Old Town Shenkeng is famous for it's stinky tofu. As soon as you arrive the pungent smell invades your nostrils like a men's locker room. There's so much to see though, and it's a charming quaint street lined with all kinds of shops for eats and goodies...mostly different kinds of eats, with each shop offering you all sorts of samples, so it's almost like having lunch at Costco, but better.
Our arrival in Lisboa was a vibrant one, and began lively like a funny movie. Our Uber driver (yes, you can order Uber at the airport in Lisboa!), Thiago, zoomed up to us and popped out of his little white Hyundai wearing bright pink polarized sunglasses. He was full of the vibrancy you see all around the city and we realized we could communicate in Spanish together. Although, at some point he switched back to Portuguese, but we still had a largely, mutually comprehensible conversation with him speaking Portuguese and us speaking Spanish. This was much the case throughout our trip. Portuguese in Portugal sounds very different from Portuguese in Brazil, I have to say. It's much harder, and oft sounds like they're speaking Russian or German. It was strange and a little confusing, but if they spoke slow enough I could understand them.
We stayed in Alfama, the Old Town, and he couldn't actually drop us off in front of our Airbnb, so he got us as close as possible, dropping us off at Portas do Sol, a spot with a breathtaking view over looking orange tiled rooftops and out onto the river. There was a giant cruise ship docked in the river and it made it feel all the more like vacation had arrived. Then we walked down several flights of winding stairs until we we were greeted by a woman yelling down the alley way in a wretched voice that echoed between the centuries old walls and I thought she was crying and screaming at someone. When I turned my head to look at who she was yelling at, I realized she was just greeting her friend. Loud, and I mean LOUD fado music bellowed from her windows and I thought, "we made it!" This is Lisboa! A loud bellowing woman!
I picked the spot particularly for the old town charm, and there's certainly no shortage of charm here. The stairs and buildings are colorfully picturesque, with pretty paintings on random walls, and sometimes random paintings on random walls, football team flags hanging from windows, clothing hanging out windows, and on our street in particular, colorful streams lined the alley above our heads as if they were preparing for a large quinceñera or parade. You never know with old European towns, because you could just wind up in a dark, crumbling alley that smells like piss. Thankfully, I've not had that pleasure. So, we've been really fortunate with our Airbnb stays. It's also nice, because we like to stay in each city for at least a minimum of five days, we feel like we become part of the city and live a little like the locals.
Alfama reminds me of the Gothic center in Barcelona--you never know which each street is going to take you, and what you might stumble upon...sometimes literally, so be careful walking the cobble stone roads. I highly recommend bringing good shoes, because you'll walk a lot of hills, stairs, and cobble stone roads. I oft bring and wear my wedges when traveling because they look nice and they're comfy to walk in, even all day. However, I did not once touch my wedges on this trip. After realizing how uneven the streets were, and never knowing what we'd encounter, I opted for safety. Also, bring shoes or sandals with good grip on the soles if you can, because a lot of the cobble stone can be slippery. I was quite careful when I walked.
The guy who let us into the building walked up a few minutes later looking like Jesus got a bad haircut and was a character himself. He was also named Thiago. After we settled into our quaint studio apartment, we walked down to the grocery store located in a train station and picked up some basics like water, cheese, saucisson, chips, and cherries. Again, we really like to settle in and make each city our home for the few days we're there. It's actually really great for budget travel, not just because the accommodations are cheaper. We then also don't have to eat out for every meal. Eating out for every meal gets heavy and sometimes after a long day of sightseeing you just want to put your feet up and have a light meal.
Our first evening I made a reservation for us at Sr. Fado to help fully immerse ourselves into Lisboa culture. Alfama is like the center of Fado where there are loads of places you can dine at and enjoy a taste of Portuguese and Lisboa culture--literally and figuratively.
