, I’ve stored all of my full sized travel backpacks. In the other, I am collecting my favorite travel clothing. I’ve decided to keep my greatest hits in a special container rather than my closet, mostly because I don’t want to wear them when I’m at home. I wear the same clothes for months at a time while on the road, I’ll get sick of them if they are in regular rotation. Also, I’m finding it so much easier to assemble a bag when all of the contents are in one space.

My smaller totes are sorted for packing cubes and accessories. Another box has my toiletries extras, bottles and all of the little things to refill my Box of Awesome, such as bandaids and safety pins.

Hooked onto the shelf, I have my equipment for weighing my travel gear. I’ve got a digital kitchen scale, hand scale, and sharpie pens for taking notes and marking clothes with weights. I’ve put a clip board in to keep printed lists of previous items packed.

My vast collection of day bags hang on a hook. I am keeping them separate from my purses in my closet for quick retrieval. Geez, I sure have lots of day bags. I never noticed!

Next step will be to get a tote for my travel shoe collection. I haven’t quite gotten up the energy for that. A little Febreeze will be in order.

Travel Zen

It’s a pretty simple idea. Clean your stuff. Sort and organize it. Find a nice space in your house and put it all on shelves where you can see it. When you buy new travel gear or clothes, you know where to put it.

I’m in the process of packing for Thailand and I can tell you, the time I put into organizing is more than paying off. It’s not only a time saver but a sanity saver as well!

What is your system for storing travel gear? And great ideas for making your next bag easier to pack?

Oh, the Things You’ll Eat: A Tour Guide’s Year in Food

When I was a backpacker in my 20’s, I lived on bread, cheese and tomato. You can get that in any country, it’s cheap, non-scary and portable. Boy, I thought I was living the good life when I could add Nutella and a 50 cent bottle of wine to that spread. Although my scruffy travel years were good fun, I missed out of one of the great aspects of travel, the food!

Food is one of the most important experiences in travel, no matter where you go. Yes, even haggis has its finer points. I feel that food is so important to a visit that I “curate” the meals on my tours, meaning that I carefully consider and select meals to go with the location and the time of year.

Usually I’ll tell my tour guests that trying new foods is so important to travel, that it should be more rightfully thought about as a museum. I call it the “Museum of Food”, as in, “Today in the seafood wing of the Museum of Food we will visit the anchovy collection.” And just like any museum, you don’t have to like everything, but you do need to experience everything. Simply put, everyone needs to take Mean Mommy’s “No Thank You” bite.

I definitely took some “No Thank You” bites in my adventures this year. I’ve eaten some weird and wild things, all in the name of RESEARCH, (You see the things I do for you??) Let’s have a look back on the highs and lows of what went into my belly this year.

Thailand

I will be straight with you, I could eat Thai food every day for the rest of my life. I suspect I was possibly Thai in a past life. So now you may understand my motivation for starting my new Asian tours. All Asian food- Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, India, Cambodian, Vietnamese- is my favorite. ALL OF IT.

There are no lows here, only deep-sigh inducing highs. Thai food, as it turns out, is a fusion cuisine. The country itself is a crossroads of cultures, blending western Asian (Indian) and Eastern Asian (Chinese/Japanese) influences. Thai curry, for example, takes the Indian influence of curry seasoning blends and fuses that to the locally available produce, which is mostly tropical.

The result is curry with mango, coconut milk, noodles with lovely veggies and an infinite number of meat dishes with sweet and salty sauces.

Here are some favorite dishes I ate in Thailand in 2017:

Pad Thai! Oh, my favorite noodle dish! I was a little disappointed with my first helping. They gave me an “American” version, meaning not spicy. Still, delicious.

Breakfast- fresh, local fruit cut up on demand, smothered in yogurt and muesli with a sweet Thai iced coffee. That was an unforgettable meal.

Group dinners are wonderful. The Thai hospitality tradition brings you plate after plate of different flavors. Nobody goes hungry and there’s always something for everyone to enjoy.

Cambodia

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodian cuisine. I thought it might be similar to Thai, but I had the impression that they were very poor, that the food would reflect that. Nope. Cambodian food is every bit as rich and diverse as Thai, but has its own spirit. Lots of fresh veggies and meat stews.

Because the country was ruled by the French in the past, there is a strong French influence, including lovely bakeries. And it’s all so cheap! I was happy to buy one of everything.

Bugs-as-food is a real thing in Cambodia. They really do enjoy snacking on crickets, snakes, tarantulas, beetles and scorpions. Vendors pop up at markets with a wide selection to choose from.

I shared a plate of beef with red ants with my colleague Reid Coen. It was a non-event, really, the ants were just sort of like sesame seeds or any other garnish. But hey, I get to say I ate ants.

My favorite Cambodian meal was at a dinner theater. It was beautifully plated with little compartments, each featuring a different delicacy.

Fresh fruit is basically on every corner. The mango ladies hang around and sell the most delicious, ripe mangoes I’ve ever had, peeled and sliced up as a to-go snack.

Eating well is easy in Asia, and I was feeling so healthy at the end of my stay. Little dairy, gluten or sugar will do that.

Italy

Doing reattach to update the Rick Steves Italy guidebook required me to EAT ALL THE THINGS. Who am I to argue with Rick Steves? I was a dutiful foot soldier and ate my way through Florence, Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, making sure it all tasted good enough for our books. Which might explain why I joined a Crossfit studio recently.

In Florence, I was stunned to find this crazy sandwich shop that everyone knew about but me. Five Euros for the biggest panino you can find, stuffed with whatever you want. I’ll take the porchetta. ALL of the porchetta, graze.

Sometimes the most humble, outdated restaurants can really surprise. I was considering axing a longtime guidebook stand-by as it was getting a little run down. And then they brought me this ravioli, stuffed with lemon-laced ricotta and sage butter.

