TRAVEL

Who You Calling Champagne? Tasting Notes on Italy’s Best Bubbly

This article originally appeared in Fathom on March 30, 2017 .

Ca' del Bosco. Photos by Erica Firpo.

The next time wine is on your vacation agenda, consider Franciacorta, the Italian bubbly you should already be drinking. If a visit to premier winery Ca' del Bosco isn't an option today, ordering a few bottles to see what the fuss is about certainly is. Fathom's Erica Firpo gets the scoop from the globetrotting vintner in charge.

FRANCIACORTA, Italy – For years, I've been swigging, I mean, singing the praises of Franciacorta, the best of Italy's bubbly lineup, which includes Prosecco, Lambrusco, metodo classico, and Asti spumante. I like them all, but not all the time. Prosecco is fine for an office party, but just thinking about it gives me a weird hangover. Lambrusco is quirky, a red sparkling wine that should be the ideal hipster drink. As for spumante, it reminds me of Cheryl Tiegs and 1970s. Franciacorta, which falls into the metodo classico category, is, quite simply, divine.

Let's pause for a quick wine lesson: Metodo classico is a fermentation tradition that closely adheres to the traditions and technique of mèthode champagneoise, the champagne method of in bottle-aging and second fermentation. Great Franciacorta wines have tight and subtle bubbles, with an aromatic, feathery taste on par with top champagnes, leading some to call it Italian champagne. But by law, nationality, and taste, it is absolutely not champagne. Franciacorta is made under the Lombardy sun, a tiny, 7000-acre territory in the Brescia province, where horseback riding rivals grape growing for things to do. And if champagne is considered imperial nectar, I'd say Franciacorta is Dionysis' very own laughter, corked up in a bottom-heavy bottle. And here's the key: You can drink it with anything.

A region of wine and horses. Photos by Erica Firpo.

A while back, I headed to Erbusco, the epicenter of Franciacorta, for a long weekend of full sparkling wine immersion and horseback riding. Somewhere along the trail, I met Maurizio Zanella, president of Franciacorta Consortium and founder of Ca' del Bosco. Zanella is what Italians would call a personaggio, a personality so distinct that all you have to do is say his last name to make your point.

For the past 46 years, Zanella has been quietly pushing Franciacorta and its region into DOCG greatness, building up his labels and at the same, transforming his winery into an open-air art gallery and a 21st-century gastro-roundtable. His 400-acre organic fiefdom is undeniably beautiful: vineyards, state-of-the-art winery, and atmospheric cellar set into the rolling, green hills of the Brescia region. Amid the green landscape are site-specific art installations: monumental sculptures in bronze, marble and recyclable plastic by such international artists as Arnaldo Pomodoro, Zheng Lu, and Cracking Art Group. In the past few years, Zanella commissioned eleven photographers and artists, like Helmut Newton, Mimmo Jodice, and William Klein, to capture the vineyard in film. These life-sized black and whites are showcased throughout the winery.

But food — and by proxy, restaurants — are Zanella's passion, just after his children and maybe right before his winery. When he is not onsite at Ca' del Bosco, he's out and about, exploring Bergamo, Milano, Ibiza, Miami, and more. Zanella's life is an overbooked agenda of world travel, combining business meetings and tasting with restaurant openings and food-cations.

And he's not alone. Most of the time, he travels with a culinary gang — chefs, restaurant owners, foodies, gallerists, and even soccer players — hitting the best restaurants and local joints everywhere they go. Eventually, they all end up back at Ca' del Bosco and Zanella's inner sanctum, a cozy, dark lounge filled with bottles, lots of bottles, and more art.

Which is where I find myself, staring at chef's aprons signed by his friends — Italian superstars Massimo Bottura, Enrico Cerea, and Carlo Cracco, among them — asking Zanella about favorite meals. He's coy, but he does give me a meal-of-a-lifetime tasting menu, table-hopping among Italy's Michelin star chefs, whose dishes he would — of course — serve with his wines.

"Eroi di Luce" by Igor Mitoraj.

