Langhe, Italy’s Hidden Gem

This little area nestled in the Northwest corner of Italy is decidedly my favorite area in Europe – coming from me, the girl who’s generally in love with Europe as a whole. If paradise exists, then this is it. Everywhere you look, rolling hills covered with world class vineyards grace your eyes. Picturesque towns spot the landscape as you wind through the hills. This region is generally known for its wine and truffles, and with good reason. But as a travel destination, Langhe, I believe, is highly underrated. Unlike Rome or Florence, you won’t find Da Vinci’s or never ending ruins to feast your eyes upon. You won’t go running from the Vatican to the Coliseum, lugging around your camera trying to beat the crowds. Instead, you’ll stop and literally and figuratively smell the roses. Life runs on a different pace here.

langhe vineyards

wine langhe italy vineyards

We headed down to Langhe as a stop between Turin and the Cote d’Azur in France. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by Turin. I knew that Turin was a large center of the slow food movement considering its proximity to Bra, and I went with grandiose ideas that I would have some glorious gastronomic experience there. While I certainly enjoyed the food, it didn’t particularly stand out and I felt no different afterwards. The city itself was a little rough on the edges, and the areas around Turin were run down, and seemed to be economically suffering. Despite how industrial Turin is, the areas around Turin were agrarian. I started getting a little concerned about what Langhe would be like. The towns we drove through on the way were quite run-down and amidst the flat fields we only saw run down shacks.

castle in langhe piedmont

These fears were quickly dispelled after driving up the crest of a hill, the scenery dramatically shifted. The flat landscape was no longer, as we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of rolling hills covered from head to toe in vineyards. It immediately turned from run down to picturesque. On our drive, we spotted many castles sitting atop the hills. Most of these castles are actually privately owned and not open to the public, which was a shame as we would have loved to check them out.

vineyard of our b&b

grapes in langhe piedmont

As we got to our B&B, Agriturismo Il Cortile, we realized that the owners, and their entire family, did not speak English. And we didn’t speak a single world of Italian. But that didn’t stop them from being incredibly kind and hospitable. The owner’s mother spoke to us animatedly in Italian, though I didn’t understand a single word that came out of her mouth, I felt like I got the gist of some of it. After giving us some water and treats upon our arrival, they took us down to their backyard where their young children showed me their chickens, baby ducks, and puppies. We didn’t need to speak because cooing at baby animals is clearly a universal language.

That night, we had dinner at the restaurant connected to the B&B and that was certainly an experience. The language barrier was as formidable as ever as our waiter tried to explain to us the items on the menu. Good thing it was a fixed menu and we didn’t have to choose any of the items. I applaud his efforts, even though we both gave up after the third dish. The food was absolutely delicious, as we ate Italian classics like risotto and prosciutto with melon. I couldn’t quite discern what a few of the dishes were but they were certainly all delightful.

view from Barolo church langhe

After dinner, we took the opportunity to drive around Langhe, and we ended up in Alba, the heart of Langhe. Alba itself is famous for its truffles and wine, but what many don’t know is that Nutella’s (and Ferrero) home is here. I was in Alba during the weekend, but during the week, supposedly, the entire town smells like Nutella due to the nearby factory. Now, if that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. As a plus, I found that the Nutella here tastes better than the ones we get here in the United States due to the superior quality hazelnuts and chocolate. I might have lugged back three 850 gram jars home. It was that good.

center of alba piedmont

DSC_8834

The town itself is absolutely charming. The streets were filled with various food shops, specializing in items like truffles, wine, coffee, chocolate etc. Right outside the old town walls sat this wonderful gelateria – Gelateria La Romana. The gelato sat safely enclosed inside shiny metal canisters to maintain their temperature and consistency. This allowed the people to spin the gelato onto the cones for you. As we were struggling to figure out the menu (surprise surprise), we were saved by a lady who studied abroad in the United States and spoke fluent English. The gelato was perfectly creamy, and I was tempted to go get myself a second cone had I not already filled myself up with other goodies earlier.

Langhe was filled with Italian vacationers. Vacationers, and not tourists. I was a tourist posing as a vacationer, and while I certainly enjoyed myself, I still aspire to someday rise up to vacationer. There was little to no english being spoke anywhere, apart from the TI offices. One of my biggest regrets was the language barrier that existed between us. I had remarkable opportunities to speak and connect with the people there, and was unable to take advantage of it. I imagine this is what Tuscany used to be – before the waves of tourists began to flock there.

barolo

A final note about transportation – a car really is the best way to get around here. There are no extensive public transportation systems that exist as far as I can tell, which might have contributed to the lack of traffic here. But the gorgeous windy roads that I was talking about previously? They great as a passenger, but it’s not easy to drive. People drive fast, the roads are skinny, and you can never see around the corners. But don’t let that deter you! What I’m saying is more along the lines of, say, perhaps try playing some Mario Kart prior for some practice?