Mmmmmm. Meat. Florentines do know their steak.

Another day in the salt mines, this time inspecting wineries in the Montalcino area. I made sure that the Brunello still paired well with the prosciutto. It does.

Sometimes great food comes with a side of great fun. In San Gimignano, Gelateria Dondoli makes original flavors that are molto gustoso, but hanging with Signore Dondoli, the gelato master himself, was even sweeter.

I’m not sure how I feel about pretentious food, plated like a miniature work of art. I feel bad eating it and ruining someone’s work. I’m more of a big, sloppy bowl of something yummy kind of person. But when done right, like this appetizer, I think I could be persuaded otherwise.

I’m kind of giving you the wrong impression. Book research isn’t actually a parade of luxurious meals. It’s normally a quick bite eaten while standing and making notes about what I have to do next. I’m serious.

I don’t really like seafood, but there are a few chefs that tickle my palette just the right way. My friend Carlo at Piccolo Diavolo in Monterosso can cook me anchovies and I won’t even grimace.

My favorite new trend in Italy: simple pasta shops offering well made pasta dishes in a fast food environment. Just a counter, a few small tables and a self service drinks cooler. All the deliciousness of a sit-down Italian meal in a quarter of the time.

France and Switzerland

There is a good reason I spend only a couple of weeks per year in northern Europe, I just love cheese and sweets too much. Cheese-based cultures kill me, but at least I’m dying happily.

The cheese course is a big part of French culture, served just at the end of the meal when you think you are full. You’re not, there is always room for cheese. The best part of the French cheese course is the variety. A good cheese plate will have soft and hard cheeses, mild cheese and cheeses with a scent so vile you’re certain you’ve found the devil’s armpit.

French wines have never really been my thing, but I have discovered that they are magnificent when paired with the right cheese, almost as if they planned it that way.

It would be hard to pick a favorite French food for me. If my ordering behavior is any indication, it must be steak-frites. I’ve never gone to that place that everyone says you have to go in Paris for steak-frites, any bistrot will do. Steak, fries and béarnaise sauce, with a glass of rose on a hot, lazy Parisian evening. Sigh.

Oh, and pastries. I ate all of those.

On the other hand, picking a favorite Swiss food is easy. Rosti, that beautiful pile of buttery hashed browns smothered in Emmentaler cheese and meat, with an occasional vegetable for variety. Fondue is lovely, but I can’t stop eating it and eventually feel kind of sick. Rosti is the perfect mix of fatty, greasy and heavy that fills you up and shouts Nein!

Sicily

I don’t combine Italy and Sicily because they aren’t really the same thing. I mean that the cultures are very different for a variety of complicated historical reasons, but also the food. The cuisine of Sicily is only slightly related to Italian food.

The unique ingredients that have shaped Sicilian food are tree nuts, sugar, fish and citrus. Throw in a close proximity to Africa and you get couscous and African spices.

A dirty little secret about Italy in general….the bread isn’t very good. Central and northern italian regions put little to no salt in bread and use it more as a utensil, so it has almost zero flavor. Sicilian breads are different and much tastier. The sesame bread is a highlight, but there is a ton of variety in grains, which explains why the Romans considered the island to be their bread basket.

The street food scene is very fun, but I did eat a few questionable things. In Palermo I tried a meat snack that was sort of fluffy and greasy. I really wish I hadn’t been told how it was made.

A local vendor challenged me to try unusual meat parts, something that Palermitani enjoy eating. I agreed because of the Mean Mommy No-Thank-You-Bite rule, yes I even enforce that on myself. Probably the most challenging was veal penis. Yes, you read that right. It reminded me of oysters–something that doesn’t taste that bad until…freak out…oh god what is this and where can I spit it out without humiliating myself.

A Sicilian highlight was a fancy lunch. A colleague took me to try a Michelin star restaurant in Ragusa. I don’t know that I’ve eaten at a Michelin star restaurant before, and the experience lived up to the hype. Impeccable service, wonderful dishes served in just-right portions and creative presentation.

I’ve eaten possibly too much gelato in my life, but Sicily has offered up an even better treat, granita on brioche. Dipping warm egg bread into an almond slushy on a warm evening is my idea of heaven.

To end a sweet year, I brought home some sweets from my travels.

My dad just adores marzipan and almonds, and since I’m turning into him, so do I. I brought home almond cookies from Sicily, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites.

I am hoarding them somewhere in my house, enjoying a taste of my travels from 2017 one forbidden cookie at a time.

Perhaps the biggest culinary treat this year, out of a big year, was wine. I’m not really a wine snob but I know what I like. Unfortunately I like nice wine. I’ve been lucky enough to try some really special wines in my travels but this year blew them all out of the water. At the final dinner on an Italy tour, a very kind man brought two special bottles, one was my favorite and the other was a wine I’d always wanted to try. The latter was a Solaia, a wine I’d never even considered buying because a)I don’t have the money and b)I don’t have anyone to drink it with who would really be excited about it. Not only did he share these bottles with me, he shared them with the owner of the restaurant, the staff, and people in the group.

Which leads me to the main point of all the food I ate. Food is good. Food eaten while traveling is better. Food eaten with interesting people you’ve met while traveling is best, making for life long memories.

12 Days of Travel: Istrian Cheesemaking

My good friend Andrew Villone enjoys food more than almost anyone I know. It’s not just filling the food hole for him, it’s a passionate hobby to discover unusual and local foods, and to try everything.

I asked him if he’d contribute to this blogging marathon, and wouldn’t you know it, of course he wrote about food.

Today he’s got a great story of local cheesemaking in Croatia, and I dinner I can’t wait to eat.

