Sunken Pear Cake

Since I live in two apartments cooking and baking has become a bit of a challenge. Where I have a full kitchen and all amenities I usually only live 2-3 days a month…and alone…so it’s not much fun to cook for one person.
And where I live with my partner, the kitchen is more a kitchenette with little opportunity to make big meals.
But today on the farmers ‘ market we found these delicious mini pears and I just had to try and bake this cake!

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Ingredients for a baking pan of 22-24cm diameter

100gr butter unsalted
75 g caster sugar
2 eggs
300-400 gr pears cut in tiny slices
1 tbl spoon lemonjuice
10gr vanillasugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
125g flour , me 00
2 tbl spoons sugar

Butter for the pan

Preparation:

Heat oven to 180c
Butter the pan, set aside
Slice the pears and put them in a bowl, mix with lemonjuice and vanillasugar to prevent them to become brown

In a separate bowl, beat butter with a mixer until it forms little tips, then add sugar and continue to beat until smooth, add the entire eggs and stir until the batter becomes smooth, now add baking powder and flour and mix until the batter is well amalgamated. Add the pears and stir until the pears are all covered with the batter, pour into the baking pan and distribute evenly. Add some sugar on the top and bake for 30-35 minutes. It probably will turn out a bit nicer in a real oven, but it smells nice coming out of that small oven:-)

 

Let cool and enjoy with a cup of real Italian Caffè!

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Lesser known Liguria

 

A week ago, we toured the coast west of Savona, all the way to Alassio via Torre del Mare, Varigotti and Pietra Ligure. This is a lesser known part of Liguria, but equally worth a visit.
From Alassio, we drove along narrow winding roads into the Hinterland…amazing small towns, Borgos and a fascinating landscape await you once you leave the coast line.
Well, I just let the pictures speak!

 

Greece in a glass

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During our recent trip to Greece, we had the opportunity to meet a passionate wine maker who runs a family wine estate close to Athens in Mesogaia, on the Attica Peninsula. Thanks to our friend Giorgio, a Swiss National who moved to Greece for work a few years ago, we met Vassili Papagiannakos in his beautiful domaine.
Vassili welcomed us with open arms and showed us his estate and the production site which is a very modern, state-of-the-art production line where he and his team produce about 200’000 bottles a year. Most of the products are white wines, complemented by Rosé and Reds.

Vassili took over the winery as the 3rd generation from his grandfather and father and invested in latest technologies, actually they are the first winery in Greece designed and built according to innovative bioclimatic standards in order to produce world-class wine. Various awards are the proof that the Domaine Papagiannakos wines are outstanding.
Vassilli explained that the terroir where his grapes grow is very unique. The soil is a combination of clay, sand and gravel, and the climate is perfect, 320 days of sunshine, no rain from June to October, mild winds and being surrounded by the sea are all favorable factors.
When you think of Greek Wines, I am sure that Retsina comes to your mind and you lift your eyebrows in disbelieve that Greek Wine could taste better than this petrol-flavoured liquid! Believe me, Greece has come a long way and modern Greek Wines do no longer have to shun competition from Italy, Spain etc.
I enjoy especially the white wines as they are making me dream of the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea, the hospitality of the Greeks and the wonderful nature!

We were invited to taste all of the Estate’s wines, here is a selection of them:
Kalogeri, made with 100% Malagouza grapes is a dry white wine, very fruitful and balanced. I would recommend it with seafood or fish/poultry.
Savatiano Papagiannakos is made with 100% Savatiano grapes, again a dry white wine with medium acidity, it has aromas of citrus fruit and is a perfect match with seafood, or just as is, to enjy and dream of Greece!
The Vareli, also made of 100% Savatiano grapes, in addition to fermenting in steel tanks, ages 6 months in oak barrels, a very complex wine, with aromas of wood, spices and citrus fruit.
It has very balanced flavours and is my favorite of the white wines we tasted.
This wine for me is Greece in a glass!
Vassilli also produces a Rosé, made of 100% Muscat de Hamburg; it has an aromatic bouquet of flowers and pomegranate. For people who like a chilled Rosé it is certainly worth trying it.

Then we moved on to the reds:
My favorite red is the Kalogeri, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. After the fermentation in stainless steel tanks, it is aged for 14 months in new french oak barrels. The deep ruby colour and complex bouquet of ripe red fruit, spices and vanilla make it a pure pleasure to drink. It is a wine that complements rich food, but is certainly also a wine that can be enjoyed without food, on a terrasse, marvelling at the sea!

To end the tasting, we were offered a glass of the Melias, a sweet white wine made from 100% Malagouzia grapes. It is a dessert wine with a taste of honey and ripe pineapples. For the boys, it was too sweet, for me, it was just perfect and I would either serve it with blue cheese or with dry bisquits such as Cantucci.

We had a fantastic time with Vassili and Giorgio and hope we can make the Papagiannakos’ Winery better known in our country and help to improve the image of Greek wines outside of Greece.
Efcharisto’ poli for the hospitality Vassili!

Oman – combining traditional with modern life

A visit to Oman is a high priority on my bucket list. And when I had to go to Dubai for meetings, I thought this is the chance to add a side trip to Oman since I am going to be in the region anyway.
It did not take a lot of effort to convince Andy to join me and so we booked the trip which turned out to be such an amazing and unusual one.
Andy flew in from Zurich and me from Dubai, so we met at Muscat Airport at midnight and where picked up by the Premium Plaza staff that helped us to get the visa and go quickly through immigration. It actually costs very little and is money well invested as you can sit comfortably in the lounge while they do all the admin work for you. Once we picked up the bag and went through customs, a driver from our hotel was waiting for us.
We had booked the first 3 nights at The Chedi Muscat, we had confirmed a Club Room which would give us access to the Club Lounge and some more additional features. When we arrived, meanwhile it was about 1am, we were greeted by a very friendly and easy going front desk employee who had drinks and cool towels waiting ready for us. That was really nice, and it turned out being even nicer when he told us that the Club Rooms are sold out and we were upgraded to a Chedi Suite. Of course, we gladly accepted that upgrade and the Suite we got was spectacular. Like the entire hotel! They have 3 amazing pools, delicious food is served in various restaurants and lounges, the architecture is a great mix of modern yet traditional styles and, most importantly, the staff go above and beyond at all times. We had the chance to talk to the GM of the hotel who happens to be a Swiss and used to work in a few other 5 star hotels and he agreed with us saying that the hotel can be as fancy and chic as it may be, but you need to ensure outstanding service to make a visit worth it.

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The first day we chilled at the infinity beach pool, relaxing, having nice fresh fruit punches, working on the sun tan and reading about the history of Oman. As a coincidence, the same day as we arrived, HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (Qabus ibn Said) returned from Germany where he spent 8 months in a clinic. The Omanis were celebrating his return not only that day, but the entire week we were there. Most big companies had full page ads in the daily newspapers welcoming HM back, some wanted a day off and guess what Sultan Qaboos told his people: if you want to celebrate my return properly, go back to work, instead of taking a day off. He leads his country with a tough hand, but people love him for what he has done for them. When he took over the power from his father back in the 1970’s, Oman was not developed at all and he ensured that the country would be brought back to its former glory. And now they have found their way between traditional and modern living and as a visitor, you can feel how proud they are of what they have achieved together the past 40 years. The entire history of Oman is very interesting; I recommend reading about it. There are various interesting books, but also some travel guides have informative chapters about the people, history, economy, etc.
Later in the evening, we first enjoyed a drink and some goodies at the Club Lounge and then went to the Seafood Restaurant right at the beach. The meals we had were fantastic, freshest seafood and fish were served. I ate so much, I almost needed a golf cart taking me back all the way to the other end of the park where our Suite was.
The next day, we hired a taxi and first went to the Muttrah Souq and Corniche. The area is very nice and the Souq offers everything one expects from an Oriental Souq: Souvenirs, Spices, Clothes, Shoes, Household Stuff, Rugs, Fabrics and much more. We bought two very nice lanterns for the balcony and a tiny silver tin (no idea what we are going to do with that one, but it looks so nice, we had to buy it). The really pleasant fact about the all the Souqs we visited in Oman was, that the vendors would invite you to have a look at their merchandise but were not insisting on selling something.
The taxi driver was waiting for us and he took us along the Muttrah Corniche to the old town of Muscat where the Sultan lives in his gorgeous palace. The old town is very clean and tidy; it looks a bit like Disney Land and kitschy.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed along the famous Opera House and countless Mosques. We did not visit the Grand Mosque as it was prayer time and in most Mosques it even says for Muslims only. The whole trip which lasted about 3hrs did cost us 20 Rial, about CHF 50. Cheaper than Uber!


