Monday, December 15, 2014

I've Fallen In Love With Another - Country!

That's something I never thought I'd say, but honestly, I've fallen in love with the Dordogne region of France after watching Rudy Maxa's "Smart Travels", and can't wait to visit!  After finding the show on YouTube I noticed that Rick Steves also has a show on the Dordogne, so I checked that out too.  After the first few minutes of the RS show I knew we'd seen it before, and I was puzzled why I hadn't fallen in love after watching his show.  There were plenty of the same shots, many of the same cutesy villages, but I'm guessing the RS show featured a little too much information on foie gras and the geese who supply this delicacy. That and the fact that "Smart Travels" had shots so gorgeous, so timeless and so evocative that I was practically in tears.  Really.

I'm a sucker for English quaint, or medieval stonework.  Half-timbered house and thatched roofs make me sigh, and looking out at an endless view across row after row of tile or slate roofs is simply a magical experience.  And I've found all that and more in the southwest of France, not far from Bordeaux.

Cruising down, or driving along the Moselle River, gazing up at row after row of grapevines, peering up at pointy towers on hilltop castles and winding through half-timbered villages was other-wordly.  Driving the Romantic Road went from the drama of the Alps to the charm of medieval villages still fortified with town walls and covered ramparts.  And yet this area of France, along and between the Dordogne and Lot rivers, not far from the Atlantic coast, seems to channel everything I love about Umbrian hilltowns and Tuscan beauty with the romance of medieval Germany and a healthy dose of English quaint - in stone and half-timbered houses and villages, into one convenient location.

To sweeten the pot even further the famous caves of Lascaux, with their prehistoric paintings are not far away, and I absolutely LOVE caves!  And, amazingly, a walled city long on my bucket list, and one I'd given up hope of ever seeing, Carcassonne, is about 3 hours away.

.I'm so amazed and excited about discovering a new area that seems tailor made for me that my complete and utter lack of French isn't even dampening my enthusiasm.  And altho I usually don't have much praise for French food (altho I do confess to loving any French bread or pastry), preferring the simplicity of Italian cuisine to the fussiness of French cuisine, I'm absolutely sure that I'll come home more than happy with the food!  I'm sure it won't be necessary, but I could survive on pain au chocolat with no problem at all.  Now all I have to do is wait until 2016....or win the lottery!   And now I finally understand why some of my friends love France the way I love Italy and England - and we're ALL right!!!

Watch the "Smart Travels" show and let me know if you agree with my new crush on France!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Del Frisco's Restaurant Review

For years Del Frisco’s has been our go-to steak house.  The steaks were thick, and juicy, and tender....and so flavorful that I rarely made steak at home because I could never recreate the Del Frisco’s magic. Seriously. Combine one of those steaks with the decadently rich, creamy and cheesy Green Phunque (that I could justify because it contains spinach), and I was satiated in a way that could only be improved upon by chocolate, and the Silk Pie made the evening complete.  Just thinking about it makes my mouth water, but perhaps I need to reconsider.  Del Frisco's may be past its prime, and I don't know if it's a gradual slide. or simply a loss of passion in the kitchen.

I'll admit that it's been a few years since our last visit, but I remember that our last visit was as delicious as ever, and altho we commented (even then!) about the tired, dated decor, the food and excellent service made the surroundings less important.  Now, years on, tired, dated decor has become almost tacky.  When we were seated and I saw the thin, cheap cutlery (I started to call it 'silverware', but I don't think that would be accurate) I wondered if people stealing the 'real' silverware over the years had forced management to eventually use only the cheapest of cutlery.  Maybe the expense of replacing the silverware is what kept them from remodeling - maybe they just couldn't afford it.

The service that night, a Friday, was wonderful, but the restaurant, at least the room we were in, was probably only half full. Our waiter brought a beautiful, warm loaf of bread, along with whipped butter.  We rarely indulge in bread these days, but in anticipation of a wonderful meal, warm bread with butter sounded like an additional treat.  It's hard to describe how disappointed I was when I bit into my thick slice of fluffy white bread.  I don't have to have 9-grain bread or something non-traditional, I LOVE a great yeasty, white bread, especially warm.  This was NOT that bread.  This bread was just airy and tasteless, and the whipped butter didn't even make it worth the trouble.  Okay, at least I've have more room (and less carb-guilt) about that Green Phunque, and the dessert.

We all ordered the rib-eye steak - it's my favorite cut, and I ordered the smaller 12-14 oz steak.  I was rather surprised when the steak arrived.  It was sizzling hot, as always, but it much much thinner than I would have liked.  I will say that despite the thinner cut it was still cooked to perfection.  Altho my steak had what I considered to be an very acceptable amount of fat, others thought their steak was way too fatty.  The flavor was incredible as ever, and I savored every bite.

