A magical journey through time – Cour du Corbeau Strasbourg

The Germanic name for Strasbourg, “the city of the roads”, captures the essence of a city that is worth the relatively short drive to get there.  Geographically closer to Zurich and Milano than to Paris, Strasbourg offers an diverse selection of monuments and sights within its complex maze of streets making it perfect for a weekend get away. Even though it hosts the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament it is metropolitan, without being in the least bit overwhelming. The chosen hotel, Cour du Corbeau fits perfectly into the Carrefour de l’Europe (crossroads of Europe).

Located only a short walking distance from the heart of the city (near to the cathedral and Place Kléber) the Cour de Corbeau invites you to feel the magic of past times. The hotel belongs to the MGallery Hotel Group (memorable hotels by Accor – whose ambassador is Kristin Scott Thomas).

Led by our navigation system, we arrived at the hotel only to find the entrance to the street blocked by an electronically controlled pole.  Luckily, a nice man asked us where we were going, directed me to drive up to the barrier, buzzed the hotel (explaining the situation in French) and magically the pole disappeared allowing us access to the hotel entrance.  Thierry, a valet came out right away and opened my door, making me feel like I was a celebrity.  After asking where we planned to park, he offered to manage the car for us directly, took the keys, and drove off to I don’t know where leaving me with a trusting feeling that everything was in order.  The first impression of the Cour du Corbeau was magnificent. The décor was serene combining old with new, luxurious with Neo-Baroque. The welcome at the reception desk by Gregoire was very pleasant and included a surprise that we were upgraded to a junior suite. He informed us about breakfast and that the hotel didn’t have it’s own restaurant, but was happy to provide a 24 hour room service, delivered by a nearby restaurant. We asked for a recommendation for dinner in the town (a place where locals would dine) and were rewarded with an excellent choice, the Restaurant L’éveil des sens.

The hotel was renovated in 2009 after spending a number of years as a vacant building.  The “before and after” pictures in the hotel were marvelous and really highlighted the accomplishments of what the builders were able to manage.  The hotel features 57 rooms, including 19 suites. The rooms are simple, with wooden floors and a post and beam construction that exposed much of the original structure – a wonderful blend of old and new. The bathrooms contain natural stone floors and romantically styled sinks in the form of a shell.  The lighting in the room played up the violet hues and taupe colored fabrics giving everything a warm feeling while still being chic and simple, not the usual overwhelming feeling of many historical places. In short, the suite was beautiful and contained the additional surprise of a complimentary bottle of white wine (from the region Alsace) as well as a somewhat hidden door (or at least not very obvious) that led to a long, wooden porch running along the inner courtyard of the building.  Simply charming!

The staff was discrete and very attentive, and the turn down service even left a rose on our bed, as it was women’s day.  There was also a hand-written weather prediction for the following day and breakfast info placed by the night stand.  The towels in the bathroom were even replaced with fresh ones, something I really appreciate, but wouldn’t have expected at a four star hotel.

I read another review that stated the breakfast is “not to be missed” and judging by the little tables in the gallery I am sure would make an exquisite start to any day. We chose to walk across the canal into town to have fresh pain au chocolat from the local Boulangerie, which was definitely worth every minute of the wait. Before leaving the area we stopped at “Les mains dans la farine” the Boulangerie in 16, rue du 22-Novembre to load up on supplies.  The selection was excellent and we ended up with bread and pastries for a whole week.

Check out at 12:00h is very generous at the Cour du Corbeau, which allowed even more time for a stroll through the town before leaving.  The receptionist Carol was so lovely, and Anne Gerber, the manager of the hotel was also very attentive and didn’t mind helping guests with information, check in and out.

With bags in hand we called for our car which was retrieved by Sebastién, who placed a bottle of water in the center console along with a note on how to exit the area through the one way streets and around the Pl. de Austerliz and wishing us a pleasant journey home. This last little surprise was perfect and really impressed me.  Many times it is the small things that make an experience special and this was a perfect example.  All in all it was just a lovely stay at the hotel.

