My puffy green jacket was the least stylish garment I could wear this weekend.
At least it kept me warm during Paris’ windy and damp February—isn’t la mode supposed to be all about functionality?
Besides, we came for the food.
We almost didn’t make our Friday evening reservation, though.
Eurostar pulled in Gare Du Nord just in time for the rush hour traffic exacerbated by the global fashionistas commuting to the shows we weren’t going to attend.
But after hopping on the metro, we witnessed a spontaneous, trendy display.
Parisians from all walks of life, from traditional North African to urban fabulous to mime chic, served style on the moving runaway.
So much so that we almost missed our stop at Le Marais, where we promptly checked in Hotel Duo, changed into boring but Michelin star-appropriate button shirts, and headed out to Restaurant Pages.
Chef Teshi’s spot seemed too bright initially, but I soon realized the lighting worked perfectly with the immaculately white walls, smartly dressed staff, and delicately executed French/Japanese cuisine.
A frosty city greeted us the following day. Chinese lanterns commemorating the Lunar New Year lined Rue Chapon on our way to a new favorite: Parcelles.
The child of a bubbly French couple, the restaurant/store was established right before the pandemic and thrived by keeping Parisians fed and boozed via delivery.
Smily servers approach your table, happy to translate the menu and make food and wine recommendations from their inventory and beyond—something only those extremely confident about their offering can do.
Brunch warmed our hearts and fueled us with calories for a chilly stroll.
We saw Instagram models posing next to the Louvre Pyramid and tourists taking selfies against the Yayoi Kusama installation at the Louis Vuitton Champs-Élysées store.
As temperatures continued to decrease that evening, we corroborated that no one makes comfort food like the French.
A warm staff, top-notch wine, and succulent roasted lamb shoulder with seasonal vegetable casserole welcomed us to an old favorite: Le Villaret.
On Sunday noon, we enjoyed a walk through the neighborhood.
The advanced stage of Notre Dame’s restoration was reassuring, as was spotting the Hôtel de Ville decked out with the Olympic Rings in anticipation of the Paris 2024 Summer Games.
Next, we were off to the 15th arrondissement, home to Le Cagouille, our last culinary stop before catching the Eurostar back to London.
One of the world’s freshest fish and seafood restaurants, with superb wine pairings, is also the best spot to watch the locals enjoy Sunday brunch with their friends and families.
Seeing kids on the neighboring tables tackling coloring books instead of iPads made our day.
Back in Gare du Nord, we realized beautiful creatures had invaded the place.
Supermodels of all genders and races looked even more stunning, fresh off couture, waiting for the train like the other mortals.
They rubbed off us with some of the glitz and glamour of this ever-magical and romantic City of Light.
Ringing in the new year where the desert meets the sea.
At 23:35, we retrieved the bubbles, a couple of red solo cups and rushed for the beach.
The local kids were already sitting on the sand, lit by their parked car’s beam lights, looking like a 1980s MTV video.
Live music from the nearby clubs disrupted an almost spiritual vibe: the beachgoers looked into the sky with anticipation—like someone who waits for the passing of a comet.
We realized we’d forgotten the grapes. I felt liberated. The last couple of years taught us how naive end-of-year wishes could be.
Still, I felt cautious joy when the countdown began: 3, 2…1! All the fireworks in the world shot into the sky, and suddenly it was daytime on Palmilla Bay.
We’d arrived four days earlier, after a gelid New York City Christmas. The JFK-San Jose del Cabo flight took us from -10F to 80F in just over six hours, and it felt like a miracle.
Feeling the sand between our toes, sipping that glorious first margarita, hiking to the Big Cross: Cabo’s always been about holiday traditions for over a decade.
And, during that time, we’ve also seen the town change.
Lola, who came thirty years ago, has witnessed an even more profound transformation. Back then, there were only two shacky hotels and a landing strip. Lola loved it so much that she never returned to her native Yucatan.
To those who came before her, she was that annoying newcomer. A decade ago, it was her turn to frown upon us. It goes on and on.
Lola worries about reckless drivers along The Corridor, the same road where the many resorts built in recent years have progressively blocked the sea view.
We loved admiring the water back when we drove to and from San Jose’s Art Thursdays to check out works from local artists and sip free gallery wine.
Those days you still could see Steven Spielberg speeding down the road in a golf cart, Enrique Iglesias donning a poncho in 80-degree weather, and Leonardo DiCaprio denying he was Leonardo DiCaprio in Agua Bar.