That was a full evening. We arrived at the restaurant at 19h30, as soon as they opened, because after 15 minutes you risk losing your table and left around 23h30. It's a very quaint space, family style. The whole experience is much like dining in someone's living room, and what I loved about it was that there were guests from all over the world--Poland, Germany, Sweden, Australia, France, Iraq, the States. As soon as you arrive, a basket of soft fluffy bread sits on the table next to a tray of cheese and charcuterie. This is all included in the menu, unlike regular Portuguese restaurants where they charge you even for bread. The cheese gave off an unpleasant odor which made me question how I was going to enjoy the long night, but then it was so delicious I soon forgot the smell. The second course was seafood heaven! It was a big pot of baccalau, shrimp, clams, and squid all stewed together and we ate it over rice. The dessert was very interesting. We were both anticipating one of Portugal's famed pastries, so what we received was a bit underwhelming--a plate of strawberries, whipped cream, and something that looked like thinly shredded cheese. It was not cheese though. It turns out it was actually egg yolk, that they somehow made look like shredded cheese, and it was sweetened. It tasted lovely, and the strawberries were so fresh and delicious, they came straight from the family's farm. I suppose it was a good choice for dessert because it wasn't too heavy. Finally, around ten past ten the Fado started. Fado reminds me of the lyrical storytelling of classic country songs like that of Hank Williams, it has the power and soulfulness of Etta James' voice, and sometimes sounds like Russian folk music. It's certainly comparable to the blues, as it's very poetic and sad, but it moves through you like a particular energy that only music can create. The melody is led by the 12 string Portuguese guitar and it's a beautiful experience. Make sure to experience fado when you're in Lisboa. For us, it was the perfect introduction to the city, which like the music, is like a sexy old woman...neglected, but as alive as ever. My friend describes Lisboa as a beautiful old woman, like an opera singer. That's a much prettier description, and just as accurate.
Keep in mind, Portugal is quite a poor country. The gap between the wealthy and poor is great. We did see some nicer neighborhoods outside the center, and our apartment was nicely renovated; but in general, the infrastructure is not well maintained, and the working wage is low. Chris and I noted, that the city reminds us of a mixture of Barcelona and Tijuana--which we enjoy both. It's great fun and a wonder, and it is becoming more and more popular a destination.
If you get the chance, we highly recommend it. Stay tuned for more on our experience in Lisboa.
BIG LOVE & HUGS
I got a lot of funny looks and “WHY???” when I told people I was going to visit Nürnberg on this trip. To be quite frank, how I originally landed on this charming medieval city was totally a logistical decision. When planning this trip, I just knew I wanted to visit Amsterdam and Austria (Salzburg and Vienna, in particular), so then I just filled in the rest. I looked for a German city I had not been to, near Salzburg, and voila. After a bit of research, Nürnberg ended up being one of the cities I was most excited to see --and I was most certainly not disappointed.
After a few years of avoiding it--because the thought of meeting strangers through the internet still creeps me out a bit--I finally joined Couchsurfing. I've had several friends tell me about their great experiences through it, so I've considered it from time to time. Most recently my cousin told me that, through Couchsurfing, she ended up staying with some guy who happened to be in the Italian Airforce or something like that, and on her last day asked if she wanted to go up in a plane--of course she did! Who wouldn't? I want to go up in a plane! It reminds me of that scene in "Pearl Harbor" when Josh Hartnett takes Kate Beckinsale up in the plane.
So anyways, I recently created an account and have since been getting a number of requests. Unfortunately, at the moment, I'm unable to host; however, as I've told most, I'm always happy to meet new people and show people around the City of Angels.
Last week I met up with someone who reached out to me, and it was my first experience through couchsurfing--though it involved no couches…or surfing for that matter. He was visiting from France, so I thought why not? I always love meeting people from different places…especially when they come from one of my favorite cities/countries in the world.
