Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica – half hearted efforts

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We had originally wanted to stay at the Fairmont Santa Monica because despite all its drawbacks (dated rooms and very average customer service), it is still probably one of the most convenient and nice hotels in the area.  Their special rate was already unavailable months ago though. So we ended up at the Meridien instead because it is still (kind of) in the area and the price was right.

I wasn’t reallyexpecting the Meridien to be 5 star quality (the Fairmont barely met it), but I was expecting a solid 4* maybe. But after 4 nights at the hotel, I was again and again surprised by how lacking the hotel is.

Location: it is supposedly in Santa Monica, but in reality it is a 15-20 minute walk from the centre of everything (or a 5 minute/$4 Uber ride). It is about 4 blocks inland from Shutters on the Beach. We enjoyed a morning run to Venice Beach (another very unimpressive place) and back. There’s really nothing much in the vicinity. A really expensive organic juice bar. A gas station. And a Walgreens.

The saving grace of all this is the complimentary valet parking, which was a big plus. It was a point of pride, after hearing others complaining about the ridiculous valet charges they are facing at other hotels!

The hotel: I am not sure when, but you can tell that the hotel was recently renovated in the not too distant past. By the artfully arranged sofas and bicycles in the lobby, as well as the art deco wallpapers and brightly coloured carpets. But you cannot just change the case and pretend you have a new iPhone.

The hardware of the Meridien is evidently outdated. You can tell by the exterior. The super dark lighting in the lobby. The hollowed designed of the hotel interior (by hollowed, I mean you look up and you can see rows of open hotel room doors – they just don’t design hotels like this anymore… ). The sad looking pool. And most of all, by the rooms.

The Room: the first thing I noticed when I entered the room was not the spaciousness nor the somewhat hip decor, but the in-unit air conditioner in the corner. I know I should be grateful that at least there is an a/c, but I have never actually stayed in a room with a in-unit a/c inside before!! It is not even the new kind.  This is the loud  and stubbornly blows straight at our heads. In the end I had to block half the vent with a brochure. You have to use primitive methods to deal with primitive hardware.

in-unit air conditioner

in-unit air conditioner

The second thing we noticed is that the lights are not centrally synchronised. You literally have to go from light to light to open it individually. We actually had to have one of our light bulbs replaced. But even after everything lit up, the room is still rather dark at night. Maybe because of its size. To their credit it was a rather large corner room.

The third thing we realized was that the hotel does not have in room dining service late at night. Not even a simple club sandwich or a pasta. They only had ready-made cold sandwiches available…. which did not sound appealing at all. When asked whether we can order take-out, the staff kindly suggested Classics Pizza (Papa Johns was not available), which delivered in about 30 minutes.

When we were trying to order the pizza online, we then noticed that the wifi signal was terribly weak/slow and erratic. The staff offered to help us restart the router twice, but to no avail. Later we tried to request another room closer to the wifi, but we were told that the corner rooms are already supposed to get good wifi….. In the end, we just relied mostly on our own mobile wifi. So if you have actual work to do and need the Internet, think twice!

The fifth thing we noticed was that there was no kettle in the room.Most hotels have it if not in the room then upon request. Unfortunately for us, the Meridien did not get the memo. They did not have a single kettle in the whole hotel. We had to ask them to send us a flask of hot water whenever we needed it. I guess it is still a step above the UNA Bologna who actually charges you for it… But given the price difference….. You would expect more from the Meridien.

We then noticed that there were no slippers. So we called again to ask for some. Yes,my hey do have slippers and will send them right up. Except when they arrived, they only gave us one pair and there were two of us. So we called again …. Turns out the whole hotel only had one pair of slippers left…..

It was only after all this that I noticed the efforts at mod decor, from the wallpapers to the photos on the wall. The bed frame was a bit of a hit or miss (mostly miss In my opinion), but at least they tried.

IMG_8256

A couple of days later, I was once again surprised by the hotel to find that they don’t have any cotton pads either.

TIP: Bring your own of everything!!!

The bathroom: It is clean enough. The wall paper makes it feel a bit modern. But the toilet, like the rest of the hotel’s hardware, is most definitely old. The flush was super weak. The shower while not amazing was decent. I didn’t bother to try the products.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Service: I didn’t have much contact with the staff, but overall they were nice and polite enough. It’s not their fault the hotel is so lacking.

One small policy matter that took me by surprise was that they actually CHARGE you to recieve parcels; by weight too!! Are you serious???

Pros:

  • Complimentary valet
  • Spacious rooms
  • Everyone had a balcony
  • Made an effort to renovate and modernize
  • Still probably one of the more affordable “nice” hotels in the area

Cons:

  • Outdated hardware
  • Noisy and old style in-room air conditioning
  • No in-room dining at night
  • Ran out of slippers
  • No kettle
  • Weak and erratic wifi
  • Charge for recieving parcels

Conclusion: So would I recommend this to a friend? Only if they are on a budget. It’s not perfect, but we did manage to comfortably stay 4 nights here. Just don’t expect too much. Otherwise if they are looking for somewhere nicer, I would recommend Shutters on the Beach or the Fairmont. Shutters on the Beach because we went to eat there, and it looked very cool and is right on the beach (like an expensive beach house). The Fairmont because it is super convenient location wise, and is actually walking distance from the center of Santa Monica.

Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica
Address: 530 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90405, United States
Telephone: +1 310-399-9344
Email: delfina.info@lemeridiendelfina.com
Hotel Website
Tripadvisor Reviews

A toast 

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I am going to be my college best friend’s bridesmaid next week, and she just asked me if I wanted to do a toast at the rehearsal dinner. My first reaction was to say no. I hate public speeches. But then the recently more vocal and adventurous part of me said, why not? What have I got to lose? So here goes… 

Just when I thought that the University of Chicago was full of poorly dressed nerds and geeks, I met K. The epitome of style and wit. 

We immediately bonded over designer jeans and our love for steak. We laughed over how our math professor kept backing into the rubbish bin. We switched classes just because the professor was hot and had a British accent. Turns out he was also smelly and not so hot up close. We ate chicken mcnuggets when we felt guilty over a shopping spree.  And we travelled around Europe together. Taking pictures with cute policemen and running away from sketchy gondola guys. For me it was an amazing four years and it wouldn’t have been the same without K. 

During all this time, lurking in the background was D. They were always texting and calling each other. They would rush to hang up on each other first. Not because they can’t wait to end the call. But because they want to be the last one to say “I love you more.” Long distance is never easy. But somehow they made it work. 

They are the quintessential high school sweethearts. And after all these years, we can all finally breathe a sigh of relief that they are finally tying the knot tomorrow. To the soon to be Mr. and Mrs. S, I wish you all the happiness in the world. 

When in Bologna…..

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It turns out that Modena is right next to Bologna (only 30 minutes away by train). And Bologna is not only home to spaghetti bolognese (though that is already reason enough for me), but it is apparently also quite a foodie hub in general. People from all over the world come to eat and learn. So we couldn’t resist but stop by to eat and learn as well.

Learn

We have alway wanted to “take an Italian cooking class in Italy,” and Bologna seemed like the perfect place to do it.

My friend took the helm on this one and we ended up taking a private cooking class with the #1 ranked Carmelita. She’s not cheap, but she’s flexible on timing. Her work space was also quaint and very welcoming. She’s also Italian British, so was very easy to understand.

