Savoring the Tastes of Puglia

One of Puglia's abundance of ancient olive trees.

Some of the ancient olive trees date back 2,000 years.

Whenever I heard someone mention Puglia over the past 25 years, I could only think back to the music-filled and pasta heavy restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy, where I once threw my husband a memorable and ruckus birthday party before we were married.

All that changed a few years ago when I met Antonello Losito, founder of Southern Visions Travel, and heard him boast about the beauty and food of his native region, Puglia, located in the heel of Italy’s boot and up along the Adriatic coast. “You must come to Puglia to see for yourself,” he urged. He listed the reasons why, and I listened. I can now say firsthand that Puglia is a trip worth making. With only six days to explore, my husband, Rich, and I made the most of our time, splitting our week between the coastline area south of Bari and the historic city of Lecce. With the help of Southern Visions, we spent our first two days bicycling, equipped with titanium bikes and self-guided directions that the company provided.

A break from cycling to savor the poppy season.

Blooming poppies everywhere.

Biking along the flat coastline proved leisurely and scenic beyond my expectations. Setting out, I had no idea that we’d be biking amongst acres and acres of ancient olive trees, some as old as 2,000 years and still producing olives. The small country roads were perfect for taking it all in, the red poppies blooming and fennel bulbs popping up amidst the olive groves. We stopped for a crudo (raw fish) lunch in the seaside town of Savallettri, at a modern raw fish bar called

Fresh crudo at Pescheria 2 Mari in Savelletri.

Fresh crudo at Pescheria 2 Mari in Savelletri.

Pescheria 2 Mari. Our server, Rosanna, who’s family owns the restaurant, made sure in her perfect English that we understood the restaurant serves only raw fish. Nothing else. We nodded, and she offered her suggestions, explaining that the fish is caught each morning and cleaned and cut to order. We savored a sampling of slices of sea bream, tuna, small shrimp and langoustine, washing it down with a local rose wine. One Italian family and their young son finished their meal—their chairs quickly filled by several couples who had come from Milan to Puglia for a long weekend.

Back on our bikes, we rode inland a few miles to our hotel, the Masseria Torre Coccaro. Beautifully appointed, the masseria (farm house) is part of an estate and olive farm dating back to the 16th century, recently transformed into a charming, 39-room hotel. The highlight is not the rooms, which are simple and comfortable, but the masseria’s charm, manicured gardens, delicious restaurant and spa–the olive oil massage was

The trull houses of Alberobello.

The trull houses of Alberobello.

sheer heaven. The following day, we set out in our rental car with our bikes attached, for a 31-mile ride beginning in the town of Alberbello, known for its cone-shapes Trulli houses. Riding through more olives, vineyards and small country roads, we made our way through the village of Locotarundo where we stopped at a creamery to snack on some cheese and crackers, and continued on to the town of Martina Franca, a baroque town filled with art and history. Although there were few people at the Osteria Piazzetta Garibaldi, we were treated

Cliffside in Polignano a Mare

Cliffside in Polignano a Mare.

like the locals that frequent the place and savored a vegetarian lunch of grilled eggplant, fava bean puree, escarole and grilled sweet pepper. Finished with a macchiato and I was ready to get back on my bike.

That evening, we drove to the cliffside town of Polignano a Mare—not to be missed. Before dinner, we walked along the craggy rocks lining the sea, and strolled through the charming centro storico, still surrounded by ancient walls. If you stop here, do not miss Il Super Mago del Gelo, the gelateria right across the street.

Food is a well-earned and notable theme in Puglia. The creamy burrata. The burnt wheat pasta. The robust olive oil. The orrecchiette. The following morning we had a chance to hone our culinary skills firsthand with a Puglian chef, Tiziano Mita. We met Tiziano at the outdoor market in Monopoli, and helped him collect

Fresh fava beans at the market in Monopoli.

Fresh fava beans at the market in Monopoli.

beautiful tomatoes, asparagus, fava beans, fresh purple-skinned garlic, and gorgeous strawberries. A consultant for Eataly in New York as well as a talented pastry chef, Tiziano regaled us with stories about his mother and her preparation for his family’s ritual Sunday meal. Tiziano taught us how to turn pasta dough into macaroni which we rolled over a long metal rod, sear rabbit in oil, thyme and rosemary, create individual frittatas with pecorino, asparagus tips and topped with burrata foam. And for dessert, ricotta with fresh berry juice and crushed almonds from Tiziano’s mother’s garden.

We learned the fascinating history of the local cuisine, known as cucina povera, or peasant cooking, which refers to the frugal talents of poor Italian cooks who conjured up what they could from gardens, forests, fields and oceans.

Beautiful berries.

Beautiful berries.

Sitting outside with the sea far in the distance, we sipped a local wine and savored the fruits of our labors. A visit to Puglia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the old town of Ostuni, also known as the white city. Its cream-colored walls and cobblestone streets are the magic of this citadel, built on top of a hill and still surrounded by ancient walls. At an outdoor table at Taverna Gelosia, we dined on black rice with shrimp and curry and orecchiete—a local specialty—prepared with tuna, anchovies and black olives. We washed it all down with a local red wine made with Negroamaro grapes.

Before heading south to Lecce, we stopped by the Masseria Maccarone to buy some of the delicious olive oil we

Fresh purple-skinned garlic.

Fresh purple-skinned garlic.

savored with our crudo at the Pescheria 2 Mari. Three large bottles packed in a box, and off we went. Midway in our two-hour drive, we stopped off at the Li Veli winery, a tasty and worthwhile stop. Alfredo, one of the owners, gave us an in-depth tour of the winery and surrounding vineyards, before sitting down to taste some of their wines—we were happy to learn that Li Veli exports to the U.S. so we can drink them at home too.

