Sicily: Part I

To me Sicily is a gem. It is that largest island in the Mediterranean that was conquered by groups of people such as Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Germanics, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, and the Sicilian mafia. Everyone here is a mix of history.

Sicily is a part of Italy and is not its own country, however it is quite different in a lot of ways from mainland Italy. It has its own identity and is a place worth visiting at least once in your life.

Having the largest active volcano in Europe, Mt.Etna sits on the east coast of Sicily, close to the city of Catania. The volcano is a reminder to all about how delicate the balance of life is here and the acceptance that life as they know it, could change in an instant. The past eruptions have given parts of the east coast ecclectic beaches with lava stones and rich soil allowing for an abundance of plants and vegetation in the surrounding area.

Catania, Palermo, Taormina, Agrigento, Cefalù, and Siracusa are all cities WORTH visiting. From ancient Greek and Roman ruins, to outstanding architecture, scenic views, and absolutely amazing mouth wateringly FRESH seafood.

Catania and Palermo are not only football rivals, but there has been an age old argument between the two cities with how to say this delicious street food known as arancini. In Catania they pronounce it arancinu and has a cone like shape while in the north west city of Palermo, they pronounce it arancina and it is shaped like a ball. The ingredients are exactly the same in both cities. It is made with a meat tomato sauce (ragu), rice, and mozzarella and is deep fried to perfection. If you have never tried it, I recommend doing so.

If you want to see ruins that make you feel like you’ve stepped through time, go to Agrigento and check out Valle dei Templi. Walk where the Greeks and Romans walked, check out the amazing temples that are still standing today and just bask in the history of your surroundings.

Another place to check out close to Agrigento is a place called Scala dei Turchi. It is completely carved by the wind and sea and looks like white steps coming out of the Mediterranean Sea. It is truly remarkable to see.

If you make your way to the north of Sicily there is a place called Cefalù. You might as well be transported to a French beach with strategically placed umbrellas, crystal clear water, and white sandy beaches. It is a wonderful place to enjoy time on the beach and unwind with a Negroni. Just remember to wear sunscreen and reapply when necessary. The last thing anyone wants is a reminder that the combination of sun and saltwater can be brutal on your skin.

Taormina, my absolute favorite place in Sicily. It is a city that is perched up on the hillside in the north eastern part of the island. To get there you take a narrow windy road that eventually spits you out at your destination, provided you aren’t completely carsick from all the twists and turns you took in your car to get there. Walking through the streets of Taormina is incredible from amazing shops to adorable restaurants and the panormaic view of the sea, it’s no wonder that it is a celebrity hotspot in the summer. There is also a breathtaking amphitheatre with a view of Mt.Enta in the background that is certainly worth a visit. Spend a night or two in this wonderful place and you will not be disappointed.

There is so much more of Sicily I want to share, so you’ll have to wait for my next post to find out more.

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See, pray, and eat in Rome

Rome, I honestly did not know what to expect! From the history to the wine to the people and to the food… I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience.

I went to just about ALL the places you can think of when you think of when Rome comes to mind: Colosseo, Fontana di Trevi, Foro Romani, and Piazza di Spagna to name a few. Not to mention, I even included a trip to the Vatican to see the Pope! Now to tell you how to accomplish this in the middle of summer without dying of heat stroke.

My first full day there I wanted to see as much as I could so Sunday could be a little more of a stroll. Buy a ticket online (I used Head Out) for 14€ to the Foro Romani, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseo. The deal is you can’t go to the collesium until 2pm, which is fine, you just have to prepare yourself. The Roman Forum and Palantine Hill (aka: the birthplace of Rome) should be the first places to see before going to the colosseum… also they are the less packed. Get there right when they open at 9am and take in the place, as it doesn’t offer much shade. You can read all the signs about the history and explore the place for hours (probably until 2pm if you really wanted to although I suggest getting lunch before seeing the colosseum). Once you’re done checking out the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill go get a chance to get out of the sun, rehydrate, and eat some good food is before going to the coleseum. I’d also like to note: to take a water bottle, fill it up from wherever you are staying, and if you run out, no worries, Rome has countless fountains you can refill from. No need to buy 1€ water from people on the street (I’ll be talking about that in a later blog post).