Being a novice cooker (i.e. I think putting food in a bowl of water and boiling it is cooking), I was kind of expecting the “in the interest of time, we have already prepared….” type of cooking class that we are used to here in Hong Kong. But this is actually a VERY SERIOUS type of cooking class.  When Carmelita says we are making 4 different types of pasta from scratch, she means FROM SCRATCH! Though sadly, we didn’t make bolognese. But I guess it takes a LOT more work. I hear it has much less tomato sauce than I thought.

I won’t go into the sordid details, but not only did we made our own pasta, we also cut our own spinach, grated our own cheese and made our own sauces and fillings. She kept the four of us B-U-S-Y. My legs were dying. We had no time to sit down. I have a new respect for chefs!!

My conclusion from the class was that I am not a cook, and I do not like to cook. Despite my lack of talent and disinterest, Carmelita did ensure that we our finished products (4 hours later) were delicious.

So would I recommend Carmelita? Yes, to serious cooks who loves cooking. But if you are like me and barely cook? Then probably not. Carmelita is a very serious cook. Lessons can be quite straining, and she can get a bit frustrated (though I can tell she tried really hard to hold it !). We had to take a hour nap after the lesson to recover.

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Carmelita’s Cook Italy
+39 349 007 8298
http://blog.cookitaly.com/
Tripadvisor

Eat

Cremeria Funivia

One of the best things Carmelita did (in my opinion), was introduce us to my favourite gelato store on this trip.

My friend once told me, “I am not normally a gelato person, but somehow in Italy, gelato just seems to taste better”. I was skeptical at first, but now I am akin whole hearted agreement. I made it a point to try to have one everyday in Italy. I quickly found my signature flavour as chocolate and pistachio (I didn’t used to be a pistachio person either).

Not all gelato are equal though. The most famous store in Italy is a chain store called Grom. You can find it in almost all major cities in Italy. And it is always a safe choice.

But my favourite was definitely Cremeria Funivia at the Piazza Cavour in Bologna. I cannot pinpoint exactly why, but out of all the gelato I had in Italy during this trip, this gelato still sticks with me. The flavour, the texture was perfect! There’s a huge line there for a reason. I would definitely come back!

Best gelato

Best gelato

Cremeria Funivia
Piazza Cavour 1/d e Via Porrettana 158/4d, Bologna,Italy
Tel: 051-6569365
http://www.cremeriafunivia.com/#_=_
Tripadvisor

Ps. I just read in an article that Bologna also happens to be the “gelato capital” of the world. Maybe ALL gelatos in Bologna are awesome, and we should’ve had way more!

Trattoria Anna Maria

When a friend heard that we were going to Bologna she immediately recommended Trattoria Anna Maria where she had “the best pasta of her life.” How can we not try under such recommendation?

Anna MariaTrattoria is the quintessential family owned family style Italian restaurant. The interior and style reminded me of Fat Angelo’s in Hong Kong or Maggiano’s in Chicago (the association should probably be the other way around). The concierge helped us make a reservation, but surprisingly it wasn’t really needed (guess the competition is high in Bologna).

The menu is simple and inexpensive. I don’t even remember if we ordered appetizers. But we all definitely ordered pasta. I got a tortelloni (the other signature dish) and my bf got a tagliatelle with meat sauce. I remember regretting not just getting a tagliatelle myself. The tortelloni was good, but it was too heavy for my taste. I much preferred the tagliatelle which was delicious. The tagliatelle was the thinnest we have had in Italy (in our opinion, definitely a 5 in the pasta making wheel thing!). It reminded us of Chinese noodles (which is probably where they got the idea from to begin with). And we loved this Italian version!

So is this the best pasta we have had in our lives? I wouldn’t quite put it that far, but the tagliatelle is definitely one of the best!

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Anna Maria Trattoria
Via Belle Arti 17/A, 40126 Bologna, Italy
+39 051 266894
http://www.trattoriannamaria.com/
Tripadvisor

See

Since we only had one day there, we only had about a hour or so to explore the city. But while the city is big, the old town is not that big. According to the postcards/magnets I saw in souvineer stores, the key landmarks appears to be the two towers and the fountain of neptune (which is in a huge piazza, which I assume marks the center of the old town?). Carmelita also showed us a glimpse of the hidden canals of Bologna.

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We had a busy day in Bologna, but I think we managed to do and eat all the key things. I didn’t fall in love with the city exactly, but I definitely wouldn’t mind coming back to eat.

Bologna Train Station

Just a little tip for people taking trains in and out of Bologna. Turns out that the Bologna train station is HUGE. And not only are the platforms labelled by numbers, they are labelled by directions too. So there could be more than one platform 1! We didn’t know that and was wondering why our train still hadn’t arrived at our platform yet 15 minutes to departure. We only realized 5 minutes before departure that we were at the wrong platform. We then rushed down and up flights of stairs with our many suitcases, but only managed to catch the tail of our train. Luckily, we bought the ticket from Trenitalia (the more expensive but privately ran train company in Italy) and the service was excellent. The staff was able to immediately put us on the next train to Florence.

Considered yourselves warned!

Read about the rest of my Italy trip here!

10 Things to do on your first day at work

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I recently changed jobs, and on the eve of my first day of work I suddenly felt inadequate and unprepared. It was a fresh start, and I wanted to start on the right foot. But after so many years, I felt like I had forgotten what it was like to start a new job.

I frantically looked up articles on “what to do on your first day at work.” As expected there were plenty. But frankly I didn’t find any of them very helpful. They mostly told you to test out your route to the office, show up 10-15 minutes early, smile and greet everyone with a firm handshake, bring a pen and notebook etc. Very standard stuff. But it did somewhat calm my nerves.

As I settle into my new work place little things that I wish I knew on my first day of work starts coming to mind, and I thought I’ll write them down while they are still fresh. 

