Weekend in Lombardia

Traveling to Italy often, I am well acquainted with certain of its 21 regions including Toscana with its rolling hills and capital city Firenze, Trentino and Alto Adige with the majestic Dolomites, and Liguria, my second home in Cinque Terre. On this trip, I discovered another region that quickly became a favorite, Lombardia.

The journey began in the town of Varese, just 55 kilometers north of Milan. I soon realized that this was the perfect spot from which to tour the region. The first stop to discover the magic of Lombardia was the Sanctuary of the Sacro Monte of Varese, 883 meters high, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top of the hill stood the Pogliaghi House with its enchanting garden, a museum open to all. An eccentric lover of art, Ludovico Pogliaghi began building his house in 1885 and in the years that followed he collected over 1,500 artworks. An artist himself,  the door of Milan’s Duomo was his most famous commission, with the original plaster door sitting just above his grand piano, which I attempted to play.

With church bells ringing in the distance, I walked along this 2 kilometer long “Holy Way” of Sacro Monte, encountering 14 chapels dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary. This sacred cobbled path dates back to 1604 when Capuchin friar Giovanni Battista Aguggiari set upon creating it.

Each of the 14 chapels are unique in design and feature statues and frescoes created by major Lombard artists of the seventeenth century. With every encounter I felt the mysterious air of a spiritual past.

The following day another grand villa awaited in nearby Gazzada Schianno. Nineteenth century Villa Cagnola was a sight to behold overlooking French and English gardens and views of the countryside. Most impressive were the treasures hidden on the inside. In addition to a large private collection of Italian paintings from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the collection of ceramics, both European and Oriental porcelain is awe-inspiring! Certainly worth a visit and an overnight stay.

From here I walked the historic route Via Francisca del Lucomagno to Castiglione Olona, surrounded by fields of blossoming flowers and the splendor of nature.

The fifth century town of Castiglione Olona charmed even from afar. I couldn’t wait to enter its walls.

A lunch stop at Osteria degli Artisti for a plate of strawberry asparagus risotto? There’s a first for everything!

A site worth visiting is La Collegiata, built where once stood the ancient castle. The Collegiate church along with the Baptistry, makes up the Collegiate Museum. Both were decorated by Masolino da Panicale, one of Florence’s most recognized painters.

From here the afternoon continued to Torba Abbey, a former benedictine convent. The annual flower market was taking place and the entire monastery was in bloom!

The next morning it was time to discover Lake Maggiore, Italy’s second largest lake after Lake Garda. How best to tour this majestic lake than by sailboat. This may in fact be my preferred mode of transport.

The views were stunning, as the wind sent us sailing along the coast of Lombardia. Complete serenity as we reached a breathtaking monastery built within a cliff.

Santa Caterina del Sasso is one of the most ethereal sights I’ve ever seen.  Legend has it that after surviving a storm, wealthy local merchant Alberto Besozzi dedicated his life to Saint Catherine and had part of this Hermitage built in her honor. The rest as they say, is history.

My days and nights discovering Lombardia were filled with so many moments of awe and inspiration, both natural and spiritual. Enough to last until the next time. Meanwhile, here’s a video for more bella vistas.

 

The Velvet Hours

During these seven years living my own love story in the City of Lights, I’ve read quite a few others. One of the most romantic tales to date is the latest novel by international bestselling author Alyson Richman.

The Velvet Hours takes you into the lives of two women in very different circumstances, connected by a common thread. Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Richman composes a glamorous love story set in the period of the Belle Epoque. In colorful accounts of her life, Marthe de Florian recounts this story to granddaughter Solange. Marthe describes herself as A  woman of the demi-monde, the half-world. Caught between beauty and darkness. In some ways trapped, but in other ways completely free.

As the mysterious life of this beautiful courtesan is revealed to her, Solange tries to make sense of her own. She finds refuge in the company and stories of her grandmother as Germany invades France and Europe prepares for war. In time, she learns the secrets of her family history, and discovers her own unique path.

In lieu of Valentine’s Day, I share this book with you, written in Richman’s characteristic poetic prose. You can easily imagine yourself walking the streets of Paris, intertwined between the lives of Marthe and Solange. The Velvet Hours is certain to become a favorite of any romantic Francophile.

Grand Sud : Part I

After returning to Paris for a quick change of clothes, I once again boarded the train, high speed ahead, direction south. Can one ever travel too much? Considering I once spent 13 months on the road, I think not. There is so much more to discover beyond the City of Lights, and along with the France Tourism Board I was well on my way to discovering. In just under 3 hours I arrived to Avignon.

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The first stop was lunch at a riverfront restaurant with quite a history. Guinguette de Vieux Moulin, located at the foot of the tower Philippe le Bel on the Rhone, a few miles from Avignon, opened in 1901. It was here that a bridge once linked the castle of the popes to Villeneuve les Avignon. In 1761, as the name suggests, 6 mills were installed, 3 for water and 3 for wind. In days past this was the place for fishing competitions and nautical games, now a place of relaxation and classic French cuisine.