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Straight out of Provence: Lavender Macarons

When I think of Provence, the delicate scent of lavender immediately comes to mind. Quaint villages seem to sprout from the fields of purple that dominate this beautiful region of southern France. While I was there in late June, I was hoping to catch the lavenders in full bloom. Unfortunately, it was a colder and wetter year this year, and in many place we expected to see purple, we found green instead. It smelled fragrant already, but it wasn’t the shocking sea of purple that I expected to see.

Lavender at l'Abbaye de Senanque

Lavender at l’Abbaye de Senanque

However, never lose hope! While the typical places like Valensole, Sault etc. weren’t in full bloom yet, keep your eyes pealed when driving across the region. As we crisscrossed Provence, visiting the various markets and villages, we’d randomly come across huge chunks of purple over the hill from somewhere that is still mostly green. For example, the lavender field in front of L’Abbaye de Senanque had only a hint of purple, but behind St. Paul de Mausolee (a monastery where Van Gogh stayed for a year and produced many works of art), the lavender field was in full bloom and it was absolutely gorgeous.

Saint Paul de Mausole monastery

Saint Paul de Mausole monastery

While I’m sure Provence is beautiful all year round, I can’t even imagine going any other time in the year. I can’t even fathom Provence in winter. For me, Provence is perpetually sunny and it just doesn’t work under dreary clouds. Go back home clouds.

Another surprise was the amount of lavender in the Drome Valley, the region above Provence. It was remarkably less touristy and more agricultural. The hilltop villages there rivaled those of Provence and while most of Provence’s lavender hadn’t bloomed yet, all of those in Drome already had, and some plots were already harvested in late June.

So it definitely doesn’t come as a surprise that lavender was incorporated into EVERYTHING. I’m talking lavender ice cream, lavender honey, lavender tea, lavender soap, and of course, lavender macarons. The macarons really spoke to my heart. I knew I had to make some as soon as I got home when I got my hands on some lavender for cooking at Les Baux.

The problem with a lot of florally flavored foods (if that’s what you call them…) is that they can easily start to resemble soap more than food when it’s too fragrant, and you definitely have to be careful with lavender. If you’re unsure how strong you prefer the lavender, use less than you think you would need and if the flavor is too light, add more next time. It’s better to end up with macarons with a hint of lavender than lavender soap macarons.

Lavender Macarons

Makes ~15 macarons

1 batch macaron shells, recipe here

purple food coloring (I used gel)

50 g chopped white chocolate, preferably Valrhona

100 g heavy cream, split 50/50

1 teaspoon lavender

1. Follow the instructions to make the macaron shells. When whipping the meringue, add in the purple food coloring until you get a lavender shade of purple.

2. For the filling, bring up 50 g of heavy cream to almost a boil in a saucepan with the lavender flowers. Remove from the heat, cover, and let the cream infuse for 20 minutes.

3. After 20 minutes, strain the lavender out and bring the temperature of the cream back up to almost a boil.

4. Pour the hot cream directly over the white chocolate in a small bowl. Let it sit for thirty seconds. Slowly, mix the the white chocolate and the cream together until it forms a smooth ganache.

5. Cover up the ganache, and let it cool until room temperature.

6. In a separate bowl, start beating the other 50 g of heavy cream. Continue until the heavy cream reaches the same consistency as the room temperature ganache. Slowly pour in the ganache and continue beating until the mixture thickens to the point where the beaters are leaving distinct tracks. Be very careful not to over beat the cream, as it’ll thicken up much faster than meringue. This won’t be as stiff as whipped cream and will still be a little gloopy, but don’t worry. Stick the bowl into the fridge for 3-4 hours until the ganache is thick enough to pipe and hold it’s shape.

7. Be careful to not warm the ganache up too much when piping with your hand. As soon as you’re done, stick the macarons back into the fridge and let it refrigerate at least over night. Keep in mind that because there’s a lot of heavy cream, these macarons will be temperature sensitive.

Roadtrippin’ Through Europe (Part 3)

Finally, we crossed the German border for the lake of Koenigsee. The picturesque lake, nestled in between towering mountains, was a sight to behold.

We took the full boat trip, and there are plenty of hiking and dining opportunities at both stops. The water is a remarkable shade and I was amazed by the clarity. Yup, no pollution around here. Beware that the boat trip is quite long, especially if you factor in hiking; it definitely warrants half a day to a day. However, if you are used to mountainous landscapes (like the Rockies, for example), this may not be that impressive.

