One Week in Puglia: Monopoli

When I told people I was going to the Puglia region of Italy for my next trip most people had never heard of it. The easy way of explaining where Puglia is located is by describing it as the heel of the boot. I actually didn’t even know what this area was called until my Italy-loving friend Andrea said we HAD to go here on our trip because it is the last place in Italy she hadn’t yet traveled. She said it was where many Italians take their vacations because there are less tourists and the beaches are amazing. One quick google image search later and I was sold. We bought our tickets and then started researching each of the little towns along the water. There were too many to choose from so we kind of randomly picked Monopoli, Lecce, and then Matera on our way out. Monopoli was our first stop and easily one of our favorite places from the whole trip.

Monopoli is located just down the coast from Bari, the main port town in Puglia, and easy to get to on a regional train in about an hour after taking a 4 hour train from Rome. The town sits right on the crystal clear blue waters of the Adriatic. It dates back to 500 bc so needless to say it does not lack in charm. The historical part of the town has streets barely big enough for cars that you can amble up and down all day. We were surprised to find very few tourists here and felt like we had the town to ourselves. Our first day we decided to go on a little sailing trip to Polignano a Mare, the next town up the coast, to relax and soak in some sun and views.

Andrea taking in the views off Polignano a Mare

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After taking our boat trip we spent the rest of our time walking up and down the sidewalks and going into little churches and stores, sitting in cafes, and eating some really good food. There was a boutique hotel named Don Ferrante right near where we were staying with an amazing rooftop restaurant. We sat here one night, prosecco in hand, watching the sunset. If I ever come back, this is where I am staying and I don’t care how expensive it is. We were eating, or trying to eat here, the night Italy lost their futbol game that ended their time at the World Cup. After the game was over the waiters came out to serve us practically crying into our drinks they were so sad. If the scenery wasn’t so amazing it would have certainly ruined the mood.

Don Ferrante

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The town was ready for the futbol game.

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Monopoli by night

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Puglia has many towns like this but Monopoli is a must-see. It’s a sleepy little town, but very romantic and relaxing. If you like jewelry there is an amazing store owned by a German couple down near the water called FLY. We used Airbnb to find an apartment here and found an abundance of cute little places for a good price.

Rome: Eating and Shopping

Accompanying me on my recent trip to Italy was my good friend Andrea. She was the best traveling partner for a trip like this not only because we get along like two peas in a pod, but also because she lived in Rome for three years while getting her master’s degree and speaks fluent Italian. Basically she was my own personal translator, food picker outer, shoe store finder and gypsy shield. This trip would have been near shit without her. Her one true love is Rome since that’s where she spent most of her time living, so we tucked away two extra days here with the sole purpose of eating and shopping. I have been to Rome before and seen all the major tourist sites so our aim was to find some leather shoes, Italian linen shirts for our boyfriends, and the best Roman pizza there is. Mission accomplished on all fronts with some extra site-seeing as an added bonus.

First things first I NEED to mention this pizza place in the Trastavere neighborhood that blew my mind. It’s called Dar Poeta. We went here two nights in a row it was so good. Andrea says when she lived here it wasn’t too crowded and only open certain hours, but since then has definitely started to welcome an increasing number of foreign patrons. Despite this it did not seem touristy to me. We never had to wait more than five minutes to get a table but I would have waited a week if I had to, it’s that good. I highly recommend the Bufala Mozzarella pizza towards the bottom of the menu, it will melt all your brain sensors with the first bite. We finished off our pizza with the ricotta-nutella calzone for dessert and I was in heaven and thankfully wearing a elastic waistband.

Andrea digging in, round one.

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Pizza Perfection- Bufala

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There was not room in my stomach for this but it happened anyway….

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For breakfast- which was hard for us since we were usually still full from the night before- we would go to Compagnia del Pane in the Prati neighborhood. We were staying in a flat just 2 blocks from the Vatican so this was easy walking distance. The apple pastries here were incredible, along with everything else. One of my missions on this trip was to start developing a taste for coffee. Before coming to Italy I associated coffee with what hot sewage might taste like, and could barely even stomach a spoonful of coffee ice-cream let alone a latte. This was the first and only latte I drank and I could barely swallow it even with 3 packets of sugar, but Andrea said it was divine so you can take it from her. I did drink the whole thing and would like to think my taste buds are making improvements so I may enter the adult world of coffee-drinking one day.