The colosseum can be confusing as there are already countless people visiting it at any given point. If you have already bought your ticket, read the signs carefully. People get confused and end up waiting for 30+ minutes in line, when they didn’t really need to. Once you’re in, go straight up to the 2nd floor. You’ll get a great view from above and you can really get in the history of the place. Also, starting high gets the extreme sun portion directly out of the way. Then make your way to the 1st floor and read everything you can. That place was so much more than just gladitors fighting to the death.

As for checking out the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain, and various Piazzas, do it after you’ve had a rest and rehydrated. They aren’t going anywhere and seeing these places lit up is quite something. Also, you’re escaping the heat of the day by going later. I recommend heading out around 6-7:30pm to see these places.

On Sunday, you can go to the Vatican. Of course, not everything is open, but what does that matter if you actually get to see the Pope?! If the Pope is in town, every Sunday at noon the Pope appears to deliver a message and bless the crowd. It is truly something to see as this was honestly a one-in-a-lifetime experience for me, especially since Pope Francis is quite modern compared to previous Popes. I HIGHLY recommend going. Not to mention, St. Peter’s Basilica is open, too. Please dress appropriately, as you will be turned away if you are not. Bring a shaw/scarf to drap around your shoulders, wear dresses, skirts, or pants that go to your knees.

The food in Rome is probably some of the best pasta I’ve had in my life. At the suggestions of a friend I tried: pasta cacio e pepe, saltimbucca alla romana, and pasta alla carbonara. All were very good. The pizza I’ve heard was also delicious. Being such a noteable tourist destination watch for tourist traps. Places located near historic sites are going to charge more for food and drinks than if you walk several blocks away- the same thing is true too for buying souvenirs.

This city is definitely worth being on your bucket list.

Paris do’s & do not’s

That’s right people! You don’t have to spend much to enjoy Paris: the food, wine, and even the sights.

DO PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: Being that Paris is such a popular tourist destination going from the airport directly into the heart of Paris is super easy. A single ticket is 1.25€ (that’s even cheaper than the Underground in London). Whether you’re arriving from Charles de Gualle airport or the other airport taking the train does all the work for you. Of course there are options to take a bus, rent a car, or get an uber, but how could you pass up such an affordable deal?

Disclaimer- Please read this carefully, as it happened to me: MAKE SURE YOU BUY AN AIRPORT TICKET BACK. The ticket must say on there that it is going to the airport, otherwise you could face fines starting at 35€ or higher. For example, I was luckily fined 35€ and I credit that to being able to speak french while these other girls were fined 50€ each from someone else. The lesson here: buy that specific ticket to the airport for 10.50€ otherwise pay the price!

Once you are out of the airport, city tickets work for just about everything moving in Paris. You can take the metro or the bus to any destination you want. No need to spend money on a Big Bus Tour or other tours around the city. You’ll get more of the local experience than the tourist one.

DON’T BUY AT FOOD/DRINKS NEAR POPULAR TOURIST SPOTS: Believe it or not, that picture of you with the 8€ cappuccino could really make a dent. If you are hungry or thirsty after you’ve just toured Notre Dame or the Eiffel tour, walk several blocks away before deciding where to eat. Obviously these cafes and restaurants make their money off tourists who have no idea that they could get the same exact thing (or better) just blocks away. The Eiffel tour, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe… they aren’t going anywhere, so if you really want to see them take your time there and then go walk off the beaten path for some food.

DO THE HAPPY HOURS: I was quite surprised Paris had so many happy hour deals. This saved a lot and allowed us to try different wines and cocktails without breaking the bank. Some places even had food specials included in their happy hour, like a basket of frites with mayonnaise (definitely a French thing), fromage plates, and charcuterie plates as well.

DO HAVE A PICNIC: I don’t know why more people don’t do this! With the amount of parks around Paris, go to a local boulangerie get yourself a sandwich, maybe a couple cheeses and cold cuts, and a half bottle of rosé. Then hit up the park! It is totally worth it as its pretty inexpensive and not to mention, you’ll look like a local. So grab your food and rosé and walk to the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) and enjoy yourself.

