Loro Ciuffenna

After our long weekend in Amsterdam, we hopped on our flight to Italy and began that segment of the trip in the Loro Ciuffenna region.  Located about an hour south of Florence, Loro Ciuffenna is a nice Tuscany getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Our group rented out a giant villa via AirBnB near the small town of Arezzo, which is easily accessible by train from Florence.  The villa itself however requires a car, so if you want to stay there, renting one is a must.

Here’s the link to the villa we stayed in.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Loro Ciuffenna, which is perfect if you’re looking to just relax and enjoy the rolling hills and vineyards.  However, with your car you’re within driving distance of Siena, Florence and several other Italian cities that make for good day trips.

We spent only a few days in Loro Ciuffenna, and most of it consisted of getting good and drunk off of delicious Chianti wine.  Our group also hired a chef to come to the villa a couple times and cook us some Italian meals (they clean up too).  But here are some other highlights from Loro Ciuffenna before I get into the ins and outs of Florence in the next post.

Toscana Mia Cooking School
Località Poggio S. Polo, 2, 53013 Gaiole In Chianti SI, Italy

This was A LOT of fun.  I would highly recommend this cooking class, especially if you’re in a group and want to experience Italian cooking in a local’s home.  It’s a bit far outside of Florence, so you’ll really need to either be in the Loro Ciuffenna area or in Italy for a while and can afford to spend a whole day doing this activity.  The standard menu that they’ll teach consists of Bruschetta, Mushroom Tagliatelle, Tuscan Chicken, and Panna Cotta (and of course plenty of Chianti is provided throughout).  Though when booking the class you can request any particular Italian fare you want to learn how to make.

The family run cooking school isn’t as “individual” as I had hoped; I thought that each person would have a station and everyone would be able to make their own individual meals.  However, there was plenty of food to be made for the whole group, so everyone had ample opportunities to help cook each segment of the meal.  This class is great fun for any group, family, or couple looking to get a little messy and enjoy a fantastic meal that you can say you helped create.

 

Ristorante La Cantinella
Localita’ Montemarciano
70/G, 52028 Terranuova Bracciolini AR, Italy

This is one of the best meals I had the entire trip (if not the best).  Ristorante La Cantinella is a fantastic restaurant to go to if you end up staying in that villa.  I’ll be honest, the food was amazing, but not amazing enough to travel far to try, so if you’re staying in Florence, I’ll have recommendations in the city for you in a few posts.  But regardless, the meal was truly wonderful, and the ambiance was classy, but relaxing at the same time.  If you’re able to get a table on the patio, you can watch the sunset over the Tuscan hills.  And this place was very affordable – for the type of food we were getting, the price was probably half of what you would pay at a nice Italian restaurant in the States.   Even the good bottle of wine we had was only about 16 euros.  My recommendations: try the Pici with Duck Ragu and the Rabbit with Spinach.

Antica Macelleria Falorni
Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, 71, 50022 Greve FI, Italy

If you do go to the cooking school, stop by the nearby town of Greve.  Within the main piazza is Italy’s oldest butcher shop.  Packed with wall to wall meats, this place is every vegan’s nightmare, but certainly is a sight to see.  Be sure not to miss the cheese cellar downstairs as well.

Quick Hits: The Pantry

Like I said earlier, the food in Amsterdam isn’t exactly world famous cuisine.  They seem to have imported a lot from other countries; for example, there are a ton of hamburger places in Amsterdam.  That being said, we still wanted to find a place that had local cuisine.  Lonely Planet rarely misses, but in this one case they weren’t up to par.

For good local fare, I would not go with their recommendation of Bistro Bij ons, which is near the Anne Frank House.  I’ll just make a long story short, the service wasn’t good.  They weren’t mean or anything.  Just very, very inattentive.   They never took our food order, but when the bill came, they tried to charge us for food.  And it wasn’t like the place was packed.  It was me, my friend and a couple – that’s it.  The waitress was apologetic, but it’s not worth wasting your time going there.

Where should you go?  The Pantry.

The Pantry had fantastic service, a really cool eating in someone’s dining room feel, and good, hearty food for the chilly Amsterdam weather.  The place is small, so there’s a solid chance you’ll need to wait a little while.  We ordered some Bitterballen beef croquettes as an appetizer and we each ordered something off the “Traditional Dutch Dishes” menu as an entree.  I ordered the “combination” menu which consists of three different types of mashed potatoes (a carrot/onion/beef, a kale, and a sauerkraut) with either a meatball or a sausage.  It’s definitely worth trying.

