Packing for a Long Trip

Our flight to London leaves in just three days (!!!!) which means it’s time for me to finish packing. I am a planner in pretty much all aspects of my life, and packing for a trip is no different. Procrastination stresses me out beyond belief, so I try to pack as far in advance as possible.

About a month before the trip, I started reviewing my wardrobe in my head, thinking about what I might bring and whether I needed to purchase anything for the upcoming trip. Last week, I nailed down my packing list, and this week, I’ve done laundry and started to lay everything out. Today, I’ll pack as much as possible, so that the day we leave, I only need to add in last minute items, like toiletries and makeup.

Spreading out the process of packing over the course of a few weeks helps keep the whole thing relaxed and stress-free, lets me debate whether I really need that extra sweater, and helps me remember one-off items that I might forget if I were packing last minute. I’ve been documenting my packing process on my Instagram stories, so check it out if you’re interested (@erinplansforeurope)! I use my home office as a “staging area”, where everything goes from being a complete disaster of clothes in a chaotic pile to a neatly organized suitcase.

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As I’ve mentioned on Instagram, this trip will be three weeks long. We’re flying into London and spending a week there before we move on to York and the Ribble Valley. My husband and I are taking our 15-month old son on his first trip abroad, so even though my husband and I have been to London several times, this will be our first trip with a toddler. So much will be new and exciting, not the least of which is the packing.

Do you know how much stuff tiny humans need? I certainly didn’t before I became a mom. There are the clothes, of course, which are fortunately very small, but there are also blankets, stuffed animals, toys, bibs, bottles, sippy cups, snacks, and more. My packing checklist for the baby feels like it’s a mile long. You know how adamant I am that packing in a carry on suitcase is the way to go, so even with all the added baby items, that’s what we’re doing.

Yep, you heard me. My son and I are sharing a carry on suitcase for a three-week trip around England. We’ll be staying in apartments, so we will be able to do laundry (a true lifesaver and a “must have” for me when looking for places to stay), but there’s still an awful lot of stuff I need to cram into a small suitcase. With all the added baby items we’re having to bring, I am going with a very minimalist packing list.

Here’s my packing list for our three week trip around England:

  • 2 pairs of shoes (wear one on the plane, pack one)
  • 3 pairs of pants (wear one on the plane, pack two)
  • 4 long sleeve shirts
  • 1 short sleeve shirt (wear on the plane)
  • 2 lightweight sweaters (wear one on the plane, pack one)
  • 1 lightweight jacket with hood (wear on the plane)
  • 1 blanket scarf (wear on the plane, where it will do double duty as a blanket or pillow)
  • 10 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 3 camisoles
  • 1 pair of PJs
  • Toiletries and makeup

When it’s listed out like that, it looks like so much stuff! I may try and whittle it down even further, depending on how much space there is. I’ve picked items that are machine-washable (obviously), layer well, and color coordinate with each other. Everything I’m packing goes with everything else, which will give me a lot more versatility in creating outfits and will make getting dressed in the morning a breeze.

Packing for a long trip in a carry on takes a little more planning and preparation, but if you start thinking about your packing list ahead of time, it’s not a big deal. Once you travel with just a carry on, you’ll realize you didn’t miss all that extra stuff anyway, and you’ll be so thankful you don’t have to lug a huge suitcase around!

 

 

 

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Wine Wednesdays – Rosé Edition

With the weather (finally!) starting to warm up around the country, we’re moving full steam ahead into picnic and patio season. I thought this would be the perfect time for a Wine Wednesday post devoted to summer’s favorite wine: rosé!

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Rosé is a category of wine (like red or white) that can be made from an assortment of red-skinned grapes. Note that the grapes must have red skins, which is where the pink hue comes from. There are two ways to make rosé: bleeding or direct pressing.

Bleeding, the most widely used method, involves allowing the juice to macerate (soak) with the skins. This process is similar to how red wine is made, but the juice and the skins macerate for a much shorter time before being separated, which is why the color of rosé is pink rather than red. Depending on the color the winemaker is looking for, the maceration time can be anywhere from eight to 48 hours (as opposed to red wine which is generally macerated from between two to three weeks).

Direct pressing is a much less common method and is similar to how white wine is made. With the direct-pressing method, the grapes are pressed right away. However, unlike with white wine, when the pressing is performed quickly so that the skins don’t discolor the juice, the pressing for rosé wine is done slowly, to allow the skins to slightly tint the wine. Wines made with this method are sometimes referred to as vin gris (“gray wine”) for their light color.