Elusive DIY spirit alive in Istria (or at Kumparicka)

Many of my guests know that I moved here to Slovenia from Seattle, it’s been nearly 4 years now, and it seems like I get asked these 3 questions a lot. How often do I go back? (Never). What do I miss most about Seattle? (having great and plentiful Asian food).

And what’s the biggest difference in mindsets between Americans and Europeans? For sure that’s our DIY spirit – the belief that the idea and experience an individual has trumps their formal education. I’m quite proud of the fact, that unlike the majority of my colleagues in travel here, I never spent a day studying tourism. Not even a hotel management class. Before I decided to go all-in, take the plunge and move here to do my tours full time I spent 20+ years in Seattle working in law firms and Amazon’s tax department. It’s a familiar story as Sarah went from architect to one of Rick Steve’s longest tenured guides without formal experience as a tour guide.

But that’s not a familiar narrative on the other side of pond. There are not many Europeans that rely more on their ideas and experiences over their education. So that means not a whole lot of changing careers in midstream. Which brings me to my friend Ales, who went from working as real estate agent in Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana to making the top goat cheese in all of Croatia in a tiny village that barely registers on GPS. 15 years of a real estate career was changed the day he found a great buy on a plot of land down in Croatia’s Istria region.

Other than a farm that was originally built in the 14th century (and has since been completely restored), most of the land was in a ruinous state, covered in bush and shrubs.

Alex figured the best way to clear it out was with goats. So he went out and bought 30 of them and off they went clearing things out (and ended up re-discovering some ancient Roman-era roads in the process).  Now they had goats, and goats need to be milked so they thought of producing just goat milk. But one thing lead to another and after viewing a few Youtube videos on how to make goat cheese (hey, you can’t be more DIY than that), Kumparicka goat cheese had arrived.

The name itself comes from the historic name of the family village that was here 600 years ago and sort of translates into ‘when something shows up’. And a wonderful certain something did show up.

Fast forward about eight years and Ales and his friends now have 250 Alpine goats on pastures that stretch over nearly 500 acres near the eastern coast of Istria. All of Kumparicka’s products are made from fresh non-pasteurized goat milk, whether it’s cottage cheese, fresh lactic cheese or semi-hard cheeses.

Some of their semi-hard cheeses are aged up to 30 months. Since this region is known for its bio diversity, the goats feast on the farm’s more than 80 types of herbs, medicinal plants and other vegetation all grown on ecologically clean pastures. This gives all their products a special, very local taste which is also helped by the sea breezes coming in from the Adriatic, which is just a mere 3 miles away.

Since Kumparicka breeds and milks the goats themselves, they have full control and can guarantee the quality of milk and tasty cheeses that come from it. No surprise they’ve won numerous gold medals at the Croatian national competition. Their cheese can only be found at the top hotels and restaurants in Istria. Unless you come directly to their farm…

Five years ago I found Ales’s business card at one of the pensions I stay at. Seeing how I had no goat cheese in Istia to offer (or any cheese tastings for that matter), I immediately put it on my next tour. I decided to bring my guests here sight unseen and cheeses untasted. A jumble of tiny country roads took us there, though it didn’t show up on my map or GPS.  This was about as off the grid as one can hope for, which is something I strive for on these tours.

Safe to say, we would have been more than happy with just devoring the dozen or so cheeses with the delicious fresh-out-of-the-oven bread and a couple of bottles of the local red wine.

Kumparicka’s main product is really only the tip of the iceberg here as we soon had to find room for a cauldron of goat stew, minestrone soup and the local specialty, Istrian kobosice sausages. At the conclusion of that two week long food and wine tour, guests voted unanimously that the foodie extravaganza here at Kumparcika was the best overall food experience! On my tours, it difinitely pays to be the guinea pig!

Now I find myself here with groups as often as I can manage. I never tire of the food because there’s no set menu, just their home made cheeses and bread plus a slew of an ever-changing main dishes, with all ingredients sourced local from the market in nearby Pula.

Here are just some of the dishes they’ve put out: roast lamb cooked in a metal dish that’s covered with hot embers, baked kid with suculent carrots and potatoes, to-die-for BBQ pork ribs served with local hot peppers, baked beans in earthenware and fresh calamari cooked in just garlic and Istria’s extra virgin olive oil.

After nearly a dozen visit I still can’t seem to find any particular strategy on what to concentrate on or in what order to try things. One time I even went completely vegetarian as there were so many interesting small dishes to try I didn’t want to get bogged down on the heavy stuff.

The vibe of the place is completely serene. Partly due to its remote location and partly because everyone is too busy sampling everything laid out on the large wooden tables here.

The silence is broken only by the muffled sounds of happy diners and the off-beat discussions and laughter that spontaneously combust when hanging out with the colorful Ales.

Farewell dinner on our Taste of Adriatic Tour is right here at Kumparicka!

You know you want some! Join Andrew and I next October for Taste of the Adriatic!

12 Days of Travel: Oh, the People You’ll Meet

Travel jobs require you to be outgoing, friendly, always positive and welcoming, resourceful and flexible. Plus speak foreign languages, know ALL THE FACTS and a bunch of other wild skills. It can be challenging. For me, the toughest part is that I am shy. Really shy. You may not notice it, but come on, I’m a writer. All of us writers are introverts of one kind or another.

I mention this because introverts may not have as much fun traveling as extroverts. The ability to engage others, not even considering people in a foreign place, can be intimidating. My dad drives Uber and chats up every passenger, making friends in 10 minutes or less. He’s from Ireland, they’re just kind of like that. I, on the other hand, have taken years to screw up the courage to talk to staff at hotels I’ve stayed at many times.