Owner Maurizio Zanella.

ZANELLA'S PERFECT ITALIAN MEAL

Tortelli Che Cammino Sul Brodo, served with Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Osteria Francesca, Modena Massimo Bottura's autobiographical and (by now) notorious take on the pasta pride of the Emilia Romagna region: six seemingly simple and traditional tortellini in broth, which Zanella pairs with Cuvée Annamaria Clementi, a Franciacorta dedicated to Tanella' mother.

Tortelli di zucca, served with PinèroDal Pescatore, Mantova The nearly century-old restaurant makes the best pumpkin tortellini in Italy. Full stop.

Fagotelli alla carbonara, served with Vintage Collection Dosage ZeroLa Pergola, Rome Heinz Beck's innovation — his carbonara is off the hook! — lures Zanella up to Beck' hilltop restaurant time and time again.

Spaghetti alla chitarra ai frutti di mare, served with Cuvée PrestigeEnoteca Pinchiorri, Florence It just doesn't get better chef Annie Fèolde's guitar-string spaghetti. To say nothing for Pinchiorri's legendary wine cantina.

Cotoletta alla Milanese, served with Maurizio ZanellaDa Vittorio, Bergamo A proper Italian secondo: an exquisite veal cutlet.

As for my favorite dish to eat with that golden nectar, it's oysters. And then pizza. And Zanella agrees. Franciacorta goes with everything.

The view onto Lago Iseo from Rivalago Hotel.

Lago Iseo.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Visit the Vineyard Ca' del Bosco opens their doors to everyone, including dogs. The vibe is very laid-back and extraordinarily friendly, but I'd make the most of it by perusing the wine tours on Visit the Cellar and reserving. I'm partial to the Pieces of Art tour.

How to Get There Yes, you can take a train, but you're going to want to have your own method of transportation to get around the area. The best strategy is to rent a car and drive practically due east from Milan to Brescia and then Erbusco. You'll pass gorgeous Lombard greenery for the hour-long drive. Just try to stop yourself from pulling over for a selfie at each kilometer along the Strada del Franciacorta.

Where to Stay For absolute pampering, L'Albereta, spa resort owned by the Moretti family, producers of another top-notch Franciacorta Bellavista, and very much in the center of their vineyards. Slightly further done the road along the late is Rivalago Hotel. The view of Lago Iseo is entirely meditative. Palazzo Torri is the choice for history. For a low-profile-stay deep in the terroir, I'd book a stay in any of the Franciacorta consortium's suggested agroturismi, which range from rustic to stylized.

Emilia Romagna, a revelation

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

Not long ago, I find myself on a journey in search of art in towns with charming names like Ferrara, Parma, Forlì and Ravenna but as soon as I arrive in Bologna’s Stazione Centrale, the train station that is to become my primary radial point, I know that my adventures will be of another kind.

I am in Emilia-Romagna, terra del gusto, the land of taste. A northern region privileged with a broad range of weather conditions thanks to its nearly coast-to-coast span from the Adriatic to the Apennines. The kaleidoscopic location allows the region to produce a veritable cornucopia of PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) recognized products- a divine 33, the highest count for any Italian region. By those statistics alone, Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s gastronomical holy land.

Emilia-Romagna’s cult of culinaria is led by the incomparable triumvirate of prosciutto, balsamico (balsamic vinegar) and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Individually, its cured meats, cheeses, wines, vegetables and fruits are more than just table talk. In fact, a plate of salumi (cured meats) or a large chunk of parmigiano is the antipasto introduction to any dinner and the coup de grace to the entire meal. It is not a surprise that eating in Emilia-Romagna is gastro-enlightening, a spiritual awakening of mind and belly.

My days become revelations as I theorize a beatific “circle of life” between the prosciutto and parmigiano as the pigs are raised on the cheese’s whey, without one there could not be the other. In Modena, I am intoxicated by aged balsamic vinegar, a luscious nectar home-grown just a few kilometres down the street from the futuristic Enzo Ferrari museum and the Lamborghini factory. I conclude that Ferrari and Lamborghini’s meticulous handcrafted details are logically birthed from a town of patience since the very best balsamic vinegar is aged over years and decades. And my postulations, theories and declarations course as much ground as the regional trains: prosciutto, mortadella, felino, piadine, tigelle, lambrusco, pasta...