Although technically it is possible to make rosé by simply blending white wine and red wine together, this practice is highly frowned upon, and in the European Union, it’s actually illegal (except in the Champagne region).

The most famous rosé wines come from France, specifically, Provence and the Loire Valley, with the region of Provence alone producing the majority of the country’s rosé. Provence was also the first place in the world to made rosé, although now the U.S. (Washington and California), as well as Italy, Spain, and Germany also make delicious bottles.

Because rosés can be made from several different grapes, their styles can vary considerably. But normally, rosés are light and fruity with notes of strawberry, raspberry, and roses. They’re tart, refreshing, and drinkable, perfect for a picnic or an afternoon on a sun-dappled patio. Common grapes used in rosés include Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Rosés from Provence are usually a blend (in varying proportions) of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

My personal favorite is rosés made from Grenache grapes, as I find that these rosés have a bit more “character” and “oomph” (<—– highly technical wine terms). Grenache rosés tend to have a medium body (compared with Cab Franc, Gamay, and Pinot Noir rosés, which are usually light-bodied) and have more savory notes. Grenache rosés also pair deliciously with food, making it a great happy hour or dinnertime option.

No matter what grape it’s made from, I think we can all agree that rosé is the official wine of summer. I hope you have some warm weather headed your way so you can enjoy a bottle or two!

The Truth About Amsterdam: Part II

In Part I of this series, I shared the truth about the “dark side” of Amsterdam. You know, the side of the city you always hear about: the marijuana and the coffeeshops, the prostitutes and the Red Light District. But the truth is, that although those might be the aspects of the city you hear about the most, the city is so much more than a good-time party city. Amsterdam is really all about canals, museums, cafés, bikes, stroopwafels, parks, and architecture. It’s a family-friendly destination that absolutely deserves a spot on your itinerary. In this post, I’m going to tell you the truth about Amsterdam, beyond what you may have heard.

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Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Museums

I adore museums, and Amsterdam is home to some of the best ones anywhere in the world. From the Anne Frank House, which shows where two Jewish families hid from the Nazies during World War II, to the Amsterdam Museum, which tells the story of the city’s growth from its origins as a fishing village through today, to the Dutch Resistance Museum, which recounts how Dutch citizens resisted against, or collaborated with, the Nazis who occupied the Netherlands during WWII, there is a history museum for everyone. And no matter your taste in art, you’ll find a museum to occupy your time. For modern art, including post-1945 conceptual art as well as works by Picasso, Chagall, and Cézanne, head to the Stedelijk Museum. My personal favorite is the Van Gogh Museum, which displays 200 paintings that were owned by Theo, Vincent’s younger brother. The most famous art museum in the city is the Rijksmuesum, which houses the best display of the Dutch Masters (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Steen) anywhere in the world. No matter what your interests, you’ll be sure to find an excellent and informative museum in Amsterdam.

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Prinsengracht with a view of Westerkerk (Western Church), Amsterdam.

Canals

The city of Amsterdam was built up upon millions of pilings, creating a city of over 100 tree-lined canals that are perfect for snapping pictures at every turn. Although there’s so much to do in Amsterdam (see above), one of my favorite activities is simply to wander the picturesque neighborhoods and watch boats float by. For a great scenic walk, head to the Jordaan neighborhood, to the west of Dam Square. There you’ll find cozy cafés, fashionable boutiques, independent bookstores, funky artist studios, and of course, beautiful canals lined with houseboats. It’s an peaceful slice of Dutch life.

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Amsterdam Gables.

Architecture

If you’re interested in architecture, Amsterdam is the place for you! Amsterdam is well known for its gables, the false facades on the tops of buildings. There are a wide variety of gables, which can also be decorated with garlands, scrolls, or human or animal heads.   A “point” gable is the most simplistic, and simply follows the triangular shape of the roof. A “neck” gable rises up vertically from a pair of sloped “shoulders”. The “spout” gable has a rectangular stone at the peak. A “cornice” gable looks like a triangle without the peak. As you can imagine, a “bell” gable is shaped like a bell, and a “step” gable is triangle shaped and has steps up the sides. In the picture above, the gable styles are (from left to right): point, neck, spout, point, cornice, bell, neck, bell. For more architectural finds, check out this page of the I Amsterdam website.

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Vondelpark, Amsterdam. Image via.

