Cook, eat, drink, repeat

I’ve come to enjoy taking a cooking class when I travel. Since I’m an uninspired cook at home, this doesn’t exactly follow as an ideal activity for me. But cutting and chopping are more fun than chore-like when you’re hanging out with other people and a pleasant instructor with a charming accent is teaching you how to make a new dish.

Med Cruise and Italy 2012 218 (543x640)

The lovely Mallory manhandles a chicken and Fran holds rosemary for the roast potatoes at our cooking class in Rome.

My friend Fran got me started when we went on a Mediterranean cruise in 2012. We spent a few days in Rome after the cruise and her daughter, Mallory, joined us there. The three of us took a cooking class conducted by the talented Chef Andrea Consoli. About a dozen of us squeezed into his Trastevere restaurant’s tiny kitchen to cut up chicken, knead pasta dough, and chop a variety of vegetables to produce the delectable homemade fettucine alla Norma and chicken cacciatore we devoured for lunch. You’ll find plenty of cooking school options in Rome, but I can personally vouch for Cooking Classes in Rome. Mangiamo!

On two later trips with my buddy Sue we’ve had somewhat different experiences. When staying in Ribeauville in the heart of France’s picturesque Alsace region, we asked our Airbnb host, Sophie Sipp, if she could recommend a class or workshop where we could learn, well, anything. The food in this region is a very tasty cross between German and French cuisine, as one would expect, since this part of France borders southwestern Germany.

Sophie and Kate

Our dear Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)


Sophie’s apple custard tart

When Sophie was unable to find a local class for us, she asked her mother to make a traditional Alsatian apple tart. She brought it to our apartment along with a bag full of the necessary ingredients so she could show us how to make it ourselves. This was typical of Sophie’s generous heart and  willingness to go above and beyond expectations to make her guests feel welcome. This luscious tart starts with a buttery, flaky crust that is filled with a layer of rich vanilla custard and topped with sliced, fresh apples. Bake until the apples are cooked and the crust golden and – voila.

You might want to consider Alsace for a less touristy experience of France. The link will give you a little snapshot of the area but I was surprised to see that it does not mention Ribeauville. We absolutely loved staying here and it’s a great central location to call home as you explore the area.


Sue in the roasting room with bags of coffee beans.

In 2017 Sue and I headed out again, this time to Pistoia, Italy, which is a small city just west of Florence. Our apartment was two blocks from the train station allowing us to easily hop on a train (well, easily after we figured out how to buy tickets and interpret the train schedules) for adventures each day. We spent time in Lucca, Pisa, and other smaller Tuscan towns, and of course – Florence.

We signed up for the Discovery Course at the Espresso Academy which is located at a hard-to-find place on the other side of the Arno River in Florence. It was worth getting lost and finally hailing a cab to get there. This introductory class taught us a little about the history of coffee, the different types of coffee beans, and how they’re grown and processed. We visited the building’s roasting room where beans were blended and roasted, carefully selected from the array of aromatic burlap sacks containing coffee beans from around the world.


A pretty cappuccino NOT decorated by me.

Then our instructor taught us how to make the perfect cappuccino, complete with a design in the creamy froth on top. I think the design was supposed to be a heart, but if I remember right, mine looked more like a butt . . . . No barista need fear competition from me and I gained even greater respect for the art of coffee making.

On my most recent trip to Puglia (picture the heel of the “boot” of Italy), I signed up for a pasta-making class with my dear friends and travel companions Ginny, Sue, and Sue’s partner and stud muffin, Dan.

We found this class to make orecchiette – “little ears” pasta – through Airbnb’s new service offering links to all kinds of experiences available in places where you will visit. Our instructor, Simona Ciccarese, hosts this class as well as other tours in the area through her company, Nord Salento Tour. You can follow the link or check Airbnb for information about her offerings.

Simona teaches the pasta class with her mother, a lovely lady who speaks NO English, but is able to communicate very clearly in pasta language. Simona holds the class at her home in the countryside near Ceglie Messapica. This wasn’t too far from our rented home in Cisternino, but once we got to the town, the car’s GPS basically said, “I dunno.” After driving in circles for a while and offering unhelpful suggestions to the driver, we pulled into a gas station to ask for directions.

Although no one spoke English, some guys standing around drinking beer on the porch of the gas station/bar (yes, that’s right) were amused as Sue and I pulled up maps and addresses on our cell phones and attempted to mime our dilemma. Eventually, they were able to point us in the right direction. In the meantime, Ginny and Dan couldn’t figure out how the gas pumps worked until a nice lady bounced out of her car at an adjacent pump and called out, “CASH! CASH!,” to explain why the payment thingy wouldn’t accept Ginny’s credit card. After handshakes, group photos, and handing out fresh beers to the helpful fellas, we were on our merry way.

But we were close to an hour late for the class.

So by the time we rolled into her driveway, the other participants, with Simona, her mom, and boyfriend, had just finished making little beef roll-ups and sauce and were ready to start with the main event – making the orecchiette (which actually suited us perfectly, though we apologized profusely and expressed our regret at missing the first part of the class).

There was a couple from Ireland, another couple from Slovenia (the good-natured husband wore Simona’s white, frilly apron), and a young woman from California. (Note: none of these people had a problem finding Simona’s house. Just us. Go figure.)

pasta board

Ginny making some nice-looking little ears and tubes (penne-ish?)  Mama just called “macaroni.”

We worked outside under a bright white tent attached to Simona’s tiny trulli home, creating a spacious outdoor kitchen and dining area. At a long table, each workstation had a wooden board, small serrated knife, and a cup of water. Mama and Simona circled around pouring a ring of Durum flour onto each board. We were instructed to pour a little water into the center and start working the flour into it. We kept adding a bit of water at a time until the dough was the right consistency to knead – which we did for a while. I’m hoping when I try this at home (I ordered Durum flour on Amazon) I’ll remember how it’s supposed to feel when it’s ready to form into pasta. At that point, you grab a small blob of dough and begin rolling it into a snake, about the thickness of a cigarette, if you remember what those look like.

Sue Dan making pasta

Sue and Dan, kneading the dough.

Then, you cut the snake into small bits about a half inch long. Using the knife, you press down on the little chunk of dough kind of to one side, then drag the knife across so the dough rolls up and begins to fold over itself on top of the knife tip. At that point, you’ve basically made a cavatelli, which is probably as far as I’ll go when I am ready to experiment, myself, because the next step is tricky. When you get to the cavatelli stage, you slide your thumb under the dough, against the knife, and stretch the dough up so you make a little cup-like indentation. That’s one orecchiette. One. For every single decent-looking orecchiette, at least five had to be discarded (pressed back into the large dough waiting to become a snake.)

Think about how many of those little suckers you need to make to feed even just a few people, and you’ll be tempted to stick with the cavatelli, too. (Unless you’re Simona or her mom who can whip those puppies out in a flash.)

I doubt I’ll ever make enough pasta to become adept at forming little ears or anything else. But, man — were those things delicious! After each person finished making her little pile of sad, misshapen orecchiette, Mama lightly dusted them with flour and gathered them up into a bowl to bring to the stove. In no time, we were eating lunch since fresh pasta cooks in boiling water for two minutes or less. Simona served our little lovelies with the homemade tomato sauce and tender little beef rolls and it was the best pasta (though not the prettiest) of the whole trip, if I do say so myself.

Orecchiette, fettuccine, cavatelli, whatever. There really is no substitute for fresh pasta. Squisito!

Note:  Squisito is Italian for “exquisite” and is another fun word to say:  skwih -ZEE-toe. Say that to an Italian when you taste something delicious in Italy and they’ll laugh at you. But in a good way.