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Onwards to the highlight of the day, a 2,000 year old aqueduct bridge. Pont du Gard is a 30 minute drive away, and worth every mile. Approaching the bridge from a distance, I was completely taken with the enormity and elegance of this ancient Roman structure. It’s hard to believe that this three level masterpiece, 360 meters long and 50 meters high was built in only 5 years.

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This massive bridge provided those living in Nîmes with running water for close to 5 centuries, making this a highly prestigious city in the south of France. Much of it was used for their bath houses. Water was collected from the Eure river at the foot of Uzès. Led by my expert tour guide I had the opportunity to discover the canalization, walking inside the bridge along the exact path where the water flows. Not to mention the views!

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Surround by 408 acres of a stunning natural landscape, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon swimming, canoeing, enjoying the flight of Bonelli’s Eagles, that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

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What makes it even more of a destination is that the Pont du Gard was the first French site to be awarded ‘Grand Site de France’ in 2004. This great honor presented by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, safely combines tourism, local life and the protection of nature. There are now 14 sites in France with this distinguished title. What’s more, this is a Unesco Heritage site since 1985.

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After several hours learning about the structure and admiring its grandeur, I dug deeper into the history of this Roman aqueduct by way of the museum. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon there but it was time now to continue the journey. I vowed to return for the annual music festival in July. What a venue! Now it was time to end the day a short drive away in the village of Castillon-du-Gard.

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As soon as I entered into the world of Le Vieux Castillon, located in the heart of this small Medieval village, I was enchanted. Newly renovated in minimalist elegance, this 32-room boutique hotel resides in a Renaissance building. Its history is felt in every room, within the spacious gourmet restaurant, through the courtyard and to the pool which overlooks the picturesque Provençal landscape. Just in time for sunset, I perched on a lounge chair to enjoy the view, and a moment of zen.

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Needless to say, when morning came, I didn’t want to leave this tranquil paradise. But it was time to discover another famous French destination.

24 hours in Avignon

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Last weekend we celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary with a trip to Provence. How better to spend such a special occasion than traveling amidst one of the most beautiful settings in France? Our adventures started in Avignon. With only 24 hours to spare, we spent as much time as possible getting lost within the town’s 4.3 kilometers of stone ramparts, viewing modern art, admiring historic landmarks and dining on Provençal specialties. So, how best to spend a day in this 14th century city of art and culture? Here are a few ideas.

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STAY in the heart of the town overlooking the main square at Hotel l’Horloge.

VISIT the impressive collection of modern and contemporary art at Collection Lambert.

VISIT the fortress and palace Palais des Papes, the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century.

DINE at creatively inspired modern bistro L’Agape off the tourist track tucked in a charming square.

DRINK a glass of rosé (or Châteauneuf-du-Pape) in the outdoor cafes overlooking the Palais des Papes.

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The following day we hit the road, first stop the small village of Fontaine de Vaucluse. After the a decadent lunch in the most charming garden, we explored the Sorgue river. France’s most powerful spring (and the world’s fifth most powerful), this river supplies the region with water, emerald green and dazzling to the eye!

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Next it was time to settle into our stunning home in the Luberon…

Château de Chenonceau

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Moments upon arriving to Château de Chenonceau, this majestic castle with its immaculate landscaped gardens, captivated us both. Set upon the River Cher, I now understood why this was the favorite château of many. This 16th century marvel of Gothic and early Renaissance architecture stood tall against gray skies, the Marques tower across the bridge from the château. What adds to the unique history are the women who called this their home. The favorite residence of Catherine de Medici, while Diane de Poitiers was its mistress. But it was Louise Dupin who saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, stating that “It was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.”

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The interior of the château was equally regal. The grand ballroom once held festivities organized by Catherine de Medici in honor of her son King Henri III.

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Catherine de Medici’s Renaissance bedroom was outfitted with rare Flanders tapestries from the 16th century, and a painting by Correggio representing ‘The Education of Love’.

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To prove his devotion to both his wife and his mistress, King Henry II gave them each a garden. This one was Catherine’s, a design of 5 lawns centered around an elegant circular pond, “intimate” at 5,500m2.

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Diane’s garden, composed of two perpendicular and two diagonal paths bordering eight large, lawned triangles is 12,000m2 in size. Each season reveals a variety of blossoms.

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It was difficult to leave this stunning landscape and the stories it told. With one last glance we bid farewell.

36 Hours in Florence

Last week I had a meeting with bespoke travel company Bella Vita Travels at their home base on the Italian Riviera. Since it fell just before Valentine’s Day, my Italian and I decided to head to Florence for a quick stop. Having recently fallen back in love with Rome after over ten years, it was now Florence’s turn. With only 36 hours to spare, here are the highlights on where to sleep, eat, visit and shop. Feel free to follow in our footsteps!

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SLEEP : Just steps away from the famous Ponte Vecchio, in the very heart of Florence sits Gallery Hotel Art, a modern boutique hotel, part of the four luxurious Lungarno Collection hotels by fashion icon Ferragamo.