It was funny though, as I left work and was on my way to meet him Tuesday evening, I started to freak out a little. What was I thinking meeting a stranger from the internet without bringing a friend along??? Yes, we were meeting in a public place, and it wasn't like I was meeting him for a date--but he was a stranger from the internet! I don't know…like I said, the concept still creeps me out a bit. I called a couple friends and one of them couldn't make it, but she said she'd text me to check on me in an hour. God bless her. My other friend said he'd come down and meet, but he was somewhere with bad reception so our communication back and forth was slow. As I waited for Frenchie to show up I called another friend who lives a couple hours away just to relieve my nerves a bit. I mean, I had no clue about anything regarding him, other than where he's from, and a couple pictures to give me an idea of what he looks like. I hung up with her to call him just to make sure he wasn't lost. As I was writing his number on my arm, so that I could dial it into Skype, he turned up. He was cute! At that moment my friend who was going to come down to meet me texted and asked if he had showed up yet. I said, "Yes, and he's cute!" To which he replied, that he was not going to come down if I was digging it. I just laughed…perhaps I overreacted a bit when I started freaking out. And of course, true to her word and like a good sister, my other friend texted me an hour later to check on me. I suppose in these situations it's just all about being cautious and smart.
With all that said, it was really fun. We planned to meet up the next evening, and I told him I'd take him to our best ice cream spot--Handel's. This time I invited a couple friends, not out of caution, but just because I didn't want this guy to get bored with just me, and I thought it would be fun for him to meet more people. The next night was his last night, so I wanted to do something fun with him. Thankfully it was Thursday, and there's the Santa Monica Pier has the Twilight Series, which is free concerts on the beach Thursday evenings. So, we met there, rode the ferris wheel, watched the concert, had a late supper, and ran into one of my friends. It was just very sweet--the whole three evenings were just very sweet.
So, there's my first Couchsurfing experience for you…and now I have a new friend in France! When not abused, Couchsurfing is such a wonderful social tool. It just continues to amaze me the global world we live in, that we can travel and experience the world in such a way. What a fun way to make new friends around the world. My travels certainly got a whole lot more fun!
BIG LOVE & HUGS
As one of the 5 fashion capitals of the world, Milan has always been at the top of my list of places to visit. It’s a very small city, and it annoyed me every time someone gave me a weird look for wanting to spend more than two days there. The thing is, if you’re going to Milan just to see and do all the touristy things, then yeah 2 days is probably enough. However, if you’re also going to go shopping and roam the city a bit, then you need at least another 2 to 3 days.
First, you must see il Duomo. “Duomo” is just a term for Cathedral, and Milan’s Duomo is an incredible piece of architecture. My family is Catholic, so we attended Sunday mass there, which was a really cool experience, because most, if not all, attending mass were tourists, and you could hear people responding in their native languages.
The coolest thing about il Duomo though, is that you can go up to the rooftop, and not only do you get a great view of the city from the rooftop, but that is where you can truly appreciate the incredible piece of gothic architecture it really is. I mean, “incredible” doesn’t even begin describe it.
When you first enter the piazza, and you’re standing in front of this massive, gothic style cathedral, you’re just in awe of its presence. It’s the fifth largest cathedral in the world, and the largest in Italy. On the rooftop, however, it’s a feeling of more than awe that you experience. You find yourself deeply mesmerized as you discover the intricate details paid to the construction of the cathedral—the spires, the statues, the arches, everything. No wonder it took six centuries to complete! The last details were not completed until 1965.
I really think Karl Lagerfeld should do a show on the rooftop. It would be a sick show.
Today, the Castello Sforzesco houses several of the city’s museums and art collections. I’ve been to many castles, and aesthetically it’s not the most impressive, but just walking through the castle is still a very unique experience, because it’s strange and so interesting to imagine the castle and its grounds as it was in its early days, and the transformation throughout the centuries.
As you walk through the grounds, you are very aware of its medieval strength. In fact, it feels more like a fortress than a castle or a princely estate. It's certainly a nice stroll through the grounds.
The Last Supper
One of Leonardo’s most famous paintings is in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church and Dominican convent in Milan. I suppose it’s like going to the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa. It’s simply a must.
San Sira Stadium (AC Milano)
Of course, if you're in Milan while there is a football (soccer) game, definitely go visit the stadium. Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit the stadium, because it was a little out of the way and there was no game.
