Monday, November 11, 2019

Under the Umbrian Sun: A Villa in a Less Crowded Corner of Italy

In the 1980s, I wandered around Europe with a small group of high school and college friends. Aligned somewhat with our graduations from college, the trip served as our initiation into independent travel.

Italian villa rentals often feature a garden, balcony,
courtyard, or loggia. 
To commemorate an anniversary of our trip, most of our original group (plus a few spouses and children) planned a reunion trip.

Since my first trip, I’ve been visiting Italy regularly, but have grown increasingly dismayed to find that many corners of the country have grown ridiculously crowded. While the major cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Siena, and Sorrento are tough to beat for history, charm, and culture, they’re also teeming with tourists, particularly during summer months. And with all the crowds, I find it increasingly difficult to experience that sweet sense of la dolce vita—one of my primary joys of visiting this Mediterranean country.

I realize the topic of crowds of tourists isn’t exactly late breaking news. Recently, there have been more than a few articles discussing crowds pushing top sites to the breaking point. Just how many visitors can fit into Piazza San Marco or Florence’s duomo, they ask?

The ancient town of Orvieto sits atop a hill in
the southwest corner of Umbria.
The good news is that you don’t need to find out. By opting to explore some of Italy’s less crowded, but equally historic and charming corners as we did, you’ll spend less time in queues and have more time to experience la dolce vita—as well as the charm, history, food, and drink that are integral parts of any trip to Italy.

For our most recent trip, we rented a house in the rolling hills of Umbria and cars to explore the surrounding countryside, including spots in nearby Tuscany. While Tuscany’s golden and rolling, cypress-studded hills are what you probably imagine when someone says “Italian countryside,” there’s more to that than Tuscany. Umbria, an often overlooked—and uncrowded—region, is right next door.

During our week’s stay, day trips were no more than an hour’s drive and included Cortona, Assisi, Orvieto, Cittá della Pieve, Cetona, and several smaller villages so tiny they consisted merely of a cluster of stone homes, a church, and sometimes the ruins of a small castle or tower. With the exception of Assisi, none of these towns was crowded. And even popular Assisi offered many quiet streets and—critical to the coffee and wine drinkers among us—plenty of empty seats at café tables.
The columns of a Roman temple in the
heart of Assisi. 

In order to enjoy the charming villa, shady pergola and refreshing pool—all of which offered soul-expanding views of the countryside—we typically spent mellow mornings lounging in the loggia and then headed for a nearby town between 11:00 and 2:00. Several times, we spent late afternoons in towns such as Orvieto and Assisi and then had early dinners in notable restaurants before wending our way back to the villa. On several evenings, we finished the day with a nightcap on the lawn under a sparkling blanket of stars.

Though we weren’t dealing with the crowds of Rome or Venice, our trip wasn’t stress-free. A primary source of this stress was confronting the daily question of what to do: stay in the villa and soak up its charm and that of the rolling, sun-kissed countryside or explore the alluring villages and small cities of Umbria? Unlike so many other decisions in life, there was no wrong answer.

Oh, and then there was the stress of losing internet access. When none of the adults could connect, we chalked it up to unreliable service. As it turned out, the cause of the disruption was a few teenaged girls who absconded with the wireless modum so they could more easily (and privately) text boyfriends back home.

Our villa rental offered expansive views of verdant Umbrian countryside.
For the few evenings we prepared simple dinners at the villa, we started with sundowners on a terrace with the surrounding countryside bathed in yellow, gold, and orange. And then we sat down under a jasmine covered pergola for simple pasta dinners we prepared from ingredients we found at local stores and markets. There was wine and candlelight and plenty of storytelling and laughs.

Between these memorable dinners and the ones we enjoyed at restaurants in nearby towns and villages, I experienced plenty of la dolce vita—set to birdsong and laughter and without crowds of tourists.

To plan your own villa trip in Italy, see below.

