Parma ham and Balsamic Vinegar

Tags

, , , , , ,

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • 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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • 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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Tags

, , , , , , ,

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!

NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina, best in Turin!

Tags

, , ,

This hotel was not even opened when I started researching hotels in Turin. We almost ended up at the Townhouse 70 (it was a toss up between Townhouse 70 and the NH Torino Santa Stefano). But just as I was about to make the booking, the NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina showed up. It was new, well located and decently priced – I was instantly sold.

Location: As far as I can tell Turin is a small town, and while the hotel is not smack in the middle of everything it is close enough. The hotel is a 8 minute walk to the Apple store and 6 minute walk to the Chanel store according to Google (key indicators of civilization for me).

When we arrived at the train station (porta nuovo), the hotel was a close 5 minute cab ride away. We were also able to easily walk to the center of town and have lunch at the Piazza Carignano (the prettiest piazza according to my friends). The Guido Gubino store was also just a quick walk away (which also happens to be where the Egyptian Museum and the Chanel store are).

The Piazza Carlina itself was not that interesting. When we were there, there was construction in the middle which kind of ruined the whole effect. The pizza joint on the side was pretty good though!

The hotel: The hotel itself is a gorgeous historic building with newly renovated interiors (just the way I like it). While the lobby/reception was by no means “grand,” it was a very clever combination of the building’s historic features and modern contemporary design. The floors were marbled. The was a gorgeous staircase which reminded me of my french dorm. There was also a nice courtyard in the middle surrounded by glass, letting light into the interior.

The room: We booked a superior room and were given a room on the second floor of the hotel. Two things stood out to me about this room that I thought was super cool:

  1. The ceiling was SUPER HIGH
  2. We have a BALCONY

I know, I’m easily pleased. The rest of the room was modern, clean and relatively spacious. The bed was comfortable. Wifi was also free and very good! The only thing I would complain about is that the lighting was a bit dark (maybe because the ceiling is so high) at night. Oh and that there were no complimentary water. I was SO dehydrated the next morning when I got to breakfast.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bathroom: While the bathroom was on the smaller side, like the rest of the room it was modern, clean and functional. Extra points for having a proper full strength hair dryer and a towel warming rack. The only downside was that there wasn’t much counter space for my many toiletries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Service: The Guest Relations, Carola was excellent. I emailed her many times prior to the trip to arrange tickets for the Juventus game and pick up afterwards and besides some delay in response (she was gathering all the information first before she got back to me!) she was extremely helpful. The only thing was that the agent who bought our tickets got us 4 seats together and 2 apart (not even sitting together), which caused some distress when we realized this at the stadium. In the end, we pulled through and just squeezed together in our row of 4 (good thing we are small!). But seriously – attention to detail!

Breakfast: Out of all the “included” breakfasts I had throughout the trip, this was probably one of the best ones. There was a good selection of cold cuts, fruits, bread and some hot food. But you basically get what you pay for, and when something is included, it is just not going to taste as good as if you had paid for it specifically.

Conclusion: Probably the best hotel in Turin. I would definitely recommend this hotel to any friends going to Turin. While the Piazza Carlina itself feels somewhat isolated (probably because of the constructions), it is convenient, clean, modern and comfortable.

Pros:

  • Within easy walking distance from key sights
  • Good free wifi
  • Helpful staff
  • Modern and clean rooms
  • High ceilings and balcony
  • Proper full strength hair dryer

Cons:

  • Location somewhat isolated since there is nothing to see at the Piazza Carina. But maybe it is just because of the constructions going on while we were there
  • No complimentary water
  • Dark lighting
  • No counter space in bathroom

NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina

Address: 15 Piazza Carlo Emanuele II. 10123, Turin, Italy

Telephone: +39 011 8601611

Email: nhcollectionpiazzacarlina@nh-hotels.com

Website: http://www.nh-collection.com/hotel/nh-collection-torino-piazza-carlina

Tripadvisor Reviews

Read more about my trip to italy here!

How to see a Juventus game at the Juventus Stadium

Tags

, , , , ,

Before I started planning for this trip, I had not even heard of Turin (or Torino as the locals call it). So why out of all the charming little towns in Italy did we go to Turin of all places? Because my boyfriend is a hard core Juventus fan. It was only fair that he get a say of where to go for 1 day out of our 11 day trip.

So we added a pilgrimage to the Juventus stadium onto our agenda. We were originally only going to visit the stadium, but as luck would have it there was actually a GAME going on the day we were going (Juventus vs. a team called Empoli). So of course, even though I know/care absolutely nothing about football, I set out to get tickets for us and make the most of it. It turned out to be a bit more challenging than I thought. Avid English-writing detailed-oriented blogger Juventus fans are not.