 

Video: Amsterdam Nightlife

The Red Light District

No trip would be complete without at the very least a stroll through the Red Light District.  Before I begin, I’m going to say up front that I didn’t pay for any prostitutes.  Thought about it.  But didn’t.

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The Red Light District was relatively difficult to find at first because we weren’t totally clear on the “area” that all the guidebooks were telling us.  So when we arrived at a side street with only 4 or 5 windows, I was at first not all impressed and thinking to myself, “THIS is it?”  Then we turned the corner.

Up and down the canal were dozens and dozens of women in glowing red windows.  Interspersed with the actual prostitutes were several theaters showing weird sex shows.  The prices from what I understand are about 50 euros for 15 minutes, 100 euros for 30 minutes, and so on and so forth.  The price is however negotiated beforehand and varies based on the race, age, etc. of the prostitute.  Obviously taking pictures is a huge risk so I really couldn’t get that many photos in.

My biggest overall reactions/takeaways from the stroll through the Red Light District were this:

1) I was surprised at how clean it was.  Don’t get me wrong, plenty of dirty shit was going down on that street behind the curtains.  But in terms of walking around, I absolutely thought it was going to be like Bourbon Street in New Orleans — dirty, smell of vomit and beer, drunk people sloppily all over the place, lots of noise.   It was quite the opposite; it was clean, everyone was pretty reserved, and there was a general understanding of “don’t be that douche” atmosphere in the air.

2) The prostitutes were actually not that unattractive.  I’m not sure why I was picturing that they would all be relatively gross, but in general, these women were all pretty good looking.

Club Escape

For a more traditional night out, I would highly recommend Club Escape in Rembrandt Square.  Again, this was a suggestion from the bartenders at NJOY and it didn’t disappoint (though amusingly our first impression was one of “What the fuck?” because there was security guard putting a headlock on a clubber immediately as we walked through the metal detector).  The night we were there it was a 16 euro cover and the party really got going around 12:30 AM.

I’m not a huge clubbing guy, but this place makes it almost impossible not to have a good time.  The main electronic dance music hall (EDM) featured a phenomenally good female vocalist and saxophonist (be sure to scroll down to watch more video of those two) who performed center stage in the middle of the club.  It was awesome.  The music was a great mix of classic 90’s dance tunes, modern EDM, and a bit of 80’s hip hop thrown in.  There’s also a side, smaller room upstairs that’s dedicated purely to hip hop. (Note: depending on what’s on the line-up each particular evening these types of music are subject to change obviously).  And aside from the dude who got thrown out when we first came in, the crowd was the right amount of enthusiastic, but not out of control.  Club Escape’s a great place to go until the wee hours of the morning.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

It’s easy to say that I’ve had a pretty good year of traveling in 2015 and my final trip of the year started off with a weekend in Amsterdam and then a week in Tuscany/Florence.  Amsterdam has always been on my bucket list and this city offers far more than its deviant reputation of the Red Light District and legal marijuana.  It boasts several amazing museums, canals and bridges that arguably trump those in Venice, and a great nightlife.  And it is all very doable in a 3-4 day weekend.

Our trip didn’t start off too well however.  I won’t get too much into the details so I’ll truncate it a bit.  First off, don’t fly United Airlines internationally.   Just don’t.   Secondly, if you’re going to use AirBnB be aware of a few things.  1) Their help numbers didn’t work when I tried to reach them in an emergency.  2) If you book an apartment through AirBnB, be sure that the apartment you’re choosing has been thoroughly reviewed positively.   It should have at least 15 reviewers give it a thumbs up.  We rolled the dice on a place and let’s just say our first morning of Amsterdam constituted of an unguided walking tour of the city with our luggage.  (In the end, we got into the apartment we rented, but it was completely unprepared, dirty, and smelly and the apologetic owner claimed that she had cancelled her AirBnB account the week prior…)

After that unfortunate morning, we put aside our frustration because we were set to explore.  The first thing you’ll notice in the city is how big of a biking culture it is.  I’ve never seen so many people on bikes in my life.  Be sure to be careful on the sidewalk, because unlike in the US, the bike lanes are part of the sidewalk and not the street, so if you stroll into one, you will most likely get in the way of the cyclists.