DON’T OVERPLAN: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Have an idea of what you want to do. Don’t just say you’ll tour the Lourve then the Eiffel tour then take an hour long boat ride on la Sine. Take in WHY you are there. If you don’t have time to hit everything you want, that’s OKAY! You’ll just have to find a time to come back. Life’s a journey, not a destination.

Allez les Bleus

Ah Paris! The city of romance, food & wine, and football? That’s right! This girl has been lucky enough to get another taste of World Cup action, this time in France!

As I learned in my experience in London, we needed to find a place to watch the game early otherwise, we’d be out of luck getting a seat. Anna (my wonderful and gracious Icelandic friend who joined me on this Parisian adventure) and I finished our Apérol spritz we devised a game plan. It was only 6pm and the game did not begin until 8pm, but getting seats with a TV somewhere was of upmost importance.

We worked our way back to where we spotted several restaurants with tv’s. It was that same situation as London: if you didn’t have reservations, no seats. Luck was on our side though. After asking around at several places we finally were able to get seats just in time. We actually got the best seats in the whole restaurant. We sat outside of the restaurant called Le Saint Jean with the tv right infront of us.

Looking around us, everyone had beers. We opted for wine as it was the most French thing we could do and when in Paris… you know. On top of that, we added a cheese plate to munch on during the game. Apparently, the charcuterie plate was THE game time food option for everyone at the restaurant, which was served with delicious bagette as well. Later on, we also added to our French experience by ordering some beer and frites (don’t call them “French Fries” there).

Compared to the English, the French celebrated their goals rather calmly at first. However when France won, the city of Paris flipped over. People were honking their horns, running through the streets with the French flag, chanting “allez les bleus”, singing yhe French National anthem, getting ontop of buses, and of course drinking. Even the ambulance workers had their sirens on and waving their flags out of their windows. The atmosphere was happy and proud.

The Frenchman who sat beside us asked what who we would root for, since the general consensus thinks it will be France and England. Of course I said France, but honestly just the fact I was lucky enough to have two world cup celebration experiences in two different countries would make watching the final match super fun. Whether it is England or Croatia against France, I’ll never forget the experience I had in London and Paris.

The World Cup Experience in London

Being in London while England is playing in the FIFA World Cup is quite the authentic football experience. It all begins with where to go. A ticket to a watch party with a huge jumbo screen? Cheering on your team at home with friends? Or sipping on a beer at a local pub? I opted for the pub experience because it doesn’t get more English than that.

In England you have a choice between two types of pub experience, depending on what you want. You can go to a trendy or posh pub that has a more adventurous menu, more beverage options, and can set up a huge projected screen to watch the game. Or you can go for the standard working man’s pub that’s only going to have typical gastrofoods (ie: fish n chips, meatpie), a few selections of beverages, and maybe a ten-year-old TV or two up in the corner to watch the game. I chose the standard pub experience because it harkens back to decades of English people watching their football teams play. They’re the people that yell at the TV for a bad attempt on goal or cheer and sing along for the game winning goal that advances their team. There, you get the people who have been watching their team for years and could tell you just about anything you wanted to know about a player. It’s the authentic atmosphere that a person visiting England has to do at least once.

“Come on, boy!” one Londoner says to himself looking at the TV. A second later another man says “Let’s go! Let’s go!” as England makes several attempts to score on Sweden. Fastforward 30 minutes into the game and England finally makes a goal, making the match more interesting to watch. The older bar guest beside me looks over and says “English fans aren’t very forgiving people” as I hear both praises for the goal and criticism about the English player who made it. The football match was understandably not as exciting as the England vs Colombia match just days before, which had resulted in England’s win with penalty shots. Despite the exciting win, the bartender gave no quarter to his team, saying that in the Columbia match “the team is quick, but the birds are shit” when talking about England’s team. The team is the 3rd youngest playing in the World Cup, and I could see that inexperience was a factor in some of the players’ performances.

