The Hillside Town of Sicily, Taormina

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After a 50-minute drive from the Catania airport, we arrived in Taormina and checked in at the San Domenico Palace Hotel. Salvatore and Patrizia were waiting for us there. The hotel itself is an old one, an elegant one for sure. Movie stars and royalty have all been to this hotel. It started as a monastery.
As soon as we got settled in, we walked to the main street of Taormina, Corso Umberto 1. With some local antipasti, we had a couple of glasses of Nobilvini Lambrusco Deli Emila as apertivo at Ferrara, located close to the Duomo along Corso Umberto. It was a rainy evening, quite unusual for Sicily. Salvatore noted that it hadn’t rained since May of this year. It must have taken quite an effort for Patrizia because she was suffering from bad case of colds. She, however, braved the bad evening weather.
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Ferrera was a random place we chose as it was closest to the time we were being pelted with rain from the heavens. One particular local delicacy was called aranchina. What we had was the small version. Salvatore promised a real aranchina the following day.Photo 6
Walking the streets of Taormina was not too pleasant as it was drizzling and with Patrizia running a cold we did not feel too comfortable. However, she was such a delightful company that we tended to, selfishly, overlook her coughing and enjoyed her company and the unfolding sight of a well lighted Taormina town.
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The Duomo, a small one by Italian standards, is located at the center of the town. Despite its size, it still gives an imposing and beautiful presence in the piazza. Taormina is a very small town but since the 17th century has been catering to tourists from all over and from all walks of life.
Mandarins of Sicily or oranges for the rest of us is a primary fruit in the island. It is turned to limoncello and all other delicacies from marmalade to gellato. Salvatore was not sure whether this was indigenous to Sicily or was brought by past traders from China. Considering the number of invaders Sicily has had, this observation will not be farfetched.
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We had dinner in the Silke Sicilian Bistro along Corso Umberto 1. The restaurant was nothing fancy, but the staff was very friendly. This was where we discovered that portions of food served are enormous. We had various local antipastis again and then a lot of very fresh seafood. I thought Croatia was the king of seafood. Now I know it is Sicily.
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For the wine, we , of course, ordered a bottle of Sicilian red – Sicilia Maria Costanza 2014. It was perfect with the Sicilian dishes we had. While the food was not “gourmet” level, it was authentically local according to Salvatore. The meal was capped with the obligatory grappa.
The rain had stopped by the time we finished dinner. And so, we had an enjoyable walk back to our hotel.
Beautiful bougainvillas of Taormina were everywhere adding to the beauty of the evening walk. Other than this flower, Sicily also has flowers similar to the Philippines like the gumamela. Other than the cool weather, it did feel like home.
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The San Domenico Palace Hotel is a beautiful hotel. Centuries old, it is a historical one with wide hallways and cavernous halls. The bar offers a daily afternoon of great classical and contemporary piano music.
Tomorrow promised to be a great day.

CROATIAN RESTAURANTS: CUISINE AND WINES (PART 1)

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Seafood. That pretty much sums up what Croatia cuisine is for me.
Well, I think they have meats and exotic dishes like rats, wild boar, and other game, but we never experienced them, and even if it were available, I limit myself to seafood. So, seafood it is.

Let’s start with their cheese. The most famous of Croatia’s cheese is called “Pag” cheese as it comes from the island of Pag. In Croatian, it is called “Paški sir.” It comes from sheep, and it is somewhat hard but perfect to start or end one’s meal. The cheese comes from a specific breed of sheep called Paska Ovka found mostly on the island of Pag. The interesting thing about Croatian cheese is that animal rennet is not allowed in the cheese making in the country. Only microbial rennet is allowed, thereby making Paški sir technical a vegetarian cheese.

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As the main courses are seafood, the appropriate wine was naturally white. We had the Malvasjia variety most of the time, but occasionally we had the Grašvinja as well. Both wines are dry and fresh and perfect companions to the sweet, fresh grilled delights from the sea.

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Foremost among the seafood favorites is the sea bass. Although sea bass is now farmed in Croatia, sometimes you can get lucky with one that is fished from the sea. We were lucky to have this in Slovenia in a restaurant called Wine Bar and Restaurant Sova. Located along the shores of the Lake Bled, it is an excellent place to have a quiet meal with best Slovenian and Croatian wines of the region. The owners are hospitable and very helpful. Although we got in a bit late, as soon as a table with the lake view became vacant, they came over and offered to transfer us to this table with a scenic view.

