For the Cajun’s birthday, we had a special day planned. This included a morning filled with bubbly, an Italian feast for lunch and an afternoon picnic in a perfect Italian village. It was a fantastic way to celebrate!
We began the day with an introduction to fine Italian sparkling wine in the area known for making Italy’s best- Franciacorta. Franciacorta is considered to be the crème di la crème of sparkling wines in Italy. It is not Champagne as something can only be labeled as Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. It is not Prosecco, as that is named after a sparkling wine produced in another region of Italy. It is only considered Franciacorta if it is produced by grapes grown within the boundaries of the tiny Franciacorta region which boasts highly mineralized soil from ancient glacial activity in the area. The result is fantastic bubbly!
We visited Il Mosnel winery there. This house traces its history back to the 16th century and the cellars from that time are still used today. Mosnel has only relatively recently transitioned from still production of red wines to sparkling production of Franciacorta. We sampled every release and variety of their product and had a great time doing so! Each sip was better than the last and we left with arms full of bottles to bring back to the hotel.
After getting tipsy on Fraciacorta, we were happy to have a driver to take us to Uva Rara for a lovely lunch. It was a fabulous meal! Even better, the menu was pre-planned just for us with matching wines for each course.
After lunch, our driver took us to the lovely village of Borghetto located near lake Garda. The small village has the River Mincio running right through the center of town. It is such a beautiful setting with lots of medieval style houses and watermills that are still in operation with the strong current flowing in the river. Visiting Borghetto really is like stepping into a fairy tale. We enjoyed a bottle of our Franciacorta in a tree-lined park along the river and watched the people stroll by and the ducks struggling hard to swim in the river’s strong current. The weather was gorgeous and we were even treated to a concert from a traditional village band.
We had a fantastic time visiting the Veneto region of Italy. The Veneto is in the northeastern corner of Italy and includes the romantic cities of Venice and Verona, both of which we stayed in as a base to explore the rest of the region. The Veneto is home to some of the best wines in the entire country including Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave, Franciacorta and Prosecco. The food of this region is also fabulous with specialties including Asiago cheese, Sopressa, Prosciutto, Olive Oils and much more. To ensure that we hit all of the best spots, we booked a private chauffeured wine and gourmet tour with Cellar Tours Italy. Simona, our trusted point of contact, put together a very special itinerary and handled all of the details. We had a fabulous driver take us to each place and never had to worry about getting lost or holding back on having one more glass of wine! Everything was perfect! We cannot recommend Simona and Cellar Tours highly enough.
The first wine area we visited in the Veneto was Soave. Soave is known for its crisp white wines made from the Garganega grape. Unfortunately, in the US, Soave wine has a bad reputation as the only kind most people are familiar with is the mass produced and mediocre-at-best, grocery store wine Bolla Soave. It is too bad that more Soave wines are not imported into the US, because they can be fantastic.
Soave is also the name of the tiny town we visited, surrounded by medieval walls and dominated by an imposing castle. We had a private tasting arranged at the Coffele family wine estate. We were greeted by Chiara Coffele who gave us the tour around the facility and told us the history of her family’s business and how they go into wine-making. We were then graciously welcomed into the home of her father Guiseppe, the founder of Coffele Wines. We were treated to a large spread of cheeses, meats and breads and given a taste (or more) of every wine they produce. They were all spectacular. Our favorites were the Ca Visco Soave Classico and the Nuj Rosso del Veneto.
After the tasting, it was time for lunch at Lo Scudo restaurant right in the heart of Soave with a view of the imposing castle walls. The food was wonderful, many courses, many more bottles of Soave.
Just when we felt that we could not eat or drink another bit, we were whisked off on a scenic drive to the town of Illasi. Our destination was the Bonamini Olive Oil Estate where a private tour and tasting was arranged for us. We were greeted by the owner Sabrina who gave us a tour of the facility and her crops. Then it was time for a tasting. Wow was it delicious! So good in fact that we bought a case of their olive oil and shipped it home. We now know what we had been missing all these years and vow to never use another brand of olive oil again.
