Meandering around the Mediterranean Part I

Just like that, it’s 2017.

2016 came and left. For some, the year brought joy–new growth and promise.  And to others–well, they were left with really bad morning breath that just won’t go away.  So to speak.

For us, we headed back to Europe for a 2 week stint at the beginning of Summer and enjoyed every moment of it (roughly 3 nights in each city).  We started where our family roots lie… The Mediterranean. We explored Sicilia and Barcelona and then made our way to the beer capital of the world, Belgium, where we traveled to Brugge and Bruxelles. (I’ll be doing a separate post on Belgium next….before the year’s over.)

But first Roma.

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When in Rome….with a 7 hour layover.. do as the Romans.  Explore!  My darling has been to Rome before.  So I was given the choice of what to visit.  With only 7 hours until our flight to Sicily, we had to be cognizant of our time and location.  The Trevi Fountain and Pantheon were close in proximity to each other and easily accessible via the Metro from the airport.

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We took the Metro from the airport to the Barbarini stop and from there it was less than a 10 minute walk to The Trevi Fountain.

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We picked up a city map and easily found our way to the Pantheon which is just southwest of the Fountain. (Roughly a 10-15 minute walk)

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I’ve always heard how enchanting the streets of Rome are– and it’s true.  If only we had had more time to roam in Rome!

 

Moving on. From Rome, we flew to Sicily where we currently have family living there.

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Our first full day in Sicily, we spent the morning wandering the Catania Fish Market.  It’s known for being one of the best in the world and it was quite the experience. There were plenty of old Italian Sicilian men and all the seafood smells! (Oh Dio, tutti gli odori!)
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There were vibrant colors around every corner… vegetables, fruits, cheeses, nuts, and plenty of Sicilian hand talking action to keep you entertained.   And as a rule in general, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes are always better in Italy.

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After our morning excursion, we headed up Mount Etna to visit Gambino Vineyards for lunch.  Because wine for lunch is always a good idea.

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There’s a Sicilian expression, Hai fatto trenta, fatto trenta una. Which roughly translates to, “You have done 30, (you) do 31”  and it can be applied to your life every. single. day.

Primo esempio, our waiter: “Oh, you have 30 wine glasses, why not 31”

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The next day after my wine coma, we had a very Sicilian dining experience at Casale Borgia–family style. And by family, I mean ours and at least three 1st Communion parties.  Classic.  Just look how breathtaking the property was!

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That evening we took a stroll through Capo Mulini, a cozy little fishing village outside of Catania…..

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..And watched the sunset…

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…and ended with dinner on the water with all the fritto pesce you could ask for.

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For our last full day we headed to Giardini Naxos for some afternoon sand and sun.

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After only a few hours in the Mediterranean sun (that was all we needed), we headed into the town of Taormina.

 

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Taormina is quite possibly one of the loveliest places on earth.  Nestled on a quaint hilltop on the east coast, most Sicilian families who don’t live on the coast, actually summer here.

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One of my favorites was all the Sicilian pottery.  It is very distinct in it’s color and pattern and is a culmination of all the island’s history.  From the Greeks to the Moors… Sicily is said to be the most conquered island in the world and it shows in their art.

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In keeping with local tradition, I had to have a granita and brioche.  Although Sicilians have this delicacy for breakfast typically on hot summer days, I opted for the light afternoon snack.  I do believe it was the Sicilians who first came to Philadelphia and created what we now know as ‘wooder ice’  It’s basically the same thing.

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Street Art in Taormina

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Pondering the bearded streets of Taormina

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A view of the Teatro Antico di Taormina (aka Greco-Roman ruins) was worth the 10 minute uphill walk.  During the summer months, operas and movies are performed here.

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Enjoying the Sicilian East Coast with the Motherland off in the distance.

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Greco-Roman Ruins and Mount Etna

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We dined al fresco at A’ Zammara for dinner.  A dear Sicilian friend recommended this spot to me.  It is one of her favorite places to go to when she is home and visiting Taormina. We enjoyed the garden to ourselves for an hour or so (lemon tree included).

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Pizza as an antipasti? Sure why not!

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Arrividerci Sicilia!

Cue Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe here because we are in BARCELONA!

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Babia was the first tapas bar we tried and it set the tone for the rest of our trip.  This is about as local and traditional as you can get in Barcelona.  Jamón and pa amb tomàquet . 

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Can you say pintxos?!

Many of the tapas bars in Barcelona use what I like to call “The toothpick honor system.”  This method includes pintxos readily available on the counter for you to pick and choose and when you’re ready to leave you turn in your toothpicks for your total.

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Barcelona is a meat lover’s paradise.

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Bon Dia!  We began our first full day in Barcelona with a self-guided walking tour of the Gothic quarter, thanks to Rick Steve.

We began our walk on the Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel which translates to “Gate of the Angel.”   Once upon a time there was a wall that enclosed the city and the entrance began here.

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This angelic boulevard brought us to our first stop, Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats).

