Category Archives: European Travel

Practical advice for visiting Iceland

Reykjavik from the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja Church with the statue of Leif Eiriksson below
Reykjavik from the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja Church with the statue of Leif Eiriksson below

My daughter, Ashley and I visited Iceland at the end of February this year. We absolutely loved the beauty of this diverse country and the friendliness of the people. It was a wonderful couple of weeks spending quality time together, experiencing new adventures and meeting some amazing new friends.

I’ve been wanting to share some of our experiences here as well as some practical advice. There are two places that we have been recently that everyone seem to us ask about. Cuba and Iceland.

I’ve been so busy with work and other travels that I’ve kept putting it off writing these posts. Being asked three times in a 24 hour period. Then hearing that Rick Steves was planning on publishing a guide book on Iceland this fall and his star researcher, Cameron Hewitt need travelers advice, pushed me to finally get these posts done! After all, the Rick Steves guide books have been extremely helpful all these years in planning trips to Europe. It is my chance to finally give back.

First things first
The flights to Iceland are cheap, but the costs while you are there are not. Don’t let that discourage you from going though. Iceland is an amazing country.

I wanted to experience the Northern Lights, so I chose to go during the winter months. I booked our trip for the end of February and beginning of March thinking that it wouldn’t be as cold as say December or January. The joke was on me though. We arrived in a frigid snow storm that ended up being the largest snowfall in the last 60 years in Reykjavik! Lesson learned. You can’t predict the weather! Oh… And take plenty of layers of warm clothing and snow boots. Layering is the key no matter what time of year you decide to go.

We took the bus into Reykjavik to our hotel. I booked online. The bus is the cheapest option for traveling to/from the airport, the Blue Lagoon and the airport. The only difficult part is the bus always goes to the terminal in Reykjavik before you grab a van to/from your hotel. I booked a private transfer back to the airport through our hotel because I was afraid that we may end up being late and I didn’t want to risk missing the hourly bus to the airport. The extra cost was worth peace of mind to me.

Our visit to The Blue Lagoon and our GoEcco 3 Day Ice Caving & Northern Lights tour both deserve posts of their own. Both well worth doing.

The Hotel that I highly recommend:



We actually stayed in two hotels in Reykjavik. On our first three nights we stayed at the Raddison Blu Saga. It was a large hotel outside the city center.

Our home away from home at Kvosin Downtown Hotel
Our home away from home at Kvosin Downtown Hotel

On our return from our three day GoEcco ice caving tour, we stayed at the nicest ‪boutique hotel in a great central downtown location near restaurants, tourist sites and shopping. They have lovely, modern decorated rooms with a small kitchen and a nice espresso machine. Reasonably priced. Free wifi. I highly recommend them. ‬

Kvosin Downtown Hotel

Kirkjutorg 4

Reykjavik

IS-101. IS

‪+3545714460‬

Kvosin Hotel

‪Ways to save money on eating in Iceland:

‪Icelandic water from the tap is some of the best in the world. Bring along a stainless steel bottle and fill it up from the tap at your hotel. Icelanders think it’s silly when tourists buy bottled water. Ask for tap water in restaurants too. ‬

‪Be aware that an inexpensive meal in Iceland means spending $22-35 US. Iceland is definitely expensive, but there are a few ways that you can save a little money and not go hungry.‬
‪Take snack foods with you. We packed peanut butter and crackers, protein and breakfast bars, nuts and other filling goodies to eat rather than paying for a full three meals a day. This enabled us to spend more time taking in the sights and more cash for souvenir shopping.‬

‪Look for a hotel or apartment with a kitchen or a microwave and coffee maker. We picked up packaged frozen dinners and ‘cup of soup’ from a grocery store for a couple of meals. Bonus is a good option. Their grocery stores are still more expensive than what we are accustomed to in the USA, but still way cheaper than restaurants. I brought along instant coffee, tea bags and creamer too. ‬

‪The Icelandic hot dogs are tasty and a good value. They are available at about every gas station around Iceland. You will find them in beef or lamb. Try the lamb. Very good.‬

‪Restaurant recommendations:‬

‪We tried several restaurants that were recommended by locals which were moderately priced. These were our favorites.‬
Reykjavik:

Dinner at Saeta Svinid Gastropub
Dinner at Saeta Svinid Gastropub


 

Saeta Svinid Gastropub

Hafnarstræti 1-3 / 101 Reykjavík

Sími: 555 2900

http://saetasvinid.is/en

‪Open 11:30-23:30‬
‪Their menu is filled with Icelandic specialities like puffin, minke whale, and horse. Though we did not venture to try any of the fore mentioned dishes, we did try the lamb, the salmon and their really good burger. ‬

Inside Uno Restaurant
Inside Uno Restaurant


Uno

‪Hafnarstraeti 3‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland‬

Uno
‪We enjoyed this cozy restaurant on one of our first evenings in Reykjavik. Nicely appointed interior with many choices of reasonably priced food. They also have an outside seating area to enjoy your meal on a sunny day. ‬

Nice treats to warm up with at ‪Salka Valka - Fish & More
Nice treats to warm up with at ‪Salka Valka – Fish & More

‪Salka Valka – Fish & More

‪Skolavordustigur 23,‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬
‪Cozy little fish shop on busy Skolavordustigur street just down from ‬

‪Hallgrimskirkja. Nice place to take a rest and warm up with a little lunch or dessert and coffee. Very friendly staff.‬

Fresh ground coffee at ‪Reykjavik Roasters
Fresh ground coffee at ‪Reykjavik Roasters


Reykjavik Roasters

‪Karastigur 1 (corner of Frakkastigur)‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬

‪Cute little coffee shop with coffee to enjoy there or to take away. They also sell pastries. Grab a fresh roasted cup of coffee and grab a window seat or take a cup with you and walk across the way to Braud & Company for pastry and head to Harpa Concert Hall like we did to enjoy a unique setting for breakfast. (Many thanks to Jonathan and Tomas for that great idea!)‬

