Tag: slovenia

Top 10 Wine Moments of 2016

Artesa rolling hills
View of Carneros wine region from Artesa Winery

2016 was unquestionably an impactful year no matter what filters you apply to its 365 days: geopolitics, U.S. politics, the global economy, or the premature passing of a disproportionate number of treasured artists.  Certainly, a historical understanding of 2016 will require a thorough review of all of these areas and more.  Our goal, however, is not to define 2016, put any labels on it, or attempt to put it into any particular context.  Instead, we want to celebrate some of the wonderful events and moments that we experienced in 2016 that are as important to remember.  Below are ten  of our top 2016 moments, not ranked by importance (how could we even do that?) but chronologically.

  1.  Wines of the World.  In January of 2016 we took our first class in the Viticulture and Winery Technology department at Napa Valley College.  Most of our wine education came to us in our important role as consumers (i.e., wine drinkers); we knew a fair amount about California and international wines, but were by no means global wine experts.  On our first day of class we were poised with our notebooks and pens to take copious notes about the wines of the world.  “Where are your glasses?” asked our professor.  Apparently this was a wine drinking class!  If we knew that such a class existed we would have taken it years before.  For the next class, we brought six wine glasses each and tasted wines from 7-10pm each Wednesday for 15 weeks.  Each week, we tasted between 12 and 14 wines, starting with France and moving through the rest of the Old World (Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Eastern Europe) and eventually the New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America).  Along the way we learned about the different wine regions in each country, the grape varietals growth there, unique wine-making styles, and the specific terroir of each location.  Together with the wine tasting, it was quite an education!
  2. Bottlerock 2016.  Music festivals have become a real “thing” the past several years.  In Napa, we have our own 3-day festival, Bottlerock, that has grown since its inception about five years ago into an honest-to-goodness kick-ass event.  Each year, the quality of the headliners as well as the rest of the festival lineup has increased significantly.  For Bottlerock 2016, the headliners were Florence & The Machine, Stevie Wonder and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.  We bought tickets for two days – Florence and Stevie – and came to the festival early to catch some of the unheralded (but often equally impressive) early acts.  Beyond the strong performances, the food options were more plentiful than in prior years as were the wine and beer selections.  We are looking forward to purchasing Bottlerock 2017 tickets when they go on limited pre-sale tomorrow!  Please buy yours some other day.
  3. El Centimo.  Through our wine class (see #1 above) we met two of the dynamic people behind El Centimo Real, a wonderful wine from Spain’s Rioja region.  Jesus Parreño and Alaina Velazquez both live in Napa and have wine industry “day jobs” but are also trying to share their Rioja passion with the U.S. market.  We are often called wine snobs so when we tell you that our New Year’s Eve dinner featured two bottles of this luscious Rioja, hopefully you’ll conclude that the wine is fantastic.  More surprising, perhaps, is that the wine costs at least half of what we typically pay for quality California wines.  You can find out more about El Centimo Real here:  El Centimo.
    el-centimo
    2010 El Centimo Real (Lot 532)

    4.  Meeting a Legend.  On Father’s Day 2016, we had the opportunity (along with two of our kids) to meet Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills winery in Napa but also one of the people who helped put Napa Valley on the global wine map.  In 1976, Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena and their 1973 Chardonnay, in a head-to-head contest in Paris, came out on top of a roster of wines that included the best of France’s white wines.  This so-called Judgement of Paris ignited the world’s understanding and acceptance of American wines.  Here’s a link to our Father’s Day blog entry:  A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.

    IMG_0968
    The crew with Miljenko “Mike” Grgich

    5.  A chance invitation to a wine party.  Some time during the summer we received an invitation to join a wine event at a winery with which we were not familiar:  Y. Rousseau.  Via Twitter, we met Olga Mosina from the winery and she told us about the event and a bit about the winemaker, Yannick Rousseau.  Given our interest in and focus on “hidden gems,” Y. Rousseau seemed right up our alley:  a small production operation housed in the up-and-coming (but still mostly hidden) Crusher District.  As interesting was the fact that Y. Rousseau’s two signature wines are Colombard and Tannat, both rare wines to say the least in the land of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  To read our original post click here:  A Frenchman in Napa Valley.

    6.  Tasting wine with another legend.  Again via Twitter, we connected with Amelia Ceja, the founder and owner of Ceja Vineyards.  Sourcing fruit 100% from their estate properties in Napa and Sonoma, Ceja makes a number of different varietals, including some really fantastic Pinot Noir offerings.  What is particularly compelling about the Ceja story, we thought, was the fact that Amelia and her husband both came to Napa Valley from Mexico as children and went from picking grapes alongside their parents to growing grapes on their own property and making excellent wines.  Our write-up on our visit is here:   An All-American Story.