So, if you’re looking for fun things to do wherever you travel, consider a food- or beverage-related class of some kind. It’s a great way to learn about another aspect of local culture and more often than not, you’ll get something really yummy to eat out of the experience while you’re at it.

Have you taken a class somewhere that you’d like to recommend? I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for stopping by. Ciao!

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Italy: Regina della Latterie*

People go to Italy for all kinds of reasons. They go for the history. For the architecture. For breathtaking landscapes, and for the warmth and culture of its people. They also go for the food. If you are not going to Italy at least in part for the food, then you are either fibbing or a bit crazy and will miss out on a critical element of the Italian experience.

So, let’s all admit it. We’re going to Italy for lots of stuff, but also absolutely for the food. Maybe your trip has a more, um, fluid focus — as in, the vino. Some of us are all about guzzling plummy red Barolos in the Chianti region, or sipping fizzy, golden Prosecco in Venezia. The choices are endless, north to south, with each region having its own claim to fermented grape fame.

Rome ruins

Ubiquitous Roman ruins

If you’re all about the pasta, when in Rome you might try the city’s signature dish, the simple but hearty Cacio e Pepe. Another Roman specialty, and my favorite, is Pasta alla Gricia. That’s a carbonara-type dish of pasta mixed with some form of ham or bacon, garlic, black pepper, and

Pecorino cheese. Sheer bliss. In Puglia (the region I visited recently -picture the heel of the boot), orecchiette, or “little ears,” are the favorite – and next time I’ll tell you about a cooking class where my friends Sue, Dan, Ginny, and I learned how to make them.


Me with Raffaele at the Hotel Hiberia in Rome. It was love at first site. Call me, R.

For whatever reason, it didn’t really occur to me until now that with all of Italy’s fabulous foods, this country’s sorcery involving milk-based foods should firmly place Everything Dairy at the top of the list of Things You Must Eat in Italy.


Gelato. Need I say more?

First, there’s gelato. Gelato is simply Italian ice cream, but it’s made with milk – not cream. You’d think ice cream would be, well, creamier and richer than ice milk, but it’s not. Italian gelato (not the stuff you buy in the mall on the Las Vegas Strip) is outrageously, decadently rich, creamy and so indescribably delicioso. Oh, I could count the ways. Una – stracciatella, due – cioccolato fondente, tre – limone . . . .

But second, there’s Italian cheese, which is every bit as varied and delicious as the array offered nearby in France. From Bologna’s sharp, aged Parmesan to Naples’ sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bufala mozzarella, every region of Italy has its stable of local cheeses. You can walk into any grocery store and ogle the stuff near the butcher’s case, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar, yet lyrical Italian names for each and wondering how one would taste accompanied by a slice of salami or stuffed into a fresh fig.

Alberobello 2

The magical trulli in Alberobello

So. My belissima Puglia. On our second full day in the area, we met the beautiful Antoniana to guide us on a tour of Alberobello. If you go to Alberobello, I so highly recommend that you contact Antoniana (follow this link!) for a most enjoyable visit.

In addition to learning about and seeing the adorable trulli, at the end of the tour Antoniana took us to a little shop called Latte e Fieno to try the cheese made by a local


Nodini. They remind me of sausages bursting from their casings at each end.

cheese factory of the same name. We were given little plates of nodini, which are odd-looking little chunks of mozzarella cheese – each a bit smaller than a Cadbury egg. The nodini were served with salty little pretzel/cracker-type snacks called tarallini, and we were offered a small glass of wine to accompany our treat.

The nodini were the best mozzarella cheese I’ve ever eaten. I’m calling it mozzarella, but in Italy, I learned that this cheese made from cow’s milk is actually named fiordilatte. True mozzarella cheese is made from buffalo milk and if you are served genuine “bufala mozzarella,” most likely the cheese was made from the milk of buffalos living the good life in southern Italy or Bulgaria.

tarallini biscuits

If you can find the smaller size tarallini in an Italian specialty store, we liked those better than the larger ones.

Whatever the case, these petite nodini were a slightly chewy cross between the very soft mozzarella we buy that’s shrink-wrapped in plastic with a little water, and the drier mozzarella that comes in slices or shredded for pizza. Nodini are a bit salty, a bit sweet, and pair perfectly with the crispy crunch of tarallini. I’m going to start looking for this cheese in local stores. I thought I’d found it earlier this week, but no dice. Wish me luck as the quest continues.

Another dairy delight you’ll find in a number of Italian desserts and pastries is custard. A popular breakfast treat is a cornetto con crema, which is a croissant filled with custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Give me a café macchiato and a cornetto con crema for breakfast and I am one happy contadina. (Yes, you may point out that “contadina” is the name for “peasant,” which actually fits for me, but in Italian camper is “camper.” That’s no fun. Unless you say “camper” like an Italian. I think everything’s fun to say in Italian. It’s kind of impossible to stay angry if you distract yourself by trying to read Italian out loud. Give it a shot sometime if you’re feeling vaguely irritated or blue.)


You gotta love a country that calls this breakfast.

Anyhoo . . .

Lecce street

A typical street in Lecce. That’s Ginny on the right and Sue walking toward the red car.

As we were browsing through YouTube for information about Puglia before the trip, Sue came across a video by Katie at #keepitquirky. An episode on Katie’s YouTube cooking channel featured her visit to Puglia, ending with a recommendation to try a tiny custard pie called pasticciotto. This treat is made almost exclusively in the Salento, or southern section of the region of Puglia. We already were planning a day trip to the largest city in that area, gorgeous Lecce,  which is known as “The Florence of the South.” Thanks to Katie, we also learned that Lecce is the unofficial World Headquarters for pasticciotto.

So why mess around? We put the Caffe L’intorno, Katie’s recommended source for the absolute best pasticciotto in the city, into the GPS and parked nearby to start our discovery of Lecce. And since pasticciotto (say it like this: pass-tee-chee-OH-toe – fun, right?) is a common breakfast choice around here, we made a beeline to the café for cappuccino and pasticciotto before doing anything else.

At Caffe L’intorno these classic local pastries are served warm. Above, you’re looking at a rich, buttery short crust encasing a delicate vanilla pastry cream that gently oozes out when you pull it apart. The scent of vanilla wafts upward and if ever a morsel of food said EAT ME, the pasticciotto whispered it seductively in Italian. Oh, Madonna.

I had just one because I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself in front of my friends and assorted locals. Had I had the ability to buy a bag full and rush to a private spot to inhale a half dozen or so while enjoying mini food orgasms, I’d have done that. They’re that good.

On a side note, as we plodded back to the car after exploring wondrous Lecce all day, we stopped in another bakery/café to use the facilities before heading home. In Italy, you are generally welcome to use the restrooms in a bar or café as long as you’re buying something to drink or eat, which seems fair enough. While waiting I thought it only made sense to try this place’s pasticciotto before leaving Lecce and my newly-beloved custard cutie, possibly (sob) forever.

Well, kudos to Katie, because she was absolutely right. I wish (kinda) I could say that I taste-tested every pasticciotto in Lecce, but in lieu of a fair, citywide sampling, I can attest at least to the fact that this particular little pie couldn’t hold a candle to Caffe L’intorno’s. The crust was thicker and the custard slightly gelatinous, in part, I’m sure, because it wasn’t warmed up. Maybe the shop owner (who was a bit cranky) thought since we were foreigners, we wouldn’t know any better. Ha. And harrumph.

The moral of the story is, go to Caffee L’intorno when you’re in Lecce (say lay-chay) and you won’t be disappointed. The cappuccino was fabuloso, too. In fact, why stop at the pasticciotto? The whole display case of pastries looked freaking amazing.

Until next time when I’ll tell you more about orecchiette, ciao!