Fresh made bread and pastries at colorful ‪Braud & Company
Fresh made bread and pastries at colorful ‪Braud & Company


‪Braud & Company‬

‪16 Frakkastigur‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬

‪Wide selection of made from scratch pastries and breads that you are only able to take away. A great bakery that you can smell from blocks away early every morning. You are able to watch the bakers while standing in line waiting your turn. Highly recommend the croissants and cinnamon rolls. ‬

‪ ‬

Lots of shopping and coffee shops on the street just in front of‪ Hallgrimskirkja Church
Lots of shopping and coffee shops on the street just in front of‪ Hallgrimskirkja Church


Souvenir shopping in Reykjavik:‬
‪Head to Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur streets for a wide selection of shops to pop into. You can find all types of souvenirs to take home. Be sure to compare prices as we found that there can be a very wide difference from one shop to the next on vertically the same items. ‬
‪I fell in love with all the handmade woolen accessories. I purchased socks for everyone on my gift list. They are so warm and cozy!! ‬

A special souvenir to remember Iceland in your home everyday
A special souvenir to remember Iceland in your home everyday

‪My daughter loved all the hides. She ended up purchasing two as souvenirs to decorate her home. She purchased a sheep hide at a darling shop at 22 Skolavordustigur street (one building down from Fish & More Restaurant) just down from Hallgrimskirkja Church on the right side. They had a nice selection at a good price. This shop had a wide assortment of reasonably priced souvenirs of all kinds. Worth a visit.

She also purchased a reindeer hide at The Blue Lagoon gift shop. They had a really nice selection of hides at a good price as well.‬

‪Handknitting Association of Iceland

‪Skolavordustigur 19‬

‪Reykjavik 101, Iceland ‬
‪A cooperative of women who knit many types of clothing and accessories from Icelandic wool. Huge selection of items! Sweaters,hats, socks, mittens, scarves, You can even purchase wool to take home to make your own items. I highly recommend purchasing the socks if you are visiting Iceland in the winter. They will keep your feet warmer than any sock you can purchase in the USA. Believe me, you will need that warmth! The cooperative’s handmade items were my choice for souvenirs for myself and my family.‬

‪Places to visit in Reykjavik:

‪Hallgrimskirkja Church
‪Hallgrimskirkja Church


 

‪Hallgrimskirkja Church

‪Hallgrimstorg 1‬

‪101 Reykjavik, Iceland ‬

Hallgrimskirkja
‪Be sure to head into the gift shop in the hall to the left as you enter the church to purchase the elevator tickets to go up to the top of the church. You will be rewarded with outstanding 360 degree views of Reykjavik, the harbor and the mountains across the way. ‬
‪Enjoy the modern church interior as well.‬

‪Statue of Leif Eiriksson‬

‪Sits at the front entrance to Hallgrimskirkja Church‬

Looking out through the windows of Harpa Concert Hall
Looking out through the windows of Harpa Concert Hall

‪Harpa Concert Hall‬

Austurbakka 2, 101 Reykjavík

Sími: 528 5000

Harpa
‪Beautiful glass and steel building on the waterfront in Reykjavik. You can go inside and explore for free. Nice place for a picking in the seating areas on the upper floors. Great view of the mountains and harbor. ‬

‪Check their website for events. I wish we would have had time to take in a show called “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes.” Our friends that went said it was really funny and, better yet, our GoEcco guide said it was funny and very true. We will do this for sure on our next trip. ‬

How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes

Fun shoe skating on frozen ‪Lake Thornin
Fun shoe skating on frozen ‪Lake Thornin


‪Lake Thornin

‪Picturesque little lake in the Reykjavik city center that is nice to stroll around and watch the swans, ducks and other water fouls. It iced over during our visit which made it more fun as we skated around in our snow boots. ‬

The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon


The Blue Lagoon

‪Outside of Reykjavik but it’s only a 45 minute bus ride away.
Having been to Iceland, next trip I would do it a little differently. I would take the bus to the Blue Lagoon from the airport instead of heading directly to Reykjavik. I’d stay at the Blue Lagoon’s hotel/resort my first night and enjoy more time there. If you decide to go to the Blue Lagoon, be sure to book everything online long in advance! I’ll write a separate post on just the Blue Lagoon and some of its amenities.

Love at first sight! The Aurora In Iceland!
Love at first sight! The Aurora In Iceland!


Experiencing the Northern Lights:

‪Pick a time of year when the nights are very dark. Usually that means from October through March for the best chance to see the lights. Try not to go during a full moon. This took me a lot of time researching for the best time for my daughter and I to go to Iceland. Seeing the Aurora was my top reason to go, so it was extremely important to me. ‬

‪The longer that you stay in Iceland, the better chance you have seeing the lights. Keep in mind that the weather is extremely unpredictable. We arrived at the end of the winter season to the largest snowfall in Reykjavik from the last 80 years. Totally unexpected. Even though the aurora was active the first three nights we visited, we couldn’t see them because of cloud cover. ‬

‪I had booked a super Jeep excursion with ‬Arctic Adventures for our second evening. Literally, every other company cancelled their northern lights tours due to cloud cover, but Arctic Adventures did not. It was an extremely frigid, disappointing evening. They did take us outside of town, but there was too much cloud cover and no lights. Unfortunately, it was a waist of a lot of money too. Almost $400 for the two of us. I understand other companies are willing to reschedule or refund if things don’t go as planned. I thought I had done my research as to the best company to use. This is a warning to others.