  1. Do not wear white: You will probably get your employee ID made on your first day, and chances are the background is white. So unless you want to be haunted for the rest of your time at the company by your own floating head – don’t wear white!
  2. Bring your IDs: There will probably be a lot of paper work to do on your first day. If you bring all your IDs with you, so you can get that out of the way faster. And if you want to be very prepared, bring a cup too. You don’t want to trouble your colleagues into finding you one nor do you want to dehydrate yourself.
  3. Say YES: Say yes to any invitation to lunch, coffee or any sort of conversation from your new colleagues. Don’t make any concrete lunch plans with friends yet. Be ready. They are extending an olive branch. The least you can do is meet them halfway. Do also make note of your conversation afterwards so you can follow up the next time you bump into them in the hallway.
  4. Take your assistant out to lunch: Don’t just sit around, reach out too! You should be especially nice to your assistant (if you have one) because a) they will be helping you out going forward but you are probably not her only “boss”  b) they can give you amazing intel into your team, the company and benefits i.e. which insurance plan is the best.
  5. Bring a pen & notepad: Ok, this is a rather standard one. But you seriously never know when you are being called to just say hi, or be given work. Bring a pen and notepad with you whenever, just so you are not caught off guard.
  6. Read up: you are not expected to hit the road running, and chances are you will not have much to do on your first couple of days (or weeks!). Spend this “honeymoon” wisely. Finish all the compliance, human resources and set up work. More importantly, dig into the shared drives and read up! Learn as much about the firm and the product as you can. Figure out how things are organised and how things work. Study emails and see what style of the team is. That way when you do have work, you will know your way around. 
  7. Don’t OT for the sake of OTing: I know it is tempting to stay late and put in “face time” your first couple of weeks to demonstrate to your new boss your eagerness and willingness to work hard work (as instructed by the Monkey Business). But if you don’t have that much work to do to begin with, it will a) just look silly since your colleagues know you have nothing to do or worse b) look like you have time management problems. Leave that to the interns, you are too old to pretend to work! 
  8. Assume that everyone is sensitive: I think this is more applicable to larger firms. But before you figure out the lay of the land, assume  that everyone is sensitive and act accordingly. Coming from a small to a big firm, I didn’t realise how easily potentially offended people can be about what I think are small things. If unsure, ask before you act. 
  9. Just act normal: At the end of the day, they probably didn’t hire you because you were the smartest or sharpest fish in the pool (just don’t be the dumbest). They hired you because they liked you, and think that you are someone normal who they can stand spending long hours with. Just be polite, be willing to learn and be clean. Don’t interrupt other people speaking (especially not the boss), don’t be obnoxious and loud, and most importantly don’t fart aloud! It sounds fairly common sense, but you would be surprised by how hard it is to find someone “normal.”
  10. Relax: Just remember, out of all the candidates out there, they chose you! And they chose you because they believe you can do the job. They want you to do well. And they absolutely do not want to go through the hiring process again (it takes months and it is not fun!). So unless you do something really wrong, they are unlikely to fire you. So just relax and focus on doing a good job! 

Going from 2 eyes to 4 eyes, and back to 2

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When I was about 14, the worst thing happened. My vision started to blur and it became clear that I needed glasses. I could barely handle being pimply (I was almost caustic!). I simply couldn’t handle being 4-eyed (because wearing glasses makes it look as if you have 4 instead of 2 eyes) on top of that. That would destroy any remnants of confidence I had left after trying deluding myself that my pimples were barely visible.

So instead of getting glasses I jumped right into contact lenses. It took me a while to figure out how to jab something in my eye at first but at least the world was right again. And I can continue on the business of being a pimply pre-accutane teenager.

I wore contacts almost religiously. I never went out in public with my glasses on unless I absolutely had to (i.e. on the plane). I was scared that someone I knew would see me in my glasses. Some friends didn’t even know I wore glasses for years!

And when I discovered daily Acuvue moist during college, I couldn’t go back. It was so convenient and comfortable. I thought I could wear them forever. Who needs LASIK? It was risky and unnecessary.

So life went on. I graduated from college and started work. First as a data analyst in Chicago and then as an investor relations in Hong Kong. I spent long hours staring at the computer. At first everything was fine, I wore contacts all day from 9am to 8pm when I got home.

But then my eyes started to feel dry. It started to become difficult to remove the contacts at night. I was literally trying to peel them off my very very dry eyeballs. And on Friday nights when I get home later than usual, my eyes would feel like a desert. I would try to blink really hard and massage my eyes, but the dryness wouldn’t abate until I removed the contacts.

For the sake of vanity, I ignored the signs and soldiered through.

But then the office next door started renovating and the air got really dusty. My eyes started getting unbearably dry. So I started wearing glasses to work. At first it was temporary. Just until they finished renovating next door. Buteven after the renovations I continued to wear glasses to work everyday. What was the point of suffering through whole days of contact lens anyway? I see the same people everyday, and I didn’t need to impress them anymore. And I don’t look that bad with glasses anyway. My glasses are ridiculously expensive, so I should “show them off” more often anyway. My colleague V’s mantra – only dress up when it matters – started to make a lot of sense. I’ll just put on my contacts on special occasions when I want/need to feel pretty and confident.

At first I would put them on for work meetings and get together with friends. But as time went on, I realize that I only felt the need for contacts when I was about to meet a new bunch of people like at a work conference or a big gathering of not so close friends (who matter) – whenever I was outside my comfort zone. People are shallow by nature and are nicer to good looking people after all. My only remnant of vanity left was when I knew that lots of pictures will be taken and my 4-eyed self will be documented and possibly posted on social media for all of eternity (I.e. on birthdays and vacations).

My mom thought I was “letting go” of myself. And perhaps I was.  Vanity just didn’t seem that important anymore. My confidence did not depend on it. I thought that I had finally achieved the promised state of “being comfortable in your own skin.”

Had I? Or had I just found my comfort zone and was hiding behind my glasses?

The turning point came in the form of a new job. The dream job that I had always wanted as a fresh grad. I was not so “fresh” anymore, but I wasn’t married and tied down with kids yet either. It was going to be more work and it would mean leaving the work family that I loved. But it was a career opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I didn’t even realize I had career aspirations until then.

It prompted me to finally take the plunge to get LASIK. It had always been at the back of my mind, but the idea of surgery just sounded so scary and unnecessary. I heard that many Asian women were susceptible to dry eyes. Why do so few eye doctors themslves not get LASIK? What if I went blind for the sake of vanity and convenience? But as I prepared to step outside my comfort zone again, I resolved to stop overthinking and just do it. There was no question that I will need to put on my game face at the new job. And the prospect of pulling long hours with contacts dehydrating my eyes was just unbearable.

On the eve of my LASIK surgery, I felt nervous and somewhat excited. Not nervous that I will go blind. I have mostly convinced myself that my doctor was the best doctor available and everything will go fine (his overwhelming confidence was comforting). But a more niggling worry was whether I will get used to being back in the spotlight again; exposing all my expressions, dark circles and puffy eyes. Of being seen again. I have been hiding behind my glasses for so long and it has been so easy. I will probably have to wear makeup more often!

You know how when you are nervous, your hands start to sweat, your stomach feels like it is about to drop and your heart starts beating as if you are on a roller coaster ride? Well I felt none of those things the morning of the surgery. Maybe just a little. But nowhere near the level I get pre-job interviews. I felt oddly calm. Perfectly willing to handover my eyes to the ever capable doctor. Unlike in an interview, there was not much I can do to help anyway.

During the first part of the surgery the doctor asked me to lift my chin and don’t curl up (as one tends to do when nervous) so that the laser can get better access to my eyes. It reminded me of the time when I went skydiving. Before we jumped out of the plane, the instructor told me to lift my chin and body like a bird to better streamline ourselves. In both cases, what they asked me to do was completely anti instinctive to what I wanted to do, which was to curl up in my safety ball like an unborn baby. Being the ever trusting and obedient soul that I am under authority, I tried my best to obey. Both times, I realised that there was nothing to curl up in a ball over to begin with.

Both parts of the surgery was over with pretty quickly (it didn’t even feel like 20 minutes!). While it was nerve wracking, it was not as scary as I had anticipated. And there was no pain, just some pressure. You see a lot of light, complete darkness and then light again. Besides needing to cut the flap of my right eye twice and possibly causing the two red bruises on my right eye, everything went perfectly. The doctor was very good. He had a very reassuring and calm quality about him that makes you feel like everything is going to be alright. And that it is not even that big a deal. All I had to do was not move my eye balls.

