Sicilian Adventures : PART II

Our first stop upon leaving Trapani was at a thermal spa, basically a pond in the middle of nature. I was a little skeptical, but when I felt how warm the water was (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), I sank right in to the sulfur bath. Heaven in the middle of winter!

After a quick lunch (and cannoli) stop in the small seaside village of Trabia, we arrived to the scenic city of Cefalù. With the sun ready to set as we walked along the beach, greeted by a glowing row of homes, it was hard not to become enchanted with our new destination. We soon located our B&B within the narrow streets and began to explore.

The following morning we set our sights on the ancient village set high up above the city with views looking down on the Duomo, a majestic two-towered Norman cathedral.

After hundreds of steps, guided by sunshine peeking through a cloudy sky, we made it to the top. What a view!

We could have stayed longer, as there is always more to discover, but it was time to head south to Ragusa, with a stop for Roman history along the way. The Villa Romana del Casale, a vast villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century, contains the largest and most impressive collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

As we walked through the many rooms, learning about the symbolism of each mosaic, I couldn’t believe how intricate and detailed these scenes were, and how well preserved! We even caught sight of what could very well be considered the first bikinis.

A few hours later we arrived in Ragusa Ibla, the old part of Ragusa destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in Baroque style. We soon settled into our home for the night, a charming centuries old B&B. The following day we had a date with one of Italy’s top chefs, 2 Michelin starred Ciccio Sultano, at his famed Restaurant Duomo. This was one meal we couldn’t be late for, even on Italian time.

After a meal to remember, we continued to explore this elegant city. I couldn’t get over how picture perfect the views were, both from high above Duomo San Giorgio, and down below. It was a short but sweet encounter.

Upon our exit, we were graced with the most stunning vista of Ragusa Ibla, certain that we’d return again, even if only to dine with Ciccio. Our next stop was where we’d settle in for New Year’s Eve, and a place we knew from our last trip to Sicily, Siracusa.

There was something about the island of Ortigia that left an impression on us. Perhaps it was the food, or the warmth of the people, or in my case the cassata… Whatever it was, we were happy to be back, and to begin a new year in this, one of our favorite Sicilian settings. This time we discovered impressive new wine and food bar Cortile Verga set in a gorgeous courtyard, and SunSet cafe, for exactly that.

Following a night of great feasting and mild revelry, we got in the car for a final drive to Punta Secca, home of Montalbano. It was here that my Italian began the year with a swim in the sea following an incredible meal of freshly caught fish and homemade pasta. After one last sunset we were ready to return to Paris.

Sicilian Adventures : PART I

This year we headed south for the holidays, destination Sicily. I fell in love with this vibrant island on our first jaunt two years ago, and decided where better to spend a few days over Christmas with the Italian family, and ring in the new year. For part one of the trip, we made our home the city of Trapani at Sicily’s western tip. It wasn’t the old city’s charm that enticed us (I’ve seen better), but its proximity to so many sights and ancient ruins, not to mention the Egadi Islands. What we quickly discovered is that Trapani is a food haven, with Trapanese specialities including Fish Couscous, influenced by neighboring Tunisia, and Pesto alla Trapanese made with tomatoes and almonds. The many fresh fish dishes were exceptional and every day became a dining adventure, with local wines of course (my favorite being a red blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola grapes). Here’s a list of our top restaurants, all in the old town.

Antichi Sapori for the best traditional dishes (the seafood antipasti alone is worth the visit)

Serisso 47 for fine dining in an elegant setting (rumor has it the chef might be awarded a Michelin star soon)

Sood for live music and small plates of Sicilian specialties with a bio twist (great local vibe)

After settling into our apartments and enjoying the rooftop views, we took to the road. Our first stop was Scopello, a tiny village near Castellammare del Golfo, and what was once a tuna fishing port. The coastline was breathtaking! We also discovered that this is where scenes from our favorite Sicilian detective series Inspector Montalbano were filmed.

From here we drove to Segesta, one of the most notable Siceliot (Sicilian-Greek) ancient cities. We walked the path leading up to the Greek temple, a sight to behold, lit by the late afternoon sun.

