Paris

img_3259It was still dark out when I arrived in Paris yesterday morning.  I’d barely slept on the plane but I was eager to start experiencing the city, so I grabbed my bags, breezed through customs, and caught a train from CDG into the city.  Forty minutes later I emerged from the subway and made my way to my hotel. I was immediately greeted by Notre Dame, which is quite an amazing way to be welcomed into the city.

I found my way to my hotel but it was too early to check in so I dropped my luggage and headed out to do some exploring.  Feeling famished, I popped into a bistro around the corner and sat down with a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast.  I felt very Parisian as I sat there, alone in the window, journaling and watching people pass by.

img_3097After enjoying a leisurely breakfast, I struck out again to explore the Latin Quarter where I’m staying.  I walked up to and along the river, stopping to admire Notre Dame and all the beautiful architecture Paris has to offer.  I always enjoy looking at (ok, into) people’s homes and imagining their way of life and Paris apartments are now securely lodged at the top of my real estate lust list (along with a DC brownstone, a Tuscan villa, and a ski chalet in Vail… it’s a lengthy list).

I spent another hour or so roaming around before returning to my hotel for a nap and a change of clothes. After a few hours I emerged from my room entirely reinvigorated. I decided that my first Paris attraction would be The Louvre so I pulled up directions on my phone and set out.

img_3156I entered through the glass pyramid, paid my 15 Euro, and started wandering through the gargantuan museum. The first floor is mostly sculptures. What took my breath away about The Louvre was not only the quality of art, but the quantity.  There are over 35,000 works on display so it’s really impossible to spend time and fully appreciate each one.

img_3160img_3159I found my favorite part on the second floor: Napoleon’s Apartment.  It immediately made me wish I’d done more research because there’s very little information posted and I would have liked to know more.  Each room is so splendid, so opulent, that it’s hard for me to even fathom his level of wealth.  The high ceilings are hand painted, chandeliers hang by the dozens, and almost every available surface is either gilded or adorned with luxe, heavenly fabrics.  I wished that I could duck under the velvet ropes and just linger there with a book and a cup of tea. Through the window I could see the Eiffel Tower shimmering beautifully.  It was one of those sublime moments where I had to stop and remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming.

img_3162img_3169img_3170Last, I went upstairs to the paintings.  It seems as if they continue on forever, ranging from the very small to the very large.  Of course, the most famous piece is the Mona Lisa. I couldn’t leave without seeing her, but my amateur opinion is that she pales in comparison to some of the other works there which are so large and complex that you have to sit down and spend some time taking the whole thing in.  Some are so large that the painter must have required scaffolding to create them. Those are the ones that speak to me; I sit down, let my eyes crawl over every inch, and appreciate every face and horse; every piece of the scene.  I wonder what the artist loved most, what challenged him/her, and what inspired the creation.  Those are the paintings that make me feel something, which is why I am drawn to them.

img_3177After a couple of hours, I’d had my fill of art so I headed back out into the cold. With the Eiffel Tower’s beam scanning the city, I set out for a closer look.  It was a much farther walk than I anticipated, but it all worked out perfectly because I arrived just before the top of the hour which meant I didn’t have to wait for it to start dazzling.

img_3201By that point in the night, I was famished so I sat down in one of the first restaurants I could find.  Sure it was touristy but the price and location were both perfect.  I ordered a small carafe of wine, French onion soup, and a plate of linguine with pesto.  Wine and pesto are favorites of mine, but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered French onion soup before.  I figured there’d never be a better time or place.  When in Rome! It turned out to be the star of the meal and I regretted even ordering the pasta.

img_3202Full and a little tipsy, I walked the whole way home.  By the time I arrived, my feet hurt from walking over a dozen miles but I was too smitten with Paris to care.  I collapsed into bed around midnight and drifted off into dreamland with a big cheesy smile painted on my face.

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Homemade Pasta

img_3039About six months ago I got a pasta machine and ever since then I’ve been on a mission to perfect my pasta-making technique.  I even took a class in Tuscany! Now, I’m totally convinced that I’ve become a master and I want to share my expertise with you.

First, you need a pasta machine. I tried making pasta with a rolling pin once and it was a painful process with poor results. Learn from my mistakes and drop $25 on one of these.

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You’ll also need:

  • Flour (about 1 cup per serving)
  • Eggs (1 per serving)
  • Water
  • Sauce (I like to make pesto because it’s fresh and easy, but next time I want to try Carbonara)

If you have a food processor, it will save tons of time and effort.  Just add one cup of flour and one egg per person.  If not, pour the flour on a clean counter top and shape it into a well (AKA volcano).  Put the eggs into the middle, and mix them into the flour slowly.  Either way, the mixing can be slow going. That’s why it’s great when you have a machine to do the work.  Eventually the dough will start to look crumbly.  It probably won’t stick together without a little bit of water.  I add it slowly (a tablespoon at a time) to make sure the dough doesn’t become too soft or sticky.  It should be pretty firm, and ball up into one big mass in the food processor.

img_3035img_3036Once the dough is ready, some people suggest letting it rest.  I haven’t found this to be necessary, so I just knead it a few times on a well-floured counter top and start rolling.  Flour is your best friend when you’re making pasta.  My kitchen usually looks like a flour bomb went off when I’m done cooking, but I think that just means I’m doing it right.