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A word of warning though regarding terms like “for one” or “for two” in menus in restaurants. For the Asian stomach, always multiply these numbers by two. This is true for most of Europe, I guess. Second, if the restaurant has an English menu or, worse a multi-lingual one (with flags to boot), you can be sure the restaurant is frequented by tourists. The implication, of course, is that the price are likely to be higher than it should be. Take that as a given and just order what you want and forget about converting to your own currencies.

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In this regard, I have always wondered whether finding a good local authentic restaurant where locals go is like chasing rainbows. The more a place gets noticed in various fora, the more tourists go, the higher the prices go, and the more locals stay away from these restaurants. In the end, there is only the restaurant that has excellent cuisine and excellent service where only tourists go. What a conundrum!

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We went to a restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While it is not Croatia, allow me some leeway. The restaurant is called “Luda.” They have two set menus: a 5-course menu for €34 and 3-course one for €22. Excellent execution, this is a gem just off the tourist area of Ljubljana.

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The wines of Croatia are certainly world class. I do not want to describe the different varieties found here but what has been established is that the Zinfandel grapes of California originated here. According to Wikipedia, “DNA analysis has revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag, as well as to the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in Apulia (the “heel” of Italy), where it was introduced in the 18th century.[2] The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century, where it became known by variations of the name ‘Zinfandel,’ a name which is probably of Austrian origin.”

My favorite was Malvasjia. Fresh and cool and dry, Malvasjia is perfect with the Croatian seafood cuisine. I enjoyed it most with the fresh mussels and oysters we had in Mali Ston. Out in a floating platform, our host pulled out the oysters from the sea, opened it, and with just a dash of lemon, slurped it up and concluded with a sip of Malvasjia wine. Everything just fresh!

One of the places we visited was Restaurant Beom in Portoroz, Slovenia (Belokrishka cesta 68, Portoroz 6320 Slovenia). As we were traveling from Slovenia on our way to Rovinj, We had lunch along the way, at this restaurant owned by a couple who are friends with Jerry, our guide.

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The restaurant has an unassuming facade. When Jerry’s friends, Nena and Marita started whipping their dishes, it felt like we were in a Michelin restaurant. The couple had an excellent local pasta which I remembered was just called “Istrian” pasta. The family had sea bass, John Dory, calamari and mussels. All these wonderful seafood were partaken with a Batic Malvasjia 2016. Truly refreshing lunch. And to cap the lunch, Marita went out of her way to get the famous cream cake done by a local baker. Zizola, a digestif, made sure our lunch was complete!

One of the highlights in our culinary agenda was the dinner at Monte, probably the only One-Star Michelin restaurant in Croatia. The experience we had there was almost like being in a theater. The movements of the staff were flawless, precise and the dishes were presented creatively. As we weren’t hungry when we went to the restaurant, we didn’t do the 5 or 7-course menu. I started with the risotto with shrimps. The shrimp was so fresh; it literally melted in my mouth. For my main dish, I had the monkfish in olive oil. With the local cava to accompany our meal, it was just heavenly.

Monte is located on Montalbano 75, Rovinj.

The restaurant I loved most in Rovinj though was Snack Bar Rio. Located along Obala Alda Rismonda – Riva Aldo Rismondo 13 in Rovinj. This is a long time favorite even of locals. Service here is very friendly, and one feels at home almost immediately. Seafood is king here. I had their tuna steak while my two sons swear by their mussels. My wife had seafood kebab which, according to her was the best she has ever had and the most creative way of cooking seafood.

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For the wine, the restaurant has a special relationship with a local vineyard/winery. We had their Malvasjia Rio Puntulina, which was excellent when paired with the seafood.

Because Rovinj is a tourist destination, one will never be short of choices for restaurants. Really, the question as I have asked earlier is how do you find one that gives you value for your money. And that value comes in three ways: the food, of course, then the service, and then the cost of these two wrapped around the ambiance. The ambiance for me becomes only important when experienced with the food and the service.

At this point, we were just halfway through our trip. So I still have quite a number of restaurants to talk about. On one hand, while this trip was very taxing, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips to the restaurants, the tasting of the wines, and the company of the people you love in this world.

Until next time…

Split: An Awakening of a Nation

GAADtravel2Jesenka Blandford, a local, was our guide yesterday. She gave us a tour of the Diocletian Palace and a quick history of Europe, narrating the development of the palace from its construction up to today.

A central figure in all these was the Bishop of Nin, Grigur Ninsky where he was persistent in insisting the use of the Croatian language for mass to the consternation of Rome. He was also responsible for burning the faith into the heart and soul of the Croatians who, in later years, stood up to fight the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire to protect the Catholic faith.