Parks

If you love spending time outside, then Amsterdam has several parks where you can escape the bustle of the busy city and soak in the scenery. The largest and best known park in the city is Vondelpark. On a sunny day, you can find Amsterdamers as well as tourists strolling or biking through the park, or simply sitting in the grass soaking up the sun. Vondelpark has several restaurants and cafés, as well as a rose garden and an open air theater. There’s even a skate rental shop, if you prefer to explore the park on skates! While Vondelpark is beautiful and centrally located (it’s just west of the Museum Plein, where the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum are), it can get very crowded during sunny days. For less well-known parks, head to Amstelpark (huge garden with Dutch tulips, south of the city but accessible via bus) or Rembrandtpark (a green oasis with several ponds and even a petting zoo, in the western part of the city, accessible via bus and tram).

As you can see, Amsterdam deserves a much better reputation that what it frequently receives. There is more to this lively city than just coffeeshops and the Red Light District. Even this post barely scratches the surface. In addition to museums, canals, architecture, and parks, there are cosy cafés, delicious food, glorious churches, abundant people-watching, and a vibrant culture to be enjoyed. I hope I convinced you to add Amsterdam to your traveling bucket list!

 

The Truth About Amsterdam – Part 1: The Dark Side

Whenever I tell people that I’m planning a trip to Amsterdam, I occasionally get a response of, “Amsterdam, huh? Gonna have fun while you’re there I suppose?” Usually accompanied by a mischievous grin and a cheesy, conspiratorial wink. At that point, I can tell that they’ve never been to Amsterdam and the reasons they think I’m visiting the city are very different from the reasons I’m actually visiting the city.

Admittedly, Amsterdam does have somewhat of a notorious reputation. For people who have never visited themselves, the perception of Amsterdam may be of a wild party city with free-flowing drugs and legal prostitutes on every street corner. For others who have visited, or who have done a bit of research, they know that this simply isn’t the case. Yes, Amsterdam has a different approach to marijuana and prostitution than we’re used to in the States, but there is so much more to this city than legal weed and the Red Light District. Amsterdam is also all about tree-lined canals, historic gabled mansions, world-class art museums, and cozy cafes.

In the first of this two-part series on Amsterdam, I’ll give you the truth about the “dark side” of Amsterdam, which, as you’ll see, isn’t all that dark at all. While you certainly can get into trouble if you actively seek it out (and isn’t this true of all large cities?), Amsterdam is overall very clean, safe, and beautiful. Here are the facts about Amsterdam’s legal drug and prostitution trades.

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La Tertulia, one of the best coffeeshops in Amsterdam, as rated by Leafly.

Marijuana

Here’s the truth about marijuana in Amsterdam: the sale of weed is highly regulated and you probably won’t even encounter it, unless you seek it out. Marijuana can only be sold in licensed “coffeeshops”, where the minimum age for purchase is 18. A coffeeshop can only sell up to five grams of pot per person per day, and it’s absolutely illegal for them to advertise. In fact, most coffeeshops won’t even hand you a menu of their marijuana offerings unless you ask. (It’s considered perfectly acceptable to visit a coffeeshop and simply have a cup of coffee without purchasing or smoking pot.)

Now that legal marijuana is becoming more common here in the U.S. (as of 2018, nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and another 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes), the idea of being able to walk into a store and buy weed may not seem quite as foreign as it did 10 years ago, but it might still be a little shocking. If you’re curious, by all means – visit a coffeeshop! Check out a guidebook for a reputable one that will take time to make you feel comfortable and answer your questions. Be sure to listen to their advice regarding what and how much you should smoke, as the weed in Amsterdam is generally much stronger than the illegal weed sold in the U.S. (However, if you happen to live in a pot-friendly state, there won’t be much difference in potency.)

As you can see from the image above, many Amsterdam coffeeshops simply look like inviting cafés.

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Image via Thrillist.

Natural Drugs

Similar to coffeeshops, “smartshops” around Amsterdam are legal, licensed stores that sell a range of “natural” drugs. The name comes from their origins as purveyors of herbal stimulants intended to improve memory and boost cognitive power (such as powdered guarana). The products on offer range from harmless nutrition boosters (like royal jelly), to more harmful and mind-altering drugs like tobacco, herbal Ecstasy, and hallucinogenic truffles (as hallucinogenic mushrooms have been banned by the EU – truffles grow underground, so technically, they’re not mushrooms). Because these substances are found in nature, the Dutch government considers them legal (but keep in mind that legal does not equal safe – some of these drugs can have powerful harmful effects).

Although this nonchalant attitude toward powerful psychedelic drugs (natural or not) can seem scary and off-putting, smartshops are not common outside of the Red Light District, and you won’t have any interaction with them unless you chose to do so. Smartshops are clean, well-lit, and not at all skeezy; you could walk right by one and never notice.