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Cut a piece of dough a little bigger than a golf ball and run it through the pasta maker on the widest setting (on my machine, that’s a 7).

img_3046Fold it like a book, and run it through again.  You can fold again and run it through until it is the size and shape you want.  Then move the setting down one (to 6) and run it through again.  I only fold it on the widest setting. Move it down another and roll the pasta through again. Repeat until you’ve put the dough through the smallest setting. It should be so thin that you can almost see through it.

img_3050I like to roll 3-4 sheets and let them rest on a floured counter before running them through the cutting attachment.  It is a separate attachment that comes with the pasta machine and works the same way.  Once your pasta is cut, let it sit on a cookie sheet with lots of flour while you finish the batch.

Once you’re ready to cook your pasta, boil and salt your water.  Fresh pasta cooks much faster than store-bought pasta.  It usually only takes a minute or two for mine to reach al dente perfection.  Once it’s done to your liking, strain, add sauce, and enjoy!

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How my Christmas Shopping Earned Me a Free Round-Trip Flight to Europe

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You know how, when you’re Christmas shopping for friends and family, you always end up stumbling across something that you have to have for yourself?  Well this year, between my Christmas shopping and my normal monthly expenses, I am treating myself to a free round-trip flight to Europe.

Now, I’ll admit that not anyone can (or should) do this.  But if you are good about paying your credit card(s) off every month, and you have a good credit score, it’s something you might want to investigate.

Step One: Identify your Objective

Before you do anything, think about where you want to go.  For the price of my one transatlantic flight, a couple could have gotten free flights to somewhere domestic.  Where you want to go is important because it can impact the rest of the process (more about that later). It also dictates how many points you’re trying to accumulate. I knew I wanted to go to Europe, so I went to United.com and checked out how many points it would take me to get to Rome (arbitrarily picking a city with a major airport).  The cheapest one I could find was 60,000 miles, so that became my goal.

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Nice is always nice [Nice, France, 2011]

Step Two: Sign up 

You’ll probably need about 30 minutes to research, and 30 minutes to complete the multiple subscriptions/enrollments.  Here are the things you need to sign up for:

  • A credit card
  • At least one rewards program (My favorites right now are SPG for hotels and United MileagePlus for flights, but if you live near a hub city for a different airline, then that might be a better choice for you)
  • At least one shopping portal

About which credit card to choose:

I picked the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it has no annual fee for the first year, it has a great sign-up bonus, and the points are really flexible (you can book travel through Chase at a discount, or transfer your points over to a lot of other major loyalty programs). It also has no foreign transaction fee, which is important to me since I visit other countries a few times a year.  This credit card earned me 50,000 points when I spent $4,000 in the first three months.  Since that card arrived, I’ve charged everything I could on that card.  Since I’m also earning a point per dollar, I’m also earning a minimum of 4,000 points for the $4,000 I’ve spent. Since this card earns double points on travel and restaurants, I’ve actually earned way more.  But conservatively, we’ll say that this earned me 55,000 points.

If the $4,000 spend sounds daunting, and you don’t plan on traveling very far, the Southwest Visa might be a better choice for you.  I had this card until about a year ago and I really liked it. New cardholders receive 40,000 miles when they spend $1,000 in the first three months of opening the card.  So you get a few less miles, but you don’t have to spend as much.  And 40,000 miles will get you pretty far with Southwest.  My experience is that you can earn free travel faster with them than with most of the other airlines.  The only draw-back: the $99/year fee.

There are tons of different credit cards out there, but most of them either give you less miles than the ones I mentioned above, or they are too restrictive. For example, the American Express Gold Card is nice because you can spend the points at a variety of places, but it only gives you 25,000 points for signing up (and comes with a hefty $195 annual fee starting in year 2).  I suggest doing some research and picking one with rewards that are tailored to your needs.

About shopping portals:

To me, the shopping portals are where this really gets fun – especially at Christmas.  The portals let you earn more points for each dollar you spend, and all you have to do is click through them. Just visit portal website, then click through to the store where you want to shop. Then you shop as normal, but you get A LOT more points for your purchases just because you navigated to the website through the portal.