‪The aurora forecast website to watch:

Aurora Forcast

‪Follow this account on Twitter:

‪Aurora Forecast @AuroraIceland for both the Aurora forecast and cloud cover. ‬

‪Photographing the Northern Lights:

‪There are a few things you will need if you are planning on trying to photograph the lights. First, you’ll need a good DSLR camera. I had read a couple of articles about apps for your iPhone that were capable of photographing the Aurora. I downloaded two of the apps that looked promising. The first evening that we saw the lights, I pulled out my iPhone and gave them both a try. Some people may be happy with the results, but it just wasn’t good in my opinion.‬
‪There are plenty of photography websites and books out there that explain how to set your specific DSLR camera. I’ll leave that to the people who do that type of photography all the time. They are the experts and it is quite a detailed process. I would suggest that if you have a couple of free hours in Reykjavik, to head to the small museum by the harbor, Aurora Reykjavik and ask the sweet people there if they wouldn’t mind setting your camera for you. Be sure to take the time to look at all their beautiful displays while you are there. Some wonderful examples of photography of the Aurora and you may begin to understand the Aurora better. Well worth the entrance price. You are also able to book Northern Lights tours on their website. They have several to choose from. ‬

‪Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center
‪Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center


Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center

‪Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland‬

Aurora Reykjavik

‪Open 7 days a week 9 AM – 9 PM‬
‪Be sure to bring along extra batteries for your camera and other devices. A battery pack is also good to have. Batteries drain their power quickly in the cold. ‬

Things I’d love to do on our next visit to Iceland:‬




I really want to do this photography tour:‬

‪I’ve been following Icelandic photographer ‬Iurie Belegurschi for several years now on social media. His photographs are what inspired me to go to Iceland. Being a photographer, I wanted to experience the crystal ice cave and Northern Lights myself.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour
‪I still really want to do this tour. Though the tour we took was really wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone, this tour is geared for photography. I would have had to go alone as my daughter isn’t interested in photography. Maybe one day. Still on my travel wish list. ‬

Staying in a clear bubble dome in the middle of nowhere:‬

‪I think staying in a bubble would be a dreamy experience! That is if I could ever go to sleep with all those stars and the Northern Lights! ‬
Bubble
‪I did look at staying in a bubble before our trip. I just couldn’t figure out how to get there without renting a vehicle. We Texans have no idea how to drive on snow or ice, so that was totally out of the question. ‬

Coffee Shop Travel Club Meet Up

When you make your final payment, just leave an open balance of $100.00 and we will take care of it! Super Simple! Venice is a city not to be missed! One of my favorite places in the world!

Go Ahead is working on our group phone/tablet site so our tour consultant, Emily, told me to pass along her direct line in case anyone would like any information at all since it still isn’t working. Her number is 617 6191516 and you can give her my name, Valerie Citrano or our group tour number 68796229. The site seems to be working on my laptop and desk top computer. Hope you are able to go with us! It will be a lot of fun!

You are invited!


We will be holding a short meeting this Saturday, October 17, 2015 at our restaurant, The Coffee Shop Cafe in McGregor, Texas to talk about our trip to Italy next May! It will begin at 2:00 and last till about 3:30.

If you can’t make it this Saturday, you can still sign up to go with us! It does not matter where in the world you live, you can meet up and join our small group! Learn more about out trip right here on my blog where you can also click over to our Go Ahead Tours web page 

I am so excited to be able to share Italy with you! It’s an experience that you won’t want to miss!

Links to more information:

More on our trip to Italy in May of 2016.

  • My Question and Answer page with lots of information about our tour
  • The first stop on our group tour, Turin
  • A side trip I’d love to take you on to Florence if you’d like.
  • Our Italy 2016 group tour web site where you can view the itinerary, the base price and choose the options you’d like to add on like the extension in Venice, extra excursions and to price your airfare from your nearest airport. Just click here and begin dreaming of Italy: Go Ahead Tours: Coffee Shop Travel Club

Make your dreams come true and join us in Italy!

Turin. The ‘Paris’ of Italy

Turino is our first stop on our Food & Wine: Northern Italy and the Italian Riviera small group tour in May. We will be treated to a tour of this beautiful city and still have plenty of time to explore on our own.

Many people say that Turin matches the beauty of Paris. Even so, it hadn’t really been on my list of places to visit, that is until I read a press release from the Holy See’s office in the Vatican.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where the Holy Shroud is kept in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where the Holy Shroud is kept in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
In 2010 there was a special exhibition of the Shroud of Turin. This was extremely unusual. The shroud is historically only brought out for showing once every ten years and even then it is very difficult to get into the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to see it.

The shroud on display insideThe Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
The shroud on display insideThe Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
Growing up and through the years, I had read several books about the shroud, the Templar Priests and the scientific communities fascination with studying this 14 foot piece of cloth whom some believe covered the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. I’ll admit, it absolutely fascinates me too. Is it real or is it one of the best forgeries ever known to man? Either way, I wanted to see it for myself.

Pope Benedict XVI mingling with the crowd in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
Pope Benedict XVI mingling with the crowd in Turin, Italy. Photo copyright Valerie Duty Citrano
Pope Benedict XVI was set to go to Turin and view the shroud along with holding a mass in the city’s center. I had applied for media credentials from the Vatican several years earlier, before our first trip to Rome, and had photographed Pope John Paul II. So, I gave the press office a call and secured credentials and passes for myself and my husband to to go to the shroud’s limited viewing. The same day that I had read that press release, I had credentials, passes to see the shroud and had booked our flights to go to Turin, Italy!!!

That’s how we ended up spending a week in Italy’s ‘Paris.’ Beautiful Turino.

Beautiful architecture
The city center, with its beautiful buildings and statues were enchanting. Walking there in the evenings felt like walking through the movie, The Da Vinci Code. I expected to run into Tom Hanks around every corner.

This trip, I really want to take a tour of the palace. There were just too many pilgrims in town on our last visit. The line was terribly long! Glad we will have another chance to see Turin again!