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As a result, the Turks were stopped at the Mosor mountains, just above Split and the other cities in Croatia. Of course, it was also to the interest of the Austrians and Italians that the Moors were stopped as far as possible from Europe. The Croatians got the support from all these countries. All historians, however, seem to agree that the spread of the Ottoman Empire was stopped effectively with the Battle of Sisak in 1593.

With this as a background, I then realized how brave the Croats were then, and how passionate they were in their faith. So it was not surprising then that the Croats fought fiercely in the Croatian War for Independence in the 1990s. Although I am sure this was not their obvious intention, this historical perspective thrown in by Jesenka exemplified a nation who put God above country, and country above self.

Certainly, this was an awakening for me.

I spoke with some locals during my trip. And they said that all that history and the character that helped build Croatia seem to be slipping away. Modernity and politics are to be blamed according to my Croatian friends.

“Primitive” is how our guide in Dubrovnik describes the character of the politicians. With the monthly minimum wage at €500 and taxation at 40%, life in Croatia today is difficult. Our guide said it’s a country to visit, but not to live in. Close to 17,000 Croatians leave every month.

With birth rates precipitously falling, the family is no longer a refuge to support the social security system. At €200 monthly pension, this is hardly a life for old people. And with modernity undermining the family, the social fabric that should be supporting retired people is no longer there. Modernity, and by extension, the rise of relativism of morality have contributed to this breakdown.

People are not optimistic that this trend will reverse in the near future. Tourism is probably the only industry left to the Croatians. Almost everything else has been sold to foreigners, including agricultural land.

This new awakening of the nation should jolt people to action and call for political reforms. Being a Roman Catholic country, there is a chance that together with Church, reforms can be pushed with the government and civil society.

Just like in my country, however, people have grown tired of calling for reforms and have instead decided to leave the country. This summer, one Croatian may be coming to our shores to see if he can try out his luck. A musician and an artist, he might have just had his chance at retiring with more than €200 per month for the rest of his life.

It seems we have a chance in our country to at least attempt to reverse this troubling trend. Let’s not waste this opportunity. This awakening is really for our beloved Philippines.

RESTAURANT REVIEWS: MACTAN, CEBU

I have been reviewing restaurants for a number of years now. TripAdvisor ranks me high among their contributors. I use a pseudonym in TripAdvisor although I believe this is not really necessary when I travel abroad. However when I am in the country, it helps to be anonymous when I write about restaurants and hotels. Just recently I was in Cebu and I have these to say about a number of restaurants I visited.

The Cowrie Cove at Mactan Shangri La

Their happy hour is “buy one take one.” And it’s from 5-7 PM. After that they have DJ music.As a Shangrila outlet the bar pulls no stops to offer the best only a Shangrila can offer. So you can order almost anything you want. The appetizers are a bit limiting though. And at P500, their “kinilaw” is a bit too high considering the serving is very small.But with beautiful people around, a nice night view of the shoreline and especially on a moonlit night, allow yourself to chill a bit in this piece of expensive heaven.

The Oriental Spice Gourmet

First, Mary Ann, the wife of the Chef-owner Cyril looks after what you want and need. We were going to be a group of 30 and she went through the menu with us, the host. We discussed the variety as well as the number of dishes as well as how much spice to put in the dishes. Her advise and suggestion was perfect. There was hardly any food left. And we enjoyed the meal at a cost that was one of the most reasonable I had ever paid.

The dishes served were excellent. It was, of course, less spicy than what it would have been, but still the dishes were really good. Topping among the dishes were we was the fish sambal. Make sure you make this as a priority to order. Second is the nasi goreng, or fried rice. This ensures that anyone on a diet will breaking his/her diet. My suggestion to them will be to stick to the authentic taste and “spiciness” of the dishes. My mistake was to ask them to hold back on this “spiciness.” So the curry lacked the kick I was looking for.

The restaurant has no wines. I didn’t ask but maybe one can bring some rieslings to match the Asian dishes. This was the only missing ingredient in what is probably one of the best Asian food restaurant in the country.

If you come to Cebu, go straight to this restaurant as soon as you land, or before you leave. This is a, definitely, a must-visit restaurant in Cebu.

These are only two of the many places I went to in Cebu the last two weeks. More of my reviews to come.

In the meantime, here’s a good read on innovations in restaurants:

Innovation in Restaurant Design

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here…I hope I will have more time to dabble in more interesting things in life.