Tips for a Villa Vacation in Italy:

  • Fly into a major city and pick up a rental car at the airport or take the train to the city closest to your villa and rent a car there. We also often stay a few days in a city on either or both ends of a week’s villa stay. 
  • There are several sites that offer villa rentals across Italy. Make sure to research the location—some villas can be remote. We prefer rentals that are a 10 to 15 minute drive to a nearby town or small city. For rentals located in sleepy villages that offer restaurants and stores within walking distance, you can up the relaxation factor by walking more and reserving the car for longer excursions. 
  • Umbria has more than its fair share of excellent restaurants. Plan your visits so that you can stroll a village during the day and have dinner at a restaurant before heading back to your villa. 
  • First visit to Umbria? Take in Assisi, Orvieto, Citta della Pieve, Cortona (just across the across the border in Tuscany), and Cetona. 
  • Renting a villa in the country can have some disadvantages. Wifi wasn’t the most reliable and the signal only usable in half of the first floor and adjoining terrace. And some villas can be very remote which can mean 15 to 30 minute drives to the closest grocery store or village. 
  • Many villa rental agencies offer a grocery box to get you started. Order it. You’ll get eggs, coffee, bread, and other necessities to make the first morning enjoyable. In many cases, rentals begin on Saturday afternoons and given that many stores are closed on Sundays, it’s a good way to make your first villa day a relaxing one. 
  • For Italian villa rentals, try Ville in Italia or Villa & Charme
  • Visiting Rome on your way into or out of Italy? Visit the old school and positively delightful Armando Pantheon in the supposedly haunted shadows of its namesake ancient pagan temple. (Reservations are essential.) 
Restaurants in Umbria: 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Amsterdam’s Pulitzer: A Prize for Redefining Posh

The best way to experience the canals? The Pulitzer's vintage boat.
I’ve visited Amsterdam several times in the past 30 years. And with each visit the city grows more interesting (and no, I’m not talking about the Red Light District). Years ago hotel options were basic and tiny, grand and fussy or, when I visited in 1986, well, Spartan and sterile (as in a youth hostel.)

These days, hotel options in the historic city offer much more variety. While the storied, grand hotels for which Europe is known remain, they have creative competition from contemporary spots that redefine luxury. Of course, what does “luxury” even mean anymore? Does it mean silk draperies, plush carpets, servile service, and Louis XIV armchairs? Or maybe today the concept has progressed beyond pretension and fluff and landed in a world equal parts Alice in Wonderland, old school luxury hotel, and creatively-styled, non-chain hotel.

During a recent visit, I stayed at just such a place—The Pulitzer, a one-of-a-kind, quirky hotel smack dab in the center of the old city center. Housed in a cluster of Golden Age canal houses cobbled together and huddled around an expansive courtyard, the hotel manages to be au courant, historic, and refined.

The charm and character here don’t come cheap, however. To save some euros, book a “cosy room” with a view of the courtyard garden. No canal view, you whine? Well, I stayed in such a room with giant windows providing expansive views of the charming gardens, church tower, and jumble of classic Dutch rooftops. But the best part of the room was the birdsong and church chimes that serenaded me in the mornings.

Besides, Amsterdam’s canals are often loud and sometimes traversed by party boats. (Seriously, wouldn’t you prefer a view of a charming courtyard garden the sound of birdsong—while saving those euro for some gouda, or other Dutch treats?)

And speaking of treats, no matter whether you lay your weary head to rest in a canal or garden room, you’ll be subject to a never-ending supply of delectable stroopwafels—a cookie of two thin layers of baked dough with a cavity-inducing, caramel syrup filling.

And what should you drink with this surfeit of stroopwafel? Well, rooms come with a supply of small batch coffees roasted for the hotel and an assortment of premium teas. Though rooms are relatively small, they’re full of well-designed touches like portholes, settees, and art (both contemporary and antique). And because this is Amsterdam, an old school bike tire repair kit is included—perhaps the most unique amenity anywhere.