*that’s Italian for Dairy Queendairy-queen

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Vacay in Meat Town

Cisternino mapWhen I think of Italy, I think of Renaissance paintings, luscious wines from Chianti, Roman ruins, and Juliet’s balcony in Verona. I imagine Venetian gondoliers and margherita pizzas in Naples. Limoncello in Sorrento, and George Clooney on Lake Como.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the picturesque little town in southern Italy where I was staying was famous for its meat.

That’s right. Meat.

Cisternino, Italy, is a charming little town of white-washed alleys and postage stamp piazzas nestled in the heart of the southern region of Puglia. It is one of three towns – Cisternino, Alberobello, and Locorontondo – that roughly outline a triangle of the Valle d’Itria where you’ll find the enchanting stone houses with conical roofs called trulli.

The area is known for its rolling hills, vineyards, and acres of olive trees. In fact, Puglia produces something like 40% of the olive oil used in Europe and makes some very tasty wines to compete with the more famous Tuscan brands in the north.

And since Puglia is in the “heel of the boot,” you’re never far from the sea. Cisternino is less than a thirty minute drive from the Adriatic. The larger seaside cities of Bari and Brindisi have ferries scheduled for regular passage to Greece, Albania, or Croatia.

There’s lots to love about Cisternino (photos above)  and it’s an ideal central location to explore beautiful Puglia (you’ll need a car). But what we didn’t realize until a few days after we’d settled into our Airbnb home just outside the town is that Cisternino is known for its meat. Specifically, for its butcher shops, marcelleria, where you select your meat from the butcher’s case and it’s grilled and served to your table right in the shop, or in an adjacent dining room.

Mention Cisternino to anyone living in other parts of Puglia and their eyes light up as they inquire if you’ve tried the meat there.

I don’t know if the locals ever buy meat and bring it home to cook for themselves. I suppose they could, but the Fornello Pronto – “ready oven” – concept has been a popular and economical option for dinner in this area for a long time. And Cisternino, with something like a dozen Fornelli Pronto to choose from, is known throughout the area as THE place to go for enthusiastic Pugliese carnivores.

We unwittingly stopped at one such place for a late lunch on Friday, our first day in town. Not knowing any better, we mostly ordered the signature local pasta (orecchiette, or “little ears”). Dan may have ordered a meat dish, but I forget now. Regardless, we were clueless and in this smaller town off the typical American/Italian tourist track, no one spoke English to explain the meat tradition to us.

On Sunday morning we visited nearby Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site where we’d booked a walking tour to learn about the historic trulli. On hearing that we were staying in Cisternino, our delightful guide, Antoniana, was the first to tell us about its fame as Puglia’s Meat Town and enthusiastically encouraged us to try the local specialties.

steak dinner

My friend Sue; my fabulous steak

That night we randomly chose Le Tre Lantern for dinner. Since we walked in looking like we had no idea what we were doing (true enough), the smiling host swept us past the meat case and into a dining room, handing us menus. He probably felt that spending half of his evening trying first to explain how it works, then puzzling out what each of the four of us wanted, could be accomplished far more efficiently by providing menus with English translations.

By the time we had each chosen an entrée (I had a fabulous steak) and ordered sides of salad and roasted potatoes and, yes, more orecchiette, we had enough food in total for maybe eight people. Word to the wise, if you’re going to a Marcelleria or Fornella Pronto (I’m honestly not certain which term to use), order sparingly and plan to share because the portions tend to be generous. One side salad, for instance, was plenty for the four of us.

While attending a cooking class on Wednesday to learn how to make orecchiette, our instructor Simona shared more tips on ordering meals at Cisternino’s meat market/restaurants. She said that one not-to-be-missed dish is the bombetta, or plural, bombette. These are little parcels of grilled meat – could be beef, veal, pork, or chicken – that are pounded thin, topped with a layer of cheese and/or other fillings and herbs, then rolled up, sometimes wrapped in bacon, and secured with toothpicks. Each bombetta is about the size of two thumbs pressed together.

So on our final night, we made our way back into the warren of streets and piazzi of the old center of Cisternino and stopped at the tiny Alvecchio Fornello for one last attempt at a traditional meal in Meat Town.

This time we nailed it. The patient man who greeted us explained what was in the display and allowed us to choose a variety of bombette from the butcher’s case. We also selected a coil of sausage, added a salad, an order of roasted potatoes, and jugs of red and white wines.

The bombette were delicious and reminded me of miniature versions of one of my mother’s favorite Italian dishes, braciola. In our family, braciola was made by pounding out a cut of beef like flank steak until it’s very thin, then spreading cheese, seasoned breadcrumbs, and other mystery ingredients (to me) on top of the meat. Then the whole thing is rolled up, tied with string or secured with picks, and baked in spaghetti sauce until tender. The braciola is then sliced and served in pinwheel-like portions.

We finished our last meal in Cisternino with complimentary shots of house-made limoncello and arancello (like limoncello, but made with oranges). Despite eating a substantial meal, that ounce or two of arancello made me giddy. I recommend it as a delicious way to obtain a quick buzz if you’re in Puglia and in the mood to get silly. I may be looking for a recipe to make my own, come to think of it.

Grazie mille for reading about Meat Town and if you ever have the opportunity to explore Puglia – GO. It’s my new favorite part of Italy.



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When you go to Rome but your suitcase goes to Myanmar

My new friend Carol Cassara has some great tips on avoiding lost luggage and agreed to let me share her post:

Check out Carol’s story here!

It’s called “Dude, Where’s My Luggage?” – love the title. And her suggestions are good ones.

Having said that, I am going to jinx myself by admitting this but, despite traveling quite a lot over the years, I’ve only lost my luggage once  – and that was returning home from Switzerland about 30 years ago. Consequently, I have become very cavalier about my carry-on luggage. Before my Kindle, it would have been filled with about four paperback books, a notebook and pens for writing, snacks and more snacks, cell phone and charger, extra glasses, my meds and maybe a toothbrush.

Extra underwear or items of clothing? Basic toiletries? A hairbrush? Nah. I guess my peabrain thinks if I can read and eat, all is well in the world (well, it kind of is, right?).

So I’m going to be more thoughtful about the contents of my carry-on for future travel. I’d like to think that pretty much anywhere in the world (or anywhere I’m likely to go) you can find a store to buy new toiletries and even some undies, if necessary. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup or two.

Oh – and I’m going to suggest you add one more thing to the checked bag when you’re going overseas. I always have a copy of my passport info page tucked somewhere in my suitcase. If I were to lose a purse or day bag, it would make it easier to have that on hand.

Okay, I don't know where this bus photo was taken, but from the look of the crowding, it could be Rome. It's the closest you'll even be to another human being without having sex. Photo credit

Okay, I don’t know where this bus photo was taken, but from the look of the crowding, it could be Rome. It’s the closest you’ll ever be to another human being without having sex. Photo credit

Also, you can scan any identification, insurance card, even credit cards you’re taking with you, save them to a file with a ridiculous name and email it to yourself. In a pinch, you can access your email and get a copy of everything that was in the wallet that was stolen on the #64 bus in Rome.

I have a friend who saves all her passwords in a file called “asswords,” but that’s another story.

Check out Carol’s website at Carol Cassara dot com, too. Happy travels!


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Gimme some Big Tex and everything fried

I just realized it’s more than a week since I went to the Texas State Fair with my dear Dallas buddies, Carol and Patsy. Over a week! Already!

