How to eat tapas in Spain like a local

Ever wonder the history and origin of Tapas? At some point in your life, you’ve probably enjoyed a variety of cold and hot small plates instead of one big meal. In bars in Spain, Tapas is a culture onto itself. It is a night out with friends hopping from bar to bar throughout the night. Locals also grab tapas around noon before their actual lunch later in the day. They are meant to be eaten in between the main meals, usually with a drink in a social setting. There are no tapas restaurants, just tapas bars.

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Porras and Chocolate Photo: Michelle Jerson

Taberna Real Photo: Michelle Jerson

The word “tapas” is derived form the Spanish verb tapar, which means to cover, or to top. Its origin has been linked to many different legends. One states that in a bar, a piece of meat such as ham, or bread was given out and it was to be placed on top of the drink to protect it from fruit flies. Another tale says that since people would mostly stand while they ate in the Spanish bar, they would need to place their plates on top of their drinks in order to eat.   A third claims that when King Alfonso X was sick, he had wine and small dishes throughout the day, and believed that’s what healed him. When he got better, the king mandated all wine be served with a small snack. A fourth possibility involves Felipe III who tried to keep the soldiers and sailors in line. He passed a law that when one purchased a drink, the bartender was to place a lid containing food on top of the mug or goblet so the alcohol would not absorb so quickly. However, no matter the origin, I had a blast eating my way through Madrid just like a local!

Photo: Michelle Jerson

Mercado de Antón Martín

Since there are countless restaurants and bars around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor area, I went with a company that specializes just in tapas tours! With so many options, I wanted to make sure I was trying the best! I took Devour Madrid’s Nighttime Tapas, Taverns, and History Tour and also their morning Huertas Neighborhood Food and Market Tour. So how do you know a good tapas bar? Lauren Aloise is the co-founder of Devour Madrid and says, “Most people would consider the dirty floor of a restaurant a bad thing, but not in Spain. A floor filled with crumpled up napkins, shrimp shells and olive pits is a good thing in Spain, meaning that the bar is a popular place. Stories say that one hundred years ago some not-so-honest restaurants would steal the trash from other bars’ floors, to make it look like they were popular too!” When choosing the bars for her tour, she takes into consideration the quality of the food and highlights small and medium family run businesses that have an interesting history and story to tell.

La Casa del Abuelo’s famous shrimp Photo: Michelle Jerson

We started the morning tour with homemade porras and chocolate, a breakfast staple. The porra is a fried pastry, like a churro, just thicker. It is then dipped in a rich cup of chocolate. There’s nothing like a good sugar spike to start your day!  Other traditional tapas include Iberian Ham and other cured meats. Seafood is a staple, including anchovies, sardines, octopus, cod, and shrimp, all prepared many different ways, usually either on a piece of toasted bread or in garlic, parsley and olive oil. It’s not uncommon to see a plate of octopus sprinkled with paprika and drizzled in olive oil.

On the evening tour, we first stopped in at Taberna Real in Plaza de Isabel for some toasted bread with fresh tomato and extra virgin olive oil and a glass of Vermouth on tap. The freshly fried garlic and chili shrimp is a staple at La Casa del Abuelo, which has been around for over 100 years, and not to be missed.   At Bodegas Ricla, Ana lives upstairs and cooks all the tapas in her kitchen. The freshly pickled anchovies in garlic and parsley and her “off-menu” are must haves in this tavern that’s been in existence since 1867.

A variety of seafood tapas Photo: Michelle Jerson

 

With so many bars and food from which to choose in a night, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options. James Blick, the other co-founder of Devour Madrid offers the following advice on how to get the most out of your tapas experience. “The bar is the beating heart of a tapas joint. It’s where the action is. So forget sitting at a table, and thrust your way to the bar. Don’t order a million plates at once. Order bit by bit. There’s no rush when you’re out for tapas!”

Top picks for Tapas:

Bodegas Ricla:

This bar first opened as a bodega (wine shop, selling wine from the barrel) in 1867. Back then people didn’t buy bottles of wine, but would take their container to fill it up from the barrels in bodegas, and while there, they might grab a snack of boquerones en vinagre (anchovies marinated in vinegar) or some cheese. Thirty years ago the current family took over the tavern, and now the mother Ana does all the cooking (much of the prep done in her kitchen in her apartment upstairs) and her two sons, Emilio and José Antonio, run the bar. They still specialize in wines (though no longer sell from the barrel) and the food is still very simple, reflecting the fact that the bar doesn’t have a full kitchen (as it was originally a shop). The menu consists of Madrid’s most famous boquerones en vinagre, cheeses, salt-cod and one or two hot dishes.

Calle de los Cuchilleros 6 Madrid

Casa Toni:

Lamb Intestines Photo: Michelle Jerson

If you’re the more adventurous type, Casa Toni serves tapas made of body parts that are probably not on your everyday diet. In addition to some staples like the their mini green peppers and eggplant, you’ll find organ meats such as grilled kidneys, fried glands, and braided lamb intestines. Don’t worry – they offer plenty of wine and sangria to wash it all down!

‪Calle de la Cruz 14, 28012

 La Casa del Abuelo:

This family-run bar was founded by the current owners’ great-grandfather in 1906, and was known for its sandwiches (bocadillos). But then came the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 and the conflict left Madrid devastated. In the early 1940s there was widespread hunger in the city, and a shortage of bread. This made it impossible for La Casa del Abuelo to continue selling sandwiches. So the current owners’ grandfather went to the market and bought shrimp, which were cheap. And the bar began selling grilled shrimp. These days it’s the most famous place in the city (and perhaps Spain) for gambas (shrimp) on the grill, as well as gambas al ajillo.

http://lacasadelabuelo.es

Calle de la Victoria, 12 and Calle de Toledo, 11

Alevin Fish Noodles Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Mercado de San Miguel: 

This is a great spot to sample a variety of unique and traditional tapas. The market stresses fresh and season dishes. There is a variety of food for all palates. The fish noodle known as the elver, which can be served plain, with shrimp, or in a sandwich with smoked salmon, is a must try. Centrally located in the Plaza de San Miguel and the last remaining iron market hall in Madrid, it’s a fun spot to spend an hour or two.

http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/en/the-market/

Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005

Mercado de Antón Martín:

This two level market is stocked with organic food stalls, wine bars and Iberian ham and cheese shops.   There is an area dedicated to cooking demonstrations and small art exhibits and a shop that only sells craft beers. The market reflects an indie vibe, which is a reflection of its neighborhood. The area borders Madrid’s immigrant barrio and has a distinctly bohemian personality.   http://www.mercadoantonmartin.com