That was well before COVID, which feels like a lifetime ago. Once American politics spilled onto the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, it was not rare to spot drunken, sunburnt tourists decrying “plandemic” and “stolen election.”
There goes the neighborhood.
Luckily, Cabo’s natural beauty remains as mesmerizing as the first time Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed past El Arco and spotted whales and dolphins in the open ocean.
I felt the same exhilaration on New Year’s Day as that first boat ride from about eight years ago. This time, we anchored in Chileno Bay and jumped into the crystal-clear waters for a swim.
The captain tossed us snorkeling goggles, so we could see the colorful fish blissfully swimming amongst us. On the way back, the crew made us fajitas, which we wolfed down with some deliciously cold Pacificos.
A massive seal, unbothered by the many vessels, including a couple of titanic cruise ships, goofily swam by as we approached the marina.
We reached the hotel in time to experience the first sunset of the year. The timeless yellow and orange hues colored the Sea of Cortez like thousands of years hadn’t passed, and the Spanish conquistador—the first annoying newcomer of them all—didn’t dare to rename it.
“Immigrants have been coming here for over a thousand years,” said our guide, Debbie. The self-professed “London girl” also warned us that we’d all be foreigners in Kent, England, our destination 44 miles southeast of London.
We started in the historic Leeds Castle, owned by monarchs and lords from the 13th through the 19th centuries and purchased and restored by American heiress Lady Olive Baillie in the 1920s.
After she died in 1974, Lady Baillie left the property to a foundation created to preserve it for posterity. The building, grounds and personal effects are evidence of a time when American industrialists and cash-strapped European nobility were a match made in heaven.
Up next, Debbie and our lovely coach’s driver, Joan, took us to the historic White Cliffs of Dover. The white chalk natural monuments are as much a homecoming sight for those sailing back to England today as once they were for “Dunkirk” survivors amid WWII.
For the third and final leg of our day trip, we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Canterbury. Syrian, Thai and Mexican food trucks—and even a Bolivian guy selling Andes-themed Christmas sweaters—lined the street market leading up to the medieval Canterbury Cathedral Gate.
The breathtaking Canterbury Cathedral, also known as “England in Stone,” has witnessed the country’s history for centuries. Magna Carta negotiations, royal weddings and funerals, WWII bombings and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket are some of the momentous events that happened within its walls.
Back in London, holiday angels flew over locals and visitors from all walks of life at the tune of Christmas carols and Middle Eastern music played by stores and the ubiquitous pedicabs from Oxford Street to Spitalfields Market.
The deliciously-looking Brazilian Bolinhos de Bacalhau, Napolitan pizzettas and other international delicatessen tempted me as I walked through the market and towards Brick Lane, the district famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi curry houses.
London will treat you to the world’s flavors on one corner and its grand heritage on the next. Holborn Bars, a Victorian red terracotta building in Camden, stands on the site of a former Inn where Charles Dickens lived and worked.
Built by the Knights Templar, Temple Church is another national treasure. The official house worship of the Inner and Middle Temples, two of London’s four ancient legal colleges, holds the tombs of prominent jurists, knights and priceless works of art like the Blitz-surviving 12th-century Victorian tiles.
The railings of another historic church, Holy Sepulchre London, preserve London’s First Drinking Fountain. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association built it in 1859 to end the cholera outbreaks that had plagued the city until then.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of those underrated London treasures. The former Lincoln Inn Fields, home of the famous Neo-classical architect, remains untouched since the Victorian days, and it’s renowned for its sepulchral chamber with the Egyptian sarcophagus.
While Central London’s Christmas decorations are a must, it’s worth taking the trek to Christmas at Kew, where talented artists combined the botanical beauty with neon lights and holiday music to achieve spectacular, immersive experiences like The Palm House and The Cathedral.
Last but not least, visiting Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter was genuinely magical, as was witnessing how the phenomenon based on J. K. Rowling’s famous books keeps bringing together people of all nationalities, races and generations.
I’ve spent six days in the Japanese capital and have already experienced sensory overload, a lunar eclipse and an earthquake.
But none of these things stop Tokyoites, who are intensely punctual, clean and orderly.
No one jaywalks, and everyone wears a face mask while looking sharp (no sweats, leggings or any of that “business casual” nonsense).
The city has thirteen metro lines: nine Tokyo Metro and four Toei Subway ones, along with the JR East and Yamanote lines—each with multiple interconnected, numbered, Romanized and color-coded stations.