For example, I needed a gown for an event in January.  I found a shopping portal that offered me 6x points per dollar at Saks Fifth Avenue, so when I ordered the dress through the portal I earned 6 times as many points as I would have earned otherwise.  You’ll be impressed with the list of stores included. Some of my favorites are Sephora (up to 5x), Under Armor (up to 5x), Bloomingdales (4x), and Neiman Marcus (up to 6x).

Here are the portals for some of the major US Airlines:

I’ve found that it’s smartest for me to use the Chase shopping portal, since I have the Chase Sapphire card.  The Chase portal has a higher earn rate than some of the airline portals, plus I can choose whether to use the points toward flights, hotels, or something else.

Because of the holidays, these portals are running some especially great deals. I saw some sites with up to 15x points with purchases, and United has been offering bonus points when you spend a certain amount (500 points when you spend $100, for example).  Since I did the majority of my Christmas shopping through these portals, I’ve earned at least 4,000 points.

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Another great destination – Costa Rica, 2009

Step Three: Book Travel

So between the sign-up bonus and the shopping portals, I’m at 59,000 points. That’s just 1,000 shy of my 60,000 goal. Fortunately, I earned lots of other bonus points (for charging restaurants and business trips) so I am a few thousand over the 60,000 mark.

Now I have two options: Transfer my Chase points into United Miles and book the trip, or book the flight through chase (which makes the points go 25% farther).  I’ll let you know what I decide when I actually book the flight. Right now, I’m waiting for all the points to clear my account and working on finding a hole in the calendar.

Step Four: Enjoy

Now that you’ve put almost no effort into earning yourself free flights, enjoy them.  My recent trip to Italy was paid for with miles and it made the whole trip significantly cheaper.  As they say, the best things in life are free!

One quick note before signing off: I am not a financial professional so I should not be giving advice. The purpose of this post was just to share something that works for me.  Everyone should evaluate their own situation before deciding to follow the steps above.

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Travel Tips for Italy

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Many years ago, Italy was one of my first international trips.  I remember being so surprised at some of the situations and customs I encountered.  It’s a beautiful country with rich culture, friendly people, and delicious food, but I wished I’d known about some of their local customs so that I could be more prepared for certain situations.

So now that I’ve been a couple of times, I thought I’d write a post about some travel tips for anyone (especially Americans) who are planning their first trip to Italy.  Some of these are not glamorous, but trust me- you’ll thank me later.

  1. Ladies- throw a small package of tissues in your purse. Most public restrooms will not have toilet paper in them, so these will be very handy when you’re away from your hotel/apartment.
  2. Speaking of public restrooms, you may be charged to use them.  It’s worth keeping some change in your pocket since it’s common for a restroom attendant to charge a small fee (usually under 1 Euro). This is not like upscale American places where the attendant receives a tip.  In Italy, the fee is mandatory.
  3. On the topic of tipping, it’s much less common in Italy.  At home (in America) I usually tip around 20% but in Italy that is unheard of.  If you have exemplary service, you can leave some change on the table for the server but it is not culturally mandated.
  4. Ladies may want to bring a cross-body purse.  Pick-pocketing is prevalent in many European cities. It happened to me in Barcelona.  Bringing a cross-body bag that closes securely minimizes your risk.
  5. Pack a water bottle.  Many Italian cities have public fountains with good quality water. Unlike our fountains at home, these have a tap so you really need a container to enjoy the water properly. Traveling can be very dehydrating and your body will thank you for having water on hand.

I hope these tips help you enjoy your upcoming vacation.  If you have any other great tips, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Take a Lucca ‘Round…

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I spent my last two days in Lucca just enjoying the city.  I slept late, strolled the city, did some shopping.  It was absolutely lovely.  At the end of my last day, I put together a little video what I’d seen and done.  If you’re interested, you can watch it here.

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Cinque Terre

img_1883On our second day in Italy, we rose with the sun and headed to the train station. Three trains (and about two hours) later, we arrived in Cinque Terre. These five cities have become famous around the world for their stunningly beautiful buildings perched on Italy’s steep and rocky Northwestern coastline.

We started in the most Northern city, Monterosso al Mare. From there, we hiked rigorous and sometimes treacherous path to Vernazza. The trail starts from the Old Town, at the Southern side of the city. We started by climbing hundreds of steep, rocky stairs and continued to wind our way up and down the trail.  Fortunately our efforts were rewarded with breathtaking views (and a gelato at the end). While I do recommend this hike, it’s best for people with some level of physical fitness.  If you go, be sure to wear proper shoes (not sandals), and bring water. Much of the trail is narrow with a steep drop-off on one side, so it’s definitely not suited for young children. These narrow passages made it difficult to cross paths with people traveling in the opposite direction, but most people were kind and would step to the side when possible to allow each other to pass. It takes most people about two hours to make it from one city to the next.