Here’s the thing. If I don’t write about things soon after the experience, I may not write about it at all. I find myself bumbling along to the next thing and getting all excited about whatever happened most recently. Like yesterday morning. As I was grabbing my jacket pool ladiesfrom the locker room at the Y, I started talking with a nice lady who was getting ready to leave at the same time. As it turns out, she comes to the Y every morning at 7:30 to meet up with what she says is a friendly and funny informal group of other women for the Old Lady Free Swim (not the official name). They all laugh and chat and paddle around every morning before classes start. I was looking for a way to ease back into the pool and I think I’ll like that. Then I can do strength training or walk on the treadmill or whatever afterward. Sounds like fun, right? (I have to keep repeating that to my exercise-adverse self …)

Oh. And I had a great time on Sunday with Ginny and Vicki at the annual luncheon and fashion show of the Textile Arts Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, too. Bought a very cool, funky scarf-like thing.

You see what I mean.

Carol and Jazz, with Max observing from his perch on the end table.

Carol and Jazz, with Max observing from his perch on the end table.

So back to Texas. I had not seen my Dallas friends in 24 years. Seriously. Time doesn’t just fly. It streaks by at warp speed. I flew in late Saturday and stayed with my buddy Carol, her dog Jazz, and cats Max and Stoli, in Frisco, which is a suburb kind of north and west of Dallas.

When I lived in Dallas 24 years ago, I think Frisco was a gas station and a shrub near Plano. And when I moved to Dallas several years before that, Plano was the new home to Frito Lay and JC Penney, a Baptist church, and a few McMansions popping up on scrubby lots.

Today, that whole area is a metropolis of office buildings and corporate headquarters, shopping centers, housing developments, megachurches, sprawling school complexes and busy freeways. The Dallas Cowboys are building their new home and training center in Frisco and Toyota is fixin’ to (speaking Texan, y’all) open its new US headquarters there, too. There’s a development in the planning stages just blocks from Carol’s gorgeous home that will be the Texas version of New York’s Central Park. It’s currently a huge field of dirt and scraggly brush, but don’t ever tell a Texan that a transformation sounds unlikely. They said Central Park, and it will most surely be Central Park and then some.

Coming from quiet Northeastern Ohio, the fast-paced, ever-expanding development north of Dallas was nothing short of amazing to me. It’s the 21st century version of the Wild West. They say everything is bigger and better in Texas, bless their hearts. But it’s a great place to visit and I hope to do a lot more of that now that I’ve so happily reconnected with my friends there.

Midway at Texas State Fair

Midway at Texas State Fair

On this first trip back, the girls suggested we visit the One and Only Texas State Fair. Yee haw! Count me in! So we strapped on our orthopedic walking sandals, slapped on some sunscreen, and took the DART train from Carrollton to the station right outside the gates of the fairground, Fair Park. The train system in Dallas is clean, fast and inexpensive – a great way to avoid the freeways crammed with rodeo daredevils in pickups trying to beat portfolio managers screaming down the center lane in their Beemers.

Now, Fair Park is busy all year – not just during the fair. It’s the home of Cotton Bowl stadium where college football is worshiped each fall, several performance venues like Music Hall, the African-American Museum and Texas Discovery Gardens, and much more. In fact, Fair Park boasts the world’s largest collection of 1930s Art Deco exposition buildings.

But one thing Fair Park has that is unique to Texas, and to the world, is Big Tex. Seeing Big Tex and eating fried food were my two primary reasons for wanting to visit the fair. Oh, and seeing an honest-to-goodness Texas longhorn steer.

The girls and Big Tex

The girls and Big Tex

I learned that Big Tex and I are close to the same age. He made his debut at the State Fair in 1952 and a year later, the big baby started talking and later moving his head and hands. He’s actually a little creepy, but Texans L-O-V-E him. When he burned up in an electrical fire in 2012, there was no question he’d get a facelift (just in time for his 60th birthday) and return bigger and better than ever.

He’s three inches taller now, too, at 55 feet tall. His outfit is from Lane Bryant, or maybe custom-made by the Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co. in Fort Worth. I forget. One of the two. I was surprised to learn that he was wearing clothes at all, honestly. I didn’t realize this until after my visit when I started reading more about him. In person, he looks like he’s just painted in denim or something. But then, my vision sucks (I’m actually looking forward to cataract surgery when Medicare kicks in next spring).

Maybe most impressive, sartorially speaking, are his Lucchese cowboy boots. If you are not a cowboy (or cowgirl) you may not know that Lucchese are the Cadillac of boots. Sicilian shoemakers Salvatore and Joseph Lucchese emigrated to the U.S. via Galveston and set up their first boot-making shop in San Antonio around 1883. They started out making boots for the United States Cavalry School at Fort Sam Houston and went on to become, eventually, THE name for Western style boots. Big Tex, of course, deserves nothing less.

Corny dog love

Corny dog love

Pretty Patsy and the funnel cake

Pretty Patsy and the funnel cake

Fortuitously placed just adjacent to Big Tex is Ground Zero for fried foods at the Texas State Fair:  Fletcher’s Corny Dog tent. There may be other corny dog sellers (aka just corn dogs where I come from) at the fair, but people are happy to stand in line for the best. We were lucky to be there on a quieter day and didn’t have to wait long for ours. Best damn corn dog I ever ate.

But wait. We’ve seen Big Tex. Do you remember what is next on our “must do” list? That’s right:  fried foods. The Fletcher’s Corny Dog kicked off a foray into all things fried, most of which we did not actually sample, but it was great fun seeing what was available.

Fried carrot cake

Fried carrot cake

After our Corny Dog, we shared a funnel cake. This has always been one of my favorite treats at the Ohio county fairs I’ve visited, so I was happy to see it in Texas, too. As we were sharing the fried, sugar-dusted dough, a lady sat next to us with a great example of how everything-can-be-fried, Fried Carrot Cake. It came with a caramel dipping sauce and a white sauce that may have been cream cheese or whipped cream or icing  of some sort, but it wasn’t holding up well to the heat (did I tell you it was freaking 90 degrees that day? In October? WTF, Dallas?). She gave it a thumbs up and seemed an honest sort, so I’ll recommend it to you. Looked yummy.

I had promised myself (and my son) that I would only actually buy and eat one outrageous fried treat. But here’s a short list of a few of the more interesting options at the fair:

  • Chicken-fried lobster tailsigns 1
  • Fried pickles
  • Chicken-fried bacon

    This nice guy offered a piece of his fried bacon for us to try. Was tempted.

    This nice guy offered a piece of his fried bacon for us to try. Was tempted.

  • Fried butter
  • Fried Snickers bar
  • Fried dulce con lechesigns 3
  • Fried bread cone filled with steak and peppers
  • Fried stuffed olives

However, the one that made me pull out the last of my tickets and pay for a serving was the Fried S’More.

Yes, yes, yes! (I'll have what she's having.)

Yes, yes, yes! (I’ll have what she’s having.)

Oh, mama. Pull apart the sweet fried dough, and inside you’ll find ooey-gooey melted chocolate and marshmallow and a hint of graham cracker that sort of melded into the fried dough. Can I tell you how happy I was to have held out for this sinful dessert? Worth every sugar-busting calorie. Trust me on this.

I respected his space

I definitely respected his space

And finally, as we waddled back to the DART station (well, I waddled, anyway), we did come across Tex’s Pride, Big Tex’s very own longhorn steer. Unlike his fiberglass master, Tex’s Pride was a real bull with a ring in his nose and an expanse of horn at 60” that’s only two inches less than I am tall. Tex’s Pride eats 40 lbs. of feed and drinks 30 gallons of water a day. He spends about seven hours a day chewing cud. He also frowns on people who want to play with him and I was more than happy to “respect his space,” as advised by the sign.

Texas is big and hot and there’s too much traffic and not enough trees. People go to church a lot and take the whole Christian thing fairly seriously and I suspect there are more folks packing guns than I dare to imagine.