Scary

I mention this because I have noticed it. The people who engage other people just have more fun, they get much more out of their travels. In true introvert style, I have studied these strange creatures, these extroverts. I’ve dissected what it is that they do, how they integrate themselves into any situation. Ok, that’s not exactly true, I’m too lazy for that. What I have decided, though, is that talking to strangers is not as scary as my mom told me it would be. Sometimes it’s kind of neat.

In the spirit of that discovery, I have been making strides in meeting new people in my travels. This past year was a good one in that respect. I have met some interesting new friends that I am looking forward to seeing again, and I thought I’d tell you about some of them.

Some of my new friends are pretty darned cool, but really, the point is, I want you to meet people when you travel too. It is more fun. So, if you’re the kind of traveler that avoids eye contact at all costs, I hope you know that I feel ya, but you need to try harder. It’s ok to meet new people. Look who I met! Your tribe is out there too.

New Friends

Ruth

One day in March, I was wandering around La Spezia, Italy working on updating the Rick Steves guidebook. There was a note that I should contact someone named Ruth if I needed anything. I didn’t need anything, I was fine thanks, says the shy girl. Walking out of a hotel, I hear someone call my name, who then motions for me to get in her car. This isn’t actually unusual when I do book research, local people find out that I’m there and want to bend my ear. Sounds weird, but let’s face it, I’m not hard to notice.

I get in the car and meet this Ruth person from my notes. She’s really friendly. She has a hotel she wants to show me (ugh, red flag). But something about her seems familiar and trustworthy, and she also comes recommended by a colleague I respect, so I go. The hotel is great, a winner for the book. We chat in the car, she offers me help, local knowledge, invites me over to her house.

It’s Good Friday, there’s a procession in her village and I should come. Heck, why not. She seems really nice, actually.

Turns out, Ruth is an American woman with an impossibly romantic story. She was backpacking in the Cinque Terre in the 90’s and missed the last train of the night. Stranded in Vernazza, she was trying to figure out what to do when a local guy started chatting her up. They didn’t really speak each other’s language, but she figured out that he had volunteered his mom’s house for her to stay at. You can see where this is going…she stayed longer than planned, he was cute after all. They married and she stayed in Vernazza, raising two kids and adopting Italian ways.

I’ve corresponded with Ruth over the months for help with the books and tours, since she’s got the inside knowledge of the area and connections to people who know stuff. But really, I just like hanging out with her and her family. Those of us who choose to live a partially American, partially Italian existence have a special understanding that is so lovely. Conversations float in and out of languages, and there are some things you just don’t understand unless you’ve lived between cultures this way. She’s also got the most adorable family and a sparkling laugh. I look forward to my visits to the Cinque Terre, she’s up for anything and I’m happy to have a new adventure buddy.

The moral of the story? You should get into strange people’s cars! (Kidding)

Mountain

I’ve been working to wrap my mind around Instagram. I like looking at pretty pictures, I like to take pretty pictures, so it should be my thing, right? But I didn’t really get the point of it until I got a random message one day from a guy named Mountain.

So this guy says he’s been following me on Instagram and sees that I’m in Rome. He asks if I want to go out for a drink, we may have some things in common. This seems to be the beginning of the story of how a girl gets abducted and ends up in the trunk of a car, I know. His photos were intriguing, but stranger danger and all, so no, grazie. He counter offers dinner…with his wife and daughters. Ah! Ok, I can do that.

Mountain turns out to be kind of a THING on the internet. He’s the Catholic Traveler, people know about him and stuff. Oops, I am a little stupid about who else lives on the internet. He has made a fascinating little zone for himself, putting together small “day pilgrimages” for vacationing Catholics in Rome. It’s a cool concept. He also has integrated himself into the unlikeliest of places, becoming part of the Vatican community by sheer force of will and persistence. That is no easy task. He pretty much always knows where the Pope is, how to best see him, and what’s up at the Vatican.

We’ve been getting together, plotting on how we can collaborate, but really it’s been fun to get to know him and his family. His ridiculously cute daughters are the same age as my sons, and I swear our older children are destined to marry each other. I seem to bump into him everywhere and everyone seems to know him. He’s taken me on one of his day pilgrimages, and I was impressed by how he saw something nobody else has, that there is a real need for conscientious, thoughtful Catholic-angled tourism.

We made a couple of little videos, here is one. A YouTube buddy! Cool.

Joanne

Similar to my story with Mountain (and actually they know each other), I noticed a woman following me on Instagram with the most intriguing handle- Swiss Guards Wife. That can’t be real, can it? I followed her back, and indeed, she’s married to a Swiss Guard and lives in the Vatican.

In June, I got a message out of the blue asking if I’d like to meet. I said, um YEAH, that would be COOL. But it didn’t work out. In September, I recalled that invitation and sent her a message to see if she was around when I was in Rome. Perfect timing, we were able to meet and I just happened to have my friend Trish, The Travelphile, along with me that day. She’s one of my favorite adventure buddies and is always up for anything.

After a lovely evening of champagne and oysters at a cafe near the Vatican, I felt like we’d know each other forever. We chatted about all sorts of ideas. She is an entrepreneur and a smart cookie, and I love getting to know other women that have big ideas. She invited Trish and I to visit her at HOME, for a behind the cathedra tour of Vatican City! I couldn’t go, but Trish did and wrote about it.

I can’t wait to visit with Joanne again, she’s inspiring and has got all sorts of new projects going, including her own blog, TravelAngel. I have a feeling we will brew up some trouble together one day soon.

Brittany and Ben

I’ve been hanging around Sicily a lot lately…working on….stuff. Sicily is a bit of a closed place in a way, families and friends go back generations and making new friends can be challenging. I’ve met some cool people recently, though, while drinking wine, obviously.