Entering the Hotel Mantatelure in the center of historic Lecce is like going into a private home. With six guest rooms and a large common garden with tables, lounge chairs, sofas and a hot tub, the hotel is like a vacation unto itself. That said, the winding streets of Lecce’s old city are peppered with boutiques,

Rolling burnt-wheat macaroni.

Rolling burnt-wheat dough into macaroni.

wine bars, cathedrals and ruins of a 2nd century Roman Amphitheater in the middle of its central square. A two hour walking tour with Silvia Como–who works with SV and is originally from northern Italy–exposed me to the city’s rich history, the character of the region, and some fascinating facts behind its architecture. Silvia pointed me toward a few good restaurants, like La Torre de Merino and Le Zie, a well known wine bar called Mamma Elvira, and naturally, the famous Natale gelateria which I visited more than once and spent little time worrying about calorie consumption.

A farewell cappuccino on the Adriatic.

A farewell cappuccino on the shores of the Adriatic.

As we walked and talked about the people of Puglia, Silvia explained that in this particular region of Italy, there are very few psychologists. Coming from New York, this is a pretty startling comment. “People work and have stress,” she said, “and then they take care of themselves with siesta,” which I saw firsthand is a devout practice that continues with stores closing  from 1:00 to 5:00 pm. “People eat and talk and take walks during that time,” she went on, and are less stressed than those in other regions, now swept up by faster-paced ways. I thought about what she said while I savored my gelato, following the winding cobblestone streets back to my hotel. I also wondered when I’d next make it back to Puglia.

Why (oh why) We Write

UnknownI have been writing my entire life. When I was a kid, I wrote poetry. I wrote lengthy entries in my diary. I penned long notes to pass to friends in class. And I’ve always loved writing letters and continue to do so–yes, by longhand. I wrote articles for the newspaper in high school and college. And eventually for The New York Times and national magazines. And of course, I blog. Writing, then and now, has always been a part of my life–an opportunity to share, transmit, communicate and inform. I am so lucky to love what I do, and what I do is write.

A few weeks ago, writer and photographer Ellen Barone asked me to participate in a “Blog Hop,” in which writers share their views on the writing life. You can read Ellen’s thoughts and learn of her inspiring work here.

Below are my answers to the four questions that are hopping from blog to blog. I will be passing the torch to the three wonderful writers—Holly Rosen Fink, Jennifer Lang and Irene Lane—who will post their own responses to the four questions next week on their respective blogs. So, here goes.

1. What am I working on/writing?

Somehow, this is never a simple answer and I am rarely working on just one thing. Presently, I am working on a travel piece about Jerusalem for families for National Geographic Traveler. I am also in the early stages of a memoir, inspired by the variety of objects and treasures I discovered in my mother’s closet while cleaning out my childhood home (my mother is currently living in a nearby assisted living community). Just to have some more balls in the air, I am taking an 11-month course on Positive Psychology through the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. As a journalist by trade, I am always juggling ideas in my head, ones that I think would make a good, interesting and colorful story. Sometimes they make it onto the page in the form of a pitch letter and eventually an article or blog post. Sometimes not. That is the world of a freelancer.

2. How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?images

This is a tougher question for answer. The ways in which I think my work and writing differ from others of its genre are based on my interests. A passionate adventure traveler, education-focused parent, wine-loving daughter of a problem drinker, and meditator who enjoys a healthy, yoga-filled lifestyle, my interests are what guide my work and writing. I attempt to bring my passion into my writing, and hope that on some level, it relates, inspires, helps or just interests those who are reading.

3. Why do I write what I do?

When I was a graduate student in journalism school at NYU, my mentor said the best thing for a journalist to do is  find a niche. I struggled with that notion then, and still struggle with it. While I may have had greater success—whatever that actually means—if I’d stuck with one particular topic and nurtured just one specific niche, I chose to develop my writing in the areas that inspired and intrigued me over different phases of my career. I got pregnant with my first child while I was working at Rolling Stone magazine. When an editor approached me and told me her friend at at a national parenting magazine was looking for a pregnant writer to write a feature article about becoming a new mother, I knew that was a dream opportunity. I went on to write articles for a variety of parenting publications, covering topics from education and child development to sibling rivalry and the lost art of handwriting. Similarly, I was often traveling, which led to articles on family travel, culinary travel and adventure travel. Why? Because that’s what interests me. So I suppose the answer to “Why do I write what I do?” is best answered by simply saying, “I write what I’m living.”

4. How does my writing process work?

When it comes to writing, I tend to be a serious gatherer. I over-report, over-interview and over-read (if that’s possible) on whatever topic I’m covering. I’d rather have too much information than too little. I normally write an outline, pouring through notes, highlighting and marking as if I’m still a college student. Once I’m ready to put pen to paper—meaning fingers to keyboard—it’s almost as if I have turned on a jet engine that won’t stop until it gets to its destination. I plow through, putting the pieces of my written and mental puzzle together and hope that when I lift my head it’ll be coherent. There are always changes to be made, and often cutting to do, but that’s how I get it done.

When I’m blogging or working on first person pieces, my process is a lot more dependent on my mood and  surroundings. I love to write outdoors, and if I can’t, then I need to look out doors. Sometimes though, sitting by a warm fire is inspiration for my thoughts. I’m just so blessed that I love what I do.