Silhouette Island – The essence of the Seychelles

If you are looking for the spectacular, then the scenic Silhouette Island is the place for you.  Located in the Indian Ocean nestled among the various islands that make up the Seychelles, Silhouette hosts only one resort: The Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa.

Smoothly built into the lush vegetation of the rain forest that touches the sandy beaches, the Labriz features different types of independent villas for every taste. The Garden villas are set back into the tropical forest, the Beachfront villas allow you to walk off your own porch into the sand, and the Beachfront Pool villas offer an additional private plunge pool. The Hillside pool villas have a larger pool, a spectacular view but no direct access to the beach. We chose the regular Beachfront villa and loved it.  We just didn’t see the value in having a private pool facing the ocean if you can dive directly into the real thing just a few feet away.

Our Beach villa was approx. 100 m2 with a spacious open bedroom and a private patio overlooking the sea. Depending on your exact room it is possible that the tree line slightly covers the direct view of the ocean. The bathroom was large with a walk-in shower, separate bathtub and out back, a nice little garden with an outdoor shower. The villa is well equipped with a flat screen TVs and a DVD player, although the WiFi connection was not very good.

The five restaurants of the resort include a decent variety, but since they are the only options on the island they give the resort a dining monopoly.  The Grann Kaz Plantation House restaurant serves traditional Creole food, the Portobello restaurant Italian, and the Grill & Teppanyaki Japanese cuisine with a more international flavor by blending Asian and European influences. The Cafe Dauban, the main restaurant, offers daily breakfast and varied theme dinners. The bar and pizzeria offer a lighter option for lunch. If you are booking half-board you can dine around at all restaurants at the resort, except for Teppanyaki that you will have to pay for separately. Keep in mind that you should also budget for drinks, cocktails and wine, as they are typically not included in the price. A decent bottle of wine will cost you approx. 50 euro and unfortunately you won’t have the possibility to buy anything different except what is offered at the resort owned shop, where the prices are the same. If you can, you might want to bring a couple of bottles from your stop over at the airport, it’ll be worth it.

The staff is very friendly and the room service is spectacular. Our one complaint was the in-room breakfast, which took almost 1.5 hours to arrive and was cold and not very appealing. What was nice is that after giving feedback that we were not happy with the room service, we were offered a free dinner at the Portobello restaurant, which did a lot to make up for the poor breakfast.

What I was most impressed with was the fact that the resort was built in alignment with nature and does not fight against it. The spa is the best example of the resort’s close-to-nature concept. The spa entrance is accessed by walking between a series of boulders, the treatment rooms are connected via wooden steps or natural steps built into the massive rocks, and everything is clean and elegant with an open air feel.

Even if you are staying for 2 weeks on Silhouette Island, you won’t get bored easily or feel that you can’t enjoy your privacy. This is due to the size of the beach, the 5 restaurants, available hikes to Mount Dauban (beware, the humidity is very likely to make you feel like you climb Mount Everest), excursions for diving, snorkeling and opportunities to discover the islands diverse plant and animal wildlife. It is really quite impressive: rare plant species like incense-cedar, funny looking short-tailed-jacketed bats, mini chameleon, lots and lots of crabs and giant tortoises. The whole island has been a National Part for a long time.

This resort offers high-end relaxation, luxurious spa treatments, decent swimming, spectacular snorkeling, hiking and nature. You just need to survive the exciting boat ride over to the island.

Dreaming in Antigua

Nestled into a cliff overlooking the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, this rustic but charming Antigua resort features 26 individual wooden Caribbean style cottages, each offering a private balcony with spectacular views and showers opening to the sea.  You will definitely find peace, an opportunity to decelerate and a place for your soul to relax.  What you won’t find is a boutique environment (by European standards), but rather a charismatically rustic, simple hotel, with very friendly staff, moderate and sometimes outstanding food, and a wonderful beach with powder white sand.

cocos_beach_viewWe landed in St. John’s, happy for the warm weather and the sunshine. Our pre-booked chauffeur, John, awaited us at the airport with a name card and pleasant smile. The ride to the hotel took approx. 25 minutes and I appreciated John’s calm driving style, especially after seeing the driving style of other locals.