Fussen is an incredibly charming German town very close to the Austrian border. The architecture is flawless and it’s distance to Neuschwanstein Castle or Linderhof Palace is also a huge plus. I’m very glad, though, we did more than just pass through the town as many do, as it definitely worth your time.

Have you ever wanted to visit the original authentic Disneyland castle? Well, Neuschwanstein Castle is the place to go. The towering castle looks as if it came straight out of a fairytale, and you really can’t beat the location at all. Seriously, I don’t think King Ludwig II went into the right profession – he should have gone into interior design or architecture (it’s not like being the king worked out for him in the end…).

Go early to purchase your tickets (unless you got them online) and make sure to catch a bus up! We, unfortunately, did not and had to speed walk up a very long uphill climb in an effort to make our tour (there was also the option of horse led carriages, which sounds romantic, but is really just smelling horse manure and going at an extremely slow pace). By the time we reached the top, I was gasping for air and a little red in the face, to put it kindly. I guess if I were a tad fitter, I’d march right on up there like a trooper, but I think it was the wiener schnitzel diet that was holding me back a little.

The castle interiors were also impressive, and the tour guide was wonderful. Don’t forget to head to Mary’s Bridge, for a superb view of the castle. Note that if you happen to be afraid of heights (me), this is going to be slightly problematic. The bridge is often extremely crowded (thus, pushy people), it runs across a deep canyon, and the bridge creaks and sways a little at every step. But if you’re cool with all that, then by all means, go ahead and snap that postcard perfect picture.

Linderhof Palace is not a long ways away, and the garden is utterly amazing. It’s very compact but, hey, you know what they say – quality not quantity! And this place is definitely packing a lot of quality. Also built by King Ludwig II, Linderhof Palace is even more tucked away than Neuschwanstein Castle, but I can see why he chose the location that he did. Unfortunately, we arrived at 6 and just missed the last tour of the day, which meant we couldn’t see the inside of the palace.

From there, we continued driving up the Romantic Road. One thing that I happened upon amongst all the farms and cows in Bavaria was fresh milk. I don’t know why nobody else has mentioned it, but I thought it one of the most memorable things on the trip.

Many farms or little cafes in villages displayed the sign “fresh milk” (often in the shape of a cow), and some also offer buttermilk, which is almost like a cross between milk and yogurt. The milk tasted extremely rich and full of flavor. It just tasted right. But when I say rich, I don’t mean it like you’re drinking heavy cream, or anything like that. It’s like drinking store bought orange juice vs. freshly squeezed juice from perfectly ripe, recently picked oranges. After drinking some of the store bought stuff afterwards, the milk tasted flat, as if they took  the goodness out and added additional whatever it is they add to preserve milk. One reason why it’s so good is maybe because they didn’t pasteurize the milk to death (I’m not even sure if they pasteurized it or not) and the Germans actually treat their cows well. All along the road, there were countless cows just lounging or grazing under the sun in idyllic pastures. After drinking the milk, I had this strange urge to thank each and every cow for providing the mind blowing milk they probably intended for their babies.

However, we soon left the countryside and entered the modern metropolis of Munich. In comparison to the rolling farmland, Munich was loud and grimy. Driving and parking in central Munich is a bit of a nightmare so biking or public transportation is probably the better option. I wasn’t really a huge fan of Munich, but I did notice that Munich does have a very high percentage of good looking males. Just thought I’d put that out there, in case anyone, you know, was curious. We did go visit the Hofbrauhaus, which is basically a huge beer hall. It was extremely loud, thanks to their gratuitous music playing. While we did not stay long, watching people who were way too drunk for 2 in the afternoon was very entertaining.

Nyphenburg Palace is a summer residence for the Bavarian royalty also located in Munich. This was also the first palace that offered free parking. However, for the rate they charge, there are relatively very little rooms you get to see. But since we got the Bavarian castle pass (around 40 dollars for 14 days and up to 5 people), we got in for free, or rather, we just used the pass.

Driving out of Munich was a even bigger pain than driving into Munich. In a non-moving kind of way. Yes, we were completely stuck in a non-moving traffic jam. In fact, the Germans turned off their cars, stepped out, and just started to hang around on the highway. Fortunately, our handy dandy GPS saved the day and found us an alternate route. However, because of the time lost in transit, we had miss a couple towns we had intended to visit on the Romantic Road, like Augsburg and Nordlingen. We stopped for a little while at Dinkelsbuhl, and it seemed like a wonderful town. If I had the opportunity to stay a day, I would.

We did end up spending a good amount of time at Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The town looked like it came straight out of a story book and because we arrived in the evening, the majority of tourists had already left.