Now, learn a bit about my fellow Blog Hop writers…

Consumer travel journalist, Ellen Barone, has been creating and curating Ellen Baroneintriguing, trustworthy and engaging travel inspiration and advice since 1998. With her signature blend of narrative and service journalism, editorial photography and digital technology, Ellen is a notable example of a photojournalist fusing blogging, multimedia storytelling and social media to engage with a diverse and active following. Discover authentic experiences, travel advice, vacation tips, travel tech reviews, gear recommendations, ideas and inspiration for your next adventure in Ellen’s popular travel blogs published at

Holly Rosen Fink is a Marketing, Communications, Public Relations, Branding Holly Rosen Finkand Social Media expert with over 15 years’ experience increasing brand awareness and sales at leading publishing houses and media companies. She blogs at and and is a current contributor to This Girl Travels, Ciao Bambino, Family Vacation Critic, Go Girlfriend, The Broad Side and Women & Hollywood. She is also currently producing the 3rd annual production of “Listen to Your Mother,” coming to Symphony Space on May 4th.

Mostly American, a little French and kind of Israeli, Jennifer Lang has spent Jennifer Langdecades jumping between continents. The question that has plagued her most is which way is home? For the past 10 years, she’s thrived on one constant: wherever she lives, she writes. Once upon a time, she was a magazine writer for Alternative Medicine, Parenting, Yoga for Natural Solutions, Yoga Journal and more. Until she decided to focus on writing her own stories as well as teaching Creative Non-Fiction writing classes. Her essays have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, the South Loop Review as well as on, among others. In 2011, she and her family relocated–once again–from White Plains, New York to Raanana, Israel, where she continues to write and teach and push the boundaries. Connect with her through her blog, opentoisrael, her attempt to see the good in a place she never dreamed of calling home.

Irene LaneIrene Lane has written and spoken extensively about sustainable travel and how families can choose vacations that support communities socially, economically and environmentally.  She is frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and her blog articles and short pieces also have been published in Green Living MagazineThe PlanetDYour Life is a Trip and LadyAdventureramong others.  In addition to being the founder of Greenloons, which provides sustainable travel tips and information as well as a carefully curated collection of green travel experiences for families, Irene is the only sustainable travel consultant in the United States who can certify a green destination under the internationally-accredited Biosphere certification.



About Caren Osten Gerszberg: A freelance writer, blogger, editor and frequent contributor to The New York Times, as well as many national magazines and websites, Caren Osten Gerszberg blogs for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She also blogs about travel for Embark, a blog focusing on family and adventure travel. She is the co-editor of “Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up” (Seal Press), and the blog of the same name. For two years, she wrote a bi-weekly column, Mom U, for the New York Times education blog, “The Choice,” about the parents’ perspective of the college admissions process.

Adventures in Argentina: Buenos Aires & Patagonia

Jacarandas in bloom, Buenos Aires

Jacarandas in bloom, Buenos Aires

When the email arrived from my 20-year-old daughter, I realized she’d learned a few things about travel planning. The subject line read “Argentina,” and the attached Google doc was titled: “Our Plans”

Nicole was spending the fall semester of her junior year studying in Buenos Aires, and my journey to visit her would last six days, three in her newly adopted city, Buenos Aires, and three in the southern region of Patagonia.

Her itinerary covered our three days in BA, with each day’s plans listed is chronological order. “Brunch in Palermo at either Voulez-Vous or Bartola,” read one event;  “Cemetario and MALBA museum (Av. Pres. Figueroa Alcorta 3415)” was proposed for another. There were addresses, reservation times, neighborhoods pinpointed and even links so I could choose between restaurants.

Upon my morning arrival, I headed straight to the hotel where Nicole, my roommate for the following three nights, was waiting. The Hub Porteño, a cozy and elegant 11-room boutique hotel, is made to feel like

Brunch at Bartola in Palermo

Brunch at Bartola in Palermo

a home rather than a hotel. Situated in the tony section of Recoleta with its beautiful galleries, cafes and  parks, the hotel’s concierge (our favorite was Martin who takes his job very seriously) emerges from a hidden office when he hears people gathering by the elevator or in its neighboring “living room.” Not to be missed: a visit to the stylish rooftop area and its open air lounge. There’s also a gym and sauna up there, but I was too busy eating, drinking and sightseeing to visit.

As planned by my personal guide, we had a delicious brunch at Bartola in the Palermo neighborhood—sort of like what Soho used to be. It was a balmy Spring day, and we sat outside on pink wooden chairs, watching people stroll along the cobblestone streets that are dotted with chic boutiques, bars and cafes. Since muggings are about as common as psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires, Nicole warned me never to take out my iPhone or leave my purse open–so be forewarned.

After Palermo, we stumbled upon the Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays, a botanical park lined with manicured paths and sprinkled with school children on outings and couples strolling. We noticed a group of tourists on a Biking Buenos Aires tour, which seems like a great way to tour the city. Walking through the city streets, we could smell the sweet blossoms of the purple jacaranda trees in full bloom.

Recoleta cemetary

La Recoleta cemetery

Next stop was one the city’s most fascinating–the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a labyrinth of above-ground mausoleums. Many famous Argentine figures are buried here, including Eva Peron. The fun here is getting lost among the long outdoor corridors, peaking inside the mausoleums, at times coming across recently laid flowers, candles, photos and even candy. On our walk back to Hub Porteño, we strolled by the famous cafes–notably La Biela—where people sit for hours, sipping café or an aperitif and lazing the afternoon away.

Vegetarians beware, Argentina is the beef capital of the world. Nicole scored us a table at one of they city’s more famous parillas (pronounced par-ee-jas), Cabaña las Lilas. Seated in the outdoor area along the main canal of

Inside the El Ateneo bookstore

Inside the El Ateneo bookstore

Puerto Madero, we sipped a local Malbec wine, started our feast with provoleta (grilled provolone cheese) and salad before moving on to two cuts of succulent beef which we topped with chimichurri sauce.