The next day, it was already time to check out and go to the airport to pick up our SUV for the next few days and our adventure trip through Oman. When we planned the trip we were contemplating hiring a driver versus driving our own car, but after having read a few blogs and tips online, we decided that driving ourselves would be easy. And it was. I can only highly recommend doing a self-driving tour, but you need to rent a 4WD as many roads are restricted to SUVs only. So, off we went in direction Jebel Akhdar, meaning Green Mountain, which is part of the magnificent mountain range of Al Hajar. The first part was driving on a highway, but from Birkat al Mouz, the road becomes steep and is winding up the mountain range, up to 2100m above sea level. And we started at 0m!
We had booked 2 nights at the Alila Hotel, a spectacular place to be. The hotel is built at the edge of a canyon, they call it the Omani Grand Canyon and it is equally impressing. Again, we were not only impressed with the architecture of the hotel, but especially with the staff. When we arrived, we were offered Omani Café and Dates in the lounge overlooking the mountain range and the canyon. The man who checked us in explained us who designed the hotel, what aspects of Omani Culture were built in, etc. It was really interesting to see that a lot of the details have to do with the culture and tradition. Such as the carvings on the wooden doors, the cast iron roses representing rose water used for drinks and cosmetics and so on. We got a very nice room there as well and enjoyed the afternoon at the pool.
That evening, after another healthy drink at the bar (many hotels and restaurants in Oman do not have a licence to serve wine and spirits) we enjoyed an outstanding meal at the Juniper Restaurant. As starters, we had various Mezze and then we enjoyed lamb which was cooked for 24hrs and seafood.

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The next morning, we drove the steep road back down and visited the City of Nizwa which used to be Oman’s capital. It was a Friday where there is also the cattle market. Too bad we arrived too late for that, but we visited the other Souqs instead. We went into one booth as we saw a really wonderful coffeepot and I also wanted to buy a wonder lamp. Funny enough, the owner of the shop used to spend some time in Berne in Switzerland and realized immediately that we were Swiss. And his German was not bad at all. So we ended up buying the pot and the lamp there. He recommended to visit the spice Souq and told his nephew to show us the way. The Omanis are really very nice and helpful people and they do not expect baksheesh at all, they are genuinely friendly, open minded and talk to strangers. Women might be wearing Burkas and may be veiled but are an important part of the society. Over 50% of the students at Universities are female and they have good jobs. While it looks weird seeing women totally veiled in Europe, it is most natural in Oman.
At the spice Souq, we bought dried limes, Za’atar (Middle Eastern Herbs, similar to Thym) and pistachios. We also walked through the fruit and vegetable Souq and finally ended up in the Date Souq, which was paradise for me. I bought about 1.5kg of different Omani Dates.
As it was already 11h00, the Souqs were closing down as the time for Friday prayers at the Mosque had come. It was totally amazing to witness how quickly the streets emptied and where there was hustle and bustle a minute ago, suddenly it was all calm and only a few non-Muslims were in the streets.


We drove back to the Alila Hotel and while Andy took a nap, I had the best ever Cantaloupe melon-ginger drink and a Fattoush salad, followed by a massage at the Spa of the Alila. The Alila sits at 2000m above sea level and the most amazing thing for me was the quietness of the area. One would not hear anything and at night, the sky was so clear and the stars much brighter than when looking at them from polluted places like a city.
The next morning, we enjoyed a healthy breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Canyon before heading back down that winding road again. We drove to Al Mintirib where we had an appointment with an Escort who would show us the way through the Sharqiya Sands (formerly known as Wahiba Sands) Desert to our Camp for the next night.
We arrived there a bit too early and I called to see if he could pick us up earlier which he did and so we started our adventure of driving 50 km through the desert. We first had to deflate our tires, we met this cool Indian guy at a tires shop who did that for us at no costs, we promised him, should we survive the adventure, we would come back the next day and have the tires inflated again and leave him a tip.
The trip was amazing, we saw camels on the way and the dune landscape seemed to be never-ending. After about 1 hour we reached the 1000NightsCamp, a camp, far away from civilization, yet offering what one needs for a night in the desert. In the afternoon, I walked up the dunes (better than spending an hour in the gym for sure) and enjoyed the breathtaking views and the quietness. Andy preferred to watch me from our tent, sitting comfortably outside. The view was spectacular and I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Of course, it looks much nicer in reality than on any photo.
After that “dune trekking” I really felt that I deserved a refreshing drink, so we went to the pool (yes pool in the desert) area where they have transformed an Arabian Dhow into a bar. We enjoyed a really refreshing lemon-mint drink and relaxed for a while. We also did visit the zoo of the camp, where we met Onyx, Camels, Bunnies, Horses and all kinds of Birds.
Dinner was served in a nice open air restaurant and we enjoyed an Arabian-Indian Buffet, it was quite nice considering that they have to get all the food to this remote place every day.
There was a show of singing and dancing girls, we decided that that was way too touristy for us and we escaped to our terrace in front of the tent and marveled at the starry sky.

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The next morning, after a surprisingly nice breakfast and a photo session with Mr and Mrs Camel we drove back to Al Mintirib. Our escort realized that Andy knows how to drive in the sand and so he took a more adventurous route back including dune riding which was really fun. We also saw many more camels on the way back, even a baby.

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Of course, we went back to the tire shop to visit our Indian friend; we had a long chat with him about the life of a foreigner in Oman. He said, it is a good life, although he needs to pay taxes (yes, Omani don’t, they do…but don’t we all?) and schools are expensive. He’s been living there for 36 years and would not go back to India. We left him a tip and he was really thankful and wished us a good continuation of our trip. Again, all the people we met were incredibly nice and helpful, and one can tell it comes from their heart; it is not superficial at all.

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After our tires were inflated again and a stop at a grocery store (where I bought more spices) we drove towards Ras-al-Jinz at the northeastern tip of Oman. The route led us all the way along the desert and every few kilometers the landscape would change. From flat and desert to very sparse and rocky areas, then suddenly you would see high mountains again. We made a little side trip to the Wadi Bani Khalif, a really nice oasis with various natural pools and a gorge. We walked to the little restaurant and had a coffee there, later on a curry buffet lunch which was quite nice.


Later in the afternoon we arrived at the Ras-al-Jinz Turtle Reserve. This is a nature reserve established in 1996 in order to better protect the sea turtles and their natural environment. The protected area stretches over 120 square kilometers with a 45 kilometer coastline, extending for one kilometer into territorial waters. It is also a hotel, but a very basic one. So if you go there, do not expect a 5* luxury hotel but keep in mind that the main reason for going there is observing turtles.
We booked an Eco Tent which is located a bit removed from the hotel/science center and offers a comfortable tent with own bathroom and a nice view over the bay.