Continuing up to the hilltop site where the ancient city was inhabited into the Middle Ages, we discovered the remains of a Norman castle, a small church and a mosque, and a classical amphitheater with admirable views.

The next day we decided to explore another highly esteemed archaeological site, Selinunte. Walking through this abandoned town founded by Greeks in the  7th Century BC, with its main street, homes and temples,  you can imagine the life that once took place here.

The day after Christmas we headed for the largest of the Egadi Islands, Favignana, less than an hour by boat. It being winter and the holidays, the island was quiet and most of the restaurants and shops were closed. We did however find a bakery with some of the most delicious cassata and cannoli to date. (Read more about Sicily’s sweets here.) The most stunning landscape on the island was the little gulf called Cala Rossa.

My Italian and I climbed down the rocks to the turquoise water, completely in awe of this cliffside paradise.

On the last day before the two of us continued our adventures solo, we drove up to the medieval hilltop town of Erice. It was the people of this town that also built the town and  temple of Segesta. I first noticed the Venus Castle, and soon learned that the temple of Venus outlasted the many civilizations who took residence in Erice.

The town itself is eerily charming with its tones of grays and cobbled paths leading to restaurants, artisanal shops and pasticcerias offering sweets made of almond paste. Here too we found a sweet gem!

Our final stop before saying farewell to Trapani was a Marsala cellar tour and wine tasting at the famous Cantine Florio. The perfect ending to part one of our adventures in Sicily. Next stop, Cefalù…

Weekend in the 8th

I’m of the opinion that in order to truly appreciate where you live, and not take it for granted or let it wear you down (yes, even Paris) you must once in a while play tourist.  So every year I plan a local weekend escape for my Italian and I. This year it was across town to Hôtel Daniel in the 8th arrondissement. This Relais & Châteaux haven hidden just behind the Champs-Élysées and steps away from rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoréis a four-star gem. We were looking forward to moving in!

Upon entering I felt as though I had been invited to a private home. The vibrant living room was filled with travel artifacts collected by the hotel’s owners during their journeys around the world, which I would soon discover ornamented all 26 of the unique rooms and suites. The decor revealed a unique combination of Toile de Jouy materials with chinoiserie-style motifs. Even the basket for my tea kettle looked like an artifact from the Silk Road.

Once my handsome date arrived we settled into our room on the top floor, overlooking the Parisian rooftops. We both favored the cozy loveseat with a view and knew that would be where we’d sunbathe while reading the morning paper.

On Friday night we happily caroused the quartier, feeling like we were indeed visiting from faraway. At the hotel’s recommendation we dined at 110 de Taillevent, where 110 wines are available by the glass. Impressive! It was a perfect meal on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a nice change from our usual right bank eateries. For breakfast we opted not to part with the views, ordered room service and dined with the sun.

That day we went window shopping on the Champs-Élysées and explored the annual Christmas Market, vin chaud in hand. My Italian went running in new territory and I stopped by neighboring Gagosian Gallery, one of my favorites for stellar art exhibits. After tea time at our new home, we headed out once more for dinner, with no clear plan in mind, only to get lost in our new neighborhood.

24 Hours in Paris

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My first encounter with Paris was as a student living in London. Having dreamt about the city of love since hearing my parents recount their romantic interludes, I eagerly boarded the Eurostar, having no idea what to expect, and with only 24 hours to spare. Years later, I don’t remember much of where I wandered or what I tasted, but what remained was the feeling. In that brief encounter I became completely smitten with the City of Lights and somehow knew this was my place on earth, or at least one of them. What I didn’t know is that fate would find me living my own love story many years later.

Now, calling Paris my home for the last seven years, I can well advise visitors on how to spend a day discovering much of what this city has to offer, namely food, fashion and culture. For anyone coming to Paris for a quick jaunt, either alone or with a friend, here is how to spend 24 hours in my favorite city, and feel much like a local. Keep in mind that spring and fall are the most enchanting seasons to discover and fall in love with Paris, though it’s shamelessly charming all year round.