Chocolate shop in Turin, Italy
One of the many chocolate shops in Turin. Italy

A Chocoholic’s dream
At breakfast our first morning at our hotel, we chatted with a couple who were there not to see the Pope or the shroud. They had come from England for Turin’s famous chocolate. Oh my goodness! Yes, chocolate! Come to find out, there were shops after shops with lovely, delicious CHOCOLATES! And they happily give out samples on small silver trays!

Donald never met a chocolate he didn’t like! This was heaven on earth. There was also the thickest hot chocolate that we had ever drank and come to find out, Nutella is manufactured in Turin!

The Egyptian Museum
The Museo Egizio Museum in Turin has one of the most impressive collections of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. I was not only surprised that such a collection was in such a place but I throughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to going back and visiting after their massive renovation.
More info about the museum: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/africaandindianocean/egypt/11508721/Egyptian-Museum-reopens-in-Turin.html

So much more
Turin was the home of the winter Olympics in 2006, is the home of Fiat and Alfa Romero Automobiles and is situated near the Alps. It is only a 40 minute train ride from Milan.

To learn more about Turin, it’s history and architecture, visit Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turin
So now we are going back to the jewel that is Turin and I couldn’t be happier!
More on our trip to Italy in May of 2016. Booking will be closing soon!! 

My Question and Answer page with lots of information about our tour

A side trip I’d love to take you on in Florence if you’d like.

Join us in Northern Italy & the Riviera for food, wine and fun! 

Food, wine, beautiful sights and even a pasta making class!!

The Cinque Terre in Northern Italy is an optional excursion while we are in the Riveria
The Cinque Terre in Northern Italy is an optional excursion while we are in the Riviera!
We ♥️ Italy so much that we decided to take a small group back with us on a private tour to visit some places we’ve never been, along with visiting some of our old friends! Turin, Italian Riviera, Bologna, Verona, Venice and much, much more with a few side trips on our own!!! May 15-27, 2016.

Join us on the trip extension in Venice!! it's a magical romantic place like none other!
Join us on the trip extension in Venice!
Remember, on our tour, you will be traveling with a couple that works in the food industry and a professional photographer to boot! I’ll gladly help you take better travel photos and even take some for you!

A $300 deposit per person is all it takes to reserve your space to go with us on this amazing trip! Pay as you wish with balance due by 3-6-2016. It’s like travel Lay-a-way! Booking for our tour closes on soon! 

Full itinerary details & to sign up are on our tour website:

Coffee Shop Travel Club Italy 2016

There will be few surprises for you along the way too!

Q&A’s about our group trip to Italy

 

Q: How will we be getting around Italy?

A: The tour company will provide us a luxury bus with a guide and bus driver that will be with us throughout the tour. There will be boat rides along the Italian Rivera and in Venice. We will be walking around the city centers and other places. Definitely bring those walking shoes!

Q: I’m thinking about going, but don’t have a travel buddy. Can I go alone?

A: You betcha! We have several ladies coming with us without a spouse. It’s probably safest to travel this way to explore to world solo. You can pay a little extra and have your own room (as space permits) or be paired with another lady to share a hotel room. Ask me about sharing! We have someone looking to share now! Solo gentlemen also welcome!

Q: What about booking our flights?

A: The easiest way is to book your flights along with the guided tour. The tour company can get better rates because of the sheer volume of business they do with the airlines. Online, you just type in the airport near you such as DFW for those here in Waco. The price will come up and will be added to your total. It’s around $1400 per person. If you want to use miles or book your own flights, that’s perfectly fine! You can still arrange for a transfer from the airport in Milan to our hotel in Turin with the tour company. Just call them at their 800 number. Transfers inside Italy are included when you book your airfare with the tour company.

Q: I’d like to take advantage of our airfare and go to Europe early or stay later. Can that be done?

A: Sure thing!! Donald and I are both staying longer. All you have to do is call the tour company and let them know when you’d like to arrive or leave. Those of you that are staying with us, just need to let me know and I can tell the tour company.

Q: How do I join your group tour?

A: There are several ways to book. Which ever one you are most comfortable with is the best.

1. Online at http://coffeeshoptravel.grouptoursite.com

2. Call Go Ahead Tours at 1-800-206-9871 and give them our group tour number 68796229

3. Ask me for a tour Réservation form to book and send a check in the mail.

Q: How do I pay?

A: It’s easy! It only takes a $300 per person deposit to hold your space. You can pay whenever and how much you wish as long as it’s paid in full by March 6, 2016. You can pay with a credit card online or over the phone or mail a check.

Q: What do I need to do to travel to Italy?

A: You just need a passport to travel to Italy. Make sure you have at least 6 months left on yours at the time we leave. If you don’t have a passport, you can visit your post office and pick up a form or download a passport form from the State Department website. You’ll need a certified copy of your birth certificate and 2 passport photos that can be taken at the post office or Walgreens for a fee (around $10). Don’t try taking the photos yourself or using a snap shot. There are specific requirements which are best left to a professional. Fill out the forms, bring along your photos and birth certificate and pay the fee.

If you are in Waco, the post office on Hwy 6 is the place you need to go to submit your application. They will answer all your questions and take care of you. Be sure to call for the passport hours and schedule an appointment. You should really get this done as soon as you decide to go. it may take 6-8 weeks to get them. For more information, visit the U.S. State Dept Passports web page. Information about renewing a passport is also on the site.

Q: Which excursions are you going on? Can I book them later?

A: Donald and I will be going along on both the optional excursions and on the extension to Venice. You can book the excursions later but I’d just go ahead and book now and save the $10 per excursion for booking early. They are things you’ll want to see and do. I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of going to Venice! The price they charge for the hotel, travel, stops from Verona to Venice and the guided tour while there is less that I usually pay for one nights stay in a hotel there! Seriously, it’s an amazing place that you need to go to!