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Before going to the beach at night, we visited the very informative turtle museum and had dinner at the hotel. Well, it was a lot of curry again but it was ok, just the restaurant itself lacked quite a bit of charm; it was more a canteen than a restaurant to be honest. But then again, we came because of the turtles.
At 9pm we were picked up and went to the turtle beach. Taking pictures was forbidden which is a good thing as the turtles need to be protected from lights and noise. Although March is not a typical month for lady turtles to lay eggs, we saw two turtles that were at the beach, one just finishing laying her eggs and closing the hole again, while the other just started digging the hole. These holes are usually 50cm deep, it is quite a tough job for those giant turtles to dig this hole. She had to pause a lot and it certainly takes a few hours until she is satisfied with her work. Once the work is done and she has lain the eggs, closed the whole and gone back to her natural habitat, the sea, the turtle will not look after her brood anymore. The baby turtles will hatch after 2 months.
Then, we were asked to quietly walk over to another spot where the guides just had spotted baby turtles hatching. Oh my, was that ever amazing to watch them dig themselves out of the sand. Usually, they need to find their own way to the water from the nest. First, it takes them 3 days from the day they hatch until they reach the surface of the sand, and then they quickly trip through the sand into the ocean. The most dangerous time of a green turtle’s life is when it makes the journey from nest to sea. As many turtles do not find the way to the ocean, the only help the guides offer is leading the way. Unlike in other centers, they do not take the eggs away from the sand holes and hatch them in the center, nor do they let the turtles swim in a tank after hatching and before taking them to the ocean. It is kept as natural as possible (with about 50 tourists watching them, it is stressful enough). So we witnessed how the baby turtles made their way to the ocean and off they went. Unfortunately, we were told only 1-2 babies will survive.
This was a very emotional moment for me and I felt deep satisfaction and gratitude for being able and allowed to do all these outstanding trips and experience the beauty of this planet.
So there are no pictures of turtles laying eggs nor of baby turtles, I keep these fond memories closed in my heart though and will never forget how I felt that night.
The next morning, we left the reserve and drove back to Muscat. We decided to once more stay at The Chedi, although there are other nice hotels in Muscat, but we really liked it so much there.
The trip back to Muscat leads along the shore but also goes inland again and through rocky landscapes. We stopped for a coffee and tea and had a chat with a Bangladeshi boy who probably would have preferred we pay him in Swiss Francs rather than Rial, he was really cute and wanted to know a lot about Switzerland, although I did not understand half of what he was saying.

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Back in Muscat, we enjoyed another nice dinner at The Chedi, this time at the Long Pool Bar. The room I had booked was a basic one this time, and guess what, we got an upgrade again. Not to a Suite but to a Deluxe Room which was nice and overlooking one of the many small pools in the garden.
The next day, we simply relaxed at the pool and came to the conclusion that one week in Oman is not enough. It gave us a flavour and a good idea of the country and its wonderful people, but there is so much more to see and do. We have not been to Jebel Shams the highest mountain, we have not seen Dhofar, the Southern part of Oman, nor have we been to Musandam . So there is much more to do and we definitely will be back.
And if I had one wish to make, I would want to tell the Sultan that he and his government should do everything possible to protect the environment and have an efficient waste-management put in place. We saw too many plastic bottles and bags in the desert, at the beaches and up in the mountains. Their slogan is: Beauty has an address-Oman. If they want to keep it that way, they will have to implement measures to ensure it stays like that.
After a last delicious dinner at the Serai Pool Bar, we left to the Airport and flew back home. Back from an Arabian Fairy Tale into the real world again.

Emiglia Romagna…Italy at its best!

A trip to my Italian roots

The past year went by so quickly, it seems like yesterday when I wrote about our Provence trip during the Holiday Break. And here we go again, a year later. It has become a tradition by now, to travel somewhere nice and unusual after Christmas and spend New Year’s abroad. That has nothing to do with not wanting to spend that evening with friends or families, it is “us time” which we cherish.
This time, the choice was between Dresden and surroundings, or, tataaaa, Italy…well, guess who won the battle?!
I wanted to show Andy my Emilia Romagna, where Mummy grew up before leaving Italy at the age of 17.

We had no concrete plans, just a rough itinerary. We packed our suitcase, making sure there is enough space in the trunck of the car for the goodies we certainly would buy, and off we went.

We decided to spend the first two nights at the Lago di Garda and start the trip with a Gourmet- and SPA experience. The roads were empty and the big snow storm 24hrs away, so we made it perfectly in time to the Villa Cordevigo in Cavaion Veronese. A fantastic Villa, restructured into a hotel with a small but wonderful SPA and a Michelin Star Restaurant.

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Upon arrival, we were spoiled to a very tasty glass of their own Spumante and later on enjoyed some relaxing moments at the SPA. Life can be so good!
The dinner was delicious too, I just let the pictures speak!

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The next day, we made a little tour to Bardolino and as it was really ice cold, we decided to do a stop in a shopping mall. Not even an hour later, when we got out, we were caught by surprise, it had started to snow heavily.

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The hotel now looked even nicer with the entire court all snowed in, like a dream! We enjoyed a massage and a “dolce far niente” afternoon before having another dinner at the Restaurant. Maybe, we are just too spoiled, it really was delicious food, but we were a wee bit disappointed about the preparation and variety of the dishes. But what I really liked was the possibility to taste their own wines by glass and so we discovered a little treasure.

The most amazing Pinot Grigio:

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The next day, after a nice breakfast and buying some Spumante and Vino, we continued on to Verona through the Valpolicella. The sky was opening up and by the time we got there, the sun was out again. But it was really cold, so we had to go from coffee shop to coffee shop and only took a quick glance at the Arena and the other sights. Verona? Yes, home of Famiglie Capulet and Montague…better known are their kids Giulietta and Romeo…so did we see that famous balcony which in reality is NOT part of the story? Yes, we even had a Suite looking onto that balcony and the court. It was a little gem behind old and ugly walls, a hotel called Le Suite di Giulietta… During the day, it is quite busy on and below the balcony, but when night settles and the court closes, the balcony did “belong” just to us.
We took a stroll through the various Christmas markets and were offered to taste some olives and different varieties of Taralli. Of course we could not resist and they tasted so yummy, we had to buy them for taking them home.
The next morning we were treated to an in-suite breakfast, a nice gesture, although the eggs and the coffee were served cold:-)

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After a visit to one of the castles outside Verona with a fantastic view of the town, we drove along the countryside to Ferrara. We had no idea what to expect of that town and were positively surprised. The old town is car-free and we took a stroll through the various narrow streets. We ended up in front of the Castello and another Christmas market. As it was time for a bite, we queued in front of a booth that sold Piadina in different varieties…ahhh, nobody could ever make a better Piada than my Nonna, that is for sure, but this one came extremely close to it and I felt taken back in time for a moment. To the times, we spent as a whole family in Florence in Summer enjoying quality time and delicious food! I feel really thankful for those careless days!
We stayed at a very nice place in Ferrara, called la Villa Horti della Fasanara situated outside of the town in a wonderful park facing the city wall. We had a great room and the entire Villa is very stylish.

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That evening, we treated ourselves to another great dinner at the Ristorante Quel fantastico giovedí. Funny name, agree! We were greeted like old friends and had a wonderful time, the food was fantastic and the wine was…okay. As much as in my Emilia they know how to cook delicious meals, as little do they know about making really good wines. They have some gems, but mainly, their wine is not what I would call high quality.

One thing you have to accept in Italy is the fact that breakfast is not that important for them and you will rarely find sumptouos buffets in small hotels, they tend to offer a lot of different cakes and tarts rather than salty things or a continental breakfast. But, their coffees are always very good and strong! So, after a cappuccino and a bit of tart we left the Villa and headed to Bologna. All I knew so far from the city was the railway station as it was the one station we would always pass when going to Florence. Other than that, I knew nothing about it.
It was another surprise to be honest, I expected a soulless city but its old town is very cute. First, we took a stroll through the Mercato delle Erbe, a covered fruit, veggies, meat and fish market at Via Ugo Bassi. Then we continued on to the old part of Bologna and discovered the food streets, oh my god! It was paradise times ten for us! There are countless shops selling Pasta, Meat, Salumi, Prosciutto, Bread, Cheese, Wine and much more. Some of the shops are so retro, you feel like being sent back in time! We did buy a few goodies, we could definitely not resist!

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In the afternoon, we continued our trip towards Modena, the city of Aceto Balsamico. We drove into the hillside of the Emilia to a place called Levizzano di Castelvetro, which reminded us a lot of the landscape of the Piemonte. We had booked a room at the Agriturismo Opera 02. This is a very modern building in the middle of old traditional farms, set perfectly on top of vineyards. When we opened the front door we were “greeted” with a heavy balsamic vinegar smell. But also with a heartfelt “benvenuti” from the staff who made us feel at home right from the beginning. The extraordinary thing of this agriturismo is that you pass along hundreds of vinegar barrels in order to get to your room, and all of it in total darkness!
Although it was already 3pm and the kitchen closed, the owner did offer us to sit in their restaurant and have lunch. This is really what I call outstanding hospitality. We had pasta (Andy) and salad (me), not too much as we wanted to enjoy dinner there too.
And it was worth not eating too much for lunch, they served us a delicious dinner, we really were spoiled. Of course, many of their dishes where pimped with their own vinegar, and it tasted amazingly intense and really made a difference. And of course, I am now a proud owner of three different bottles of Opera 02 balsamic vinegars. These three bottles did cost more than the rate for the stay! Ooppss..