The staff welcomed us in a very friendly manner giving us a positive first impression of the resort. Check in took longer than expected (approximately 40 minutes) and concluded with the delivery of a letter containing information on restaurant hours, and an offer for a complimentary massage of 30 minutes. Hasani, a young employee walked us up to our cottage via a steep concrete ramp that was not really adapted to people with walking issues.  The entrance to our cottage was down a set of really steep stairs made of both stone and wood with several landings.

All cottages are build in a traditional Caribbean chattel style with natural dark wooden floors and private balconies as well as outdoors showers.

The view from the room overlooking the ocean is spectacular.

The ocean looks like a postcard and faces west towards the setting sun.  The room itself however, does not make the same first impression. The outdoor shower is as advertised with a sea view, very open, but still very private.

Due to problems with our air conditioning, the manager gave us the option to relocate to another room.  This is a cottage we can definitely recommend (room no. 5).  Although smaller than the Premium Plus we left, our new room left us with a completely different experience.  Entering the room, our first impression was that the room was tidy, cozy, and had a romantic feel (this was in large part due to the “towel swans” on the bed and in the bathroom, which also contained a small arrangement of Bougainvillea flowers.  The porch wraps around the room in an “L” shape and is only half covered, the other portion open to the sky leaving you with a panoramic ocean view that covers two sides of the room.  There is a small plunge pool, two deck chairs, and two loungers that provide a nice alternative and more privacy than the beach.  The cottage is rated a premium, although in my opinion it easily could pass for a premium plus.

cocos_beach_view

If you do not mind sleeping during a green tree frog concert (in a room like ours that had problems with the air-conditioning), but with the gentle sound of the ocean, you’ll enjoy the experience. The sunset and sunrise are spectacular and waking up to a view of turquoise water and endless sea is truly special.

Dinner is served on a covered deck with an ocean view on two sides.  Consistent with our experience at the reception, the staff is very friendly and attentive, quickly responding to almost all requests.  The menu is simple with three choices for the main dish (fish, meat, and pasta) as well as a series of appetizers.   Complimentary drinks include water, mixed drinks, beer, and house wine. The house red is a Merlot or Cabernet and it not of the Bodegas Forjas del Salnes and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Three champagnes round out the menu including a Bollinger Special Cuvee, Prosecco Brut Sartori and a Nicolas Feuillate Special Cuvee. The food is good, and uses local fish with small to moderate sized portions. The desert choice is good, with at least three items to choose from.

The beach is beautiful, the water clean, and there are enough loungers available for the guests, although not all of them have their own umbrella.

It is important to set your expectations correctly before you arrive in order to fully enjoy your stay at the Cocos Hotel.  If you are looking for a romantic and rustic get-away, are willing to adapt to the Carib easy going ways and do not need permanent pampering – this is the place you want to be at. You will definitely have the chance to step out of your everyday life and relax as much as you are able.  You will find yourself welcomed by friendly staff including the security.  You can choose to accept things as they are or voice any complaints to the hotel’s staff that will do their best to set things right.

Lisbon is like Fado…

It has multiple souls. One is serious, straightforward and dramatic like the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the discoverers, artists and monarchs, following Henry the Navigator. Another soul is light, colorful and international like the different districts of Alfama, Baixa or Bairro Alto. And there is the sad, in pain but powerful one, like the fado singers, clenching their fists against their chests, with their eyes shut, singing out their pain.