One local specialty you should definitely check out is the Schneeballen, or “Snow Ball”. It’s basically a piece of dough wound up into the shape of a ball, deep fried, and covered in powdered sugar, chocolate etc. I mean, really, can you go wrong? It’s delicious and serves as a wonderful snack.The best one I had was at Diller and they have multiple locations in various German towns (including Fussen and Rothenburg). While in Rothenburg, you can also climb the 600 year old town wall, which we were unfortunately too exhausted to do.

The next morning, in a field very close to Rothenburg, we drove past a U-pick strawberry and flower field, which we decided to stop and visit. The strawberries were extremely cheap and it was run by a small local farmer family. Three generations were present: the baby, parents, and grandma. Granted, the baby just sat there and looked good. The grandma was absolutely delightful as she picked a bouquet of freshly sheared flowers for us, and when she thought a certain flower was missing from the bunch, she drove all the way home and back just for the sake of providing us with a better bouquet.

Next came Nuremberg, city of bratwursts. Needless to say, I was pretty darn excited. My knowledge of bratwursts extended only to Johnsonville brats so I’m not bratwurst pro, but I know a good sausage when in the presence of one. I ended up getting two bratwurst hot dogs from two different places, as most sit downs who serve brats have the option of these take out hot dogs. They were smaller than I expected, but the taste was definitely not small. The seasoning was perfect and despite being incredibly hot on that day, I wouldn’t trade the bratwursts for ice cold gelato. 

Speaking of gelato, the medieval town of Bamberg had some pretty terrific gelato. It was rainy and cold when we went, but the gelato was definitely still welcomed. The town itself boasted a magnificent Dom, which was a bit of a climb from the main town. The Dom itself was filled to the brink with people, thus making it way too stuffy for my tastes so we hightailed it out of there after a brief look. 

Finally, after driving more than 3000 km, we arrived back at our starting place, Berlin. The drive to Berlin wasn’t particularly smooth either; it took us around 7 hours to get there, when in reality it should have taken a lot less than that. Because of the time lost, we didn’t get to visit the Potsdam Palaces. 

Berlin is still a city that is still rebuilding itself. If you look around, there is construction going on everywhere around you and despite Mitte being the historical center of Berlin, it is permeated with newly built sky rises. Even though the entire city of Berlin is going through a renovation, it has kept the old and built around it. 

 

 

Of the famous Museum Island, the one museum we were really itching to see was the Pergamon Museum. The entire museum was built to accomodate the priceless monuments it housed, as the sheer size of them was astounding. These monuments include the Pergamon Altar (from Ancient Greece), the Ishtar Gate (from Ancient Babylon), the Mshatta Facade (Umayyad Palace), and many many others. I would rank this museum at the top, with the Louvre or the Uffizi (with the exception that those two are more art heavy). There was also an exhibition where they built a 360 panorama of Asisi, an ancient Greek city. There were exceptional details and everything looked perfectly real, as it showed a snapshot of real people doing daily activities. The background music and changes in daylight just sealed the deal for me. If you tune out the world around you, and just immerse yourself in the scene in front of you, it feels as if you’ve really stepped into a whole other world. Of course, it takes a little imagination, but once you get the feel of it, it’s wonderful. I felt like I could just sit there and stare for hours, deciphering the background of each person depicted. 

The Jewish Memorial, on the other hand, didn’t really have that effect on me. It was raining (again) and my umbrella just kept on getting stuck between the blocks as they got taller and taller as you reach the center. After losing my map somewhere in the labyrinth and taking forever to find it, I’ve deduced that this is a wonderful place for hide and seek. The meaning of the memorial is not lost on me, but there were no statues, or writing, or really anything except for a sign to not walk on the blocks. I do, however, love the sentiment and can appreciate the meaning. 

Rogacki is an indoor market in Berlin that sells everything from sardines, to raw meats, to bread and deli items. It really is a food lover’s paradise as you can get all sorts of strange cuts of meat, as well as terrific seafood options. 

The Bundestag is the newly built dome within the Reichstag building. To visit, you first have to make a reservation online and security is very strict. Before you enter, you have to through an airport-like security system. Climbing to the top of the Bundestag is interesting and all those swirls, mirrors, and windows are intriguing. I still haven’t figured out if there’s an open hole at the top yet, or if it’s just a reflection. 

After more than two weeks and three countries later, we bid adieu to Germany and fly back to the states. Every time I fly out of Europe, I always feel a little sad at the prospect of leaving, and this time was no different. I wouldn’t mind doing it all over again. I mean, we started in Berlin, so we could just start driving towards Dresden again, couldn’t we? 

Roadtrippin’ Through Europe (Part 2)

Upon entering Austria, the most discernible difference was the road quality. The roads were wider, better marked, better paved and it was just glorious to drive on. The Austrian landscape consisted of rolling hills, dotted with churches, towns, and quite a few cows. And because the driver was semi-fluent in deutsch, knowing what the road signs meant helped just a tad as well.