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It was December 31st the next day and we had booked two nights in a resort, but did not feel like joining them for a 7 course dinner with music and more. So here was our plan: either we find a restaurant or we have our own dinner party in the room. We called a few Restaurants around the resort but all were sold out. So we decided to go shopping some delicious food…and what city would suit our needs any better than …. Parma?

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So after we left Opera2, we drove straight to Parma and took a stroll through the old town. It was cold and rainy, so the stroll had to be interrupted a few times for a warming coffee break. We found two very nice butchers where we bought Parma ham, Olives, Artichokes, Cotto, Salami and much more. Partly for the evening, partly to take home. In a bakery, we bought foccaccia and we also found a pasticceria where we got a few sweet treats. Got everything? Nooo, the Prosecco was missing! So we went to that stylish Enoteca and asked for their best Prosecco. The best? I should have known better, a Prosecco called “Cola” cannot possibly be good. Oh well:-)

After that fun shopping tour we drove to the Resort along the Val Trebbia, a beautiful spot on earth worth a visit. It is located south of Piacenza, towards Genova, the river Trebbia runs through it and on both sides there are hills with vineyards and pictoresque villages.The Relais Colombara Resort is on top of a hill overlooking the valley, it is an old farmhouse, fully renovated with a nice SPA area and beautiful rooms and restaurants.

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We “smuggled” our food to the room, looking forward to our dinner. But first, we enjoyed the SPA and some treatments.
And later on, we had a fabolous 31st of December in-room Tête-à-Tête dinner! With the exception of the Prosecco, but that did not influence our good mood!

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The next morning, we woke up to a wonderful day, sunny, blue sky, crisp air! We started with a brunch, yes, here, they are on top of things regarding breakfast, offering a vast choice of salty and sweet treats! After breakfast, we decided to explore the valley and drove along the river to Bobbio, the main village in the valley. Another cute Centro Storico expected us! And many nice shops, too bad it was a Holiday and the shops were closed, else we would have bought some specialties you can only find there in the region, such as Il Prete (the priest) a kind of sausage that looks more like a priest’s hat and needs to be boiled in a pan without touching the pan, that is why it is squeezed into some kind of large wooden peg so you can hang it over the pan. Complicated, I know. But looks funny.

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After enjoying a coffee and the walk, we drove back to the Relais, this time, on top of the hills, using secondary small roads, in the middle of vineyards. Did I mention we were about to run out of fuel and our GPS had no clue where we were? Well, I was glad once we eventually got back without me having to push the car;-). During our explorer tour, we both fell in love with a church and its parochial house, both deserted, but with the most beautiful terrace, garden and view over the valley. If we could have bought it, I think we would have done so. Converted it into a small boutique hotel, the SPA in the church…can you imagine? The expression holistic SPA would get a real sense…
But, these are dreams…we know that there is no more priest and we also know that there is a group trying to save the terrace. More information was impossible to get.

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That evening, we had a very romantic dinner at the Relais, just the two of us in the cave, it was delicious and we enjoyed a really nice wine…from Tuscany!

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The next day we started our trip back in direction Switzerland . The trip took us along the rice fields of the Po lowlands, it is incredibly flat! We stopped in Vigevano, another city we had no idea what to expect. And, Mamma mia, this city is beautiful! We really were surprised and thought we should have stayed there for longer…well, next time! We found a nice shop selling fresh pasta, we got some Trofie, Ravioli and Gnocchi to take home. And they tasted yummy, our guests thought so too! Right, Ricardo & Dirk?

We went on to our destination of the day: Osteria della Pista. First however we stopped at Il Gigante to do one more last shopping tour, getting all those things a real italian household needs to survive! And we enjoyed one more nice dinner, in great company ( thanks James & Francesca), at the Osteria! I am sure, around Milano Malpensa there is no better Restaurant! Their food is outstanding, be it Pasta, Pizza, fish, seafood or meet, everything is cooked to perfection! The real simple way of great cuisine! We love to visit Celeste and his team and will go back soon for sure!
The next day, it was time to drive back home….with a trunk full of goodies and with fond memories of another wonderful road trip through Italy! Thanks my love, for sharing these trips and being part of my life!

Scotland – a marvelous journey

It all started about 10 months ago with an ad of the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo on the web and the idea, to try and get tickets and spend a few days in/around Edinburgh. Luckily, we got 2 tickets (thanks to a special friend) and what was supposed to be a long weekend, ended up being a 3-weeks trip through beautiful Scotland. Because I never had been to Scotland and Andy was telling me all those wonderful things about it, we eventually decided to make it our summer vacation.
Did we plan a lot in advance? Not at all! All we had booked were: the flights (yes, booked! No standby travel!), the absolutely wonderful Restaurant with Rooms, the Witchery by the Castle in Edinburgh for the first two nights and the car.
We roughly defined the route which would take us up the East Coast route through the Highlands, all the way up north and back down the West Coast with its Isles.
We always planned the next day on the spot, taking into consideration the weather, the things we wanted to see and also where we would end up spending the next night.
So here is my travel journal:
In Edinburgh, we did, what all tourists do: Hop on, Hop off! But truly, it is the best way to see all the important sights in this absolutely gorgeous city. The Witchery by the Castle (as the name tells you), is only a two minutes walk from the Castle and the Tattoo, on the Royal Mile. So we literally stayed in the center of all action.
The first day we enjoyed strolling through the old and the new part of the city, having lunch at the Wildfire Steak & Seafood Bistro , on lively Rose Street. I enjoyed Salmon Tatar and a Crab Sandwich and Andy had to have the first Haggis in years. I DID taste it and as much as the ingredients sound terrible, it was actually quite nice.
After lunch and some walking and shopping, we had to have a drink and coffee at the famous Balmoral Hotel, to recharge our batteries for more walking and shopping.
We enjoyed dinner at a place, that turned out to be quite hip and we were lucky to get a table. It is called The Outsider. We had absolutely fantastic meals, me fish again, Andy, well…hmmm…porkbelly…If you go, book a table!

The next day we enjoyed a longer tour on various Hop on, Hop off Tour Buses. Archie, one of the guides told us interesting stories about the past and present and Edinburgh’s inhabitants: from Lords, to Kings and Queens to Robert Louis Stevenson the author of Treasure Island. As we were only the two of us on the bus, he had plenty of time to chat with us!
One thing that I want to mention here and is valid for all of Scotland and my experience; Scots are extremely outgoing people, love to talk and discuss, want to know all about yourself. We met wonderful people and had really good discussions with them, mainly of course about Scotland’s future, but also about food, live, tourism and so on. I was very pleased to get more than a normal touristy insight of this country.

And then, in the evening, finally the Tattoo! The whole experience was simply WOW! It started with dinner at the Amber Restaurant and then we got our VIP Seats with a nice Tartan blanked to keep us warm. Luckily, it did not rain, it was a bit rainy and cloudy during the day, but in the evening, the sky cleared up! Perfect! The show was really amazing, the pipers and the drummers, but also all the other performances were fantastic. Dare I saying? I think I loved the Maori’s performance best. But of course all the other corps, Army bands etc. were giving me creeps. And it all was enhanced with an outstanding light show projected on the Castle’s walls and seemingly never ending fire works.
After another night at the outstanding Witchery we left Edinburgh for our Highland Adventure.

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We left Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth (try saying that name 20 times very fast…) and drove along the coast to St. Andrews where we stopped to buy some golf balls and equipment of the various courses, I was a bit disappointed by the Old Course as I saw people on the driving range in JEANS!!!????, it is all half as sophisticated as I thought it would be. We continued via Dundee to St. Cyrus, a small little village where we stayed at the Woodston Fishing Station B&B, which is very remotely located on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. This place is very cozy, perfectly refurbished and our room on the first floor was overlooking the ocean. What a treat the next morning to wake up to a clear blue sky and all you see is a fantastic country side!
Close to St. Cyrus there are a few other little fishing villages, we drove to Johnshaven for dinner at the Anchor Hotel. A place that close to the sea of course served delicious seafood, we had mussels and fish and chips.