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Red Light District.

Prostitutes

Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is not allowed throughout the entire city of Amsterdam, nor are there prostitutes plying their trade in windows all over the city. Rather, legal prostitution is contained to two specific streets in a specific neighborhood, De Wallen (“The Walls”), more commonly known as the Red Light District. Women who work here as prostitutes are entrepreneurs and run their own business. They accept or reject customers, negotiate their own rates, have police protection, belong to a union, and pay rent for their “office” space.

Admittedly, the heart of the Red Light District (Dollebeginensteeg and surrounding alleys), with its high concentration of sex shops, peep show parlors, the occasional drunk passed out in a doorway, and questionable characters leering at women in windows can feel sleazy, but in reality, it’s perfectly safe. (Pickpocketing is common, though, so keep an eye on your wallet, and note that taking pictures of the women working is absolutely forbidden.) If those areas make you uncomfortable, simply skip them. Broadening your horizons is great and all, but it’s totally ok to decide that something isn’t for you.

The De Wallen neighborhood may contain some seedy streets, but there’s so much more to this neighborhood than prostitution. De Wallen is the oldest part of Amsterdam, with the oldest church (Oude Kerk), a vibrant square (Nieuwmarkt), picturesque leaning gabled houses (along Oudezijds Voorburgwal), and even a beautiful Buddhist temple (Fo Guang Shan). As part of an ongoing effort to combat the influence of of organized crime, the city has launched the 1012 project to reduce the types of business that are conducive to crime. This has resulted in a revitalization of sorts, with several former prostitutes’ windows being transformed to exhibition spaces for new and upcoming designers.

In Conclusion

Although Amsterdam frequently gets stereotyped as a wild, anything-goes party city, it’s not like that at all. Marijuana and natural drugs are highly regulated, and are only sold in clean, well-lit, licensed shops that are staffed by informed employees who have a strong incentive to keep their customers safe. Prostitution is only allowed on a few streets in a small part of the city that is also well-lit and regularly patrolled by a robust police presence. If any of these things make you nervous or uncomfortable, simply avoid them. It’s easy to do, and there’s so much more to Amsterdam to enjoy.

It’s worth noting that the legal drugs and prostitution does not mean that the Dutch are cavalier about the problems they cause, or that the Dutch are running around getting stoned and paying money in exchange for sex. The Dutch have simply found pragmatic solutions to difficult problems, and the Netherlands have been known as a haven for tolerance. Amsterdam residents have found a way to live side-by-side with individuals from all different backgrounds, with all different ideologies, and I think that’s incredible.

As I mentioned above, Amsterdam is so much more than just it’s “dark side”. There are picture-perfect canals, incredible art museums, sunny café terraces, historic gabled waterfront mansions, trendy restaurants, and the list just keeps going. Stay tuned for Part II of this series where I talk about the “light side” of Amsterdam!

How to pack in layers 101

Packing for a European vacation is tricky. You’ll be walking a lot, so you want clothes and shoes that are comfortable. You’ll be taking a lot of pictures, so you want to look cute and well-dressed. You might even be visiting a few countries with different types of weather, so you have to be prepared for a range of temperatures. This is turning into a logistical nightmare! How are you ever going to decide what to bring?

I’m here to show you how. After taking countless trips to Europe, I’ve finally gotten the hang of packing for an overseas adventure, and I can show you how to fit it all in a carry-on suitcase! (I always pack in a carry-on suitcase and here’s why you should too.)

The secret to packing everything you need in one carry-on size suitcase is to pack in layers. This is easy to say, but harder to do. That’s why I’m going to show you exactly what I mean, with examples.

The general idea for packing in layers is that every item of clothing you bring should coordinate with everything else, and you should be able to add or subtract items so you can be warmer or cooler, depending on the weather. Put succinctly, everything should do double duty.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Take five key pieces: a dress, leggings, lightweight long-sleeve shirt, denim jacket, and a lightweight overcoat with a hood. Add in a scarf for some color and a pair of shoes that is both cute and comfortable. Notice that the color palette is made up of mostly neutrals and everything coordinates.

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If the weather is warm, you can wear the dress on its own. As temperatures drop, just add layers. A little chilly? Throw on the jean jacket and scarf. Getting cooler? Layer the leggings under the dress. Downright cold? Wear all the things – leggings, turtleneck, dress, scarf, denim jacket, and the overcoat. With just these five pieces, you can create several outfits for a variety of temperatures. For example, you could also wear the dress, scarf, and overcoat. Or the leggings, turtleneck, and jean jacket. Or….well, you get the idea.

