Late winter and early Spring are our favorite times in Napa Valley. For one thing, the temperatures are milder and the influx of visitors has not yet reached its maximum volume. It feels like we have the place to ourselves, at least on occasion. A favorite part of late winter/early Spring is when the mustard plants start to bloom, filling almost every open space across the Valley. Driving north on Silverado Trail you’ll see mustard plants growing between the grape vines.
It’s almost as if Mother Nature knew the winter vines needed some color to dress up their spindly, leafless appearance. Spring is also a great time for hiking and exploring the vastness of our natural beauty – beyond the vines.
We enjoy hiking Westwood Park (above), which is about a half mile from our house. We also enjoy visiting the many lakes, rivers and creeks that are within driving distance.
Let us know which is your favorite picture of Napa Valley, we’d love to hear from you. If you have a Napa picture that you like, please share it!
This is the sixth and final installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:
There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia. Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).
When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay. However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop. But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.
We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit. According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park. So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip? I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip. Why “technically?” Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia. That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia. So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.
As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed. “That way,” I told her, pointing north. After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway. We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop. “Again?” she asked. “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?” “It’s the last time,” I assured her.
This time, the crossing was a more formal event. Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping. About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia: the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.
For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet. All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.
The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo. From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim). As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.
As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch. All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop. As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent: war damage. Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited. In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.
A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch. Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town. From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt. Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.
We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar. Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.
Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar
In Europe, “old town” really means old: Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time. Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge. The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire. After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.
Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart. It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.
We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago. It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.
From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip. We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.” “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.
The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol. The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds. “Rain,” I brilliantly opined. Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet. After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?
My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic. As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing! Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.
Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”). Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour. We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town. Here are the things that we saw and learned:
Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%). In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population. The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town. As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo. What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town. Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone. Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo. As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western. On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores. On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city. While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.
Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).
There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?). We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes. After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.
Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.
This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.
At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink. “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it. “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied. In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect. Just ill-advised.
Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country! There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia. We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary. We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.
War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular. Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened. The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region. The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt. For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city. Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city. By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. These images are played out across Bosnia.
For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town. On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains. As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks. Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide. In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.
Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could. Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia. Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo. Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.
The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one. What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited. Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel. After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car. Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.
As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores. Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website. Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost. My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain? Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.
I shouldn’t have worried. Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online. Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room. “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well. When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room. “Is this a suite?” she asked. “Why yes, of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.
She breezed into the bedroom and I heard another “Oh my god!” “Yes?” I asked nervously. “I love it!” she exclaimed. “What a beautiful room!” An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”
Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked. The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go. Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”
One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee. According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb. If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one. We did in fact find coffee shops all over town. Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews. I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia. There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip. Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee. Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.
Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted. I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?” Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks? What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee. Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.
What else did we do besides drink coffee? We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city. Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city. We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.
The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better. A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb. It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan: everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block. Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past. Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.
The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken. Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian. She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English. Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.
We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market. It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version. In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items. No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market. In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping. The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.
It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel. We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town. From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city. We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia. To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular. We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.
We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.
But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens. We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati. We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.
After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home. The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so. We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.
Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them. While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb. Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine. As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel. Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine. Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine. Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark. Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines. One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers. Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.
Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb. Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before. But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.
If you followed my first post about the two-week European trip that my wife and I have embarked on, you’ll know that I planned the trip all by myself and just gave her enough information to make reasonable decisions on what clothes to pack. We have a dynamic itinerary and the goal was to have her discover each new destination literally as we crossed a new border or entered a new city. Thirty minutes into the trip, even before leaving San Francisco, there was a breach, one that I tried to anticipate but failed to think through all of the possible failure points.