While visiting a winery on the Sicily tour, Brittany, a new sommelier I hadn’t met, was presenting the tour. She was American, so I started chatting with her a bit. You can see a pattern here, I like Americans that live in Italy. She moved to Italy to follow her Italian roots and has never looked back. I think it’s because those roots lead straight to the best wine in Italy, but idk. I was telling her about a project I was working on and that I had a few days off. Without hesitation, she invited me on an adventure. Really? Uh….OK!

At the same moment, the manager of the winery introduced me to a local wine expert (also American) named Ben. He runs the Etna Wine School and also made the bold move to Italy, living on the sunny Sicilian Coast. After some chatting, he invited me on an adventure too, exploring Mt. Etna and the wine areas nearby. Did I want to learn more about Etna wines and the unique way they have been produced? Who am I to turn down such good offers?

Brittany reserved an agriturismo, or farmhouse hotel, near her house on the north slope of Etna for me. That area is one of the premier wine regions of Europe at the moment and I was excited to have a local show me around. Have I mentioned that I like wine?

I picked her up and we went to visit a friend of hers. He bought a farm and has turned it into a permaculture farm. Permaculture is a fascinating idea, using natural methods for pest prevention and fertilization. We toured the farm, ate homemade treats and wine and I got a cool lesson in microfarming. She took me out to a fantastic restaurant for dinner, something I’d have never found in a million years, and I got the princess treatment. Well, that may have more to do with her, she’s a beauty.

The next day, we met Ben and his friends at Etna Finder for a day on Mount Etna. We drove through lava fields, bouncing along in a 4×4 vehicle and hiking through remote craters. They took us for a beautiful drive around the mountain, finishing with a wine tasting. It was a spectacular day, and I promise to write more about it soon, too much to tell right now.

It was splendid timing and sort of meant to be. Neither Brittany or Ben are normally at the winery where I met them. But that’s kind of what travel means, taking advantage of good luck and timing.

And then there was that one time…

Weird and fantastic things can happen if you talk to random people, even if you don’t become friends for life. My last example was hilarious.

I was walking down a pier in Favignana, and island in Sicily, when some dude on a boat tried to get my attention. Sheesh, Italian men, I thought, and walked on by. On my way back past, the same guy tried to get my attention, but this time he had about 8 other people on his boat.

I spoke back to him this time, in Italian, and he was surprised I could speak it. That’s pretty normal, it’s kind of entertaining to see the look on people’s faces when a 6’2 blonde busts out with Italian. So he asked if I was hungry. Uh, I guess? He hands me bruschetta. And then wine. And olives from his farm. And, oh, heck, just get on the boat and eat lunch with these strangers.

It was a boat excursion from Marsala. Two crew and 6 tourists from around the world. They were so funny and kind. I ate lunch with them and they invited me to continue on with them to the next island and back to Marsala. If only! It was a beautiful day and they were going swimming and cave exploring. But I had plans with a friend later that night and no swimsuit, so I declined.

I saw the boat crew later that afternoon in town, they waved at me and we exchanged greetings like old friends. Like I was a local. Winning!

Introverts, You Can Do It!

I have met friends in my travels, but it has taken me years to befriend them because of timidity. Throwing caution to the wind and being open to new people is good for the soul.

Above all, not a single one of these new friends would be known to me if I hadn’t been brave enough to take a chance. As I met each one, there was a moment where I could have chickened out and let my inner shyness take the wheel. But that, I have decided, is a boring way to live. Connecting to others when the universe presents them to you is one of the greatest travel gifts of all. Even for introverts.

12 Days of Travel: My Life on the Road, 2017 in Review

In putting together this series of travel destinations to write about, I’ve been going back through my photos from this year. I know I get around more than most, but even for me this year has been crazy. 2017 was one of my busiest years yet, setting foot in 8 different countries.

In my work for Rick Steves, I did 9 tours–7 different itineraries–and a month of guidebook research. For the new things I am developing I traveled with Reid Coen to Thailand and Cambodia.

I know that looking through someone else’s travel photos can be a bore, but seriously, my camera roll is not a normal person’s camera roll. It has been an unusually beautiful year, even for me.

Here is a month by month visual tour through my year. Less commentary this time and more pure beauty. What a lucky girl I am to live this crazy life filled with fun and adventure. Come take a look (please excuse the selfies!)–andiamo!

January

January always brings our annual tour guide family reunion at Rick Steves HQ in Edmonds, WA. It’s two weeks full of brainstorming, chatting and preparing for the year ahead.

Over a coffee and some technology tutoring, my colleague Reid Coen had the idea that we should join forces in our off-season, doing tours in worldwide locations, outside of Europe. I went with him to Thailand to train for my own tours.

February

The same trip bridges into February and brought me to Cambodia. This country was new to me and I found it fascinating. Sad and yet beautiful, with a glorious history that I didn’t know much about. Lovely people, gorgeous architecture and delicious if interesting food.

March

After a breather in February, I was back on the road again. This time I was off for Rick Steves to start some book research. In Sicily, I looked for the biggest cannoli and met some furry locals. In Florence, I chowed on some bistecca alla Fiorentina and pounded the pavement to make sure the guidebook is exactly right.

In Florence, I had a hard time getting work done, as Charles and Camilla were blocking my way!

After many, many years, I climbed the dome of the Duomo. What a view!

April

My Guidebook research continued into April, and then I did a Venice, Florence, Rome tour with a lovely group.

May

May took me home to Seattle, where I chilled out with my kids and got prepared for the next round. We did a little local sightseeing, visiting the state capitol building in Olympia and the Paul Allen Flying Heritage Museum in Everett, a favorite with my sons.

June

On the road again…the main part of my season began in June. I did a week in Rome tour, a favorite of mine that I don’t get to to very often. After that, a Venice, Florence and Rome tour. I had several days off, so I went to visit my friend Andrew in Slovenia so we could plot out our new adventures for 2018.On my birthday, I headed to London and had a full day to myself to enjoy my favorite things in the city, including high tea, book stores and a show.After that I was in Family Tour mode, taking groups of families from London to Florence.