The best location to fly out and experience all these different souls of Lisbon is the historical downtown Baixa-Chiado district. This is also where our reviewed hotel is located, in the heart of Lisbon, within walking distance of Santa Justa Elevator and Rossio Square, and in decent strolling distance from Bairro Alto, the Castle of Sao Jorge or the Lisbon Cathedral.

Browns’ has decided to focus on providing a hip environment with 36 individually decorated rooms, combining simplicity, elegance, comfort and Hi-Tech featuring Mac computers with working stations, LCD TV, docking stations for Apple products and free Wi-Fi access. All rooms have kitchenettes with fridge, kettle and coffee maker and some have balconies, overlooking the Rua dos Sapateiros.
While the hotel does not offer dining amenities, there are some excellent cafès and restaurants nearby where you can experience Portuguese culture and cuisine. The staff at the front desk will be happy to recommend somewhere or help with any query you may have while at Brown’s DownTown.

7th Heaven in Venice – Settimo Cielo

Spend a couple of days in Venice, dive into the streams of people wandering the streets, but then retreat to the wonderfully refined boutique B&B located just a short walking distance away from major attractions like Saint Mark’s Square, Rialto Bridge, Palazzo Grassi, Accademia Galleries.

Hidden on the second and third floor of a private palazzo that dates back to the 13th century, two B&Bs share the same service, style of accommodation and a communal breakfast area as well as a delightful roof terrace with spectacular views across the rooftops of Venice.

delightful roof terrace with spectacular views across the rooftops of Venice

The lower floors belong to Settimo Cielo’s,  owner Paolo Battistetti, while the upper floors belong to Bloom’s, owned by Alessandra Vazzoler. The two business partners worked with a local architect to design the B&Bs tastefully, merging old with new.

At Settimo Cielo, the B&B selected, rooms are all styled differently, each featuring elegantly original and successful mix of classical Venetian style and modern design, from rich reds and purple brocades to more calming beiges and creams.

While there’s no in-house restaurant, there are lovely areas where you eat breakfast, and, best of all, the breathtaking roof terrace with great views over piazza Santo Stefano. The rooftop is accessed via a cosy lounge, whose fridge stores complimentary bottles of Prosecco – perfect accompaniment to the sunset over Venice.

Romantic get-away in the water castle Hagenwil

If you are into castles, history and romantic sleep overs, then you might like the Water Castle Hagenwil, one of Switzerland’s best-preserved water castles.

The castle is bedded into a landscape with rolling hills in the village of Hagenwil close to Amriswil and Arbon as well as Lake Constance. It is indeed very well preserved, some of the castle parts over 800 years old, offering the possibility to spend a romantic night, visit the castle festival showing Romeo+Juliette, getting married or just have dinner at the restaurant.

The a la Carte menu includes unconventional dishes, mostly regional and seasonal, and wine from the own win yards. If you book a romantic overnight, you will be served a candle light dinner at the grandma’s parlor, all private and beautifully decorated with fresh roses petals right next to your room, with a four-poster bed and a modern bathroom attached.

Breakfast is served at the Biedermeier-parlor of the castle restaurant until 12:00 o’clock, so lots of time to sleep in; except in case you don’t get woken up by the ducks and birds in the water ditch around the castle.

The lady and lord of the castle live in it and also run it and will pay great attention to details to accommodate their guests. The service is lovely, very attentive and discrete, not even bothered by all the steps they need to walk from the restaurant to the private quarters during the candle light dinner. The area is lovely, animals and birds are being kept around the castle, the pheasant is also a specialty on the menu. You will always remember the castle, once you’ve stayed there, promise.

Ithaki – Athens posh restaurant with a view

The opportunity to have dinner at the locally renowned beach restaurant Ithaki in Vouliagmeni came about through pure luck, chance and the help of a very charming Swiss International Airline agent at the Athens airport named Emmanuel. Due to an overbooked flight, we were offered the possibility of giving up our seats in exchange for a free overnight stay in Athens, a generous amount of pocket money, and a return flight the following day.