We love Tuscany! Out of all of the places we have visited in Italy, I think that Tuscany would be our favorite. We can actually see ourselves living here one day. The combination of fantastic food and wine, gorgeous landscapes, wonderful climate and kind and loving people make it so special. We have traveled up and down the Tuscan hills to many tiny towns; many mom and pop restaurants; many fantastic family-run wineries- all have been amazing and memorable. We were fortunate enough to book the best guide of all to show us his home and take us to all of his favorite places. Roberto with Papillion Tours is the best! While we only intended to book him for one day to drive us to Tuscan wineries so we could sample the goods and not have to worry about driving, we ended up booking him again and again and now consider him a friend. It makes all of the difference in the world to have a passionate local show you the land they love and introduce you to its people, its food and its history!
Here are some of the highlights of our tours of Tuscany:
Bolgheri: a quaint medieval town that has some of the best wine shops and taverns in the world. Bolgheri is known for its unique production of the Super Tuscan variety of wine. Bolgheri was only relatively recently put on the international wine map (1974)when it beat out traditional and world renowned French Bordeaux wines in a blind taste test with its now famous wine Sassicaia (at the time only 6 years old!). Super Tuscan wines are made with grapes not traditionally grown in Italy (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc). But, a micro-climate exists in this small Tuscan area that allows these types of grapes to thrive. The result is complex and full-bodied wine in the old world style that rival those from the oldest and best houses in France.
We visited Campo alla Sughera winery to see first-hand how Super Tuscans are made and to sample all they had to offer. Of course, we bought lots of their bottles and left giddy and ready for the next stop which was lunch! Lunch was at the wonderful tavern of Enoteca Tognoni in the town center of Bolgheri. The walls of the tavern were lined from floor to ceiling with all of the types of locally produced Tuscan wines. You simply had to go to the wall and pick what you wanted to drink. We plucked three bottles of fantastic wine from the shelves and settled in for a feast. It was awesome!
Volterra: A beautiful village set high up above the Tuscan countryside. Built by the Etruscans (2,500 years ago), it is dominated by the Piazza dei Priori clocktower. It also boasts a pretty gruesome torture museum which we skipped in favor of finding more delicious wine tavernas. Volterra was visually stunning and offered expansive views from everywhere you looked.
Siena: This could be the most beautiful city in Tuscany (although they are all beautiful). What stands out about Siena are the gorgeous Siena Cathedral and the famous Piazza del Campo. The Cathedral is in the gothic style and was built in the 1200s. Perhaps only the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona rivals its ornateness and beauty. Unique about the Siena Cathedral is its interior which is strikingly done in black and white marble stripes. It was truly magnificent.
The Piazza del Campo is the central town circle (it is not a square, but a circle). All along the circle are al fresco bars and restaurants. In the center, locals congregate and treat it as a park, bringing picnic lunches and blankets. In the summer is the famous Il Palio horserace around the circle. Each of the town’s distinct neighborhoods put up a horse and rider and compete for the title. We were not there for the race, but it would have been something to see- next time. Instead, we enjoyed a bottle of wine at an enoteca along the circle and enjoyed the view.
San Gimignano: A beautiful medieval town known for its preserved 76 watchtowers protecting the city. We wandered the narrow cobblestone streets and felt as we stepped back in time. This town is also home to an award-winning gelato establishment. We indulged in giant cones of its gelato and agree that it was the best we have ever had.
Tuscany is such a magical place that it deserves a blog post on just its food, another on just its wine, another on each town. In fact, it deserves its own blog period (which I am sure someone already has established!). We can’t wait to return. Pirate also was introduced by Roberto to a fabulous rum shop there (who would have imagined in the land of wine there would be another pirate at heart). We are coming back soon Roberto!!!
Lisbon is a fantastic city for soaking up sites and relaxing by the waterfront. We enjoyed pitchers of Sangria while sitting along the Tagus River and admiring the view of the 25 de Abril Bridge. The bridge is an enormous suspension bridge that looks much like the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather was beautiful and there were musicians in the square keeping us entertained. What a way to spend the afternoon!
We also enjoyed seeing the beautiful historic limestone buildings along the Praco do Comercio, the Belem Tower, the Cristo Rei statue overlooking the Tagus, the expansive and beautiful Rossio Square and the gothic Eledor de Santa Justa.
Oh la la! We visited several spots along the French Riviera this past year and all were gorgeous and tres chic.