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EAT : Italy is all about the food, isn’t it? Recommendations are always welcome as not to get stuck in a tourist trap. Luckily, we met local artist and friend Kevin Berlin, known in Firenze as Giovanni Rossi, who directed us to traditional Florentine spot Osteria del Porcellino. Delicious! A more gastronomic favorite was Il Santo Bevitore, a tip from local expat Georgette, aka Girl in Florence. She also pointed us towards new hotspot Gurdulù where we enjoyed an after dinner drink.

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DRINK : The aperitivo is taken very seriously in Italy, much like the apéritif in France. Thankfully, Giovanni knew just the spot next door to his home in Piazza della Signoria. Rivoire is the oldest bar in Florence, and almost where the negroni originated (that bar unfortunately no longer exists). If barman Luca is there ask him to mix you a Negroni while you peruse the book he wrote on this very cocktail. Incidentally, some of the best chocolate and sweets can also be found here!

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SEE : With little time and much to see, we made a plan. Having already been to the Uffizi years ago, we paid a quick visit to Florence’s Cathedral, also known as the Duomo with it’s majestic dome, and set out to explore the city. We passed by Dante’s home (photo above) and south of the river Arno to the Oltrarno neighborhood. One afternoon was spent at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world, featuring sixteen chapels. Here is the final resting place of Italian greats including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Gentile and Rossini. The three cloisters too are worth a visit (photo below).

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SHOP : On my last visit to Florence I bought a leather jacket in one of the local leather markets. (I still wear it.) This time, I wasn’t looking for any souvenirs but did stumble upon the most beautiful perfumerie Aqua Flor, with scents unique to their shop. I couldn’t resist!

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After a last negroni we ran to catch our train, enroute to the riviera, while dreaming of the next visit to Florence.

 

Mont Saint-Michel

Last week I decided it was time to venture to Brittany. Having heard so much about the charming walled port city of Saint-Malo, I boarded the train headed west, and three hours later was welcomed by gray skies and sea. And so began my scenic sojourn in the land of crêpes, cider, oysters from neighboring Cancale, and rising tides.

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The historically independent Saint-Malo, known in the past for privateering (a privateer was often considered a pirate), is still referred to as “cité corsaire”. During World War II 80% of the city was destroyed and rebuilt between 1948-1960. With few tourists in sight, I was happy to explore this walled hideaway. But what I was most eager to discover was Mont Saint-Michel in nearby Normandy. As soon as the sun rose, that’s where I headed.

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At first sight of Mont Saint-Michel I was in complete awe. This wonder of the Western world truly takes your breath away. How did this Abbey come to be, perched atop a rock? At the request of the Archangel Michel, Aubert, Bishop of Avranches built and consecrated a small church on the 16th October 709. In 966 a community of Benedictines settled on the rock at the request of the Duke of Normandy and the pre-Romanesque church was built before the year one thousand. Here is more history and information about Mont Saint-Michel.

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Join me in this scenic journey as I climb up the steps leading to this UNESCO world heritage site.

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The views from the top are simply stunning! Where does sky end and sea begin?

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Not to mention what lies on the inside.

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I will certainly return, and next time stay the night. I hear it’s particularly stunning at sunset…

Roman Holiday

The last time I was in Rome was the first time I was in Italy, 13 years ago. A good friend and I took a trip to visit this historic land. Little did either of us know that we would both marry Italian men years later. Foreshadowing? I had not been to Rome since, and those who read this blog know I travel to Italy quite often, so my Italian and I decided it was time to return to the roots of Italian history. Our Roman Holiday began in the charming neighborhood of Trastevere, with a view of the Tiber river. With only a few days to explore the city, and endless sights to fall back in love with, we hit the streets, guided by blue skies and our trusted Lonely Planet.

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Just steps away on the other side of the Tiber we found the sunlit and flower-filled Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona, one of the most enchanting of Rome’s many squares. I immediately fell in love with the vibrant colors, illuminated by the sun, a stark contrast to the neutral tones of Paris. Kasia Dietz handbags Rome collection?

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From one majestic fountain to another, we stopped to admire them all. Just don’t drink the water they say…

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The Fountain of the Four Rivers, one of Bernini’s masterpieces, depicts Gods of the four great rivers in the four continents as  were then recognized by the Renaissance geographers, including the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Río de la Plata in America.

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The Pantheon, a Greek adjective meaning “honor all Gods”, built and dedicated between A.D 118 and 125, is one of the most preserved and influential buildings in Rome. Not to mention majestic!

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Newly restored and sparkling, I was tempted to jump into the Trevi Fountain La Dolce Vita style. I resisted.

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On one of our exploratory walks, we climbed to the top of the Altar of the Fatherland, also known as National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II in honor of the first King of a unified Italy.

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The views from the top were impressive, to say the least. Rome glowed in the late afternoon sun. I swooned.

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One day was spent with friends, a Roman power couple you could say. Erica being a travel journalist and Rome expert, and Darius an archaeologist who digs on this very land. Who better to explore the Roman Forum with?

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Once the center of Roman public life, we tried to imagine the events that took place here many centuries ago.

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By chance, we gained access to sights that haven’t been made public yet. For my (and your) eyes only…

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We walked from the Roman Forum up 40 meters to Palatine Hill… Our expert guide Darius Arya leading the way.

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From there we saw the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater ever built. An engineering & architectural marvel.