Q: I don’t live in Waco or even Texas. Can I still go with your group?

A: Anyone can join our little group! You certainly do not have to live in Waco or Texas or even live in the US. We make friends quickly and those interested in joining us are welcome! We have met and made friends with people from all over the world while traveling! It’s an amazing experience traveling with people that enjoy traveling, meeting new people and seeing and experiencing places that become forever memories. You can fly out of any airport and we will all meet up in Turin, Italy to begin our tour! When booking, just input your nearest international airport and the price will come up. If you call, just tell the operator your nearest airport. Super easy!

Q: Is trip insurance available?

A: Yes, insurance is available! Just call Go Ahead and have it added to your trip. There’s a bonus if added within 14 days of booking too. Here is the info and choices of coverage:

Educational First/Go Ahead Tours Travel Insurance

If you love to travel a lot, like we do, I’ve found an insurance company that actually covers your travel annually rather than by each individual trip. I found it while booking a flight with Delta Airlines for another trip. I’m excited about it as the cost is just under one thousand dollars for both of us for every trip taken during the year. More about that after I look into it more or check out Delta’s website.

Q: Are you going to~~~ insert your favorite destination?

A: We will be taking groups to several places in the years to come! You are welcome to come along on any and all that we go on!

June 2017 we will be going back to Italy to a part we have never experienced but always wanted to go. Puglia has been on my short list for years and this tour also includes a great part of Southern Italy. It’s amazing how different every region of Italy is! We will visit Naples, Sorrento and the Trulli Valley! One excursion I’m really looking forward to is visiting the beautiful Island of Capri! This is just a taste of what we will see on this trip! Here is a link to our 2017 Southern Italy trip:

http://valeriecitrano.grouptoursite.com/

We would like to go back to Israel and walk in the steps of Jesus. If you haven’t experienced this yet, it is a must! Truly life changing! This is a 10 day tour that visits Tel Aviv, Haifa, Lake Tiberias, Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Gallilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mount Zion, Masada, the Dead Sea and through Jericho. Who would like to go with us? Thinking September or October of 2016. We will extend our stay and visit Jordan for four additional nights this trip too.

What about France? France is always a good idea! Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley are definitely something we will do! Maybe right after the Puglia and Southern Italy trip? We can combine two trips and save on airfare! Who’s in?

Have a question not answered here? Just ask! 
Coffee Shop Travel Club Italy 2016

Food, wine and friends enjoying Italy! Join us May 15-27, 2016! Reserve your spot now!
Food, wine and friends enjoying Italy! Join us May 15-27, 2016! Reserve your spot now!

Join us in Italy May 15-27, 2016! Only a few spaces left on this amazing small group food and wine tour! Visit www.PieLadyLife.com for details! We would love to have you come along!
Join us in Italy May 15-27, 2016! Only a few spaces left on this amazing small group food and wine tour!
 

World’s Best Eats: Florence, Italy

Is there a food that sometimes you lay awake at night and dream about? A dish that you’ve had that you compare all others that you try in different restaurants to?

Well, thats what the Spaghetti Carbonara at Ciro & Sons in Florence, Italy is to me. My dream plate of food. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten!

Spaghetti Carbonara at Ciro & Son's in Florence, Italy is absolutely the best I've ever eaten!
Spaghetti Carbonara at Ciro & Son’s in Florence, Italy is absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten!

Have you ever tried Spaghetti Carbonara? My first time to try this luscious dish was at Ciro & Sons on our very first visit to Italy. I had never even heard of it before! I still can’t believe I had missed out for most of my life! Sigh!

After a really long day of traveling by train from Paris we checked into our hotel and I’ll tell ya, we were starving! Enough of the cheese crackers and fruit gummies! We were ready for some good Italian food! We set out walking and stumbled across this quaint, very Italian eatery at the end of the block. My husband and I were seated at a long family style table and immediately brought bread and garlic marinated olives which were exceptional! Garlic. Olives. Olive oil. What a simple idea! Yes, I’ve copied it over and over at home for the last fifteen years!

Then we were brought our pasta. My husband ordered his favorite, Pesto Spaghetti, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Then he tried my dish of carbonara and he was in love too! Love at first bite.

Bacon and eggs. Thats basically, in American terms, what carbonara is. Of course, in the heart of Tuscany, Bacon and eggs holds a whole new meaning. Here it is local pancetta, garlic, locally grown and pressed olive oil and farm raised eggs which are expertly blended into a creamy sauce covering freshly made, perfectly cooked pasta. Al dente Perfection! Who needs tomato sauce?

But they have tomato sauce too. Their pizza is out of this world. That oven is hot!

At Ciro & Sons in Florence, Italy where they make great pasta and pizza!
At Ciro & Sons in Florence, Italy where they make great pasta and pizza!

I’ve been back countless times over the years. One August, we had taken my youngest daughter with us to Italy and made Florence our home base. I rented a little apartment on the same street as the restaurant and planned to enjoy as many meals as we could while there. How disappointing it was that they were closed for their vacation all of August! Lots of businesses in Europe close during August for their vacations! My bad! I know now. Now you do too! Don’t go to Europe in August. Ciro and Sons will not be open. Too bad we can’t close our own restaurant for a whole month and travel! Our customers wouldn’t like that one bit and neither would our employees! Oh well.

At Ciro & Sons in Florence, Italy where they make great pasta and pizza!
At Ciro & Sons in Florence, Italy where they make great pasta and pizza! Sweet people too!

On my last trip to Italy, I planned a stop in Florence just to take my sister to Ciro and Sons. They were open. I made sure to check on their Facebook page. It was wonderful. I was so happy. My sister loved it too. Just like me, she began comparing their pasta to others we tried along our travels. One nice version we both tried while in Nice, France (catch the pun?) was good but just did not make the cut. It was good though.