TRAVEL APPS 2016 IDEAS FOR TRAVELLERS

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Having just come from a long break, I would like to share with you the different apps I used during our trip in Tanzania and Cape Town. My hardware consists of an Iphone 6S+ with 9.3.2 iOS version. I also had with me, which I left in my room, my Macbook Pro to which I uploaded my photos and videos daily. And finally, I had a battery bank charger and a car phone charger to make sure I never ran out of juice during the trip. So here are my apps:

1. Day One [http://dayoneapp.com]

Day One is journal app that allows you to write down your thoughts and upload the photos you have taken while on the road. Its GPS is based on Foursquare locations so you generally can capture the name of the place you’ve just been from the dropdown menu. Because it is GPS-based, one can relate the thoughts you’ve written down to the place where you’ve been.

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Location is just one. Day One also takes note of the weather, as well as any tag you have created and assigned to the event or photo. Then from the journaled entries, you can share the entry to any of the social media or simply email your entry to friends and family. The new version 2.0 allows one, among others, to create different journals for your different activities.

I don’t really write journals on a regular basis. Travel does give me a chance to do so. And Day One is a great app to have.

2. TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com/apps)

I contribute regularly to TripAdvisor. So it was not a surprise for me to use the app of TripAdvisor to look for interesting restaurants and even to get directions. What is handy in this app is the Travel Timeline. Here, for as long as you are connected to the internet, the app captures the pictures taken as well as the names of your location. Very likely you take pictures of the restaurants you are in; so the app suggests the name of the restaurant. Then if you want to upload a picture or review the restaurant (or the site), then the app checks you in into the restaurant.

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3. Motion-X GPS (gps.motionx.com)

This is a great app to record the tracks to the places where you have been. It records not only the track, but also the waypoints of your trip. You can always name and even place a photo of your waypoints. This is good to trace back your route of your travel. I used this, for example, in tracking our sunset cruise, our wine tour, and our trip to the Cape of Good Hope. I missed tracking our safari tracks because it took quite a while for me to download the app.

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The app tells you the speed, elevation, elapsed time, and even your heart rate if you have a heart monitor paired with your smartphone. You can share your track “live” by having the app email your position to friends and family in case you just want to let them know where you are.

4. Waze (www.waze.com)

Waze is known to many and can indeed very useful. It’s not useful though in a safari where traffic is not an issue. And where known tracks or roads have not yet been populated by Waze users. It is, however, very useful for travelling in urban centers and in estimating distances and travel times.

5. FlightTrack/FlightBoard (www.mobiata.com/apps/flighttrack)

To get information on your flight, generally airports have their own apps and the information board is as accurate as you need it to be. However if you are like me who wants to have information on the palm of your hand, then FlightTrack is for you. There is a free version and there’s a paid app.

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FlightTrack allows you to search for flights according to routes, flight numbers, or by airline. It tells you whether an incoming or outgoing flight is on time or delayed. The downside here is that for minor airports, this information is generally not available.

Of course the other regular apps that I use FaceBook, LinkedIn, and other “built-in” apps of the iPhone. And the best feature of the iPhone 6S+ for me is the camera with the metadata that comes with the photo. I cannot complain about the quality of the photos taken, They are stunningly clear.

The Cape of Good Hope

I will have more on apps in another post. Before I go, one more thing – I am always connected to the the internet. I use Globe’s roaming service which, at P599/day is not cheap. However, because of the value of getting directions, posting photos immediately to FaceBook, or immediately exchanging posts with friends and family, I deem the cost reasonable.

Yet again, we did not have this 20 years ago…

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SUNSET ON A DHOW

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Watching sunsets is one of our family’s favorite past time…sunrise too, but that’s a bit difficult to do for the kids. To watch the sunset is a family tradition that requires planning for creativity. It requires that people are relaxed with a nice cold bottle of beer, or a glass of white wine to accompany that marvel of seeing the sun set before our eyes.

In Zanzibar, we decided to put this activity one notch higher. Not only did we get to watch the sunset cruising on a traditional sailing vessel called the “dhow” in Zanzibar, we even had two musicians play traditional music while we were cruising!

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The sunset we had was indeed stunning. We watched the sun as it was slowly sinking in the horizon into the Indian Ocean as the waves lapped up the side of our boat as if accompanying the drum of our musicians.

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Of course we had the white wine and the beer, but the camaraderie we had with the boatmen and the musicians was just amazing. They played a number of tunes most of which are local Zanzibar pieces. “Ya Laiti” is a favorite piece of music in Zanzibar which we learned in that cruise.

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In the end it kept me thinking that either these tours were well planned and praticed, or the people here are just natural entertainers. I didn’t ask as I thought it will spoil the spontaneity and the enthusiastic vibes we were getting that lovely twilight in Zanzibar.

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