The shopping that Milan is famous for, is along four adjoining streets near the Duomo, collectively known as Quadrilatero d'Oro (Golden Quadrilateral): Via Montenapoleone, Della Spiga, Via Borgospesso, and Via Sant'Andrea. Here you will find all your high-end stores, including all of Italy’s most renowned designers. You’ll also notice that throughout Milan some of the Italian designers tend to have more than one store, but don’t expect to see the same things in each store. So, if you’re in Milan for such goodies, you will surely have a very good time. Plus, most of the male sales clerks are almost as lovely to look at as the latest limited edition handbag at Versace is.
Of course, when in Italy, it is most important to indulge in as much gelato as possible. It is just never the same in the States, no matter how good the ice cream is, though not surprisingly so. In Milan you’ll never be short of gelato, because there are gelaterias everywhere. And as is with finding good Italian food in Italy, there is not such thing as bad gelato when you’re in Italy. Just a little tip: if they don’t add a wafer to your gelato, grab a spoon and a napkin, because they melt fast—even when the temperatures are cool!
Once you’re in the historic center, Milan is very easy to walk. You can also take a taxi, the metro, or even a little city tram. It’s a lovely city, with lots of good-looking people. I was surprised one morning when I hopped into a cab and the driver was this hot, very funny and charming young man. Apparently lots of Russians and Japanese people like to visit Milan, because at many of the restaurants, you’ll see a little sign on their outside menu, that they also have menus in Russian and Japanese. I thought that was very considerate.
So, the next time you find yourself in northern Italy, don't forget to visit the city that captured the hearts of Napoleon's relatives and kept him from conquering much more of Italy, because they just loved Milan so much they didn't bother continuing south...(history according to my aunt).
BIG LOVE & HUGS
Docked in Long Beach, California, is the RMS Queen Mary. Intent on not falling behind in the shipbuilding race, Britain’s John Brown & Company built the RMS Queen Mary for the Cunard Line, which sailed mainly in the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936-1967. After it’s final voyage in 1967, it retired in the Port of Long Beach, in the greater Los Angeles area.
Growing up just north of Long Beach, every year I had friends who would venture to The Queen Mary during Halloween for some scary fun on the ship. I never went, and I can’t remember if I ever went on a normal day as a child, but after I went today I have no idea why I had never been before.
A few months ago, one of my best friends told me that The Queen Mary is hosting a Princess Diana exhibit. If you know me, Princess Diana was (and still is) my style and humanitarian icon. So, I could not wait to go.
The exhibit was as lovely and interesting as can be. In fact, it was more than an exhibit on Princess Diana. There was a whole display of history on the royal family from the time of King George V and Queen Mary, to present day. The collection of letters from various members of the royal family is quite impressive. My favorite letters were birthday cards that Princess Diana wrote to certain friends, and the label card placed in front of each noted “…adult-rated birthday card from Princess Diana…” I loved that. The woman was so witty. And of course, the main attraction—some of Princess Diana’s dresses that were auctioned at Christie’s just before her death—was fabulous.
After we made our way through the exhibit we headed to the tearoom. We tried this really nice hazelnut chocolate tea. I’ve never had such a tea, but I love hazelnut chocolate so I was immediately intrigued. When the waitress brought it over it smelled divine! It was so lovely. So we sipped our tea accompanied with miniature sandwiches, scones with Cornish cream and jams, and mini desserts. It was my kind of perfect day…and it got better!
After tea we walked around the deck and explored the ship a bit, which was AWESOME. Every time I saw a set of stairs I got excited to see what was below or at the top of them. It felt very reminiscent of Rose and Jack and Titanic. And of course, when you have the chance to reenact Titanic…you DO IT!
Seriously, it was SO much fun. And quite surprisingly, The Queen Mary is full of cafes and restaurants. I mean, how many restaurants does one ship need? Apparently at least 8, plus gift shops! It’s a great place for a photoshoot, a party, other private functions, and even a wedding. They have a wedding chapel, but they also have an outside area with lined benches and a gazebo that was clearly created for weddings. You can also stay on the ship and live out your 1930’s transatlantic dreams ;).
I’m definitely bringing my family here for lunch one day. If you’re in the L.A. area, you must visit The Queen Mary. I promise you’ll have a fabulous time!