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Looking back at Monterosso al Mare

For those not wanting to arrive sweaty and breathless in Vernazza, there are two other options: the train or a ferry. I hear the ferry offers its own lovely views, but here is what  you’re greeted with from the hike:

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We found lunch in Vernazza at a little place near the square. I enjoyed ravioli with shrimp scampi sauce, but my Dad’s potato pasta with basil sauce really stole the show.

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After lunch, I went to fetch some gelato while my parents and brother hiked another hour to the next town, Corniglia. They told me that this section of trail was a little shorter and less difficult, but I opted to take the train instead.

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Arriving in the Corniglia train station, there’s a steep climb of 300+ steps to the town itself. Alternately, there’s a shuttle that will take you up and back. The shuttle is a very popular option and people are not shy about swarming its doors.  In the same vein, the driver isn’t shy about shutting the doors on people when the bus has reached capacity. To increase your chances of boarding, wait on the far side of the road from the train station just about 10 feet up the hill (maybe 100 feet from the bus shelter). Corniglia itself is very charming. It has a more medieval feel than some of it’s other painted sisters.

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We wound through some of the passageways, coincidentally reunited with the rest of my family, and all took the train to Manarola.  The hiking trail does continue farther South to the other cities, but it’s currently closed down.

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Manarola is one of the more quiet cities, existing mainly of just one thoroughfare.  We walked down to the water where there is a swimming hole.  From there, we got to see them lift one of the boats out of the water. It was quite amazing to see the fisherman tie his boat to the pulley, which then lifted the boat about three stories up and into storage. It was lovely, but if you find yourself pressed for time, it’s probably the one I would skip. I didn’t feel like there was much to see or do there that set it apart from the other cities we visited that day.

 

Last, we took the train to the southernmost city of Riomaggiore. In my opinion, this city offered some of the most beautiful photo opportunities.

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Tired from a very long day, we found an outdoor bar perched high on the cliff and settled in to watch the sunset.

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As dark approached, we headed back to the train station to start our voyage home. It was a long, taxing, but enjoyable day.

If you’re planning a visit, I recommend staying in one of the cities overnight and spending at least a day and a half in the area so that you get to fully enjoy all that each town has to offer. I also highly recommend purchasing the unlimited train pass.  You only need to use it three times for it to pay for itself, and it also includes the shuttle in Corniglia and the hike between the first two cities.

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Vintage Vines: A Tuscan Dream Come True

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When I think of Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is wine. Therefore, it seemed fitting that we should start our trip to Tuscany with a vineyard tour and tasting.

After some research we decided to tour Carmignani, a nearby farm that has been worked by the same family since the 1300s.  Elena, who runs the place now, has been managing the farm for the last 25 years. She stands out among other local winemakers because she’s the only woman in a traditionally male-dominated field (no pun intended).

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Our driver picked us up from Lucca, where we’re staying, at 11:00 and we arrived promptly at 11:30. We all shook hands and headed out for a tour of the grounds.  Her farm is 14 hectares.  Ten are used to grow olive oil and the other four are for her stunningly beautiful grapes.

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She showed us her grapes first.  Since her family has been in the business so long, they prescribe to a traditional way of doing things.  For example, they grow both red and green grapes intermingled together.  They also do a lot of the labor by hand.  She told us that she doesn’t like to use machines to harvest the grapes or olives because they shake the plants in a way that is unhealthy, and also because they don’t discriminate between the “nice” grapes and the others that may be a little rotted out.

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She plucked various grapes from the vines and allowed us to taste them each. The smaller wine grapes were less sweet, but much juicier than the grapes I’m used to snacking on at home.

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After walking us through the vineyard, she took us to the olive trees.  She told us that Italians make four different kinds of olive oil – one is best with fish, one with vegetables, one with meat, et cetera.  In order to make an olive oil that tastes good with everything, they blend the four varieties together- however they never mix with olives from other regions.

It was very inspiring to hear Elena speak about her work, and to see her passion for wine.  In addition to being a winemaker, she’s also a sommelier.  At the end of the tour, she took us to a high point and proudly proclaimed, “this is my farm. Very nice, no?” It was impossible to disagree when the view was this one:

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Once we’d seen the grounds, she briefly showed us the wine production areas and then he ushered us into a small open building that served as her tasting room.

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We had the room to ourselves, and she brought out wine after wine with a food pairing for each one. True to form, I enjoyed all of them except the Chardonnay.

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Along with the wine, I had two favorite food pairings. The first was the bruschetta, which was made with some of the most flavorful, delicious tomatoes I’ve ever had. I haven’t retouched the photo above at all- they were that rich in color (and equally rich in flavor). My other favorite was a pork sausage and buffalo burrata crostini.  It’s nice to have something to nibble on when tasting wine – I think it really helps accentuate the flavor of the wine but also provides a little something in your stomach so your day doesn’t end early (and unfortunately!)

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It was a wonderful experience and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We purchased several bottles to enjoy for the remainder of our trip, and left glowing with delight.

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