City Wonders Ancient Rome

CityWondersDark Rome Tours, a City Wonders brand, offers small group tours in Italy with expert, English-speaking guides and Skip the Line Access to help you get the best from your vacation. After being suggested to try Dark Rome Tours from our friends at Blogger Bridge, I reached out to them telling them that a girlfriend and I would be visiting Rome for the day, and they graciously booked us for the “Skip the Line: Colosseum Tour with Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.” We were pleased beyond our expectation!

Our Italian guide’s name was Davide, and he was entertaining from the start. His English vocabulary was better than some Americans that I know. 😉 We walked around historic Rome (Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill) for three hours and Davide shared stories – some that I knew and others that I hadn’t. We use headsets, which was helpful because we could wander away from our guide but still hear him.AncientRomeThe Colosseum is one of the iconic tourist attractions in the world with thousands of visitors each year. The crowds are huge and the waiting time can be long. Fortunately, we walked by quickly after getting our bags checked through security. The hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. It stands 40 meters above the Forum Romanum, looking down upon it on one side and upon the Circus Maximus on the other.

The Colosseum was built between 70 – 80 AD by Emperors Vespasian and Titus and could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 people. It was used primarily for gladiator contests and special events, such as mock sea battles and wild animal hunts. A gladiator school was built adjacent to the structures and wild animals were housed in the underground portion of the Colosseum. The structure is considered an architectural achievement of the Roman Empire.ColosseumFloorWe learned that the Roman Forum was the town center of Rome. It was the political, religious and shopping center. It contained the Senate, speakers platform, temples and shops. Unfortunately, marble and metals from the structures in Rome were removed from the Roman Forum and the Colosseum to build churches and other structures during medieval times. Davide asked us every step of the way, “Why do you think that this ancient structure is still here?” The answer was because it had been redeemed as a church or the words on the arches honored God. If they did not, but they exhausted the Roman gods, Constantine and rulers that followed destroyed the temples.SenateThe 15th century Church of St Lawrence was built with Roman Forum marble. The Temple of Saturn, built in 490 BC, is believed to be the oldest temple in the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum area was originally swampy and formerly used burial ground. The Roman engineers found a way to build proper drainage, which made the construction of the Colosseum possible. They build the first basilica here, which original was a meeting place for the Romans not a church as modern people now them to be.SaturnFollowing our tour of the Roman Forum, we made our way uphill to the famous Palatine Hill, the home of the Roman Emperors, which overlooks the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. It is a popular tourist destination and provides a great view of the surrounding area.PalatineHillDavide was extremely knowledgeable and interesting. I was very pleased with the quality of the tour and guide. It was nice to have a guide to point out interesting things at all three sites. I can’t imagine visiting the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill without a guide like Davide, who really enriched the experience. Our tour ended in Palatine Hill which afforded us the opportunity to linger longer after the tour was done.

This was an amazing tour experience for us – priceless memories that will last a lifetime. We fell in love with ancient Rome. I would not hesitate to use them again. I find that a good guide always enhances my experience, no matter how much I know about a site. A guide also helps me focus on what specifically interests me. I like the idea of someone else taking care of the details. 😉 Because Davide packed this tour with some much history and interesting facts, I could not imagine writing and sharing all the stories. That being said, it is worth booking this Dark Rome tour the next time you are in Rome.

When in Rome, explore as the Romans did! 😉

10 Things to Do in Naples, Italy

NaplesBuon Giorno, Naples, Italy! The legend tells that the origin of Naples is due to the mermaid Parthenope who killed herself in the Gulf of Naples because Ulysses refused her love. Maybe that’s why Naples is characterized by the cohabitation of opposites: good and evil, joy and sadness, beauty and decay. Personally I can’t get enough of this city – you can’t explain the love a girl has for the Mediterranean coast! We all know that we must eat pizza here, but did you also think about these 10 things?