July

July was dedicated to more family tours. We visited London, Paris, Switzerland, Cinque Terre and Florence. Not bad.

August

August was dedicated to family time. I took my younger son and Mom out to stretch the legs of my new car. We went to one of my favorite places in the world, the Napa Valley and San Francisco.

In big news for us, my younger son learned to ride a bike!

September

September was back to Italy for several Italy tours.

October

The whole of October was dedicated to Sicily.

November

And then home for recovery! Time for some art!

December

December was all about plotting my next adventure and recharging for the year ahead. I hope you’ll join me for more fun in 2018!

12 Days of Travel: Day 5, Montenegro

Our next travel adventure brings us to a small country that is relatively unknown. Set on the edge of the Adriatic, Montenegro is a pristine spot to discover eastern European culture and hospitality.

My friend Andrew Villone has spent lots of time in Montenegro, visiting often with his tours or on vacation from his home in Slovenia. I wanted to introduce you to some destinations you may not be familiar with, so I invited Andrew to share a bit about one of his favorite spots.

Montenegro

I first visited Montenegro, or Crna Gora at it’s known by its citizens, on a day trip from Dubrovnik back in 2003. The first time I actually overnighted there was in 2006, the year it got its independence from its northern neighbor Serbia. Located in Southeastern Europe, it lies on the Adriatic Sea and borders many of its former Yugoslav neighbors plus Albania.

With a population around 650,000, Montenegro ranks as the 9th smallest by population in Europe and 10th smallest country by size. Nearly 20 times smaller than its neighbor across the Adriatic, Italy. The country’s name literally translates to black mountain. There couldn’t be a more apt description than that. Take away its 190 mile coastline, the largest lake in the Balkans and just enough flat space to squeeze in a capital city, some vineyards and an airport and the rest seemingly is mountain upon mountain. My Montenegrin guide likes to refer to it as the biggest small country in the world. The joke is that if you flattened down all the mountains out you would have a country as large as Russia.

But don’t let the size fool you. I once drove a mere 200km (125 miles) and spent nearly seven hours in the car! Confirming my suspicion on Wikipedia, Montenegro is one of the last countries in Europe that does not have any official motorways. But there’s never a boring drive here with its towering mountains, serpentine roads, highland pastures, clear-blue Adriatic waters, tiny islands hugging the coast and ancient monasteries. Not to mention that most local drivers appear to have graduated from some sort of Italy’s worst driving school.

 

FUN FACTS ABOUT MONTENEGRO

Brad Pitt’s first leading role was in Montenegro.

Before hitting the big time, a very young looking Brad Pitt got his first leading role in a Yugoslav production called The Dark Side of the Sun. Although shot in Kotor and other locations around Montenegro in the late 1980’s, the film was not completed and released until 1997 because of the civil war that broke out in the early 90’s.

Montenegro was at war with Japan for over a 100 Years!

In 1904 Russia and Japan went to war. Montenegro wanted to show allegence to their slavic brothers so they declared war on Japan. After joining Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918, Montenegro was not independent again until 2006, when they finally ended their ‘war’ and a peace treaty was officially signed.

 

Home to one of the first protected areas in the world

Of Montenegro’s 7 national parks, Biogradska Gora has been under state protection since 1878. This is only six years after Yellowstone was declared as the first national park in the world.

 

Training ground for some of the world’s finest navies

After a peaceful meet up with the Russian navy in the Baltic Sea, Peter The Great decided to send his admirals and captains down to Montenegro for maritime training in the Bay of Kotor. Many respected admirals and captain (like Matija Zmajević, see photo) in both the Venetian and Russian navy were from the town of Perast [where we are staying for 3 nights on Taste of Adriatic Tour].

Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie, Casino Royale, was set in Montenegro

Unfortunately, not a single scene was shot here as many exteriors in the film were filmed in the Czech Republic and Lake Como.

Home to the father-in-law of Europe

Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš was prince and eventually king of Montenegro for nearly 60 years. In that time he had 12 children, 9 of them daughters. Five of the daughters were married off to foreign princes and kings. The most notable were to a Grand Prince of the Romanovs in Russia and one to Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s last king.

 

Won the war but lost Independence

While Italy was famous in the first part of the 20th century for ‘lost the battle, but won the war’, Montenegro’s fate was a bit more cruel. An independent country in 1914 at the outset of the First World War, Montenegro came in on the side of the Allies. When the war came to a close in 1918, it ending up losing its independence as it was swallowed up by the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to become King of Yugoslavia and then just Yugoslavia).

 

Uses the Euro currency even thought its not in the EU

When Yugoslavia dissolved into just Serbia/Montenegro in the later 90’s, the official currency was the Dinar. But with such high inflation, Montenegro started to use the German Deutsche Mark as its currency. When Germany switched to the Euro in 2002, so did Montenegro. No euros are actually minted here nor is Montenegro very close to joining the EU. Carrying the euro sure makes it easy for visitors here.

 

When is a fjord not a fjord?

One of the country’s most icon and spectacular sights is the Bay of Kotor. Massive mountains come crashing down into the Adriatic Sea. This should be the southernmost fjords of Europe (heck, even Lonely Planet declard this so). But this bay was not created by glaciers. It was made by a submerged river valley connected to four bays. Proper fjord it is not. That’s not a bad thing! It’s doubtful that the fjords in Scandinavia are dotted with such beautiful Venetian towns and mussel farms.

 

Building an island, rock by rock

The extremely photogenic Our Lady of the Rocks island is in the middle of the Bay of Kotor. It’s actually an artificial island created by years and years of old boats and rocks piled on top of each other. Back on July 22 1452, two sailors found a painting of the Madonna and child floating near a rock in the water.