The first leg of our trip was San Francisco to Istanbul – that part she knew. I figured she needed to mentally and physically prepared for a 13 1/2 hour flight. The part that she didn’t know was that we would have a few hour layover in Istanbul and then fly to Venice. After printing out our boarding passes at home, I gave her the SFO-Istanbul card and kept the Istanbul-Venice pass in my backpack. As we checked in our bags at the airport, the woman at the desk told us, just as we were wrapping up, “The bags are checked through all the way to Venice.” AAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGG!
Whipping my head around, I thought maybe the missus wasn’t paying attention, but from the grin on her face I knew she did. “Venice?! We’re going to Venice?!” If she wasn’t carrying a backpack with two weeks worth of clothes at the time, I think she would have jumped up and down. “I never guessed Venice; it never crossed my mind.” So destination #1 got out of the bag a bit sooner than I was hoping, but there is a silver lining: knowing that she was going to Venice seemed to make the flight to Istanbul more tolerable. When they served dinner she asked “How much longer do we have to go,” to which I replied by pointing to the flight tracker on our personal video screen.
She didn’t complain too much about the flight length and in truth the 13 hours passed faster than either of us would have expected. After getting off the plane in Istanbul, we found a comfortable place to sit and wait for the connecting flight to Venice. Following the old rule “when in Rome,” or in this case, “when in Istanbul,” we ordered some Turkish coffee and a traditional Gozleme pastry.
Finally it was time to board our flight to Venice. We slept almost the entire way and woke up just as the flight was approaching Venice. After landing and clearing customs, it was time to make our way to the city! Because we were scheduled to land after midnight, and public transportation becomes sporadic, I pre-booked a taxi to take us from the airport to our hotel.
Of course, there are no cars in the city center of Venice and the only access is via the canals. Our “taxi” was a motorboat that picked us up adjacent to the airport and dropped us off just a few yards away from our hotel. A bit after midnight, nearly 24 hours after leaving San Francisco, we were at our Venice hotel.
Planning a vacation without input from a spouse is fraught with danger. Planning a vacation without input from my particular spouse? The danger is compounded ten-fold. She cares much more than I do about the style of the places she visits. Picking a hotel that she would like was not easy because the most expensive or luxurious is not always the best choice. The missus prefers hotels with their own personality and charm and a sense of the locale. After wading through TripAdvisor and Expedia and other travel blogs, I thought that the Hotel Giorgione was the perfect choice. Nestled in a quiet street a bit away from the bustle of Venice, the hotel seemed to have the right blend of history and local Venetian charm.
Even before walking in to the hotel, the missus pronounced her verdict: “I love this place!” After checking in we took the elevator to our room and again she seemed very happy with our home for two quick nights. I have to say, it was a very nice room with a living area downstairs and the bedroom in a loft above.
We fell asleep almost immediately, around 1:15 a.m., but due to the jet lag we were both wide awake at 5:30 in the morning. Unable to sleep any longer, we had breakfast downstairs and were walking around Venice very early in the morning (early for me, anyway, as I prefer to sleep in and hit the town closer to lunch time). We wandered around aimlessly, which in Venice is often the best way. We crossed many canals and walked down the uniquely Venetian narrow streets and alleys.
From there, we set a course for Venice’s most famous spot, Piazza San Marco. As soon as we entered the piazza I remarked how much it reminded me of Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
My other observation was that it seemed very crowded, although everyone we talked to told us that it was “off-season” and much less congested than it would be in the summer. Given how many people there were in late October, I have vowed never to visit Venice in the summer. I know that I could not tolerate the crowds and what has been described as oppressive heat and humidity. My better half, though, did not mind the crowds as much and I’m pretty sure she would need no convincing to come back again at any time, including the heart of summer.
By 10 a.m., when I prefer to just be climbing out of bed and logging my first steps, we had already exceeded 10,000 steps according to our FitBit. We decided to stop and enjoy some coffee behind Piazza San Marco overlooking the Grand Canal. Applying the “when in Rome” principle again (or “when in Venice”), we ordered traditional Italian coffees and a Venetian pastry to enjoy as we people-watched.