1. Eat Pizza Perfection
Naples is the home of pizza. They take it so seriously that in 2004, the ministry for agriculture issued regulations outlining how a real Neapolitan pizza, Pizza Verace Napoletana, should be made. Look for the sign outside pizzerie to sample one of the three authentic types: pizza napoletana marinara (San Marzano tomatoes from Vesuvius’ slopes, garlic, oregano and olive oil), pizza napoletana margherita (mozzarella) and pizza napoletana margherita DOC (buffalo mozzarella). Try Sorbillo for truly excellent dough and the finest topping ingredients. We discovered Pizza Fritta con il Segreto (fried calzone).FriedPizza2. Visit Pompeii & Mount Vesuvius
For history lovers, no trip to Naples would be complete without a trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The archaeological sites have remained firmly embedded in most people’s memories since history class at school.

3. Drink up the Coffee Culture
Any coffee aficionado with even a passing knowledge of Italy’s food culture will know that Naples is famous for coffee, too. Neapolitan coffee is short and very, very strong. I mean, it would be sinful not to sip cappuccino while hanging out with girlfriends or people watching. 😉Cappuccino4. Walk on the Lungomore
The long seafront stroll from Santa Lucia to Mergellina is a classic weekend promenade.

5. Grab a Gelato
Neapolitans are passionate about ice cream, so you can expect the best. When it comes to flavors, most gelaterie offer a bewildering array, broken down into crema (creamy) and frutta (fruit) varieties. Our favorite gelaterie in town is Casa Infante Artigiani Del Gelato. Gelato here achieves the perfect balance between creamy and light, with the best Amalfi lemon in town. Ask for “fontana di cioccolato” for a delicious treat at the end of your gelato. 😉 Thanks, April, for the tip!Gelato6. Stroll through Naples Royalty
Three stops are critical for any visitor interested in the history of the Napeolitan royalty: Castel Nuovo was built in 1279 by Charles of Angiono, and today houses Naples’ museo civico, with Neopolitan artworks spanning the 15th-20th century – don’t miss the views from the fortress towers. The numerous apartments at Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) today house a collection of paintings, frescoes, tapestries, chandeliers and furniture from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Designed by Luigi Vanvitelli, Villa Comunale was inaugurated in 1781 as the garedini reali (royal park). There is a magnificent bandstand, built in 1887, and the small-is-beautiful Stazione Zoologica.

7. Wander Aimlessly Along Spaccanapoli
The best way to enjoy the historic center of Naples is to wander without a plan. The storico antico is at once ancient and modern – the street plan is older than the hills and the buildings have contained shops and apartments for centuries. But unlike some kind of preserved museum piece, the old center is very much alive. It’s a densely populated area and the locals don’t slow down for tourists.

8. Shop Until You Drop
Naples is one of the cheaper cities of Italy. Stroll the streets of Naples, as in all the port cities, you’ll see improvised markets and choreographic negotiations. Pay attention! They want to cheat you. Welcome in the full neapolitan tradition, you just received a pacco (pack or to trick someone). Therefore, I recommend visiting little shops that specialize in Italian leather goods and culinary delights. The aroma as you enter the shops is mesmerizing. I may have come home with some of these souvenirs. 😉ItalianShops9. Grab a Granita
While you are walking around town, grab a granita di limone, a rough-cut sorbet found at stalls around Naples. An even rougher sorbet is la grattata, with ice scraped on demand off a large chunk and doused with flavored syrup or lemon juice.

10. Sail to Capri or Around the Coast of NaplesSailing

24 Hours in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

SarajevoWith its extraordinary cultural and religious mix and rich Ottoman heritage, Sarajevo is a city that merits a visit at any time. Surrounded by green hills and bisected by a river, it is a place of spectacular beauty, and though the scars of the siege of the 1990s are still evident, Bosnians display heartening resilience and vitality.

THURSDAY
4PM McDonalds

Oh, the things you do for your kids and the places you stop after driving over five hours to get to Sarajevo. Yes, this American establishment was the first place we visited when we arrived in Sarajevo. The kids were sooo excited because we don’t have a McDonald’s in Montenegro. They ordered their Happy Meals with the “Cut the Rope” toy and enjoyed every bite. Note: you pay for everything when you are at McDonald’s in Bosnia, even the dipping sauce, so use them sparingly. The interesting thing about visiting McDonald’s outside of the US is studying its various menus and facilities. This one had a McCafe that included coffee, desserts and alcoholic beverages.