Game schedule: First I struggled with the match date. On every website I looked, it says that the game date/time was “To be confirmed.” I couldn’t understand WHY it was taking them so long to confirm. How else can people plan their travels? And why were websites like Viagogo.com (which I read was legit and reliable) already selling tickets for that match when the date has not even been confirmed? What if people cannot make it? My bf said something about how they have to see if they get into the finals of something or other first blah blah blah. So to be on the safe side, I stalked and waited.

About 1.5 months before our trip, they finally confirmed the time/date. Viagogo.com had not even updated their website yet. Apparently the most up to date authority on Italian football matches is something called the La Gazzetta dello Sport.

TIP: It should be noted that even after they “confirm” the dates, the time may also change. I thought our game was at 3pm until 2 weeks before the game and I realized that it was actually at 9pm (by then I had already bought train tickets!). So keep checking as you get closer to game day!

How to get tickets: The next step was to find out how to buy tickets. Apparently there are season tickets for local fans, and then there are tickets for everyone else. Tickets are also very name and ID specific, so you have to be sure you buy the right ticket. From my research there are mainly 3 ways to do so if you are a tourist.

Method Time in Advance Comments
Official Online Vendor (Listicket) Around 2 weeks before the game (double check time of sales!) Probably the cheapest way, but I hear you have to be clicking away exactly at sales time (think Apple iphone release!). Site is in Italian. Goodluck….
Viagogo.com Anytime A legit and reliable website according to online articles. Though the prices looks steep, the seating area descriptions seem kind of vague AND the website doesn’t even update promptly to confirm the date/time.
Agents via your hotel Ideally a month ahead Typically operate via agents. They are used to helping tourists get tickets.

Sometimes in a foreign country, it is nice to have the human touch. I decided to book via our hotel in the end, and they were SUPER helpful. They provided us with a seating chart and told us the prices for each segment so we can choose where we wanted to sit.      I am sure prices differ game to game. For our game, prices ranged from 70-160 euros. The yellow/green area being the cheapest, followed by red 111-112, red 213-15, red 113-115 and red 216-218. We chose the 113-115 tickets!

From my research/personal experience, I think the dark grey section is where the season club ticket holders sit (we saw many prime empty seats there), the green section is where the local fan club sits (we saw a lot of flags and cheer coordinations coming out of that stand) and the light grey section between red and yellow is where the opposing team fans sits segregated from the rest of the stadium.

Anyway, we provided the hotel with our names/IDs and seating preference and they made the booking for us. Tickets were duly delivered to the hotel a few days before the game, and we paid the hotel cash upon arrival.

TIP: The one thing I would complain about is that we booked 6 tickets, and while 4 tickets sat together on second row (wohoo!), 2 of our tickets turned out to be a) WAY elsewhere and b) not even together!!! We didn’t realize this until we got there, and we were REALLY UPSET. Luckily, we are all really small and just squeezed together in 4 seats in the end (and people sitting in front of us left after the first half). I think it is because tickets are sold in packages of 4. So if you are buying more than 4 tickets, you should be very specific and carefully examine your tickets when you get it!!!

How to get there and back: Now that we have tickets and all, I had to figure out how to get there. As far as I knew, there were 2 ways:

  1. Take bus number 72 from bus stop BERTOLA in the direction of Macchiavelli, and stop at bus stop STADIO NORD. Travel time will take about 45 minutes
  2. Take a cab. It takes about 20 minutes and costs about 15-20 euros

In the interest of time (and because I am spoilt), I decided that we would take the cab.

But then my next worry was, how will we get a cab back?? Any time a big gathering ends, there is bound to be a huge crowd. We will never find a cab, and will be stranded in the middle of nowhere at 11pm at night!

In the end, I asked the hotel to arrange a transfer to pick us up after the game. The price was not too unreasonable at 75 euros (especially since there are 6 of us). And we were super glad I did, because it started drizzling after the game and it was hectic!

TIP: It is pretty hectic after a game and there isn’t anything around in the dark – make sure you have an exit plan!