After basking in the sun for a while, I suggested that it might be fun to take a gondola ride. I know that such activities are only for tourists, but I did not care and kept bringing the idea up every few minutes. Eventually, she wore down enough for us to go and ask the price; after hearing the price, we politely declined. The gondolier, however, pursued us and twice reduced the price; we appreciated his charming persistence and agreed to take the “medium” ride – about 40 minutes.
Much to her surprise, the missus really enjoyed the gondola ride – not just seeing the canals and the buildings from water level, but hearing some interesting facts and history from the gondolier about Venice. We probably will never have to ride a gondola again, but I’m glad we did it this one time.
Because we only had one full day in Venice, we wanted to make the most of our time so we continued walking around town after the gondola ride, checking out the many stores and bars. We worked up an appetite and decided to have a “when in Venice” lunch – a traditional Italian pizza and some Italian wine. We chose a restaurant with outdoor seating so that we could enjoy our lunch and still feel a part of the Venetian energy.
We shared some calamari, a small pizza, and a half bottle of Brunello wine. After lunch we decided to head back to the hotel and take a nap so we would be rested for a dinner where we would be meeting some new friends. Both of our phone batteries had died and we had no GPS to help us navigate the labyrinth that is Venice – a series of canals and dead-end streets. Occasionally we would stop for directions and a kind local resident would point in a vague direction and assure us that we were only “cinque minuti” (5 minutes) away. After about 45 minutes of being only cinque minuti away, we finally made it to our hotel. We passed out and slept for about 3 1/2 hours and then got dressed in our fancy clothes to eat dinner at Terraza Danieli, the rooftop restaurant at Venice’s famous Hotel Danieli (where the Johnny Depp movie “The Tourist” was filmed).
Through our blogging and Twitter activity, we had met an Italian husband-wife team that make wine in the Abruzzo region. They drove the 6-7 hours from their home to Venice to meet us for dinner. They turned out to be a fantastic couple and we had a wonderful time getting to know them and hear about their adventure making wine. They even brought a couple of their wines that we enjoyed with dinner, including a lovely Prosecco. We are looking forward to the time when their wines will be available in the United States.
We went to bed quite late and then it was time to leave Venice. Stay tuned for the next chapter in this surprise vacation …
Today we are leaving on a two-week trip to Europe. Normally, my wife and I plan our trips together and work through the intricate details of itinerary: where to visit, how much time to spend in each place, what sites we should go to, where to find the best food and wine. This trip, I decided to do things differently. I told my wife how long we would be gone and the general weather conditions in the locations we would be going. She had a couple of follow-up questions to help with clothes and shoe packing. Fancy or casual? Any outdoor activities such as hiking? Any cultural restrictions or considerations on clothing?
She has tried to get me to divulge the secret a couple of times – I think more to test my resolve in keeping the secret than because she wants to know ahead of time. Miraculously, I have managed to purchase airfare, book hotels and rental cars, and line up a dozen activities without her figuring out where we are going. This trip will either be the best ever …or it is going to suck. But it surely will not be boring.
The only thing my wife knows is that we are flying from San Francisco to Istanbul this evening. What she does not know is that after a short layover we will be flying to Venice, Italy to spend a couple of days there. You may wonder why we are flying SF-Istanbul-Venice? The easiest answer is that the fare on Turkish Air was almost half of what other airlines were charging into any European destination. Another good reason is that Turkish Air was the most flexible option for flying into one European city and flying out of a different city in a different country.
I wish I could say where we are going after Venice, but it would spoil the surprise. We will be in the air when this blog posts, so mentioning Venice is safe because she won’t see it until …she is in Venice. But I will have a post for every country we visit – at least five, but I’m hoping to squeeze in a sixth country toward the end of our trip.
Wish us luck, and stay tuned for updates!
The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old. She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja. She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”). In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja. For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low. “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her. She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!” We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.
Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas. Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja. Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country. Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.
Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question: why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene? Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically. Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes. Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery. The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon. However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.