It is rush hour all day long, even on the weekends. Everything blinks and beeps everywhere: perennial PA announcements, ubiquitous video screens of all sizes, arcade game-type music and even artificially-generated bird-chirping.
This city is intense. And this is coming from a New Yorker.
Thank god for urban oases like Gotokuji Temple, the birthplace of the famous “Lucky Cat.”
Legend has it daimyo li Naotaka was hunting on the temple grounds when the abbot’s pet cat beckoned him inside, saving him from getting struck by lightning.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another peaceful retreat for stressed office workers and overwhelmed tourists in the middle of the busy Shibuya and Shinjuku districts.
The shogun bequeathed it to Lord Naitō in the Edo period. The latter used it as a family residence until the Meiji Restoration, when it underwent various phases, including as a botanical and an imperial garden.
The current layout dates from the turn of the 20th century. As one sits on the tranquil and beautifully-manicured lawns, it’s hard to imagine the obliteration the site sustained due to Allied air raid bombings during WW2.
Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 1879 by Emperor Meiji in Chiyoda City, memorializes many WW2 victims and those from previous conflicts.
The grand First and Second gates, Tearooms and Divine Pond Garden lead to the Main Hall, which features the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum, honoring the over 2 million men, women and children who died for the country.
The Memorial Fountain “Statue of a Mother Offering Water” was the most moving. The Kiwanis Club of Tokyo, a volunteer organization founded in Detroit, MI, dedicated it to many of the war dead who “longed for their mothers and pure water at the last moment.”
Every corner of this city is historical, including open-air markets like Ameyoko. The shopping street next to Ueno Station in Taito City is a haven for fresh and prepared food, clothing and technology.
In the aftermath of WW2, it was the site of a black market that sold surplus US army goods, including candy, at a time when sugar was scarce. Among the current businesses, a store that sells military gear stands out.
The shopping district is bustling the week after Christmas when locals flock to take advantage of New Year’s sales, which offer many staples used in traditional Japanese end-of-year gatherings.
Kappabashi Street—or Kitchen Town—between Ueno and Asakusa is another famous urban market that caters to the restaurant business.
Stores selling sushi knives, ramen bowls and ultra-realistic versions of plastic dishes restaurants use for displays line the street.
A couple of shops specialize in chopsticks alone. They have multiple designs, which, upon sale, they wrap up beautifully. It’s hard to imagine such establishments in the US, where Amazon has substituted even the more general brick-and-mortar stores.
No Tokyo visit would be complete without riding the Leigi Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat.
The anime legend, who collaborated with Daft Punk in several music videos for their 2001 album “Discovery,” created a real-life vessel out of his mythical space operas, like “Space Battleship Yamato” and “Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage.”
It’s a water bus fit to cruise Tokyo Bay and admire its futuristic landmarks, including the Tokyo Skytree and the Rainbow Bridge.
Japanese culture is rooted in politeness, loyalty, justice, modesty, refined manners and respect for the elderly.
Do yourself a favor and research before visiting.
If not, asking the hotel staff or your tourist guide about basic etiquette is useful.
When everything else fails: read the room.
For example, when entering Meiji Shrine, walk along the sidelines, never through the middle, which is the gods’ path.
The Japanese people dedicated the shrine to their 122nd emperor, Meiji, a progressive leader who modernized the country through a “Japanese Spirit and Western Knowledge” philosophy.
Leading by example, he encouraged the Japanese to wear Western clothes and haircuts and to broaden their food and drink consumption. French wine lovers, especially those who favor Burgundy, will marvel at the display of barrels after the Harajuku entrance.
Across the vast and lush gravel gods’ path, another display signifies the intersection between Estas and West through spirits. Barrels of sake, the only drink the Japanese enjoyed before introducing wines, whiskeys and beers, provide another Instagrammable photo op.
Nowhere is Emperor Meiji’s legacy more evident than from the Tokyo Skytree. The 2+ thousand-feet broadcasting structure’s observation deck affords a dizzying 360-degree view of the 40 million people megalopolis (think New York City’s One Vanderbilt times five).
Nearby, Sensō-ji stands as the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. A gigantic complex with halls, gates, a five-storied pagoda and a shopping street, the site holds religious festivals attracting as many as 30 million local and foreign visitors a year.
Tokyo feeds both body and soul. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best places for the former. Opened in the 1930s, it encompasses wholesale and retail shops, restaurant supply stores and street-style eateries, like the one where I had the freshest (and most giant!) oyster of my life.