The following day, we walked through Recoleta and along the Avenida Santa Fe. Nicole had a class to attend, and urged me to make a stop at her favorite shop, a bookstore called El Ateneo. Originally a theater built in 1919, El Ateneo was converted into an enormous bookstore in 2000 and its ornate architectural details are preserved–there’s a cafe and huge book selection (in Spanish). I had hoped to take a tour of the Teatro Colon opera house, but was unable to get a convenient time slot (get tickets in advance if possible), so continued my day walking through the streets of San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood, starting at the Plaza Dorrego which houses a bustling flea market on Sundays.

While in Buenos Aires, I learned that Nicole is not only adept at trip planning, but she’s also talented at exchanging black market money. I met her outside of her school and we walked to Calle Florida to make “cambio” with her guy–a personal source for pesos at nearly double the exchange than one gets at a bank. I followed my daughter who slyly entered a small kiosk—yes, newspapers and gum were also for sale—but the

Tango for tourists in San Telmo

Tango for tourists in San Telmo

real industry appeared to come from the numbers he presented to my daughter on a calculator. She nodded okay, lifted a few bills into the air to check that they were real, and counted her cash. Mission accomplished.  Mother impressed.

Our next stop was the nearby Plaza de Mayo–the city’s main square and location of the May 25th 1810 revolution that led to Argentina’s independence from Spain. It is also the hub of all political protests in Argentina. We were there to watch the weekly, Thursday at 3:30 pm march of Las Madres–a group of mothers of the Dirty War’s “disappeared” children. Some of these women  have been marching weekly since 1977, and it was moving to see them continue their plight in their advanced age.

Las Madres at the Plaza de Mayo

Las Madres marching at the Plaza de Mayo

The evening began with Gallery night, a city-sponsored event that takes place the second Thursday of each month in many art galleries of Palermo and Recoleta.  Open from 7 to 10 pm, galleries serve drinks and some have music. After a few stops, we headed to the bar at the Algodon Mansion where we sat in the cozy hotel bar, listening to live music and tasting wines from the Algodon Estates vineyard, before heading to the 10 pm tango show at Café los Angelitos. We opted to skip the pre-show dinner, and showed up at the historic café just a few minutes before show time. Yes it’s touristy, but is an upbeat, entertaining performance and fun to watch the tango come alive.

On our last day in the city, we headed to MALBA, the city’s museum of contemporary Latin American art. While the museum features art by 20th century painters such as Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, there are a large number of modern installations and artists, and we

Contemporary art at MALBA

Contemporary art at MALBA

were lucky to see an incredible solo exhibition by Liliana Porter.

After the museum and an afternoon of strolling and shopping, we headed to the Communidad Amijai, a synagogue in the less central Belgrano neighborhood. A contemporary-looking sanctuary made of wood and stone, the place was packed with young and old, dressed casually in jeans and singing along through the entire Friday night service–accompanied by bongo drums, guitar, piano and violin. It was a beautiful way to experience a Shabbat service in a foreign country. Afterwards, we headed to dinner at Osaka, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant where the blend of ceviche and sushi was mouthwatering, not to mention the amazing cocktails.

Three days chock full of urban activity quickly transformed into several more of spectacular nature and

Riding with Roberto and the Lago Argentino beyond

Riding with Roberto and the Lago Argentino beyond

adventure. An early morning, three-hour flight took us to El Calafate in Argentina’s most southern region of Patagonia. We headed straight to Eolo, our home for the following two nights and a slice of heaven set in the middle of the La Anita valley on the eastern side of Mount Frias. Depending from which window you look out, you may see the Lago Argentino towards the North, the valley and mountains towards the east and the Torres des Paine and the Rico branch of the lake towards the south.

After lunch looking out over a valley, snow covered mountain tops and the azure blue lake, we met Roberto for a horse back riding excursion. My horse was Electra, a 13-year-old beauty who, while slow to pick up her pace, was as sweet as can be. With Roberto leading us, we climbed the mountain, coming across large hares, grazing horses, cows, falcons, and eagles along the way. Roberto told us about the wide range of mountains stretching into Chile, the varying temperature changes and all the animals and birds we encountered. Once we descended from the mountain, we crossed the valley,

Morning views from Eolo's dining room

Morning views from Eolo’s dining room

coming across a flock of pink flamingos and more cows who ran away from Roberto’s intrepid puppy, Truco.

After three hours on horseback, we relaxed our tired legs in the lobby, peering out the windows at the sublime scenery. Dinner is a casual, yet serious affair at Eolo–there is a choice of three entrees and that night, ours (prawn ravioli) was divine. Lamb is the region’s local specialty and needless to say, there is plenty of beef to be eaten.

We woke early the following day to board a coach bus filled with adventurers from all over the world for our full day “Big Ice” trek to the Perito Moreno glacier. Eolo  had arranged for us to join the Hielo y Aventura tour, and our guide, Sylvia, explained the day’s itinerary which began with a visit to the catwalks, composed of several levels and

The Perito Moreno glacier up close

The Perito Moreno glacier up close

viewing points from which to see the glacier up close. From each balcony, the glacier looks no less impressive, particularly when you can hear a giant crash of falling ice taking place somewhere inside the vast glacier—equivalent in size to the entire city of Buenos Aires.

After the catwalks, the bus drove us to a small port from where we took a boat across the lake in front of the glacier to begin our “Big Ice” excursion. Once on the other side, we were separated into English and Spanish speaking groups.