Juventus Museum and the Match Day Special Tour:  Ofcourse we were going to check out the Juventus museum and the Match day special tour while we were there as well. While I tried to find out more information about it on the Juventus website and its tripadvisor forum, there really wasn’t much available online. All I knew was this:

 I figured that all we had to do was show up within the appointed time. So we were super surprised when we finally got to the museum entrance  (look for the mall entrance with the H&M sign) a little before 3pm to find this humongous line (not sure if this is the norm or if it is because of Easter weekend). Turns out the Match Day Special Tour was already sold out and the huge line was for the museum!!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the interest of time, I sent my boyfriend and his fellow Juventus fan (whom we had just met in the line and is also from Hong Kong – small world!) to the official gift store while the rest of us waited in line. Apparently his eyes shone like a kid in a toy store as he proceeded to shop to his heart’s content.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We had to go drag him out the store 30-45 minutes later when we finally got to the museum entrance. To a non-football fan like myself, the museum was basically just a trophy room full of trophies, another big room full of football shirts and things with real size cardboard players sprinkled about and a panorama show. But my boyfriend, it was Juventus fan heaven. He wandered excitedly from display to display and had me follow to help take pictures of him and the displays.

We spent AGES in there. It’s too bad they didn’t have a cafe at the end, because I could have totally used a cup of tea after that.

TIP: Go early for the Special Match Day Tour!!

PS: For non-fans thinking to get a knock off jersey or scarf for the game – the knock off jerseys are 20+ euros and the knocn off scarf is almost the same price as the official one.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Game: The game didn’t start until 9pm, so we figured we had time after the museum to go back to the hotel, rest and get a proper meal before we came back again. But at 7pm when we asked the hotel how early they thought we should go, we were informed that people were already heading there!

So we grabbed a very quick bite of pizza near the hotel and headed back to Juventus at around 7:45pm. We arrived a little past 8pm. There were many check points for IDs and tickets and we were detoured twice for trying to enter through the wrong entrances (they are VERY specific). We also stopped by the official store again for some last minute supplies. By the time we got to our awesome second row seats, we were just in time for the beginning of the game.

As I am not a fan, I cannot comment on the football (Juventus vs. Empoli 4/4/2015) besides that Juventus scored 2-0. What struck me most though was the atmosphere. I had no idea what people were chanting (besides “Okaaay” and “Bravo”), but it was so alive and energetic that even I was swept along with it. In our second row seats, we were just SO CLOSE to the action that many times I thought they ball would fly right at me (in which case I would have totally hid it and kept it as a souvineer).

Because of our seating issues mentioned early, during the second half I sat onthe first row (some folks left). I realized that while it is a privilege to have court side seats at a basketball game, it is not quite so in football. Your view is blocked by the fences and you just can’t get a good view of the full picture. Second row was definitely better.

Overall I thought live football was a lot more fun than watching it on TV. And as for my boyfriend…. there was some slight disappointment that some key players was injured and couldn’t play, but it did not take away from the overall experience it was still definitely the highlight of the trip for him.

If you have read this post all the way here… good luck planning your pilgrimage and I hope this helps!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

NOTE: I do wish that we had arrived perhaps 15-20 minutes earlier because a) I think we may have missed the anthem and b) they take fan videos before the game and put it on the screen during half time. As a group of Asians, I was totally sure that we would’ve been selected to air!!!

NOTE: Apparently Turin is home to Juventus AND Torino, and Italians are very sensitive about which team you support. So be careful!

Other places of interest in Turin: I also did some research on Turin itself in case we had time. In the end we didn’t, but I thought about the below:

  1. Getting a bicerin at one of the “historic cafes” of the city
  2. Turin is apparently one of the chocolate capitals of the world. It was one of the first cities to mix hazel nut with cocao (think Nutella and Ferrero Rocher). They are famous for something called “gianduiotto” (think nutella flavored chocolate). I did manage to buy some chocolate from Guido Gubino before I left, but I didn’t get to sit down and enjoy a hot chocolate. There are also a couple other chocolate makers in town as well if you have time!
  3. Inspired by my friend’s Instagram picture, I wanted to go to Castello del Valetino as well. It is apparently part of a university now and is surrounded by a park. I envisioned us having a relaxing and picturesque walk in the park after lunch.
  4. I love palaces and gorgeous gardens, and when I stumbled across the newly renovated La Venaria Reale I was intrigued. But it is 45 minutes away from Turin, so we definitely did not have time for this. Reference for next time. I read that reservations are recommended!
  5. I read somewhere that the ever popular Grom originated from Turin as well. But I would have been happy getting any old gelato. We passed by a few very authentic looking shops. I really wish I stopped for a gelato now…
  6. On our way to Guido Gubino on a Sunday morning, we noticed a huge line and we thought it was for mass or something. But turns out it was a line to the Egyptian Museum. You wouldn’t think it, but it is apparently one of the key attractions in Turin!
  7. When I mentioned that I was going to Turin, my boss said that I should go see the Shroud of Turin. It is apparently a piece of cloth with the image of Christ on it. On further research, it was not open for viewing while we were there. But looks like from comments it is now.. find out more here.
  8. While I was researching hotel, I also found out that Turin is also the orign of Fiat (the ex-Fiat factory is actually now the NH Lingotto Congress and boasts a race track on the roof!). I’m sure if you are a fan, there is a museum of sorts you can visit in the area as well.