While you are encouraged to rest your eyes during and immediately after surgery, it is amazing how much one can see during the whole process. I could see in between the two parts of surgery. And I can see directly after. Theoretically the cornea seals within minutes of being placed back, so you can actually already see right after surgery. But just in case it doesn’t stick on 100% immediately, you are encouraged to rest your eyes for the remainder of the day only squinting to see when walking or eating. That was a long night for me. Not being able to see doesn’t suit me. I finally couldn’t resist and squinted to turn on some interesting Ted talks.

I was able to remove the protective glasses and see properly again the next morning. I didn’t exactly get a “whoa I can finally wake up and see the clock” moment. It kind of slowly registered that I didnt need to reach for my glasses anymore. I didn’t have to worry about fingerprints and fog on my glasses. I can wear sunglasses whenever I want. I can travel without worrying about bringing enough contacts. Little things like that made me think whoa. The fact that I was already going out for tea the next day and shopping made me think whoa too.

3 weeks after surgery, I have almost forgotten about life with glasses. If it weren’t the need for constant eye drops and the faint red bruise in my right eye, I think I would forget that I recently had surgery. Life is back to normal. It is amazing how we can adapt to a new normal so quickly. Though today I did notice my eye bags being especially pronounced. I will most definitely need make up when I start work (in 1 day!!). Hopefully I will adapt. In the meantime I guess sunglasses will do.

UNA Bologna – Basic and Functional

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There are many options in Bologna, with a huge range of prices. From the Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni (200+ euros) to very well rated Aemilia Hotel (at <100 euros). It took me a while to settle on which hotel to pick.

  • Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni: I’ve heard great things from my friend about the Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni, but frankly it looked a bit too old fashion for me.. especially at that price. Besides, there are so many more hotels in lower price brackets there that it didn’t seem necessary.
  • Aemilia Hotel: It looked and sounded great on pictures and from the reviews. But I just couldn’t get over how far away it was from everything (and by everything I mean the town center and the train station). It just wasn’t NEAR anything. And when you travel, location is KEY.
  • NH Bologna De La Gare: This hotel is well located near the train station and looked relatively new. But if you look closely at the reviews, you will notice that it is quite bipolar. Apparently this hotel is only partially renovated. So they have nice, newly renovated rooms and then there are some very old and depressing looking ones. You have to be sure to ask for the Superior (New Style) rooms!
  • Starhotels Excelsior: To be frank, I had not considered this hotel when I did my research. Because I glanced at the pictures, and the rooms looked kind of old and frayed. But it also happens to be right next to the UNA Bologna so we walked passed several times while we were there. I was surprised to see how modern and attractive the lobby looked, and I wondered why we didn’t stay there. Someone even recently described it as a “Modern and Convenient Hotel”. I re-examined the pictures, and I’m wondering if maybe its just a poor choice of colors for the rooms? That type of navy just does not do anyone any favours.
  • I Portici Hotel: This was a serious contender, and I spent the longest time debating between this and the UNA Bologna. This is supposedly a nice boutique hotel, with its very own Michelin starred restaurant inside as well. But the pictures of the rooms doesn’t exactly scream “modern chic boutique hotel.” It frankly looked a little odd (the way they make the beds??), bare and sad. Also I read a review where a tourist couldn’t find a cab to the train station cause it was so close (but not quite close enough with suitcases!). I was horrified and even posted a question on Tripadvisor. The hotel assured us that it is very easy and they just call the cab company.. but the seed was planted.
  • UNA Bologna: In the end, I chose the UNA Bologna. Simply because it seemed the easiest. The rooms all look modern enough. It is right next to the train station. And it is cheap. Better to just pay less and get what you expect, than to pay more and bet on a wild card.

The Hotel: We pretty much got what we expected. The lobby was simple and modern. There was a no fringe quality to the hotel. You have to add money to everything. Even for better quality internet.

The staff was very nice though. And helped us make reservations at the Trattoria Anna Maria, which they say is very good (and also recommended by a friend of ours). The lobby computers are very outdated though. I would not recommend anyone using it, because after we used it we spent the longest trying to log off gmail.

The Rooms: The rooms were relatively clean and modern (exactly as pictured). The bathroom somehow feels a bit older than the rest of the room, but it was basic and functional.

The only problem with the room was that it was very very hot. We went back to take a nap during the afternoon, and it was boiling because of the sunlight (I guess light is a plus and a minus). I was so tired then that I didn’t do anything about it then. But that night, it was hot. We realized that the A/C was simply not working and called to ask the hotel about it. Apparently they were not allowed to turn on the A/C yet in April, Bologna city law. So it may not be a problem exclusive to the hotel. I suggest a high room, so you can at least open the windows to let some air in.

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Location: It is well located right across from the Bologna train station. We literally just had to trolley our suitcases across the road. It is a bit of a walk to town center though (about 15-20 minutes). But cabs are easily available at the train station. I reckon that most of the “newer” hotels are closer to the train station than the center of town.

Breakfast: Breakfast was included and not crowded. Selection was continental as usual. Very basic.

Pros:

  • Well located next to the train station
  • Modern and functional, you basically get what you see
  • Very affordable

Cons:

  • No fringe, everything comes at added costs
  • A bit far from the center of town
  • Hot and somewhat stuffy rooms

Conclusion: Will recommend friehnds to come here? Sure, if they are looking for something affordable and basic for a quick stay. But if they prefer something a little nicer, I would tell them to take a look at other options.

UNA Bologna
Address: Via Pietramellara 41/43, 40121 Bologna, Italy
Telephone: +39 051 60801
Email: una.bologna@unahotels.it
Hotel Website
Tripadvisor Reviews

Best Western Premier Milano Palace – Best Hotel in Modena

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While Modena feels more “gentrified” than Parma, Modena is still by no means a touristy town. You can tell by the list of hotels available on Tripadvisor. They are mostly 3-4 star hotels which seems to have been around for a very long time….

My friend suggested we stay at the UNA Modena, which is relatively new and very affordable. But it was also quite far from everything and we didn’t have a car.

In the end we decided on the Best Western Premier Milano Palace. When we booked there wasn’t a lot of reviews or photos on Tripadvisors to go on, but I took comfort in the fact that there aren’t a lot of reviews because it has been recently renovated. Plus, it is within walking distance to the train station!

The Location: It is not exactly in the center of town. But since the town is so small the center of town is not that far away either. The hotel is located right behind a massive townhall looking structure (we never found out what it was) that overlooks a piazza leading to the main streets. It is a nice, almost scenic 5-10 minute walk. On the other side, there is the train station which is about a 5-10 minute walk away (with suitcases) across crossing-less roads (which makes for a somewhat dangerous crossing). All in all it was convenient enough for us location wise, and the quality of the hotel more than made up for it not being completely smack in the middle of town.

The Hotel: After 2 nights at the NH La Spezia, arriving at the Best Western Premier Milano Palace (the locals call it the “Milano Palace”) was a huge relief. While its entrance is somewhat non descript being part of a row of old buildings, its interior was refreshingly modern and chic. On the left is a simple reception, where the staff were friendly and efficient. On the right, there is a very chic bar area with a grand piano that leads to the breakfast room. What I loved most about the lobby was the checkered marbled floors and the mosaics. I think I see Versace?

The only downside was the elevator, which was surprisingly slow and rickety compared to the rest of the hotel. We had a few suitcases with us in the elevator and it took forever to close.