The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996. They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.” Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.
At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive. We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela. When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!
We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options. Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos. We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.
At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty. In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture. At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades). We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this. The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness. We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home. In a future post we’ll share those results.
We have been blogging for about five months now; in total, we have twenty-two posts about our experiences living in and traveling around Northern California wine country. Aside from a post about a Napa Valley Golf course and one about a rare sighting in Napa (a brewery!), all of our posts are focused on wineries and restaurants. Readers of our reviews will quickly conclude that we enjoyed every winery, restaurant, brewery and other activity written about in this blog. In fact, we did enjoy them. All of them. Yes, 100% of our blogs reflect positive experiences with the establishments that we visited.
The lack of any negative blog posts has led several readers to post questions in our comment section more or less on the same theme: “How is it possible that you like every place you visit? Are you working for the companies that you profile? Do you have some incentive to always be positive? Wasn’t there something, anything that you didn’t like about the winery or restaurant?” We love getting comments from readers, including these comments, as we believe feedback is a gift. These reader questions helped us think more deeply about why we blog and what we are hoping to accomplish.
What is the purpose of a blog like ours? Is it to be a chronicle of everywhere we have been? Is it to present our opinions, both good and bad, on the wines and food that we taste? Is it to provide a “fair and balanced” analysis of the places we go and the experiences that we have?
We would be curious to hear from other bloggers on this topic, as there are certainly reasonable opinions and different approaches. When we started our blog, though, we had a very specific purpose in mind: having a great time visiting new, out-of-the-way places and sharing them with people who may not have experienced them yet. Living in Napa Valley, we have plenty of places to choose from, not only in Napa but also Sonoma County and the newer wine regions that are starting to gain notoriety for their wines (Mendocino, Lake County, Lodi, Sacramento-area wineries, Solano County, etc.). Our goal was not to use our blog as a glorified Tripadvisor or Yelp review (although many people do, and we enjoy many of those blogs). Do we sometimes leave a winery disappointed, either with the service, the quality of the wine, or the ambience? Yes, just as frequently as everyone else does. Do we like every restaurant? Of course not! Like everyone else, we sometimes have to ask for a new fork multiple times and it annoys the hell out of us. Or our server takes forever to take our order; or, our order takes forever to come out of the kitchen. Every once in a while, the food just isn’t that good – or not good enough to justify the steep prices. So why wouldn’t we blog about negative experiences and let people who read our blog know that we had a bad time?
For one thing, negative experiences have such a subjective quality to them; writing about them as fact, as many people do, does not feel right to us. Was the food bad, or were we in a bad mood? Was the waiter a jerk, or did we come into the restaurant with some baggage that caused us to obsess about the seconds ticking by as we waited for someone or something to come to the table? If we have a bad experience, is that useful for someone considering going to that same restaurant or winery? Does it make it any less likely that you will enjoy your time there? No! The best establishments in the world have Yelp reviews that make you wonder how their authors could have been at the same places as the authors that gave 5-stars.
When we have a negative experience somewhere, the first thing we do is discuss whether or not we want to address our concerns with the establishment when we are there. Most people do not, and then write scathing reviews when they are in the comfort of their home and in the safety and anonymity of their computer keyboard. Repeatedly, we have been told that the best way to help an establishment improve on bad food or service is to say something during the visit. On some occasions, we do say something, but not if the problem seems isolated to our visit, or driven by specific circumstances on that day (packed restaurant that was caught understaffed, for instance). Once we leave the winery or restaurant, we lose our interest in chronicling, in writing, the terrible time we had.