First stop: 1 day in Milan 

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Why Milan? Mostly because that’s where the direct flight from Hong Kong stops nearest to Cinque Terre, so it made the most sense. I have been to Milan a couple of times in the past and have never felt a huge urge to go back.  This was my first time to visit on my own terms though, and since I had months to plan I was determined to do it right.

The Malpensa Airport: Some time into the planning I realized that I have never been through the Malpensa Airport before because I have typically visited via train or the Linate Airport (which is super close to the city – like the Haneda to Tokyo). I didn’t realize until then that it is almost 1 hour away from the city. Not knowing whether they have van cabs in Milan that can carry our party of 4 (and 4 large suitcases) and whether there will be extra charges, I decided to book a minivan to pick us up via Airport Taxi Transfer (which a colleague had previously used). The price came out to be around 85 euros which I thought was reasonable (vs. 72 – 86 euros by cab according to TaxiFareFinder).

It is worth bearing in mind though that Airport Taxi Transfer is a UK based company which outsources to local car companies. We know this because our flight arrived early, and when we didn’t see anyone at arrival waiting for us we called the hotline. Someone in the UK picked up and said that we should have recieved the direct contact of our driver already – we didn’t. They gave us an Italian number to call, which finally went through after a few times (this is early at around 7am in the morning). Turns out in Italy when you say you are arriving at 7:55am, they don’t double check your flight status but arrive promptly at 7:55am. Many other passengers appeared to be waiting for their drivers as well.

Shopping: After breakfast and a quick nap at the Bulgari Milan, our first order of business was to check out the Chanel store. Since we have many days and a lot of train rides ahead of us, we wanted to leave our shopping till last. But Chanel was the exception because they were apparently going to hike up prices in Europe on April 8 and the Boy bag is a super hot item. We had to use every opportunity we had to snag it!

Turns out we were not the only ones thinking this. Chanel was the only store along the Monte Napoleone with a line! After waiting around 15 – 20 minutes, we were finally let in – only to find that they have sold out of classic boys.

With the benefit of hindsight, I regret not shopping in Milan. The stores were definitely more peaceful (and likely with WAY more style and sizes) than in Florence or Paris!

Salsamenteria Di Parma: Time flies when you are shopping/ lining up. Before we realized, it was already close to 2pm (end of lunch time)! Consulting my map and list of recommended restaurants by friends, we ended up at the Salsamenteria Di Parma which was noted as good for “salami and sparkling red wine” and was conveniently located 2 blocks away from where we were.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It turns out to be a super casual joint filled with lots of local customers (a good sign!). We were seated after 5 – 10 minutes and ordered a platter of their best ham (because why not?), some sandwiches and pasta, as well as half a bottle of house red (served in a bowl!). The food came shortly after. I’m not a huge foodie, but I can say that aside from the sandwich (which we thought was a bit dry) it was a very satisfying and good valued meal (came out to be less than 20 euros per head).

Duomo and Galleria Vittorio: After lunch, our next stop was the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio. It was packed with tourists (and probably theives) but it is not a trip to Milan if you don’t stop and say hi!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The last time I came, the front facade of the Duomo was under construction. So it was nice to actually see it in all its glory this time (and under such gorgeous weather). I also really wanted to make it up the Terrace (roof top), because I have never been and I have seen some really gorgeous pictures of the architect up there.

I’m not sure if it was because it was Easter Friday, but there was a huge line going up that did not appear to be moving. And sadly I had not thought to pre-book a ticket either. We decided to come back after we went to see the Last Supper (which we did have a ticket for) because we didn’t want to miss our slot. But when we came back a hour later the line did not improve.

Luckily we have our ears pricked at all times. The trick is to buy tickets from the other side of the Duomo. It seems that everyone somehow lines up on the left side of the Duomo (the side near the Galleria), and forget about the ticket office on the other side. It seems that the elevator was broken that day (or tickets ran out?), so we took the stairs (around 200+ steps).

It was all worth it though. The flying buttresses, the beautifully intricate carvings and statues – it was magnificient. MUST GO.

Duomo Milan 

Opening times (Terrace): daily 9.00 – 19.00. Last ticket 18.00

The Last Supper: Growing up, we have always had a copy of the Last Supper above our dining room table. So when I went to Milan during college I really wanted to see it in real life. Except I didn’t know it was such a hot commodity back then, and was quickly shown the door when I tried to go see it. This time around I was determined and prepared.