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I stood for a while admiring the Colosseum before we went inside, in complete awe. To the right of it is the apartment from film La Grande Bellezza, not a bad view…

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Enamored with sculptor Bernini, we spent an afternoon at the Villa Borghese. I’ve learned to always look down.

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Our last stop was at Saint Peter’s Basilica which will leave even an atheist marveling at this Renaissance structure, both inside and out. Already, we couldn’t wait to return. Rome had captured our hearts.

the roaring twenties

Back from adventures in Turkey and Greece to a Paris filled with life. (More on the travels later.) La rentrée brings with it a city full of openings and events. I had the privilege to attend an evening of cocktails and entertainment at Le Bar du Bristol, one of the chicest addresses in Paris. Le Bristol Paris is celebrating 90 years, having opened in 1925, in the midst of the roaring twenties. Who better to join me than my fashionable mom who’s now in town. Here’s a taste of what the roaring twenties looks like…

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FullSizeRender(2) copyFullSizeRender_4FullSizeRender_3 It was certainly a night to remember! Find my full story on Bonjour Paris.

Portovenere and the poets

In my dozens of trips to Cinque Terre, I had never visited the town of Portovenere, until now. We boarded the tourist boat, filled with anticipatory visitors from around the world. For that afternoon, I became one of them. In just under an hour we arrived to a breathtaking sight. The Church of St Peter originates from the 5th century, both Gothic and Christian, with most recent additions in the 13th century, marked by black & white stripes.IMG_5677 IMG_5679 IMG_5682As our boat turned into the port of this tiny peninsula, a row of vibrant colors greeted us.

IMG_5687These houses were built by the Genovese Republic as a fortress to protect from invaders.

IMG_5810Portovenere, part of the Gulf of the Poets, is where the likes of Lord Byron (whose name was given to a now collapsed sea cave Grotta dell’Arpaia), George Sand and Alfred de Musset spent lengthy periods of time, writing, dreaming, swimming…

IMG_5778 IMG_5795  It was here too, where Percy B. Shelley drowned in a storm and his memory lives on.

IMG_5830It was a summer afternoon steeped in history, and eagerly we returned to life on the sea.

around the world in a day

One week after the opening of the World Expo 2015, Feeding the Planet, we traveled to Milan to see what all the talk was about, the expo being a topic of much controversy.

In brief, Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Milan, Italy, hosts from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Over this six-month period, Milan becomes a global showcase where more than 140 participating countries show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium. In addition to the exhibitor nations, the Expo also involves international organizations, and expects to welcome over 20 million visitors to its 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area.

Both my Italian and I were curious to see, learn, and taste, starting with the Sudan pavilion.

IMG_0817IMG_1070I felt at home in Poland, watching a film about my country’s history, and meeting a local.

IMG_0934_2IMG_1065 IMG_1060 IMG_1049One of the most impressive pavilions was Oman, a place I hadn’t experienced, until now.

IMG_1026 IMG_1017 IMG_1016_2Turkmenistan was elaborately designed, as was Turkey, unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit either pavilion. One day was simply not enough to take it all in.

IMG_1008_2IMG_1067_2IMG_1006Loyal to the US & France, we visited both pavilions, the latter filled with wine and cheese.

IMG_0965_2IMG_0883_2We were most impressed with China, where we feasted on peking duck and dumplings.

IMG_0904 IMG_0884 IMG_0871IMG_1108_2In Italy we tasted fine wines and caroused Eataly, exhibiting foods from all twenty regions.

IMG_0849 IMG_1113IMG_1084Our day ended with the Tree of Life, agreeing that the experience was one to remember.

art of the hammam

On my recent trip to Istanbul, my friend and I decided to indulge in the Turkish bath culture, the hammam. In the tradition of physical and spiritual purification, the body is cleansed and purified from toxins, blood circulation increases and the immune system is stimulated. I had tried a few hammams in my day, but this one, the Ayasofya built in 1556, was special.IMG_6259Historically, hammams were social centers where special occasions were often celebrated.

IMG_6238Most hammams had spiritual components, and in many cases, washing was an essential part of worship. Through religious influence, hammams became a part of everyday life.

IMG_6240The sicaklik (also known as the hararet, caldarium or hot room) is a large marble-tiled room with a Göbek tasi (marble slab called a belly or navel stone). Here the soaping takes place.

IMG_6244I lay on the heated surface post scrubbing, and experienced my first bubble massage.

IMG_6254We had the hammam to ourselves, and I could have spent hours dreaming beneath the ancient starry ceiling, intoxicated by the warmth of the marble and the heavenly massage.

IMG_6255Alas, it was time to go as I was abruptly woken from the dream. Next stop, Grand Bazaar.

scenes from Sicily

Last weekend my Italian and I ventured to Italy’s most southern region, Sicily. This was my first trip and his second. I had no idea what to expect in this island rich in culture and cuisine. After taking a swim in the still warm waters of the Mediterranean, we headed to our first destination, the island of Ortygia in Syracuse. This charming city reveals baroque facades with Greek,  Roman and Arab influences in it’s centuries old architecture. With Sicilian hospitality, we immediately felt at home.