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A real Parisian experience begins with breakfast at one of the best boulangeries in this food haven. A croissant is not simply a croissant until you’ve tasted Du Pain et des Idées. Make that a pain au chocolat. The most flakey and buttery you’ll ever taste. (Keep in mind they are only open on weekdays.) If you prefer a more hearty meal, nearby Holybelly is as good as it gets. From here you can stroll along canal Saint Martin and make your way into the trendy North Marais for a café crème at boutique cum coffee shop The Broken Arm, or the uber cozy Boot Café.

After a stop at Paris’s oldest covered market Marché des Enfants Rouges for a quick stroll or early lunch where you can feast on French, Lebanese, Japanese, African or Italian cuisine, continue along rue Vieille du Temple. You’ll discover all the latest trends while passing the French fashion boutiques lining the street. It is here too that the Hotel Salé sits, home to the Picasso Museum, exhibiting the life and work of this Spanish master with an affinity for France. Recently expanded and re-opened, it’s worth a visit.

If you’re in the mood for classic French fare, head south along the same street until you reach one of Paris’s most famous decades old dining haunts, Robert et Louise. In this charming bistro which maintains the tradition of grilling over an open fire, you can feast on escargots, côte de bœuf, and confit de canard among other dishes.

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Part of Paris’s charm is its tangle of narrow streets, my favorite being in the Marais. Once home to the French aristocracy, this is more recently where the Jewish community settled, making it a vibrant neighborhood even on a Sunday, while the rest of Paris sleeps. Stop by for a chocolate tasting at independent chocolatier Edwart or satisfy your sugar cravings with world famous Pierre Hermé macarons. Don’t forget to try my most recent favorite, the heavenly cakes from Aux Merveilleux de Fred. (Did I mention I have a sweet tooth?) If tea happens to be your beverage of choice, skip the desserts and stop by French tea emporium Marriage Frères for an exotic blend. Don’t leave without heading up the antique stairwell to their Tea Museum.

Next stop is a stroll through nearby Place des Vosges, an elegant historic square once called Place Royale. Writer Victor Hugo’s home, now a free museum, is hidden within the brick facade. You can also find one of Paris’s most elegant tea salons Carette, beneath the regal arches. (I won’t mention how decadent their desserts are.)

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Continue walking towards the river and you’ll discover one of the most picturesque spots in the city, and what causes me time and time again to fall in love with Paris, the island of Île Saint-Louis. This is the place to sit along the banks of the Seine and admire the pink and blue hues of an ever changing sky. Now back to sweets, it is here that the famous (and best) French ice-cream shop Berthillon can be found. Well worth the wait on line!

Crossing Pont Saint-Louis to the second of Paris’s islands, Île de la Cité, you’ll encounter 850+ year old medieval treasure Notre-Dame Cathedral. By courageously climbing 387 steps to the top of the South Tower, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the city, as well as a few gargoyles.

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You could definitely spend all day walking along Paris’s rues and boulevards, but a faster and equally scenic way to explore Paris is by Vélib’, Paris’s public biking system, or even better, by boat. Just in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral on the south side of the river, jump aboard the Batobus, what can accurately be described as a river shuttle service. With a one-day ticket you can hop on and off as many times as you like, at most of the major sights. Cruise from Hôtel de Ville, office of the mayor, to the world’s largest art collection housed in the Louvre Museum. A stop here will bring you to the well manicured Tuileries Garden where you’ll be in good company with Rodin and Giacometti, in sculpture form that is.

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Continuing along the Seine via Batobus, you’ll enjoy a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower. Where better to savor a sunset than below (or atop) this cultural icon.

Another sight to behold along the Seine is the Musée d’Orsay. Formerly a train station constructed from 1898 to 1900, this left bank museum houses works from the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements. Even the facade, one of my favorite Parisian structures, is a work of art.

You can’t visit Paris without getting lost in the rive gauche. Exiting the boat at Saint-Germain-des-Prés will find you in one of Paris’ most charming, albeit touristic neighborhoods. The streets are lined with cafes and restaurants, including two of Paris’s oldest and most well-known, Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. Good stop for a glass of wine or chocolat chaud. It was at these cafes that the literary elite would often congregate, Hemingway included.