Considering this a miracle, the sailors pledged an oath to honour their find with a worthy sanctuary. Eventually, the island and then the church were built at this location. Now every 22nd of July the inhabitants of Perast commemorate the events of 1452 with the Fašinada, where participants in a string of boats all chained together bring rocks and stones to drop into the sea around the island.

 

Lazy ways

All that fresh air, sunshine, inexpensive wine and tempting beaches can make most people a bit lazy. But Montenegrins aren’t just a bit lazy, they are really lazy or so the stereotype goes for them (their men most specifically). During Yugoslavian times, all the different republics had their own stereotypes. Eastern Europe is lot less PC than the U.S., thankfully, they take their stereotypes in stride. For sure the best jokes I’ve heard are the ones my guide in Montenegro will bust out, though probably not fitting for this blog. So instead, here is a wonderful postcard exposing their code of laziness. You can find it pretty much anywhere in Montenegro where there are tourists.

 

Black is the New Red

When is red wine not red wine? When it’s served in Montenegro. Let me explain. They have red wines here. In fact, most wines–certainly their best offerings, are red. But since the color is usually quite deep and opaque they prefer to use the word crna (meaning black) rather than crvena (meaning red). Vranac is the king of reds here and is something you can find throughout most of the Balkans. White wine drinkers looking for something different should try Krstač, the autochtonous (or non-international) varietal in Montenegro.

Does this sound like your kind of destination? Join Andrew and I there in October 2018 for our Taste of the Adriatic Tour. Some seats available, email [email protected] to reserve your spot!

Andrew Villone is the owner of Savor the Experience Tours. He runs small group, boutique tours of Eastern Europe focusing on his favorite topic: food and wine.

 

12 Days of Travel: Day 4, Palermo, Italy

Today we head to a place of my own, Italy. I’ve been a tour guide in Italy for almost 18 years, and studied there in the 1990’s. Our destination of the day, however, is a place that is fairly new to me. Palermo, the beautiful capital of Sicily.

My fascination with Sicily began about 7 years ago. Occasionally I have a few days between my normal tours and enjoy spending that bonus time exploring corners of Europe that I haven’t had the chance to get acquainted with. Unusually, I had a fully week, and a Sicilian colleague encouraged me to give it a try.

I hadn’t headed down that far south in my Italian travels before. The urban legends of trains being gassed and young women being abducted had scared me away from the south. As many people that have seen enough mafia movies, I had a pretty solid expectation of drug dens and fedora wearing mafiosi on every corner.

I couldn’t have been more absurdly wrong about Palermo, and Sicily in general. I found an island paradise, relatively untouched by tourism, and packed with historic treasures to explore. Really, I could not believe that Sicily was not on the top of every travel list.

Palermo

The island capital is a short flight from Rome. The 50 minute ride costs almost nothing if the ticket is booked in advance. I’ve paid as little as $30. The descent onto the island is majestic, with mountains meeting aquamarine waters right near the airport runway…window seats are smart.

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Western Sicily is dramatically mountainous, and Palermo is ringed by craggy peaks. Monte Pellegrino is the most famous near the city. It is where the bones of the patron saint of the city, Rosalia, were found in a cave. Her body now rests in the cathedral, but the cave has been converted into a church–a Baroque facade with a cave behind and rows of pews. It’s an oddity, but Sicily has no lack of oddities.

Historically, Palermo was one of the most important cities in Italy. It’s been continuously inhabited for centuries, established by the Phoenicians in 734 BC, about the same time as Rome. The natural harbor and river outlets made it a great trade outpost, and it was named “Panormus” or all port.

Sicily was ruled by 18 different invaders, and Palermo has been used as the capital from the time of the Norman (French) kings. Their palace, built after the conquest of the island in 1072, is still used to this day as a seat for the government, now as the Sicilian Parliament building.

Multiculturalism may seem like a new concept, but Palermo has always been a melting pot. Traces of past cultures that lived there are hidden all of the city. Arab-Norman fusion architecture sits next to Catalonian Gothic, Baroque and Liberty style buildings. Spanish kings glower down from the famous square of the four corners, just around the corner from the Jewish district adorned with hebrew street signs.

It may be hard to see or understand now, but the city was a real jewel 150 years ago, considered to rival Paris in beauty. It was a capital city in Europe, and many wealthy families from Europe had estates on the outskirts. Palaces lined the streets, with carriages and men in top hats flowing by.

Wagner lived and worked in Palermo for a time. The grand opera house of Teatro Massimo is one of the largest and most prestigious in Europe, which means that Palermo was the place to be seen in the 1800’s.

I always start with this vision when I begin my Sicily tours, because Palermo can be hard to love at first glance. World War II was not kind to the city (thanks, Patton) and the mafia take-over after was even worse. It can be hard to see that elegant city through the garbage, broken sidewalks and cracked facades, but it is there if you look for it. Look up at the elegantly decorated palaces, imagine how lovely they must have been. The families that owned them are almost all gone, but the ghosts still whisper.

Palermo was a very different place only a few years ago. It was gritty and decaying. Infrastructure wasn’t the best, tourist services were nonexistent, bombed out buildings from WWII still sat like forlorn holes in the urban fabric. Even with crumbling buildings and checkered history, the city had a spark, some sort of potential just waiting for a chance.

And then, almost out of nowhere, the city has blossomed. The transformation in the past couple of years has been dramatic. Buildings are being renovated. Streets are being closed off for pedestrians. Churches and museums are working to become more friendly to visitors. Events are happening almost all the time.

The city is not just alive, but really hopping. Tourism is becoming easier here every day. New hotels and B&Bs are popping up all over the place. More people are speaking English. New and innovative ways to show the city to tourists seem to materialize every day, bike tours, rooftop tours, food tours. It’s really stunning.