About 2 months before the trip (in early February), I emailed our hotel and asked them to help book Last Supper tickets for us. It was fortunate timing, because the pre-selling for April and May was about to start in a week. A week later the hotel emailed back on the day of the sale, and said that they secured tickets for us. A few hours later though, they emailed back again and said there was something up with the system and they actually did not…

What happened is that Last Supper tickets (which are only worth 8 euros at ticket level!) are quickly swiped up by local tour agencies to be incorporated into packaged tours. And many people do indeed join these tours just to see the Last Supper (I have many friends who have done that!).

… anyway, in the end the hotel put us on the waitlist via their agency, Gold Black Style. I frankly did not have much hope and almost booked myself on one of those packaged tours. But 2 weeks before the trip, they emailed us back and said they got us tickets!!!

So if you want to buy Last Supper tickets here are the ways:

Source Time in Advance Cost (Euros)
Official Last Supper Website At least 2-3 months (check release dates) 6.5 + 1.5 booking fee (goodluck!)
Select Italy At least 2-3 months ~16
Concierge or agent such as Gold Black Style At least 2-3 months ~30
Packaged Tours Couple days to weeks ~68

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So that day we arrived super early and actually had time to tour the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazi as well. The actual entrance to see the Last Supper is on the left side of the church in a very non descript looking building (apparently the reflectory). After going through a few set of doors (for conservation purposes), we eventually found ourselves with a small group in a dimly lit medieval hall with the Last Supper painted on one side of the wall. We all fell silent and sat down on the benches set in front to stare at the Last Supper.

I am not sure what I was expecting exactly as I am no expert in art appreciation. It was definitely different from the typical painting in a museum. Because of the method it was painted in, it was also much more faded than the replicas I have seen. It was also way bigger than I thought. Eventually people started to move around, and we realized that behind us was another painting (the Cruxificion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano). You can really see the difference in the painting method makes when you compare the two pieces, and start to understand why they take such great pains to protect it. But anyways, after about 10 minutes (which I think is just about enough time) the bell rang and we were herded out into the gift store.

Was it worth it? Definitely. Would I go again? Probably not, I would peg it as an once in a lifetime experience.

Getting connected: One of my key missions in Milan was actually to get a local sim card for the rest of the trip. After comparing prices, I decided it was cheaper to get a local sim card (vs. a wifi egg) while I am in Italy. It is easy to open once you find a store (I picked Vodafone and it took around 15 minutes), cheap at only 30 euros for 4 GBs (for the month!), the connection is great and it allows you to make local calls which turned out to be very useful. The wifi egg on the other hand costs ~10 euros/day, has inconsistent connections and always run out of battery (bad experience in Seoul last time!). Also I guess I just don’t like to be tethered to other people. But anyway, I was super happy with it and highly recommend it!

The most convenient store is the Vodafone on Via Orefici near the Duomo (the street behind the Duomo taxi station) or in Milan Centrale. It took me a while to find the store without data, so it will be useful to print yourself a map beforehand! Alternatively, TIM stores seems to be even more prevalent in Italy. But I don’t know what packages they have.

Other Recommended Restarants by friends (because there’s nothing quite like the word of mouth):

Bulgari Milan, the 5 star experience

Tags

, , , ,

Since we were arriving in Milan early in the morning after a red eye flight in economy class, we decided to treat ourselves to a nicer hotel to increase our chances of an early check-in. We ended up at the Bulgari Milan, which is unquestionably one of the best hotels in the city (though mostly it was because we found a really really special rate which was too good to pass up!).

Location: The Bulgari (pronounced “boo-gar-ri” according to cab drivers) is ideally situated in a quiet little street right next to where the new MO is being built (I am a FAN!), less than 10 minutes walk away from the Monte Napoleone (shopping!) and the Duomo (masterpiece!). Not quite as close to the Monte Napoleone as the Armani Hotel, but we are not complaining.

First impression: As our car got closer to the hotel we realised why we didn’t see anything when we Google mapped the hotel – the Google van couldn’t get pass the gates. Once we passed the gates and went up the driveway, we were welcomed by the sight of Ferraris etc. and an elegantly designed reception and lobby.

My boss (who previously stayed here) thinks the Bulgari Milan lacks character, but I personally think that it is minimalist and chic. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As we had hoped, they were able to let us check-in early, though they needed some time to prepare the rooms. So we went for a Bulgari breakfast. We were all famished after the airline food!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A little pricey, but you get what you paid for in terms of quality (if not portion!). The most impressive were their fresh juices, especially their fresh orange juice (using blood oranges!) and their fresh strawberry juice (SO sweet). It’s a tough call which my favourite is. I wonder if they would still give me the bread basket (also excellent) if I just ordered juice.. cause really that’s all I need.