The Green Phunque was another story.  It was bland - I don't think salt and pepper were used when the dish was prepared, nor any other seasonings.  All in all the dish just didn't seem as satisfying as in the past, and I wished I'd ordered something else, or had a salad.  My cousins, who had been to Del Frisco's just one night before us, said that their salads were drowned in so much dressing they were barely edible.

As I mentioned earlier, the Silk Pie was nice, but the chocolate cake was nothing special.

So, that was our experience, and our (four) cousins, who had dined at Del Frisco's on Thursday night agreed with us on every point.  My cousins all felt their steaks were much too fatty.  I hope this isn't the beginning of the end for a (once) great restaurant, buy I'll probably won't take a chance the next time I'm craving a steak.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's official!  Our 2015 dates are set - Umbria here we come!  With an ordinary tour you'd have to travel during pre-set dates, but with us, you can pick any 7 days between June 27, 2015 and July 10 for your week.  This will not only allow your vacation to work for you, but will also allow you to plan to visit Rome for a day (or two!) at the beginning and/or end of your visit!

Contact us at:  artnbarb@italymail.com to see how we can customize a tour for you!

Friday, October 17, 2014

COMING SOON - See Umbria WITH Art and Barbara!

Yes, it's true!  There's nothing we love more than sharing Umbria with friends, and now we're making it official - Art and Barb's Umbria will be a week filled with food and fun, with wine and ceramics and gelato, and maybe even a little history thrown in for good measure.  We'll be posting details soon, but for now I can tell you to think about what YOU would like to see and do in Umbria, and to consider joining us next June!

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Vacation 2014 - Italy and Slovenia - A Quick Summary

Our vacation this year took us back to Italy for four weeks total, and finally to Slovenia for an additional ten days.  Here's a quick breakdown of our costs:

Car rental for 39 days, booked thru AutoEurope.                          
We requested and received a diesel, which made the fuel
a little cheaper.  We also included a zero deductible, which
raised the cost but eased our minds.                                                             $ 911

Road taxes, not included in the rental                                                           $  97

Gas                                                                                                           $ 523

Tolls, parking                                                                                             $ 143

Hotels/Apartments 37 nights total                                                                 $2894

Airfare $1622 EACH, plus $300 to upgrade to
business class for the flight TO Italy                                                             $3844

MINUS the airline vouchers we received last year                                       - $3000

Everything else:  food, admissions, souvenirs                                                $3962

GRAND TOTAL 4 weeks in Italy and 10 days in Slovenia                            $9374

(Without those airline vouchers our costs would have been $12,374)

The car averaged out to just over $25 per day, and the lodgings, a mix of apartments, hotels and B&Bs averaged out to $78 per night.  Although I know we drove 6,641 miles, I didn't track our fuel consumption, but as I mentioned above, the diesel fuel helped, and of course we had a stick shift which may have helped as well.

When I wrote about last year's vacation to Germany, our costs averaged out to about $288 per day when I excluded the (free) time we spend with relatives.  This year's vacation came in at $253 per day, but once again having that $3000 airline credit really made a big difference!  Is it wrong to say we were a little disappointed not to get bumped again this year?

Monday, May 05, 2014

THE COUNTDOWN HAS BEGUN!

SEVEN WEEKS AND COUNTING!  Who has tips for Volterra?  How far in advance should we book for our Modena lunch?  Oh, and will there be any festas in San Venanzo so we can watch our Italian friends line dance to the accordion of our friend Erika, and just for a little while imagine these people are still our neighbors?    BUT - I'm so excited for all the wonderful things we've planned to do, as well as all the wonderful, crazy unexpected things that just happen, the things you could imagine even if you tried - travel is truly magical!  Oh, and finally........Slovenia!  It's gonna be a good good time!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ten Days In Slovenia

I'm going to post our planned itinerary for our upcoming trip to Slovenia, then update once we get home, just to see what worked and what didn't.  Visiting any place for the first time is always a learning experience, and there are always variables on a trip, things like rain, or a train strike, or worse yet, a missed train connection.  Sometimes it just takes longer to get from point A to point B, sometimes  you forget that Monday is the day most museums are closed, and sometimes you just stumble into a situation that changes your day, for better or worse, and there's just not a damned thing you can do about it.  Some people might think I over-plan, but obviously that's not how I would phrase it. 