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Room: We booked the classic room, and it was everything we expected it would be. The room itself was moderately sized, clean and well decorated. The bathroom was spacious and well equipped, lined again with Versace-esque marble. And most impressively, is that it had a LEGIT HAIRDRYER. I had super happy hair that night!

The only downside was the lighting. The room was very very dark when we entered. So we pulled back to drapes thinking to let the light in. But instead of the glass window we were expecting, we encountered an authentic old school wooden window. For a moment, I thought it was fake and started to get claustrophobic. But we eventually figured out how to open it and let the light in, though it was difficult (almost as if they were not expecting us to open the window?).

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Breakfast: Breakfast was included. Given the rest of the hotel, I thought it might be promising. But I guess when they say continental they really mean continental. It was very far from my large American breakfast buffet expectations. The spread was limited (though expected since there didn’t appear to be many guests) and I didn’t eat much.

Pros:

  • Newly renovated and modern
  • Walking distance to train station and center of town
  • Legit hair dryer

Cons:

  • Slow and wonky elevators
  • Dark rooms
  • Mediocre breakfast

Conclusion: As far as I can tell, this is definitely the best hotel in Modena. I would definitely recommend it to my friends and stay here again myself!

Best Western Premier Milano Palace
Address: Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 68 – 41121 – Modena
Telephone: +39 059 223011
Email: milanopalace.mo@bestwestern.it
Hotel Website
Tripadvisor Reviews

Read more about my trip to italy here!

Parma ham and Balsamic Vinegar

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Since we wanted to stop by Turin for Juventus, my foodie friends wanted to stop by Modena for Osteria Francescana. So that was our next step after Cinque Terre.

But when I started to map out our train route, I realized that there is no direct train to Modena. You simply have to stop by Parma. I look at trains (especially those involving lugging around suitcases) the same way I look at planes – if there is a direct flight, I would rather pay more for it. If I must transit, I should at least stop and take a break. And the parma ham loving part of me definitely didn’t mind stopping by Parma for a quick lunch. The only problem was if we took the train, where would we store our luggages while we looked around? A quick search revealed that Parma station does not have luggage storage facilities and neither do the local tourist centers.

After investigating our options (rent a car or get a driver), we decided to get a driver to drive us from La Spezia to Parma, stop for about 2 hours, before dropping us off at Modena. Luckily the NH La Spezia directed us to MB Shuttle, which found us a driver at a very reasonable price. It is one of those local travel agencies which you cannot randomly find on the web. They arrived promptly in a Mercedes Viano and safely drove us where we needed to go (without running off with our luggages in the middle). I highly recommend it. In fact here are their info:

MB Shuttle
Email: mbshuttle@liberto.it
Tel: +39 349 24411620 / +39 335 8070882 / +39 347 5185210/ +39 0187510545

Parma
We arrived at the Hotel Daniel in Parma after a 2 hour ride from La Spezia. We were not staying overnight. It just happened to be where the Ristorante Cocchi was, and that was where we had made our lunch reservations. So we decided to make it our base to explore Parma from. On hindsight that was not a good idea. We spent the better half of the hour walking through what was apparently an college area to where we think was the center of town and almost turned back before we actually got there. What I should have done was ask the driver to drive us around the key areas, and stopped to explore and take pictures where we wanted to.

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But we prevailed and found ourselves at the Palazzo del Governatore, which looked like the equivalent of the center of town to us – where we should have started. I just looked on Google map. Apparently there are all sorts of basilicas and squares around the area. Anyway, we turned right off the square onto via Farini and ended up at La Prosciutteria Noi da Parma (no it was not a random turn, but a well researched one).

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THIS is what I had imagined the entire Parma to be lined with on every street. Apparently not. We did not see any fake Parma football club jerseys either (we thought they would make good memorablias after the bankruptcy). I can kind of see why no one ever talks about going to Parma when visiting Italy. For the “real” parma ham experience, one apparently needs to go to the parma ham farms in the outskirts of town like the Salumificio “La Perla”.

We proceeded to buy a lot of parma ham and parmesan cheese anyway (they don’t pack it as air tightly as they do in Spain, but we put it in the fridge whenever we could and they survived the rest of our journey ok).  I would have liked to explore the area some more, there were lots of interesting looking shops on the via Farini (including a Grom!). But we were running out of time, so we took a cab back to the Hotel Daniel for lunch.

Ristorante Cocchi 
At that point, I was having doubts about whether we picked the right restaurant for lunch. How on earth did we end up with a restaurant so out of the way, when there were plenty nice looking restaurants in the city center? Well I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be one of the best and most memorable meals in Italy.

You can tell by the decor and the staff that this is a genuinely old school family run restaurant. Besides us, the rest of the clientele seemed to be older local gentry (I’ve always had old people taste) who all knew the staff and each other very well. We spent our time theorizing who one particularly distinguish looking gentleman sitting alone might be. We concluded that he is potentially an ex-Italian mafia boss (very Grandfather like)!

The food was absolutely delicious. It was traditional Italian fine dining. They had THE best little warm pastry puffs (anyone know the name?) which they serve with the parma ham. I have had many parma ham before, but this was the first time we tried it with these pastry puffs and they were AMAZING. We even tried looking for them again in Florence but couldn’t find it. The ham was divine. My boyfriend discovered culatello, and now he cannot go back. The freshly made egg pasta were amazing. The texture, sauce etc. was just right. We had an apple pie and a chocolate tart for dessert, and they were good too. We were so happy and full after lunch, we all fell asleep on the car and didn’t wake up until we were in Modena.

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Hint: Do make a reservations. Lunch was full on the random weekday we were there!

Ristorante Cocchi
Via Gramsci 16/A, 43126 Parma
Tel. +39.0521.981990
http://www.ristorantecocchi.it/
Tripadvisor

Modena – for car fanatics
Before this trip, I have never even heard of Modena. But I was surprised by how many of my friends who have. Besides being famous for food, Modena is apparently also a base for car fanatics. It conveniently sits between the Ferrari and Lambourghini factories (20 minutes by car each way).

  • Ferrari: The Ferrari museum and factory is 20 minutes away by car in Maranello. There is even a more historical Ferrari museum within Modena, and there’s a shuttle bus that takes visitors from Modena to Maranello to visit the main museum. They do not offer factory tours though – not unless you are a Ferrari owner anyway, in which case that can be arranged.
  • Lambourghini: When I was doing research, another friend of mine suggested we go to the Lambourghini Museum instead because you can make an appointment ahead and arrange a factory tour (apparently factory car tours are much cooler than regular museum tours). The Lambourghini museum however is 20 minutes in the opposite direction of the Ferrari museum, so if you only have one day you cannot do both together.

I asked my boyfriend whether Ferrari or Lambourghini was better, and the conversation went like this:

“It’s like asking me whether Hermes or Louis Vuitton is better.”

“Well obviously Hermes is better. So which is Hermes?”

He waved his hand in surrender and explained that they were equivalent in standing. He clearly doesn’t know his designer names well enough….

Acetaia di Giorgio
In the end, we decided that we don’t like cars enough to actually go all the way to a car museum/factory. Instead we went for a balsamic vinegar tour at Acetaia di Giorgio. I came across it after reading many “2 days in Modena” articles. Apparently Modena is famous for balsamic vinegar and is where the “real stuff” is made. I’ve never been a big fan of balsamic vinegar, but I figured since we are there….