After breakfast,  we were given a quick tour of the hotel (mostly a minor detour to see the basement pool and spa) before being shown to our rooms. Each floor is key access only (you would be surprised how many hotels in Europe DON’T have this function).

Since we paid for the cheapest available rate, I can only assume that what we were given is the Deluxe Room. But man, our rooms were SPACIOUS. There was a little area at the entrance for the minibar (not pictured). There was space for a huge table in front of the TV (pictured above). There was the sleeping area with the king size bed (which was simply divine by the way with very high quality bedding – I slept like a baby!). AND there was a ginormous bathroom.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So ginormous they had to separate the bathtub in a completely different room. But yes, as you can see the bathroom was super spacious (at this point, I realized that this may be a handicap room given all the hand rails and extra space).

I would also like to commend their hair conditioner. I realized belated that I’d forgotten  how hard the water in Europe was, and that the hair conditioner I brought was simply not strong enough to detangle my locks. So I proceeded to smother my hair with the hotel hair conditioner and it worked like a charm. I snagged it for the rest of the trip!

Oh and for ladies who groom – they have a LEGIT off the wall hair dryer, complete with a removable nozzle!

Service: Overall great before and during our stay. I was in touch previously by email to arrange for some museum ticktes, and they were prompt and professional. During our stay, we asked them to help buy train tickets. They did not get the buy one get one free promotion tickets available on Saturdays even though we reminded them of it on the phone.. but I guess cost is not a priority for the Bulgari staff. There was also a minor mishap with our bill at check out, but that was quickly resolved.

Conclusion:  Definitely our best hotel on this trip (also most expensive!). I thought it was everything a five star luxury hotel should be. Excellent service, high quality rooms and all the luxuries of modern amenities. Would I pay full price for it though? To be honest, probably not. If I were to go high end again in Milan I would probably go for the Armani Hotel down the road which is newer, closer to the shops and marginally cheaper. Armani can’t be that bad.

Incidentally if I were to come back to Milan again and I wanted something more affordable, I would probably look at the Westin Palace (older and further but safe and has Amex rates) or maybe the NH Collection Milano President (which looks quite decent).

Pros:

  • True 5 star quality service and modern hardware
  • Spacious rooms with super comfortable beds
  • Amazing fresh juice selection

Cons:

  • Location could be a bit closer to key sights
  • One of THE most expensive hotels in Milan (currently #2 most expensive on Tripadvisor), but it is the Bulgari.. that is to be expected
  • Surprisingly the shower strength was a bit weak and the temperature somewhat inconsistent, but not a huge dealbreaker
  • The lighting system was a bit too high tech for me, but maybe that is just me

Bulgari Milan 

Address: Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7/b – 20121 Milano

Telephone: + 39 02 805 805 1

Email: milano@bulgarihotels.com

Website: http://www.bulgarihotels.com/en-us/milan/the-hotel/overview 

Tripadvisor Reviews

Read more about my trip to italy here!

My trip to Italy: Overview

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Just so we are on the same page, I would classify myself as a “spoilt but cost conscious traveller in her twenties”. I just came back from my trip to Italy (with a brief stop in Paris for obvious reasons), and I am now totally head over heels in love with Italy. The scenery is ridiculously gorgeous and the food is affordable and absolutely delicious.

Since I spent months and months planning the trip (yes, I am a obssessive planner), I thought I would share my work here (with the benefit of hindsight) so that some likeminded souls can put it to good use. My boyfriend assures me that it is worth $$ to some busy bodies out there. It will also let me live through the process all over again and mentally extend the trip 🙂

The idea started forming about a year ago, when my friend A and I realized that there will be a long holiday in Hong Kong for Easter 2015 where we can take 3 days off and get 10 consecutive days off work (a huge consideration for us working gals!). So we started brainstorming long trip ideas from South Africa to Spain. We eventually decided on Italy because we wanted to go to Cinque Terre and Florence AND we love pizza and pasta.