One of many French traditions is the evening apéro, shortened from l’apéritif, a before dinner drink. There are dozens of terraces in Saint-Germain in which to indulge in a glass of red, white or rosé. My terrace of choice for people watching (a favorite Parisian pastime) is Le Bar Du Marché. For dinner, head to neighboring French eateries Semilla and Fish La Boissonnerie, or latest hotspot Freddy’s for more casual dining.

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With an after dinner walk through the city by night, you’ll quickly understand why Paris is so often called the City of Lights, with the 37 bridges illuminated and antique streetlights at almost every corner.

From here you can head to the rooftop of department store Galeries Lafayette for a first class (and free) view of the city (open until 8:30pm). During the summer months the sun sets late into the night, providing the perfect opportunity to head up to the artists’ quarter, Montmartre. Take a metro or uber to Abbesses, walk up the hill (or take the funicular) to the steps of majestic Sacré-Cœur Basilica, and prepare to be dazzled by the twilight views.  Are you in love yet?

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One of the best parts of living in Paris as an expat is meeting fellow expats, each of us on our own unique journey. For a moment, our paths cross and the world becomes a little smaller and more familiar. This is how I felt when I met photographer Elizabeth Young, as we shared tales of living and working in NYC, in the same Lower East Side neighborhood even. Given my love for photography, I immediately turned my attention to Elizabeth’s personal work and how she manages to balance her career between Paris and New York. As is often the case with creative minds, weeks later she was at my home office collaborating on a photography project.

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My office is where I spend many hours of the day, in between running to my manufacturer and client meetings. This is my haven, where I work on new designs, fill orders, write… Actually, my desk was the first purchase made for our new apartment. Love at first sight! It certainly serves its purpose.

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Both Elizabeth and I are doing what we love. She is continuing to find her inspiration behind the lens, and I am creating, both in the form of bags and with words. As the new year approaches, what is your dream? To live in Paris, Buenos Aires, Tokyo? To start a new career? To travel? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you. You’ll also be entered to win a Kasia Dietz bag of your choice. As an additional bonus, take 30% off all my bag collections from now until December 15th with the code: HOLIDAYS.

Morocco in Paris

These days as Paris temperatures decrease and the sun sets early, I’ve taken to hiding out in hammams as often as possible. All in the name of research of course, as I seek to discover the best hammans in Paris for a feature in Bonjour Paris. What have I found thus far? A little taste of Morocco.

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Hidden behind a door and down a courtyard on bustling rue Montorgueil in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement, sits a portal into Morocco. There is no outward sign of its presence, and rightly so. For decades, Aux Bains Montorgueil was a hammam designed exclusively for Moroccan royalty. It was not until 2004 that this clandestine hammam and spa opened to the public. It was discovered solely through word of mouth until their recent creation of a website.

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Entering Aux Bains Montorgueil you have the sensation of arriving to a hammam in the heart of Marrakesh. Warmly welcomed by Moroccan women Souad and Wafa with traditional music playing in the background, I was led downstairs to begin this centuries old cleansing ritual. The actual hammam is filled with heavenly scents of eucalyptus and orange blossom. After detoxing in the luxurious heat, Souad lathered me with homemade green clay in preparation for the scrubbing, or gommage. Followed by a thorough cleansing and a return to the hammam, my facial began. My exfoliation was a concoction of cinnamon, honey and sugar, followed by a sesame and honey mask, both all natural and made by Souad and Wafa. Curious if these sweet mixtures were edible, I was told that often in Morocco only natural foods are used to cleanse the skin. (Admittedly, I did taste my mask and it was delicious!) Feeling completely relaxed, I was led upstairs to the massage room where fleur d’oranger, orange blossom, was gently rubbed into my rejuvenated skin. I ended my Moroccan experience in the relaxation room with a glass of mint tea. Now I understood why this was such a well kept secret for so long.

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Discover Aux Bains Montorgeuil for yourself at 55 rue Montorgeuil from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 9pm.

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