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In the middle of our shopping and eating we would sometimes venture to one of Rome’s attractions, but quickly found that the city decided to put all their major tourist spots under construction at the same time. Why they did this in the middle of tourist season is beyond me. The Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and multiple other sites were all covered in scaffolding and ugliness. Thankfully, Andrea took me to Gianicolo Hill which overlooks all of Rome. It is a little bit of a hike but worth the view. At the top there is a beautiful Piazza and also a big fountain called the Fountain of Acqua Paola. It was a perfect sunset walk before stuffing our faces at Dar Poeta. We also did a quick jaunt through St. Peter’s basilica because I remembered that being one of my favorite spots last time. Seeing it just after visiting the Blue Mosque was an interesting comparison.

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To top off our day we had gelato at Gelateria die Gracchi. Andrea assured me this was the best place in Rome. Everything was seasonal and they use very fresh ingredients. You could tell it was good because nothing was colored with bright dyes, and the place was loaded with locals. My favorite mix was chocolate and almond or lemon.

It was a quick two days in Rome, I guess I will just have to come back again!

Istanbul in 2.8 Days

DSC01841I walked past this fruit/juice stand every morning and had to fight my instincts to bite into one of these beauties. Lots of color in Istanbul everywhere I looked, but also about a million tourists clogging everything up. This is what I get for going in the end of June I guess. Despite the tourists, I would go back in a heartbeat. Istanbul has tons to offer and I feel like I only saw a piece of it, starting with all the major tourist sites. I would love to come back in the early fall and see the city in a less crowded light, then also visit the rest of Turkey which is supposed to be even more beautiful.

I stayed just off Istiklal Street in Beyoglu on the European side and used Airbnb.com to rent a small apartment. This was perfect because it was a non-touristy area yet only 10 minutes to Galata tower and 15 to the tram station. I walked a lot which was the perfect solution for all the baklava I ate. I tried a little everywhere I went but the best I had was at a meze place in Galatasaray on my last night. It wasn’t drowned in honey like many I have had- it was light and perfect. I also tasted their version of ouzo, called Raki. The owner even let me keep 2 of the little raki glasses which remind me of Japanese beer glasses. Galatasaray is a great place for meze-style restaurants. DSC02050Before coming to Turkey I am sad to say I had never tasted Turkish Delight. For some reason I always thought it looked like a fruit cake version of candy and I can’t stand fruit cake. I tasted a hefty amount from different places in the city, once again thankful for all the walking I was doing. This place was on Istiklal street and was packed with Turkish men yelling over the counters. There were about 50 kinds here, some covered in saffron or rose petals. I actually prefer the plain pistachio kind.DSC01795 DSC01793 DSC01787Every morning I would have my cup of Turkish tea which was a little stronger than many british style teas and had a little more bitterness to it. I liked how they served it in the glass cups. After my tea I would get one of the Simits from a street cart. They were like a mix between a bagel and a pretzel. Definitely worth a try once but I would take a New York style bagel over this any day.  DSC01830 DSC01838My first full day I went to Topkapi palace and the cisterns. Both were crowded but I was surprised when  the Harem in the palace was not. I paid extra to see this part which was beautiful but very lacking in information. The audio guide was useless as everything they said was written out for you in each room with minimal information to start with. I would recommend getting a written guide somewhere else. The Harem was partially under construction and you were only allowed in certain parts. I felt like they could do a little more work on refurbishing some of the rooms but overall it was worth the extra cash to go in. DSC01911 DSC01899 DSC01882Gorgeous tiles in the Harem.DSC01850 DSC01859 DSC01908

The cisterns were also very interesting and beautiful. This took me only 15-20 minutes to get through not counting the line which moved rather quickly.

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The second day I went to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The line into both was looong and I actually paid some guy 20 lira to get me into the Hagia Sophia faster. The Blue Mosque has free entry so there is no way to get to the front of that line. Afterwards I went to the nearby Seven Hills Restaurant for a drink and the amazing view.