After sampling the delicatessen of Japanese cuisine, a stroll to Ueno Park, established in 1873, is in order. Tokyo’s oldest public park exemplifies the Westernization of the early Meiji period. Think London’s Hyde Park with museums, temples and shrines.
The park is home to the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, among other cultural institutions. It also houses the magnificent Ueno Tōshō-gūShrine, established in 1627, next to the Sacred Tree that predates it by 200 years.
Ueno Daibutsu is another religious gem on the park grounds. The remaining head of an ancient Buddha statue, salvaged after earthquakes, fires, and wars, is a symbol of Japanese resilience and a popular spot for students to pray before exams.
North of Ueno Park, in Taitō City, you’ll find the upscale and bohemian neighborhood of Yanaka, which would give Venice Beach, CA vibes if Venice had ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
The WW2 Allied bombing spared Yanaka, which shows in the well-preserved quaint homes. Wandering among its lovely neighborhoods, enjoying coffee and shopping for traditional Japanese souvenirs and stationery is a real treat.
The tomb of The Last Shogun in the Yanaka Cemetery is the cherry on top of this historic area. The last warrior to rule Japan surrendered Edo Castle helping to restore imperial power. In 1902, Emperor Meiji granted him the title of duke, which he bore until he died in 1913. The mausoleum is a nostalgic reminder of the end of an era in Japan.
Traditional and modern meet in Tokyo’s hyperreality.
I saw Sailor Moon handing out flyers in Akihabara.
I’ve been in Tokyo for 48 hours, and the line between reality and fiction still seems blurry.
To say this megalopolis of ancient temples and technological might is another world would be an understatement.
Almost immediately after the 14-hour flight from Newark, I hopped on the subway to reach the world-famous Shibuya Crossing.
The world’s busiest intersection greeted me with a choreography that made the crossing look empty one minute and inundated with what looked like millions of people the next.
The next day, the colorful stores and characters of youth Mecca Harajuku made me feel like a guest character in a live-action anime. I understood why Gwen Stefani was obsessed with it back in 2004.
Harajuku offers more than just fashionable boutiques. A short stroll away, the magnificent Myōenji Temple and its adjacent graveyard (or hakaba) stand against the backdrop of a modern residential building, where a baby cried incessantly: a perfect metaphor for the circle of life.
The Onden Shrine is another religious jewel in the neighborhood, blessing romantic relationships for 400 years and counting. I loved the komainu or lion-dog statues and the ubiquitous hanging pieces of origami-ed paper (ofuda) left as offerings.
Experiencing Tokyo’s Pedestrian Paradises was another priceless treat. On the weekends, the city closes car traffic on main avenues in several districts. Cycling and jogging are prohibited so the walkers can enjoy themselves as peacefully as possible. My first pedestrian paradise was in Ginza, where I got to strut between its many clothing stores.
Ginza is also the home of Kabuki-za Theater, the main theater in Tokyo for kabuki. Initially built in 1889, the building has undergone several reconstructions due to fires, Allied bombings during WWII and concerns over earthquakes.
The Wako Tower is another unmissable attraction in the area. Founded in 1881, the upscale department store sells watches, jewelry, porcelains, chocolates and handbags—among other high-end products. Reconstructed after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, it was one of the few remaining intact buildings after WWII.
Akihabara was my second Pedestrian Paradise. Also known as Electric Town, this nerd’s (otaku) paradise with densely-packed, brightly lit and Casio keyboard-type music-playing buildings offers duty-free sales to tourists trickling in after the extended COVID lockdown.
Back to the digs in Chidoya-ku, I ran into the imposing Tokyo Daijingu. This work of art from the 1860s is where I first witnessed people worshipping. After removing my hat and discreetly handling my flashless phone camera from a prudent distance, I snapped this photo.
As per my hotel’s recommendation, I ended my day at a conveyor belt restaurant on the fourth floor of a busy neighborhood building. The only human contact was a bus person who bowed before clearing your spot on the plexiglass-protected counter after you rose to pay the check in a parking lot-style kiosk.
I was never more grateful for my immigrant parents’ advice as a young kid: “wherever you go, do as the locals.” The lack of English instructions made me mimic my fellow patrons, unsuccessfully trying to blend in and navigate this “Jetsons”-type eatery. It was me against the sushi.
I was exhausted. It was time to return to my room, where I passed out, only for the second wave of jet lag to wake me up three hours later—hence, this post.