When we write a blog, it is not to tell you what places to avoid. As we have already established, we like to write about places at which we had a special time. But we don’t tell you what to order, or what to drink; we just share what we had, our interactions with the business and its staff, try and tell a little about their unique story and their approach to food, or wine, or whatever they are selling. The fact that we liked the short rib is no guarantee that you will. We may tell you that we liked it, in passing, but our interest is more in describing the food, the wine, the service, the decor, and the atmosphere. One of the reasons we share so many pictures is that it enables the reader to see for themselves how the spaces are laid out, how the food was presented, etc. Rather than talk about “like” or “don’t like,” we focus more on the establishment’s approach. If we are blogging about a restaurant, what is it trying to achieve? What genre of food is it trying to carve out (pun intended)? Where do they get their ingredients?
If we are blogging about a winery, we want to emphasize their winemaking style – are they making big “California” or “Napa” wines or following a more European approach? Is the wine sweet or acidic, or somewhere in between? Those are the things we think people care about more than our ratings or personal opinions. If you like a high-alcohol, super-fermented buttery Napa Chardonnay (think Rombauer), then you should know the place we are blogging about makes a crisp Chard with zero residual sugar. If you like red wines that jump out of the glass and punch you in the face, it will be helpful for you to know that the wines we tasted were only 12-13% alcohol and had a more subtle flavor profile.
We are not sure that our approach is correct, but for us, it just feels right. If we blog about a place, that means we think it’s worth visiting. If we go somewhere we hate, it’s not worth blogging about. We do have opinions, of course, and if you ask us “hey what about XX Winery,” we’ll tell you what we think if we’ve been there. Even if we hated it.
Let us know how you think about blogging and if your approach is different.
We spent nearly a week in Oregon at the end of September, a trip motivated by the need to drop our son off at the U of O. We decided to add a couple of days to the trip and visit some wineries and wine regions we have not been to before. One of the benefits of writing a wine blog and having an active presence on Twitter (@topochinesvino) is the connection to new friends across the United States and around the world. Over the past six months or so, we have developed friendships in the Twittersphere with a number of winemakers and winery managers up and down the state of Oregon. We built our non-campus activities around in-person visits to their wineries to learn more about their wines and what led them to this often challenging way of life. We think we’ve made some lasting friendships from our visits in addition to tasting some of Oregon’s top-notch wines.
Over the course of our 6 days in Oregon, we had a wide range of adventures and experiences:
We saw an Oregon football game (our first together) in the very impressive Autzen stadium in Eugene.
We stayed at two very different but lovely B&B’s, both of which have vineyards and are producing their own wines.
Despite having visited Oregon multiple times, we discovered a part of the Willamette Valley (the southern region) that was new to us.
In between winery visits and campus activities, we were able to enjoy some superb restaurants.
On the drive home, we encountered two wine regions that until recently we did not know existed: Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.
We will be posting about all of these experiences over the next several days, with of course lots of photos to accompany our stories. For now, we leave you with a few pictures to whet the appetite for what is to come.
“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign. “Diner.” What else do you need to know, right? Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley. It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover. The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name. This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.
For the record, the diner does have a name: the Fremont Diner. Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond. When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated. What’s the attraction? The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up. Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.
For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet. For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals. This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs. It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why? One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.” We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious. We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.
In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon. We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering. The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits. Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon). Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.
For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu. This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.
Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house. As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu. The verdict: a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.
If you like underdogs, you would root for one of the few Latino-owned breweries in the United States. But if you really, really like underdogs, you would root for a brewery owned by Mexican immigrants and opened in the heart of Northern California wine country. For those extreme fans of the underdog, we present Carneros Brewing Company, located in Sonoma Valley just west of the Napa county line. This particular operation is challenging the conventions of not one, but two world-famous wine regions.
Carneros Brewing Company is located off of Highway 12 in Sonoma County; Napa Valley visitors coming from San Francisco pass Carneros Brewing, often without even noticing. Living in Napa, we pass by the brewery every single time we drive to San Francisco or Marin County. A couple of days ago, we decided to stop in and check our their selection of beers rather than visit another one of our local wineries. We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the beers and the cool atmosphere of the tasting room.