Getting around the city center is easy by walking and almost all of the locals speak impeccable English.  With words like “flüggåәnkб€čhiœßølįên” (for you EuroTrip fans) you’d think getting around Amsterdam would be more challenging, but the Dutch are all very fluent in English (at least the ones we met) and it came close to feeling like we weren’t even in Europe at various points because of how comfortable we felt.

 

One other thing we were told is this, and you should know it going into your trip.  GET ALL TICKETS IN ADVANCE.  It’ll save you a ton of time waiting in line for the museums.  They offer package deals as well that include various combinations of canal rides and museums that I would highly recommend you take advantage of to save some money.  Also, apparently the locals don’t go out on the weekends because they don’t like dealing with tourists, so their “going out” nights are Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Here are a few of the things we did on the first day:

Heineken Experience

This is worth checking out, especially if you’re a beer drinker who’s done a few brewery tours in the U.S.  This is like a U.S. brewery tour on steroids.  No need to get an audio guide because the whole thing is in English.  The tour itself begins with a pretty standard history of Heineken, the beer making process, and then a tasting.  Then it gets a little wild.  First you go on a “Star Tours” like ride where you’re in a room that moves and sprays mist and stuff at you while a movie plays showing the beer making process as if you were in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.  Then you walk through an Epcot Center like multimedia chamber with all sorts of random games, light things, music, etc.  The end of the tour consists of a lounge area that looks like a nightclub where you can get two fresh, cold Heinekens as part of your ticket fee.  Be sure to check out the tables with the electronic table tops.  You’ll notice that wherever you set your beer, an electronic “coaster” pops up underneath it.

NJOY Cocktail Bar
Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 93
1017 PX Amsterdam, Netherlands

Be sure to grab a drink at NJOY.  We actually just chose this place randomly to get a quick drink before exploring for the evening and it paid off.  First off, the drinks were amazing.  Expensive, but amazing.  If you’re lucky enough to get the bartender we had, order an Envy (it’ll be a flaming cognac drink) or a “Rum Old Fashioned” which isn’t on the menu but a libation that our guy put together himself.  Secondly, the bar looked like it was owned by Prince.  Everything was in purple.  For the people in DC, imagine if Little Miss Whiskey’s on H Street was actually a classy place — that’s NJOY.  What really set the place apart though was the staff.  The staff were friendly and sociable enough, but what put them over the top was that they went out of their way to put together a full two page list of things we needed to see, do, where to eat, drink, etc.  And we utilized this list to a great degree throughout the trip and never came across anything on it that wasn’t a very good experience including where we went to dinner afterwards…

Castell BAR-becue Restaurant
Lijnbaansgracht 252-253-254
1017 RK Amsterdam, Netherlands

Which brings me to Castell.  In general, Danish food isn’t anything to write home about.  In fact, they love American hamburgers in Amsterdam so much, there was practically a burger joint on every block.  But this place Castell could arguably be the best meal of the trip (it was definitely my buddy’s favorite, though I reserve my favorite for a Tuscan place I’ll blog about later on).  The place was packed when we got in, so make a reservation.  We just happened to be lucky enough to grab two open seats at the bar.  Castell has a dive bar vibe, but at the same time hip, trendy and classy.  The bar area ended up being pretty awesome because it had really, really comfortable bar chairs, and the counter was cushioned on the end to put your elbows on comfortably.  The steaks, oh my god the steaks.  Perfectly done.  Can’t say anything else about it, just perfect.  Now admittedly, we were drunk when we ate here, but I’m fairly confident the food is amazing there no matter what condition you’re in.

Next up: I’ll get into what Amsterdam is notorious for — The Red Light District.

Parisian Cafes/Tearooms/Bakeries

Sorry I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks; been doing a lot of traveling for work since my trip to Europe and this is the first time in a while that I’ve gotten a chance to sit back and catch my breath a little.  So, continuing on with Paris.

I love croissants, they’re in my top five favorite foods.  And because I associated them so much with Paris, I imagined when we arrived that there would be bakeries left and right (a la Starbucks on every corner of NYC style).  Sadly, I was mistaken.  Although there were a few bakeries here and there, it wasn’t the look in every direction and see one type of situation.  It may be due to the fact that we were in a tourist area, but it was still a little disappointing nonetheless.