Yes, packing like this requires some extra planning and effort, but the payoff is worth it, I promise. Just remember these two questions:

  1. Does this piece go with everything else I’m bringing?
  2. Can this piece be layered over/under something else?

And you’ll be set!

 

 

 

Five Reasons Why Paris is Always a Good Idea

Have you heard the quote, “Paris is always a good idea”? It’s attributed to Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina, and although I’ve never seen the movie, I wholeheartedly agree with this line.

Five Reasons Why Paris

Paris is one of those places that captures the imagination and stirs the soul, and its magical combination of romance, culture, architecture, and lights make it a city unlike any other. No matter what the occasion or the season, here are my five reasons why a trip to Paris is always a good idea.

  1. Food. From impossibly airy baguettes, to perfectly flaky croissants, to ooey-gooey (French) onion soup, to crispy duck-fat roasted potatoes, to delictible cheeses, the list goes on and on and on. If I spent a week in Paris and did nothing but eat, I’m still not sure I’d have time to sample all the delicacies the city has to offer (but I’d be willing to try!). To help you on your food quest, here’s a list of the best croissants according to Time Out Paris, here’s a ranking of the top ten baguettes as judged by the Paris bakers union, and here’s a roundup of pastry-chef-turned-cookbook-author-American-in-Paris David Lebovitz’s favorite Paris restaurants.DSC_0432-2
  2. Sainte Chapelle. While this church may not be as famous as nearby Notre Dame, it’s easily my favorite place in all of Paris. This thirteenth century royal chapel was built to house and display holy relics acquired and King Louis IX spared no expense. There are fifteen panels of stained glass, each about 45 feet high, that surround the entire room. The stained glass depicts over 1,000 Bible stories from the Old and New Testament and tell the story of how the relics came to Paris. Pictures of this place do not do its beauty justice. No matter how many times I go to Paris, a visit to Sainte Chapelle will always be on my must-do list.
  3. Art. Paris is an incredible city for art. Whether you’re interested in Italian Renaissance masterpieces by da Vinci, lifelike sculptures by Rodin, cubist paintings by Picasso, giant impressionist canvases by Monet, or neon portraits by Warhol, there is a museum for you. The best news is that all the major art museums (Louvre, Orangerie, Orsay, Pompidou Center, and Rodin Museum) are covered by the Paris Museum Pass, making it easy for you to skip the lines and enjoy centuries’ worth of art.DSC_0405-2
  4. Romance. In a city with beautiful bridges covered in lovers’ locks, quiet tree-lined back streets, atmospheric cafés, and gorgeous monuments that sparkle after dark, it’s easy to see why Paris is known for romance. I love strolling along the Seine hand-in-hand with my husband to admire the views of Notre Dame or snuggling up against him on the steps of the Place du Trocadéro to watch the light show at the Eiffel Tower.DSC_0312-2
  5. Parks. Paris has so many beautiful parks, it’s almost impossible to list them all. Visiting one of the outdoor gardens makes a wonderful break from all the sightseeing. Because there’s so much to do and see in Paris, sometimes it’s hard to make time to sit and relax in a park, but doing just that is one of the most authentically Parisian things you could do. My favorite is Luxembourg gardens, where Parisians of all ages gather to play boules (similar to bocce ball) or chess, sail boats in the fountain, walk their dogs, or simply sit and soak up the sun. Snag one of the green metal chairs by the fountain and give yourself permission to take a vacation from your vacation.

Have you ever been to Paris? Do you agree with Audrey that Paris is always a good idea? What’s the most romantic city you’ve ever been to?

How to spend a perfect day in Florence, Italy

In college, I lived in Florence for six months during a study-abroad program. I was completely immersed in the beauty of the city, and even today, Florence holds a large chunk of my soul. I’ve returned several times since then and still dream of moving there permanently. While there are enough wonders in this city to keep you occupied for weeks on end, here’s how I would spend one day soaking up the best Florence has to offer.

Start your day the Italian way, with un caffé (espresso) and a pastry. Have breakfast standing up at the bar for less money and the most authentic Italian experience. In Italy, the cost of espresso is government regulated; even at the most fancy cafes, drinking an espresso while standing at the bar will rarely cost you more than €1.