We will be going again next May, 2016. I’m taking a group this time. I’m planning on making a special diversion on our trip to Ciro and Sons. Must share the love. Now… where will we park that tour bus?

Ciro & Sons

Via del Giglio, 28, 50123 Firenze, Italy

+39 055 289694

We can’t travel to Florence every time I dream of Carbonara. Obviously. One day I turned on Oprah’s TV show and she had Tom Cruise on as a guest. To my absolute amazement, he did a cooking segment and made his favorite recipe. Thats right! Pasta carbonara. We both have good taste. Now. I make my best friend Tom’s favorite pasta dish. We are friends, right? We must be since we love it so much. Definitely worth jumping up and down on a couch for!

Tom Cruise’s Spaghetti Carbonara

1/2 inch olive oil (for frying pan)
2 cloves minced garlic
1 chopped onion
8 to 12 thick slices Italian bacon
4 eggs
2 packages spaghetti
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

In a frying pan, combine 1/2 inch of olive oil, 2 cloves of minced garlic, one chopped onion and the Italian bacon cut into small squares. Let simmer for about a half-hour, being careful not to let the oil get to a boiling point.

In a bowl, beat 4 eggs with lots of salt and fresh ground pepper.

Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Cook both packages of spaghetti until al dente, drain and immediately add egg mixture to pasta. The eggs are actually cooked by the pasta. (Make sure the eggs are thoroughly cooked before proceeding.) Stir the egg mixture until it is well mixed. Pour in the mixture from the frying pan and stir. Finish with the Parmesan cheese and serve!

Makes 4 servings

So, what are some of the best things you’ve ever eaten?

Our Eating Prague Tour 

We had worried about the rain forecasted on our spring Saturday in Prague. It actually turned out to be a beautiful sunny day for a foodie walk through Old Town and the surrounding area. Our guide lead us through small, out of the way streets, passages and gardens on our quest for some of the best local foods of the Czech Republic.
Our merry band of foodies on our Eating Prague Tour
Our merry band of foodies on the Eating Prague Tour
Our meeting place at 12:30 was at a very Bohemian chocolate shop on Klimentska Street. Our small group of four couples were an international mix which all spoke English. We were joined by couples from England and Italy and a young US couple that are living in Spain while she attends and he teaches at a university in Barcelona. We find a unique commonality that we all love food!
Our guide on the Eating Prague Tour on PieLadyLife.com
Our own Pied Piper who led us through the streets of Prague in front of the rather hidden entrance to Styl & Interier
Our guide, Jan is from Prague but has lived in Seattle and San Francisco while working for Microsoft. As we got to know him, we learned that he is an aspiring artist with a young family that obviously loves the ins and outs of food. He bakes too. His speciality is cheesecake. Quite the diversified businessman, along with setting up and guiding the Eating Prague Tours, he also guides photo tours around Prague.
We learned from our guide that Eating Prague Tours was founded and is owned by an American now living in Rome. His ‘Eating’ dynasty now includes Rome, London, Amsterdam and of course Prague.

Horice rolled wafers filled with cream dipped in chocolate at Choco Cafe on PieLadyLife,com
Horice rolled wafers filled with cream dipped in chocolate at Choco Cafe
  

Eat Dessert First
Our tasting began with dessert! Great way to begin I think! The sugar will help with all the walking we will be doing during our next four hours. Choco Cafe is a family owned small chocolate shop in a quaint setting on an off street. The decor is a mixture of funky, mixed-matched tables and chairs with the walls covered with posters celebrating Chocolate. The smells in the air are intoxicating!
Light, flaky Horice rolled wafers filled with a lovely cream which you dip in a warm, rich, thick chocolate sauce. This pastry was made legendary by Napoleon and is served in only a few restaurants. Absolutely heavenly way to begin the tour!
Open faced sandwiches from Sisters in Prague on PieLadyLife.com
Open faced sandwiches from Sisters in Prague
Sandwiches and meat
We then began our walk on small streets through the Jewish Quarter to a pair of businesses only separated by a narrow passage on Dlouha Street. Our first offering was a trio of gourmet open faced sandwiches from Sisters. We began with a lovely beet spread with a chunk of goat cheese and a beet leaf. Then came a lovely slaw made of celery root and finally a mixture of cod. These were served with a lovely elderberry flavored lemonade.
Sausages, spicy mustard and pickles at Nase Maso in Prague from PieLadyLife.com
Sausages, spicy mustard and pickles at Nase Maso
Just across the passage way is Nase Maso, a meat market that offers some of the best meats in Prague. Their reputation  of using local, high quality meats has caught the attention of Prague chefs who purchase their offerings for service at their restaurants. The line at their counter proves they are loved by the locals as well. We tasted three sliced meats including ham and salami. Their traditional sausage, mustard and gherkin pickles were my personal favorite.
Naso Maso is more than just a butcher shop. They will grill the meats you choose from their counter and offer plates that include traditional artisan bread baked locally. A young man who was attempting to enjoy his lunch while our group basically surrounded him and his table, declared that his pork cheek was the best that he had ever tasted. He noted that it was flavorful and fork tender.
   