Everything good comes from Emilia-Romagna. This is my mantra. If pasta is considered the iconic comfort food, then it is Emilia-Romagna we must thank for placating our palates with tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne and cappelletti. (And I personally thank Parma for adding just a bit of butter.) It is not surprising that the region, whose total population is less than that of city of Rome, has twenty-six Michelin starred restaurants (and 25 bib gourmands), including the world’s fifth best restaurant in the world in Modena, Osteria Francescana.

At Osteria Francescana, I come full circle. Art is what motivates Chef Massimo Bottura’s avant-garde creations such as bollito misto, non misto (a clockwork of varying cooked meats) and Cinque età del Parmigiano Reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature (the ever clever five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese). His heart belongs to Emilia-Romagna ~his dishes tell tales of the region’s (and Italy’s) history and relationship to its food specialties ~ and Bottura is also constantly inspired by contemporary art. A quick look around the restaurant and I spy pieces by Francesco Vezzoli, Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Borowksy and Gain Turk. I am having a mini-Venice Biennale moment when my final revelation hits me: art and food, of any genre, are gemelle cosmiche, soul filling cosmic twins whose only requirement is thoughtful digestion.

Emilia-Romagna, I can’t quit you.

How to get there: Getting to Emilia-Romagna is quite easy. Region capital Bologna has its own airport that accommodates national and international flights. Bologna also has direct connectivity via rail to and from Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice. With train station Bologna Centrale as home base, most of Emilia Romagna’s towns are reachable by inexpensive regional trains via Ferrovie Emilia Romagna and Treni Italia.

Spending Two Perfect Days in Athens

The article originally appeared in Forbes Travel.

Photo courtesy of Starwood Hotels Worldwide.

Athens is called the “Cradle of Western Civilization” for good reason. This city has more than 2,500 years of history under its belt. In its heyday, the Greek metropolis spawned cities, democracies, philosophies, art movements and much more.

Today, Athens is the kind of place where you could spend days soaking in its antiquity or enjoy an afternoon getting lost in its contemporary culture. Whichever direction you’re pulled in, we have the itinerary to ensure a 48-hour experience worthy of the history books.

Day One
Drop your bags at Hotel Grande Bretagne, an elegant 142-year-old property in the heart of the city. Once you’ve changed into comfortable walking shoes, make the 15-minute journey past Syntagma Square until you’ve reached the archaeological area. You’ll be at the base of the Acropolis, history’s most epic mount.

You’re going to want to do it all during your stay, of course, so purchase the multi-attraction pass ticket, which gives access to the Parthenon, Temple of Olympian Zeus and all of Athens’ archaeological sites for five consecutive days

After all of the walking, you’ll have worked up an appetite worthy of the gods. Head down the Acropolis and back toward Syntagma for an outside table at Tzitzikas & Mermigas. This laid-back modern taverna has an outstanding appetizer lineup of tzatziki, soutzoukakia (meatballs in tomato sauce) and more, so fill up.

When you put down the saganaki (fried cheese), it’s back to Hotel Grand Bretagne for a timeout at the GB Spa, a spot offering a classic delight of saunas, Turkish baths, a pool and treatment rooms.

Hotel Grand Bretagne courtsey of Starwood.

Once you’ve rested up, put on the finest resort-chic outfit you’ve packed and grab a cab to the Acropolis Museum for a night visit. The gorgeous, all-glass building sits face-to-face with the Acropolis, reflecting the glowing Parthenon in its glass panels.

But beyond its physical majesty, the landmark also holds a substantial Greek art and sculpture collection. Not to be missed are level one’s Caryatids, six female figures that held up the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and level three’s Parthenon Gallery, a beautiful display of the frieze marbles and casts. The entire floor is built to the exact dimensions and orientation of the Parthenon’s cella.