Regardless, that’s not to put down the places we did find.  I will always take quality over quantity and the few bakeries we did go to were really standout.   The first one I’ll mention is Paul.  Paul is Parisian chain, not as “chainy” as Au Bon Pain or Le Pain Quotidian, but you’ll find a few scattered throughout Europe and there are even a couple now in Washington, D.C. and Florida.   Paul is a solid place to grab a quick croissant, pastry, or coffee with little to no fuss.  The baked goods are far better than anything you’ll get at a ABP or LPQ, and having been to the Paris Paul and the D.C. Paul, I can say for a fact that the D.C. Paul has done a very good job of mimicking its founders.

For a more involved experience, there are two cafes (or tearooms) in Paris that are excellent.  They are Laduree and Angelina.  We’ll start with Laduree.  We didn’t do table service there because we were on our way to the Eiffel Tower, but we grabbed a bunch of pastries to go.  This place wins the award for the best croissant I’ve ever had – hands down.  I sampled a butter, chocolate and apple croissant, and the apple croissant was out of this world.  The other two were extremely good as well, perfectly flaky with those big, crispy flakes, not the messy little ones.  We also tried a few of their delicious macaroons and fruit tarts.  But the apple croissant was the perfect blend of croissant butteriness and chunky-sweet apple.  There are a few Laduree locations in Paris, one in Versaille, and one at the airport.

Our favorite cafe however was Angelina.  We loved it so much we actually went there twice, once for breakfast and once for lunch.  Keep in mind that the line to get in can get long around brunch time, so plan accordingly.   The brunch lasts until 11:30 and the service is slow, but helpful/friendly once they do get around to you.  The cafe is pricey, so be prepared to dish out the Euros for the experience.  If you don’t want to sit, there’s a bakery in the front lobby where you get buy items to go (much like at Laduree).  The snack/lunch menu consists of salads, cheeses, sandwiches, and quiches and the breakfast menu consists of a variety of different egg, fruit, pastry combinations.  And of course you can order any of the decadent sweet pastries (including their famous Mont Blanc) at anytime you want.

The two highlights of Angelina are the Croque Madame and the Angelina Hot Chocolate.  I never had a Croque Madame or Monsieur before I going to Angelina, but I had a few in Paris afterwards and Angelina’s was still the best.   Sure, it’s a glorified grilled cheese, but the French know how to turn a simple dish into deluxe cuisine.  The one other item on the menu you HAVE to try is the Angelina Hot Chocolate.  This was by far, the richest, creamiest, thickest hot chocolate I have ever tasted.  It was like drinking sweet chocolate cream.  You should also know that if you drink an entire pot of this stuff, you will be more than full, so be prepared.

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The Eiffel Tower Experience

The Eiffel Tower is open every single day of the year

  • from 9 a.m. to midnight from 17 June to 28 August,
  • from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the rest of the year,
  • At Easter weekend and during the Spring holidays : extended opening hours to midnight.

Obviously when one goes to Paris for the first time, a visit to the Eiffel Tower is a must-do activity.  You can’t not go and see it.  It’d be like going to New York City for the first time and not going to the Empire State Building.  Of course because it was holiday week when we were there, pretty much everyone in the world was thinking the same thing.  The base of the Eiffel Tower was packed with hundreds of people and the lines were long, like Disney World’s Space Mountain long.

Here’s a tip for any monument or museum visits in Paris (including the Eiffel Tower): Get tickets in advance online.  You’ll save yourself a ton of time and from a ton of hassle.   The first thing we had to figure out was which of the winding lines to stand in (and also try to find the end of each one).  It was like navigating through serpents of people.  Once we got into a line, we asked the people around us if we were in the right line.  If they spoke English – which was like a one in three chance – most of the time they shrugged and were clearly just as lost as we were.  At the same time other people were asking us the same question in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese – you name it.  And each time, we gave the same answer we were given – we just shrugged and said we didn’t know for sure.  It was kind of a hilarious scene – all these different races coming together in confusion despite the language barrier, and all sort of politely making the best of the scenario standing in mysterious lines that led to who knows where.