Our first stop was at a little town called Melk. The town was quite nice, but what we came for was the abbey. It is a famous Benedictine abbey that sits majestically upon a hill, overlooking the surrounding town. Inside, there’s a brilliant cathedral and a library that housed very very old books. I had a very strong urge to touch one, but I don’t think the monks there would have appreciated that.

Photography is prohibited in the library, but I took one unknowingly and a Korean tour guide kindly reminded (more like yelled at) me that photography was not allowed. In fact, that lady sort of gasped and looked at me like I stepped on her puppy or something.

Entrance to abbey.

Library in the abbey. I had to suffer the wrath of an angry Korean lady to get this…

Vienna was next and, like in Prague, we ditched the car for the U-bahn and S-bahn. The park and ride is a great option if your hotel is a little outside town. Oddly enough, the the U-bahn always seemed to run above while the S-bahn always seemed to go under. The Austrian people, like the Czech, were also very friendly, offering their assistance to us. The weather, unfortunately, doesn’t take after the people; it was cold and raining in the morning and blisteringly hot in the afternoon.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Schönbrunn Palace is very similar to Versailles (a tad smaller) and is a definite must see in Vienna. The gardens are beautiful and it somewhat reminded me of a merge between the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and Versailles. You can’t go wrong with either of the two. The complimentary audio guide is also nice as all the wallpapered and gold lined rooms start to look the same. We unfortunately did not go inside Hofburg Palace, but we did go visit the gardens of Belvedere palace.

Schonbrunn Palace

Belvedere Palace.

For lunch, we ate at a biergarten near Schönbrunn Palace, and being the first beer garden I’ve ever been to, it was a terrific experience. Sitting on the wooden benches with the looming chestnut trees strung with lanterns overhead is incredibly comforting, and it only gets better when the food and beer arrives. My wiener schnitzel and Austrian kartoffelsalat (potato salad) marathon began there. Don’t you know? It’s the best type of marathon out there.


The best meal I had on the trip was at Pürstner. Everything we ordered was absolutely delicious. The portions were pretty generous and all the meats came with wonderful sauces and seasonings while also being incredibly tender. A drink that’s exclusive to Austria is Almdudler, an apple grape soda that is really quite good so make sure to give it a try.

Viennese beef soup.

Now, of course I couldn’t leave Vienna without giving the famed Figlmüller a try, especially with the wiener schnitzel obsession I had going on. There are actually two Figlmüller locations very close to each other. The one inside the alley was always full and they kept on sending all the tourists to their other location on a perpendicular street. Recently, some people had been complaining about Figlmüller’s quality… Could it be because the two locations are different? I may be imagining this conspiracy theory but I thought it a little sketchy that all the tourists were being sent away. I refused to be deterred so I made reservations for the alley location. Let me tell you, that piece of pork was two times the size of my face and it was pure heaven. The meat was tender and crispy in all the right places. I’m not claiming Figlmüller to be the best wiener schnitzel ever, but it was definitely not your average ol’ schnitzel.

Entrance to alley.

I sadly did not get pictures of the schnitzel because we had to hurry to get to the opera house where we got tickets to see Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera house was amazing and it was even better that I was there to see an opera, instead of just looking around as a tourist.

Lucia di Lammermoor

And the opera itself… no words can describe it. The acoustics are like nothing I’ve heard before, and even though I only had a partial view and was practically hanging off the balcony, I enjoyed every minute of it. Note that the opera house is closed during July and August so we had to make sure we got to Vienna before July.


Demel Café also warranted a visit. The place reminded me of Angelina’s, without the hot chocolate. While you can sit outside on the patio, we decided to head to the back where you can actually see them making the cakes. Although the cakes were quite good, I wasn’t floored by them.

We then drove to Hallstatt and the views that accompanied that road were breathtaking. The radio played some traditional Austrian folk music which really was the perfect soundtrack. Hallstatt is a quaint little town on the foot of a mountain while also on the edge of a tranquil lake. While it is quite touristy and there are throngs of tour groups passing through, the setting makes everything ok in the world again. Instead of staying inside Hallstatt, we stayed at a town across the lake in Obertraun, which is also a very pleasant place.

On a whim, we decided to go climb the Dachstein mountain in Salzkammergut to go see the Five Fingers viewing platform. And because this was not planned, we never realized that it would be positively freezing up there. Now, I live in a place where it’s warm all year round, and we were on vacation during the summer, so you could approximate what we were wearing. The sun came and went, and so did the slight warmth that came with it.

Unfortunately, I never made it past midway. Shivering, I headed back to the station so that maybe I could start to feel my ears again. However, our fearless driver braved the cold and made it! Looking at the pictures that he brought back, it may have been a good thing I didn’t go (I am deathly afraid of heights. I repeat, deathly afraid.)