Before leaving, make sure to get a drink on level two’s terrace, which has a front-row vista of the Acropolis.

For dinner, take a cab to Piraeus, Athens’ port city for fish. Like many major ports, Piraeus is a charming chaos of restaurants, nightclubs and fast-food shops. Have the hotel concierge book you a table at Varoulko, a chic dockside restaurant in the Mikrolimano marina, the smaller and slightly less chaotic port in Piraeus.

The maître d’ at Varoulko will call you a taxi. Try to get back to Syntagma Square just a few minutes before the hour to watch the Evzones, the changing of the Presidential Guard, a five-minute display of pageantry. (Tip: Though this changing happens every hour daily, a special ceremony, with official uniforms, occurs on Sundays at 11 a.m.)

Day Two
Say good morning to Greece from Hotel Grande Bretagne’s rooftop. There, you’ll find the most beautiful Acropolis morning view as well as a delectable breakfast buffet. Feast up, as you’re in for another walk through history.

This time, you’ll start out at the National Archaeological Museum, which sits just two metro stops from Syntagma Square. This attraction features the country’s finest collection of antiquities — most notably, a larger-than-life bronze Zeus.

From the museum, head to Ancient Agora, a sprawling site that was the city’s original meeting square. You can walk around temples and trek in the Stoa of Attalos, a monumental, two-level building that stretches roughly 380 feet.

For lunch, enjoy a bite at Quick Pitta, a relaxed gyro spot, just outside of the archaeological site in the Monastiraki neighborhood.

After lunch, be sure to stop by EMST, Athens’ new national museum of contemporary art. To be frank, the space can be walked through relatively quickly, but a visit gives you an idea of what is going on in creative Greek and international circles.

Stroll back in the hotel’s general direction to the nearby Kolonaki neighborhood, a vibrant area filled with boutiques and cafés. Our favorite right now is i-D, a store that curates a dynamic collection of clothing and accessories by Greek designers.

Stick around after you’ve finished shopping. By 9 p.m., Kolonaki square transforms to a bustling center of cocktail bars, shops and eateries. Pedestrian street Tsakalof is a standing-room-only thoroughfare that has everyone vying for an outdoor table or stool. But, at some point, even those eating wind up at Minnie the Moocher for a cocktail closer to the evening.

The Italian Destination Where You Should Be Skiing

This article appeared in Forbes Travel.

The settimana bianca (ski week) is perhaps Italy’s most cherished unofficial holiday. For a full week, friends, families and couples put everything on hold to head to the mountains for a bit of snow, snacks and shopping, without ever having to take out their passports. Italians know that their side of the Alps is the ideal location for a white week, thanks to optimal conditions, good food and unmatched ambience.

Though the Dolomites mountain range has long been on the map for Italy destination skiers thanks to the 1956 Winter Olympics and an incredible stunt sequence in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, the shy and sumptuous Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest region, is where you want to put down your bags and get your ski pass.

These are the four cities to really focus your vacation:

Courmayeur Mont Blanc
Bordering France and Switzerland, the Valle d’Aosta has a series of charming villages with extensive and varied range of pistes, easily reachable via train stations and airports in Turin and Milan. Valle d’Aosta’s best-known area is Courmayeur Mont Blanc, the picture-perfect traditional Alpine village at the base of Mont Blanc (Italy’s highest mountain). Courmayeur boasts Italy’s oldest ski school and is host to the World Cup Downhill and the International, a four-mile run that drops 3,300 feet on descent.

Where to stay: Hotel Villa Novecento. This 26-room chalet exudes yesteryear charm with 21st-century luxury. Expect a traditional mountain style, onsite spa and restaurant.

Inside Nira Montana, Photo Courtesy of Nira Montana

La Thuile
Italians love La Thuile for its family friendly vibe and it is easy access to France. It’s one of the few towns where you can actually ski into another country for the afternoon. Charming La Thuile is perfect for a quiet getaway, and it’s ideal for beginning skiers and experienced, off-piste daredevils. 