Fueled by your skimpy Italian breakfast, make your way to the Duomo and get your tickets to climb Giotto’s Bell Tower. Arrive as early as possible (opens at 8:30) to beat the crowds. While you could climb the interior of the famous dome, I much prefer the less crowded bell tower climb, which offers incredible views of Florence and the dome. If the line is long, you can pop over to the Duomo Museum behind the church to purchase a Duomo combo-ticket. The combo-ticket costs €18, is valid  for four days, and includes entrance to the bell tower climb, Baptistery, Duomo Museum, and Duomo crypt. (Note that it does not include the dome climb, however.)

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View of the Duomo from Giotto’s Bell Tower.

After conquering the 413 steps of the bell tower, you’ve earned a reward in the form of some delicious Italian gelato. One of my favorites is Gelateria Carrozze, on the riverfront 30 meters from the Ponte Vecchio (toward the Uffizi) at Piazza del Pesce 3. Try their pistacchio, you won’t be disappointed.

With your gelato in hand, take a stroll across the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge. Notice all the pricey jewelry stores, and imagine that during medieval times, these stalls housed Florence’s meat market. Rather than having to cart away their waste, the butchers simply dumped everything in the river. Convenient for the butchers, not so nice for everyone else. When the Medici rulers started using the Vasari corridor (the enclosed passageway above the bridge that connects the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio) to commute to work, the smelly butcher shops were replaced with more refined gold and silver shops.

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Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

By now, you’re probably starting to wonder what’s for lunch. Back-track along the Ponte Vecchio and make your way to the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s central market in the San Lorenzo neighborhood. This multi-story covered market was constructed in 1874 and houses all sorts of delicious fish, meat, produce, wine, cheese, and even a few cafes. While you can eat at one of the ground floor restaurants, my preference is to assemble a picnic of cheese, prosciutto, bread, olives, fruit and of course wine and enjoy lunch on the steps of the nearby Church of San Lorenzo (watch out for inquisitive pigeons).

Once you’ve refueled, our next stop is the Museum of San Marco, a 15th-century monastery with an incredible collection of early Renaissance frescoes and paintings. The museum shows 43 monastic cells decorated by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk and painter who was formally trained in the medieval religious style, but who picked up Renaissance techniques. His art is a unique blend of Christian symbols and Renaissance realism.

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The Virgin of the Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. (Image from Wikipedia.)

In the painting above, the subject matter, the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear God’s son) is clearly religious, yet the figures are firmly planted in the realm of Earth. The painting takes place in a courtyard, rather than abstract space or a gold background, as was common with earlier religious paintings, and there’s some movement in the figures’ poses.

In addition to the frescoes in the monk’s cells, the monastery itself is beautiful. Wander the grounds and contemplate the simple, prayer-filled lives of the monks who lived here six hundred years ago.

Our last museum of the day is the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s famous David statue. During peak season, it’s crucial to make a reservation online to skip the ticket-buying line, or risk not being admitted. (The website is not particularly user-friendly, but it’s better than waiting in an hours-long line.)

While David is the main attraction, the Accademia also houses Michelangelo’s immensely powerful Prisoners (also referred to as Slaves). The Prisoners are four statues that were originally commissioned to decorate the elaborate tomb of Pope Julius II. However, shortly afterwards, Julius died, and funding for the project was cut. As a result, these statues remained in Michelangelo’s workshop, unfinished, where they were discovered after the artist’s death.

 

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The Bearded Prisoner. (Photos are not allowed in the Accademia; this image is from the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze’s website.)

As you can see from the picture above, these statues are referred to as Prisoners because they have never been freed from the marble. Michelangelo was a highly devout man who believed that he was God’s tool, merely chipping away at the stone until the true spirit of the sculpture was revealed. The Bearded Prisoner, above, is the most fully revealed of the four on display at the Accademia (two additional Prisoners are in the Louvre, in Paris).

You can see how highly Michelangelo revered the human form; the Prisoner’s body is much more defined that his face, yet you can clearly feel the emotions of the sculpture. Notice his classic contrapposto pose – all of the Prisoner’s weight is resting on his right leg, causing his shoulders lean to his left, while his hips jut out to the right. The body language is dynamic, and you feel his struggle to break free from the stone. The Prisoners are raw, unfinished, and evocative. David is an incredible work of art, but it’s the Prisoners who truly stir my emotions.

For a picture-perfect view of the city, we’re going to end our day with a bottle of wine up at the Piazzale Michelangelo. While I don’t mind hiking up to this viewpoint on the other side of the river (about 30 minutes from central Florence), if all the walking today has worn you out, catch a bus or grab a taxi.

