Italian Ice … And we are not talking diamonds or desserts

blUrbino: Culture and Lifestyle Features From the Heart of Europe

IMG_0599The rolling Italian countryside surrounding the medieval walls of Urbino and the historic streets just inside the red-brown brick perimeter, are blanketed in white from fresh fallen snow. The pristine environment conjures images of innocence in one’s mind. Depending on who you are the winter wonderland could be the rebirth of a world made new by its sparkling winter cloak or a reminder of childhood fun, making snow angels and catching snowflakes on your tongue. As you dream of times gone by, hidden under the soft powder a sinister predator lurks silently. Just waiting for that one misstep by its next unsuspecting victim.  Fate chooses you to be the longed for prey. Your feet find the hidden trap of a glass like surface that doesn’t play nice with the sole of your shoes. Your foot suddenly slips forward becoming airborne.  You find yourself suddenly falling towards the earth with the…

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The Spirit of Caffe

blUrbino: Culture and Lifestyle Features From the Heart of Europe


Coffee or Caffé as the Italians say has played a large and important role in building relationships and keeping the world moving throughout the ages. Depending on which legend you believe coffee originated in either Ethiopia after a goat herder discovered it or Yemen when a Sheik banished one of his followers who survived on mocha beans. When the exiled man brought his newly discovered warm drink to the sheik as a peace-offering the sheik welcomed him back into the fold and canonized him. Whether it was a goat herder or an excommunicated disciple who discovered the beverage, whoever discovered coffee is more than worthy of sainthood in my book. I would say a novena to them every morning while anxiously awaiting that first sip of a freshly made cappuccino at breakfast.

Both tales state coffee as we know it was given birth in the 13th century then migrated northward…

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The Fun of Flying –

We all know flying has its headaches in addition to the thrills that a new adventure presents the second we clear security. I will try and share a balanced perspective on both as I do love to travel. Please allow me to clarify how much I love to travel as few like to as I do. If anyone says “How about a road trip?” I am the first one at the door with bags packed shouting “Let’s go!” (Without even bothering to ask where too?) I’ll go anywhere at least once. The only two places I absolutely would say hell no to for a vacation are Milton, Florida or BFE Kansas, (unless I am visiting my Nana in Kansas then I am all in). Since spending time in Italy, you may hear me cry Andiamo! (We go) instead.  Domestic flights are also not near as fun as international ones in my opinion.  The one exception to that is EU travel within the continent of Europe.  I will write more about that in a minute.  I do need to put a disclaimer out there that this blog will contain my opinion of a few airlines based on my personal experiences.  Research whatever carrier you wish to fly versus just taking my word for it. 🙂 I am also going to talk about well-known commercial carriers.

I have been fortunate enough to travel via private jet thanks to a fantastic former employer.  It ruins you for commercial travel with the personal attention, lack of crowds, comfortable leather seats, and no long lines to get through.  If you are ever offered the chance to travel on a private jet take it!  You won’t regret it and will never forget the experience, especially if you have a great flight crew. I hope to be able to jet set in this fashion again in the future.  For now, I travel in the same manner as other poor writers and college students by finding the best bang for my buck.  Please be aware of the fact that I choose airlines based on both price and service as you read. I believe you get what you pay for so cheaper is not always better and vice versa – the most expensive ticket doesn’t guarantee an experience you want to repeat.

For US domestic flights hands down Southwest is the best deal and best service going.  They are always my first choice for domestic travel.  Plus they are fun! No other aircrew will joke with you and sing to you when you land in places like Anaheim (Disneyland) or Orlando (Disney World). Currently no checked bag fees with them either unless you are traveling with something unique.  Those fees are also very reasonable compared to other carriers.  I was surprised at how cheaply my fencing bag flew to Anaheim this past summer. A double-sided fully stuffed fencing bag is the size of a golf bag for those of you that are curious about how big a fencing bag is.

For International travel I love Delta. Their fares can be a bit more than their US competitors. The flights do a great job of being on time. Their service has been best in class so far. The meals are pretty good and depending what class you fly you can imbibe some great drink selections for free. On my way to Italy, I sipped on a pretty good red wine while watching movies. For those of you wondering I flew economy plus on that flight. I can’t say enough good things about them.  Hopefully this never changes.

United has some great features and rates but beware of the lack of service, especially out of Dulles.  Never experienced problems like I did with United out of this airport anywhere in the world or with any other carrier. The company is also non responsive to member complaints from many of the reviews and horror stories out there. The management team and Dulles repeated that theme when we escalated in the airport so any chance I get to blast them I take it. If they ever own their service failures and offer my mother and me an apology I may reconsider my position, but I won’t hold my breath on that. I do have to acknowledge the International pilots and flight crews as they were outstanding once we made it onto the International leg of our flight.  It’s a shame that level of service isn’t practiced stateside or with their ground crews.  I have a cousin who is a pilot on their International team and I would love to support his company but can’t bring myself to be tortured by them again. For now I avoid United like the plague unless I have to fly them.