Where to stay: Nira Montana. This hotel is the area’s newest high-end property. With 55 rooms, an on-site spa, sweeping mountain views and a pet-friendly nature, Nira Montana is the peak of rustic chic.

Monterosa
The Monterosa area is one of the world’s largest ski regions (the tri-valley of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna) and is coveted for its 10-plus miles in lifts and wide pistes, which translates to ski tourism at its best. Expect all levels of skiers and lots of socializing.

Where to stay: Hotellerie De Mascognaz. Eight luxurious, multi-room chalets hidden in the mountains (and accessible by snowmobile) are what you’ll find at this Champoluc stunner. Beyond the private, convenience-filled units, you can also expect a spa and wellness center, gourmet restaurant and a virtual golf station in a restored farmhouse.

Cervinia
This section is exceptionally well known as a great destination for all levels of skiing and heli-skiing. Additionally, the village is linked to the renowned Zermatt resort across the Swiss border. Ski schools and instructors are available throughout the entire region, with a ski pass offering access to all slopes.

Where to stay: Principe delle Nevi. The super-chic ski-in/ski-out mountain lodge and hotel consists of six chalet suites (ask for a slope view). Aside from stunning vistas, you’ll also discover an on-site Balinese-themed spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, an apres-ski bar with a barbecue terrace and a restaurant.

Snowy Mountain Fun, Photo Courtesy of Nira Montana

Beyond the skis
When not on the slopes, Valle d’Aosta visitors head to the thermal springs of Prè Saint Didier and Saint Vincent, historic wellness spas founded in the early 19th century as healing destinations. The newly inaugurated Skyway is literally breath-taking — a panoramic and rotating cable car connecting Courmayeur with Pointe Helbronner that reaches an altitude of nearly 11,000 feet and supplies spectacular looks onto Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

For alpine history and culture, visit The Duke of Abruzzi Alpine Museum in Courmayeur or Jovecan’s Center for Ancient Remedies. Generally speaking, enthusiasts of the past will love all of the ancient Roman ruins — arches, theater, towers and roads — radiating from Aosta.

And when it comes to dining, the Aosta Valley is a bread basket of incredible dishes, from fresh pasta and meats to world-renowned cheese and cured meats. The region also has some shining-star restaurants, including Morgex’s Café Quinson, Courmayeur’s Petit Royal and Aosta’s Osteria da Nando, all rustic and incredible eating experiences. If you can’t get to those eateries, never fear — after all, this is Italy. Most any mountain rifugio (like Frantze Le Rascard in Champoluc) or village trattorie will do you well when it’s time for a good meal.

Meet me in Mexico City

Mexico. 27 Cultural sites, six natural sites, 1 cultural/natural site, eight intangible Cultural Heritage sites.  23 sites to be considered to the list.

These are the basic UNESCO numbers, and believe me, there is so much more, that I immediately learned when I landed in Mexico City for a three-day project I cavalierly entitled: #MeetMeInMexicoCity.  Yep, I was walking around the world's 19th largest city thanks to a last minute invitation from Alitalia  to board its inaugural FCO-MEX non-stop flight with a bag and the answer to its single question:  What would you do in 72 hours in Mexico City?

The question blew my mind.  My only knowledge of Mexico, much less Mexico City, is relegated to  a beautiful long weekend in Holbox, the brief Diego/Frida coverage in my modern art history recitation, a love of Spanish-language movies, and the sounds and images of my friend Milena.  In other words, I know postcards and film clips.  So to answer Alitalia’s question: Eat, Kahlo, Pyramids.

Given an entire alpha global city (which counts nearly nine million inhabitants across its 573 square miles, not to mention a total of20 million in the greater metropolitan area), I realized some kind of guidelines would be needed and thought about UNESCO's ongoing list of cultural and natural heritage sites.  As above, Mexico has 34 sites, with five of those cultural sites in and within one hour from Mexico City.  All I needed was a plan and transport while intangible heritage, which includes indigenous art, music, markets, festivals, ceremonies and food, needed just a little foot work.