As the second half is about to begin, I make my way back into the pub after stepping out to cool off; the pub full of people and no air conditioning. Minutes later England secures another goal against Sweden, giving them a 2-0 lead. People in the pub noticiably cheer up a bit more, saying things like “There we go, boys.” One of the patrons orders a round of beer and shots for his table to celebrate the lead.

Next thing you know, the match is over and England moves into the Semi-Finals! The people start to cheer and sing “Football is Coming Home” by a group called the Three Lions. The song itself is based on England’s efforts to reclaim the World Cup since their win in 1966. Eventuallly, the bartender turns on the actual song over the patrons to drown out their singing.

After leaving the pub, we only walk a few blocks down the street and suddenly we hear crowds of people chanting for England. Traffic in both directions is stopped, as people have poured onto the streets from various pubs and watch parties to celebrate this monumentous win. English flags are waved around, people are climbing sign posts, and police are gathered around for crowd control. Funnily enough, the police are willing to hold up traffic for celebrators as they, too, were happy about England’s victory. Even the cars and buses sitting in traffic were honking their horns in celebration. It was quite the day to be a visitor in London for a one-of-a-kind footballexperience.

Icelandic Food

Hotdogs: Unlike hotdog stands in New York City or sports arena vendors in the states, these are not beef and/or pork hotdogs (if that really is what’s in them). They are hotdogs with Icelandic lamb, beef, and pork called Pylsurs/Pulsurs. They are cheap and absolutely delicious. The hotdog is all made with free range, grass fed, and hormone free meat, which is the perfect fastfood when you are on the go or the best thing you’ve ever had in your life after the bars close. You want this hotdog with EVERYTHING: ketchup that’s made with apples (you can’t even tell), brown mustard, remoulade, fried and fresh onions. The best place to indulge on this amazingly simple food is at a stand called Bæjarins bestu in Reykjavik.

Ice cream: When in Iceland, you must have ice cream. There really is nothing particular about it besides the fact that its an Icelandic thing to eat during anytime of the year. The stuff is so popular that you have to take a ticket and wait for your number to be called, which can have more than 20 people before you. Take a scoop or two at Valdis, which is a very popular ice cream shop around town.

Cheese & Dairy: I had no idea that Iceland produced such a wide variety of cheeses! Much like the cheeses you can get in the store, Iceland offers cow and goat cheeses, aged for various weeks or year. Again, the benefit of these cheeses in Iceland are that they are from free range, grass fed, and hormone free cows, goats, and sheep. They taste great with pickled onions, local honey, jam or just by itself. Lava at the Blue Lagoon offers a great Icelandic cheese plate.

Meat: In Iceland, the vast majority of the country has free range animals like lamb, horses, and cows, so it’s no wonder Icelandic meat is different from most meats you would get in the states. It’s tender, has more flavor, and isn’t stuffed up with hormones. It’s the real stuff.

Typically, lamb is one of the most sought after meats just for its flavor alone. You can slow roast lamb and serve it up with traditional jam, brown sauce, and potatoes, which makes for a hearty Icelandic meal during the dead of winter. If you want something a little lighter, there is also such thing as lamb bacon, which can rival everyday bacon.

If you want something a bit more interesting, you can try horse. Around Iceland, it is often said that there are more horses than people on the island, so it would make sense for this island country to add horse to their diet, given how expensive it is to import food.

Poultry: Chicken is available around Iceland, as is duck, although it’s not sought after like lamb and seafood. However, there is one bird that stands out: Lundin, otherwise known as Puffin, Iceland’s official bird. It is traditionally smoked with licorice and served similarly to duck breast. The texture is also like duck, however the taste is completely different, as there is a saltiness to this seabird.

Fish & Seafood: Being an island, of course the seafood is going to be amazing. Fresh caught atlantic cod, salmon, ling, lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, you just about name it, it’s there. It’s so fresh, you’d be dumb to not at least try a fillet or soup, even if you aren’t a seafood lover. You could even try Harðfiskur, which is dried fish, if you aren’t at least willing to try a lot of seafood.