Courtesy of our fearless driver (who has asked for photo credits)

20 minutes away there is the beautiful spa town of Bad Ischl, which is also the home to Zauner Café. If the café itself isn’t enough to blow your socks off, the desserts will surely do it. Their well known for their cakes and I can see why; the chestnut swiss roll is particularly to die for. The cakes there aren’t particularly sweet, but they perfectly hit that spot.

Next, we paid a little visit to Mozart and the Von Trapps in Salzburg. The entire city now revolves around everything Mozart related which is a little ironic, considering the fact that Mozart actually hated Salzburg. The best part of Salzburg is Hellbrunn Palace. Yes, the Sound of Music pavilion is here. Yes, the best tour in the world is here. And yes, prepare to get soaked. There are hidden water spouts everywhere in the gardens, and as you walk through them, you have absolutely which ones will be the next to spray you.

The tour guide, however, does. That is because he controls which spouts are turned on and he will make sure you get soaked when you least expect it. Umm, can I have his job please? In my group, there was a group of elderly folk and they only got a sprinkle here and there. On the other, I (along with the children) got soaked over and over again. Of all the tours I’ve been on, this was by far the funnest and most engaging.

First stop of the tour.

The rest of Salzburg was quite touristy, but it was beautiful. Mozart’s Geburtshaus was informative, but I don’t really think it was worth it. The Mirabell Gardens are also very pleasant, especially on a sunny day. Don’t miss the unicorns at the end – it’s a great photo op, trust me.

Mozart’s place

Part 3 is coming!

Roadtrippin’ Through Europe (Part 1)

Roadtrips are great. They’re even better when in Europe. Instead of driving between states, you’re driving between countries. Instead of munching on fast food on the road, you nibble on some local delicacies. Which is why we decided to drive through Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. Here is the route we took. It took a while to develop an itinerary and despite it being a little tight, I thought we did pretty well.

There are a couple things I would first like to mention about driving in Europe:

1. Yellow lines are nonexistent. All you will ever see are white lines (except for in construction zones). Therefore, you have no idea if you have two lanes or if the lane to the left of you is for incoming traffic. This is a huge nightmare in cities, as sometimes there are one way streets where you get multiple lanes but sometimes, the other lanes are for incoming traffic. We asked a couple locals about this; apparently, the advice was to stick to the right side when in doubt. Hmm. Sounds safe. Safe to say, I’ve never been more happy to see yellow road markings back in America.

2. Don’t forget to purchase a vignette before entering a country. When you know you’re getting close to the border, stop by a gas station and go purchase that vignette. There were a couple times I noticed where after you passed the border, there are no gas stations for miles. So, save yourself some grey hairs, and buy that vignette when possible.

3. Traffic jams and road closures are very very common. Too common. Invest in a GPS with live traffic updates (or rent a car with one) and even that sometimes fails. A very large, and unprecedented, highway closure in the Czech Republic led to us driving hours on winding “highways” without any lane markings where I almost had a heart attack, true story.

St. Vitus Cathedral

We flew into Berlin quite early in the morning where we picked up our rental car from Sixt. The car was larger than expected which was good and bad. Good because you won’t see me complaining about extra legroom and bad because our designated driver for the trip really isn’t very good at parallel parking, especially in tiny European spaces. But, as it turned out, parking wasn’t a huge problem so the large car was an absolute plus.

Dresden

The drive to Dresden was unremarkable, and despite being impressed by Dresden, I’m not itching to go back. The fact that everything has been rebuilt from scratch is very impressive and the old town is quite nice, but that’s typical of Europe. There wasn’t much that was particularly memorable.

On the other hand, Prague was one of my favorite stops on the trip. The public transportation system is very sophisticated (with metros, buses, and trams); the metro stations were one of the nicest I’ve ever seen, unlike New York. The people, especially for a city so packed with tourists, were exceptionally nice and helpful; many went out of their way to help the utterly lost tourists (which would be us). The architecture is also gorgeous and the colors just pop at you.

First thing in the morning, we went to Prague Castle. You don’t really see much of the castle, as it is more like a castle complex surrounded by defensive walls. St. Vitus’s Cathedral was impressive with its arches and statues. The first part of the cathedral is free to enter, but you need to at least purchase the short visit ticket to enter the back. We got the short ticket, and thought it was a good idea.

After leaving the castle, we took a tram to head to Old Town where we grabbed some lunch at U Parlamentu. Everything was meat and sauce heavy but all the meats were well cooked. We had no idea what to get and our server was more than helpful. They have English menus, for those who aren’t fluent in Czech (I’m sorry, but all those dashes and whatnot just aren’t doing it for me). The Pilsner anywhere in the Czech Republic is phenomenal (not from personal experience) and that applies to U Parlamentu as well.