We followed our guide, Julio, walking through the forest for 15 minutes and onto a muddy beach area in front of the glacier. We then began a one-hour hike up the

Julio teaches us about sink holes

Julio teaches us about sink holes

moraine, a fairly steep climb that took us in and out of the of forest–the enormous glacier never leaving site on our right. Julio explained that we’d be trekking 12 km (roughly 7.5 miles) on the ice, would stop once for lunch (we chose smoked salmon sandwiches caringly prepared by Eolo) and face challenging ice terrain and large sink holes. My daughter had been emphatic about this rigorous excursion (the “mini” ice trek involves walking 2 km with several stops to rest), and by now I was feeling adventurous, inspired by all these young people (ugh) and the variety of nationalities represented in our group (German, Australian, and French to name a few). The hike was in itself pretty strenuous and we kept a rapid pace. It started to rain and Julio stopped at one point to put on a pair of rain pants. I put my gloves on and off, trying to figure out what felt better with the changing temperature of my body and the constant variations in the weather.

We eventually reached a tent where a staff of guides put harnesses on each of us (safety protocol) and then fastened crampons–metal

Weary ice trekkers

Weary ice trekkers

spikes–to the bottom of our hiking boots. Once on the glacier, we divided into even smaller groups, and were joined by an additional guide who would be circling around us, helping to figure out the safest route on the icey surface, which changes every few days due to the glacier’s constant movement. The crampons felt strange at first, but began to feel natural after a few minutes of walking and digging into the ice beneath. Julio explained how sink holes develop and gave us background on the Perito Moreno lake glacier. We were welcome to fill up our bottles with the glacier’s puddling water, Julio offered–the purest, most refreshing I’d ever tasted. The blue colors beneath the ice were an optical illusion, he also explained, signifying nothing more than deeper packed ice.

After two hours trekking across the glacier, we sat down and ate our lunch. It was a chance to chat about the

Our final reward: whiskey on glacier ice

Our final reward: whiskey on glacier ice

the tradition of drinking mate (pronounced ma-tay), a subject Argentines are deeply passionate about, and talk to the other trekkers about travel experiences (one Aussie-Columbian civil engineer couple were at the end of a two month holiday through South America). The trek was challenging and invigorating, and just about every person on the bus fell asleep on the way back–the whiskey poured over glacier ice on the boat ride back may have helped initiate the slumber.

Nicole and I spent our last morning hiking up the mountain behind Eolo, taking in our final views of the lake, the snow covered Andes in the distance and the far reaching, lush valley floor. Only six days in Argentina with my adventure companion and personal Buenos Aires guide. A trip that only whet my appetite for more time–and steak–in these parts.


(Photo credit: Jacaranda Trees, Palermo Gardens, Buenos Aires, by Jose Luis Funes)

jacaranda tree photo credit

Traveling to Find Your Roots

My father is Romanian. My mother is French. As a child, I heard many stories about life in their native lands.

In front of my father's school. Brasov, Romania

In front of my father’s school. Brasov, Romania

I was fortunate to journey with my mother to France several times, visiting the homes, towns, and the convent in which she lived as a hidden child during the war.

While my father spoke lovingly to me about the mountainous region of his native Transylvania, he was afraid to go back and see what had become of the country, ravaged during the political reign of Nicolai Ceaușescu. He did return eventually, after Ceaușescu was no longer in power, and found his hometown, Brasov, and the surrounding region as lush and charming as he’d remembered. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it there until after my father’s death.

It was very important to me to share my parents’ heritage with my three children, Nicole, Emily and Simon. The legacies would always a be a part of me, and now them, and I felt as if they’d understand their heritage more if they stood in the steps where their grandparents once played, went to school, and so on. We traveled to France. I took them to Romania. And I believe it has forged an even deeper connection between my children and their roots.

I wrote an article, “Traveling to Find Your Roots,”  which was published in The New York Times Travel section on November, 15, 2013. It begins like this:

17GETAWAY-articleLargeIt was lunchtime at the Outlaws’ Shack in Poiana Brasov, a mountain resort in Transylvania, and we were washing down chunks of kashkaval cheese and peasant bread with sips of tsuica, a Romanian plum brandy. At a neighboring table, a man picked up a red onion and bit into it as if it were an apple — something I had seen only my father do.

Traveling to Romania a few years ago was a chance to see, firsthand, where my father, who had died two years earlier, spent his childhood. Armed with addresses I’d collected from my father’s sister, and accompanied by my three children, I felt the trip was a chance to experience my father’s heritage: to see his home and school, the local synagogue, the mountain resort where he learned to ski, and to eat the foods he spoke of longingly (though I refrained from biting into a raw onion).

Prompted by TV shows, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” (whose new series started on TLC in July) and the new PBS series “Genealogy Roadshow,” a spinoff of the Irish hit, a growing number of people are traveling with their family tree in tow.

 To continue reading, click here.

Eating My Way Through Astoria (yes, Queens)

IMG_4488When I signed up for a culinary walking tour of Astoria, I’d expected to learn about the neighborhood while ducking into some of its Greek restaurants. While I am happy to report that some Greeks do remain, I found instead an enlightening mélange of cultures and cuisines–from mozzarella-making and baklava to feta and falafel.

After reading a recent New York Times Real Estate section cover story, I now know that Queens is on its way to becoming “the next Brooklyn.” It was only a matter of time until the young and hipster-ish were priced out of their neighboring borough to the southwest.

Led by Renee Cohen, the chef and brains behind Cuisine Arts, the tour took a food-loving pack of 12 women on a four-hour walk around Astoria, Queens, and inside some of its most authentic cafes, IMG_4453restaurants and markets.