Calle de Santa Isabel, 5, 28012

Mesón del Champiñón: A fun atmosphere with a lively piano player, their menu consists of their famous mushrooms and regular tapas. The mushrooms are addictive, filled with olive oil, garlic, parsley and chorizo. The décor is also reflective of the fun environment.

http://www.mesondelchampinon.com

C/ Cava de San Miguel, 17, 28005

Places to stay while exploring Madrid:

Hotel Urso Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Hotel Urso
Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Hotel Urso: This beautiful hotel was taken over and transformed into the progressive property it is today.  The 20th-century palace is close to the Prado Museum and a three minute walk from the Tribunal metro stop.  The pop up restaurant, “The Table By…,” within the hotel was my favorite.  Every few weeks, the restaurant is completely transformed into a new space with a chefs from various regions in Spain.  The Majorcan tasting menu we had was magnificent and the decor a true reflection of the region.

The Table By.. Photo: Jordy Greenstein

The Table By..
Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Room Mate Oscar: “Do you want to sleep with me?” That is the first sign you see as you approach this hotel, which is part of a cluster of other Room Mate hotels in Madrid.  Each one has its own character and Room Mate Oscar is a very reasonably priced boutique hotel in a great location just a minute from the Gran Via.  Its chic rooftop bar is popular with hotel guests and locals.  The staff is extremely friendly and helpful.

Also see: http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2016/01/11/how-to-eat-tapas-in-spain-like-local/ 

 

 

Fall in Love with Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

IMG_8640_2There are many regions one can visit on a trip to Ireland and each has its own unique flavor, whether a big city or small coastal town along the Wild Atlantic Way.   While many will fly into Dublin, we flew into Shannon, just an easy 5.5 hour flight from JFK on Aer Lingus. We began our journey on the gorgeous Wild Atlantic Way, a fairly recent term given to the Southwest coastal region of Ireland, which consists of the dazzling coastline, quaint towns and villages with locally owned shops and pubs, small hotels, and cozy Bed and Breakfasts for all budgets. IMG_8129

In just 90 minutes we were in the middle of the gorgeous Killarney National Park at the Aghadoe Heights Hotel and Spa. One glance outside the window and I knew we were going to have an amazing couple of days in Killarney, The Ring of Kerry, and Dingle.   While we only had two days in the area, if you can afford more, I would take your time to explore this gorgeous region. If you are on a time constraint, or even if you’re not, I highly recommend calling Con Moriority of Hidden Ireland Tours, as he will zip you around the area from morning until sunset showing you places you probably wouldn’t have known existed if trying to explore on your own. IMG_8157  In addition, if you are not used to driving on the other side of really narrow roads that only fit one car at a time, you will definitely want to save yourself time and stress by hiring a guide and driver to do that work for you. Another benefit of hiring a private guide is that you don’t have to get caught up in the traffic of tour buses, as the buses are only allowed to drive in one direction around the peninsula, but if you’re in a car, you can move along a lot faster, which means you can experience a lot more. P1090983  Con was chock full of information that one could never find online. His enthusiasm for the region where he and his family grew up is contagious and inspiring.

Aghadoe Heights Hotel and Spa is a beautiful five star property with scenic beauty from every vantage point in the hotel, including the relaxation area of the spa, the fitness center, pool and dining room. It is in the middle of Killarney National Park, one of the most iconic and spectacular pieces of land in Ireland, and in close proximity to such attractions as the Mucross House and Gardens, Tarc Waterfall and Ross Castle. It is also an ideal spot for a destination wedding. Their penthouse suite is more than just a room. It includes your own private kitchen, self -service bar, office center and private wrap around patio. P1100001

The entire coastline of the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula afford amazing views of lakes, mountains and sunsets. Killarney and Dingle are great little towns, but unfortunately we were in Dingle on Sunday when most of the shops are closed. On other days you can check out the shop and workshop of jeweler, Brian de Staic, where you can get your name written in Ogham, the language from 2000 years ago still used today. Siopa Ceoil music store is a great stop for both intimate music shows and unique instruments and history.  P1100018

The peninsula is forty miles long and five miles wide and is home to over 3,500 archeological sites, including the standing stone from the bronze age in 1000 BC.   Slea Head Drive is on the western most part of the peninsula and is home to Coumeenole Beach made famous in the movie “Ryan’s Daughter” with Robert Malcolm and Sarah Miles.

You can begin your drive on the Ring of Kerry from the Killarney National Park.IMG_8232 The Ring of Kerry is a 110 mile touring route separated by the Atlantic Bay and Kenmare. Around the ring, you can drive through the Black Valley and over the gap of Dunloe, one of the most dramatic mountain passes in Ireland. It divides the mountains of Killarney National Park and Purple Moutain in the east and McGillycuddy’s Reeks in the west. The Skellig Mountains can be seen from the coastline, or if you have additional time, they are accessible by boat. The 800 steps to the top were cut out by monks 1500 years ago. In the evening, be sure to hike over Bolus Head for the most amazing sunset you will see in Ireland.  IMG_8514

After spending two full days along the Ring of Kerry and Dingle, I didn’t think it would be possible to see anything more beautiful. But I was in for a surprise as we made our way to County Clare and the Cliffs of Moher. I had read about them when I used to report for Travelzoo.com, but even the best of descriptions on paper can’t do them justice. They are the most visited natural attraction in Ireland with over a million visitors a year. At the highest point, they reach 702 feet high and five feet out over the Atlantic. We met Pet Sweeney, who was one of the key farmers, whose family has lived on the land for five generations, and was instrumental in donating some of his land to help build the cliff walk that now allows tourists to walk on the Cliffs, as opposed to just driving on a tour bus or taking a cruise beneath them. IMG_8372  He led us on a three hour walking tour back into Doolin and we were richly rewarded with lots of water (and guinness!) and a delicious lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub.   Doolin is a great spot to visit, as it is centrally located to so much, yet has that small town feeling. The Seaview House Bed and Breakfast sits on a cliff and offers spectacular views of the Cliffs of Moher while the Doolin Hotel is a standard hotel, but small enough so it still feels cozy. From here, you can visit Doolin Cave, which is home to the largest 24 foot free hanging-stalactite and the Burren Smokehouse, and see for yourself where the very popular smoked fish originates. In New York, you can find it sold in Dean and Deluca. IMG_8376 Just about a ten minute drive from Doolin is the little town of Lisdoonvarna, but this little town turns into the hub for the largest matchmaking festival in all of Europe in the fall. But what if you’re single and can’t make it to the matchmaking festival? There’s a good chance you’ll still have the opportunity to meet with the only traditional matchmaker left in Ireland, Willy Daly at his bar called Dalys in Ennistimon. Even if you’re not looking to be matched, he is quite a character and you can bet you’ll be serenaded by him and his friends if you pay him a visit.