Now I’m a convert. Apparently I have just been eating the wrong balsamic vinegar all my life. We managed to make a reservation one day ahead (she’s very responsive by email). Acetaia di Giorgio is 10 minutes away from our hotel by cab, and is located within a gorgeous private home that smelt of balsamic vinegar. We were welcomed by Giovanna, Giorgio’s wife. She gave us a tour of their attic where the balsamic vinegar barrels are stored, and proceeded to give us a quick history of balsamic vinegar, how it is made, how to differentiate real the “real” Modena balsamic vinegar and a most enlightening tasting of different ages of balsamic vingear. Some quick takeaways:

  • Balsamic vinegar was created by accident by Italian royalty when they were actually trying to brew wine
  • Real balsamic vinegar from Modena, the ones that goes through testing and certification every year, is always packaged in the round bottle below. The logo may differ from different makers, but the bottle is trademarked and specifically designed to look like the barrels they are aged in
  • White cap is 12 years (45 euros), and gold cap is 25 years (72 euros). And then it differs from the different types of barrels it was aged in
  • The viscosity is thicker than the ones you see overseas. Though there could be fakes out there with the same viscosity
  • Barrels of balsamic vinegar were traditionally used as dowries for daughters of the family
  • They have a letter from Barack and Michelle Obama framed!

The entire tour took about 45 minutes. The tour is theoretically free and you are not obligated to buy a bottle. But we were completely sold and the 4 of us walked away with 7 bottles. My only regret is not having bought more! Now I totally get what Massimo Bottura means, when he said that “In my blood is Balsamic Vinegar and my muscles are made of Parmigiano” on Chef’s Table. Good balsamic vinegar just makes everything taste better!

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Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Sandro Cabassi, 67, 41123 Modena, Italy
Tel. +39 059 333015
Website: www.acetaiadigiorgio.it
Email: info@acetaiadigiorgio.it
Tripadvisor

Modena
We had some time after the balsamic vinegar tour and before dinner. So we had some gelato and walked around the downtown a bit. There wasn’t any particular sights, but it was a nice little Italian town. Compared to Parma, Modena seemed much more commercial and gentrified in general. The streets were neat and cobbled stone, the shops were a mix of quaint little stores and global brand names. And for such a small town, we saw way more tourists than we did in Parma!

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Osteria Francescana

At a little before 8pm (the earliest dinner reservation available), we arrived at our much anticipated meal at Osteria Francescana. The #3 best restaurant in the world (now #2 wohoo!), we had booked 4 months in advance! We were welcomed by a legion of staff and quickly shown to our table. Since we came all this way, we all ordered the set menu and prepared for a very long night (we didn’t leave until well after 11pm).

I am not a foodie so I won’t go into the details of the food. But it was indeed one of the best fancy set meals I have had. I loved that it was fancy but still tasted good and wholesome (as Italian food should). He took normal everyday food and gave it a twist. The highlights for me (or at least the dishes that I still remember today) were the fish and the lasagna. The skin of the fish was deliciously crunchy and tasty, while the meat was tender and juicy (unlike the other fish I had in Italy). The lasagna had all the best crispy parts of a lasagna and tasted like a lasagna. But unlike regular lasagna, the texture was light and frothy.

Their service was impeccable (as one would expect). I was most impresssed that they gave the ladies menus without prices (and the men with) and dishes were served to the ladies first at exactly the same moment. Though there was a small mishap over a broken wine glass, which was quickly swept away. The chef, Massimo Bottura was also super nice. He came out to say hi to all the guests at one plint. My friend had brought his copy of “Never Trust a Skinny Chef” (a large hardcover book!) with him and Massimo kindly signed it. He even treated us to a “Oops I dropped the lemon tart” when we expressed disappointment that it wasn’t included in the set menu. I definitely wouldn’t mind going back in the future – especially after seeing Massimo Bottura’s episode of Chef’s Table (who knew he was such a romantic?). Now I feel like I would appreciate and understand even more!

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Osteria Francescana Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena MO, Italy
Tel. +39 059 223912
Website: http://www.osteriafrancescana.it/
Tripadvisor

Read about the rest of my Italy trip here!

 

Cinque Terre – the 5 postcard perfect fish villages

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I don’t even know where I got the idea from, but some time in the last few years Cinque Terre somehow got onto my must go list in Italy. Probably anecdotally from friends.

Anyway, after I figured out where to base ourselves while we visited Cinque Terre, I initially thought we could just decide where to go when we got there. You know, be spontaneous! It is just 5 very small fish villages afterall. But then I started talking to friends and they recommended restaurants that we simply must try. Then I read about the different difficulties of the various hiking trails, and plans inevitably started to form in my head. Besides left to spontaneity, one may end up wasting 2 hours just to find a nice casual bistro to eat at.

HIKING

Cinque Terre is famous for scenic hikes. But because of floods etc. many of the hiking trails are closed for maintenance. This is something that you will need to find out from the hotel or tourist centers when you are on the ground. Once you do the next thing you need to know is the order and geography of the 5 villages, as well as the difficulties of the hikes:

Monterosso al Mare –> Vernazza –> Corniglia (up cliff!) –> Manarola –> Riomaggiore

Since Corniglia is up on a cliff, expect that any hiking trails TO Corniglia will be uphill, and any trails FROM Corniglia is downhill. The easiest trails are apparently:

  • Riomaggiore to Manarola: apparently a pleasant scenic and paved 20 minute walk, passing by the very romantic sounding Lover’s Lock. This walk is also known as the Lover’s Walk. Sadly when we were there, the walk was closed due to maintenance. We tried walking from Manarola in the hopes of at least seeing the Lover’s Lock, but alas it was blocked.
  • Manarola to Corniglia: apparently a pleasant flat 20 minute walk until you get to the base of Cornilglia, whereby you can supposedly take a bus or climb up 300 steps. This walk was again closed for us, but we tried to walk as far as we could from Manarola and it was paved and looked flat enough.

The “medium” difficulty one is apparently:

  • Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza to Corniglia: One of the few trails that were actually opened while we were there. But by all reports, it takes about 2-3 hours and is quite steep and unpaved. We decided that it was not for novice hikers like us.

These are the main trails. There are more trails, and you can find out about it on the official Cinque Terre National Park website which is mostly in Italian, but you will get the gist. This article was also very helpful in learning more about the different hikes.

GETTING AROUND

Since most of the easy trails were closed, we ended up taking the train between villages…. which turned out to be a traumatizing experience over Easter. There really wasn’t any other options besides maybe the ferry, but it was way too cold for that.

But anyway the most economical way to get around is to get the Cinque Terre Train Multi-Service Card, which allows you to take all the local trains, buses and permits you to hike certain trails. This is available at the tourist center at every train station. We bought a 2-day pass at the La Spezia train station (at the shop that faces the train station!) for about 23 euros each. Don’t forget to validate your tickets at the little machine around the corner!

We do note that the only time we were checked was when we went on the bus to Gruppo. We were never checked on the trains (maybe there was just too many people?). It really was a mostly honors system.