DSC01993 DSC02008 DSC01916 DSC01972Galata Bridge at night. Apparently a great place to watch the sunset but I didn’t make it in time. DSC01821On Istiklal street there are a few places that sell goats milk ice cream. This one guy does this whole routine before finally giving you your cone. The ice cream is much more chewy than regular cream and lends well to being flung around like taffy. DSC01801 Galata Tower by night.DSC01812Shop cat. DSC01950 The last thing I did was take a boat ride on the Bosphorus River. For some reason I was so exhausted I went to the lower deck to sit down and woke up 2 hours later after the ride was over… this was the only picture I got! Something about boats makes me very sleepy. DSC02042

Palm Springs

This past week Joe and I drove to Palm Springs for a mid-week vacation and it was super fantastic. Palm Springs is one of those little trips that I have somehow held off on. After being here in SoCal for 2 years I am now punching myself for it! It was so great. We just missed the Coachella and Stagecoach crowd which we are very thankful for. Since it was so wonderful we plan to go back every few months or so to relax and get some sun since it’s only a 2 hour drive from San Diego.

We stayed at the Ace Hotel and loved it although I didn’t initially. When we first walked in I thought to myself that it seemed like the center of the hipster universe. I think we were the only non-tattooed people in the whole place, and Joe was definitely the only non-bearded man. After spending the first day there I reversed my judgement. This place has a really chill vibe and everything you really need. The staff were super nice and we really did not have a single issue with anything. And we got to bring Jerri to the very dog-friendly pool! She even got her own lounge chair and bowl of doggie water.

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Aside from the canines, another great part of Palm Springs was the food. For dinner the first night we ate at the Purple Palm in the Colony Palms Hotel and then Jake’s the second night. Both are moderately pricey but we enjoyed them immensely. The Purple Palm was romantic and quiet while Jake’s was much more energetic and had killer desserts. OpenTable.com seems to have reliable reviews for the area and makes it easy to reserve which is a must, even for a weekday. There seem to be about a million exceptional restaurants in the valley so hopefully we will get to try a bunch of them over the next few years.

For breakfast we were told to go to 2 places, Cheeky’s and Sherman’s Deli. We did not make it to the deli because we ate at the Ace’s diner instead, but we will hit it up next time. Cheeky’s certainly lived up to it’s expectations.  A bacon flight is a great way to start your breakfast, and the rest of the food was even tastier. Cheeky’s is also attached to a really cool looking smaller boutique hotel which I am keeping in mind for next time.

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The Ace is pretty big and apparently it gets busy/crazy on the weekends. During the week it’s very relaxed and there were plenty of lounge chairs for everybody. Another reason why a weekday trip here is the best. I don’t think I will ever come here on the weekends because the weekdays mean no traffic, plenty of pool space, and way cheaper room rates. The rooms at the Ace have all the amenities and one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept on. I pride myself on having a supremely comfortable mattress, but this was unreal. As for nightlife other than sleeping, the bar attached to the lobby has karaoke on Wednesdays which seemed to be overtaken by regulars who were not very enthusiastic, but I still managed to embarrass myself well enough. My rendition of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” never disappoints.  Joe says I need to pick easier songs but I think the worse I sound, the less pressure I feel. So naturally I pick Cher or Whitney Houston every time.

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13 miles west of town there are some huge, creepy dinosaurs that cannot be missed. Right next to the Burger King!

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Some hotels I have my eye on for next time are Korakia Pensione, the Riviera, the Alcazar and the Colony Palms. And we will definitely have to get off our lazy bums and do some hiking or at least some tram riding next time.

Safari Park

On top of having a Little Italy in San Diego we are lucky enough to also have a Little Africa, aka the San Diego Safari Park. I have somehow been to the San Diego Zoo about 4 dozen times and have not made it to the Park until recently. Probably because it’s kinda far away and a little more expensive (anything is more expensive than free, so thanks for the free admission for active duty military, oh generous zoo-people!) but I finally made it and it was pretty dang cool. I missed out on watching the cheetah run by at a million miles per hour, which my Dad was pretty upset about, but I did get licked by both a giraffe AND a rhinoceros. So, overall a win.