BIG LOVE & HUGS
I don’t know that Colmar is actually a “hidden” gem, though it is most certainly a gem. It’s not as well known as other French cities, however, such as Paris, or Nice, or even nearby Strasbourg (the principal city in the Alsace). Whenever I told people I was going to Colmar, I always had to explain to them where it was and why it was so special.
Almost a year ago, I discovered this little town via, wait for it…Pinterest. Yep, I don’t know if I should be ashamed or not about that, but either way I am oh so grateful. So after discovering this charming little town, I decided I was going to go there one day, and I had no idea one day would come so soon. Tucked away in the Alsace wine country, near the Swiss and German border in France, is this wonderful little town, founded in the 9th century and completely untouched by WWII.
My entire Euro vacation this year was planned based on my desire to come to this darling little town. I decided to fly into Zürich, and do a day trip to Colmar, as it is just a couple hours away by train. You can also fly into Basel or Strasbourg.
When you walk out of the train station, there is nothing recognizable in the small city that appears to be “Colmar,” the town straight out of a fairytale book. Luckily there is a sign when you walk out towards the street, that points you to the “Centre Ville,” the City Center. So just turn left onto that main street, and keep walking until you run into what you expected to walk out into upon exiting the train station.
Once you get there, your mouth will drop a little as you feel like you’re walking through Fantasy Land in Disneyland, only to realize that this is for real and not a fantasy. Voltaire once roamed these streets!!
There is a little green train and a little white train you can take around town on a little town tour, but also make sure you walk the town. Every corner you turn is a picture perfect painting. There are plenty of cafes and brasseries, so grab an outside table and get in some good people watching. Not to mention, you will be pleased with the array of both French and German cuisine.
St. Martin’s Church is a massive cathedral in the old town, and the architectural detail is mesmerizing, as many of Europe’s cathedrals are. It’s especially ginormous, next to the quaintness of all the other surrounding buildings, as if it were the city’s guardian. The grand Baroque organ case inside is absolutely amazing. I walked all around it with my head tilted up practically the whole time. I can't even fathom what it took to build such cathedrals in the 13th century...amazing.
There are also museums you can visit, though I did not venture into any, so I cannot tell you how they are. I think just wandering the streets is plenty to see. Little Venice is as picturesque as any postcard you’ve ever seen. There are also tons of fun shops to poke your head into. As you stand amidst the colorful and historic buildings, and you remember what you walked out into from the train station, it almost feels as though this was made just as an attraction. But when you remember that this is no attraction—this is living history. It’s quite magical. I don’t really know how else to describe it. You just have to experience it for yourself.
If you have time, make your way to one of the fine vineyards. After all, you are in wine country when you’re there.
BIG LOVE & HUGS
I think that the one thing visitors to The City of Angels don’t think to do is go horseback riding. Everyone flocks to the beaches, to Sunset, to Rodeo, and to the Walk of Fame. But let me tell you, L.A.’s got some great trails with uniquely fascinating views. I mean, you’re out there on a horse, in nature, and sprawled out in front of you and below you is the hustle and bustle of the city with a nice little blanket of smog over it.
I know most people are thinking why the heck would I want to look at a smoggy view of the city. However, if you want to see L.A., I’m telling you, you have to see it from this way, as well. It gives you a bit of perspective when you do. You know, here you are in the city where dreams come true when people dance with the devil.
Plus, it’s a great workout. I recently went during a little scheduled study break, and my friend and I decided to go for three hours. Needless to say, my bum is in pain. But my legs feel amazing. I always feel like a warrior after a good day of riding.
Whatever you do though, don’t forget to WEAR SPF!!! I forgot to put it on my arms and shoulders, and now I have majorly awkward tan lines.
There are quite a number of places that do trail rides in L.A., but the one I’m going to recommend is called Circle K (http://www.circlekhorserentals.com). In case you didn’t notice from the URL, it’s actually a horse rental place, but they do give lessons if you’re a beginner. If you’re new to this area a guide will go with you to make sure you go the right way, but he’s not like a tour guide who is going to spew off the history of the city for you. However, many people go guideless. It’s not difficult to figure your way around there.