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The next day, we drove along the East Coast for a bit and then inland towards Cairngorms National Park and Balmoral. We took secondary routes and enjoyed the wonderful landscape. I would have loved to visit Balmoral Castle, but HRH apparently is spending her vacation there usually as of August, so it was closed to the public. But!, the souvenir shop was open and I definitely had to get some stuff there…things like golf balls and napkins. We drove on, partly on the Whisky Trail, had a nice lunch in a typical pub and later on stopped at the Glendfiddich Distillery. Not for a tour, but for a coffee break and a wi-fi spot as we still needed to find a place to stay that night. We finally booked a room at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour. This village is very picturesque, with little shops and of course the Walker’s Shortbread Factory. Needless to say what I had to buy. As I did also run out of £, I had to go to the ATM, much to my surprise I got Scottish £ printed by the Clydesdale Bank and not the National Bank. There is a total of 3 banks who can print £, the other two are RBS, and HBOS.
We spent the evening at the Hotel’s bar and had no dinner, just drinks! Why? We ate too much for breakfast and lunch…oh oh!

The next day, Sunday, we started our animal hunt! Blackhead Sheep, Highland Cows and of course, we were on the oulook for Nessie!
Again, only driving along secondary routes, avoiding the tourist routes, we made our way to Fort Augustus. On the route, for the first time on this trip we saw the typical Scottish sheep and cows. The sheep are quite shy, while the cows really couldn’t care less if you start talking to them.
I liked the village of Fort Augustus, the lock ship canal and the moving bridge are fascinating. After a coffee break, we continued on along the west bank of Loch Ness, looking very closely if we would find the little monster, hey and there it was!!! It is a bit of a fluffy species if you ask me: DSC02041

Drummadrochit, where the official Nessie Visitor’s Center is located is very touristy, so we did not spend too much time there, we just stopped to buy a few essential souvenirs!
We also did not visit Urquhart Castle as the parking lot was full, basically, it is not a good idea to visit Loch Ness on a Sunday!

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We continued on to Inverness where we had planned to stay for the night and still needed to find a place. Now, people who know me, know I am a hotel aficionado and I am always looking for unusual and special places. On a Sunday, High Season, near Loch Ness? Impossible? No, not for me. We found a room at the Loch Ness Country House Hotel. What a spectacular house! The living rooms with their fire places invite you to sit and relax with a cup of tea in the afternoon or an aperitif. The room we had was huge, a bit “moldy” maybe, but absolutely okay. But the best was yet to come: dinner!!! The Park Restaurant is very intimate and offers excellent food that deserves a Michelin Star! We had seafood as starters and Angus Beef Surf’n’Turf as a main course. Accompanied by a nice glass of red wine. Later one, we retired to the lounge and had coffee, whisky (not me) and petit fours. What a great way to end a Sunday if you do not have to go to work the next day!

Our exciting journey continued on a sunny Monday Morning, we left Inverness towards the north and drove to Cromarty on Black Isle. From that little village, we took a ferry over to Nigg. The remarkable thing about this ferry ferry is, that it carries a maximum of 4 cars and has a revolving platform which turns the car either upon entering or leaving the ferry. The journey is very short, about 15 mins, but really an experience not to miss! Bookings are not possible, it is based on “first come, first served”.

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From Nigg, we drove all the way to Portmahomack where we enjoyed a short break with fabulous views of the Lighthouse and the North Sea. We continued on up north with some stops along the coast. Dunrobin Castle was one of the stops, but since we both are not really too much into visiting Museums, we only had a look from the outside, and it was quite impressive I have to say. Further up north we stopped for coffee (that brown water the Scots call coffee, I mean) and a sweet treat. We finally drove to our final destination of the day, the absolutely stunning Ackergill Tower Castle near Wick. We got a small, the smallest, room and paid the world for it, but it was definitely worth it! The Castle is full of mystery, drama and romance, absolutely magical. Yes, I did feel like a princess for a while :-)!

The location, right on the sea makes this a fantastic place to stay, I really loved it! And there were tons of rabbits, a nuisance for the owners, a fun animal to observe for us! We drove back to Wick for dinner and ended up at the Mackay’s Hotel in their Bistro #1, according to the Guinness Book of World Records located on the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place. Again, we were served fantastic fresh seafood and fish. Who said the Scots can’t cook? That is definitely not true, maybe it was “fish’n’chips” and nothing else a few years ago, but they definitely discovered the treasuries of the seas that surround the country and make fantastic meals out of it.
After a very quiet night (in Scotland, in most places we stayed, the maximum we would hear were waves at night), we were spoiled with a nice breakfast in the Great Hall of the Castle, it was just the two of us in that huge hall, that was very special indeed…ohhh, if only they knew how to brew coffee…it would have been perfect! 🙂

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We left quite early as the weather was absolutely fantastic and we decided to go on a tour to the Orkney’s from John O’Groats. This was definitely a wise decision as we spent a beautiful day on the Islands. The Ferry takes you over in only 40mins and from the harbour, we were picked up by a coach. The tour took us first to Kirkwall, then to Skara Brae, the Churchill Barriers, Scapa Flow, Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Italian Chapel and back to the ferry. On the way back, we saw seals, but the Orkas kept hiding from us.
We had booked a room at the Inn at John O’Groats right on the harbor, the Inn was very newly built, but was clairaudient, once the kids in the other rooms fell asleep however, the place become extremely tranquil. When we got back from the tour, the only eating place which remained open was the Fish’n’Chips Shack. Well, we had better dinners, but it was fun sitting right on the seashore, watching the sun set!

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The next day, we drove along the north coast of Scotland, the landscape is fascinating, the mix of heather in bloom, Highland Cows and Blackhead Sheep on dark green meadows, right on the sea shore helped me to unwind. This is truly no joke. The stunning colors, the quiet and peaceful moments really are better than any session with your shrink!
Since the weather gods were on our side, we decided to stay two nights up north to enjoy the unique landscape a little longer. We checked in to the Bettyhill Hotel in Bettyhill. This is a basic 3* hotel, the rooms are nice, very clean and the food is tasty. The view from the Dining Room and our Room over Torrisdale Bay is breathtaking! The hosts are very nice people and they run this hotel with a lot of passion!
The only thing I would complain about were the “croissants” in the morning. They should rather only serve toast, we are in Scotland, not in France.

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It was definitely worth spending two nights in that region, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon around Bettyhill and its beach (not swimming, just relaxing) and the next day we made a tour inland. And yes, you are guessing correctly, all along secondary “single lane” roads to Lairg and back to Bettyhill on another even more narrow road. We stopped in Lairg for lunch in a very cute coffee shop right on Loch Shin called the Pier Café . It is very nicely decorated, has a small lounge or tables where you can enjoy their vast selection of sweet and salty treats. I could not resist and had a Victoria Sponge Cake with Clotted Cream and Strawberry Jam, yummy!

The next day, we continued our journey along the north coast visiting the small villages of Tongue and Durness. Durness has a chocolate factory and of course we had to visit it just to compare if they know as well as the Swiss how to produce chocolate. Ehm, no! Forget it.
However, Durness has a very spooky cemetery and I could have spent hours taking pictures of stone graves that are 200 years and older. John Lennon’s auntie rests there as well. We continued on, leaving the north coast driving down the west coast now, of course, avoiding main roads again.

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In the course of the afternoon, we arrived in Lochinver, a cute little village right on The Minch, as the sea between the mainland and Isle of Lewis is called. We had booked a room at the Inver Lodge which sits on hill above the village. The building from outside would definitely never win any architectural awards, it really looks ugly…but, once you enter the Hall you arrive in a cozy and warm world and immediately forget about the outside. Their lounge is really grand, with a nice fire place and fluffy sofas. And the best was yet to come, the coffee they serve tastes really nice and is close to Italian brews! Other guests enjoyed their afternoon tea, in style with all it needs. Since we had read about a nice Bistro downtown, we resisted to do the same in order to save space in our stomachs for dinner.
The rooms are really nice, big and comfy too, so it was another good choice, phew…!