We went to Carneros Brewing on a Sunday and the mood in the tasting room was quite lively. There was a combination of first-time visitors like us, as well as a number of tables of “regulars” that were definitely not on their first visit. Several of the tables were occupied by frequent visitors who knew the various brewery offerings and were happy to talk about their favorites. Because it was our first time at the brewery, we opted to order a 5-beer tasting sampler. Choosing just five beers, though, proved to be more difficult than we expected as there were nearly a dozen beers that caught our eye.
In the past couple of years, we have tended to order almost exclusively ales, and in most cases IPA. As a result, we decided not to include a traditional IPA (the Carneros IPA) in our 5-sampler, instead opting for the Pilsner, the Jefeweizen, the Morena ale, the Negra IPA, and the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter.
We are more familiar with the order of wine tastings, which usually start with the lighter (white) wines and transition to the red wines: first the “lighter” reds such as Pinot Noir, finishing with the stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon. At Carneros Brewing Company, the tasting order resembled the wine tasting order, with the first beer being a pilsner, which, compared to the beers later in the selection, is much lighter and can be analogized to white wine. Even though we favor ales, we really enjoyed the Cerveza Pilsner, which had a crisp taste and an unexpected fruity ester profile that is generally found in ale but not lager. Although only 5% alcohol, the Cerveza Pilsner had a strong, balanced flavor that we do not expect from the more commercial brand of lagers on the market. Much to our surprise, the Cerveza Pilsner turned out to be one of our favorite beers we tried at Carneros Brewing.
After quaffing the generous 5-oz pilsner sample, we moved on to beer #2, Carneros Brewing’s take on the traditional southern German beer where a significant portion of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat. When done properly, Hefeweizen will display notes of banana and cloves both in terms of aroma as well as taste. The Jefeweizen that we tried was most definitely done properly – the beer had a nice balance of fruity banana as well as spice and cloves on the finish. After two beers, we were impressed with the Carneros Brewing Company beers and congratulating ourselves for branching out and not just ordering the IPA as we tend to do.
Our third beer was the Morena ale, an amber ale with strong notes of caramel and an almost creamy finish. We liked this beer and would order it again, but it was not as distinctive for us as the other four. Nevertheless, it was good enough for us to consumer the entire 5-oz tasting before proceeding to beer #4, the Negra IPA.
As mentioned above, we are not strangers when it comes to IPA; moreover, we have consumed many dark beers in our day as well. However, as to the combination of IPA and dark malt, we have to admit we are complete virgins and the Carneros Brewing offering was our very first. We were not sure what to expect from the combination of the IPA’s bitterness and the toastiness of the dark malt – we were imagining the love child of a Guinness and an India Pale Ale. In fact, that is more or less what we experienced: the Negra IPA maintained a strong bitter undertone (70 IBU’s) of a typical IPA but the chocolate and coffee notes found in dark malt ales. Although it was our first dark malt IPA, it will not be our last, and we will be seeking out similar beers from other craft makers to compare flavors.
Our final beer – the heavyweight in terms of structure and depth – was the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter. At more than 8% alcohol, this was the strongest beer that we tried in our flight.
We have an Irish brother-in-law. His father worked at the Guinness plant in Ireland for over 40 years. Enough said? We drink a fair amount of stout when we get together and have acquired a real taste for well-made stout. The Carneros Imperial Stout was a strong offering, with medium carbonation, notes of coffee and toffee, and a smooth, creamy finish. Next time we will have to do a side-by-side tasting with a Guinness Stout (or extra-stout) to see how they compare. But to finish up our 5-taster, the Carneros 2K Imperial Stout held its ground just fine. We were glad we finally stopped at the brewery after driving by at 50-60 mph multiple times on our way to San Francisco.
Next door to the brewery tasting room is the winery tasting room for Carneros Brewing Company’s sister company, Ceja Vineyards, another success story for an extended family of Mexican immigrants who literally worked their way from the bottom to the top. In our next blog we will share our experiences with the matriarch of Ceja Vineyards, Amelia Ceja.