Mexico City. Is. Amazing.  From Tenochtitlan to today, Mexico City is a beautiful adventure in color, sound, taste and history.  It was like standing in a wrinkle in time where history, art, culture and architecture overlapped and folded into each other.  In three days, I had delicious different regional cuisine and ate every kind of Vitamina T - tacos, tamales, tlacoyas, and tortas - I stood in front of a huge Diego Rivera mural at the national university on the same day that I climbed 2000 year old temples in an archaeological site, I danced to mariachi on a floating garden, walked around an international shrine, watched Aztec dancing, stood in the center the one of the biggest squares in the world,  and caught up with Frida and Luis.  My three day wrinkle in time wasa crazy and colorful rhythm of movement, imagery, scents and sounds.  I want more.

The 34 properties in Mexico on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

More #meetmeinMexicoCity at my StellerStories

Special Thank You to Alitalia and VisitMexico.

Oh me, oh my, Okonomiyaki - Eating in Japan

O-ko-no-mi-ya-ki: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of six steps down the palate... O. Ko. No. Mee. Ya. Kee.

I may not be Nabakov, but okonomiyaki is definitely my Lolita, my gastronomical catnip, my culinary raison d'etre.  I'd  cross the country for a seat at an okonomiyaki-ya.  Just the name alone makes me smile.  Those syncopated six syllables drum the perfect rhythm for a dish I'd consider the best comfort food I've ever eaten.  And in one week, I ate it 9 times.  Dinner and Lunch. Lunch. Dinner. Lunch and Dinner. Lunch and Dinner and Dinner.  Nope, I was never bored because every single time, that savoury pancake (to conceptualize it for the Western mind) was a completely new creation.

There is nothing pretty about okonomikyaki. And it's not meant to be.  It is an "everything-but-the-kitchen sink" dish of flour batter , cabbage, pork, egg, bean sprouts and noodles, plus whatever else you choose-- depending on where you are from when in Japan, or what you like.  It's like the Wild West of recipes with a murky backstory, quick draws and no rules.

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Getting my okonomiyaki on - Kansai-style: Okonomiyaki is DIY at its very finest.  Personally, I think it should be a first date meal beause it is essentially a personality assessment.  The dish is hands out, which means cell phones down.  Within five minutes you'll figure out who is collaborative, encouraging, adventuresome and a food-dynamo or perfectionist, selfish and all around food afraid.

Where:  My first and favorite is Poppoya in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture.  Vibe is charming, rustic, no frills and beer or umeshu (plum wine).  Seating is bar side and table.

MORE:  My Food Traveller piece on okonomiyaki for The Guardian, July 2016

How to Have the Perfect Holiday in Dubrovnik

This article first appeared in Travel + Leisure, January 2016.

This coastal destination is famous as a Game of Thrones backdrop, but there's far more to explore in this ancient walled city. 

Medieval architecture, cobblestone streets, and a panorama of Navy blue seas are the daily background of Dubrovnik, the coastal city in southern Croatia. In the warmer months, the charming walled town gives a sly wink and opens its arms to those looking for a private getaway more affordable than Saint Tropez, Forte di Marmi, or the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. And in the winter months, after the crowds depart, the Old Town quiets down but offers no less to curious travelers. Here's how to best enjoy it any time of year.

Explore

Walk the walls: The medieval fortress makes for a memorable morning workout. The stone ramparts, gates, bastions, forts, and towers that they connect span nearly 6,400 feet (1.2 miles). From every point, the walls give visitors a glimpse into the city's construction and centuries of defense. When you're ready for a break, the St. John's Gate has a small juice bar and leads to the Maritime Museum (don't miss your Instagram-worthy chance to stand next to those large anchors), while the Revelin tower has a nightclub open in the evening. After you've walked the perimeter, take a ride on the local cable car to see what you just walked.