One of the culinary highlights we experienced was in that above said Dining Pub with the hard to pronounce name: The Caberfeidh! (pronounced Caber-fay). Their concept is quite simple: a blackboard tells you what Scottish Tapas they have available and you order until you drop. The place is owned by a chef who also runs the Michelin starred the Albannach Restaurant in Lochinver. He does not stand himself in the kitchen fo the Caberfeidh. He has recruited a local young chef who cooks under his direction…and this guy does a miracle job and deserves at least 5 “myisitravelandfood” Stars! To make a long story short, with the exception of three dishes on the board, we tasted them all! Words definitely cannot describe the tastiness of the food well enough, the seafood is so fresh, I bet the scallops were still swimming in the sea that same morning. The Langoustines too, for sure! We spent a wonderful evening at the Caberfeidh as not only the food was excellent but the team who runs the place is so convivial and easygoing, it was a joy being their guests.

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The next morning we woke up to a rainy and foggy day the first time since we arrived in Scotland. And it would turn out to be the only really bad weather day we had in 3 weeks. Talking a bit of the weather, unlike in Switzerland where it tends to rain forever, days and nights, in Scotland, rainy periods do not last long and often you can have 30 mins of rain, then a cloudy period, then comes the sun, cloudy again, it is a happy mix. But those never-ending rainy days that tend to drive you nuts here at home do not really exist. Am I biased? Maybe, but this is how I experienced it during three weeks.

So, rainy day…hmm, what do we do? We had planned to drive further south along the west coast and found a nice B&B in Poolewe at Loch Ewe not too far away from Lochinver. I had the fantastic idea to look if on the way, in the next big village we could find a Launderette to wash our clothes (the efficient traveler only carries clothes for half of the days the trip lasts and then washes them, saves space in the suitcases for souvenirs…one would think…more about that a bit later). So, we saw on the fabulous WWW that there is a Launderette in Ullapool on our way to our next stopover. Perfect! What else would you do on a rainy day than household chores? Eh, see! So we got to that place and unlike in other salons there was only 1 washer and 1 dryer. But we were lucky, we were the only ones and could get started right away. While the machines did work hard, we strolled along the waterfront, went for coffee, did a bit of shopping at Tesco’s, had a look what the many souvenir shops had to offer and as usual, I could not resist and had to buy a souvenir: This time, fluffy socks with sheep faces! Yes I know, silly stuff, but I will wear them only at home. They have anti-slip-dots on the sole and are more slippers than socks.

After lunch time, our washing was all done and we headed off towards Poolewe through gorgeous landscapes, it had stopped raining and we really enjoyed the drive along the different Lochs and admiring all those waterfalls. We stopped in Mellon Charles at Loch Ewe for a coffee break at the Perfume Studio. It is actually more a coffee shop with a soap manufactory and is also selling nice souvenirs. We bought some amazingly smelling soaps and a tiny little sheep made of glass. Their cakes and sandwiches are very nice too and while we were eating, we were planning where to go for dinner. Talk of foodies! When we got to the B&B called The Corriness House, we found a note saying that the hosts would only be back by 4.30pm. Fine with us, we continued on to Gairloch which is another cute village and had a stroll around the area. Wait, I think it wasn’t a stroll, we were driving.

Corriness House:

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Back in Poolewe which consists of 1 post office, 1 church, 1 pub and a few houses, we were greeted by our host who showed us her house. It is decorated with much love and we felt immediately at ease. One thing that impresses me with all those small B&Bs, Inns etc. we stayed in, is that they all have their web page and offer online booking. And a small hint for my readers: if you can, book with them directly as the commissions they have to pay to booking engines are exorbitant..and sometimes, they give you a small discount in return.

That night, we felt like eating light and so we went to the village’s only Pub and had some Beer, Cider and Smoked Scottish Salmon. Talking of, we still have to find out why Scottish Salmon tastes so much better than Alaskan, Norwegian or Canadian. Also, when we buy smoked salmon in a store here, it is packed in plastic and usually is covered with a greasy film. But the one we were served, be at breakfasts or dinners or snacks always had a dry surface and I wonder how they manage to get it dried like this…any ideas out there?

After another night’s deep and calm sleep, we were served a hearty Scottish Breakfast. We, who usually have a coffee at the maximum for breakfast, slowly started to get used to eat an abundant meal in the morning.
Our final destination for that day was going to be the Isle of Skye where we had made a booking at a newly opened Bed & Breakfast. The weather was back to what we were used to, sun and cloud mix. The route today did lead us to the Applecross Peninsula, a place out of this world, a dazzling landscape all the way from Torridon with wonderful views of Loch Torridon along the Peninsula’s coast to the village of Applecross and inland to Kishorn which again is on Loch Carron. On the west coast of the Peninsula we enjoyed great views of the Isles of Raasay and Skye. The lush meadows, the grazing cows and sheep, the white croft houses and the heather made this a truly unique picturesque place on earth. This day will certainly remain very close to my heart as I felt a satisfying calmness driving along this coast. Who knows, I could well imagine spending some more time there!

I need to mention Kishorn, it has nothing else to offer than the BEST Seafood Bar on the planet! This is true, the place won a lot of awards already and the owner is a sweet lady, she is loving what she is doing and fond of her country as well. She did offer us two “YES” buttons to wear:-)
It was warm enough to sit outside on the deck and have our lunch, we were served scallops, salmon, crabs and much more, which we chose directly from the kitchen, we had a feast I swear! I am ever so glad that we stopped at that place, it is a seafood lover’s paradise!

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After that great lunch we continued on, along to coast to the Eilean Donan Castle. Never heard of? Maybe not, but certainly seen it in the movie Highlander or James Bond’s “The World is not enough”.

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The Castle apparently hosts a nice museum, but by now you know how much we love visiting museums, so I cannot really confirm if it is true. But definitely, it is beautiful and mystic from the outside and certainly the most photographed castle in Scotland.

Our trip continued on to the Isle of Skye along the west coast of the island to Portree the principal town on Skye. We found that cute B&B just outside of the village called Canowindra, another stunning place to stay. The young couple Rick & Georgie have created a place where you will feel at home the moment you enter through the door. The house is newly built with a touch of Shabby Chic, a style I love very much. The lounge and breakfast room are both very cozy yet elegant and the only thing that is really missing is a view onto a Loch or the Sea. Like in all the B&Bs we had a great discussions with the hosts, not only about the upcoming referendum (which by now we know that Scotland remains part of the UK), but also about making business in Scotland, lifestyle, and much more. The hosts really all share a similar vision: making Scotland more known to tourists, fulfill a dream and create home from home for their guests.

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Portree is actually a cute little village and the only one with colored houses we saw so far in Scotland. There are lots of nice shops, restaurants and pubs. The next day we “cruised” along the Islands’s coasts and stopped at Talisker Distillery. So far, we had not bought any Whisky, nor had we tasted a lot. Factory tours usually take quite a while, and since we had a ferry to catch, we decided to just visit the shop. We bought some Sweaters, Shirts and Pins…and 3 little bottle of different Whiskies. As we are both not big Whisky-drinkers, we thought, those make good presents or can be used for baking and cooking! Or used as solace, more about it later. We also went to a Oyster and Salmon Fisher and bought some smoked salmon and scallops

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At noon, we took the CalMac Ferry from Armadale to Mallaig, a short 30′ crossing. From Mallaig, we drove along the Sound of Ansaig all the way to Resipole, which is a hamlet with 3 houses at Loch Sunart. This was our final destination for the day as we were staying at the #1 Bed & Breakfast on my top 10 list of this trip, the Rockpool House. Not only is the house located just steps from the water, it is also an architectural gem. The big windows in the lounge allow you to watch wildlife from the comfort of the sofa and the rooms are really very nicely decorated and offer all you need! And you should see their kitchen, amazing. The best “thing” about Rockpool House however are Richard and Val, the hosts! If I would teach hospitality to students, I would take them as role models on how hospitality should be lived! The couple is absolutely amazing, cheerful and warmhearted. They welcomed us as if we were good old friends, immediately offering us tea and cake. The cake! OMG! The best ever ginger cake I tasted. The recipe will follow on this blog very soon, promised! I immediately felt extremely at ease with the two and we had such good chats with them. They have a lot of information about the area available as well, so we decided to follow their advice and make a late afternoon tour to the very end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula where there is a beautiful lighthouse. Well, talking of single lane roads, these were really narrow and hilly and the trip seemed never ending. But what a view from that Lighthouse, the ocean was really rough and we enjoyed watching the waves hitting the shore. Unfortunately, we got there after 5 pm and the Lighthouse was already closed, else we could have walked up the stairs to the top. On the way back, we saw an eagle. That was actually the first time in my life I saw one in the wild and not in a zoo. Back at the B&B, Val told us that there are a few eagles around and that we were lucky to see one.