IMG_8614_2From Doolin, take a ferry to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. We took the one hour and forty five minute ride to the largest of the islands, Inishmor, which is home to Dun Aengus Fort, perched on the edge of a 300 foot cliff. Once on the island, you can get around by horse and carriage (jaunting cars as they call them), a guided van ride, or by bicycle. If you’d like to see most of the island in a few hours time, you may want to go for the van. Otherwise a leisurely bike ride is a great way to spend the day.

Named one of the best places to holiday in Ireland by the Irish Times in 2013 and the winner of sustainable travel awards, The Loop Head Peninsula is a great spot for those who love watersports. It is on the west coast of County Clare and in the center of the Wild Atlantic Way. Amazing views can be seen from the lighthouse in Kilbaha. After you have taken the tour of the lighthouse, head into the quaint town for a cup of tea and some local souvenirs handmade by artists in the area, with a visit to Kilbaha Gallery and Crafts.  IMG_8637_2From there, take a car ferry into Limerick. In Limerick, you must pay a visit to the traditional milk market, which has been in existence for over 100 years. There you will find people selling everything from traditional Irish food, produce, and jams to creative vegan treats, as well as local products such as jewelry and clothing. It is a fun atmosphere and you’ll want to arrive hungry! The Limerick Craft Hub is another great spot a mix of for local artistry, showcasing over 40 different artist under one roof. IMG_8685  Those who visit also have an opportunity to learn from craftsman on site. Kate Ramsey makes beautiful scarfs and it’s very interesting to see what goes into making her  beautiful felt and silk creations. I made a shamrock charm with the silversmith while sipping tea and enjoying local snacks.   They sell everything from handmade dog lip balm to gorgeous ceramics.

Of course no trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to Dublin for at least a day. IMG_8265However, I recommend two…one for sightseeing and one for shopping and just taking some time to relax in one of the beautiful green spaces such as St. Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square or the courtyard of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.   At night, duck into one of the many pubs and listen to some good Irish music. While the Temple Bar area is well known, you may not hear just Irish music and the bars tend to get really crowded, or at least they were when I was there on a Saturday night. On Sundays, the shops don’t open until 11 or noon, but there is a certain peacefulness and charming feel of walking the city before the streets get packed. IMG_8296  We stayed at the Morrison Hotel, which is centrally located on the north side of the city and right over the bridge from the south side where you’ll find many of the great sites, parks and pubs. It is part of Hilton’s Doubletree brand and a comfortable, hip place to stay. If you’d like to stay on the outskirts of city center, Clontarf Castle is an option and there is a bus five minutes from the hotel that will take you into the city every ten minutes in just about twenty minutes. IMG_8776  If you just have a day or two in Dublin, I would recommend staying in the city, as it’s much easier to get around and go back and forth if you want to take a break.

As you’ll see after making your own trip to Ireland, the country and particularly the Wild Atlantic Way is filled with spectacular beauty and people rich in character. Whether you’re single, dating or have been in love for many years, I challenge you not to fall in love all over again upon laying your eyes on Ireland.

 

Perfectly Provence!

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Aix en Provence

When one mentions the region of Provence in Southern France, many associate it with delicious food, wine, and romance. But what sets Provence apart from other regions of France also known for their romantic undertones?  Perhaps it’s the beautiful purple lavender that smells so wonderful and fills fields everywhere in the months of June, July and August.   Maybe it’s the rich history that surrounds you in places like Aix en Provence and Avignon, or the narrow cobblestone streets and breathtaking views in the towns of Gordes, Roussillon, and Gorges du Verdon (also known as the little grand canyon) in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.

Gordes

Gordes

In order to truly enjoy Provence, one needs at least a week to have a good mix of relaxation and exploration.  While all of the areas are accessible and easy to get to by car, they all have their own flavor and you’ll want to make sure you have enough time to see as many of them as possible, and include at least a day in Marseille.  Marseille was named the European Capital of Culture for 2013, and for good reason, with its numerous museums and exhibitions within the port city.  In Provence, we balanced seeing the sites and learning the history of Aix and Avignon with leisurely drives through the rolling hilltop villages of the Luberon region.

Marseille

Marseille

We flew into Marseille from JFK aboard XL Airways, a great new carrier that just has two itineraries out of New York; to Paris and Marseille.  Because they are not a huge carrier, running numerous flights a day, the check-in and security lines were almost non-existent.  You can opt for the first three rows, which have wider leather seats and a little more room, but the service is the same as on the rest of the flight.  The advantage to this is that they don’t charge nearly as much as it would be to upgrade to first class, but if you prefer the extra room, you can take advantage of this option for just a small upgrade fee of around $140.

Cours Mirabeau

Cours Mirabeau: Aix en Provence

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Market in Aix en Provence

Renting a car is a definite must to getting around and visiting the quaint villages through which no train would pass.  We rented from Hertz, as we found they had very competitive rates and were conveniently located at the airport, just outside the main terminal.  If you only drive automatic, you’ll be limited in your selection at some rental companies, and you can definitely expect to pay more.  However, Hertz had a great selection and the customer service was outstanding.  When we arrived in Marseille, the process was seamless from the time we got there to getting our car on the road.  Their inventory consisted of new cars with low mileage and included unlimited mileage. They were in great shape, and spotless; something you don’t always find with car rental companies.

Aix and Avignon should be a part of everyone’s Provence itinerary.  Aix en Provence is a wonderful first stop, as it is only 25 minutes from Marseille airport and a great way to integrate into the French culture.  We happened to be in Aix for the Thursday and Saturday markets, and in my book, you can never visit too many markets.  You can sample tapenades, cheeses, and breads until your heart’s content and shop for clothing, shoes, and household goods.   I’d highly recommend taking the one-hour train tour that leaves from the center of town near the Fountain of the Rotonde.  This gives you a great overview of the city so you can figure out what you’d like to explore further.   A terrific place to stay is Odalys Les Floridianes, a hotel situated within a five minute walk of the Cours Maribeau, the main street in Aix, lined with stores, cafes, and the market.