I mostly took pictures of the giraffes and rhinos but they had all kinds of animals here. Two of my favorites were the fruit bats and the lemurs. I have always had a love for bats after living in Minnesota when I was little. Every once in awhile one would find it’s way into our house from the attic and my mom would run around the house chasing it with a tennis racket while my sister and I would try and steer it out front door using blankets as flags. I don’t remember that ever working because we would usually have to nurse the little guys out of their trauma-induced coma post tennis racket-whacking. They were so cute, like little winged mice.

There were lots of baby everythings including gorillas, rhinos and giraffes. Our guide said that the safari park mainly serves as a breeding facility, so that means babies all year round. The park is separated into two parts; the zoo part and the safari part. You can walk through the zoo all day long but the safari part, where all the big asian and african animals are, is limited to vehicle safaris only. And of course, the vehicle safaris cost extra. It’s definitely not a cheap day but I think it’s very worth it. If you don’t plan on doing a safari or the cheetah run I think the SD Zoo is a better option.

ImageImageImageImageImageImage My very friendly new giraffe buddy and my Dad.ImageImageImageImageImage

Colonia del Sacramento

To finish off my trip to South America I wanted to put up one last post of our day trip to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. If you are going to Buenos Aires and have a extra day to blow I highly suggest checking out this old and beautiful city across the river. As I said before, 7 days in BA is just too long. Too much dog poo, too little sidewalk. So, Joe and I decided to use our last day to take the 1 hour-long ferry across country lines and stroll around this lovely little town. While we were there we had some surprisingly great food, saw some picturesque sights and took a deep breath of the clean air. We arrived at around noon and left just after sunset which was a perfect amount of time, but if I were to do it again I would stay the night. The sunset was amazing!

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageWhile walking through the old cobblestone streets we came upon a new-looking little boutique hotel called Charco and decided to make dinner reservations there. If I were to go back I would stay at this place in a heartbeat. So cute and serene, yet right down in the center of the old part of town and on the water. This is where we watched the sunset on their amazing deck and then had one of the best meals on our whole trip. The perfect night to top off a perfect vacation!

ImageImageHere are some pictures of the rooms at Charco from their website… and some decoration inspo.

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PS. Right across the street from Charco was a really interesting little jewelry store.

Getting to Colonia: I suggest taking the Colonia Express ferries which are cheaper than the Buquebus ferries and much smaller. Go to the actual ticket places in BA because they do offer deals there. Of course you have to go through customs and immigration on both sides so that’s a little bit of a pain but they have streamlined it pretty well and we did not wait long. There is no reciprocity fee for Uruguay and you don’t need a visa, but do not forget your copy of the Argentinian reciprocity fee otherwise you will have to pay it again when you return back to BA which would be a huge bummer. If you are going on a summer weekend make sure to reserve your hotels and restaurants early because this place can get busy from what I heard. Bon Voyage!

Buenos Aires

For some inexplicable reason we decided it would be a good idea to stay in Buenos Aires for 7 nights and 8 days. We thought this would be a good amount of time to really get to know the city maybe? After arriving we soon realized that BA is a lot like any other big city in that you can get a little weary of it all rather quickly. That is, if you are not much of a city person to begin with. After being in wide open Chile it was a little claustrophobic in this hot and sticky metropolis. Buenos Aires certainly has a lot to offer and we had a great time, but I think Joe and I realized we are not city people in the vacation sense. So unless you are a lover of the big city life I would spend 3 days max here. That gives you plenty of time to see the sites and absorb the BA vibes.

Joining us in BA were Joe’s brother, John, and his girlfriend, Heather. John had spent a good amount of time here a few years ago so we were lucky to have someone who knew the city. We stayed at an Airbnb flat near Palermo Soho which worked out pretty well. BA is not expensive to begin with but this was definitely the way to go since we were staying so long. Palermo Soho was a really cute little neighborhood with some great restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Perfect place to get an apartment.