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One morning we spent at the archeological park where a massive Greek theater from 5th-century BC awaits it’s visitors. During the summer season it’s brought to life with classical concerts.

IMG_9897Being adventure seekers, we decided to drive to Noto. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, it was rebuilt to become the grandest baroque town in Sicily. Noto was recently added to Unesco’s list of world heritage sites, certainly worth a visit! And did I  mention that Noto is known for it’s gelato? More on that later…

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IMG_9790The next stop on our Sicilian adventures was Modica. This multi-layered medieval town is uniquely atmospheric with it’s high and low levels, allowing for an incredible view. Here too, you find the most delicious chocolate and confections. How could I resist?

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Our last stop was Taormina, the chic, sophisticated town that seduced many an artist and writer in it’s day. Here was the capitol of  Byzantine Sicily in the 9th century, and today it remains an international hotspot boasting views of a still active Mount Etna.

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Four days spent beneath the Sicilian sun, learning about ancient history, discovering hidden beaches… dining on fresh pasta, fish and local sweets (the latter of which I’m devoting the next blog post to). A perfect holiday.

Peninsula paradise

In 1908, at the height of the Belle Époque, one of Paris’s most luxurious hotels opened at 19 Avenue Kléber in the 16ème arrond. Hotel Magestic was among the most elegant addresses in Paris and certainly a place to see and be seen! In the decades to follow, this late 19th century Haussmanian building lost it’s luster as it’s hotel doors closed and instead it housed various organizations.

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It was in 2008 that Katara Hospitality group decided to restore the building and create in it’s grand space the Peninsula Paris. I was lucky enough to be invited to the preview of this, the first Peninsula Hotel in all of Europe, and the 10th in the world.

Kleber EntranceI arrived to a red carpet, jazz musicians and champagne flowing! Following a presentation on the building’s history and the meticulous attention to detail in the restoration and modernization process, we met the highly skilled chefs & pâtissiers in charge of the hotel’s six dining options. Executive Chef Jean-Edern Hurstel’s “farm to table” philosophy is certain to please many a palate.

L'Oiseau Blanc Terrace copyPerhaps my favorite of the restaurants is L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) situated on the rooftop. Is it here where I met the Marchand brothers, the hotel’s fromagiers, and tasted an exquisite goat’s cheese with a hint of rose. Following this dairy decadence I was served a dessert that I cannot even begin to describe, a creation by award-winning Chef Pâtissier Julien Alvarez. With a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower, I could envision the many lavish evenings that were soon to come to life in this new found paradise.

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As I toured the hotel, I took note of the many historic details. Some of France’s finest artisans were hand-picked to restore this grand structure to it’s former glory. Needless to say, what resulted in the 6 years of restoration is the ultimate in French craftsmanship.

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On August 1st the Peninsula Paris will welcome it’s first guests, in regal style. And in the days to follow I will certainly be one of them, at the least sipping a cocktail on a familiar terrace.

Lights Out

June 6th marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day on which Allied forces invaded northern France via beach landings in Normandy. In commemoration of this day I joined a new Context Tour, Lights Out, Paris Under the Occupation, accompanied by my Italian and a few friends. Following are several of the relevant spots, including bullet holes I had never noticed, along our 3 hour walk, led by a well-schooled historian. These images and the stories behind them will stay with me forever.

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To learn more about Paris history, art, food… join a Context tour. You might even find me there.

THATRue launch!

Last Sunday my Italian and I took to the streets of Paris for a treasure hunt unlike any other, joined by over 30 friends and Paris bloggers. We were searching for the likes of Montaigne and Rimbaud, among other hidden gems. This hunt amidst historic Paris being THATRue, the latest creation by Daisy de Plume, mastermind behind THATLou. You can read about my THATLou adventures here.

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Being a great fan of Daisy’s endeavors at cleverly educating while entertaining the masses on French culture and history, I was honored to be one of the co-hosts along with Forest of 52 Martinis and The Chamber. I designed a THATRue bag for the occasion, to be won & worn by the winning team.

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IMG_8158Our team included Erica of HiP Paris Blog, and though we did not win, we had a blast discovering corners of the left bank none of us had known, and my Italian even sang for us, to earn extra points of course! Though he seemed to enjoy it. As quoted in the latest feature in The Huffington Post, “This new Paris scavenger hunt is the perfect way to see the city.” I could not agree more.

fit for a king

A few weeks ago a dear family friend was in town. Since she’s already seen much of Paris, I planned a day of historic elegance in a landscape not too far away. We boarded a bus on an overcast morning, and soon arrived to the legendary, and now private estate, Château de Vaux le Vicomte.

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Here began our adventure into the life of Nicolas Fouquet, who created this 17th century castle.

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This majestic masterpiece was a collaboration between architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun and the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre. A ‘home and garden’ to be admired by all.

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Yet the story behind Monsieur Fouquet and his château is a unique and tragic one.

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In brief, after throwing a lavish party in his new home, Fouquet was arrested by Louis XIV (who had plotted against him out of jealousy), and spent his remaining days behind bars, unlawfully so.

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In the famous words of Voltaire, “On 17 August at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody”.