Vineyard Tour : even the dogs get worn out from all the samples!

Vineyard Tour : even the dogs get worn out from all the samples!

It is reasonably priced and the rooms include a kitchen, ideal for those who choose to base themselves in Aix for a longer period of time or want to prepare what they’ve bought at the market.  The front desk staff is extremely knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, and the breakfast was one of the best on the trip, with a selection of croissants, breads, eggs prepared to order, yogurt, and my favorite, the juicer, to make your own freshly squeezed orange, kiwi or grapefruit juice.  Aix is a great walking city, and I always felt completely safe.  If you’d like to take a vineyard tour, there are chauffeured tours that leave from the tourism office, so you never have to worry about sampling a few too many.

In Aix, your days can be filled with strolling the market in the morning, checking out Cezzane’s studio during the day, or just walking the streets of Old Town, eating crepes, thin crust pizza, or planting yourself at a café along the Cours Maribeau and experiencing the vibrancy that is Aix.

Bastide de Cabries

Bastide de Cabries

If you’re looking to stay in more quaint surroundings, the Bastide de Cabries in Cabriès is about a 10 minute drive from the center of Aix en Provence and offers a quiet retreat with impeccably maintained grounds.

Within the walls of Avignon sits a city rich in history and architectural splendor.  The city became the seat of the pope from 1309 to 1378 and he resided at the Papial Palace, built in the 14th century.

Papial Palace

Papal Palace, Avignon

 

This massive structure can be seen from the bridges leading into the city and it immediately makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.   When visiting Avignon, you’ll want to stay within walking distance of the palace, the Saint-Benezet  Bridge (Pont d’Avignon), and the shops.  For that, the Hotel de l’ Horloge offers reasonably priced accommodations in a prime location overlooking the square of the same name.

Hotel de l' Horloge

Hotel de l’ Horloge

You have the option of booking various types of rooms depending on your budget, but even the superior rooms are reasonably priced and offer everything you’ll need to make your visit a memorable one.

While many stay in the region of Avignon and Aix for their entire trip, you would be remiss not to drive north and take in the awe-inspiring scenery that makes Provence so spectacular.  We stayed at Le Phebus Hotel and Spa in Joucas, a fifteen minute drive from the cobblestone village of Gorges and the red rocks of Roussillon. Gordes has a great market on Tuesday mornings and Roussillon is another great village with gorgeous ochre rocks through which you can hike.

Suite at Le Phebus Hotel and Spa

Suite at Le Phebus Hotel and Spa

If you’re looking to treat yourself to a luxurious and secluded getaway, Chef Xavier Mathiew’s creation, Le Phebus Hotel and Spa, is the place to stay.  The food is top notch and the setting of the resort forces you to take a deep breath and relax.  For even greater relaxation, the spa offers many massage and facial treatments with access to a steam room and large Jacuzzi for both men and women.

Abbey de Senanque

Abbey de Senanque

While at Le Phebus Hotel and Spa, you’ll want to explore the areas of Gordes, Rousillon and the Senanque Abbey, known for its beautiful lavender fields when in bloom.

Le Couvent des Minimes is also a must visit if you’re looking for the five star spa and resort experience.

Roussillon

Roussillon

Nestled in the small town of Mane, Luberon, they’ve done a fantastic job converting its inner courtyard into a picturesque place to enjoy breakfast and dinner.  We had dinner one night at the property and the food was fantastic.

Its spa offers two co-ed steam rooms, saunas, a pool, and a relaxation room stocked with snacks as well as a full line of treatments using L’Occitane products.

Les Couvent des Minimes

Le Couvent des Minimes

In addition, the resort features a large outdoor pool, fitness center, billiard room and library.

Thirty minutes away is the L’Occitane factory, which offers free tours daily.  You’ll undoubtedly also want to drive to gorges du Verdon, which takes an hour and a half, but along the way, stop at Moustiers Sainte-Marie for lunch to enjoy another quaint and gorgeous village.

So when is the best time to visit Provence? We went in October, which turned out to have bright sunny days and comfortable temperatures in the high 60s/low 70s, but if you are looking to experience the lavender season, you’ll want to head there in June, July or August. However, it’s also the busiest time of year.   When you’re ready to experience the true beauty and romance of Provence for yourself, click here for even more ideas for your trip.  Bon Voyage!

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Breaking Down Berlin

My last stop of my three week trip was Berlin, Germany.  As a child, having been raised Jewish, I had always heard people say, why would you want to go to Germany? But as I got older, I became friends with a Jewish guy from Berlin, had another friend whose sister moved there, and just kept hearing incredible things about the city.   I ended up spending two and a half days there and it was far from enough time.  There was lots of shopping that could have been done, but I found myself much more interested in the history, including the Hitler regime and World War II as well the cold war and the building and knocking down of the Berlin wall. 

On the first day, I took the City Tour hop on hop off bus to get an introduction to the fascinating buildings and sites.  I chose to stop at the KaDeWe, probably one of the largest department stores I’ve ever seen, but I knew there was not enough time for shopping so I made a beeline for the sixth floor which is home to a ton of gourmet foods, snacks, and drinks.  You definitely want to have lunch there one day.  They had so many different types of food and if you’re looking for local dishes, you can find it there.

I decided that while there was so much to see in Berlin, I wanted to take one day and head to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  One can go on their own, but I think in order to get the true history behind it all, you should take a tour.  I chose the group, Original Berlin Walks.  Our guide was extremely well versed on the history of the camp.   Seeing the actual camp grounds and hearing about everything that went on  made for a heavy on the heart kind of day, but I am so glad I went and learned all about it, as it is a very significant part of our history that affected so many families.

In Berlin, there is so much to see, but you’ll want to hit the main attractions like Brandenburg Gate, The Charlottenburg Palace, The Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie and the museum that talks all about the Berlin Wall and how many people tried to leave the east side.  There are also many different neighborhoods with completely different vibes, so try and check out a few.  I really enjoyed Kreuzberg with its large Turkish population.   The Turkish food in Berlin is delicious and I highly recommend having some when you’ve had enough currywurst!

When in Berlin, a centrally located and very nice hotel to stay in is the Maritim proArte Hotel It is very close to the metro stop Friedrichstrasse, which is a central hub for many of the train lines. It is also very close to many of the attractions and shopping districts, including the huge Nivea House store.  The transit system takes a little getting used to, but is pretty basic.  There is the U-Bahn, the underground trains and S-Bahn, the ones that run above ground.  There are also trams and buses, so getting around the city is never a problem.