6PM Window Shopping
Along Sarajevo’s main pedestrian promenade called Ferhadija, we enjoyed a walk under the Christmas lights and brisk air. We found clothing stores, toy stores and many more, along with street vendors selling freshly-pressed pomegranate juice.Ferhadija7PM Dining in Old Town
We headed for Baščaršija – the heart of Ottoman Sarajevo – and enjoy cevapcici (che-VAHP-chee-chee), minced beef sausage-style kebabs served with pita-style bread, raw onions and kajmak – a Bosnian national dish. We stopped at Ćevabdžinica Željo 1, where you order in increments of five. Be prepared to sit close together, as this place is always packed.Zeljo8PM Coffee Talk
For Bosnians, drinking coffee is a ritual for relaxing, not quickening the pulse. Inside the rustic, wood-planked Miris Dunja, we unwounded and drank thick, frothy, slow-brewed Bosnian coffee served in copper pots.BosnianCoffee9PM Rest & Relaxation
We stayed at Marriott’s brand new Residence Inn Sarajevo. Read more about it here and why you should stay here when you visit Sarajevo.ResidenceInn

FRIDAY
9AM Hospitable Breakfast

We love continental breakfasts in Europe. It is not just cereal, processed scrambled eggs and pre-made “Belgium waffles” mix that you make in the waffle maker in the lobby. The breakfast includes cold meats and cheese, freshly cut fruit, muffins and breads, freshly scrambled eggs or hardboiled, if you like, and hot meats. The Residence Inn Sarajevo also had an espresso maker where you could make up to 8 varieties of coffee from freshly grounded beans.RIBreakfast12PM Street Lunch
No one is ambivalent about Sarajevo’s rich street food. One of my family’s favorite is burek, pastry dough filled with beef and potato, cheese or spinach. We headed back to the Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the historical and cultural center of the city. We ate at Buregdžinica Sač, where we paired these savory pie portions with a glass of yogurt. We walked off our lunch and picked up a bag of freshly grounded coffee, by a man who was pounding it in a large mortar. Who needs an electric grinder when you can do it by hand?! 😉 We completed our lunch at the Cream Shop, a sweet shop with baklava, kadaif and more.BurekIgda1PM Street Shopping
One of the oldest streets of the Baščaršija is Kazandžilu, or the Coppersmith Street. We found an ornately decorated Bosnian coffee set and platter. It was a unique piece because it was hand hammered and decorated.CopperShop

Marriott Comes to the Balkans – Rewards Card is Worth it!

RISarajevoBefore leaving the Unites States, some wise friends of ours recommended us to apply for the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card. We were already Marriott Rewards members, but the credit card takes it to the next level. Initially, we experienced a bit of sticker shock, but trust us: The $0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year, then $85 annual fee is well worth it.

The Marriott Rewards Premier card has quite a few perks to recommend it. First off, the signup bonus. Earn 50,000 Points after spending $1,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. It has a great rewards rate of 5 points per $1 spent at the Marriott; 2 per $1 spent on airlines, car rentals and restaurants; and 1 per $1 spent elsewhere. And then come the perks. Oh, the perks. Yes, there’s an $85 annual fee (waived the first year).

Since we received a free nights stay in a Category 1-4, we of course wanted to stay the at the best, but the only problems is that we lived in Southeast Europe, AND Marriott had all its hotels in Western Europe. Wait…did I just see a “coming soon.” Yes, Marriott was opening its first hotel in the Balkans in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. WooHoo! That’s not too far from us, and we have never been to Bosnia…yet. 🙂RISarajevoBedResidence Inn Sarajevo is amazing as soon as you walk in from the brisk, cold winter day. The staff, speaking both English and Bosnia, great you with a smile and a wealth of information about the area. As soon as you turn the door knob to come into your suite, you see the fully-equipped kitchen and separate areas for eating, working and relaxing. The well-designed rooms promote productivity with large, well-lit work desks, ergonomic chairs and complimentary high-speed Internet. A welcoming and restorative feel is created throughout with warm, earthy colours and light wood fixtures and fittings. Natural light floods the rooms through floor to ceiling windows and each suite has its own private terrace.RISarajevoLobbySince the Real Geek Dad is in graduate school, the public spaces on the ground floor were inviting, feature flexible seating for working or relaxing and a 24-hour Market selling drinks, snacks and meals. He also squeeze in some time to release some the tension in the fitness center. The Residence InnSarajevo also provided a delicious continental breakfast.RIColdFood RIHotFoodIdeally located near Old Town, the Residence Inn Sarajevo provided convenient access to the city’s historical and cultural attractions as well as restaurants, cafes and shops.