Highs- Steak, steak, steak. Black market $ exchanges, I felt like I was James Bond. Argentinian wine. Recoletta Cemetery. Tempting fate at a River Plate soccer match. (If the gates are guarded by police in riot gear, definitely think twice before entering) Cheap taxis. Listening to Joe and his masterful Spanish.

Lows- Dog poop. Everywhere. Joe was the only one to actually step in it which was pretty amazing. Being there during an economic crisis definitely made our trip a lot cheaper, but it was just sad. The Zoo was extremely depressing, don’t go.

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A Short Stop in Santiago

Santiago. We didn’t initially plan on even staying here and wanted to go to Valparaiso but didn’t think we would have much time. This ended up being a great little stop. It’s a big city for sure, but it has a smaller feel to it. Driving into the city from the airport I was surprised at how mountainous it is. The whole city is surrounded by a back drop of volcanoes and mountains which you can go explore very easily. We were only there for 2 days and just barely got a taste, but what we did see was all good. The city itself is very clean, safe, and interesting. There are tons of stray dogs everywhere which didn’t bother me in the least since I missed my own dog so much. The weird thing was they are all friendly and there really wasn’t that much dog poop on the street. Big plus. Public services must take care of it really quickly because it was a far cry from Buenos Aires where you couldn’t walk 2 feet without having to dodge huge mounds of dog poop. And Buenos Aires had NO stray dogs. The math doesn’t add up… BA is going through a crisis though, so I can’t blame them too much.

We stayed at a great little boutique hotel called Meridiano Sur Petit Hotel, right downtown in the Providencia district. There was a river only a few blocks away with a miles-long park and bike path that takes you right out into the surrounding mountains. I found the hotel on one of my now-favorite hotel-finding websites, i-escape.com (thanks Darshana!) which only features approved unique and interesting boutique hotels all over the world. And you can usually get a deal if you reserve through them. Right in the same neighborhood was a fantastic little restaurant called Liguria. It was what every hipster in America wishes their restaurant looked like.

Our cute little room at Meridiano Sur Petit Hotel.Image

The presidential office building

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Drinking wine for lunch, red for Heather, white for me. =)ImageImage

Atacama: El Fin!

For our last day in the Atacama Joe got me an extra horseback riding excursion because he knew how much I love horses. The guide, named Marcos, ended up being my own personal Marlboro Man. He smoked Marlboro reds and everything. He took us into the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) which is a canyon of red rock and giant sand dunes. It was incredibly beautiful. We got to gallop through the sand dunes and the canyons as the sun was setting. Joe tried some trotting and did well enough although he looked to be in a moderate amount of physical pain. And I think he was jealous of Marcos who stole me away to race through a river bed, but he took it very well. All in all, best Valentine’s Day ever.

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Our last night at Tierra Atacama, so depressing!

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Atacama: Part Dos

Days 3 and 4 were filled with some epic landscapes. On day 3 we drove to the Tara Salt Flats and made some stops along the way. I couldn’t believe my eyes at times, the view was just too beautiful. The colors, for a desert, seem so vibrant. The plants contrasted with the red of the earth and the blue of the sky so vividly, it’s hard to capture on camera. We drove past a marsh with wild pink flamingoes, and then past the tallest volcano in that area, Licancabur. There is a gorgeous green lake in the top of this volcano, but to get there you must hike. Since it’s so high (over 17,000 feet) it’s hard to acclimate before vacation is already over.

DSC01005DSC01026DSC01153DSC01045DSC01200DSC01158DSC01118Obligatory jump shot.DSC01214DSC01057DSC01181DSC01102The next day we woke up bright and early (4 am) to drive over an hour to the Tatio Geysers. This is Chile’s version of Yellowstone. You want to get there early so that the air is cold and the steam is more visible, but by cold I mean like 25 degrees. I did not pack for 25 degrees so Joe and I shivered our way through the geysers until the sun came up. There was another hot spring here that I almost jumped into fully-clothed.

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On our way back we saw some cool ass llamas!

DSC01463DSC01481These 2 days could not have been any more dreamy, minus the freezing temperatures. Only 2 more sleeps in Atacama after this. More to come!

Geyser cooking tip: Our guides heated up chocolate milk IN the geysers to make hot chocolate. Best treat ever!