Unique setting at the cozy Zvonice Restaurant in Prague at PieLadyLife.com
Unique setting at the cozy Zvonice Restaurant in Prague
Tucked in a Bell Tower
I must say that I was excited that our next restaurant was on our tour! I had inadvertently found this charming place while searching for places to eat in Prague. It’s setting in a bell tower offers the ambience that would be appreciated by young lovers (ask for the table for two tucked between the bell and window) and history buffs alike. It is not obvious there is a dining establishment on the upper floor from the outside, so it is frequented mainly by locals. Though it is located in a tourist area, people just walk right by.
Sauerkraut Soup inside a bell tower at Restaurant Zvonice in Prague at PieLadyLife.com
Sauerkraut Soup inside a bell tower at Restaurant Zvonice in Prague
Our guide refused to tell us what we would be tasting even after the wait staff placed a bowl in front of each of us. It seams that a lot of people are put off by sauerkraut. Sauerkraut in Eastern Europe does not have a bold vinegar taste like the jars we buy in our American grocery stores. It has a much smoother taste when made from scratch. This chef is said to make the best Old Bohemian Sauerkraut soup in the world. The cabbage is sliced razor thinly in a velvety sauce with a dollop of sour cream and a drizzle of basil cream sauce. Absolutely fabulous!
Don’t let the ‘S’ word scare you!  Look for Restaurant Zvonice on Jindrisska Vez the next time you are in Prague. You will not be disappointed.
Pate and handmade wine at S &I in Prague at PieLadyLife.com
Pate and hand crafted black currant wine at Styl & Interier in Prague
Handcrafted wine
The well hidden little coffee shop, Styl & Interier on Vodickova is down a passage just off Wenceslas Square. It is an interior decor shop turned cafe due to their unique wine and pate offerings. This mom and daughter duo have began to be so popular that they are now expanding and installing a full kitchen. At this stop we were offered a lovely pate with a hint of bacon along with a slightly spicy celery salad with cranberries that I would definitely love to have the recipe for!
Their handcrafted wine was made with fresh black currants. Quite smooth and a nice fragrance. I thought it was really lovely! Bottles are available for purchase as our young Italian tour-mates found to be a nice souvenir. A glass or two would be especially nice while enjoying the sunshine in their adjacent garden patio.
  
Cafe Louvre's Svickova: Braised Beef in Prague at PieLadyLife.com
Cafe Louvre’s Svickova: Braised Beef
Traditional Braised Beef
Café Louvre was also on my radar for a visit! So happy this was an included stop!  This is the place for people watching. I’m told that prominent Europeans choose to come here to see and be seen.
Located a flight or so up in a historic building this jewel offers traditional dishes like the Svíčková or Braised Beef that we were served. Tender beef in a vegetable cream sauce with bread dumplings and cranberries. Load your fork with all the components for that perfect bite! Had the room not have been full of patrons, I would have given more serious thought to licking my plate. We were given an abbreviated serving for our tasting. I can’t imagine what a full entrée would do to me!! My diet was suffering. I had tried to be ‘good’ up until this point. Then they brought out dessert! 

 

The Cafe Louvre's custard cream sauce makes their apple strudel special PieLadyLife.com
Ahhh. The Louvre’s custard cream sauce!


The Louvre’s apple strudel was special. Why? It was the creamy vanilla custard sauce that they paired  with their flakey, apple goodness. That sauce is amazing! I’m definitely trying this at home! 

Just book it!

All in all, I would recommend Eating Prague Tours to anyone. It’s a nice mix of food, good conversation and a nice informative walk through some of the back streets around the tourist areas of Prague that you may not see otherwise. Our guide did a nice job of showing us some historic places along with some that were a bit off beat. A nice mix. A lovely day. Come hungry. Leave satisfied. Don’t make dinner plans.

You can contact them through their website at 


*** I was not compensated for this review. They had no idea who I even was. The opinions are truly my own. I’d happily go on any of this companies tours. Looking forward to seeking them out. Hope they expand! May I suggest Florence? 

Our First Viking River Cruise: booking & docs


Our travel documents from Viking River Cruses arrived! 

I have had so many questions during this process. I am so happy I’ll finally have answers for some of the things I’ve been wondering about. 

I’ve been dreaming about taking a cruise down a European River ever since my friends, Jean and Walter posted photos on their Social media pages. We met this sweet couple while we took a guided tour of Israel several years ago. Jean and I became friends on Facebook while visiting Masada. How many people can make that statement?

Back to the river cruise…
Our friends have taken several cruises with Viking over the years. Their photos were always so fabulous and they had obviously met more new friends along their travels. I signed up for Viking’s emails and catalogs because of them and their posts. I’d open the catalogs every time they landed in our mailbox, devouring the photos and dreaming of the ports the ships docked in. I have so many places on our bucket list that were so much more affordable that the Viking experience kept being pushed back down our list for another time.
That is until one day in mid December when by chance I opened an email and there was an offer that I couldn’t refuse!

Keep an eye out for a deal that you can’t refuse!
Over the years there always seemed to be a 2 for 1 offer which still was expensive to me. I’d mention it to my husband and we would agree that it was just too much money. But this December day was different. They offered some of their best rooms including those with balconies for certain spring sailings for $2999 each and free air from NYC. Our flights from DFW would cost us $95 each. I called my husband and explained what a great deal this was and he gave the go ahead to book a trip! I chose the Romantic Danube cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest. We added a three day pre-cruise stay in Prague and the insurance. We later added two extra days at the end of the cruise in Budapest. We were going on a dream trip to four different countries!
Yay! Happy dance!
Ok, I’m a planner. I admit it. I’m one of those travelers that like to have every minute filled on a trip. When I book and plan our own vacations I write detailed itineraries and print them out for everyone to follow. I have control issues. I admit that too. This trip will be a little different. Viking has a lot of control. And the river, which I learned from research on Cruise Critic and TripAdvisor didn’t always cooperate. The water may be too high or too low which may result in long bus trips rather than smooth sailing along the blue Danube. Surely not in April! Right? Only time will tell.

 

A bit about Viking’s free flight deal.

It depends on what airport you want to fly out of. We chose DFW so we paid $95 each for the privilege. I seriously thought we might be taking a world tour of airports when I booked it! What a deal!!! I’ve booked all our previous overseas flights for over a thousand dollars or more out of Dallas. Too good to be true, right? I was really surprised when our flight information arrived in my inbox! All our flights are on Lufthansa. We have an overnight flight out of DFW to Frankfurt (an international hub) with a nice three and a half hour stay to clear customs and then we proceed on to Prague. Same thing when we fly out of Budapest. No long layovers but we do have a 6:30 AM return flight! Oh my gosh!!! Too early! But definitely worth loosing a little sleep for a great deal! Maybe we will be so tired that we will actually sleep on the plane back home.