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Sit on the steps, savor your wine, enjoy the music of the street performers, and marvel at the view of this incredible city.

Why you should pack in a carry-on for your European vacation

Here’s a confession: I used to be an extreme over-packer. While it pains me to admit it, it’s true. My most egregious offence happened in 2008, when my mom, grandmother, and I took a trip to Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. Our plan was to fly into Pairs, spend a week there, and then take the train from Paris to Switzerland, and then from Switzerland to Florence, where I was about to start my study abroad program. Since I was going to live in Florence for six months, I was convinced I needed to take my entire wardrobe with me.

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Don’t pack this much stuff. You won’t need it, I promise. (Photo via Google Images.)

So I packed two giant suitcases and conned my poor mother into packing her giant suitcase half full with even more of my clothes. My grandmother, never known for packing light, also had a large suitcase of her own.

When I think back on my mother and I (my grandmother was in pretty good shape but couldn’t carry her own suitcase), both fairly petite women, lugging four enormous suitcases through train stations, onto trains , off of trains, up stairs, down stairs, over cobblestone streets, I cringe. It was absolutely exhausting to haul that much stuff around, and we must have looked like such tourists. I’m honestly surprised we weren’t targeted for pickpocketing or bag snatching. With so much luggage, if someone had wanted to grab one of our bags, there wouldn’t have been anything we could have done about it.

And you know what? Once I was in Italy, I wore the same ten or so outfits over and over again. Or I bought new clothes, or borrowed from my roommates. Half of the clothes I hauled across the Atlantic, despite being there for six months, never even got worn.

That trip was really my “come to Jesus” moment when it came to packing. I realized that if I could get by on the same ten or so outfits for six months (and two seasons), then I should always, always be able to pack in a carry-on size suitcase for vacation. Since then, I’ve limited myself to packing in a carry-on suitcase for all my trips, and I have never once regretted it.

There are so many benefits of being a carry-on-only passenger:

  • Avoid the risk of lost luggage. There aren’t too many things I can think of that have the actual potential to ruin my vacation, but having the airline lose my luggage is one of them. Can you imagine having to deal with the airline’s Lost Luggage department in a foreign country on little-to-no sleep after an excruciatingly long flight? Eeeek, no thank you.
  • Get out of the airport faster. You know how after a 12+ hour transcontinental flight, all you want to do is get the hell out of the airport? Carry-on lets you do that. When everyone else is staring forlornly at the baggage carousel, you can beat them all to the customs line and be on your way.
  • It makes you less of a target for pick-pocketing. I have never been robbed in Europe, but it is more of a risk there than it is in America. Thieves in Europe see Americans as dumb, naive, and rich, and they take advantage of that. If you’re struggling with a large suitcase, you’re less likely to be paying attention to whose hand is sneaking in your pocket or purse. Packing in a smaller, manageable suitcase makes you far less conspicuous.
  • You can store your suitcase in the overhead racks on trains. If you plan on taking a train ride between destinations, packing in a carry-on suitcase can be especially important. Generally, there’s not much luggage space on train cars, and it fills up quickly. I’ve seen people have to haul suitcases several train car lengths from their assigned seat to find space for their luggage. Not only is this inconvenient, but it means your unattended luggage can easily be stolen.
  • Fewer choices make getting dressed in the morning easier. I’m not one of those people who can just “visualize my closet” and assemble the perfect outfit. At home, when faced with my entire wardrobe, I’ll stand in front of my closet forever, trying to decide what to wear. Who wants to waste time like that when traveling? There’s too much to do! Having a limited selection of outfits makes it easy to get dressed, get out the door, and get sightseeing.

The way to pack in a carry-on suitcase is to bring only the essentials and pack in layers. You actually need much less than you think you do. Don’t pack something just because you might use it – pack what you know you’ll need and buy yourself out of any jams. Spend time packing, and constantly ask yourself whether you really need an item. Bring travel size toiletries and visit a local drugstore for replacements when you run out. It’s an exciting cultural experience, and you might end up with a new favorite shampoo!

Packing in a carry-on suitcase takes practice, and a little extra effort, but once you’re on vacation, you will be so glad you packed in a carry-on suitcase! Are you a packing pro, or do you struggle to fit everything into your suitcase? What are your best packing tips?