Digital nomads, Venezuelan migrants and politically polarized Colombians share this soccer-obsessed sprawling tropical metropolis.
Richard Jones, who used to bounce between Brooklyn and Pasadena as an entrepreneur, found a new tech hub.
From his latest venture, he smiles alongside his wife and their toddler as an Instagram-perfect family ready to help you become your own boss—from a tropical paradise.
The Joneses are part of a growing contingent that, since COVID made remote work mainstream, is taking advantage of favorable exchange rates, new visas and good weather overseas.
They set up shop in places like Costa Rica, Portugal and—more recently—Colombia, where the proliferation of coworking spaces suggests the trend is also taking hold in South America.
I contemplate one of the Medellin WeWork buildings from a bus stuck in traffic.
Avenida El Poblado—which connects the city with its suburbs since a time the population was a tenth of today’s—is being retrofitted for metroplús.
The bus rapid transit system, along with the sleek Metro and its affiliated float of trolley and cable cars, is the first-rate public transportation network the Joneses appreciate.
Instead, my cousin makes me ride the traditional public bus, which blasts “agricultural music” while a Brad Pitt-esque Jesus stares from the driver’s plexiglass cabin.
The man next to us streams a soccer match on his smartphone. Behind, a lady argues with someone via WhatsApp voice note.
One of the world’s most innovative cities is also a place of contrasts where past and present intersect on every corner.
Universal tactile paving and accessible outdoor gyms co-exist with hugely-breasted mannequins that promote body dysmorphia outside clothing stores.
Pueblito Paisa, a cobblestoned and colorful fake village located on a hilltop in the middle of the valley, replicates the traditional Colombian town, like a Gabriel García Marquez-themed Disney park.
It affords a 360-degree view of the surrounding sprawling metropolis: There’s the old airport. Look at El Poblado with all those tall buildings.
Over there, there’s El Centro de Medellin, where some Venezuelan immigrants work as law clerks and others wipe cars’ windshields during a traffic jam caused by yet another anti-government protest.
They join many more street vendors who swarm imposing churches, Art Deco office buildings, plazas with larger-than-life Botero sculptures and coffee haciendas-turned-shopping centers.
All peddle lottery tickets, knock-out jeans and—at lunchtime—corrientazos (affordable homecooked-style meals targeted to hungry tourists and busy office workers).
The nearby 1970s needle-shaped Coltejer building is a testament to the city’s supremacy in the textile industry.
Today, media companies and retail brands share the skyscraper. La Tienda Verde (The Green Store) is, by far, the most popular.
The official outlet of Atletico Nacional, one of the most-followed local soccer teams, La Tienda’s windows display a shrine to the club’s Golden Era stars, including Andrés Escobar.
The late defender, murdered after scoring a self-goal that eliminated the Colombian national team from the 1994 FIFA World Cup, sits in the middle like an unofficial patron saint.
Not related to the infamous drug lord—Pablo—Andrés is a reminder of how far this city has come from its heyday of narco-violence.
And so it’s Comuna 13, the former San Javier slum on the western edge of Medellin is now one of the city’s most vibrant communities, as evidenced by its latest project: a women’s prison-turned-university.
Guides like David tell stories about how the house where he grew up and still lives was on the invisible borders between rival gangs and how this affected his school commute as recently as the mid-1990s.
All while rappers interact with tourists through creative improvisations, break dancers entertain the crowd with gravity-defying movements and colorful graffiti and muralist art inspire in the background.
Refreshingly, a predominantly young and urban community doesn’t vibe to the globally ubiquitous and commercialized reggaeton but old-school breakbeats and boleros, which charming guitar-clad abuelos still play on the corners.
Albeiro, our polite cab driver, was another pleasant surprise as he insulated us from Medellin’s perennial rush hour traffic by playing Bach instead of Bad Bunny.
He took us to ecological park El Salado, a natural sanctuary and refuge in the municipality of Envigado, high above the overpopulated and touristed city chaos, and where nearby fincas manifest themselves in men riding donkeys alongside motorcycles on the narrow road.
A green and lush loop trail surrounds a crystal-clear and refreshing stream where it is a delight to submerge your bare feet for a real connection with nature.
The sound of the water is hypnotizing; the closer you’ll get to nirvana in this formerly rural and sleepy coffee enclave which non-stop development will soon turn into a megalopolis.
At this rate, the Joneses will have to climb farther up the mountain to relax in these natural oases.