The adventure began at the Omonia Café, where our group gathered and learned about the area’s history. Renee talked about Astoria’s background, and more relevantly about the recent changes in the neighborhood and the fusing of cultures. As we sipped our coffee and tasted Omonia’s homemade baklava and spinach-feta pie, the café’s manager, Yanni, explained the IMG_4474history of the café—opened in 1977 by Greek immigrants—how they make their phyllo dough from scratch, and proudly that their wedding cake was featured in the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Our next stop was Djerden Burek (34-04A 31st Ave), a small Bosnian restaurant specializing in bureks–phyllo pastries filled with cheese, potato or spinach. We sampled each type, which are served with plain whole milk yogurt and a red pepper sauce.

The Mediterranean Food market on 34th Street was hard to resist. Here, we tastedIMG_4460 two types of feta cheese (my favorite was the sharp Parnsasos) and olives, and perused the huge selection of olive oils from places like Crete.

At Dave & Tony’s Salumeria on 30th Avenue, our group watched in awe as Joe, the current owner, performd a homemade mozzarella demonstration as we nibbled on cheese and sliced salamis. Originally from Naples, Joe explained how he starts with a 30 pound block of curd, breaking it into smaller pieces which he bathes in warm water several times, stretching and pulling to form the balls and braids of mozzarella, which he makes every morning.

IMG_4459Greek. Check. Bosnian. Check. Italian. Check. Now it was time to experience a more current trend in the neighborhood at Butcher Bar, a smokehouse that uses organic meats from local farms. Run by executive chef, Orlando Sanchez, the Butcher Bar has a backyard area where we sat outside and tasted the restaurants signature “burnt ends,” pulled pork and cornbread. Two sauces accompanied our barbecue–standard (sweet and tangy) and habanero (very hot).

As if we hadn’t eaten enough, I was still eager for the next stop at Beirut, at IMG_448628-28 Steinway Street. A market whose shelves were stocked with middle eastern products, like fresh pita and tahini, we walked through the market but realized the highlight was near the front door. There, Mohammad sliced open thin pitas, which he then filled with fried chickpea patties, lettuce, tomatoes, tahini dressing and a little bit of hot sauce–the perfect falafel.

Our tour was over. I made my way to the car, laden with with the food stuff I picked up along the way. Thanks to Cuisine Arts, next time I venture to Queens, perhaps with a stop at MOMA PS1 or the American Museum of the Moving Image, I’ll know just where to shop, and especially where to eat.




Rolling on the River

Our raft faces the rapids head on

Our raft faces the rapids head on

There are few things as thrilling as rolling on the river–whitewater rapids crashing against your raft, pushing and shoving as you fight to control the force of the water by digging your paddle deep into the river. It was our first time on northern California’s Tuolumne river, a wild and scenic waterway that begins in Yosemite National Park and then surges through a canyon, forming 18 miles of class IV+ rapids.

The trip we took was organized by rafting outfitter OARS, and introduced us to three

Relaxing & rock jumping at a swimming hole

Relaxing & rock jumping at a swimming hole


days of not just exhilarating rapids, beautiful hikes and pristine swimming holes, but also to the joys of craft beer and cheese tasting (more on that later).

There were 19 guests in our group–a few families, some cycling buddies and one couple–along with three rafting guides and four additional boat people to take all that food, beer, camping equipment and a minimal amount of clothing down the river with us.

Days were spent rafting through rapids, with names like Hell’s Kitchen, Surf City and Steamboat. Eli, the guide on our boat and the lead guide on the trip, entertained us with jokes and tales of the Toulumne and others rivers he rafted, and we grew quickly comfortable with his booming commands:

Paddle high five!

Paddle high five!

“Forward one time!”; “Right forward, left back! And again!”  Once we made it down the rapids with everyone intact, we celebrated our hard work with a “paddle high five.”

Each day, we took some time off from the river, and hiked along the Clavey river and up the north fork of the Toulumne. The heat wave, with temperatures reaching into the mid to high 90s, made the swimming holes a welcome highlight. We lazed on the rocks, made our way down natural rock slides, and on the first afternoon,


Literally rolling on the river

Rolling on the river, literally

some of our group extended their hike further up the trail (I was not one of them, but my 19-year-old daughter was). Their reward–a black bear sighting, a soaring jump into a watering hole, and swimming through a couple of waterfalls.

Back on the river, the canyon surrounding the Tuolumne looked  pristine to this New Yorker, and due to the high temperatures, the splash fights and chances to jump into the river in between the wild rapids were welcome activities. At lunchtime, we docked our rafts

Chef Vargas prepares dinner in the "kitchen"

Chef Vargas prepares dinner in the “kitchen”

along the river and the guides immediately got to work around a high table, slicing and dicing fresh fruit for us to munch on while they tended


to the rest of the meal. They carefully prepared lots of fresh food options–chicken ceasar wraps with avocados were a personal favorite, as were one morning’s eggs Benedict.

When the day was done, we docked along the river, and one of the guides explained the lay of the land–most importantly, where there were flat areas to pitch our tents and the

Tasting the Cypress Grove chevre

Tasting the Cypress Grove chevre

location of the toilet “system” for the night. Once the tents were ups, we headed  to the dining area and makeshift kitchen, set up along the river under a tarp. While Christian, a talented Chilean chef, prepped the evening’s culinary feast with the help of us wife and several guides, the rest of us got our palates ready with cheese and craft beer.

Janne, our representative from the Cypress Grove Creamery in Humboldt County, California, put out a selection each night of six different goat cheeses. She explained the history of the creamery, how the cheeses are made, and fielded many questions about the goats. Humboldt Fog cheese is one of my all-time favorites, and now I had a chance to taste some of its

Ceviche anyone?

Ceviche anyone?

cousins, such as Purple Haze, made with lavender and fennel, and Truffle Tremor, a goat cheese laced with bits of truffles.