NOTE: While it sounds very easy to hop from one village to the next by train, in reality it is a pain. I WISHED we could’ve walked. The trains were constantly delayed. During peak hours (which seems like all the time) the trains are PACKED.  And trains are NOT as frequent in certain stations. On our second morning, we had to literally elbow and squeeze our way onto the train while other passengers tried to physically push us off. Both nights out trains were delayed by 20-30 minutes.

EATING

I’m not a foodie, but since it was Easter weekend I figured it was safer to make some bookings ahead of time for key meals. We ended up trying out the below:

  • Gastronomia San Martino, Monterosso al Mare: After wandering around the village for 15 minutes looking for a place to lunch we were starving. We finally ended up here because we thought the storefront of lemon ice looked pretty. Turns out it was #2 on the Tripadvisor list of restaurants in the village, and they serve THE most amazing bruschetta I’ve ever had (it was really more pizza like). They also have good free wifi! It was not all great though. The sandwiches and tiramisu were so so. The store also sells lots of souvineers, and we picked up some pasta and pesto sauce with us after.

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  • Belforte, Vernazza: I booked this place mostly for the view. I wanted to go somewhere where I can sit and watch the sunset and the Belforte sounded like a good option. I even looked up sunset times to make sure we caught it! Turns out restaurants in the area don’t get open until 7pm anyway. We got there at exactly 7pm and selected a prime table outside on the cliff overlooking the sea. Alas sunset that day was somewhat cloudy and it turns out that sitting outdoors was a very very bad idea. There were no heat lamps and we were literally FREEZING. The food was also SO SLOW to come that when it finally did we all just gulped it down as fast as possible and immediately ordered dessert. Even though we were one of the first sittings, there was only 1 tiramisu left! We gulped that down too, and immediately jumped out of our seats and went inside to settle the bill (we asked, there were no tables available inside for us to switch to). From what I remember, the food was average. The price however was NOT cheap. Oh and they do NOT serve tea here. We had to go to another cafe near the train station afterwards to warm ourselves up!

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  • Cappun Magru in casa di Marin, Gruppo: This came highly recommended by a friend and is apparently a Michelin named family restaurant in the middle of nowhere Gruppo, which is halfway up the hill from Manarola. You have to take a bus up there from Manarola. Except it is NOT a regular bus stop, so remind your driver to stop! When you get there, you will be like what? You see a carpark and a very quiet and rundown looking row of old houses (turns out it is a village of 40 people). Just go up the stairs and turn left. Walk for about a minute or so and look up. The restaurant itself is located inside a surprisingly sunny 2 storey house. There are only a few tables. It was all empty when we got there, but it quickly filled up. We got the set lunch menu and drank some cinque terre wine. They served mainly seafood, and every dish was fancy and painstakingly put together – which is probably why it took so long.. we got there at 12:30pm and left a little before 3pm! Maybe because I am Chinese and I think we already make the best fish, but I was frankly not that wow-ed by the whole experience. I guess I was just looking for something more wholesome and traditional. I can tell that the other guests (all locals!) were immensely enjoying themselves though. And this IS legit fine dining that one wouldn’t have expected to find in Cinque Terre. We were wow-ed by however was Trattoria dal Billy later that evening.

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  • Trattoria dal Billy, Manarola: It is also not easy to find. You have to climb up the hill from the train station all the way to church where you will see a sign saying Trattoria dal Billy. But that’s not it either, and you have to follow the sign into the alleyways between buildings for a few minutes before you see the 2 store restaurant that is Trattoria dal Billy. We determined then that we will eat super fast and head to the train station before dark! Regardless of the speed, it was one of my favorite meals in Italy. They served very traditional Italian food, and everything was heartily proportioned and absolutely delicious! In between courses, we also enjoyed one of the most gorgoeus sunsets. The service was excellent too. Once we explained that we wanted to catch the upcoming train, they were fast and efficient. It was a perfect meal!

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ITINERARY

Taking into account distance, restaurant locations, opening times and the weather, I came up with the following order:

  • Day 1 (Monterosso al Mare –> Vernazza): Since we arrived from Turin in the afternoon, I decided we should tackle the 2 further (and less picturesque) villages first and work our way back.
  • Day 2 (Riomaggiore –> Manarola –> Corniglia –> Manarola): Then the next day we can tackle the rest of the prettier villages at leisure. In reality, we skipped Corniglia and just stayed at Manarola most of day 2. The train ride from Riomaggiore to Manarola was so traumatizing that morning that we decided to skip Corniglia to keep our train activity to a minimum.

THE 5 VILLAGES

Monterosso al Mare

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This is the biggest of all the villages and where the “bigger” hotels are supposedly located (I looked but didn’t see anything remotely hotel like).  It has a new side and an old side. There is a big beach area, probably very popular in warmer weather. Turn left from the train station to get to the old side. Frankly this village did not leave much of an impression on me in terms of views besides having amazing bruschettas. There just wasn’t that picture perfect spot that the other villages had.

Vernazza

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So they were not kidding when they said that Vernazza is the smallest village of the Cinque Terre. It is SMALL. After you get off the train, there is literally just one main street that leads you to the water front where the postcard picture spot is (which is absolutely gorgoeus!!). The Belforte restaurant is at the end, squeezed on top of a cliff. Apparently further up, there is the remains of a castle (we opted to enjoy gelato and beer by the water instead and never found out). And that’s all there really is to Vernazza. You don’t need too much time here, but definitely worth a quick stop.

Riomaggiore

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We arrived first thing in the morning to Riomaggiore, and managed to beat the day trip crowd to the postcard spot to get some good pictures (the ledge is very narrow). I was initially somewhat disappointed because the reality just didn’t look as good as the postcard due to the lighting at the time. But this village grew on me as we walked around – especially when we discovered the path up towards the church and walked along the hills. The view looking back into the village was simply stunning! I believe this is part of the same path that goes all the way to Manarola (Lover’s walk), and from what I could see it is super scenic. I wish we had actually spent more time in this town. I would’ve liked to have a drink and chill at that cute little cafe overlooking the village, and explore the parts of Lover’s walk that IS opened.

Manarola

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I would say that Manarola is smaller than Riomaggiore but bigger than Vernazza. And it is more vertical. There is the more touristy section below the train station, and there is the quieter more residential parts above the train station. Because we skipped Corniglia, we had a LOT of time in this village. We went up and down the village many times. We walked down to the postcard spot by the waterfront (there’s a lovely cafe above the path for drinks). We walked back up to get gelato and along what we can of the Lover’s trail. We walked up some more to the church and watched kids play football for a while. We walked down again to sit by the waterfront as the tourists dissipated somewhat and literally checked out every store in town. We then finally made our last walk back up again for dinner at Billy’s. It is all very good leg exercise and I feel like we know the village very very well now.

Conclusion: The 5 fishing villages of Cinque Terre was much smaller than I had imagined, and at some point as I walked through the villages I couldn’t help but think to myself “Is this it?” The villages also felt both commercial and poor at the same time. A little like visiting an Universal Studio film set. As you look at the colorfully painted buildings around you with its deep dark interiors, you wonder ]if any “locals” actually lived there.

Having said that, the Cinque Terre villages did have its charms and definitely delivered in terms of postcard perfect views. Will I come back again? Maybe. It is not a place I want to go back to immediately, but a place I wouldn’t mind revisiting again in the future. If only to finally walk along the Lover’s Walk and to see Corniglia. I hope they build better accommodations by then…

Read more about my trip to italy here!