Near the city's Pile gate, the Franciscan Monastery is a feat of Romanesque artistry. Its cloister, with arches and 120 columns, musters mid-14th century charm and nostalgia, and the same goes for its museum collection of paintings and relics. The Old Pharmacy, the third oldest in the world, has been selling its tinctures and potions since 1317.

Get down with Game of Thrones: While the Old Town and its walls may be the site of King's Landing and Cersei's walk of shame on the show, the nearby Trsteno Arboretum has played backdrop to some of the Lannisters' finest moments. The early Renaissance botanical garden has a world-class collection of plants and trees, including 500-year-old oriental pines, and sits cliff side for the perfect sunset moment.

Tour the city: The Old Town may be tiny, but feels larger than life with Aljosa Lecic, a private guide from Calvados Club. One of the city's more prolific guides, Aljosa can wax poetic, political, and philosophical, while sharing locals-only tips and sidestepping into the music school where he trained as a child.

Swim: A dip in the Adriatic is meditative and most likely healing, thanks to the perfect combination of temperature, cleanliness, and salt. The city is surrounded by beaches, but there is nothing like the water-level promenade of the Hotel Excelsior.

Eat

Bota: Hidden behind the city's Cathedral, Bota and its Alice in Wonderland-worthy seating puts a spin on Croatia's world-famous oysters by mixing them up with a sushi menu. This is a far cry from traditional Croation fare.

About a 15 minute drive from the old town, Pantarul is a mod farm-to-table restaurant putting a contemporary vibe on traditional Croatian recipes.

Victoria's ivy-covered pergola overlooking the walled city and the surrounding blue expanse has sunset on lockdown, and then some. Chef Roberto Chavez presents a masterpiece of Peruvian-Adriatic fusion. Get here before Michelin does.

Drink

Buža Bar: This "hole in the wall bar" may be on everyone's list, but don't overlook it: The cascading cliffs on the edge of the city's ramparts are sunset-perfect. When the season cools down, book a table at D'vino, a small wine bar with a focus on Croatian wines and cheeses. A street-side seat at any cafe on the old town's Stradun (the main road) is great for people watching.

Shop

Like many historic centers, Dubrovnik's is lined with souvenir and trinket shops, but they deserve a visit so you can see what the bayside city is known for: crafts like lace and embroidery. Men's store Croata is the source for the traditional Croatian neckties that changed men's fashion forevermore. In the town square, Gundulićeva Poljana, there's a morning market of artisan food items like cheese, honey, jelly, lavender, and locally made souvenirs.

Stay

There are several hotels centrally located in town, from the luxury 19-room Pučić Palace, which sits front and center in Gundulićeva Poljana. Just a ten minute walk away is the elegant Villa Orsula, a 1930s-era mansion with terraced gardens, seaside views, and 13 rooms.

Erica Firpo is based in Rome and writes regularly for Travel & Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

La Thuile, Italy and Nira Montana

Once upon a time, my friends and I went to Aspen, Colorado for a very fabulous New Year's of chalets, parties and snowboard lessons. I lasted all of one day on the bunny slope as my gang of "I learned how to ski at 4" friends spent hours on the black pistes in what I viewed as cold monotony. I told myself I wasn't interested in snowboarding or skiing, in spite of how cute the instructors were, because it was cold and I had a "less is more" aesthetic, especially when it came to clothing.  So yes, I scoffed at their stylish ski outfits and après ski gear, telling myselfit made more sense to head to the beach with a light bag and possibly no clothing, than to pile up a suitcase with thermals. In reality,  I didn't want to learn anything new or cold at 30 years old but 12 years later, I had a change of heart.

Every year, la settimana bianca, the winter school break usually dedicated to a mountain holiday, falls during Darius' birthday week, and he and the little one head off for ski break with my logic thatit isn't always economically prudent to tag along unless I am actively participating.  Clever, huh?  But this year, I thought I'd give him the gift that keeps on giving.... I'd learn how to ski.