One of the best soups I ever had was the seafood soup at the Old Icelandic Restaurant on the main drag of Reykjavik. It was filled with delicious bits of cod, ling, blue mussels, and shrimp. The broth is made with mainly lobster shells and coconut milk. They add a little siracha for even more flavor and it’s a soup that will warm you up right to your toes.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can have a whale steak. Yes. that’s right, whale or as the Icelandic’s call it Hrefn. Minke whale to be exact. It is on the chewier side and is cooked like any fillet. You can also have whale fin jerky, which is just as tough as your standard jerky with the expection of giving off an overpowering fishy smell when you chew on it. If you’re feeling like sampling some of these delicacies stop by Íslenzkiljstinn for some whale and puffin.

If you’re not feeling like whale is adventurous enough, you can order fermented shark also know as Hákarl. The thing with shark, is the smell if so distinct that you KNOW when a shark is in the room. There have been stories in the past of people attempting to open up fermented sharks on planes for an inflight meal, only to be denied for the sake of everyone else’s benefit on the plane.

Drinks: In Iceand the craft beer breweries are on the rise. This is a big thing for a country who only 30 years ago lifted the ban on beer. Prior to the late 1980s, the only alcohol one could really have was vodka. Now a days, you can walk into just about every bar and order a local pint. If beers aren’t your adult beverage of choice, then there are several different brands of Icelandic vodka you can try either in a cocktail or just as a shot.

A most notable spirit to Iceland is Brennivén. It is a schnapps made from either potato mash or fermented grains and is steeped with caraway, angelica, and cumin. It is super strong and can often be referred to as “the black death”.

In addition to Brennivén, a not so intimidating liquor, is Ópal. It is sweet and comes in several different flavors. The best way to drink it, is when its served as a chilled shot. Don’t forget to cheer with a friend in Icelandic by saying “Skál”.

This check this article out on RVAmag https://rvamag.com/rva-global/rva-global-travel-like-a-viking-eat-like-one-too.html

First taste of Reykjavik

After a quarter of a night spent sitting in exactly the same position, the last thing you want to do is sit. Unfortunately, flying into Keflavik airport doesn’t allow you to immediately step onto the streets of Reykjavik. You have to take a bus, like Airport Direct (they have free wifi), take a taxi, or rent a car to get to the city. It’s approximately a 45 minute drive by the coast offering you your first scenic views of Iceland.

While you take the time to soak in the views of the moss growing on the landscape and mountain formations appearing around the coast, you’ll suddenly arrive in Reykjavik… hungry.

After not eating for over 12 hours you’d take just about anything put right in front of you: a burger, pizza, one of those icelandic hot dogs you’ve heard so much about. That was not the case for my wonder Icelandic friend, Anna, and my new WOW! Air row buddy, Adam. Anna took us to íslenzkiljstinn, a traditional Icelandic restaurant and pub. She suggested that Adam and I order the puffin and whale fin. Before we knew it, Puffin breast and whale fin jerky were sitting right infront of us with unexpected sides like: skyr (icelandic yogurt), goat cheese, moldy cheese, pickled onions, berry jam, local honey, lamb bacon, and rare duck breast. Oh, and let’s not forget to wash all that down with some Icelandic beer. With our bellies satisfied with a few of the delicacies of the country, we decided to drop our bags off and regroup later.

Fast forward several hours and the three of us are walking down a spiral staircase into a room where people with no reservations were being asked to leave due to Bingo. Really, bingo? Enter Sizza Kling: a sassy Queen, who you will give your whole table shots if your cheering appeases her, win playing cards with her face on them just for the way you dance, receiving a necklace for just being able to put your leg behind your head, or getting her praise for actually winning bingo. Needless to say, Sunday Night Bingo at Sæta Sviniđ is the thing to do.

If bingo isn’t your thing or you aren’t quite ready to call it a night, just save two Norwegian siblings from several creepy tourists and you can pop into one of the few bars left open until midnight and listen to cover songs from a local Icelandic man and dance along.

Once the bars shut down, walk yourself down to a hot dog stand and get yourself a hot dog or two. OR you can be like Anna and myself and get Domino’s pizza and coke zero and bring it home and watch Netflix. Just make sure you drink a bottle or two of water and close the blinds, the “Northern Lights” are given a whole new meaning in the summer.