I normally wouldn’t have thought to sip a cold beer with my goat cheese, but that was the pairing and I was ready. Shaun, the owner of the 21st Amendment Brewery, based in San Francisco, brought eight different canned craft beers for this thirsty group to savor. Sean explained how he ditched his plan to attend law school to start making beer instead,

Craft beers enjoyed & ready for recycling.

Craft beers enjoyed & ready for recycling.

and gave us the background of the company, process, and his beers, which range in alcohol content from 4.9% in Hell or High Watermelon to 11.5% in Lower de Boom Barleywine style ale. My personal favorite was an ale called Bitter American.

Christian, who discussed his menus and the pairings in advance of the trip with Janne and Shaun, brought out some of the tastiest ceviche I’ve ever had, along with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil on skewers. One night, he served skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and fresh asparagus, followed by tiramisu for dessert. And the following night, after more beer and cheese, accompanied by the chef’s skewered shrimp and prosciutto-wrapped scallops as appetizers, Christian presented a main course of lamb chops over wild mushroom risotto and snap peas. Dessert? S’mores, of

Pre-dinner scene by the river

Pre-dinner scene by the river

course. But this rendition was made with a variety of dark chocolates.

On the third and final day, our group enjoyed some time at a swimming hole until the water–controlled by a dam about 15 miles up the river–rose to a high enough level for us to paddle. Our group of six hopped onto our raft, ready for Eli’s guidance and occasional kudos. “Good work crew” he’d offer after we pulled hard and jumped into the middle of the raft when he shouted “Down low!” We rafted through rapids called “the

Our entire crew.

Our entire crew


Alps,” and finally through “Pinball” before reaching our take out point.

We said goodbye to our amazing guides, paddling partners and camping neighbors. Everyone in our group had come on this trip in search of  an adventure–with a dose of  gourmet food, divine cheese and some very tasty beer. I think it’s safe to say we all got what we came for.





Travels to the Sunshine State

In front of the Harry Potter castle.

In front of the Harry Potter castle.

Two of the things I love most are travel, and time alone with each of my kids. A few years back, I wrote about the gift of those journeys and how much I, and they, gain from that time away together. (You can read that piece here.)

The latest was a four-day jaunt to Florida with my 12-year-old son, Simon. At home, Simon and I rarely get a chance to spend time alone. After school and on weekends, he’s typically doing homework, playing sports or video games with friends, or watching and talking sports with his father. Four days away alone would indeed force him to spend time with ME. And so we went.

For the firs two days, we hung out on the beach in southern Florida. We played kadima, and built a sand castle, complete with a moat, flags, and some shell accoutrements. We played tennis, went to the supermarket and watched a movie and some college basketball games (I had no choice during March madness). We ended the days in the hot tub, and together, plotted the next phase of our IMG_3003trip.

The fun continued with two days in Orlando. I know my son would love me either way, but the fact that I am willing to go on thrilling, fast, upside down roller coasters did not hurt. We spent our first dizzying day at Disney, moving from one high-speed attraction to the next. We covered Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom, racing from ride to ride (Space Mountain is up there, but Expedition Everest was my favorite), except for a quick lunch in the “Morocco” part of Epcot. We ventured to Test Track, an attraction where we first designed our own car and then took it for a spin around an outdoor track. If we’d had the time, the plan was to continue on to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I was secretly relieved, however, that we were out of time and would have to skip that particular attraction as I heard it’s like being in a dark elevator that falls 13 stories. IMG_3017No thank you.

Once back at the hotel, we had little time to refresh before heading to downtown Orlando for the Orlando Magic basketball game against the Washington Wizards. After teaching Simon the art of negotiating a long taxi ride, we switched roles at the game. It was his turn to instruct me–about the players, the moves, the fouls, the rules. He also got to meet a former player, Bo Outlaw, who was at the game as a spectator. Who knew live basketball was this exciting?

At the Orlando Magic game.

At the Orlando Magic game.

The following morning, we journeyed to Universal for another day of brain shaking rides. After riding on the Incredible Hulk Rollercoaster, I needed to take some deep breaths to wave off some of the dizziness. We got completely soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure, and opted for a poncho on Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls flume ride. The highlight here was undoubtedly the Harry Potter area and it’s Forbidden Journey 4-D ride through the castle.

We weaved through the crowds, at times holding hands—something Simon would never allow at home. This, I realize is one of the beauties of being away. It’s just him and me and no one else matters.

Our time at Universal ended with the brand new Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. It is the largest, fastest and highest roller coaster I’ve ever seen. Once on the ride, you get to choose your own IMG_3052music, which is then piped into speakers by your ears. Simon picked rap/hip hop; I picked classic rock. I would’ve been happier with classical Mozart to reduce the pounding in my head by this point. After the ride, Simon announced he was ready to go back to the hotel to spend some time at the pool. Thank goodness.

We ended our day relaxing poolside. I thought I’d read my book, but instead found myself repeatedly tossing a tennis ball which Simon would leap into the air to catch before splashing into the water. I didn’t mind one bit. We laughed at some of my ridiculously bad throws, and at some of his pretty bad misses.

That night, over dinner, we talked about the highlights of our trip together. He’d tell me one of his; I’d follow with one of mine. We listed at least five a piece. The next morning, Simon said he wasn’t ready to leave. Nor was I. These were four precious days for me and my boy—ones we’d always remember.

A Focus on Women and Art in Florence


Elisabeth-ChaplinIn honor of women’s history month (March), a new walking tour focusing on women’s role in art has just launched in Florence, Italy. And isn’t it about time?

A collaboration between Context Travel and the Advancing Women Artist Foundation (AWA), this small group tour—led by Dr. Sheila Barker, director of the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists in the Age of the Medici at the Medici Archives Project—takes travelers on a three-hour walk through two museums within the Pitti complex.