But you know what? It’s a heck of a lot of fun to be there. Especially if you’re lucky enough to have friends like mine. I can hardly wait to go back and explore the Pearl Arts District in downtown Dallas and visit the Texas Book Depository to learn more about the tragic Kennedy assassination there. I’d like to see what’s new on trendy Lower Greenville and sample the area’s fabulous barbecue and Tex-Mex cooking. We enjoyed a short visit for lunch and shopping in charming Granbury, and I’d like to do more of the same in Grapevine and historic McKinney.

And guys – that’s just around DALLAS! I know I mostly write about Europe and love every moment I am able to explore there, but I could spend a month tooling around Texas and never be bored. If the girls will have me, I’ll be checking on cheap flights to go back for another visit soon.

Go to Texas, y’all!

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Flying Frontier: thoughts on cheap ass travel and more

Well, first I have to tell you about a webinar I’m considering taking by a writer I admire, Josh Bernoff. He has a blog called “Without Bullshit” and his webinar is about Writing Without Bullshit.

I’m all for writing without bullshit. On the other hand, my blogs pretty much rely on bullshit to provide some degree of entertainment. I think my readers like my bullshit. Right, you two?

Now that I think of it, I’m guessing Mr. Bernoff would say that leading a blog post with information that is totally irrelevant to the subject of the post counts as a serious bullshit faux pas. My friend and mentor and sometimes-editor Jane Gassner would agree. Sorry, guys.

I will consider the webinar. Anyone who wants to weigh in on whether or not I need to eliminate some of the bullshit, feel free to comment here.

Happy Halloween. A photo that bears no relation to the topic of my blog post or the irrelevant opening paragraphs.

Happy Halloween. Here’s a photo that bears no relation to the topic of this blog post OR even to the irrelevant opening paragraphs. You’re welcome.

So today, after an absence of several months that I can’t explain, I no longer feel inclined to share more stories about my awesome trip to Alsace last spring. In fact, being old, I barely remember what I did in August, let alone May. Suffice to say, Alsace is fabulous and you should go.

I do, however, remember a fair amount of what happened in the last couple weeks. So before this, too, becomes a vague memory, today’s post is all about my recent experience flying from Cleveland to Orlando on Frontier Airlines.

Note:  When I say I can’t explain an absence of several months, I do not mean to imply that I was in a coma or abducted by aliens or anything noteworthy. No, I just lost track of time, at least in regard to blog-writing. This begs the question, is writing in my blog something I do when I’m not busy living my actual life? Or, maybe I just don’t like to write when I’m hot (not sexy, but sweaty)? I don’t know. But it’s October, and I’m back.

Another note:  I just got a FitBit and it’s squishing into my wrist which is resting on the keyboard as I type. I don’t like this. And I’m pretty sure I’m not even getting activity points for writing, let alone steps. Anyone know how I can lower the daily goal of 10,000 steps to, oh, say, 2,000? I want something achievable. But I digress. Again.

Be sure to allow PLENTY of time to check in with Frontier.

Be sure to allow PLENTY of time to check in with Frontier.

I’m conscientious and wanted to select reasonably priced flights to work a client’s conference in Orlando. The best deal appeared to be on Frontier, so I booked tickets for me and my bud and business partner-in-crime, Ginny. The program was held at the lovely Loews Portofino Bay hotel. This unique property actually looks like it’s on the Italian Riviera, but the little lake beyond the piazza winds around not to some gem of a village on the Cinque Terre but to City Walk at Universal Studios. Instead of taking the ferry to Vernazza or Corniglia, we ended up having dinner at Bubba Gump’s after sipping a margarita at – where else? – Margaritaville, where we watched sweaty, sunburned people leaving the park wearing Harry Potter capes and Minion tee-shirts.

Maybe I’ll write about Loews Portofino Bay Resort another time. Or, you can just visit the website yourself. If you haven’t consumed too much of the Disney Kool-Aid, you really ought to consider staying there if you have to go to Orlando again sometime.

I’m really all over the place today, aren’t I? Part of the problem is that I was almost done writing this when I got a phone call from my realtor (I have an offer on the house I put on the market at the beginning of April – yay!) and when I went back to finish writing, stupid WordPress hadn’t saved my last several paragraphs. Stupid WordPress. Bad.

Anything larger than this is considered a CARRY ON BAG and you will be charged big bucks on Frontier.

Anything larger than this is considered a CARRY ON BAG and you will be charged big bucks on Frontier.

So here’s the deal with Frontier. When I booked our tickets, I knew I’d have to pay for checked bags. In fact, it costs more to carry a bag onto the plane than it does to check it. I actually like that because I’m tired of all the cheapskates who fly on “regular airlines” and try to cram the entire contents of their bedrooms into the overhead compartments. Very annoying.

So I ticked off “yes” for checked bags. However, I didn’t notice that I had to check off “yes” for both legs of the trip. Consequently, Frontier thought we were bringing suitcases to Florida, but leaving them behind. I think that sounds a little shady and that the airline should assume that we ARE bringing our suitcases back home unless otherwise noted. Right? We discovered this the night before we were to go home so we had to pay even more money since we hadn’t made it clear in advance that we wanted round trip tickets for our luggage, too.

Fine. When we tried to figure out how to pay for our bags to come home with us, we also learned that it’s all but impossible to talk to anyone on the phone who works for Frontier Airlines. Since Ginny was the one trying to do this, I can’t speak to the details, except to say that Ginny is the most good-natured, kind person on the planet – and she was pissed.

She did eventually learn that if we tried to check in at the airport, not only would checking the bags cost even more money, we would need to pay another $11 per person to get boarding passes. What? Yes. So, somehow the hotel concierge got us straightened out, printed the boarding passes, and we were able to leave Orlando the next day.

The cheapest seat on Frontier is this one: Five bucks for a swing and harness.

The cheapest seat on Frontier is this one: Five bucks for a swing and harness.

But wait. Did I tell you about seats? If you want to choose a seat on Frontier, you have to pay. The price of a seat varies according to where the seat is on the plane, whether or not there is an inch or two of extra leg room, and whether or not you want a seat belt (just kidding about that last thing). None of the seats recline, by the way. That’s fine with me because I’m sick of sitting with someone’s head practically in my lap, especially if I’m foolish enough to want to use my tray table to eat a snack or something.

Oh. Speaking of snacks, I guess you can buy some from the flight attendants but I didn’t look at the “menu.” You can have a complimentary cup of water, but will pay for coffee or soft drinks, etc. It’s kind of like being in prison in the air, now that I think of it. If you don’t have money for the “commissary,” no snacks for you, buddy.

If you are willing to really go cheap, you can have standing room on the wings.

If you are willing to really go cheap, you can have standing room on the wings.

And finally, you’d better be on time and no fooling around. Sweet Ginny, who does like to push the envelope when it comes to flight schedules, I must admit, stood in line at the Frontier check in counter in Cleveland for nearly 20 minutes. When it was finally her turn at the desk, she was told she had missed the window for check in by two minutes. She thought they were joking. They were not. It cost her $99 to change to the next (nearly empty) flight leaving a couple of hours later.

I had taken out a loan to reserve seats across from each other on the aisle, but instead, the kid sitting in the middle used Ginny’s empty spot to strap in his big stuffed Mickey Mouse.

You thought I was joking, but no. Seeing polygamists in the St. George Walmart never fails to interest me.

You thought I was joking, but no. Seeing polygamists in the St. George Wal-Mart never fails to entertain me. Yes, I know I’m a jerk.

I wish I could tell you I’ll never fly Frontier again, but before this first experience I had already booked flights to Las Vegas for Christmas. No, I am not spending the holiday playing the slots. My mother and I are visiting my sister in nearby St. George, UT. We will probably go to the local Wal-Mart to ogle the polygamists at some point during our holiday visit as there is not much to do in St. George if you aren’t busy keeping up with all the secret activities taking place at your local Mormon temple.