Cabbage Salad

There are two beautiful cathedrals located on the square and when you’re hot and sweaty with achy feet, those things are a blessing (no, really). They are always cool, quiet, and give your aching feet a well deserved rest. Yes, I’m a girl who stops at every single church she passes just to sit on their benches and I’ve actually found quite a few hidden treasures along the way. It’s a tried and true method, that’s what it is.

For dinner, we wanted to eat at Mlejnice, but they were all full so we had to resort to a Rick Steves suggestion. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? And let me tell you, I think I would have been better off going into a random restaurant. The goulash was… not good. There were a couple chunks of bad quality sausage drowned in a mystery sauce. The pork knuckle was mostly dried out (and rock hard at some places) with minimal flavoring. The salad was normal, but how badly can you mess up a mixed salad?

It was, however, a good idea to stay near the old town square because that night, Czech Republic was in the semifinals for the Euro Cup and half the city was packed into the square to watch the game. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and you can’t help but get excited as well. Unfortunately, Czech Republic lost to Portugal. And when Spain went on to win the Euro Cup, beating Germany, I was in Germany when that happened. I’m starting to think maybe I’m bad luck…

Charles Bridge at 5 AM

To avoid the crowds and vendors, we woke up at 5 am the next day and headed out to Charles Bridge. While it was very serene and peaceful, it seemed like many of the local people were already going to work. Do the Czech people sleep? They stay out way late, and then get right back up at an ungodly hour. But because most tourists generally like sleep (jet lag, anyone?), there were only a few lone people with large cameras in hand, yawning. I was most definitely in good company.

Handcrafted toys in Prague

Our next stop was the incredibly charming medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. It’s an UNESCO site and I can see why – everything is so perfectly preserved. On top of that, the town happened to be celebrating the Five-Petalled Rose Festival the day we were there, which was the best surprise for us.

Entryway to Cesky Krumlov

All the locals donned their medieval clothing, selling local items in a medieval market, and doing whatever medieval people do. This kind of an event in that kind of a setting is just phenomenal. It’s not just some backdrop of a Shakespearean play; it’s so real (that is, if you can get over souvenir stores and the throngs of pushy tourists).

Freshly fried potato chips.

Street food.

The street food is wonderful and incredibly cheap so it’s safe to say I pigged out. A lot. Oh and apparently, you have to buy a ticket to get into the town once it gets to late afternoon. So if you got in, stay in!

Part 2 coming soon!

24 Hours in New York

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I know what you’re thinking – 24 hours in New York? There’s no way you’re going to finish seeing the city in one day. But hey, one day is better than nothing, right? Having never been to New York before (nor anywhere on the East Coast), I was peeing in my pants a little exited. And having heard countless stories about the myriad of dining options, I then found myself in somewhat of a pickle. Where am I going to eat? I had way too many ideas and not enough time (and probably not enough funds either). And being the self-proclaimed tourist that I am, I couldn’t exactly leave New York without checking out Times Square or Central Park. So I sought a balance between the two and this is the result.

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First thing I did after arriving in New York after a red eye flight was to get a MetroCard. Public transportation is basically nil in California so I was going to be taking full advantage of the subway. Unfortunately, the MTA ended the unlimited one day Fun Pass (which would’ve made my life a whole lot easier) and I had to continually refill throughout the day. One thing to keep in mind is the transfers. With every ticket, you can get a free subway-bus transfer within a two hour time frame. We ended up staying on the island of Manhattan, and we first visited Columbia University. It’s in a stellar location and the campus was beautiful but come on, I didn’t come to New York City to listen to financial aid seminars! We then walked through Central Park (where they were filming a Ben Stiller movie; I may have seen the back of his head… which is an unconfirmed, and highly improbable fact) and down to Times Square. Now, let me tell you something I learned the hard way. On the map that the hotels give you, the southern tip of Central Park and Times Square look maybe 3 blocks away. In real life, it’s more like 13. Not such a pleasant surprise when your feet are already unhappy with you. So don’t do what I did – take the metro. After checking out some of the attractions in that general area (Rockefeller Center, anyone?) we then took a bus down to SoHo where we proceeded to kill our feet once again walking through Chinatown, Little Italy, and up to Union Square. The following morning, we snuck in a quick visit to Wall Street before flying out to Berlin.

And now comes the good part; what did I eat?