We were originally only going to Milan, Cinque Terre and Florence, but we ended up visiting 9 different cities/towns in 11 days instead. It was most definitely ambitious and admittedly tiring, but it was also exhilarating and bundles of fun! Here is a summary of our itinerary:

Day Location Accomodations Activity
 Redeye flight from Hong Kong to Milan
1 Milan Bulgari Milano Duomo, The Last Supper
 Morning train from Milan Centrale to Torino Portoa Nuova
2 Turin NH Torino Piazza Carlina Juventus game, Gianduiotti etc. 
 Morning train from Torino Portoa Nuova to La Spezia
3
4
Cinque Terre NH La Spezia The five fishing villages
Morning drive from La Spezia to Parma to Modena
5 Parma + Modena Best Western Premier Milano Palace Hotel Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, Osteria Francescana
Morning train from Modena to Bologna Centrale
6 Bologna UNA Bologna Tuscan cooking class, tagliatelle bolognese
Morning train from Bologna Centrale to Firenze Santa Maria Novella
7
8
9.0
Florence + Tuscany Ponte Vecchio Suites Uffizi Museum, David, Siena, San Gimignana, Shopping
Afternoon flight from Florence to Paris
9.5
10
11
Paris Chess Hotel LVMH Foundation, Musee Rodin, Les Invalides, Pont Des Art, Bresse Chicken, Shopping
Evening flight from Paris to Hong Kong

Instead of putting everything down in exhaustive detail all at once, I will be writing separate posts in the coming days and weeks to make it more reader friendly and organized. Links will be added to this table (Yes, I just learnt how to make tables via HTML!) as I go along, so keep checking back!

We are Water

Tags

, , ,

wearewater

I just finished reading We are Water by Wally Lamb. This is my first book by him, and I think he is a great storyteller. Kept my nose in my Kindle for days!

The story itself was unquestionably messed up. A middle age woman leaving her husband of 27 years to marry her lesbian girlfriend. Almost everything bad under the sun happens at some point in the book. Racism, poverty, rape, molestation, abortions, violence, murder, thief and paralysis. It will definitely make your own life feel much more orderly in comparison.

What strikes me about the book though is that for the most part, I get it. Even though I have obviously not been in such situations, I get why the characters feel the way they do and act the way they do (except for the part of the child molester.. I almost feel some sympathy for him, but not quite).

What stuck out the most for me was Annie and Orion’s relationship. When they flashed back to how their relationship started it sounded like a true love. Like this story will get a happy ending. They will all live happily ever after. How could it not? But then I recall all of Annie’s resentment during her years of marriage staying home with the kids, and especially as a woman myself I think, YES I totally get it. Why is Orion’s work always more important than Annie’s? And why does he feel that he shoud get an A* for taking care of the kids for 1 day, when that is Annie’s reality everyday? I am not even married (let alone have kids), but I totally get her angst!!!!

It makes me think that perhaps my mom is right (as she almost always is) – things really do change after marriage. Happily ever after isn’t quite what it is cut out to be. The real work actually does start after you say I do. It really gets one thinking..

The other thing worth mentioning is that the title of the book is genius. I didn’t get it at first. But when it was it explained it made so much sense. How in a way, we are all made of water. We can be gently floating along most of the time, but also strong and powerful when we need to be. And like water, we tend to take the road of least resistance. Another interesting point to think about.

I am eager to read some of his previous books!

Borei Angkor – Surprisingly Good Value

Tags

, , , , , ,

Since both the Shinta Mani hotels were full (not surprising since they are well situated, reasonably priced and look very new and contemporary!), we ended up at the Borei Angkor during our trip to Siem Reap last December. While it may not be the nicest hotel in the area, we found it surprisingly good value and were quite happy with it!

The Borei Angor = Privilieged Floor: The important thing to note about the Borei Angkor is that it is the same hotel as the Priviliged Floor. This is not immediately obvious on Tripadvisor. The Priviliged Floor is ranked the #3 top hotel in Siem Reap with a price tag in the low US$200s. The Borei Angkor on the other hand is ranked #20 and costs a little less than US$100. But they are actually both in the same complex sharing the same facilities (very tricky marketing here!).

So what is the difference? From what I can tell the Privileged Floor is essentially the equivalent of a club floor. You get access to a special lounge as well as 24/7 personal butler and a car service. According to the reviews, the service is top notch and even a little bit over attentive. But the hardware for both “hotels” are more or less the same. Since we had already arranged our own driver/tour guide and don’t have much use for more personal attention the cheaper Borei Angkor was the obvious choice for us.

Location: The Borei Angkor is not quite as ideally situated as one would like within walking distance to the Old Market and the Pub Street Area (where all the action is). But it is not far. About 5-10 minutes away by tuk tuk (~US$4 for 4 people). Since we spent most of the day at the temples and only went to town for dinner and shopping, we thought the distant was reasonable. Otherwise there is really nothing of interest near the hotel.

It was also only about a 15-20 minute drive from the airport and about 20 minutes to Angkor Wat. But I’m guessing you can say that for pretty much everywhere, since the whole town seems to have been built around Angkor Wat.