I am hoping to try fried cheese in the shape of Texas next week.

I am hoping to try fried cheese in the shape of Texas next week.

In the meantime, I’m excited to tell you that I am flying to Dallas to see my old friends Carol and Patsy this Saturday. We are going to go to the Texas State Fair, which I suspect will offer lots of great material for a blog post when I return. We will also eat plenty of great Tex-Mex food and drink margaritas and laugh until we cry. I can’t wait.

The only down side? Heaven help me, but I booked my ticket on Spirit Airlines. Have I mentioned lately how much I miss Continental?

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Eguisheim, the “snail city”

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was one of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

The friendly girl in the Ribeauville Tourist Information office called Eguisheim the “snail city” because the town was built in three concentric circles around the chateau where Pope Leo XI was born. She also said it was picturesque and one of France’s (many) “most beautiful villages.” It might have won an award for flowers, too. Plenty of those around, too, although I must say that every pretty village with pretty flowers would have gotten my enthusiastic vote, just so you know.

Birds eye view of Eguisheim

Birds eye view of Eguisheim

This brings me to a confession about this trip. Unlike my previously well-planned excursions to places like London or Rome where I’ve compiled a laundry list of MUST SEE places, Sue and I wandered around Alsace by the seat of our pants. Want to see the town shaped like a snail? Sure. Look for a place to have fish for lunch on the Fried Carp Trail (more on that later)? You bet. It didn’t take a Mona Lisa to capture our interest. In fact, my only regret was that we somehow missed the Gingerbread Museum.

Maybe next time.

This also was my first experience renting a car in Europe. Having the freedom to easily pop in and out of little villages and towns that would be difficult to visit using public transportation was great. And it was easy. Do it if you can.

Sign for a restaurant, I think - I liked the girl!

Sign for a restaurant, I think – I liked the girl!

So we were off to Equisheim on a sunny Sunday morning. The drive was gorgeous – winding through vineyards and cutting across other tiny towns, curving around the hills and catching glimpses of the ruins of castles in the distance. Eguisheim was maybe a 30 minute drive south and west from our flat in Ribeauville and has a large parking lot outside the city walls (you have to pay) and public restrooms. There’s a large map showing how the town is laid out, conveniently posted just before you enter the village.

We were greeted by colorful half-timbered buildings as well as older stone constructions decked out with pastel shutters and overflowing flower boxes. In the center of town we found the old chateau adjacent to a lovely church with a statue of the pope in front. Leo XI was born there in 1002, if you can even fathom such a year (I can’t).

The old chateau is on the left, church to the right, and statue of Pope Leo IX in front (and Sue taking a photo, probably of the stork next in the top left corner!)

The old chateau is on the left, church to the right, and statue of Pope Leo IX in front (and Sue taking a photo, probably of the stork nest in the top left corner!)

The remains of three medieval red sandstone towers rise above the village. They reminded me very much of the remnants of  towers that still loom above some of the historic gems of Tuscany, like San Gimignano and Siena, and I imagine they served much the same purpose as lookouts and places to run for protection if invaders were spotted.

The towers are all that's left of three castles above the village of Eguisheim

The towers are all that’s left of three castles above the village of Eguisheim

Built in the 11th and 12th century, Eguisheim was destroyed in 1466, but the city and its protective ramparts were rebuilt and little has changed structurally since the 16th century.

Walking dog in Eguisheim

A local family walks the dog along this ancient wall in the very center of the village

There were plenty of people enjoying a Sunday stroll in this charming village, but not so many that the place felt at all crowded or overrun by tourists. We had lunch on the patio outside a restaurant facing the main square. It was the best tart flambé of the trip for me! This Alsatian version of pizza starts with a very thin, crispy flatbread crust and is topped with a light spread of crème fraiche, some grilled onions, and bacon bits similar to pancetta.

The buildings curve around to circle the center of town.

The buildings curve around to circle the center of town.

A proud producer along the Route des Vin, Eguisheim is known for its pleasant Pinot Blanc, hearty Rieslings, and luscious Gewurztraminer and Muscat wines. À votre santé!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Itty bitty Bergheim

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

Tiny Bergheim is the next stop on the wine route just west of our home base of Ribeauvillé. It turned out to be the perfect first baby step of our adventure. Quiet country roads led us through fields and vineyards, giving us the opportunity to practice our knowledge of who-yields-to-whom on roundabouts without causing excessive distress to the light, local traffic.

See the arched entrance under the tower? That's the entrance to the old village of Bergheim.

The arched entrance under the tower leads to the old village of Bergheim.

This plaque is on the left as you approach the tower entrance. It appears to be a soldier mooning and thumbing his nose to the enemy! We're thinking the Germans?  Couldn't find a date!

This plaque is on the left as you approach the tower entrance. It wasn’t dated, but from the look of the uniform, we are guessing it’s a French soldier thumbing his nose and telling the Germans to kiss his derriere!

Approaching the medieval gateway to the village, we found a shaded municipal parking lot on the right (free!), flanked by a small stone building housing very clean public restrooms. We thought that was nice, of course, but it wasn’t until several villages later that we came to fully appreciate Bergheim’s thoughtful hospitality. Merci, Bergheim!

The town walls, dating back to the early 14th century, are still virtually intact – a rarity in the Alsace region where so many battles have been fought over the centuries. Winding streets reveal ancient traditional, half-timbered wine growers’ homes and everywhere shop keepers and residents celebrated the beginning of summer with terra cotta pots and wooden window boxes overflowing with colorful geraniums and pansies. Fabulous old wisteria bushes dripped purple clusters of blossoms, mimicking the ripe grapes that will be everywhere in the region come fall.

Wisteria in bloom!

Wisteria in bloom

Bergheim has been known for its wines and surrounding vineyards since the Middle Ages and there is evidence of Roman occupation from long before that time. Near the town’s parish church you’ll find an “Annette Garden” where “simples,” medicinal plants, were cultivated in the 15th century.

The witches' garden

The witches’ garden

If you go to Bergheim in the summer, you may be interested in visiting the Maison des Sorcières, or Witches’ House, situated between the garden and church. Its hours are very limited during the off seasons and was closed the day we visited. We learned later that in the 16th and 17th centuries, more than 40 women were burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. The museum tells stories of the lives of the accused women and their trials, as well as displaying some of the instruments used for torture in that era (yikes). My friend Patti had asked me to bring back a stone for her garden, here in Ohio. Since she is a very good witch (of course!), Bergheim was the perfect place to pick up a rock to join others she has collected from places like Sedona, Arizona.


Geraniums outside a shop in Bergheim

Bergheim is not home to a long list of historical must-see sites, so we just enjoyed wandering around the pretty town, even returning when we learned that its weekly market was scheduled a few days later. There wasn’t much to choose from, compared to the large Saturday market in Ribeauvillé, but even that was kind of nice. People chatted with us a bit and it was clear that this was not a market aimed toward tourism. Locals were stocking up on their veggies for the week, or checking out the inexpensive clothing hanging from racks next to the shoe salesman’s display (I would have bought a pair of Clarks sandals but he didn’t have them in my size after checking the inventory in his van!).

Heading back toward the tower after our visit.

Heading back toward the tower after our visit.

Bergheim is perhaps a ten minute drive from Ribeauvillé and is a charming, low key place to begin your exploration of Alsace’s picturesque villages. Until next time, à tout à l’heure!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Ribeauville, actually

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

Okay, it’s corny. Ribeauvillé, actually? As in “Love, Actually?” My son just mentioned that his girlfriend loves that movie and so do I and I LOVE Ribeauville, so . . . .