“La Serenissima,” which thrived over a thousand years despite plagues, wars and invasions, might face its most formidable challenge yet with dangerous rising sea levels or “Acqua Alta.”
In third grade, I learned that, in 1499, Amerigo Vespucci sailed westward along the northernmost coast of present-day South America, where palafitos built on stilts on the shores of Lake Maracaibo reminded him of Venetian homes (hence the name Venezuela).
Over five centuries later, a Venezuelan would come full circle by visiting La Serenissima and marveling at its seemingly floating palazzos, historic domes and romantic gondolas. Essentially unchanged since the times it ruled the world, rising sea levels threaten the city’s existence.
Either by public ferry or private water taxi, the entrance into the city from Marco Polo Airport via the Grand Canal is a triumphant one. Unmistakable landmarks like Palazzo Grassi, Rialto Bridge and Santa Maria della Salute will welcome you.
The latter, Saint Mary of Health, was our stop. The republic dedicated the two-dome, two bell-towered octagonal basilica as an offering of deliverance from the Black Plague that killed 50 thousand—a third of the population—in the 1630s.
Across the Grand Canal, one Vaporetto stop or a short Traghetto ride away sits the historic St. Mark’s Square with the Doge’s Palace. The residential and administrative compound of the Duke of Venice, built in 1340 and modified through the centuries until it became a museum in 1923, houses the Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers and infamous prisons.
A structure stands out: the Bridge of Sighs. This white limestone overpass connected the interrogation rooms with the cells over the Rio di Palazzo and provided prisoners’ final look at freedom. They peered through the small windows and saw the Ponte della Paglia with the Lagoon in the background.
Next door, St. Mark’s Basilica houses the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the city’s patron saint, smuggled out of Alexandria in 828. The current building is the third version modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, modified to meet structural needs and embellished with spoils from the Fourth Crusade to reflect the republic’s wealth and power.
Its bell tower, St. Mark’s Campanile, stands alone in the square near the front of the basilica. The contemporary structure, a square brick shaft with vertical pillars initially intended as a watch tower, was reconstructed after the original one collapsed in 1902. Historically, the campanile signaled government assemblies and public executions, among other civic and religious events.
That evening, a beautiful full moon glowed over the Laguna and bathed the city in an almost supernatural light. After dinner, we took Il Vaporetto, hopped off at the Rialto Bridge stop and headed to Campo Bella Vienna. In this ancient piazza, local kids enjoyed music, Aperol Spritzes, beers and cigarettes. I felt transported to the “Call Me by Your Name” dance scene.
We started our second day by visiting Gianni Basso Stampatore. The legend showed us around his traditional printing shop and next-door museum, including the hand-operated machines with which he and his son produce beautiful cards and stationery. Signor Basso proudly displays thank you notes from satisfied celebrity customers like the late Queen Elizabeth II. He also told us how they spent six months repairing the shop after it was severely flooded in 2019.
Up next, we experienced our “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” moment at the iconic Rialto Fish Market, which it’s been operating in the San Polo district for almost a thousand years. Five minutes away, through a maze of charming medieval streets, we found the CNN-famous All’Arco. We queued for half an hour to try the traditional Cicchetti or Venetian tapas (totally worth it!).
Then it was onto Gallerie dell’Accademia for the Anish Kapoor retrospective, presented during the Venice International Art Biennale. Beyond the exhibition, I loved the juxtaposition of contemporary art and the classic building. I see it as a city’s commitment to preserving its past while looking toward the future.
And speaking of using art to preserve the past while looking toward the future, London’s Maritime Museum showed last August the temporary exhibition “Canaletto’s Venice Revisited,” with works the acclaimed Venetian artist painted in the 1730s and how these inspired art, culture and generations of travelers.
The curators also examined Venice’s social and environmental challenges. Overtourism, while contributing to the city’s coffers, also exacerbates rising sea levels, or Acqua Alta, making plastic boots one of the best-sold souvenirs and ultimately threatening the way of life depicted by Canaletto in his paintings.
Venice, which against all odds, thrived and survived plagues, wars and invasions, may be facing its most challenging test yet. And perhaps, its traditionally representative way of government, guaranteed by a robust system of checks and balances, could be the key to its survival.
Last year, after intense activism, the city finally banned large cruise ships from sailing through the iconic St. Mark’s Square. These monstrous vessels now have to reroute and dock on the mainland: a win for Venetians and one step further for La Serenissima to look more like its former self.