Airpor transfer: Our package included airport transfer (which seems to be the norm in Siem Reap). I read about cases where the hotel forgot to pick guests up from the airport, but we reconfirmed twice and was duly picked up at arrivals. But we did have to share our ride with another guest. It seems that they have a free airport shuttle service that just goes around and around, and you sign up for a specific timeslot in advance. We actually missed our scheduled time going back to the airport, and caught the ride half a hour later. TIP: The airport is so close by and so small we had more than an hour to spare after immigration. Do NOT go to the airport too early. Leaving the hotel 2 hours ahead of flight time is fine.

The hotel: When we went, the entrance of the hotel was marked by a somewhat tacky large red ball (which can double as Christmas and Chinese New Year decor I supposed). But it was a welcome sight compared to the surroundings (very local and industrial).

From an international traveler perspective however, the hotel is definitely dated with some wear and tear here and there. It felt a little bit like I walked into a time capsule. The lobby was probably grand a few decades ago. But it was clean (with maybe only a few mosquito looking insects flying around the lobby), the check-in process was smooth and we were quickly shown to our third floor rooms.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4124.jpg

The Rooms: Having read the reviews about tired looking rooms, we went for the Landmark rooms hoping for a better experience (it is supposed to be part of the “newer” wing). The price difference was very small. And since my expectations were not that high to begin with, we were actually pleasantly surprised!/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4126.jpg

Despite the unfortunately colored curtains, the room was clean, spacious and (most importantly) insect free. The air conditioning, lighting and the plumbings worked. There wasn’t any weird smell. We sighed a breathe of relief./home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4127.jpg

If one were to be picky, the bed was a bit hard for my liking. It felt a little like they wrapped feather around a plank of wood. The slippers looked re-used, so definitely bring your own! The internet was weak. Our doorbell rang for no reason on a few occasions. There weren’t enough electric sockets. And they indeed only provide you with 2 bottles of water everyday (BYO water!).

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4125.jpg

The most impressive thing about the bathroom was definitely the fact that they had an anti-fog glass mirror. Who would have thought?

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4128.jpg

The shower area was a little bit dark. We didn’t use the bathtube. But everything else worked fine!

Breakfast: Even though I typically only like to eat eggs, bacon, hashbrown and toast for breakfast, the quality can vary a lot from place to place. The Borei Angkor was surprisingly good./home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4141.jpg

The egg was large and the bacon was just right (not too fat and not too fried)!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4140.jpg

The variety of food was also quite extensive. Fresh fruits, western food, local food and lots of made-to-order stations.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/044/6299064/files/2015/01/img_4139.jpg

They even had TWO egg stations (less waiting!), one noodle station and one crepe station (though they typically reheat crepes vs. make fresh ones). Impressed!

Culture Night: The hotel offers a Khmer Apsara Dance Show a few nights a week at their outdoor Pavilion. We knew it would be a tourist trap and that the food would probably be awful, but we figured that we should see an Apsara dance while we were in Cambodia. It is like how one should see belly dancing in Turkey or caberat in France.

At US$45/night (?) it was our most expensive meal in Siem Reap. But I guess it IS in a hotel. We did each get a traditional khmer scarf as a souvineer. The Pavilion was also quite beautifully decorated (yes, it is outdoors – remember to wear mosquito repellent!). The food could be better, but was not too bad. The whole show was not too long.

Outdoor Pavilion, Apsara Dance Show

Outdoor Pavilion, Apsara Dance Show

And the dances itself were pretty good. The 5-6 dances were well spread out in between courses, sufficiently different and most of all, I loved the outfits! It is so rich in color and detail!

2015/01/img_4154.jpg

Conclusion: While the hardware was decidedly dated, given the price point it was surprisingly good value. Would I recommend it to friends? Yes, if they are looking for a good value stay in Siem Reap while they go temple-ing. No, if they are looking for somewhere to chill and relax. For that, I personally prefer somewhere more modern.

Pros:

  • It is cheap (especially compared to the other Meridiens and Anantara’s of Siem Reap)
  • It offers many types of rooms: Doubles, triples, connecting rooms etc. (especially compared to some hotels *ahem* Heritage *ahem* which only offers King beds)
  • Clean rooms
  • Good breakfast

Cons:

  • The whole Pavilion and Borei Angkor thing is a sham
  • The hardware is very dated
  • The beds are too hard
  • Location not quite central
  • Stingy on water – only 2 bottles/room/day

Tips: Definitely get a Landmark room!!

Borei Angkor, Siem Reap

Address: National Road 6, Banteay Chas, Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia

Telephone: + 855­ 63 964 406

Email: info@boreiangkor.com

Website: http://boreiangkor.com/

Tripadvisor Reviews