Our destination-  La Thuile, in Valle d'Aosta-- Italy's tiniest region in its northwest, a bilingual Franco-Italian ski and nature hamlet that may just be the best place for an adult beginner.  Niched in the Italian Alps, Europe's highest peak Monte Bianco overlooks the tiny valley and France's La Rosiere shares the mountains, so you can ski two countries in a morning- my goal, believe or not.

With zero ski skills, my overall experience at La Thuile was incredible.  The first few days were sunny, so learning the basics on the bunny slopes was more than pleasant- it was kind of like hanging out at the beach, but with layers.  La Thuile's ski instructors were incredibly patient and believe in morning lessons, not full day, so that I had time to recoup- which meant the Turkish bath to loosen up my muscles.  Day Three was very cold, but not *that* cold, thanks to a little help from The North Face whose wind-resistent gear kept me warm and dry every time that I fell.  Did I mention by this time I was on the top of the mountain on blue pistes with descents and turns?   Day Four was France, yes, I skied to the border and then some.   By this time, Darius, the girls and I did a few runs together (notice the ski jargon?) and I finally got the overall "it" of skiing-  cold air on my face, catching up to an expert, wiping out and then happily getting up again.  Day Five I was sore and tired, and vowed to come back.

Here's a beginner's look at skiing in La Thuile.

For your next ski trip you should be skiing in Italy's Valle d'Aosta- my article for Forbes Travel.

Getaway: Costa Navarino, Greece

Greece.  Hellas.  Graecia.

Visiting the Hellenic Republic has been on my mind long before Grexit fears and decades before life with an obsessed and ancient idiom quoting archaeologist*. Ever since I was a child and my parents handed me D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a consolation prize for their trip to Athens, I've imagined languid days of oracles and island hopping, afternoons of Athens and Acropolis, and meetings with those who do that ouzo oh so well.  And to spite those recent headlines of crisis, reforms, protests and chaos [which made people ask me if visiting Greece was safe- yes it is], it was time to pack the overnight bag for a flight to Kalamata.

The Destination: The Romanos , a Luxury Collection resort, invited me to Costa Navarino, a small Peloppenese beach area and of course, I said yes for several reasons.  First for the relax-and-do-nothing vibe that I desperately needed- The Romanos is a village unto itself of private beaches, boutiques, restaurants, golf courses, swimming pool and spa.  Beautifully hued of soft, muted tones and pedicured with rosemary plants , the visual aspect alone is peaceful, add in olfaction (you got it, the rosemary) and audition (birds, cicadas, crickets) and it is paradise, even without the pampering of itsIonian Exclusive experience.  And as much as I appreciate a digital detox, I also love when a hotel just gets it technically and logistically-- from an excellent, salon-quality blow dryer to easy, fast wifi.  The Romanos charmed me with WhatsApp (did I really just write that?)- you know, the message app that all high schoolers love.   Once I added The Romanos in my contacts, I chatted with Xanthi about Greek salads, opening screen doors, locking myself out of the room and butler service pick up.

The second and equally important reason for a quick weekend getaway was that I wanted a little history with my Ionian sun tan, and there is no doubt that blue waters of theBay of Navarino have seen it all- sea-faring ancient explorers [Odysseus, perhaps], medieval crusaders, armadas and warships.  Greek Independence sprang from the Pelopponese with the 1827 Battle of Navarino as key to ending Ottoman rule and establishing an independent Greek state.  In Pylos and on islets throughout the bay are memorials and commemorations to the battles and the allied forces (French, British, Russian) who fought with the Greeks, while looming above Pylos is the 16th century Neokastro castle, an Ottoman fortress overlooking the bay.  I took a spin around the bay, enjoyed a dip in the cool waters, walked through the castle and then looked for Nestor's cave at Voidokilia (belly of the ox) beach.

All in all, I had a tiny dip in Greece, which reminded me what I had put on the back burner* in these past years.  So I've already called the girls and we're planning the next getaway to Athens for more history and food, and a bit of contemporary art.  Remember, it's just a flight away.

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*Let's just blame the Professor for side-tracking an earlier trip to Greece with his Roman obsessions.