Our first stops were Cannes and Cap D’Antibes. There we witnessed where the truly wealthy Europeans come to play. The yachts in the harbor were many and massive. The shops were exclusive and their staff appropriately snobby. Not our cup of tea, but we did enjoy the fantastic outdoor farmers market where we sampled all sorts of French delicacies and warmed ourselves with amazing cafés and croissants.
On to our favorite French spot, St. Paul-de-Vence, an artsy village perched high on a hill with outstanding views of the Cote D’Azur. St. Paul is a tiny, well preserved medieval village with winding, narrow and steep stone pathways, old buildings and ramparts. You can really feel the history oozing out of its pores. We were fortunate to be visiting during the off season because in the busy summer the small streets are packed wall to wall with tourists. We were lucky that it was only us and a few others wandering around. Another interesting characteristic of St. Paul is that it is a true artist’s paradise. In fact, Chagall once lived in St. Paul. Every other storefront in this tiny town is an art gallery with creations of every type, mostly modern and eclectic. It was fun browsing and seeing all the odd things an artistic mind can create.
Our final French city was Marseilles. We visited this busy port town and did a little shopping and then found a café on the harbor front and had a great lunch. Magnifique!
We visited the beautiful city of Barcelona this year and enjoyed walking the streets and soaking up the sites. One of the highlights was getting to see the impressive Sagrada Familia. Designed by Antoni Gaudi in the Gothic style, the church is still a work in progress as evidenced by the many scaffolds erected around its façade. The ornate details are captivating. It is simply too much to take in. We enjoyed the view from afar the most. It is worrisome that the construction of the new high speed train tunnel under the city and near the Sagrada may compromise the integrity of the structure in the future.
We also enjoyed visiting several other Gaudi buildings and designs including the Park Guell and the Casa Batllo which was a large home that looked like it was constructed of skulls and bones.. very pirate-like! Gaudi’s curved stonework and colorful mosaics were gorgeous, but after all of that site-seeing we were ready for a more “local” type of experience so we went in search of good food and libations.
We scored some great paella, octopus and calamari at an outdoor café near the Ramblas. We also found a spot that served outstanding sangria. It was delicious! It was great to sit back and watch the crowds go by as we sipped our sangrias in the sun. Maravilloso!
This winter we visited the beautiful Azores, the archipelago of volcanic islands located in the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal. We spent our time on the largest Azores island of Sao Miguel also known as the Green Island for its lush landscapes and rolling green hills. The island was one of the most visually stunning places we have ever visited. It was simply beautiful everywhere we looked, from the sweeping vistas of the Atlantic ocean to the verdant emerald green hills filled with cattle to the crystal blue endless lakes. It was a place that made you stop and say WOW several times a day.
We had a fabulous guide named Rui who showed us every nook and cranny of his beautiful island home. Rui was a most gracious host and really took the time to show us why his island is such a special place.
Among the highlights of our stay were the following magical spots:
Set Cidades crater: an incredible volcanic crater lake on the western side of the island.
Lagoa de Fogo (Fire Lake): another volcanic crater lake that afforded incredible views.
Furnas Lake: an active volcanic area that included steaming domes where locals would lower their food via baskets into 4 foot holes dug into the ground and cover them will soil to cook.
Caldeira Vehla: a warm water geothermal waterfall in a lush tropical setting.
Pineapple Farm: Azores produces their own species of pineapple which is markedly different from the kinds we are used to eating in the US. These pineapples are smaller and so deliciously sweet. We could not stop eating chunks out of the sample tray! We ended up buying our own and eating it right there on the spot!
Cha Gorreana Tea Plantation: We visited this factory/plantation and learned how tea is made from start to finish. Founded in 1883, it claims to be Europe’s oldest family run and continuously operating tea factory.
Mulher de Capote liquor factory: This family business produces a variety of fruit liquors all aged in beautiful oak casks. The fruit is grown on the island. We had fun in their tasting room sampling all of the different varieties.
Local architecture and a local feast: We were fascinated by all of the beautiful buildings and how well they were preserved. We also visited a very local restaurant and asked to be given the typical Azorian meal. What was served was very different indeed- some of it we had no idea what it was. We can’t say that it was all delicious- but it was definitely interesting!