Anyway, Ribeauvillé is pronounced kind of like this:  ree-bow-vee-lay. It’s a tough one because the French kind of gargle a hint of the “R” sound in the back of the throat and whenever we tried to say it that way, people would laugh at us. If we just started out with an ordinary American-sounding “R,” they would correct us, we’d try the gargle-R again, and they’d laugh more.

Standing in the middle of Ribeauville's Grand Rue. See the castle on the hill above?

I was standing in the middle of Ribeauville’s Grand Rue. See the castle on the hill above?

Regardless, having taken French for four years in high school when my mind was young and perky and sponge-like, it’s amazing to me how much of the language (if not the correct pronunciation) came back to me during our nearly two-week stay in Alsace. Kind of like being able to sing all the lyrics to every Beatles song written prior to, oh, maybe 1967.

As I told you last week, finding a flat to rent in Ribeauvillé on Airbnb was serendipity. I knew nothing about the town, other than its primo location between Strasbourg and Colmar. It turned out to be one of my favorite places, well, in the world.

View from inside the castle ruins, looking down to the countryside around Ribeauville.

View from inside the castle ruins, looking down to the countryside around Ribeauville.

Ribeauvillé is located about midway on the 170 km Alsace Route des Vins, or wine route. The early Romans who first marched up and muscled in to conquer and rule the area eventually relaxed into the green, rolling countryside and planted vineyards to create their favorite beverage. Less military, more vino, and plenty of the guys decided to stay behind for the good life instead of returning to hot, dusty Roma.

The most successful vineyards for that climate produced grapes perfect for making dry, white wines. Some vineyards facing the south or southeast, soaking up the sun and warmer breezes, have been producing wine since the Middle Ages.

Sue enjoying the Muscat at Jean Sipp Winery.

Sue enjoying the Muscat at Jean Sipp Winery.

In beautiful Ribeauvillé, the commune proudly boasts three Grand Crus and offers fragrant Rieslings, Pinot-Gris, Gewurztraminer and my favorite, Muscat. Sue and I particularly enjoyed the Muscat at the Jean Sipp Winery in the upper part of the city. We enjoyed meeting the owners, cousins of our Airbnb landlady, Sophie Sipp, and their tasting room was a lively, friendly place.

Ribeauvillé has one long, main street, the Grand Rue, where nearly all the restaurants and shops can be found. Smaller side streets tend to be more residential, but the Grand Rue hosts a parade of locals, tourists and day trippers all day long. There’s a healthy contingency of hikers and bicycling enthusiasts making their way to the hills rising above the village. The ruins of three pink sandstone castles are the hikers’ destination, promising spectacular views of Ribeauvillé and the surrounding countryside.

Little bear delights children passing by as he blows bubbles above the souvenir shop below.

The little bear delights children passing by as he blows bubbles above the souvenir shop below.

Bicyclists claim their patch of the road on the Route des Vins and also can ride right through the vineyards on bike trails created especially for them. Seeing them in the distance, their shiny helmets bobbing along above the vines in the sunshine, sure made cycling look like an appealing option to explore the area.

I'm posing demurely with the minstrel statue in Ribeauville.

I’m posing demurely with the minstrel statue in Ribeauville.

Ancient Ribeauvillé was the seat of the Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre – the Lords of Ribeaupierre. Today in the town you can visit the Butcher’s Tower, built in the 13th century, the 18th century Hôtel de Ville, or town hall, the Maison des Menetriers, or house of the fiddlers, and what almost feels like a stage set of colorful half-timbered buildings housing bakeries, boutiques, restaurants and more.

Thousands flood the town the first Sunday in September each year for Pfifferdaj, the Minstrels Festival (this link should take you to a YouTube video of Sophie’s float). This is the oldest festival in the Alsace region, celebrating the lords of Ribeaupierre and the minstrels they protected. Fantastical floats parade down the Grand Rue, each creatively interpreting a theme inspired by images from Medieval history, such as peasant life, castle life, trades, animals, fortune, etc. Our friend Sophie shared photos of her group’s floats over the years where she has figured prominently (see below).

That's Sophie in the front of everything, long flowing hair and wielding a sword in the 2012 parade!

That’s Sophie in the front of everything, long flowing hair and wielding a sword in the 2012 parade!

I would love to return to Ribeauvillé one day – perhaps even to witness the amazing Pfifferdaj firsthand. But in truth, my favorite times during our stay there were early in the morning and again in the evening when the streets were quiet and I could almost imagine that this was my home.

Hearts and plaid - the Alsace folk designs.

Hearts and plaid – traditional Alsace folk designs.

Hearts and red plaid fabrics feature prominently in the many souvenirs for sale in Alsace. I know I left a piece of my heart there, and it’s resting in the magical town of Ribeauvillé, with castles hovering on the hills above.

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . staying put with Airbnb

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

My friend and treasured mentor, Jane Gassner, said she liked my last post about traveling to Alsace (thank you, Jane!), but then asked, “Where does the ‘love letter’ come into this?”

So quickly – I promise! – before I get into Airbnb and my thoughts on staying in one place, let me explain.

This vacation was one of the most delightful, memorable trips of my life. The Alsace region just spoke to me, you know? It will forever be one of my “happy places.” If I close my eyes and imagine myself sitting outside the café near our flat in Ribeauville, drinking a cup of rich coffee and savoring an almond croissant, the Saturday morning market bustling in the square beyond . . . . That’s a little piece of heaven for me. Maybe your happy place is hunting for shells on the beach in Clearwater or watching hummingbirds hovering around the feeder in your grandmother’s back yard. If you think about it, and if you’re lucky (I feel SO lucky!), then you will come up with a number of places in this world, near and far, that evoke such warm memories, just imagining yourself there will bring a smile.

My friend Sue and I are at our favorite cafe in Ribeauville, having our morning coffee.

My friend Sue and I are at our favorite cafe in Ribeauville, having our morning coffee.

I love, love, love Alsace. That’s it. And one reason for writing this love letter is to serve as a reminder and promise to myself that one day I’ll return.

Airbnb and other ways to stay put

So let’s talk about a vacation where you stay in one place, versus moving around a lot, either independently or with a group, on land or water. I’ve been on a number of tours in different parts of Europe and the U.K. over the years, and there are unquestionably advantages to traveling with a group. In fact, if you have not done much traveling overseas, land tours and river or ocean cruises are excellent vehicles for seeing and experiencing a lot in a relatively short period of time. Someone else plans all the details and you can relax and soak up all the new experiences.

Our guide in Nuremburg was amazing - learned so much history. This was one of the stops on a fabulous Viking River Cruise.

Our guide in Nuremburg was an entertaining, knowledgeable graduate student working on his PhD in history. Nuremberg was a fascinating stop on a Viking River Cruise in Germany several years ago.

I will say for sure, I do learn more when accompanied by guides who know the history and culture of the place we’re seeing. I can read guide books and memoirs before I go somewhere, but it really can’t compare to hearing stories from an experienced guide who knows the location inside and out.

This recent trip was just the second time I’ve rented an apartment or flat in Europe for a week or more. The first time was maybe nine or ten years ago. I found a three bedroom flat in the center of Florence for four of us, following a tour we’d taken to the Amalfi Coast and Rome. We took the train from Rome to Florence (and that was an experience worthy of the Three Stooges, perhaps for another time!), then used public transportation to get around the city as well as for day trips to nearby cities like Siena, San Gimignano and Lucca. I found our flat online through Papavero Villa Rentals and I would heartily recommend this company if you’re considering renting a place in Italy.

Florence - one of Italy's treasures. Another place I could visit again and again ...

Florence – one of Italy’s treasures. Another place I could visit again and again …

The choice to stay in Florence was pretty straightforward. My friends and I had been to Florence before and knew we wanted to stay right in the heart of the city for what would be our second visit. Planning the trip to Alsace, however, led me from one interesting option to another as I my online investigation evolved.