Witnessing the magnificent and peaceful Dolomites, it’s hard to fathom that over a hundred years ago, they were the bloodiest theater of war the world ever knew.
After a 9-hour red-eye flight into Venice, a hot day dragging my suitcase through various tourist traps and an intense 4-hour night drive to Avelengo, the hotel’s welcoming felt like an Alpine pond.
Beautiful but gelid, MiraMonti Boutique Hotel received us with aloof bell boys and abrasive maître d’s. German street signs and Bavarian-inspired chalets confirmed what our Milanese friend had told us about the former Astro-Hungarian territory, annexed to Italy after the WW1 Treaty of London: “Make no mistake, it’s still Austria.”
The following day, after sleeping like babies and enjoying a delicious breakfast, we had a fresh perspective enhanced by the neighboring sight of the “Sound of Music-esque”St. Catherine Church and the beautiful Haflinger horses pasturing in the contiguous hill.
Legend says a giant constructed it by sharing a hammer with a colossus from an adjacent town that they’d throw at each other in turns. But, following an argument, the neighbor hurled a rock that missed its target, landing in a nearby meadow where it still rests.
We knew from the get-go we’d be barely scratching the surface of this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially when staying a two-hour drive west of the most famous landmarks. But that’s the beauty of the Dolomites; there’s something for everyone: skiers and snowboarders (in winter), hikers, climbers, cyclists, bikers and—us—drivers in the summertime.
And we started our aesthetically orgasmic road trip with a bang: Lake Braies. Also known as the “Pearl of the Alps,” Pragser Wildsee (as it’s known in German) rests at the base of the striking Seekofel mountain. The backdrop of the WW2 climax it’s surrounded by a two-mile trail, which gives a panorama of shifting emerald waters and breathtaking backgrounds.
After Würste and beers, we continued with another picturesque 17-mile southeast drive to the dazzling shores of another wonder: Lago di Landro. Resting between the Braies and the Sesto Dolomites, Dürrensee awards visitors not only with its turquoise beauty but with privileged and Instagrammable views of Monte Paterno and Tre Cime.
Another scenic theater of war during WW1, Lago di Landro witnessed bloody fighting between Austrians and Italians, some of whom were skiing and hiking partners before the conflict. Today, mountain bikers from the two countries—and the rest of the world—can tour the trenches and tunnels that survive as proof of the first global conflict on an industrialized scale.
Lago di Landro is an obligatory stop on one’s way to Cortina d’Ampezzo, the jet set/aristocracy-frequented ski/hiking resort 12 miles southwest in the heart of the Veneto region. Its undeniable beauty has made it film location of movies like “The Pink Panther” (1963), “For Your Eyes Only” (1981) and “Cliffhanger” (1993).
Full of charm and history, Cortina was awarded the 1944 Winter Olympics, but the outbreak of WW2 changed plans. In 1956, it successfully hosted thirty-two nations (the largest number until then) in the groundbreaking VII Winter Olympic Games, which was also the first to depend significantly on corporate sponsorship for funding. Along with Milan, the town will host for the second time in 2026.
After a bit of window shopping and a couple of espressos, our little Fiat 500 rental was about to undergo its major test with a 3-hour drive through the spectacular Great Dolomites Road and another 3 hours back to our digs in the Avelengo/Merano area.
The Grande Strada Delle Dolomiti crosses three alpine passes across imposing peaks, dormant ski resorts and lovely villages. It affords unique views that keep shifting with one’s point of view and threaten to substantially lengthen the journey as one can’t help but stop along the way to take it all in and capture as much content as possible.
It was well into the night when we returned to Avelengo. We barely made it in time for dinner and a well-deserved glass of wine at the hotel terrace overlooking Merano. The weather service forecasted a lousy climate for the next 24 hours, so we decided to park, relax and sample the local cuisine.
Despite a spotty service, MiraMonti’s wellness-geared amenities are outstanding. Aside from the iconic terrace and infinity pool with dreamy views of Merano, the mountain and the church mentioned above, we enjoyed private access to the Hafling hiking trail, which virtually starts at your room’s doorstep in the back of the hotel.
The next afternoon back on the road, we drove 47 miles westbound to Ortisei, a picture-perfect village located in the center of Val Gardena. Famous for the spectacular Seceda Viewpoint and traditional religious woodcarving, 80% of the population speaks neither German nor Italian but Ladin (not to be confused with Latin).