If you’re an experienced rider, this place is particularly nice, because you have more freedom to go as you wish. Some trail rides don’t allow you to go faster than a cantor, or you’re walking one horse behind the other, and personally, I don’t really care to stare at another horse’s behind the whole time. Plus, I wanted to be able to chat with my friend, because it was good quality girl time. Fitness with friends!
So anyways, there in the Burbank hills, we could see the Disney studios, Griffith Observatory, downtown, the Hollywood sign, and basically the entire city. It’s a nice ride for picnicking too, because up at the top there are picnic tables. So you can enjoy the view, recharge your batteries, and the horses can have a little break. There are also plenty of hikers who come to this area too, and many with their dogs. So all in all it's very rejuvenating and invigorating atmosphere.
An extra bonus—Circle K is much more cost friendly than other trail rides. It’s $25 for the first hour, then $20 for each additional hour.
So if you’re ever in the L.A. area, or if you’re a local, consider a exploring L.A. the way the first settlors on the golden coast did. You’ll have a fabulous time.
BIG LOVE & HUGS
By: Julia Harris
Well, as some of you know, I’m THIRTY. Can you believe that? I know, I know, I don’t look a day over 25. Thanks. If you had asked me a couple years ago what I would be doing for my thirtieth birthday, I would have said, “I’ll be a lawyer making millions of dollars. Duh, I’ll be on a yacht in San Tropez!” Well then the second depression hit, and needless to say I’m not making Ditty Dirty Money money. So me and some awesome-take-on-the-rain friends hit Malibu Family Wines this past Cinquo de Mayo (I actually turned 30 on May 6, but who wants to party on a school night??? Not me and my old friends).
Malibu Wines is the sh**! They have an outside tasting room, a picnic area, AND live music! What more could an old fart like me want on the 1st Anniversary of her 29th birthday? Look, I know what you’re thinking, “Dude, it rained on Cinquo. Why would I want to go to an outside tasting room in the rain?” Well, I hadn’t planned on the rain. Seriously, it rains 3 days a year in LA, and it had to be on my party day? But that didn’t stop us, and it didn’t stop the winery from pouring. The tasting room has an overhang, so you can huddle up if it literally, suddenly starts to rain on your parade, and space heaters and fire pits dot the picnic area. On a warm sunny day I’m sure this place is packed with picnic-ers and wine drinkers all day. You are encouraged to bring your own food, and all they ask is that you don’t bring any outside alcohol (hey man, just buy the wine, it’s good, I swear!).
There’s valet parking, or if you’re on a budget, you can park in their parking lot for FREE and take a FREE shuttle up to the tasting room. There are two different tastings, one is $14, the other is $12 – all wines are amazing! I have my faves, but I’ll let you decide for yourself. They are open 7 days a week, and visitors 21 and over are welcome to taste wine 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. (last tasting begins at 5.30pm). They have extended summer hours (from Memorial Day to Halloween), and are open until 9pm on Thursdays for Movie Nights and Friday and Saturday evenings for music. There is no cost for admission (FREE!), just a minimum of one bottle purchase for each group of 2-4 people. Guys, I highly recommend it for a nice weekend outing. You’ll thank me later: http://malibuwines.com.
I’ve found most language apps (well, free language apps), to be quite inefficient. However, recently I discovered “Duolingo,” and I totally love it! First, it includes German, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, which is nice because then I don’t need to download a new app for each language I want to learn. Secondly, it teaches you more than just words and phrases. If I wanted a mere translator, I would get one. And actually, I already have Google Translate downloaded on my phone, which I know can be a real lousy translator, but whatever. Hence, the need for something easily helps me actually learn and practice languages. The lessons are organized by level of proficiency, and they’re fun. They’re structured in a way that reinforces what you’re learning by having you translate to English, translate to the foreign language, and even practice verbally speaking it. I haven’t gotten far enough to see if there are grammar lessons, per se; but I’ve found that if you just pay attention you start to recognize the grammar rules involved.
If you’re planning a trip somewhere, or you just want to learn new languages, try it out! I think you’ll enjoy it, and find learning languages to be lots of fun.
BIG LOVE & HUGS