Here some other benefits that offset the fee, you’ll get:

  • One free night’s stay after your account approval, plus one night a year on your account anniversary
  • 15-night credit towards Elite status
  • No foreign transaction fees (key for international travelers – these usually set you back 3% of everything you spend abroad)

The anniversary free night’s stay, by itself, wipes out the annual fee with room to spare. The Marriott Premier gives you quite a bit in terms of rewards and bonuses – the signup bonus alone is better than the industry standard of $200-$300. I cannot wait to use this reward in a year!

24 Hours in Dubrovnik, Croatia

DubrovnikAt midday, church bells echo through Dubrovnik old town. Chic women click-clack down cobbled alleyways. The city’s charisma is intoxicating, full of rich history and tragedy. But much has changed over the last decade or so. The creative spirit that people of Dubrovnik fought to preserve is very much in evidence these days. Cafes, boutiques and restaurants have sprouted among buildings in myriad styles.

SATURDAY
10:30AM Dubrovnik Old Town Tour
During the winter season, the Dubrovnik Tourist Board organizes a FREE Saturday guided sightseeing tour around Dubrovnik old town in English, beginning at Pile Tourist Information Centre and lasted for an hour and a half, ending on Luža Square. Sign up by 6PM Friday by email here.DubrovnikTour

11AM Gundulićeva Poljana
A great way to take a break while on the tour in Dubrovnik old town is at Gundulic Square’s vibrant market. Fruits, vegetables, flowers and crafts are all sold here in this traditional and friendly setting. Also worth visiting here is the statue of the square’s namesake, the acclaimed 17th century poet, Ivan Gundulić. Make sure to pick up Dubrovnik’s traditional delicacy called arancini (candied orange peels.)Arancini

12PM Linđo Folklore Ensemble
Enjoyed a dazzling folklore dance performance of the Linđo ensemble in the heart of Dubrovnik old town in the Sloboda Cinema. The Folklore ensemble Linđo was founded in 1964 to promote traditional dances and songs of the Republic of Croatia. Linđo first started performing a year later, in 1965 and by today became a brand name when speaking of tourism in the city of Dubrovnik. Linđo itself is the most popular dance of the Dubrovnik coastal region and has been danced in the same manner for over 200 years. The dance is accompanied by the lijerica, an old South Dalmatian instrument with three strings, which came from the Eastern Mediterranean and Greece in late 18th century.Lindo

1PM Croatian Lunch
No one is ambivalent about Croatia’s rich food. For many, ćevapi (che-VAHP-ee) — beef sausages served with onions and french fries — reigns supreme. At Konoba Rhea Silvia I, prepare to order in increments of five. Complete your lunch at Razonoda, part of Pucić Palace, with Chemex coffee from the world-renowned Eli’s Caffe in Zagreb.Cevapi

8PM Coffee Talk
Cafe Festival is located on one of the most beautiful streets in the whole world, Stradun. This sidewalk cafe is perfect for two of Croatia’s favorite pastimes: drinking coffee and people watching. There’s no better place than Cafe Festival near the Franciscan monastery.

SUNDAY
10:30AM Brunch
Chihuahua Cantina Mexicana serves up “Mexican” food. For the price (enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and burritos in the 50kn range), it’s an easy option for families. The staff was friendly, and you must remember that you aren’t near Mexico, so keep you expectation low and you’ll leave here fulfilled. 🙂Taquitos

There are even more things to do in Dubrovnik, so I have begun planning my trip back in 2015. I didn’t check out the Rector’s Palace or any of the monasteries. I didn’t go to a classical concert, and I missed the cable car. You should consider making a stop to visit the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” You won’t regret it.