The Pulitzer's private garden.
Breakfasts in the hotel’s Junz restaurant are ethereal as morning light cascades through the large mullioned windows of the restaurant’s rooms. In the evenings, the Pulitzer Bar is a destination for locals and tourists alike. While the bar’s cocktail program isn’t exceptional, it’s adequate. The real attraction is the fetching design of the rooms and the crowds of happy-go-lucky Dutch who don’t seem to notice—or care.

Intimate Bussia sits steps from the Pulitzer.
Looking for restaurants to complement your sublime stay here? Just around the corner sits Bussia, a small Italian restaurant with a limited, seasonal menu. An upper gallery and open kitchen compete for attention with the street scene outside the large windows. Reservations essential.  

Further afield is the Michelin-starred Het Bosch which boasts views of a small harbor and marshes (and summer sunsets that last hours). Reservations essential.

A Last Hurrah: Experiencing Amsterdam's storied canals is a must. Tour boats ply the centuries-old waterways, offering cheap food and mugs of Heineken. Wish to avoid jostling cheek to jowl with boatloads of other tourists? Well (and doesn’t it figure?), Pulitzer guests have a fetching option: the hotel’s vintage wooden boat. Take one of the regularly-scheduled complimentary cruises with cash bar or even better, book a splurge-worthy, private putter.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

When Visiting Egypt, Don't Sail Solo

Hassle-free private camel rides at Giza.
I’ve long been an independent traveler, preferring to make my own way instead of having someone show me the way. Typically, I want to discover places on my own, thank you very much.

But there are a few places where booking a tour isn’t only recommended, but the smartest way to go. Egypt is one such country.

And I learned this the hard way. I first visited the country in the mid-90’s and traveled with a German friend. Childhood friends who lived in Alexandria at the time had highly recommended Luxor. “Don’t miss it,” they advised.

But my friend and I skipped it because it seemed too complicated to visit (unless a glimpse of the Valley of the Kings from an airplane window counts.) Instead, we explored Cairo on our own before joining my friends who showed us around Alexandria and the sleepy, undeveloped Mediterranean coast. The trip was enjoyable, but I didn’t realize how much I had missed until I returned nearly two decades later.

In short, I’d missed the stunning Karnak and Luxor Temples, the Valley of the Kings and its tombs, a half dozen smaller ruins that would be major attractions anywhere else, and the scenic Nile bordered by a verdant patchwork of farm plots—plots that have been farmed in relatively the same fashion for a few millennia. And that’s just a sampling of the sites I’d missed.

Iconic Abu Simbel.
In this country, which considers itself the cradle of civilization, there are so many sites to see and so many layers of complicated history, that it would be difficult if not impossible to see much or even understand what’s before you without a guide.

In addition, without a guide you’ll spend precious time arranging transportation from one spot to the next, standing in lines to buy tickets, and then arranging for a guide at the gate—or worse—visiting sites without a guide.

For my recent trip with a group of friends, we created a custom tour with Your Egypt. We had an idea of many of the sites we wanted to see and created a draft itinerary we provided to the tour agency. Your Egypt added guides, transportation, tickets, and recommended some additional sites. After a few minor modifications, we agreed on an itinerary and paid a deposit.

Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel from the Nile.
With a tour, we were able to see more sites and visit some spots that many tourists miss (such as the Temple of Esna, which we wandered with only the echo of the call to prayer, pigeons, and the site caretaker to keep us company.) Best of all, we were able to understand what we were seeing thanks to our knowledgeable guide.

To visit must-see Abu Simbel and its four iconic seated statues of Ramses II, we departed Aswan before dawn and were picked up and dropped off at The Old Cataract Hotel (the same spot Agatha Christie penned Death on the Nile.) We leisurely explored the massive temple complex, stopped at an essential oil manufacturer in Aswan on our return, and still had enough time to swim, sip cocktails, and soak up the stunning Nile and desert views at our hotel. Without a private guide and expert planning, we would never have been able to experience so much in only a day.