Once the possibility became reality, our guide Emmanuel took us on a tour through the secret passages and corridors of the airport to retrieve our luggage and to make arrangements for our hotel and return flight.

As an added bonus, he also recommended an exceptional place for dinner. From our hotel it was only a 30 minutes taxi ride to Vouliagmeni.

There, the Ithaki elegantly presented itself right on the Kavouri Beach with a strong vibe of poshness.

Our first impression included lots of wood and glass, white table cloths, smooth lightning, a live piano player, the sound of waves, and very intimate and private tables arranged along the terraces (all facing the sea).

All in all, maybe not the cheapest place to eat in the area, but definitely a must experience. The menu was not overwhelmingly long (a pleasant experience) offering traditional Greek dishes, fresh fish and meats, as well as Sushi and Sashimi. Surprisingly, some of the fish is actually frozen (typically indicated with an *). A pity since there are plenty of fresh fish options to choose by the kilo from the local area.

The wine menu presents a good choice of Greek and international wines. Service is very polite and attentive, almost blending into the surrounding.

As a starter we selected an eggplant/cheese dish and fresh mussels in a white wine sauce. The serving process for the main dish of fresh grouper was a unique experience of presentation (rolling cart and silver bell covers to keep the food warm) and preparation (surgical removal of the bones, fins, and heads from the fish prior to serving with fresh vegetables).

Tips:

  • Booking required if you are going to typical Greek dinner hours (between 22:00 – 24:00h).
  • If you take a taxi there consider arranging a return with the same driver. As the area is well liked be Athenians, it might be difficult to find a cab for the ride back to the city.

To Beef or Not to Beef

The Officina della Bistecca and Dario Cecchini’s
philosophy of butchering

To meet Dario Cecchini, the owner of the Antica Macelleria in Panzano in Chianti, is worth every kilometer on the windiest road in Tuscany. Following in the footsteps of 8 generations of Cecchini butchers, the Ulysses of meat, how he likes to call himself is the personification of the “divina cucina di carne”. Anyone who thought the Argentinians or Americans cook the best steaks, has never had a taste of Dario’s heavenly Florentine steaks.

The recommendation to get a seat at Dario Cecchini’s table came from a Florentine friend, but it also came with an expectation warning to not be disappointed if nothing is available since tables are booked weeks in advance. So, one day before our only chance to stop at this Tuscany institution our luck ran true in the form of a forecast for rain that turned into a sunny day and available seats on the outdoor terrace.

Not really knowing what to expect (except for the best meat in the region) what we received exceeded anything we could have imagined. To call a meal at the Officina della Bistecca lunch or dinner would be an insult to the “foodtainment” we experienced. I am not sure we will ever be able to replicate the conditions of our first visit. The date was April 25th, which in Italy is their WWII Liberation Day. All two of the main streets of Panzano were packed with cars and people. If it wasn’t for all the Hells Angels of Chianti, we might have missed the Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

outsideThe simple entrance of the Macelleria on the street level is split into a small dinning area and a full service meat counter with it’s own bar playing heavy metal music. At first, we didn’t know where to enter past the bustling crowd or even who to ask about our miracle reservation. We finally settled on asking the butcher at the counter who directed us to the back of the shop where we could only see a door to the meat locker. Squeezing past more of the Chianti Chapter Angels rocking out to Guns n’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine while eating and drinking some Chianti red, we noticed a plain sliding door tucked in the back left corner of the room. The gatekeeper behind the door checked us off the list, admitted us up a narrow flight of stairs past the indoor dinning area to the outdoor terrace. Yeah!

Set up like an Italian wedding from the 50’s were two long tables that would have been at home in any beer hall complete with place mats describing the table setvarious cuts of meat on a cow and not one-centimeter spare distance between you and your neighbor – this was our final destination.