7.  A cool Oregon winemaker.  After drop-off weekend at the University of Oregon we made a visit to another winemaker that we met on Twitter, Jerry Sass, at his estate vineyard near Salem.  We quickly became fans not only of Sass Winery but of Mr. Sass as well due to his personality as well as his approach to viticulture and winemaking. Jerry has a dry wit very similar to ours and an honest outlook on life that drew us to him right away.  As a grape grower and winemaker, we loved his commitment to dry farming his grapes (no irrigation) and the fact that 100% of his vines on the estate we visited are “own rooted” – no grafting of one grape varietal onto the roots of another type of grape.  Jerry considers making wine a craft and respects the land and the fruit he picks.  End result?  Fantastic white and red wines.  You can read our write-up on Jerry and his wines here:  A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley.

sass2
9 wines is the right number for tasting

 

8.  Hey let’s meet some Italian winemakers!  One of the nights we were in Venice we arranged to meet with a dynamic duo, Roberto and Natalia from The Vinum Winery in Ortona, Italy.  It was quite an experience sharing dinner with them at the famous Terraza Danieli restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal – and drinking some of their wines with dinner.  They make a fantastic Prosecco as well as a number of other white and red wines; we managed to bring a case of their wine home with us and look forward to the day their wines are available here in the U.S.  Our day in Venice, including dinner with Roberto and Natalia, can be found here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?

all-of-us
New friends in Venice

9.  What country is this?  After leaving Venice, Italy on a Sunday in October we whisked our way north and east into what the wife thought was going to be more of Italy.  We quietly crossed the border from Italy into Slovenia and ended up at the Kabaj Morel winery in the Goriška Brda region.  We had probably the best overall wine tasting experience of our lives at Kabaj Morel; in fact, it is an insult to the experience to call it “wine tasting.”  Our visit lasted 4 1/2 hours and consisted of a five-course lunch and drinking (not tasting) many of the Kabaj wines.  Our stop at Kabaj was a top highlight on a trip of top highlights.  You can read about our gluttonous feast here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.

10.  Last but not least.  Our trip to Croatia was a major revelation in terms of our understanding and appreciation of wines from that region.  Prior to the trip we had little exposure to Balkan wines, varietals and wine regions.  We got a major education on Croatian wines during our visit to Basement Wine Bar in the capital, Zagreb.  Based on what we learned at Basement, we structured some of our days in the rest of Croatia around tasting the local wines and even visiting one of Croatia’s most well-known regions, the Peljesac Peninsula.  While there, we were able to visit Mike Grigich’s Croatian winery (Grgic Vina) which was a nice tie-in to our Father’s Day visit discussed above.  Our Croatia adventure can be accessed here:  I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore.

Crafting this list was difficult as we have visited several dozen wineries this past year and consumed bottles from many more.  Easily, we could have done a top 50 or maybe even a top 100, but we thought ten was a manageable number.  We hope you enjoyed reminiscing about 2016 with us.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 4, 2017

 

Advertisements

“A” to Zagreb

jagerhorn-front
Hotel Jagerhorn in Zagreb, Croatia

This is the fourth 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 the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

CHAPTER FOUR …

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.

jagerhorn-suite
Front room of Hotel Jagerhorn

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!”

jagerhorn-bedroom
Large bedroom at Hotel Jagerhorn
jagerhorn bathroom.jpg
Spacious and modern bathroom at Hotel Jagerhorn

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.

farmers-market
Dolac Farmers Market in Zagreb
img_3641
Irene’s food drug: mushrooms!

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.

img_3665
Stairs to Upper Town
img_3648
Cute restaurant at the top of the funicular with views of Zagreb

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.

img_3677
Soup at Lari I Penati
img_3680
Home-made Pate
img_3685
Pasta with local mushrooms
img_3686
Chicken wings Croatian-style
img_3689
Our first 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.

John Ingersoll

October 28, 2016

Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border

slovenia-border
Italy-Slovenia Border

We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.”  As we set out in the car, she  thought we were going somewhere else in Italy.  As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste.  Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries.  Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.

She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction.  But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains.  One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia.  Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner.  Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control.  Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.

After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road.  Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel.  “What’s this?” asked the missus.  “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.

Two weeks before we left on our trip,  Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market.  A friend met him and got one of his cards for me.  I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination.  “Where are we?” she asked.  “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information.  “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied.  “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”

Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.

kabaj-vineyards-2
Kabaj estate vineyards directly behind the winery

It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring.  Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill.   We went inside and were  greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993.  Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards.  We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.

kabaj-terrace
Irene enjoying some Kabaj Zeleni Sauvignon

When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte.  We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision.  Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.

kabaj-food
Leek omelette with thin slices of Slovenian bacon
kabaj-food-2
Sauerkraut soup
kabaj-food-3
Barley and bacon in a pumpkin seed oil
kabaj-food-4
Steak Slovenian style
kabaj-food-5
Traditional Slovenian dessert

For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc.  We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines.  In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions.  Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time.  Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.

The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine.  We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.

kabaj-in-glass-5
Kabaj red blend

We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel.  We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia.  It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance.  We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.

ljublana-from-castle
View of Ljublana from the castle

We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.

We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region.  It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable.  But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half.  “Where are we going now?” asked the wife.  “You’ll see soon,” I told her.  It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection.  After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb.  Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel:  “You’re 2 for 2.”  Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.

John Ingersoll

October 25, 2016

kabaj-philosophy
Sign hanging over the door at Kabaj winery in Slovenia

 

Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?

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.

flight
Time remaining two hours into the flight

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.

istanbul-meal
Fast food Istanbul-style

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.

water-taxi
A unique way to travel

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.

giorgione

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.

giorgione-room
Spacious room at Giorgione Hotel in Venice

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.

canal-view
One of Venice’s many canals

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.

 

piazza
Piazza San Marco in Venice

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.

crowd
An “off-season” crowd in Venice

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.

capuccino
Authentic Italian Cappuccino

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.

winemakerse
Irene with our new friends
all-of-us
Al of us together in the lobby of the Giorgione

We went to bed quite late and then it was time to leave Venice.  Stay tuned for the next chapter in this surprise vacation …

 

John Ingersoll

October 24, 2016

My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going

IMG_1928.JPG
Waiting patiently for our 13 1/2 hour flight

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!
John Ingersoll