Rooms with a view (of the Nile) at the Old Cataract Hotel.
Another highlight?—a private felucca cruise shortly before sunset around Aswan’s Elephantine Island. Our perfectly-timed sail started an hour or so before traditional sunset rides depart, so we had the Nile nearly to ourselves. Khaki-colored desert mountains rose in the distance while water birds waded in the emerald-green reeds along the shore. And the Nile was virtually silent except for the creak of the mast, birdsong, and a serenading child sweetly singing Frere Jacques from a small canoe next to our boat.

By the time we bumped up to the pier at the Old Cataract, dozens of tourist-filled feluccas rides were just departing. And we were ready to enjoy our view of a glassy Nile filled with the white sails of feluccas while sipping cocktails on our private hotel terrace.
Tour agencies can arrange for a pre-dawn ballon ride
over the Valley of the Kings and Nile farms. 

My unique and sublime sailing experience on the Nile wouldn’t have occurred had I planned my trip without the assistance of a local tour guide. And for that reason and dozens of other experiences, I recommend booking a private tour of Egypt.

Don’t Miss:

A camel ride with the Giza pyramids in the distance. Cliché? Yes. Boring? No.

A private boat ride across the clear waters of Lake Aswan to Philae and its temple ruins.

A leisure drive from Aswan to Luxor, stopping off at lesser-visted sites along the Nile, including Esna.

A balloon ride at dawn over the Valley of the Kings and the verdant and ancient farmland along the Nile.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Barcelona's Great Beyond: Coastal Villages, Stellar Restaurants

When I first visited Barcelona in 1986, the somewhat sleepy Mediterranean city had only recently emerged from the fog of decades of relative isolation under the dictatorship of Franco. At that time, the city was gearing up for the 1992 Olympics which ultimately transformed the somewhat gritty port into a cosmopolitan city overflowing with tourists. And in the intervening decades, that flow has become a tsunami (so much so that the city is considering limiting access to tourists).

Besalú and its 11th century bridge.
Should that happen, don’t fret. As I was reminded during a recent trip, the region of Catalonia is much more than Barcelona. In fact, the surrounding area is full of quaint medieval villages, stunning small cities, and seaside towns.

And so, when I joined some family and friends to rent a medieval castle in the sleepiest of small villages, Sant Mori, we had plenty to keep us occupied—without ever venturing into Barcelona.

The best part? Many of these sleepy pastoral towns offer outstanding restaurants—without the lines, parking hassles, or prices you’ll bump into in Barcelona.

La Barretina de Orfes.
For our first night’s dinner, we drove a short distance along narrow lanes bordered by pastures, thick woods, and rolling hills to Lilliputian Orfes. Approached via a poplar-lined country road, the village consists of a storybook collection of old stone and brick buildings. Somewhat hidden on the second floor of one of the old buildings you’ll find La Barretina de Orfes.

The restaurant’s owner led us to a long wooden table in an empty dining room which overlooked the charming but empty town square (it was 7:30 and no one but Americans eat at that hour in Spain). The room—and the view of the village outside—could have been from the 19th century. But it wasn’t the room or the view that brought us here—it was the food. In our group of nearly a dozen, we sampled some area classics—stuffed peppers, fish, duck, and onion tart. By the time we left, the place was stuffed—and so were we.

A Compartir creation.
This corner of Spain with its idyllic coastline that heads north and east toward the nearby French border has attracted foodies for decades. While the legendary El Bulli is long shuttered, some of the renowned restaurant’s staff serve up fare in several nearby restaurants. One of the best, Compartir, is just up from the beach in Cadaques. Summer is the best time to visit when Mediterranean breezes carry the scent of blooming jasmine and citrus in the atmospheric courtyard.

Hostal Sa Rascassa's quaint dining courtyard.
Our last night’s dinner was the most extraordinary in some ways, featuring the most beautiful—and unexpected—route to the garden courtyard and entry of Hostal Sa Rascassa. Nestled in woods high above the Mediterranean, the restaurant is reached via a winding road that takes you through movie set-like Begur with its medieval tower and weathered stone castle. Sit outside in the restaurant’s Eden-like courtyard or tuck into a table in the cozy rooms of the restaurant. In either spot you can devour perfectly-prepared seafood and plenty of locally-sourced dishes.