There are many things to do in the city, from the creepy Cappucin Crypt to the glorious Monreale Cathedral and its shimmering mosaics. I’ll be writing all about the options on my new blog, adventuresinsicily.net.

If you were to visit just for a day, the best suggestion I can give you is to skip museums and go on a walking tour. Not any kind of walking tour, but a food tour. Palermo has one of the top street food scenes in Europe, not a surprise considering how rich the island is in food production.

Daytime tours walk you through the bustling street markets of Ballaro or Capo. The fruttivendolo sings to attract buyers, small carts are set up selling all sorts of food oddities including, but not limited to, internal organs and veal penis. Yes. I tried that so that you won’t have to.

Evening walks can be a riot, as Palermo is a nightlife city. Vucciria is a dying street market by day but is a busy hub by night, selling fresh meat barbecued on outdoor grills. I had a blast with Marco of Streaty Food tours (http://www.streaty.com) who combines a lively walking tour commentary along with tasting local nibbles and chatting up colorful locals. Come along with us!

If you’ve ever thought about visiting Palermo, now is the moment. It is at its best in a century. Go before anyone else figures it out, while tourism is an oddity and foreign visitors are a lovely novelty to the locals.

Stay tuned for more Sicily coverage, on my Adventures in Sicily Instagram, website and YouTube Channel!

12 Days of Travel: Day 3, Marrakech, Morocco

Today we travel to the north of Africa, to visit a land of color, sound, and the scent of spice-filled marketplaces. A vision of adventure, we visit Morocco’s famous market city, Marrakech.

Morocco is an excellent country to visit for its traditional way of life, natural beauty and exotic, far-away feeling. Tourism is a high priority for the government and facilities have improved greatly in recent years. As a moderate Muslim nation, it is a good place to start exploring the history and traditions of Islam. As a country perched on the top of Africa and deeply connected to Europe, it is perfect for a first foray into that continent–both safe and comfortable while being extremely different.

Marrakech is located in the south-central region of Morocco, ringed by the high Atlas mountains. It is a dreamy spot to enjoy both a historic city and natural beauty. It’s a great place to let your imagination and travel dreams run wild with distant adventures. Pretend to be Indiana Jones, on a secret mission to meet a French princess who is selling stolen gems and is detained by a snake charmer….I think I just wrote the next great adventure movie plot right there!

The city, fortified by ancient citadel walls, is more than 1000 years old, and has served as a trading node for all of Africa. It is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, meaning that it was the capital in the past, for more than 200 years. Some consider it to be the most important city in the country, even if it isn’t the largest or the current capital city.

The architecture of the city feels distant yet familiar. I you’ve ever been to southern Spain, the architecture, and particularly the patterns of decoration, will seem familiar. That’s because the city was under the same rule as Andalusia eight centuries ago, and artists and craftsmen from Spain came to work on the decoration of the city.

The medina or marketplace is the largest in Africa. It has smaller markets within it, called souks, and each is given to a different craft. You can find souks dedicated to leather products, metal work, textiles, spices and all kinds of beautiful, colorful products.

Marrakech colorsShopping can be a bit of an adventure, as the medina can be a winding labyrinth of lanes. Sellers hawk their wares and a glance in their direction is an invitation to the dance of the bargain.

I am just terrible at bargaining. It scares my introverted soul to go head to head with these professional deal makers. But in exotic marketplaces, I put my game face on and make it a challenge. Before even casting a single glance, I decide how much money I am willing to part with, then slash that in half to start the bidding. If I mentally commit to walking away, and actually do it if challenged, it can be a great triumph to secure a nice price.

After a round of shopping for beautiful things, it is traditional to enjoy Moroccan tea. Mint tea, accompanied by honey biscuits, is a lifestyle rather than just a snack. Tea is used to welcome, to celebrate and to engage a visitor.

Beyond the tea, Marrakech offers a chance to sample some of the most delicious Moroccan specialties. While the tagine- clay pot baked meat stews, are common, veggies abound. The French used to rule Morocco in the early 20th century, their presence has left traces in the French influenced cafes and bakeries throughout the city.

Street food is a staple of the city, with open air stalls that fill the public square of Djem al Fna. While this is a fairly touristy food option with questionable quality, the scene is more alluring than the food.

And what good Indiana Jones-style adventure would be without snake charmers and acrobats? Along with the tradesmen and food stalls of the market place, entertainment of almost any kind can be found, along with photo ops with strange animals.

After all of the crazy of Marrakech, a little downtime can be important. If you’ve never been to a Hammam, this is a highlight. Baths are not simply for bathing, but a full experience.

You soak, steam and soften yourself. Then you’re scrubbed, and occasionally pummeled. Then you’re sent off for a massage. After being nicely tenderized, you’re turned out in a fluffy robe with pink, fluffy skin for a cup of tea. Depending on where you go, the process can be industrial, like being a piece of meat readied for the grill, or elegant with soft music and dim lights.

Marrakech is a great spot for day trip adventures. The Atlas mountains are very close, the Sahara is not too far, and the coast is within a couple of hours’ drive. The town of Ourrzazate is famous as a backdrop for movies, with its ancient red buildings and fortified walls. You can even go hot air ballooning, something that ranks along with a gondola ride as the touristy thing that is totally worth doing.

With lovely food, a shopping paradise, and exotic beauty that can keep a photographer busy for a lifetime, Marrakech is a travel dream item for everyone’s ultimate travel destination list.

Is Morocco on your travel dream list? Make 2018 the year to start living those dreams. Come with me for 13 days in November to explore the beauty of Morocco, including 2 1/2 days in Marrakech. More at Imprint Tours! See you at the Hammam!