My friend Sue and I had settled on two basic elements for the trip. First, we wanted to rent a car to explore the area because it just didn’t look like Alsace would be easy to navigate using public transportation. Since I had read that renting a car in France was relatively inexpensive and I knew the drivers were probably not as crazy as those in Italy (this turned out to be true!), we were pretty confident about choosing to drive.

Second, since we were exploring a fairly small slice of France, we liked the idea of making one place our home base. And taking that one step further, why not rent an apartment, allowing us to spend less than we would on hotel rooms and able to economize by making some meals at home instead of eating out all the time?

Rick Steves recommends charming Colmar - and it was all that and more!

Rick Steves recommends charming Colmar – and it was all that and more!

We originally talked about focusing on Strasbourg, which is the largest city in the region. But one quiet evening a few months later, I finally watched my Rick Steves DVD about the area, and learned that Rick recommended spending more time in nearby Colmar, which is smaller but even more picturesque and not quite as touristy as Strasbourg. The video of Rick walking around Colmar was so inviting, we agreed to switch the search for accommodations from Strasbourg to Colmar.

Now, I’m sure there are many smaller agencies offering rentals for tourists. Papavero, which I mentioned above, is one of them and working with them was wonderful. In fact, if I ever want to rent a place in Italy, I will certainly contact them first.  But currently, two of the largest and best known international vacation rental sites (I’m not sure if they even existed when I went to Florence) are Airbnb and VRBO, or Vacation Rental by Owner. I’d had positive experiences with both . . . with cancellations, so far!

I actually had booked a flat in Bruges, Belgium, through VRBO several years ago and had to cancel at the last minute when the volcano blew in Iceland and air travel came to a halt. Remember that? What a disappointment! I still would love to return to beautiful Belgium.

And two years ago I reserved a little flat in downtown Brisbane, Australia, through Airbnb to visit my son. Another unfortunate cancellation. Hey. S*** happens. In both cases the landlords refunded my deposits. I was very pleased working through the two online booking agencies, as well as with the fair and kind individuals who allowed me to cancel my reservations without penalty.

So a word to the wise: If you choose to rent accommodations through ANY provider – always be sure to read the fine print. What IS their cancellation policy? I never dreamed I might have to cancel either time, but you just never know what might come up. Most rentals want 50% up front at the time of booking, so – well, just CYA, okay?

So anyway, now I’m looking at Colmar and there are plenty of options in and around the city center. With both Airbnb and VRBO, by the way, you can find anything from a single room in someone’s home with a shared bath down the hall (like staying at your cousin’s house or something; not sure I’d be game), to a villa that sleeps ten and has its own swimming pool.

Since I’d never been to Colmar, of course, I’d look at the photos of a place, then pinpoint it on a city map, but I didn’t really know if an apartment was in a convenient and/or safe area or not. And, more often than not, parking wasn’t included and I was a little leery of trying to find a place to park on the street. Would the rental car be safe? Would we be able to park close enough to the flat? Was I still capable of parallel parking after having avoided it as much as possible over the last 40 years or so (no!)?

Green acres is the place to be

Then I thought – DUH! – we have a CAR. We can stay wherever we want! Why, we could even stay in the country or, better yet, in a cute little French village nearby. Airbnb was full of places in towns and villages around Colmar and they were mostly cheaper, too.

We hit the jackpot when we chose a rental in Ribeauville!

We hit the jackpot when we chose a rental in Ribeauville!

I started expanding my search outside of Colmar and came across the place we finally rented in the town of Ribeauville, about a 30 minute drive from Colmar. All I can say is, I thank good karma, the angels above, and blind luck to have come across one of the most adorable towns in France AND one of the most adorable apartments in the most adorable town in France when I happened upon Sophie Sipp’s ad for “Your nest in heaven.”

The clock tower in Ribeauville was built in the early 1500's.

The clock tower in Ribeauville was built in the early 1500’s.

Ribeauville’s Grand Rue is the main street that runs through the town. There are side streets, but really, not much is going on more than a few doorways down on either side of the main drag. There is an upper town and a lower town, with an ancient clock tower bisecting the two areas. Sophie’s place is right next to the tower! So not only is it the most adorable flat in the most adorable town, but it is situated exactly in the middle of everything.

At lunch on Saturday my friend Fran asked me what the ONE thing was that I loved most about my trip. Well, that’s so hard to say, but finally – it was being in that flat in exactly that location that formed the foundation of this wonderful trip.

And reasons why staying put rocks

For the very reasonable cost of about $100 a night (that’s split between two of us – not per person!) we each had our own bedroom, along with a full kitchen, living room and dining room, and a great bathroom complete with our own washing machine. (I’m hoping as I write this that I can upload my video of Sue showing others how to use the French washing machine. Trial and error doesn’t begin to describe the process, but eventually, clean clothes prevailed. And here’s the link to the video!)

The living room reflects Sophie's whimsical taste

The living room reflects Sophie’s whimsical taste

Our rental included a good Wi-Fi connection plus a bright, cheerful kitchen stocked not only with dishes and cutlery and pots and pans, but also pantry staples like salt and pepper and sugar and olive oil. Things you need to cook with, but would never use up in a week or so if you had to go out and buy them all yourself. There were stacks of fluffy white towels, some laundry soap for the washing machine, comfortable beds with crisp, clean sheets. I would say these are the basics you can expect from a really good, well-provisioned vacation rental.

However, our dear Sophie went far beyond “really good.” She also left us coffee, cream, orange juice, cookies, pasta and pasta sauce – and much more. If you are very, very lucky, as we were, your landlord might come CLOSE to doing what Sophie did to make us welcome.

Upon arrival, she carried our suitcases up to the flat then invited us for a walk around town to get our bearings, introducing us to her cousins at their winery, to her favorite boulangerie (bakery with bread as its primary offering), and pointing out a couple of the best places for pizza (the local tarte flambe – yum!) and fine dining. The next morning she took Sue on a hike up the hill (little mountain? I dunno; too steep for me, though) to explore the ruins of a castle.

Toward the end of our stay when we asked Sophie if she knew of anyone offering cooking classes in the area to maybe learn how to make a local dish or two, she turned up the next evening with an Alsatian apple tart with custard that she and her mother had made – as well as with ingredients to show us how to make it ourselves! (I can’t wait to try out the recipe – it was amazing!)


Sophie’s delectable apple tart Alsacienne

Sophie was, and is, one in a million. But one potentially great thing about these rentals is that you will definitely have some degree of interaction with the owners. If you are friendly and they are friendly, there could be the opportunity to learn about local highlights, as we did with Sophie, and possibly even to make a new friend. I’m sure there is the odd landlord-from-hell out there, but I hope neither you nor I ever runs across him.

We were so grateful for Sophie’s hospitality, Sue and I wondered what we could do to express our appreciation. I checked online, and the consensus seems to be that you would not want to offer a monetary tip to an Airbnb or VRBO host. It’s just not appropriate. However, if you would like to do something, it would always be nice to leave a gift like a bottle of wine or chocolates. More the kind of things you would give to your hosts if you’re a guest in their home.

We found a gift for Sophie that was something kind of fun and useful to add to the apartment, and then we treated her to dinner our last night in Ribeauville. I sincerely hope we will stay in touch and I know Sue and I will never forget her kindness and hospitality.

Sue took this photo of Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)

Sue took this photo of Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)

My wish for you is if you choose to rent a car and stay in a rental property for a trip anywhere – that you are fortunate enough to connect with someone as special as Sophie, and in a town as unexpectedly delightful as we found Ribeauville. The most adorable landlord with the most adorable flat in the most adorable city in Alsace.

Next time I will tell you more about my “happy place,” Ribeauville. Until then, à tout à l’heure and have a wonderful week!

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