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As we wandered the château and landscape, the gray sky set a sobering mood. At once in awe and aghast at the history lesson upon us. Certainly a castle fit for a king, perhaps even too much so.

la république

One reason I love living in the North Marais is the proximity to Place de la République, bordering the 3rd, 10th and 11th arrondissements. At it’s center proudly stands Marianne, 10 meters high, a monument to the history of the formation of the Republic. Recently the ‘Place’ has been renovated, creating a vast area in which to sit and read, have coffee, play with kids, watch a concert… I attended the opening on a gorgeous sunny day, along with Daisy de Plume and her darling son, and we even made it onto a French website, now I’m truly a local! Here is a look at the new pedestrian space.

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Recently in the new ‘Place’, my Italian and I attended a concert to honor Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday, how memorable! Looking forward to many more neighborhood memories still to come.

Château de Chantilly

During my mom’s recent visit to Paris, we decided to take her for a day trip. Where else but to a château? Less than 30 minutes by train lies the town of Chantilly, home to a spectacular château spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, not to mention chantilly cream, which in itself is worth the trip!

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Our first stop was the Grand Stables. Yes, horses do still live within this admirable structure!

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At first sight the Château de Chantilly exhibits an air of serene magnificence.

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The Musée Condé boasts the grandest collection of paintings in France, after the Louvre of course.

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I could not stop admiring (and photographing) the château from every angle, both near and far.

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Chantilly

A idyllically regal day spent beneath blue skies and the historic charm of France.

like father like daughter

Dad and KasiaThere is something uniquely special about the relationship between a father and a daughter. When I was merely five years old I asked my mom in a state of panic, “You married Dad, so now who will I marry?”. Yes, I was in love with my father. And rightfully so, as he was a special man. Gentle in nature, strong in character, handsome in visage, filled with personality and witty beyond words. Unfortunately, our time together was short, and at the age of fifteen he passed away due to illness. I often wonder how my life would have evolved with his support and influence, considering we shared many of the same dreams and visions of life. And continue to.

DAD

Though he is not with me in the physical sense, I continue to feel my father’s presence. During my many months of travel I knew he was there, and felt safe. When I serendipitously met my Italian I knew my dad was behind the scenes, silently directing my path. And now, I am living a life between France and Italy, his two favorite places on earth. Perhaps I am fulfilling his dreams, as I fulfill my own. After all, it is what he has taught me, to always follow my heart and believe in myself, that has led me on this journey. For this life, to my father, I am grateful.

city of history

Some of my fondest memories as a child are feeding the pigeons on the main square in Krakow. I always felt well amidst the charm of this city, even during those many years of Communism, when my young mind struggled to make sense of all the disparities. Each trip to visit my family in Sanok included a stop at this city, the place of my mom’s Alma Mater. On my last visit to Poland I returned, though now I do my best to avoid the pigeons. I still love to wander the winding streets and visit my old haunts. Or simply sit at one of the many terraced cafes and watch the world go by.

This former capital of Poland was miraculously saved during World War II, and here now lies much of Poland’s rich historical, cultural and intellectual splendor. As is evident around every corner.

I caroused the thriving, creatively inspired and very much bohemian neighborhood of Kazimierz, which remains one of the most culturally significant Jewish areas in the world.

Hidden courtyards off the main square were explored, revealing charming bed and breakfasts, this one run by a family friend, aptly named Antique Apartments. (My next home away from home!)

I took a long walk across a newly built pedestrian bridge, decorated with love locks just like in Paris!

As much of the world as I have seen, and have yet to see, I will always welcome a return to this vista.

tour du chocolat

One of my great loves is chocolate. As a child I would eat nestle crunch bars by the dozen and have since moved on to more sophisticated international chocolates (ie. jars of nutella). Thankfully I have been blessed with a fast metabolism. Though I must admit that I consume chocolate in small (daily) doses, and indulge in mostly dark varieties, having rationalized those as the most healthy.

When a friend proposed a chocolate tour I was initially reluctant. Could I not eat my way through Paris’ chocolatiers without a guide? Surely! But my curiosity kicked in and I thought a tour could be fun, especially one involving friends and lots of French chocolate. I might even learn a thing of two. 

The Chocolate Walk began at the Louvre, once home to Louis XIII. It was there that liquid chocolate was first given as a gift to King Louis in 1615 from Anne of Austria. That began the French love affair with chocolate. The first chocolate shop was strategically located around the corner, at what is now a restaurant on rue de l’Arbre Sec.

In addition to being enlightened on the many scandals that took place behind royal doors, I learned that hot chocolate was a delicacy, drunk only by the royalty. In the beginning of the 18th century the chocolate was mixed with milk (rather than water and spices), and there were questions raised as to its purpose. Food, drink, medicine or love potion? (The latter, bien sûr!)

We continued along the right bank, stopping in select chocolatiers. I promised my tour guide I would not give away all of her dark secrets, but will share my two favorite chocolate shops and the crème de la crème of chocolates from each.

There are three Côte de France in Paris. This one was on 25 Avenue de l’Opera, and yes, I did feel like I had entered the royal hall of chocolate. Surrounded by the look and smell, I could barely pay attention to the explanations of the many chocolate varieties. I was ready and eager to taste!