So if you haven’t been to Berlin yet, now is the time to go!  There are direct flights from Newark to Berlin, making it very easy to get there, and if you’d like to make a stop in Brussels along the way, there are flights that enable you to do that too! Plus, if you’re heading there in the summertime, there are going to be daily flights  from JFK to Berlin and Dusseldorf.  Airberlin will also introduce new nonstop service from Los Angeles to Berlin making it the first airline to service this route.  The new nonstop service will operate on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in addition to the existing seasonal service from Los Angeles to Dusseldorf which operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  Tickets can be booked on the Internet at airberlin.com, in the service center (Tel.: 866-266-5588) or through travel agents. Plus, visit http://www.visitberlin.de/en for upcoming events and things to do in Berlin!

Prague: Historical Beauty

Ever since a friend of mine went to live in Prague for a few years, I was intrigued to see the country in the Czech Republic that so many people speak about with admiration.   I arrived in Prague by way of Easy Jet, which can be an economical way to get around Europe, but if you tend to travel with a lot of baggage, the price can add up, as they have a strict one carry-on bag policy and up to 20 kilos per bag, and you must pay for each bag you check.  I would recommend paying online if you know how much you’d like to check, as it’s cheaper than paying at the airport.  I hopped on the airport express bus to my hotel and for about $3.50, it took me to the train station stop about five minutes from Hotel Jalta, the place I’d call home for the next four nights.    This hotel is in a great location, especially if you are going to connect to another country via train.  It is also in the middle of Wenceslas Square, also called the main square, filled with shops, casinos, restaurants, and theaters.  The Black Light Theater shows are very popular in Prague, and you should try and catch one while you are there.  I went to see WOW’s version, which was fun, but I had gone straight from a phenomenal dinner and wine pairing at La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise, so watching the performers lit up in some parts of their bodies but wearing black clothing on others, as to appear invisible, was pretty interesting to watch, and especially while one is a  little tipsy.

La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise is quite the culinary experience.  When in Prague, you must try the local food, which can include some very heavy foods.  However, the chefs at this fine international restaurant will give you a taste of many kinds of local food while keeping the portions small, but bursting with flavor.  They offer a choice of either an international or local menu, and of course I went with the local one.  You should really allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy this restaurant leisurely, as it is an experience, and you can have wine paired with each course.  I’d say you should allow about 2.5 hours.  However, I had tickets to the black light theater show, and only had about 1.5 hours, so I told them this at the beginning, and amazingly they still had all 7 courses completed in that time.  The waitstaff is extremely attentive and waits by the open kitchen for the next course so they can bring it directly to you as soon as it is prepared.  Each day, they prepare a new menu with the fresh ingredients available.  As I mentioned, each dish was prepared meticulously and the flavors were incredible.  Tomas Brosche is the general manager, and makes you feel very welcome.  I was thrilled when he told me they had just opened a restaurant in New York, called Hospoda at 321 East 73rd Street.  I’ll definitely be going to check that out!

If you’d like to balance out your fine dining with some casual places, Kolkovna is a great spot for some goulash soup served with a pretzel, and definitely give the fried cheese and Bavarian sausages you can get at any stand on the street a try.

Hotel Jalta is the perfect place to stay while In Prague.  Centrally located, you can walk to Old and New Town, and over the Charles Bridge to the castle from there.  Every person who works there was so helpful when it came to giving directions, advice on restaurants and what to do.  Their restaurant Como serves up a great breakfast and spectacular dinners with fun entertainment.  It is a hotspot for both locals and tourists.  I had the lamb dish my last night for dinner, and the meat just fell off the bone…so yummy!  However, I think the best part of that restaurant is its general manager, Adriano Figura. Originally from Sicily, he makes it his duty to make sure every single person is having a great time.  I was by myself at the bar just enjoying the live music, when he approached me and insisted on getting me a drink and invited me over to sit with him and his friends.  The next night was the same.  He definitely uses his Sicilian charm to make everyone feel at home.  The rooms on each floor are spaced far apart from one another, so I never heard anything except for what was going on outside.   And you have to love a hotel that always has apples out on each floor and in the lobby!  Did I tell you they also greet you with a glass of champagne upon arrival?

With so much history and architectural styles in Prague, you’ll definitely want to hire a guide to take you around, not just to point out all of the sites, but to really explain the history and meaning behind everything.  The first day I arrived, I took a free tour which many cities offer throughout Europe.  These guides work solely for tips.  It was a great tour and the guide was very lively, but it didn’t even come close to the tour I was given with my private guide Milos Curik the next day.   Milos has lived his entire life in Prague and has seen it in its Communist days and of course since the Velvet Revolution in 1989.  He has been through a lot and also has some very interesting friends.  He is very well traveled and extremely intelligent.  The five hours I spent with him went by fast, as he always kept the tour intriguing and personable.  I learned a lot from him and he took me to some of the off the beaten path places that you wouldn’t know to go to on your own.  If you are visiting Prague, you must have Milos as your guide.  His email is arts.music@volny.cz.  He specializes in art and music history, for which Prague is quite known.  

There is a lot of Jewish history in Prague as well.  Not always the good kind, but there is a lot to learn and you must visit the Jewish Quarter.  You can buy one pass that will gain you entrance to the synagogues and cemetery.  A very touching synagogue is the Pinkas synagogue, where every Bohemian and Moravian Jew murdered by the Natzis has their name, personal data, and the names of the communities to which they belonged written on the wall.  There is also a collection of over 4,000 drawings done by the children in the concentration camps before they met their evil fate. Among the Terezin prisoners, there were over 10,000 children under the age of 15, and of the 8,000 that were deported to the East, only 242 survived.

The Old Jewish Cemetery was established in the first half of the 15th century and is one of the most important surviving monuments in Prague’s Jewish Town.  The cemetery contains almost 12,000 tombstones, although there are many more people buried there, including some very famous writers and rabbis from Prague’s history.  It is said that bodies were buried in layers on top of one another, as there was not enough room to accommodate everyone.   If you’re in the market for some Judaica, you can also find it in some of the shops in the Jewish Quarter.