Veniero’s

After having heard so much about its cheesecakes and various Italian pastries, Veniero’s was the first place I visited, with my high expectations in hand. They claim to have first opened in 1894 and were voted ‘Best Desserts in New York City’ in 2010. Needless to say, I was expecting to be blown away by a plethora of old school, authentic Italian desserts. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen – far from it, actually. Coming up to the pasticceria, the old school New York façade with the neon lights instilled a hope within me – a hope that I would soon be reunited with real good Italian cheesecake that I haven’t had since I was in Florence. However, everything went downhill after stepping foot into Veniero’s. The first thing I noticed was the amount of people in the store – or rather, the lack of people. We were the only ones in the store but no fear, I was not to be deterred from my slice of cheesecake quite yet. Upon entry of the store, there were two giant cheesecakes that they were selling New York and Italian cheesecake by the slice and further down, there were various Italian pastries (mini fruit tarts, cannolis, cream tarts etc.) being sold by the pound. I took advantage of both these options getting a slice of Italian cheesecake (presumably made from ricotta cheese) and some cannolis and fruit tarts. The Italian cheesecake tasted grainy and undercooked, without any of that light, fluffy goodness that I’d been craving. The cannolis and fruit tarts were alright, but it was the cheesecake (that everyone seems to rave about online) that really killed it for me (in a bad way).

My verdict? This place sounds and looks better than it tastes.

Katz’s Delicatessen

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I was first introduced to Katz’s by Mr. Anthony Bourdain on his New York episode of No Reservations. It’s famous for its sandwiches, especially the pastrami. You grab a ticket as you go in and then you head up to one of the many stations at the counter to order. You also have the option of waiter service where you can just sit yourself down at one of the tables at the back. I arrived at around 11 am and the place was already buzzing. Since I’d already eaten not too long ago, I just went ahead and ordered a pastrami sandwich with extra pickles on the side. Part of the fun of coming here is watching them make the sandwiches. And the little sample of meat (in my case, pastrami) that they hand you with every order doesn’t hurt either. The sandwich itself consists of a large pile of freshly carved smoked pastrami on sliced bread. The meat was quite tender and juicy and it really filled you up. While I did think that the brine that they use to smoke the meat could have been improved, it was already very good. The pickles were only lightly pickled so they offered a satisfying crunch between bites of the heavy pastrami sandwiches.

Despite being a tourist attraction, I definitely recommend a visit to Katz’s. The experience is unique and the food is pretty great to boot.

Russ and Daughters

Upon leaving Katz’s, I found myself at the front of Russ and Daughters only a few steps down. I’d also heard about the terrific bagel and lox available at Russ and Daughters so obviously I hopped in to go get myself one. And let me tell you – that is one sterile store. But in no way am I complaining; the fact that raw fish is one of the major items that they sell, I’d hope that I’m purchasing it from a clean and healthy environment. The white lab coats that the employees don also add to the overall image. When ordering a bagel, you can have the option of salmon from various regions of the world and you can pair it with different flavors of their cream cheese. I got Norwegian salmon with plain cream cheese on a plain bagel. I promise I’m not normally this boring but I had some skewed thought in my mind that the salmon would taste better if I got plain with everything else. Don’t ask me why. I do believe, however, it paid off because that salmon was pretty phenomenal. The texture was incredibly tender and silky and it was definitely the star of the show because I was not impressed by the bagel at all. It tasted hard and stale like it was a week old. Even my neighborhood Einstein Bro’s bagels are much better. I had all these high expectations for the New York bagel but alas, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have the opportunity to try any of their caviar or herring, but both those items looked very promising.Image

Russ and Daughters, despite their stale bagels, is a mighty fine place to visit and if you ever find yourself wandering around the Lower East Side with a sudden, intense craving for some smoked salmon, you know where to go.

La Maison du Chocolat

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I first fell in love with this place after buying a small box of pralines from their St. Germain des Près location in Paris. The first bite was nothing less than heaven in my mouth. The same goes for the second bite and so on and so forth. I’d planned on returning to get some truffles the next day but unfortunately, they decided to close their store on a Sunday. So, fast forward a year later, and I’m back in La Maison du Chocolat… except I’m in New York this time. They only have 5 locations in North America and wouldn’t you know it, three are in Manhattan. I ended up visiting two boutiques – Rockefeller and Wall Street. The store was pristine and the service was exceptional in both locations. I got a bag of truffles and another assortment of chocolates they were selling by piece and everything I got was amazing. Although I had a slightly better impression of it when I first tried it in Paris, it might be because the element of surprise was taken out of the equation.

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One thing that really got me excited was the free samples they always offer you. I am a huge macaron fanatic so when the saleslady gave me some chocolate macarons to sample, I did not hesitate. That is probably an understatement – I probably more like lunged at her.

To be honest, the food I had in New York didn’t really reach my expectations. But that may have been because my expectations were way too inflated. However, I do think that New York could be the best food city in North America and in terms of the number of cultures being represented, New York is definitely sitting proudly at first place (of all the places I’ve been to).