Before the tasting begins, a quick lesson in French chocolate. There are two distinguished types: praliné, which consists of roasted nuts (most commonly almonds), and ganache, chocolate mixed with cream, originally called ‘Idiots chocolate’ as it was made by accident. Imagine?

Here we tried one of the signature chocolates, praliné mixed with small pieced of crushed cookie. Strong, dark and rich. Does is get much better?

Michel Cluizel, on 201 rue Saint Honoré, is another must in the gourmet world of French chocolate. 

It was the praliné des aïeux, a mixture of grilled almonds and hazelnuts covered in dark chocolate, that left me wondering if this is what heaven might taste like. Pure decadence!

For those gourmands equally as enamored with chocolate, this week (Oct 28-Nov 1) marks the annual Salon du Chocolat. I will soon find out just how many hours can be spent tasting chocolate…

If you crave more sweet stories, check out friend and fellow chocoholic Amy, aka Sweet Freak.

history vs modernity

While the Italians were in town we took them to Versailles. Just in case they weren’t thoroughly impressed from day one in Paris.

As excited as they were to visit this 17th Century Château, I was equally excited to view the current Murakami exhibit, a source of controversy since its inception in mid-September. I was determined to find all 22 works by Takashi Murakami, including the 11 created specifically for the show, and to discover what all the hype was about. All this while enjoying the splendor of Versailles, which I had previously visited as a student, back in the days when art was confined to museums and galleries.

My first impression was disdain as I felt too distracted by the art to pay much attention to the grandeur of the architecture. That quickly turned to child-like curiosity, as I entered each ornately decorated room, eager to discover which brightly-coloured creatures lurked behind the corner.

It was the unique contrast in the Baroque setting and the art that held my interest.

During this tour, I wondered to myself what exactly was the motivation for France to curate such a show? Setting the precedent with Jeff Koons’ exhibit in 2008, were they attempting to position themselves as provocateurs in the art world? Or perhaps this is all a political ploy to strengthen relations between France and Japan. Whatever the reason, I was throughly entertained and enjoyed it more than not. The Italians thought it amusing but lacked my enthusiasm. The French tourists, upon over-hearing several conversations, were deeply dismayed. (Right-wingers no doubt.)

The final room held no 17th Century distractions, merely smiley flowers to lighten the mood.

For those confused about how modernity can find a home within the walls of history (myself included), Curator Laurent Le Bon offers a little clarity, “The unique experience seeks above all to spark a reflection of the contemporary nature of our monuments and indispensable need to create out own era.”

Still confused? In this video which takes you on a tour of the exhibition, Murakami explains his reasoning behind working so diligently to create his manga universe at Versailles. What I found interesting is how he defines space in France versus Japan, two very disparate cultures. “In France you have this tradition to conquer and manage space and to represent it in three dimensions. In Japan, there is this tradition to flatten out reality to take a real three dimensional space and transform it into two dimensions.”  Another interesting note, Murakami considers his work somewhat like origami which can be manipulated in various ways. I would have to agree.

The grand finale in the exhibition is the Oval Buddha in the garden. Very grand and very gold. If you have not yet experienced the controversy, the show is up until December 12, 2010. Well worth it!

Still, I am left to wonder, should modern art find a home in history?

a shade of Chartres blue

In honor of the Christmas holiday, or simply for the sake of adventure, we took the train to Chartres, 88km southwest of Paris. This medieval town boasts an incredibly impressive 13th-century cathedral, crowned by one Gothic spire and the other Romanesque. This unique architecture is due to the Romanesque cathedral being destroyed by a fire in 1194 (along with much of the town) and being rebuilt in the Gothic style over the following 30 years. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is France’s best-preserved medieval basilica.

Most impressive, aside from the ‘Holy Veil’, said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, are the stained glass windows. Almost all of the 172 windows dating back to the early 13th century, and several even to the 12th century, are renowned for the depth and intensity of their blue tones, famously called ‘Chartres blue’.

After hours spent lost and frozen amidst the cobbled streets, dreaming of a gourmet candlelight dinner in this most historic and romantic town, our adventure ended at a British pub feasting on burgers. Fine dining will have to wait.

joie de vivre!

A walk on the esteemed avenue of the Champs-Elysées makes me feel entirely like a tourist. I’m not exactly sure when I will give up this status and become a local, perhaps when I stop looking up at the sky and pardoning those who ask me for directions that I am lost myself. In all honestly, I hope to forever live my Parisian life as a visitor. To appreciate the grandeur within and upon each architecturally inconceivable structure. To smile at the encounter of every hidden alleyway and secret garden. To always carouse the streets with curious eyes and a mind eager to learn. It is after all the most fascinating and serendipitous encounters we find upon the streets. Here in Paris this is where art is discovered in it’s many forms.