The plan was to take the two cable cars to Seceda, but a combination of poor visibility and reasonable fear of what looked like terrifying rides changed our minds. We made a U-turn and headed 11 miles southeast back to the Great Road, hoping some clouds would dissipate in time for our next stop: the Sella Pass.
Unlike Seceda, one can drive closer to Sella Pass. A moderate hiking trail takes you up close to the glorious peaks after parking. At 7 thousand feet above the sea, the clouds started to clear, and we immediately understood why Sellajoch is a popular spot among cyclists, bikers and everyone who visits this enchanted part of the world.
The mountains between South Tyrol and the province of Trentino that connect the Val Gardena with Canazei forming the Dolomiti Superski resort seemed to greet us. As we approached, condensation dissipated, letting the sunshine on these rocky wonders produce distinctive yellow and pink hues.
The religious experience extended 29 miles southeast into Val di Funes. Hikers completed their pilgrimage to the otherworldly valley surrounded by velvety slopes where St. Magdalena Church stands against the dramatic peaks.
When witnessing the peaceful Dolomites, it’s hard to fathom that over a hundred years ago, they were the bloodiest theater of war the world ever knew. And a forgotten one, as the world keeps substituting it with newer horrors.
George Santayana’s quote, “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it,” is more relevant than ever.
And from Fort Lovrijenac and the Pile Harbor (photo featured) to the Old Town Walls, the Pearl of the Adriatic has a history that rivals George R. R. Martin’s fantasy drama.
Like the fondly remembered by “GoT” fans as the Red Keep, Fort Lovrijenac oversees the city’s maritime entrance from the western wall, and it’s famous for remaining a bastion of Croatian identity during the Venetian rule.
The citadel and the ubiquitous red rooftops (where the “smallfolk” live in the series) are visible from the Old Town Walls, guarded by the City Watch.
Dating from the Middle Ages, UNESCO declared the history-rich building a World Heritage Site in 1979.
It still hurt to watch when the Mother of Dragons burnt King’s Landing to the ground in season 8, including the town outside the wall.
In real life, however, the city has survived the Roman Empire, the Byzantines, Frankish, Muslims and the Balkan and Bosnian wars of the 20th century.
In fact, businesses in the Stradun, the Old Town’s main street, display pictures of smoky stores to remember the most recent conflict.
Of course, the limestone-paved pedestrian thoroughfare is where Cersei Lannister completes her Walk of Shame in season 5.
It is also where the Sponza Palace stands.
The 16th-century Gothic and Renaissance building was the cultural center of the Republic of Ragusa.
Since surviving the devastating earthquake of 1667, it has served as the town armory, treasury and bank, among other civic institutions.
Blending with the Old City Walls and crowning St Dominic Street, where the protest speech against the Lannisters in season 5 took place, is the Dominican Monastery.
Construction of the abbey started in 1228 and included Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Currently, the complex houses work from the schools of painting from the 15th, 16th and 20th centuries.
Last but not least, we arrived at the West Pier.
The popular spot among swimmers and sunbathers doubles as “Blackwater Bay.”
It was an essential point of entry to the city, perhaps because of its proximity to the Pile Gate.
Korčula and Lokrum
Come for “Game of Thrones” and stay for everything else this beautiful part of the world has to offer, including day trips to the islands of Korčula and Lokrum—both accessible by ferry.
The most inhabited one, Korčula has a historical center and sandy beaches famous for Greek and Roman archeological findings.
It’s also believed to be Marco Polo’s homeland and, as such, contains a museum dedicated to the life and work of the famous explorer and writer.
Lusher and populated only by peacocks, Lokrum, the second isle, has spectacular rocky beaches (including a clothing-optional one).
According to popular superstition, evicted 11th-century Benedictine monks cursed the island before departing.
Explore the abandoned monastery at your own risk.
The shortest trip you’d ever need your passport for, Montenegro is a eurozone country, formerly part of Yugoslavia, and from 2003 to 2006, of the Serbia and Montenegro federation.
A popular day trip from Dubrovnik (about a 2-hour+ drive each way), the geographically tiny but historically huge republic has picturesque medieval towns, clear, warm Adriatic waters, Mediterranean weather, and alluring rocky mountains.
The Venetian Old Town in Kotor, Lipa Cave and the Budva Riviera are some highlights of this enchanted land.
As we began the journey back from this distant part of the world the Venetians called “Black Mountain,” the lines between fantasy and reality started to blur.
It would’ve not surprised us to spot a giant, fire-breathing reptile flying across the impossibly blue sky.