Be sure to walk over the Charles Bridge to the castle one time at night, as Prague is beautiful all lit up.  As I was crossing the bridge, I was thinking to myself how romantic and beautiful it all was and then there was a guy down on his knee proposing!  Smart man!  There is also plenty of nightlife, depending on what you’re looking for.  Beer is cheaper than bottled water in some places, and there are plenty of bars where you can take advantage of this and try some beers you wouldn’t find at home.  They also have a big clubbing and jazz scene and being that it is such a strong cultural city, there are plenty of performances to choose from, ranging from the State Opera and Philharmonic to the Black Light Theater Shows,  the Magic Lantern, a popular show in Prague and the National Marionette Theater where you can see the opera Don Giovanni performed by the famous marionette puppets.

So grab a hot chocolate, hot spiced pear juice or grog and walk the cobblestone streets of Prague and enjoy the beauty around you.

Amsterdam: So Much More Than You Think

For years, I have heard so much about Amsterdam, but mostly just about the red  light district and the fact that you can smoke pot legally, with coffee houses offering up a menu of more than just coffee.  However, no one ever talked about the outright beauty of the city with its gorgeous canals filled with swans or the incredible architecture and array of museums.  Amsterdam really does have it all.

I got there on a Saturday night, so of course my first stop had to be the Red Light District, as I had heard so much about it.  It’s an area of a few blocks off of the China town and gay section of the city and gets its name in part because the girls are standing in doorways or windows that are lit up in red neon.  They are dressed in lingerie or in a themed outfit, like the typical schoolgirl.  I was walking around on my own, when a very funny guy from Ireland stopped me and asked if he could take my picture, as I was just taking scenery shots.  After that, we pretended to be husband and wife and do some window shopping.  Here’s a tip: comparison shop if you are interested, as not all women are willing to do the same things and the prices will vary!  Of course I had to do some research, but the research stopped there!  Aside from the window shopping you can do, there are some great bars and coffee houses and it’s just a fun area in which to go out and meet people.  Ladies, maybe you’re thinking, what is there for you there?  The answer: lots of men!

You should look into a city pass when you get off the train in central station.  The tourism and information office is right across the street and this should be your first stop.  They will answer all of your questions and sell you tickets to various tours or as I mentioned the city pass.  They sell 24, 48 and 72 hour passes and it includes entrance to many museums for free, discounts at various attractions and restaurants and even free gifts from some shops.   Plus, it comes with a transport card which entitles you to free tram service for that time period.  There are many tram lines throughout the city and they run quite often, so while it is a walking city, after a long day, you may just choose to hop on the tram to give your feet a rest.

The next day I took a canal cruise, which is a good way to see a lot of the city from the water.  Another option is a free tour that is offered twice daily at 11am and 1pm and you can meet them at either Central Station or in Dam Square.   The three hour walking tour will give you a good sense of the city.   After the canal cruise, I decided to explore on my own, and I walked through the shopping area near Dam Square and visited the Anne Frank House, which should be on the top of your list of things to see.  This museum is not included in the city pass, but the 9 Euro admission is well worth it.   You will actually walk through the house where Anne, her family, and family friends hid during the war and learn all about the family’s life and what they and other Jews went through under German control.   The museum features videos, personal commentaries from people who knew them well, entries from her diary and an easy to follow explanation of everything that happened.  Be prepared to be moved by this experience.

I spent my third day visiting some of Amsterdam’s well known markets in Albert Cuyp and Waterlooplein, what used to be the Jewish area and still houses the Jewish Museum and Portuguese Synagogue, which were also neat to see.  Be prepared to do a lot of walking, but do not fear, there are a ton of things to eat everywhere you go, from Turkish, Indonesian, and Argentinian to stands with waffles piled high with fruit and chocolate, French fries and lots of pastries.   As I said, there are a lot of museums, the most popular being the Van Gogh Museum, and museums teaching you about diamonds and genevere  If I had more time I would have visited the Heineken Experience.

When choosing a hotel, you can pretty much stay anywhere, as it is easy to get around.  However, if you plan on going out late at night, the trams do stop running shortly after midnight, so you’ll want to choose a hotel close to where you’d like to go out.  I recommend staying in either the Central Station area or Dam Square.  I stayed at the NH Hotel Museum Quarter, which was close to Leidesplein, also a popular place to go out, and home to the Holland Casino.  However,  I was pretty far from the Red Light District, and after a long night, I didn’t want to walk thirty minutes to get back.  Of course, cabs are always an option as well, but hotels are so reasonably priced, that I would just stay in a central area.  That being said, the NH Museum Quarter was a comfortable hotel and very reasonably priced.  They offer free wi-fi, but only in the lobby, which is a little bit of a drag, but for a fee, you can get it in the room as well.  They will give you a 30 minute code to use and you can get as many as you need, and being that there are so many NH hotels throughout the city, you can always pop into any one of them and hop online.  Having popped into a few of the others, the lobby and reception area looked really nice and you probably couldn’t go wrong choosing any one of them for your stay.

The city central of Amsterdam surely has enough to do to keep you busy for a few days, but I think you should also allow yourself some extra time to visit Zaanse Schans.  While it caters to tourists, it is still a fun experience to see functioning windmills, some that have been around for many years.  I went inside one that chopped wood, all powered by the wind.  Truly amazing.  There is also a clog making demonstration and a cheese demonstration with samples and the opportunity to take home some great local Holland cheese.  There are also two museums, one that shows you how the famous biscuits and chocolate are made and just the smell you inhale  walking through there is enough to make you want to have one of their chocolate bars for breakfast, as I did.

Many go to Amsterdam for a long weekend or in conjunction with a trip to other countries.   While the reputation that carries the country is mostly tied to the red light district and legalized marijuana, I can’t stress enough how beautiful and romantic the city is.  When the weather is nice, be sure to rent a bike as well and drive around the city and countryside, but make sure you know the rules because those cyclists mean business!

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I Love Paris Anytime!

As soon as I saw the Eiffel tower from atop the hill of Sacré-Couer I felt the magic of the city.  I asked myself if it was just because I knew Paris was supposed to be romantic, but that wasn’t it.  I really felt the magic and I looked at the Eiffel Tower all lit up that first night and it never got old.  My view from the hotel room was spectacular and when I got up real close to it, I felt saw its magnitude.  I asked a guy who has lived in the city for ten years if he still feels like it’s romantic or if he is just used to it and even he said that he still feels it everyday and knows it’s a great city in which to live.  I was there last when I was 21 and I  definitely have a new perspective of it now.  At first we were just going to go for a night or two on the way to the Amsterdam, but I’m so glad we decided to extend our stay another day.  You definitely cannot do Paris in a day, but if you map out your journey and you’d like to just get a feel for the various neighborhoods, it can be done.   I like to meet the locals when I go to a new city.  I feel like they have the best insight into what one should see and do and what better way to do this than through an online dating site?!  Obviously Paris has some pretty spectacular and world renowned museums, but I’m not a huge museum person and I always feel guilty for saying so.  However, I really liked what he had to say.  To him, Paris is a museum in and of itself.   I am the type of traveler who likes exploring neighborhoods, eating the local food, and spending time with people who live there.  Therefore, on the first day, we took a river cruise with the company Bateaux-Mouches down the Seine to get a quick overview of the lay of the land as we sailed past the most popular museums and monuments.  This company offers both sightseeing as well as lunch and dinner tours in five different languages.