NH La Spezia – Best Base for Cinque Terre

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Where to base yourself to explore Cinque Terre? One of my biggest challenge when planning the Cinque Terre leg of the trip was where to base ourselves. I had friends who based themselves in Manarola and friends who based themselves in Genoa. I even asked Amex, and they said their patrons usually stayed at Portofino. They also suggested the surrounding towns of Rapallo, Santa Maghuerita and La Spezia. So how did I end up at La Spezia?

  1. One of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre: You would think that this would be the most obvious answer. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay in a quaint B&B at one of the seaside facing villages of Cinque Terre? But I soon realized that this was not feasible for us because a) there are almsot no cars in these villages – the two boys on the trip couldn’t possibly carry our humongous suitcases from the train station to the quaint B&Bs wherever they are (likely up a hill) b) upon extensive research on Tripadvisors the B&Bs available do not appear to be as quaint and charming as I had imagined them c) the villages are served by a local train. So if you are coming from Turin or any of the big cities, you will most likely have to change trains. Since I’m a great believer of direct everything, I couldn’t come to grasp with the concept of having to change trains (or planes) unless absolutely necessary.
  2. Genoa: One of the first places I checked out was Genoa, because that was where my friend stayed when she came with her parents. And indeed being a moderately sized city, Genoa is a major train hub and did have some decent choices of hotels. I had my eye on the Grand Hotel Savoia, which is classically beautiful (but not too old and moldy), decently priced and right next to the train station. But then I realized that Genoa is actually 1 hour 22 mins – 1 hour 43 mins away from Monterosso the closest of the Cinque Terre villages. That would make it a 3 hour transit everyday! Since the primary purpose of the visit was to visit the villages, I decided to go back to the drawing board and look for somewhere closer.
  3. Rapallo, Levanto and Santa Maghuerita: I came across a few times a bit closer to Cinque Terre (about 30-40 minutes by train). But again the accommodation options were just not that attractive…. Except perhaps for a farm house in Levanto which I briefly considered. But this farm is not even close to the train station, you actually have to wait for the owners to come pick you up each way. And because these are not major towns, the train doesn’t even come by that often. We would have very little flexibility!
  4. Portofino: At this point I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a nice, decent and easily accessible place to stay near the Cinque Terre. How did rich people visit the Cinque Terre? I highly doubt they were staying at the “quaint” B&Bs I was seeing on Tripadvisor. So I asked American Express. Turns out when rich people visit the Cinque Terre, they stay in Portofino (the real one, not the fake one in LA) and they stay at the seaside Belmond Hotel Splendido! Its closest train station however is still Rapallo or Santa Maghuerita (indeed it is another 5K away), so you encounter the same train schedule inflexibility problem. The hotel rate is also exorbitant – probably because it is the nicest hotel in the area and well its Portofino. Even I have heard of it. It was waaay out of budget.
  5. La Spezia: Going along the train route, the next place I looked at was La Spezia because it is only 8 minutes by train to Riomaggiore (the closest Cinque Terre village from the other side). Compared to other towns, trains to the Cinque Terre villages were relatively frequent (maybe once every 15-30 minutes!). At this point I had come to the conclusion that besides the Belmond at Portofino, there are simply no nice hotels in the area. The Le 5 Terres B&B did catch my eye though for being newly renovated and relatively modern looking (and apparently close to the train station!). Alas everyone else must have thought so too, because it was booked out for our dates months ahead. The rest of the accoommodations in La Spezia looked depressingly dismal. We ended up at the NH La Spezia. I figured that when all else fails, go for the name you have heard of.

NH La Spezia

Location: Near the waterfront of La Spezia, the NZ La Spezia is about 5-10 minutes away from the train station by cab. According to Google map it is a 20 minute walk away. But I wouldn’t recommend it, especially at night. From what we could tell La Spezia is not exactly the safest of towns.

On our first night back to the La Spezia train station, there were absolutely no cabs (and not even the hotel could find us one!). Luckily the line was not too long (we couldn’t figure out where everyone else went!), but we still ended up waiting over 30 minutes for a cab. We briefly considered walking, but then we thought about the very sketchy looking tunnel we passed by on the way there and decided to wait. It was a looong night.

For some reasons (maybe because we were there over Easter?), cabs in La Spezia were really expensive!! Our 5-10 minute ride to the train station and back always came out to be 10-15 euros. We took many cab rides during this trip, and this leg stuck out as quite pricey!

HINT: If you are calling a cab at La Spezia and you don’t know Italian, do not be put off by what appears to be voicemail. It is apparently an automated system, where you are supposed to say your pick up point/ destination and they are supposed to come back with how long it will take for the cab to get there. But yeah.. just call the hotel. If you don’t know Italian you would never be able to figure it out….

The hotel: As expected, the hotel is like a motel (or Holiday Inn) from maybe 20 years ago. It has a small corner entrance, and guests have to go up a small flight of stairs to reach the lobby (thank you boys). The staff was nice though and the elevator works!

The rooms: You basically get what you see. The rooms are good sized, very basic and functional. We also had a peek of the ocean from our small window. One of the first things I did was to open it since it was super stuffy when we entered our room (the ventilation was somewhat poor). The next thing I did was check the bedding to confirm what I suspected – yes they are still using those icky heavy brown blankets. Later that night, I also found that the walls are paper thin. You can hear people walking pass in the hallway. And I swear I could hear my friend laughing from two rooms away! I consoled myself that I have been to worse, and that this is probably already the best this area has to offer. And besides, at least the wifi worked! The other thing to note is that you have to after you flush the toilet, you have to remember to manually pull the lever back up. Otherwise it just keeps on flushing and flushing…

The service: I am 50/50 about the service. I emailed earlier to ask them to make restaurant reservations for me, and they just responded and told me the restuarant was closed that day. On the other hand they DID help me find a very decently priced driver to drive us to our next destination for which I am extremely grateful for. So while service was not top tiered, I do think that the staff try.

Breakfast: Breakfast was “included” in the rate. It is very busy at around 9am, though they quickly dispersed to catch the train. The offering looked broad, but the only thing I found to eat was kiwi. It was very very basic, so don’t expect much.

Conclusion: Would I recommend this hotel to a friend? Only if they have no other options. It is livable. More likely though, I would tell them to give Le 5 Terres B&B a try. At least it is closer to the train station. Cab fares are pricey!

Pros:

  • It was basic, functional and clean enough
  • Free wifi
  • Reachable by car
  • At the end of the day, it was still probably one of the best accommodations in the near vicinity of Cinque Terre

Cons:

  • The hardware was super outdated
  • Not walkable from the train station, and is a pricey cab ride away (even though it is only 5-10 minutes by car)
  • Icky brown heavy blankets
  • Thin walls
  • Stuffy room

Ps. I double checked last night, and I’m sorry I forgot to take pictures. I guess it was just not that inspiring…

NH La Spezia
Address: Via XX Settembre, 2 | La Spezia City Center, Golfo dei Poeti, 19124 La Spezia, Italy
Telephone: +39 0187 739555
Email: nhlaspezia@nh-hotels.com
Website: http://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-la-spezia 
Tripadvisor Reviews

Read more about my trip to italy here!

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