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 Fun Fact: This restaurant was a classic hangout spot for a very young Picasso.

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He also had exhibits of his recent work right here in the restaurant!

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Barcelona is decorated with beautiful tile work throughout the entire city.

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This fountain dates back to the 17th century

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Next up, La Plaça Nova.  Behind are two Roman towers that once guarded the entrance gate of the ancient Roman city of Barcino.

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La Plaça Nova

Our hotel, Hotel Regencia Colon, was on the other side of this square.  It was the perfect location.  Easily accessible to the Gothic Quarter and just one block adjacent to El Born.

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The Cathedral of Barcelona

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Plaça Sant Felip Neri

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Carrer del Bisbe 

This will lead you  right to the Jewish Quarter (El Call).  There really aren’t any Jewish roots here anymore (thanks to the Spanish Inquisition).  There is a Synagogue that dates back to the third century but was almost entirely destroyed in the 14th century and wasn’t rediscovered until the 1980’s.

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It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Barcelona.

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The Roman Temple of Augustus. This was tucked away on a small side street. You would have no idea Roman ruins were hiding behind the corner.

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I just love street art.

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After our morning tour we headed to La Boqueria, located right off Las Ramblas for lunch.

(Ok, so we clearly have a thing for markets)

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We asked one of the vendors where they like to eat for lunch and they pointed us to Moltbo

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The seafood paella looked so bubbly and delicious, we had to give it a try.

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We also checked Empanada’s off the must-have list.

After lunch we freshened up at the hotel to get ready for our La Sagrada Familia tour.  We headed to the L4 Metro stop (a 10 min walk for our hotel) where we transferred to the L2 with no problem.

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La Sagrada familia is unlike any church you have ever seen before.  It’s more like an Art Museum really.

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Late afternoon is best to see all the afternoon light bleeding through the stained glass.

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The construction began in 1882 with Gaudí taking over as head architect in 1883.

This massive creation is the ultimate culmination of mother nature, Gothicism, modernista, and a city so proud of its culture.

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Sagrada Selfie time!

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The anticipated completion date is 2026.

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After a little siesta we headed down to Carrer de la Mercè.  A small  hidden street lined with colorful tapas bar. We patronized a handful and sampled all the tapas and tinto we could!

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FYI Posing in front of street art is a lot harder than it looks.  I envy all the bloggers who make it look easy!

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Our last full day in Barcelona we did what any Florida-native would do.  We headed to la platja!

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 We opted to walk to La Barceloneta from our hotel which was only a 20 minute walk.  Barcelona… where you can find Roman Ruins in the Gothic Quarter and an Olympic Village down by the beach.  Best of both worlds!

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After a few hours in the sun we headed back to our hotel via exploring El Born.

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I had no idea Barcelona had it’s own Arc de Triomf!  

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This was quite the unexpected surprise while exploring!

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Formatge!

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Once we made our way through the Arc, we crossed into El Born which was our favorite neighborhood by far!

Once we washed the beach out of our hair, we journeyed back to El Born to the Picasso Museum.

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Magic Hour at the Picasso Museum

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The Museum itself is a combination of 5 different palaces (apparently Royalty liked to live in very close proximity) dating back to the 13th and 14th century that now represent Picasso’s largest collection of his earliest works.

After a stimulating hour of art, we had the best meal of our trip by far at Bar del Pla.  We lucked out not having reservations.  The place was empty when we arrived at 7:30 pm after our Museum tour.  The bartender kindly let us sit at the bar on the condition that we would be out by 9 pm due to being completely booked. (Barcelonians eat dinner much later than Americans).

The crispy oxtail with foie gras and squid ink croquettes were the highlight of our tasting!

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The Bar at Bar del Pla

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El Born kept getting better and better.  We spent the rest of the evening roaming these enchanting streets.

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Streets of El Born

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Overall, my favorite part of Barcelona were the mysterious alleys.

And the street art.

Every turn brought a new discovery.

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Last but not least on our culinary list was dessert! The xuixo (pronounced shoo-shoo) was the most incredible thing I’ve ever placed between my two lips.  This Catalan pastry is the churro’s brother on steriods.  Do yourself a favor and visit Pastissería López when you’re in Barcelona.

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Food coma ecstasy in El Born

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We had our last night cap at La Vinateria del Call in El Call.  This wine bar had a very extensive wine list and we wanted to indulge in some Catalan wine specific to the region.

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We managed to stay awake a little past midnight for our final night in Barcelona.

Adéu! ¡Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya!

Next stop, Belgium!

A Year Ago-My Do’s and Don’ts for The Cherry Blossom Festival in DC

Bonjour mes amis! Did you miss me? I’ve got to be honest, I really thought this blogging thing was going to be a piece of cake. I thought, “I am a great writer and super creative.  Heck, I went to the Young Author’s Conference when I was a kid…this is going to be great…” or so I thought.  I have literally failed in the past year+ to finish a post.  Literally. But oh well, life goes on and without any apologies I will tell you my thoughts on how to deal with The District of Columbia on the worst/best possible time to visit… The Cherry Blossom Festival.