Alright, now for the fun part of this story.  Traveling in Europe.  The European traveler has a vast array of airlines to travel with.  While I am not going to say travel is cheaper than in the US, as that can mislead you, you can travel within Europe at great prices compared to US domestic prices as long as you book in advance and around any big holiday travel weekends.  Be forewarned, Easter is one of those in Europe, which surprised me.

Hands down Easy Jet is my favorite discount carrier.  They have fantastic customer service, great prices and some of the best on time ratings.  Their aircraft are newer and clean.  They do have international crews so I am always curious to hear the crews’ accents and learn where they are from.  It’s a classic box of chocolates travel experience from my perspective.  You never know what flavor you will get and the good service is consistent among flights.

They are a British airline and everyone who knows me will tell you I adore English accents.  I absolutely love the voice of the guy who does the prerecorded safety briefing! Nothing drives me wild like a masculine, deep voice tinged with a South England accent. (As a side note I am also a big fan of a creole accent, but back to the Brits and the safety briefing.) This rich baritone voice comes over the loud speakers capturing my attention every flight.  I love how he clearly articulates every word and almost slips into a hushed bedroom voice from time to time. You will know what I am talking about around when he is describing how the masks will drop from the ceiling and how to secure them. The first time I heard it I almost needed an oxygen mask just to hear the rest of the safety spiel.  You can’t help but smile at the brace, brace command or the elongated eelluhmehnayte (illuminate). I am dying to know what he looks like in real life. Probably nothing like the fantasy guy in my imagination.

Ryan Air is usually the carrier of choice for US back-packers and college students.  I will fly them but they are not my carrier of choice.  They are Nazis about bag size and weight.  Their service is nowhere near as good as Easy Jet and they drive me nuts with all the crap they try to sell you when you buy your tickets or on the flight.  Their check in and boarding process is like a free for all.  If you want to travel cheap and don’t care about service or inflight solicitation this is the airline for you. I chuckled on my last Easy Jet flight out of Milan as several passengers described Ryan Air as cattivo and crudelle when we passed their gates.  Cattivo is the Italian word for naughty/bad and crudelle is cruel. I can second cattivo but my experience was not so terrible to warrant crudelle.

Hope the above is helpful and entertaining for my fellow travelers out there.  I also wish you fair winds and following seas in all of your journeys wherever they may take you.

The Romance of Train Travel Across Europe

There is somethIMG_1837ing romantic about riding a train across the Italian countryside.  I love train travel in Europe.  Some of my favorite images of England were the trees, ponds, country homes, flowered walls, gardens and ancient cottages/flats on the train ride from Stratford to Windsor. Train travel is so much easier than flying. No security checks, reasonable lines, friendly faces of conductors who are happy to help you even if you butcher their native tongue when asking which track your train is on. No extra bag charges, no weight limits as you pack whatever you can lift.

I love watching the countryside with its lush green fields, little yellow stucco farm houses with red-brown tile roofs and sleeping vineyards as we are on the cusp of spring waking the vines. When you ride south you run into business travelers, tourist and southern Italians with warm personalities. Go North towards Milan and you can see the fashion capitol’s influence over the country as clothes change from average Joe to men in well cut business suits or designer jeans.  The women dress in tights, sweater dresses, boots or stilettos with big sunglasses and beautiful London fog style trench coats.

Snow on the way to Urbino from Milan

Snow on the way to Urbino from Milan

The soft clack of the wheels hums a soothing lullaby that summons daydreams or a nap.  You put in your earphones, play your favorite music and you’re off to a world uniquely your own.  Sometimes I think about the beauty of whatever place I am in. Other times my mind wanders to times gone by or sharing the train ride with a special someone who appreciates it as much as I do.  Even though my special someone is not ever sitting beside me on my journeys. At least not yet. Perhaps one day.

The longer rides allow for good conversations with friends or when I feel brave a chance to practice what little Italian I have learned so far with a fellow passenger.  That is one thing I love about the Italians.  Many of them are more than happy to help you learn what is in my opinion the most beautiful language in the world.  Though Arabic is a close second.  I am also going to offend the French as I believe Italian is the true language of amore. The only thing that comes close to making my heart race at the thought of a honey dipped, inviting masculine voice tinged with its own unique diction whispering in my ear is a British accent or the easy lilt of the Cajun/Creole tongue. Anyways, I digress. Back to the trains.

If you ever travel by train you definitely have to experience the dinning/snack car at least once.  There is a strange joy that comes from wandering through the cars to reach it.  The cappuccino, snack or whatever you choose to seek out in the car is a satisfying reward for braving the journey through narrow aisles and bumping into fellow passengers as the train rocks around curves.  You can sip your beverage in the car while chatting with the bartender. I guess that’s what we can call him or watch the scenery from a large rectangle window.  I have yet to run into a female server in the dining car in Italy.  I wonder why that is as there are many women conductors? A new subject to explore another day.