On the second day, I started in the Marais area and walked for hours, exploring all of the major sights, shopping and eating quarters by foot.    Even though as I mentioned I am not a big museum person, I did make the obligatory visit to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It is a magnificent museum in which one can spend hours or even days, but considering I only had a short time in Paris, I wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to explore as much as possible. Of course  I had to find some good treats so upon a recommendation, I had the most delicious icecream at Bertillon, a popular (for good reason) shop in Marais; a warm chicken and mushroom crepe in the Latin Quarter, and the best macaroon pastry I’ve tasted yet at Ladurée near the Concord.

For great nighttime entertainment, definitely go for a dinner and show at Lido on the Champs Élysées.  The food is great, and you can enjoy an elegant night out which will include a live band playing the standards during dinner (you can get up and dance if you’d like!), followed by a spectacular cabaret show with outstanding dancers, singers and performers.  The acts in between the dance numbers were quite impressive and kept the crowd engaged in amazement at some of the acts.

For my last day, which was basically just a morning before we took the train to Amsterdam, I took a walk to the Eiffel Tower and while you can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city, it’s pretty awesome to stand under it and see just how massive it is.  You can also get some great pictures from many different points near the tower.  This morning (Saturday), there was a great market close by with fruit, vegetables, seafood, cheeses, breads and crepes being sold.  It was definitely a lot of fun to walk through and I  wished I hadn’t just eaten breakfast because everything looked so good!

When staying in Paris, I would highly recommend staying at the Concorde La Fayette Hotel attached to the Palais des Congrés, which is home to a few floors of boutique shops and restaurants.  Aside from its rooms and top floor bar with incredible views of the city, it is situated in a great location.  The 1 Metro is right behind the hotel and is the main train line used to get to mostly everywhere you’ll need to go, and if not, you can take the one and transfer to another line.  The bus that goes to and from the Paris Nord train station is also right in front of the hotel.   If you have the opportunity, try and get a room on one of  the top floors with access to the Concord Lafayette Club.  While the main breakfast is great, the one in the lounge serves a delicious spread of salmon, whitefish, fruits, cereals, breads and yogurt.  It is also open for your use most hours of the day for a drink and a place to come and relax or hold a meeting.  From three until seven o’clock, enjoy a wide array of complimentary delicious pastries, fruit and drinks. After a long day of on my feet, it was so nice to come back to the lounge and have a cup of tea or glass of wine with some pastries (yes, more macaroons and chocolate and creamy pastries!).   Everyone in the lounge, business center, and reception areas were really friendly and helpful.   The hotel is constantly renovating to stay modern, but never doing too much at a time, so it will never impact your stay.  The hotel is perfect for the business and leisure traveler.  I felt really comfortable and had everything I needed there.  Be sure to check out the bar on the top floor for a cocktail at night.  With a live DJ Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, it’s the place to be for both locals and tourists.  If you are traveling with a few people or just feel like splurging on yourself, the hotel has some pretty amazing suites with fabulous views on the top floors.  I wish I could move into one of them and stay in Paris for a bit longer!

 

Diamonds (and chocolate) Are A Girl’s Best Friend!

When I planned my European getaway, I was going to be in Paris on February 15 and I thought, oh it’s too bad I won’t be there on Valentine’s Day.  However, I had no idea I’d be in another romantic city, which was also a great place to be for Valentine’s Day.  I was in Antwerp, and I was surrounded by diamonds and chocolate!  Can you ask for a more appropriate setting?  I think not!   Antwerp is considered to be the diamond capital of the world, with 70% of all diamonds coming from Antwerp.  You can find any type of diamond your heart desires, and in the process learn all about what is most important when choosing the right cut, color and clarity.  Diamondland is the place to go to learn about everything you need to know.  You can go in anytime and ask to be seen upstairs, where you can watch the people at work and also ask any and all questions.  For novices, it’s a great place to go to learn about what aspects are really important in choosing a diamond and if you are ready to make the big purchase, there is no shortage of stones from which to choose.  In addition to your standard designs, they even had ones in the shape of an animal if you are just that close with your pet!  The diamond trade has been going on in Antwerp for more than 700 years.

In addition to it being the place to go for everything diamond related, it ‘s also a big shopping mecca, with Meir being the most famous shopping street in Antwerp. As you take in all the modern European shops, you can enjoy buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries.  If it’s a nice day out, relax at one of the cafes with outdoor terraces.  While Antwerp is a bustling city, people tend to go at a more relaxed pace.  With the various districts, you will sure find something for everyone’s interests, from antiques and collectibles to vintage designs and gadgets of the fifties and sixties.  There are also some really delicious restaurants such as Het Pomphuis and Zuiderterras on the River Scheldt, and when the weather is nice, you should take a cruise.  The port of Antwerp is currently the second largest port in Europe and the most important gateway in Europe.  There are also some great museums and churches to visit, so hopefully you will have more time than the one day I spent there, but I did get a taste for the great city and I know I’d definitely go back.

A perfect place to stay while in Antwerp is the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, which is right in city center across from the train station, making it very convenient if you are coming or going somewhere else in Belgium.  We were running out of the hotel in Bruges to catch the train to Antwerp and by mistake I left all of our Rail Europe passes at the hotel!  We thought we would have to go back and get them, but the staff at the Radisson Blu was so helpful and arranged for them to be sent to us the next day.  They definitely made my life a lot easier and were so helpful.  The lobby is sleek with a great bar and restaurant and they serve an expansive breakfast, known as the best in the city.  They also offer free wifi, which is always a big plus when traveling.  I’ve stayed at Radisson Blu hotels before and I really like the brand.  I’ve stayed at their properties in Scandinavia and now in Europe.  You can rest assured you will always be getting a quality hotel with good service and accommodations.  For more information on Antwerp and everything Flanders, check out www.visitflanders.us

Fall In Love in Bruges!