Last year, the weekend of April 11th was predicted to be peak bloom for the Asian beauties so we went out on a limb and took a gamble on Mother Nature’s mood.  She ended up cooperating! (Thanks to this crafty blog I could check the bud’s progress weekly- sometimes daily.)

So exactly one year ago from today, we jet-setted off to DC but on a train…  It was my first Amtrak experience.  And it was ok…  I certainly won’t use this blog to say it was the best experience I’ve ever had.  My beau used to live in Germany so I was already accustomed to the whole train idea.  Having ridden in over a dozen trains in Europe I’ve seen the best German sleek high speed rails to the classic Italian trains–you know the ones that show up whenever they want to…  So Amtrak was somewhere in between that.

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That’s not the point. the point is, public transportation is my #1 tip.   Whatever you do; do not drive into the city .

Once we made it to DC (it was roughly a 2.5 hour train ride) we decided dropping our things off at a locker inside Union Station and then heading straight to the Cherry Blossoms was the best strategy. We were staying in Georgetown and check-in wasn’t until 3 pm.  From there we walked to the National Mall and (almost) all the way around the Tidal Basin x2.  Then back to Union Station to grab our belongings and to catch the Circulator to bring us to Georgetown for the night.

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 It was an insane amount of walking. 8 hours to be exact.  Tip #2: do wear comfortable shoes.

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We visited a few of the monuments during our walk.  The Washington Monument was almost halfway to the Tidal Basin.

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The trees were in full bloom.  It really was a beautifully crowed day.

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I was excited to see The Lincoln Memorial.  Personally, I would have preferred a little less than 3 million people following me but don’t worry, I held my own and managed to dodge all the selfie sticks.

Tip #3: Do not bring a selfie stick.

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I’m a sucker for a Greek Doric Temple…

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…And it’s columns

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Honest Abe=Honestly Crowded

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We finally made it to what was the start of our Tidal Basin tour.  (We never actually made it around the entire basin).

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Here’s a map of the Basin for reference.  We started our walking tour near the East Potomac Park and began walking North towards the Mall (again).  I really wanted to see the Jefferson Memorial in the distance across the Basin.

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Let’s start at the very beginning…Near the East Potomac Park.

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We were excited to have finally made it to The Tidal Basin.

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Once we made it across the Jefferson Memorial we decided to back track and head to the Memorial itself.

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So we did. Inside The Jefferson Memorial.

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Cette après-midi, we found a quiet spot for a little rest and repose.

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Tip #4: Do bring a picnic blanket and snacks.  We were close to the West End neighborhood which is home to a few of the ritzy hotels.  So we took a quick detour to The Crown Plaza.

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Tip #5: Do find a hotel lobby and buy yourself a drink.  The Crown Plaza was gorgeous.  I was ready to cancel our Holiday Inn and call it a day here.  Instead, we recharged our batteries and ourselves for roughly 15 minutes.  Only to head back to the Basin for Round 2.

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Tip #6: Do return to the Tidal Basin late afternoon/early evening for more photo ops.  The crowd is slightly more managable…minus a few hundred people.  The BEST time? Dawn, when all the fancy photographers show up to take their prize-winning pics.

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Tip #7: Do wait your turn to take a photo with the Jefferson Memorial amidst the back drop surrounded by the blossoms.

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Tip #8: Do embrace the crowds.  At this point, why not?  They’re here to see Nature’s Beauty too.

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And because the Cherry Blossoms are only in full bloom once a year for a week or so.

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But seriously, the people never ended.

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We ended our Tidal Basin tour near the MLK Memorial.  It had been a beautiful day and we were exhausted.  Now only an hour walk back to Union Station!

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Once we made it back to Union Station we then headed to Georgetown.  Due to the massive amounts of visitors that weekend it actually took us an hour and a half to make it to our hotel.  The traffic was that bad.  Tip #9: Do make sure you leave yourself enough time for dinner reservations.  We  had reservations at a Jazz Restaurant off of U Street (a 15 minute uber drive from our hotel) at 10 pm which I thought was late but by the time we got home to freshen up it was already 8:30 pm, leaving us just enough time to clean up and head to dinner.

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The next day we had brunch at Bonaparte Cafe

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Across from our hotel was an old cemetery, after check-out we took a quick detour through.  Who doesn’t love an old cemetery stroll before noon?

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Our time in DC was coming to an end. We took the bus to Union Station and walked around the perimeters for a little bit.  There are Cherry Blossoms everywhere so even if you don’t make it to the Tidal Basin you can still enjoy the blossoms.

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My final tip #10: Make the most of it! Seeing the Cherry Blossoms during peak bloom is one of those rare exceptions because there is no off-season or down-time to go.  It is usually a 1-2 week window and no matter how you do the math there is going to be a lot of crowds.  As long as you’re prepared you can enjoy every moment of it.

Until next time,

Ashley