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The next morning we enjoyed a delicious breakfast before heading off. Actually, I would have loved to stay for much longer, but unfortunately, the rooms were sold out for the next days. So, we had no choice but to move on! We drove to Fort William, which is not really worth to stop longer than for 2-3 hours, we had a coffee there and a stroll through the main shopping “mile” where we bought nice soul mate Celtic rings <3. This is the reason, why I will never forget FW, not because it is such a nice place to be.
Anyway, we drove on and made a tour along Glen Coe with its beautiful landscape and mountains. Yes, these are not as high as the alps in Switzerland or the Rocky Mountains, however, considering you are at sea level, 890 meters ARE high!

The journey that day ended in Benderloch by Oban. I had found a very stylish B&B online and booked/prepaid it for one night. When we got there, we were impressed with the house, however, this was unfortunately the worst experience we had in Scotland. The female host was nothing less than a drill sergeant and the architect certainly was allowed to fulfill a dream, however, he has planned walls, thin as paper, floors that click-clack all the time and to top the thing off, the beds were the most uncomfy ones I ever slept in…The only highlight was a nice breakfast and the male host who tried to make us feel at ease, but, to no avail as his wife made us feel so terribly miserable! Andy even had to have some deep sips of Whisky from our Souvenir Box for consolidation!!! Had we not prepaid for the place, we would have waved good-bye before we even set a food in the place. The name of the place is called Ardtorna in Millfarm, Barcaldine close to Benderloch. To avoid!

But, we found a wonderful dinner place that night at the Hawthorn Restaurant in Benderloch. The dinner and wine we had were once more outstanding, delicious and the ambiance in the restaurant made us forget about the unfriendly B&B rottweiler. It was definitely pure pleasure to eat there!

The next day, we left very early after a night of almost no sleep. The route led us all along the west coast to Castleton and then up Loch Fyne to Inveraray, over to Loch Lommond where we enjoyed a smoked salmon pick-nick eating the salmon we had bought back on the Isle of Skye at the lake and enjoyed the warm sun rays on our faces. Later on, we drove to Glasgow Airport. Glasgow Airport?? Yes, it turned out that I had to interrupt my vacation for one day to fly down to London for a meeting and fly up the same day again.
Which I did the next day.

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I got back from London at 4pm, early enough to escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. We drove to Gourock, from where we took the ferry to Dunoon. In Kirn, we found the incredibly charming Douglas Park Guest House, a beautiful Victorian Villa which was just recently refurbished and Shona and Kenneth greeted us at the door like home coming family members (what a treat after the encounter in Barcaldine and the Holiday Inn Express at Glasgow), just like Richard and Val did a few days ago! These two couples have a lot in common and all four do exactly know how guests want to be treated and how to make somebody feel comfortable in a beautiful home. Shona served us tea, coffee and fabulous lemon cake in the lounge. Kenneth had a lot of interesting stories to tell and so we spent quite a long time chatting with them before even taking a look at our room. The room on the first floor was overlooking the Firth of Clyde, was very modern and yet traditionally furnished. Another gem found!

Well, and just an advice: if your hosts look at you a bit funny when you mention which restaurant you have chosen for dinner and they try to convince you to go to another place: LISTEN to them! We didn’t, we just felt after all that typical Scottish food, it was time for Indian Cuisine. No, that was definitely not the best idea we had, the starters were okay, but the main course was below average. So we decided, that for the rest of the trip, we stick to Seafood and Angus Beef and trust our hosts!

The next morning, we were spoiled with a rich Scottish Breakfast. We had planned the evening before that we would drive as close as possible to the Mull of Kintyre today. As it was a weekend again, I had booked a hotel on the Kintyre Peninsula in Machrihanish. So far, so good and we started our journey and drove towards Portavadie where we wanted to take the Ferry to Tarbert. The route led us along various Fjords, this is a beautiful and unexplored part of Scotland and truly worth visiting. Well, once we got the Portavadie Marina, we read on the information board that today, the Ferry Service was suspended “until further notice”! Ha, FOG (ferry on ground), happens as well, and I thought, only AOG (Airplane on Ground) can happen. There was of course no soul around we could have asked, what UFN really means…1 hour, 4, 7, 24? We called the service line and all we got was a very sexy voice, telling us the service was suspended UFN. Okay, what did that mean? Instead of a 20 min ferry ride, we had to do a detour of about 200 km! But, the drive was fantastic along Fjords, Lochas and wonderful landscapes. Wwhen we finally got to Tarbert, we decided to take a look at the ferry..it did not look as if it was going to be fixed anytime soon. We continued on the west coast of the Peninsula to Machrihanish where we checked in at the Ugadale Hotel, a very sophisticated place which has gained back its glory of past times due to a recent renovation. What a wonderful place to stay! Our suite was overlooking the golf course and the North Channel. Machrihanish is a very quiet place to stay and has very nice Mansions which are architectural art pieces. I guess, I could not afford to buy one. But talking of Real Estate in general, there were a lot of houses to be sold throughout Scotland, at very reasonable prices. I was surprised that many croft houses would come with so much land that you would be forced to buy sheep as a lawn mower would not be sufficient.

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After last nights disaster dinner at the Bangladeshy, we felt like pampering ourselves again to real nice seafood. Andy found the Lochside Restaurant in Craigard House in Campbelltown, Kintyre’s principal town. The house is a Victorian mansion which was built by Whisky Distillers and eventually transformed into a Maternity Home. Nowadays it is a wonderful Guest House with an even more wonderful eating place! We were offered to have our aperitif in their lounge where we could already have a glance at the dinner menu. It was difficult to make a choice, I could have eaten every dish on the menu! Finally, we decided to have scallops and langoustines.

After another healthy unhealthy breakfast the next morning, we drove along beautiful meadows to the Mull of Kintyre. The road ends on top of the hill, and the Lighthouse itself actually is a vacation home and can be rented. I guess, next available dates are in 2018 or so…

The weather was once more fantastic, so we could see all the way over to Ireland. Enjoy that little youtube video, to get an impression.

We drove on, along the coast up north again to Claonaig from where we took the ferry over to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran. While waiting for the ferry I got a phone call from the hotel where I had booked the next night, telling me they were sold out and would not honor our booking! Uh Oh! On a Saturday during high season? Okay, so now what? Thankfully, Claonaig was not that remote, so I had an internet connection and could google for alternates. I found this place called Auchrannie Resort and thought, oh well, just call and see what they can offer. I had a nice chat with the front desk manager and he offered me a lodge for a reasonable price. I thought, what the heck, just a bed is good enough.
So we got on the ferry and enjoyed the nice journey over to the Isle of Arran. As it was just after lunch time and we felt a little hole in our stomachs, we decided to make a first stop just about 1km away from the port at the Isle of Arran Distillery with its very modern coffee shop. That is the place, where we had a piece of wonderful Whisky Cake which I tried to bake last Sunday, but unfortunately, the result was not as tasty as the one we had there.

So we continued our journey to Brodick and were looking for that Resort. We finally found it, it is located a bit remote from the village. The old mansion built in 1869 was stunningly beautiful, I just wondered, why the man on the phone said something about a lodge? So we walked in and wanted to check-in, but the lady said, no we do not have a booking under your name. Shock! But when I mentioned, it should be a lodge, she said, “oh, just drive around the mansion, down to the lodge reception”, ahaa…Okay. So that is what we did and saw that there are various little houses in a huge park. We checked in and I thought we will now get one of those mini semi-detached lodges. But no, the very nice and humorous lady from the front desk showed us our home, a huge detached absolutely fantastic and incredible 3 bedroom house! I couldn’t believe my eyes, the kitchen was larger than mine at home, the living room a dream and we had not only 3 bedrooms, but also 3 bathrooms to chose from! Somehow, I was thrilled that the other hotel was sold out!!! We looked at each other and within the blink of an eye, we knew exactly what to do: ask if we could stay two nights! And we were lucky, the house was free and so we decided to stay longer on Arran than planned.
Here’s a snapshot of the place:

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We had dinner at the Eighteen69 Scottish Tapas Restaurant in the Mansion that night, it was again another amazing experience with delicious food. We tasted various seafood and fish plates, and we came to the conclusion that we are now definitely big fans of scallops, prepared in any possible way. We concluded the evening with a coffee and a Whisky, and we came to the next conclusion that Whisky is definitely not our favorite spirit (TBH, no spirit is my favorite spirit, I am more a wine person) and that the Scots can’t do espresso.