If you are flying Lufthansa and want assigned seats then you’ll need to set up a Lufthansa account online and choose seats once you get your PNR number in your final travel documents. I decided to choose our seats since I like sitting next to my husband. I like having a shoulder to try to nap against especially on long overseas flights. I kinda like him too. So, I ended up spending another $200 for assigned seats that cover all of our flights. Different prices on different placement of seats. If you want to travel not knowing if your travel companions will be seated next to you or not, then that’s fine. They will be assigned when you print your boarding passes.

By the way, if you book your flights through Viking Air, your transfers are included.

Let’s save some more money… Viking’s Referral Program
As my research continued, I noticed that Viking offered a Referral program. First time cruisers could receive a discount of $100 per person ($200 per cabin/couple) and all you have to do is give them a customer number and name of a person that has sailed with them before or have booked and paid for a cruise in full. The person who’s number you use also gets a credit that can be used on their next sailing. How cool is that!? Needless to say, I contacted my friends and got their info and called Viking. Their customer service was absolutely wonderful!
I had such an amazing experience that I am willing to pass along my customer number to FRIENDS who would like to use it. Just email me and I’ll give you the information. Val110358@aol.com there may be restrictions due to the deal you chose, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it? A call to them or your travel agent. Why not?  I hate to leave money on the table that can be used for an added excursion, an exceptional dinner of a fun souvenir. Remember though, the credit is given at their discretion according to their rules. Visit the Viking website to see a list of their rules. The posting here is for information only.
Viking River Cruises optional tours
Viking River Cruises optional tours
Speaking of additional excursions.
The optional excursions were one of the biggies I had wondered about. Thanks to the travel documents I now know what they are for the Romantic Danube cruise. Every port has an included tour, but  not every port has an optional one. Here are the ones that do:
Regensburg: Optional Weltenburg Abbey & the Danube Narrows excursion. If you take this tour you won’t be able to take the included tour of Regensburg as they both begin after breakfast. Weltenburg is one of the oldest monasteries in Germany. Its famous brewery has been crafting beer since 1050. You also board an excursion boat for a short cruise through the Danube Narrows. The booklet says that you return to your ship for lunch and then take a walking tour of Regensburg. Cost of the tour is 49€ each. Only offered through the end of October. Really hope it’s available on our spring cruise but really not sure due to the wording. We can hope. UPDATE!! We were able to take this excursion and the Abbey was nice to visit.
Vienna: Optional Figaro’s Wedding performance. After dinner on the ship you are taken to an exclusive Viking performance of Mozart’s comic opera, Figaro’s Wedding. Music, costumes and a beautiful venue in Vienna, Austria… Why not?! I’m really looking forward to this one!! My hubby may not be as enthused. 74€ each. UPDATE! I went and though it was an enjoyable evening, in my opinion, it was very unprofessional. The performers were students, sets basically nonexistent set in a hall that was mearly a room with folding chairs. Book your own tickets at a real opera.
Vienna: Optional Schonbrunn Palace tour. After lunch on our second day in Vienna, you may choose to visit Maria Theresa’s baroque palace including the formal gardens. 49€ each.
Budapest: Optional Hungarian Horsemen: Lazar Equestrian Park. Horsemanship exhibition of the legendary Hungarian “cowboys”. After the show you can visit the stables and maybe take a carriage ride. 49€ each.
Or…
Budapest: Optional Dohany Street Synagogue & Jewish Budapest (not offered on Saturday or Jewish holidays.) Learn about Budapest’s Jewish past and present while visiting the Great Synagogue (the largest in Europe), the Emmanuel Memorial, the Hungarian Jewish WWII Memorial and the stunning display of empty shoes along the Danube. 49€ each. UPDATE! The shoe memorial is a short walk from where Viking docks. Just walk along the shore of the Danube toward the Parliament and you can’t miss it. Very moving.
What's in Viking River Cruise travel documents?
What’s in Viking River Cruise travel documents?
What’s included in the travel document mailing?
Our little silver box of Viking travel goodies arrived right at four weeks before our departure by FedEx. It was a surprise! No email or anything from the company that it had been shipped. Maybe that will change in the future. Glad I was home. So, here is what was in it:
  • 1. Itinerary and Departure Information booklet. Yay! One booklet for each of us. Our airline, hotels, transfers and pre and post cruise information. Includes day to day plans for our cruise including what we will be doing on all the included tours and this is where I got the optional tour informotion I shared with you. It’s in more detail though. Lots of other valuable info about all sorts of subjects. If you have a specific question ask me in the comments and I’ll check this little gem for ya.
  • 2. Booklet all about the Danube River. Very informative little book. Get out the reading glasses!
  • 3. Leather luggage tags. Red. One for each of us.
  • 4. Paper luggage tags to help the Viking staff get your luggage to the proper stateroom and hotel rooms. 2 for each of us.
  • 5. Big Red Viking stickers to put on your shirt at the airport so there staff can find you, cut you out of the crowd and herd you into their vehicles for transfer to the hotel if you’ve booked a pre-cruise extension. YeeHaa!
  • 6. A nice little card welcoming us to the Viking family explaining what’s in the box. At the bottom it reminds us to ‘like’ their Facebook page to connect with our fellow travelers.
And there it is. Back to social media. Connect with our fellow travelers. That’s what some of us have already done. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.
***Remember…. I’m happy to share answers to questions found in our itinerary booklet. Got a question? Write it in the comments or email me at val110358@aol.com Much more cruise info to come! Have you taken one of the optional excursions? I’d love your recommendations! 
These are my own observations and opinions