What I try to do is figure out what makes the most sense for the time we have.  I don't want to end up in a city full of museums on the one day of the week they're all closed, do I?  Nor do I want to end up missing a festival by one day if some quick research could alert me to that fact.  What I try to do is to minimize the surprises, while still allowing for surprises!  In my opinion, if I know of ten great things to do in an area, and one doesn't work out because of weather, or because we got lost, or whatever, then I still have nine other possibilities.  For me the most valuable commodity on vacation is time, and I don't want to waste one precious second!

Slovenia offers more of a challenge than other countries might, simply because there's not as much info out there, and not as many people to ask for practical advice.  Still, it's an amazing country and so far we've managed to put together an itinerary we hope will serve at least as a framework.

Here's what we've planned so far:

Day 1 (Friday):  we'll drive from Verona (Italy) to Lipica, which should take about 3 hours.  We'll have to stop and buy a sticker for the car - sort of a prepaid road tax, I guess.  So - we should arrive at the Lipica Stud Farm, where they raise and train the beautiful Lipizzaner horses, before lunch.  We'll stay here for 2 nights.  After checking in and having lunch we'll drive to the seaside town of Piran, about an hour away, for a wander, maybe even relax on the beach for a while.  Because the days will be long there won't be any rush to get back - we'll have daylight until after 9 p.m. 

Day 2 (Saturday):  We'll visit the nearby Skocjan Caves, about a thirty minute drive from our hotel.  After the caves we'll figure out lunch, then decide if we want to drive through the countryside, check out more seaside towns, or maybe just head to the beach if we didn't make it the day before - or maybe even if we did!

Day 3 (Sunday)  After checking to see what days and times the horse shows were offered, Sunday seemed to be our best bet, so we'll tour the farm, see a show at 3:00, then drive to Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, which should take about an hour.  It's unfortunate that we'll be arriving on a Sunday evening because we won't be able to stock up on groceries for our 3 night stay in an apartment here, but I'm sure we won't starve!  We'll probably have plenty of time to wander through the old part of town on our first evening.

Day 4 (Monday):  Today we'll drive to Valinka Planina, about an hour north of Ljubljana for some hiking.  Hopefully we can put together a picnic lunch, but if not we'll find something along the way. 

Day 5 (Tuesday):  We'll see what Ljubljana has to offer, including either lunch or dinner up at the castle, based on a recommendation by friends who were here two years ago.  Our apartment here will also give us a chance to catch up on laundry, something we'll need to do after having been without a washing machine for 6 days. 

Days 6 - 9 (Wednesday-Saturday):  We'll drive north to Lake Bled, which will take less than an hour, and we'll settle into our apartment here for four nights.  For this part of the trip there are so many things we want to see and do that for now I'm just listing all the possibilities and we'll figure out the specifics as we go along.  We'll probably walk around Lake Bled, and take the boat out to the small island in the center of it.  We'll visit Lake Bohinj, and take the cable car up the mountain.  We'll also visit Triglav National Park and take the twisty, curvy scenic road, and another day we'll check out Kranska Gora.  We'll be in this area for four days, and I'm hoping we can have a nice mix of sightseeing and relaxing.  We'll take advantage of the washing machine here too, and try to leave with everything clean so that we won't have to worry about laundry for the remainder of our vacation (another four nights).

Day 10 (Sunday):  We'll probably drive to the Soca Valley and the Vrisic Pass on our way to our next destination, Nova Gorica.  I've read that this is a big casino town, so I'm not sure what to expect, but this probably won't be a cutesy, charming little village, but it's really only  a place to sleep, since we'll be driving and sightseeing all day.

Will ten days be enough time?  Too much?  Will we wished we'd spent more time in one place and less in another?  Luckily for us the drives aren't extreme no matter where we are, and we're just making the best decisions we can, based on what we know now.  Having a car gives us the freedom to come and go as we please without being tied to someone else's schedule, something that's especially important when you want to see sites that aren't all within walking distance as they might be in a larger city.  Having a car also means we have to figure out how to get there, where the one way streets are, and how to avoid the 'no traffic zones' where we might get a ticket.  Having a car can also present parking challenges, but I think Ljubljana will be the only place we might fact that problem, and I'm counting on our landlord to help us out.  Having a cell phone will prove invaluable for times like that, and having a GPS unit should also be helpful, at least to get us close to where we want/need to be!

UPDATE!  For the most part our time in Slovenia went pretty much as planned.  Weather forced us to rearrange a few days, but since we had a good idea of what we wanted to see and do we were able to easily adjust our plans.  For us ten days seemed just about right, and having GPS was a life-saver when it worked, and a giant PITA when it lost the signal right in the middle of city traffic!

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