Photo Journal: A Festival of Olives

IMG_6225I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few different food festivals in my day and I must say the festival of olives (Maslinijada) in Montenegro is one of my faves! This year, I was excited to experience the Montenegrin festival with some of my blogging friends and family.

At one point this weekend, I took a break and found the perfect spot on a stonewall to eat some local cheese with polenta (kačamak) and fried fish (ukljeve) with my family and friends. I had been on the move all day; listening to the traditional music, shooting photos, tasting olives and olive oil. I was ready to chill out for a sec. I could hear the bass coming from a stage off in the distance. It was calming and rhythmic. I looked around and noticed the undeniable energy. Everywhere around me I saw people laughing, smiling, eating and moving. Some were walking with linked arms, determined to make it through Old Town (Stari Grad). Others were casually lounging on chairs in nearby restaurants, sharing stories. It was beautiful and quite romantic. I couldn’t help but smile — my heart felt full. But that’s just the thing about festivals, isn’t it? People from all over the world join together in a shared experience, brought together by olives. At that point I realized, I had fallen in love with Montenegro.IMG_6213BloggersIMG_6222IMG_6223IMG_6227IMG_6229IMG_6251IMG_6260IMG_6267IMG_6297IMG_6304For more about Maslinijada, check out Stari Bar: Montenegrin Old Urban Settlement!

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of German Reunification

ReaganBerlinWallOn June 12, 1987, US President Ronald Reagan cried, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Today 25 years ago, the world heard the wall fall in Berlin, and finally East and West Germany could experience unity and freedom. Since 1989, Germany has resumed its place at the heart of Europe, politically, economically and even geographically—reunification and the expansion of the European Union eastwards has seen Germany move from the eastern edge of Europe to its center.BerlinerMauerThe Wall, which was established by East Germany in 1961 and was roughly 96 miles long, split the already-divided country’s capital into West Berlin and East Berlin. After weeks of civil protests, the government of Eastern Germany opened up the partition on November 9, 1989, allowing residents to travel to the west side. The chipping away of the wall followed, but its actual demolition didn’t truly begin until the following year, just a few months before Germany would officially reunite.GermanChristmasMarketReunified Germany is still young, but traditions such as the famous Munich Oktoberfest and Christmas Markets are known the world over. Now is a perfect time to rediscover Germany or explore it for the first time – and statistics show that 70% of all first time visitors return. I know my family cannot not wait to return in 2015. Germany is rich in art and culture with the 500th anniversary of the birth of Lucas Cranach the Younger and when religious reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It is time to discover Germany barrier-free!MartinLuther

Most Romantic Restaurant in Montenegro

Not even one month after moving the family to Bar, Montenegro, quickly comes our 14th anniversary. Challenge accepted! Now, where is a romantic place to celebrate our anniversary? How were we going to spend a little more than normal, BUT it would be family-friendly? Fortunately, the Montenegrins are one of the most family-friendly cultures in Europe.  In the heart of the Bar, on the sea , I discovered Restoran Knjaževa Bašta (Prince’s Garden Restaurant). Yes, this would be the place for my love…and my children to celebrate this special day. 14 years of marriage produce these two amazingly fun kids and a global adventure! It seems fitting that we would celebrate it at Restoran Knjaževa Bašta built in 1880.AnniversaryFamily

Restoran Knjaževa Bašta for years carefully preserved princely spirit. With its authentic Montenegrin ambience and carefully selected specialties, it was an experience that we will remember and a feeling that we want to experience again. Restoran Knjaževa Bašta is a short journey through the history. It is part of the complex, which was built by King Nikola in the second half of the 19th century. It probably was a gift of the Italian royal family, built by Joseph Slade.

I ordered the house speciality, “Princezin” Odrezak (Princess’s Steak), which is stuffed veal fillet with proscuitto and cheese in the “princess” sauce. I love the #hashtag garnish. 😉PRINCEZINODREZAKWe also found love in Lignje na Zaru (Grilled Squid). Every bite was fresh and tender. Truly, the best squid that I have ever tasted before. The serving size was perfect, and it made me wanting more.
LIGNJENAZARURestoran Knjaževa Bašta went the extra mile to make your meal flavorful, memorable and very romantic. It all added up to an enchanted evening.