Hostal Sa Rascassa offers a few rooms and is walking distance to a beach.
Castell de Rocaberti. 
For larger parties, consider renting the rambling and historic Castell de Rocaberti.

Spend a few hours at Sant Marti dÉmpuries—a sleepy little coastal village with a small street lined with restaurants with outdoor cafés.

Visit Besalú for its stunning 11th century medieval bridge and buildings.

Although it’s not sleepy, the small but bustling city of Girona boasts a lively historic quarter that includes a unique museum devoted to the history of Catalonian Jews (most of whom were forced to convert to Christianity or were expelled during the Great Inquisition).
Sardines in Caduques.
The classic onion pie at La Barretina de Orfes.
Compartir's relaxed outdoor dining area.

A view from the historic Castell de Rocaberti. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Soured on Napa? Sonoma's Still Sweet.

In the 1980s when I first visited the Napa Valley it was casual, recently discovered, and in its adolescence tourism-wise. I casually drove around the valley, visiting different wineries on a whim. And I loved it. After an absence of nearly three decades, I recently made a return visit. And while Napa’s wines might be aging well, the same can’t be said for the valley.

Traffic clogs the area’s few major thoroughfares and the streets of once sleepy towns. Reservations are essential at restaurants and wineries. And everything is large, luxe or shellacked with a perky shopping mall patina of fresh paint, including coffee shops, tasting rooms, restaurants and stores. Even the parking lots of wineries haven’t been overlooked—they’re designed, sculpted, and landscaped. If there’s a speck of dust or something out of place in a town or tasting room, it’s an anomaly.

This was not the Napa of thirty years past, the dimly-lit tasting rooms heavy with the scent of spilled and aging wine, dusty bocce ball courts, or sleepy rural roads. No, that Napa is gone.

MacRostie vineyard.
Fortunately, there are other areas that resemble the Napa of three decades ago. And one of them is a mere hour’s drive from Napa. Sure, neighboring Sonoma isn’t a secret and is a tourist destination itself. But there are still many corners of Sonoma that are quiet, serene, and unpolished.

During a recent visit to Sonoma, I joined family and friends and rented a rambling house on a thickly wooded hilltop above Guerneville. From this convenient base, we visited a number of nearby wineries—all of which were sleepy and casual by Napa norms.

Passalaqua vineyard.
Just to the east, Westside Road carves a meandering route through wooded hills, rolling pastureland, and acres of vineyards. There are enough wineries along the route to spend a few afternoons here, and when you finish, you end up in Healdsburg which offers several excellent restaurants, including Chalkboard and Campo Fina.

As for the wineries, here are some favorites along Westside Road and nearby.

Mill Creek Skip the winery’s dark tasting room and head outside to the terrace which provides views of Dry Creek Valley vineyards, a millpond, and a working water wheel.

Passalacqua With a deck and perfectly landscaped grounds, Passalacqua might offer the most beautiful wine tasting spot in the area. While reservations are recommended, our party of five just showed up, followed an hour later by four more of our party, and we were all accommodated—cheerfully.

Martin Ray offers a number of seating areas, some situated on the edge of the vineyards.
MacRostie Located on a storybook hilltop circled by vineyards, MacRostie offers one the best views in the area. While the airy, sleek rooms inside offer expansive views of the countryside, you’ll want to sip wine on one the decks which seem to hover over the adjacent vineyards.

Martin Ray This small winery offers several seating areas situated in several gardens loaded with colorful flowers. A shaded bocce ball court tempted, but I chose to sit under a colorful umbrella and focus on tasting wine.

Arista Full disclosure: we didn’t visit this winery, but we drove past it several times and were tempted by its verdant setting and excellent reviews.

Passalaqua vineyard.
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