A display of Vogue magazine covers, beauty captured through time, caught my eye amidst the golden hues of falling leaves…

A lesson in history. One day in 1616 Marie de Medicis decided to create a long tree-lined pathway within a space that held nothing but fields (Elysian fields). This quickly became a very fashionable place to walk. In years to follow (namely 1724) the avenue was extended up to Chaillot hill, now the site of the Arc de Triomphe and the Etoile. In 1828 the avenue became city property with the addition of footpaths, fountains and gas lighting. It is now a haven for tourists, filled with cinemas, cafés, and luxury shops. And for those who crave the energy such a street possesses.

Teotihuacán



The city of Teotihuacán was built two thousand years ago by an unknown race, and had been in ruins for over 600 years when the Aztecs rediscovered it and called it ‘the place where gods were born’. This was in fact the first great city of the western hemisphere. It was truly an incredible sight to behold, such man-made massivity! I managed to climb the pyramid of the sun, all 247 steps, for a proper sun salutation. I did not stay long enough to climb the pyramid of the moon however, which stands at the end of the ceremonial avenue.

East and West



The Berlin wall divided the East and West for 28 years, from the day construction began on August 13, 1961 until it was dismantled in 1989, following several weeks of civil unrest. The fall of the Berlin wall formally concluded on October 3, 1990, paving the way for German reunification. In the years of Germany’s separation, up to 1,245 people had been killed trying to flee East Germany, which in recent years has become a place of opportunity for people from the whole of Germany. It was fascinating to walk along this historic division of freedom which forever stands to tell the story between East and West. Thomas, a talented photographer adding to the creative energy of a new Berlin, joined us on this reunification tour of the city.

Istanbul

Every morning I wake up in Asia and take the ferry across the Bosphorus strait to Europe. Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world which is situated on two continents. Once called Constantinople, this city is deeply steeped in history, having served as the capital city of the Roman Empire (330-395), the Byzantine Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453), the Latin Empire (1204-1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922). This city is filled with colors, cats and sights that are simply breath-taking.A mosque in the lovely neighborhood of Ortakoy.

The Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman sultans for nearly four centuries.

The Underground Cistern was known as the Basilica Cistern during the Roman period. After the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Turks, it was forgotten of and nobody knew that it existed. Re-discovered in 1545, it was used to water the gardens of Topkapi Palace. Today it has an eery and mystical ambiance with fish dancing in its waters.

The grandest of Grand Bazaars, where many a treasure can be found…

The Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian between 532 and 537, is widely regarded as the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. It was the largest cathedral ever built for more than a thousand years, until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1575, during the Renaissance.


The Blue Mosque, one of the most impressive structures in the world! According to legend, Sultan Ahmet I wanted to have a minaret made of gold which is “altin” in Turkish. The architect misunderstood him as having said “alti” which means “six” in English. The architect fearfully asked “am I going to be beheaded?”. Luckily, the Sultan Ahmed I loved the minarets. Prior to that time, no sultan had a mosque with 6 minarets.

Ephesus


The history of Ephesus dates back to 2000 B.C., a famous city of 250,000 inhabitants, a place of festivity and celebration for the many skillful artisans and wealthy merchants. Ephesus was founded by the Amazons and later conquered by the Ionians in the 11th century B.C. Artemis, the goddess of abundance, was believed to have ruled over this land that is now considered one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was incredible to experience this rich history, walking amidst fragments of this venerable civilization.


The Library of Celsus built by C. Julius in honour of his father C. Celsus, the General Governor of the Province of Asia in the year 135 A.D.


The Great Theatre with a capacity of 25,000 spectators, with 22 flights of stairs, a monumental masterpiece in terms of art as well as Christianity.

the Great Wall



The morning was misty. The arduous climb felt like the combination of a dream and trial of strength, hiking up to the Great Wall, the longest and most time-consuming ancient defense system, taking over 2,000 years to construct, a length of 6,300 kilometers. This piece of the wall was not restored and not easily found, and I was undeniably exultant to have reached this path that felt so close to heaven. To end my final day in Beijing, I feasted my eyes on a traditional Chinese Opera and my palate on Peking duck. Both proved most appetizing.

Beijing



I became quite the diligent tourist in Beijing with little time and very much to see in this city filled with sights. My life in Shanghai seemed to follow me as several of my friends appeared during my week of cultural jaunts. The history lesson began in Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, a huge complex of halls, towers and pavilions covered in golden tiles. Here was the home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for nearly 500 years. I was caught in a rainstorm while carousing this Palace Museum which added to the magestic mood. As evening fell I made my way to Jingshan Park which overlooks the Forbidden City.



I was very much taken with the Summer Palace which is in fact the largest existing ancient imperial garden of China. All day can be spent walking these grounds and marveling at the detail in the construction.
An old Chinese fortune teller inscribing my fortune which reads ‘everything is as I wish’. Clever man!

the killing fields

The devastation that met so many Cambodians in the years of the Khmer Rouge’s rule is unthinkable. A day frought with emotion and much sadness as I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, once the Tuol Svay Prey High School, turned Security Prison 21, the largest center of detention and torture in the country. The spaces where so many innocent lives were lost, chambers with rusty beds, wooden cells in which there was room only for grief. The survivors of this prison were taken to the killing fields of Cheoung Ek, which became the memorial of these 17,000 men, women and children who were so wrongfully executed. 129 mass graves, sights of a dark and somber past that will remain with me as I journey through history.