Wine Wednesdays – Gamay Edition

Welcome to the second installment of Wine Wednesdays, a series where I pick a type of wine, grape, region, or country and give an overview as it pertains to wine. When you’re visiting Europe, wine is generally a major part of the culture, and knowing a little bit about it before you go can help make your trip more fulfilling, not to mention delicious! Today, I’m going to tell you all about one of my favorite grapes, the Gamay grape.vineyards-885290_1920

The Gamay grape has been cultivated in France since the 1300s, but is not as widely known as (I think) it should be, although you may have had Gamay without even knowing it. The Gamay grape grows in Beaujolais, which is a French wine appellation. As is often the case in France, the wine takes the name of the appellation (Beaujolais), rather than the name of the grape (Gamay). So if you’ve ever had a Beaujolais or a Beaujolais Nouveau (especially popular around Thanksgiving), you’ve had Gamay!

 

As I mentioned above, Beaujolais is an appellation and geographical area located in the far south of the famous Burgundy (Bourgone in French) wine region. The majority of wine from the Burgundy region is made with the Pinot Noir grape. In fact, according to French wine rules set by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée, all red Burgundies must be made from the Pinot Noir grape, except for Beaujolais wines, which are made from the Gamay grape. This might explain why Gamay has flown under the radar for so long, as Beaujolais is such a small part of the famous Burgundy region.

In general, wine made with Gamay grapes is light and fruity, with medium-high acidity and low tannins. It tastes of tart red berries and black currants, with subtle floral notes of violet. The wine is meant to be consumed young (from between one and three years), and may even be served chilled, making this a great summertime wine. It’s also a good budget-friendly wine, since most bottles of good Beaujolais sell for around $15 in the U.S. (expect prices in France to be even cheaper!). Beaujolais pairs well with most foods, especially lighter meals such as veal, fish, or chicken, and goes especially well with Roquefort cheese.

If your only experience with Gamay has been Beaujolais Nouveau, I strongly urge you to seek out a bottle of traditional Beaujolais, as the experience will be completely different. The Gamay grapes for Beaujolais Nouveau are picked, fermented, bottled, and on the shelf in your local wine store within a matter of weeks, so Beaujolais Nouveau is even lighter and fruitier than basic Beaujolais and should be consumed within six months.

Especially as the weather starts to warm up, I’ll be reaching for Gamay wines more and more often. I hope this post has encouraged you to try a bottle as well!

Santé!

 

How to beat the crowds at the Tower of London

Since its construction in 1097, the infamous Tower of London has served as a palace, fortress, prison, execution site, home of the Royal Mint and Royal Jewel House, and has even held a zoo. Because of all the history and the allure of seeing the Crown Jewels in person, it’s one of London’s most popular attractions, with over three million visitors a year. There can be long lines to buy tickets and overwhelming crowds once inside. The wait to see the Crown Jewels can stretch for hours, and you can’t make a reservation to skip the line.

So how do you beat the crowds while visiting this incredible sight ? I’ll tell you!

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The Tower is least crowded first thing in the morning on weekdays (unless it’s a school holiday – check the calendar before you go). My biggest tip is to arrive when it opens (9:00 Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00 Sunday – Monday) and go straight to the Crown Jewels. As I mentioned, the line for the Crown Jewels during peak times can be extremely long. The first time I visited the Tower, I didn’t time my visit correctly and ended up skipping the jewels because I didn’t want to wait in the horrendous line. On our most recent trip, my husband and I arrived at the Tower at 9:00 and were at the building housing the Crown Jewels by 9:15. We had the place to ourselves, and were able to gape at the magnificent gems for as long as we pleased.

After you’ve seen the Crown Jewels, take the first Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) tour of the day, offered at 10:00. Free, hilarious, informative, kid-friendly tours are given by the Yeoman Warders every 30 minutes. Tours leave from just inside the entrance gate, last one hour, and give a great overview of the grounds, it’s various functions throughout the centuries, and the Tower’s gorey history.

If you can’t get to the Tower by 10:00, try to time your visit so you arrive for one of the last Yeoman Warder tours of the day, at 15:00 (or 14:00 November – February). After the tour, you’ll have time to visit the White Tower and its armory museum and see the Crown Jewels before the Tower closes at 17:30 (16:30 November – February).

To save time in the long ticket-buying line, buy your tickets ahead of time. The best and easiest option is to buy your tickets from the Trader’s Gate gift shop, just down the steps from the Tower Hill Tube stop. While you can buy tickets online, you have to use the tickets within seven days of purchase. This is a great option if you’re staying in a hotel where you can print out your tickets. If you don’t have access to a printer in London, you can still purchase online, then pick up tickets from the Group Tickets line (though be aware that this can also be crowded).

I hope if you’re visiting the Tower of London, these crowd-beating tips come in handy!