20 Years of Travel #10: Milan

The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a visit to Milan, Italy. Even though our trip to Milan in 2015 was brief, it was very memorable, including checking two things off my lifetime bucket list.

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Duomo di Milano

We did not waste any time going to see the Duomo in Milan. We got up early and had a coffee at a cafe off of the Piazza del Duomo, while waiting for the cathedral to open. We bought tickets to not just tour the inside but also to do the rooftop tour, which I highly recommend. I’m not going to lie, I am absolutely terrified of heights (major vertigo) and found the rooftop adventure a bit difficult, but it is still worth it. I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals and this is one of my favorites. Expect to spend many hours exploring the Duomo di Milano.

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Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

No trip to Milan is complete without a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to view one of Da Vinci’s most famous pieces of art – The Last SupperI would definitely plan on purchasing tickets to see The Last Supper well in advance. I don’t know if everyone has had this experience, but we were given a certain amount of viewing time, which I wish had been a bit longer. Other than that, I enjoyed every moment of learning about this piece of artwork and spending as much time as I could looking at every part of it.

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Teatro alla Scala

When I was in high school, I wrote a paper on the opera singer, Maria Callas. Through this report I learned a lot about the La Scala Opera House and have wanted to visit it ever since. Knowing this, my husband bought us tickets, as an early birthday surprise, to see one of the best Puccini operas – La Boheme – at La Scala. We had great seats; the onstage sets were really impressive; the acoustics were perfect; and for those who don’t appreciate operas because you don’t understand the language, every seat had individual TV screens that have subtitles translated into your language of choice.

World’s Fair Exposition – and my brush with death

The first movie I ever owned when I was young was Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland. This movie is about a family living in St. Louis during the time when St. Louis is about to hold the World’s Fair (The Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904. Naturally, attending a World’s Fair has been on my travel bucket list for a long long time. As if finally seeing an opera at La Scala was not enough, our trip coincided with the 2015 World’s Fair Expo in Milan, so we also spent a day at the World’s Fair. The theme of this fair was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Attendees were provided with food from all over the world. As we were currently living in Tuscany, Italy at the time, we were unable to get many foods that were not strictly Tuscan, so we were super excited about trying food from all over the world.

However, I think I got too excited. I unfortunately had an allergic reaction to something I ate, which could have been at some point while I was indulging in Belgian fries, Dutch pancakes, Food truck BBQ, Mexican tacos and Chinese noodles. The attack was bad and luckily we found a health clinic on site that I could go to. I didn’t have to wait at all before they had me lying on a clinic bed, hooked up to a few machines, with an IV in my arm. I had at least three doctors looking at me.  At one point they asked me what I had had to eat, so I started giving them the list, and they just shook their heads at me. They gave me some medicine, which they thought would work, but the lady doctor noticed that I was still having trouble breathing and the rashes on my chest and legs were getting worse. They actually kicked my husband out of the room at this point, so he was actually a bit nervous about my condition. The doctors opted to give me a big booster shot of adrenaline, and in 10 minutes I was doing fantastic. I cannot remember ever feeling as great as I did at that time. The doctors released me with the advice that maybe I should just stick to eating chocolate gelato from now on. For those that have not experience health care outside of the United States, I did not have to fill out any paperwork before being treated or after I was treated. I just signed a document at the end, saying that I was treated, and that was all I had to do. A big thanks to those doctors who treated me. They were awesome.

Since I was feeling amazing, we did wander around the expo a little more. I did not eat any more food though and was a bit sad that I missed out on Ethiopian food and trying the crocodile at the Zimbabwe tent. However, I was not about to risk ending up in that clinic again. While that was a scary situation, I guess it made the day even more memorable, beyond seeing all the amazing exhibits and architecture.

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Milan was such a lovely weekend adventure and very memorable.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts:

Christmas Holiday in Porto, Portugal – December 2015

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Unable to spend the holidays with our family, my husband and I decided to take a little relaxing getaway to Portugal. We decided to spend Christmas in the town of Porto. We just pre-booked our accommodations and that was it. Everything else we were just going to figure it out as we went. We spent five full days in Porto and loved every minute of it. Just going with the flow was not a problem. There were plenty of things to do and see. Porto was far from boring during Christmas. Here are the highlights:

Food

francesinhaTry the Portuguese dish called the francesinha (pictured on the right), which is a sandwich with layers upon layers of different meats, covered in melted cheese and topped with a cooked egg. I do not want to think about how much cholesterol there was in that meal.

Not surprisingly, many restaurants are closed Christmas Eve night and Christmas night. Plan accordingly. We found that kabob stands around the city and hotel restaurants are open.

Drink

The Cafe Majestic is the perfect place for a great cup of coffee (though slightly more expensive than other cafes in the area). It is a stunning cafe but is very popular and well-known so do not be surprised if there is a line out the door.

port tastingAn absolute must in Porto is to take a port wine tour. There are many vineyards and cellars to choose from across the Douro River from Porto’s city center. We chose to visit Taylor’s Port Wine Cellar. For 7 Euros a person, we were given a lesson in the origins and creation of port wine, a fantastic tour of the cellars, and three tastings that we were able to enjoy from a scenic veranda that overlooked the city of Porto. Such an amazing deal for this wonderful experience!

The Christmas Scene

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treeI loved the Christmas decorations found all over Porto, from the Christmas tree in front of City Hall (pictured above and on the right) to the ice skating rink in the park to the markets and finally the street lights (pictured below). On Christmas Day we sat inside Clerigos Church and listened to popular Christmas songs being played on the organ. We were surprised to find after the organ concert that the Clerigos museum and tower were open on Christmas, so we climbed the 240 steps for some breathtaking views of Porto’s city center and the Douro River.

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Sights

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As a book lover, I really enjoyed visiting the Lello & Irmao Bookstore (pictured above). It is said that the ornately decorated inside of the bookstore inspired parts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. It is simply stunning!

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Porto has unique architecture. Its buildings are coated with tiles (pictured above). You will find grand tile murals located inside the Sao Bento train station.

If the weather is nice, like it was for us, then take a nice relaxing boat cruise down the Douro River. It is a great opportunity to get a different visual perspective of Porto and take lots of pictures.

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Seaside Excursion from Porto

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Since we were so blessed with sunny and warm weather, we decided to take the 500 bus from Porto’s city center (across from the Sao Bento train station) to Matosinhos, which is a nice beach town on the Atlantic Ocean. We got to Matosinhos in time to have a wonderful seafood lunch at Restaurante Lage do Senhor do Padrao. The seabass is fantastic (pictured on the right). foodMatosinhos has a wonderful walking path along the coast where you can people watch and enjoy the waves crashing on the shore (picture above). It is a great place to view an amazing sunset (picture at bottom).

We loved Porto! If it isn’t on your travel bucket list, it should be!

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