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On Sunday, we took it really easy, we drove all around the Isle of Arran, stopping at beautiful beaches and shores, enjoying a day with plenty of sunshine and then relaxing on our balcony. Later on in the evening we went to the harbor and purchased our tickets for the ferry back to the mainland the next day. And we visited the Arran Aromatics shop where we bought ourselves two nice smelling perfumes.

We woke up to another sunny and warm day, the last one of our vacation! We packed all our suitcases, and since we just threw our shopping bags with the souvenirs in the car during the past three weeks, we now had to sort them out a bit. Oh, Oh…the two suitcases would definitely be too small for all that stuff. So we would have to go and buy a suitcase later on when back in Edinburgh.
The ferry only left at 11am, we had plenty of time for another breakfast and slowly heading to the harbor. The ferry to Ardrossan was one of the biggest vessels we took on our Scotland Trip. It was quite impressive. We were actually thinking, had we known how many ferry trips we would take, it would have been worthwhile buying a package. But since we wanted to be flexible with the route, we did finally end up buying single tickets.

Once back ashore, we drove inland towards Edinburgh Airport. It was unusual to see more urban scenes again, I got so used to the rural life. As we had no intention to spend the last night at a clinical Airport hotel, I was looking for something special. And I did find a stunning B&B, only 5 minutes from the Airport, yet very remote and calm. After a stop at the shopping mall to get our 3rd suitcase, we drove to the Kellerstain Stables B&B. We were welcomed by the hosts, Gail & Alex a really outgoing couple. We had some good laughs and discussions with them. The house is a gem, you should see their kitchen! I am sure my hole apartment would fit in it, it is huge and I was a tiny little bit jealous! Only a tiny little bit though! From our room, we could watch the cows grazing, that was ever so funny, especially the calfs were fun to observe.
Our hosts suggested we should have dinner at the Bridge Inn in Ratho, close to the B&B, serving nice food. They were so kind to place a reservation for us. So, we drove there and had our last dinner of the marvelous Scotland Trip, enjoying once more delicious seafood.

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The next morning, our 3 suitcases and both of us were ready to head home. This is of course always the part I do not like on a vacation trip. But I did take home wonderful memories from a country with stunning landscapes and people who are so cordial and open minded. Scotland conquered my heart in no time, I do treasure the moments I have spent there and hope to return one day soon.

The unknown Sardinia

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What is the best thing that can happen to you when travelling? For me, it is being embraced by locals, who wrap their arms around me, accept me like an old friend and show me the beauties of their land. Happened so on my last trip! I am endlessly thankful, having spent a wonderful and carefree week, I would say, I had a trip back to my roots. Appreciating the simple things in life, friendship, love, nature, a down to earth trip. We were invited to join the Aresu’s for different culinary and nature excursions. Firstly, an outstanding fish meal at a beach bar. Never ever would I have expected that the chef can do those miracles in his tiny shack kitchen! Absolutely amazing what he presented, freshest seafood and pasta…I just let the pictures speak for themselves

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After that, all we needed was a nap @ the beach. Somewhere between Villasimíus and Muravera. Not sure if I want to disclose the name. Ask me, if you plan to go, I might tell you:-)

Next day, we were invited to go to the mercato in Muravera and traditional Pollo Pranzo. The market is not huge, but offers all you need, summer clothes, flip flops, vegetables, fruit, dried meat, amazing honey and…the Pollo. Chicken from the roast, stuffed with Mirtó leaves. Wow, together with a bottle of Buio Buio and some salad we had a feast! So totally simple, but extremely tasty.

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We spent the afternoon at Feraxi Beach, we were almost alone, a good opportunity to launch our very own beach party, listening to good old Italian Canzoni, having a blast.

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Tuesday night was time for a Cena Sarda. Now, that meant, no food for at least 24hrs before, because what is served is more than enough to feed a whole army! Traditionally, it starts off with cold cuts and cheeses from the island. Sardinia is known for its different types of Pecorino (Goatcheese), from very young to very ripe we tasted them all….all? Nope, there is one which I was not keen to taste…a specialty containing little worms…actually, that one is not sold officially anylonger…but some families still produce it.

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Then followed two very typical sardinian pasta plates: Malloreddus alla Campidanese, with tomatoe-salsiccia sugo and Culurgiones, a pasta filled with a potatoe-mint mix, just butter and sage added-a dream, and full of tasty calories:-). Then came the masterpiece: a piglet, slowly bbq-ed for endless hours over open fire. Needless to say that we digged in and enjoyed it much! Was that it? Of course not, the meal ended with Pardulas, sweet Ravioli filled with Ricotta and topped with honey. Coffee and Mirtó made the entire meal complete. I thought, there’s no way I can move my body anywhere anymore…the next day was a fruit-only day, no way I could have eaten anything else, I was too full, but a very happy camper! On Thursday, Maya and Cesare invited us to explore Sardinias Hinterland, the very unknown parts of the island. We gladly accepted that invitation. Both had so many interesting stories and facts to tell. A lot reminded me of my parents, how they met, what their struggles were, running an own business and so on. We went to amazing places, visited Cesare’s village Seui, far up in the mountains, bought world’s best Amaretti right there. We saw a lot of wild animals, horses, wild pigs and many more. And, I took a branch of mountain oregano with me, hoping it will now grow on my balcony. Honestly, it doesn’t look good right now, but there’s always hope that it will recover and grow! And Cesare cut a whole bag of fresh wild rosemary for us. Believe it or not, but the wild one smells much more intense than what we grow in our gardens!

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On we went, along beautiful lakes until it was time for lunch. We visited a place which both knew. The guy there did not really expect any guests, but he started to do miracles as well. He loaded our table with delicious antipasti, cut his own ham for us, served his mother-in-laws home made Culurgiones, these were slightly sweet, still with a potatoe-mint filling, yummie. And then, he served us a rare “delicacy”: fermented goat milk in a goat craw. I tasted it but even for me as a cheese lover, that taste was too strong for me. But it looks funny, no doubt. imageimage

We continued on through endless hilly areas, rarely seeing other cars or people, we drove all the way to Arbatax where we stopped to admire young boys jumping from the famous Red Rocks. On we went along the coast, abundantely covered with vegetation, mainly vineyards, citrus fruits and vegetables. What a beautiful island this is. Not only the emerald colored water and white sandy beaches make Sardinia worth a visit. A deeper look into its inland and history is absolutely worthwile!

Other recommendations:

Boutique Hotel S’Arenada, Villasimíus. Alessandra treats you like a member of the family, beautiful rooms, nice balconies to enjoy the night sky, freshly baked sweet treats for breakfast! A gem! image

La Capanna al fresco dining Villasimíus, absolutely delicious and freshest raw seafood and an owner who knows what hospitality is all about:

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Arcada Wine&Restaurant Villasimíus, serving very nice seafood, fish and pasta.

Beach Life: Is Fradis Beach Club, a little bit like Miami Beach, beautiful beach, cozy Gazebos, great food

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Our wines: Terre Brune, Santadi. Buio Buio, Cantina Mesa.
Our drinks: Mirtó, Montenegro, Aperol Sprizz, Ichnusa Birra, Crodino

about Mirtó:

Mirto is a liqueur popular in Sardinia, Capraia Island and in Corsica, obtained from the myrtle plant through the alcoholic maceration of the berries or a compound of berries and leaves. Myrtle grows freely in Sardinia.

Mirto rosso (red) is made with the berries and is sweet.

Mirto bianco (white) is made from the leaves.