We took the easy train ride from Brussels to Bruges, which took a little over an hour, and after less than a ten minute cab ride, we arrived at the Hotel Casselbergh, which was our oasis inside the romantic city of Bruges.  With a gym and spa that included a sauna and steam room and an area to relax that was free for all guests, it was nice to take time out to rejuvenate after running around in the cold for a few days.  The rooms were modern and the beds comfortable!  You can also enjoy the delicious buffet breakfast with an array of breads, jams, lox, cheeses, as well as your traditional items you’d find at home.  

Before I traveled to Belgium, everyone was asking me if I was going to go to Bruges and said I needed to see the movie, “In Bruges.”  I can now see why it was the setting for this and many other movies.  The city is comprised of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture and has a deep history which you can learn about through one of the city tours or purchasing a 48 city pass that allows you to explore the museums and historical sites for either free or a discounted price.   When the weather is nice, you must enjoy a canal ride around the city and don’t forget to stop by the Minnewater, where the beautiful Bruges swans hang out. Because of the beautiful surroundings, it is mostly referred to as “the lake of love,” the Dutch word “Minne” meaning love.

With many romantic accommodations ranging from your traditional hotels to bed and breakfasts to suites in larger mansions, you’ll find the perfect place to make your stay special.

In additional to the historical and beautiful sites, there are probably more chocolate shops per square mile than anywhere I’ve ever been.  Lace is also popular in Bruges and many stores carry very nice handmade items.  If you are looking for any kind of beer or beer glass, check out the 2be store for all your chocolate, beer and honey needs! 

The food in Bruges was spectacular.  For lunch we enjoyed a traditional Flemish dish of beef stew, perfect after walking around during the cold winter day.  Dinner was at Restaurant Cafedraal which was also the setting for the fight scene in the movie, “In Bruges.”   I think that dinner was one of the best meals I had while in Belgium and the service (we had Igor as our server) was really friendly and personable.  I had oysters from France that were so plump and yummy and then the cod with steamed vegetables that just fell off the fork into my mouth so smoothly!  My friend had the bouillabaisse and as an appetizer, a dish consisting a homemade pasta, fresh tomatoes, Spanish ham and grated parmesan cheese.  I am not a huge beer drinker, but of course when in Belgium, one must try the local brews.  I decided to go with a cherry beer called Liefmans, which has been around since the 1600s but can only be found here, and for someone who doesn’t like beer, it was a great option!  My friend opted for the Duvel.  

So if you are looking for a charming, romantic getaway with great food, ambiance and people, definitely put Bruges on your list and enjoy a perfect mix of exploring, eating, drinking and relaxing!  To find out more about Bruges, please visit www.visitflanders.us

Brusselicious 2012: more than just chocolate and waffles!

Since arriving in Brussels on Thursday morning, I have been to tastings, cooking demonstrations, and have been eating and eating and eating.  Today was the kickoff of Brusselicious 2012, the year of gastronomy hear in Brussels and I can’t think of any better time to visit than now to take advantage of the incredible talent of so many of the local chefs.   You may have been to a Belgium restaurant at home and enjoyed the frites or extensive varieties of beers, but nothing compares to the staples such as chocolate made on premise at a quaint shop, the true Belgian waffle you can get on the street (there are two kinds…one from Brussels and one from Leige and you must try both!), the mussels and french fries, croquettes and cheeses.  Today we had a cooking demonstration for lunch, in which a few top chefs in the area showed us how they made their magic, all incorporating brussels sprouts, and of course we got to eat what was made, which was delicious!  The dishes included everything healthy and simple but creative options from the top restaurant, Lola,  to more creamy  creations from the fine Italian restaurants.  Dinner was prepared by Michelin star rated chefs and the mixture of taste and creativity made for a mouthwatering experience of seafood and meat dishes.

Throughout Brussels, there are many cheese, pastry,  and chocolate shops and stands to grab a quick croquette or waffle.  You can do your own eating and walking tour and eat all day!  Another option is a tram experience in which you can take a two hour tour around the city while enjoying fine dining and drinks all for just 75 Euros, which will include the tour, your upscale meal, two glasses of white and red wine and champagne.

While in Brussels, we stayed at the Royal Windsor Hotel, which was centrally located and comfortable, with a gym and delicious breakfast buffet offered.  The hotel’s breakfast was part of the 20 hotels offering a Brusselicious breakfast, which included at least eight local items, such as a Saint Love jam from the town of Durbuy, actually the smallest city in the world and the jam is all made in one home with some very interesting combinations.  With all of the eating and drinking, every morning I had high hopes of working it off, but instead the breakfast buffet and tastings won out!  

While there is a lot to do in Brussels, you may also opt to take a quick train ride of about one hour to another fun city, Leige.  In Leige, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza, which I highly recommend!  As a historical site, a good part of its original architecture was preserved but the rooms are ultra modern with very comfortable beds and amenities.  They also have a comprehensive gym and spa facility, which again I chose eating instead of working out, so unfortunately, did not get to partake.

The restaurants and nightlife in Leige are a lot of fun.  During the day, you can take a walking tour of the historical city or go shopping, and at night, try dishes such as the boulet de liege or boulet liegois, which are meatballs under a sauce consisting of a regional spread made from apples and pears.  It is absolutely to die for!  We also tried the frog legs, which were actually very good ( not like the kind you get off the Chinese buffet in the U.S!)  We went to Bistrot d’en Face for dinner and for after dinner drinks, you must try some of the local gin like liquor, known as genever, at a place called Maison du Peket.  They mix the liquor with various fruits from kiwi to lemon and then light them on a fire.  At first, the thought of a flame going down my throat as I sucked the shot out through a straw frightened me, but you know what they say, when in Belgium….!  Let’s just say it added a bit of a warmth going down and I don’t understand how the bachelor party I was hanging out with were able to down one after another. 

The next day it was back to Brussels for a stay at the Dominican Hotel, which was a hip, very comfortable hotel with a nice bar, lounge area and gym.  It was convenient to everything and the breakfast was terrific!  For our last dinner, we enjoyed more of the food we were able to sample at the tasting a few days earlier from the phenomenal chefs at Lola, a perfect way to end what was a terrific few days in Brussels and Leige!

If you are deciding where your next trip will be, definitely check out Belgium and start in Brussels.  If you are like me and enjoy eating your way through a country, you will more than enjoy your time here!  There are some exciting things going on throughout 2012, so check out their websites to read all about Belgium and the many gastronomy events!  www.visitbelgium.com or www.visitbelgium.com/belgianbites