My sister was our recon soldier and when she came back to the line she let us know we had waited half an hour in the wrong one (figures right?).  Turns out there were four total lines – two go to the elevator that takes you to the 2nd floor (not the top) and two that let you walk to the 2nd floor.  So once we made our way over to the new line, we waited about an hour and a half.  If you’re going to visit the Eiffel Tower during the cold season – dress warmly.  It was very cold, and very windy.  Also, make sure to bring some reading material, Ipod, and a snack (croissant was my snack of choice) because you’ll probably want to do something to make the time standing out there go by a little faster.  

Once we got to the front, there was a sign that said, “Due to congestion we will not sell lift tickets to the top, only to the second floor.”  A few curses were tossed around by everyone in line, but at that point because we made it to the front we figured we may as well go up to at least the midsection of the Eiffel Tower.  The price for the lift ride to the 2nd floor is 8 Euros, the price for the ride to the top is 13 Euros (the price to walk to the 2nd floor is 4 Euros – you can’t walk all the way to the top).

The midsection of the Eiffel Tower is actually quite large and includes a cafe, bathrooms, gift shop, and the lift to the very shi-shi Le Jules Verne restaurant (we tried to get reservations, but the place gets booked months in advance).  We learned that we would be able to buy tickets to the top from the 2nd floor (for the additional 5 Euros) once the top cleared out a bit.  So we waited on the 2nd floor for another hour or so with some hot chocolate and snacks we bought at the cafe.  We waited in another line for about half an hour to get the tickets to the top and then an additional half hour for the elevator to the top.

Now if you’re queasy about heights, I should warn you.  The ride in the glass elevator to the top is a little unsettling.  I’m not that bothered by heights (see previous post about Skydiving), but even this ride is unnerving.  You can view some videos of the ride up and down on the Here and There Facebook page.  Once you get through the ride and to the top, the view is magnificent.   The 2nd floor view is good, but the extra height at the top really makes the birds-eye view of Paris spectacular.  There’s an outside patio that you can walk around on and a champagne bar for the romantic couples (or just tourists who are celebrating actually finally making it to the top).  But it is quite windy, and you should be prepared for the fact that if you’re unlucky, the visibility can be bad depending on weather conditions (we met some poor guy who had been up there the previous day and said he couldn’t see a thing).

Finally, if you’re able to get to the Eiffel Tower at night make sure to check it out at the top of the hour.  For six minutes the tower shimmers in magnificent fashion.  We didn’t know this until we took a night time bus tour that happened to go by the tower during this time (hence the not so great pictures of it from the bus below), so don’t miss a chance to see it.

So in summary, make sure to allot plenty of time in your day when you see the Eiffel Tower, especially if you don’t get tickets in advance (there really was like no line for people who had bought tickets in advance.  It’s amazing how many people around the world didn’t think to do that beforehand).  But it is worth the wait to say that you’ve been to the top of one of the most recognizable monuments in the world.

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Franklin & Marshall in Europe

During a dinner in Paris, we noticed a kid ride by on his skateboard wearing a Franklin & Marshall College sweatshirt and baseball cap.  He definitely stood out as super American in the Parisian streets and was doing what all the guidebooks told men not to do – dress like that.  A few hours later I noticed another kid with a Franklin & Marshall shirt.  My thought was “Wow, Franklin & Marshall’s got a pretty good study abroad contingent here.”

Then throughout the trip I saw multiple F&M students and then in London saw even more of them.  I literally was thinking “Man, for a small school they are just taking over Europe!” the entire time.  It wasn’t until I walked through London’s Nordstrom-style department store Selfridges that I noticed next to Calvin Klein, Polo, and all the high end clothing lines a Franklin & Marshall section.

Apparently, some Italian kids a few years ago started a clothing line using a used Franklin & Marshall College t-shirt they found in a second hand store in London.  The “American College Style” look is apparently hip and you can buy a Franklin & Marshall t-shirt for 50 Euros (that translates to about $64).   Why those kids just don’t buy a Franklin & Marshall shirt from the school website for half the cost is beyond me.  The funny part is according to the site, the actual college didn’t know this was going on for a few years and were just as confused as to why there were so many F&M kids in Europe.  They eventually licensed their name to the clothing company.

So if you’re curious as to why there are so many Franklin & Marshall youths in Europe – they’re probably not from Lancaster, PA.