Covering four centuries of art, this “walking seminar” explores the creative achievements of women in Florence—from artist to art patrons. Italian art is hugely male dominated, and this is a unique opportunity to delve into questions such as: “Were women artists discriminated against?” “Can their art be distinguished from that of their male peers?” and “Who were their main clients, men or women?”

The connection between history and future is made here as well, with part of the tour proceeds going towards the funding of upcoming restoration projects geared to salvaging the city’s art by women. For more information, contact Context Travel.


Botswana Beauty: The Okavango Delta

IMG_0537Sunday evening television was pretty sacred when I was growing up in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Although Laugh-In held the top spot in my house, I’ll never forget the mesmerizing wildlife images of Mutual of Ohama’s Wild Kingdom. Fast forward several decades and there I was–in the wild kingdom–or more specifically, on safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

A land-locked country in southern Africa, bordering Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Botswana is home to the world’s largest inland delta–the Okavango. With the help of Discover Africa, an Ohio-based agency specializing in travel to Africa, our

Our guides, Rain and Sevara flank our son.

Our guides, Rain and Sevara, flank our son.

group spent five days on safari in two different camps: Little Vumbura and Chitabe.

Each morning, we were woken up at 5:00 am for a light breakfast before heading out on the first of each day’s two game drives. At Vumbura, our two guides, Rain and Sevara, taught us about life on the delta while guiding us on dry land, through watering holes, and in mokoros (wooden canoes) traversing the floodplains.

During our game drives, we came across wildlife that I’d only before seen on TV or in movies, such as

A traditional mokoro, or wooden canoe.

A traditional mokoro.

Out of Africa. We came up close to a hyena den harboring young babies, a leopard both guarding and then eating her kill (an impala), which she’d stragically placed in the branches of a tree, a herd of 14 elephants cooling off in a watering hole at sundown, hippos swimming in the early morning, a bachelor herd of 8 buffalo, a warthog and her babies taking a mudbath, and multiple sightings of lions, giraffes, zebras, sables, antelopes, owls, storks, and more.

By the time we returned after our morning game drive, we were hungry for lunch. That was followed by several hours of rest and relaxation, ending with

A warthog family post mud bath.

A warthog family post mud bath.

4:00 pm teatime, and then a few more hours out on the delta before dinner. Tiring yet exhilarating, eye-opening yet hair-raising, safari made the concept of the food chain an up-close reality. The schedule was the same each day, but what we saw was often new and exciting.

The wildlife experience continued at Chitabe, a slightly larger camp with eight tents. The terrain here was different from Little Vumbura; it’s drier and there are so many dead trees around that it reminded me of a Tim Burton movie. Nevertheless, game is plentiful. Here, we had our first sighting of the almighty male lions who when they weren’t sleeping, strutted like the kings they are, flaunting their handsome mane. We came across a large pride of lions in which two cubs were

Up close and personal with a pride of lions.

Up close and personal with a pride of lions.

suckling their mother, an agitated male elephant that nearly charged our vehicle, and a leopard who was stalking a herd of impala but never went for the kill. We saw a group of zebras, which I now know is called a dazzle.

On our last night on safari, we had dinner in a boma, a traditional outdoor African barbecue, where traditional foods, such as burivos and pup, are cooked on an open flame. Admittedly, I had mixed feelings when I was instructed by our African waiter

Cooling off at sundown.

Cooling off at sundown.

that the tradition is to prepare a plate of food for my husband, kneel down and present “my man” with his meal. Let’s just say I played along and enjoyed my own plate of  delicious African dishes.

Our final game drive culminated in an eventful find. Luke, our guide, was notified via radio that there were some lions lazing around so we went to check them out. Once we crept in

A lion feast on her kill.

A lion feast on her kill.

to get a bit closer in the comfort of our 4 x 4 Land Rover vehicle, we saw one of the lions feasting on last night’s kill, a large kudu. From a mere 10 feet away, we watched the young male lion rip the kudu’s ear off, alternating between licking around the eye and tugging at the ear with her teeth.

This last sighting was simultaneously disgusting and electrifying. Upsetting and illuminating. Viewing the wildlife in its natural habitat in Botswana has left an indelible mark on me. One I thought would only ever be accessed by Marlin Perkins and his Wild Kingdom episodes. And now, I have my own pictures to prove it.




Getting some Headspace In Flight

imagesAir travel can be stressful, boring, anxiety-producing. Once in flight, there’s no way to escape–the surrounding confines of a packed aircraft and its poorly circulated air, the tension that comes with making a connection, the inevitable lost baggage syndrome. Except, perhaps, in your mind. Enter Headspace Take10 for the air, a new meditation audio offering onboard Virgin Atlantic flights.

Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, is the soothing voice and meditation guru behind Headspace, an audio guided meditation that one can listen to on any Ipod, Smartphone, etc. In their continued effort to bring meditation to the Unknownmasses, Puddicombe and his team devised the Headspace 10-minute guided meditation for the entire Virgin Atlantic fleet (they are also talking to Jet Blue about a similar partnership), which is hopefully helping a lot of airline passengers better deal with the stresses of modern air travel.

Recent research has been highlighting the positive effects of meditation, such as reduced anger and stress, added creativity, greater concentration and increased attention span. A recent article in Yale Scientific magazine writes, “Meditation does not only have emotional benefits. A growing body of evidence suggests that mindfulness training can help anxiety, chronic pain, addictions, and other disorders.”

You may not have plans to fly Virgin, or any airline, in the near future. But you can still download the Headspace app (“On-the-Go”) in the meantime, follow Puddicombe’s prompts, and you’ll find yourself breathing easier–on the ground or in the sky.

photo source