Being a bit early to the feast, we had our choice of where to sit and choose a comfortable place at the far end of the table. There were bowls filled with carrots, celery and red onion rings, a simple bean soup, baked potatoes and bread for sides. Even the salt was special consisting of Cecchini’s own mix of salt and herbs perfect for everything on the table. With the table menuset, we were about to begin.

The opening act was a Chianti crudo, apparently one of Dario’s signature dishes. Even if you don’t like raw meat, I can guarantee you, it’s the best beef tartar you will ever try. Next up was the Carpaccio di culo (bum cut) quickly followed by the third course of Costata alla Fiorentina (Bone-in Rib eye or Strip steak). This was followed by my personal favorite, the Bistecca Panzanese.

“Ladies and gentleman, I gave you the Chianti Tuna, not sushi of the fish, but the sushi del Chianti, and now…. I am presenting to you… her majesty, the Biiiiistecca alla Fiorentinaaaaaa!”

Just when you think it cannot get any better, Angelo, the master of grill, stepped out onto the terrace and lifted his hands, holding two big chucks of meat in serviettes, yelling to the crowed:

DSC00213… and that is the moment, when you can feel the never ending wine, the comfortable and friendly atmosphere, that the friends (strangers no more) who with you share this unforgettable meal go absolutely ballistic! It somehow manages to get even louder when Dario Cecchini comes out to take his bow, blowing a loud horn, giving hugs, kisses, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

The meat seems to be never ending, but when it finally stops coming to the table, the meal is finished off with an extraordinary olive oil cake (sounds much stranger than it is – a real must try), coffee and grappa. All of this you get for 50 Euro a person – a simply unbeatable value for the price.

Dario is indeed a butcher extraordinaire, a theatrical host and an artist who butchers animals to the sound of heavy metal rock music (maybe this helps to explain the Hells Angels on the day of our visit), and has developed a stage act where he butchers an entire carcass while quoting from the works of Dante. Dario is a true example of how a career with a heart, passion for ones work, for food and for the animals can result in tastes and flavors that are not only authentic, but truly poetic.

Tips:
Dario Cecchini has three restaurants in Panzano.

Make your reservation long enough in advance.

A little bit of Paris in the heart of Zurich – The Franzos

It is true that you find tons of Italians, Thai and others, but almost no French restaurants or bistros in Zurich. It was actually by chance, that I noticed the Franzos (Swiss word for Frenchman), walking through the Niederdorf the other day. Intrigued by the unique atmosphere caused by the sunset shining through the bistro and bathing it in a warm romantic light, I kept thinking about the place and what it was all about…

IMG_3025Only a day later I went back to check if the sunset was the only thing that created the atmosphere. What I found was a little piece of Paris in Zurich.

The owners Raffaele and his brother-in-law Marc-Antoine opened the Franzos one month ago and have managed to create a unique French feeling in a small and intimate setting. They are very attentive and charming hosts, who both worked on the set-up of the Franzos, from the menu to the interior design of the Bistro. The Franzos displays an immaculate taste in the way it presents itself to the public. It has an unpretentious look and feel with small wooden tables on iron feet and wooden chairs with an antique feel, that were probably individually selected. The picture frames along the white wall are filled with artistic sketches or photos of famous Frenchies like Brigit Bardo and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Even the bar is simply painted in a lovely old pastel blue. Low chansons are playing in the background.

The Franzos proves once again that less really is more.

“Vraiment spectaculaire”

4_Franzos_Pics Wall

Raffaele is a marketing professional formerly on the board of Globus as head of interior design, as well as Big Zürich and others. He already has quite a bit of experience in the gastro and club sectors, mostly as a concepts consultant. With the Franzos, he has finally created the next gastro concept for his own Bistro.

Marc-Antoine really fits the Bistro garçon description complete with a charming French accent. He is, however, much more attentive and courteous that any garçon I have ever experienced in France. This speaks for both of them, Raffaele and Marc-Antoine as well as for their support staff, two young ladies.

The menu at the Franzos is contemporary bistro cuisine. The Petit-Déjeuner, served Monday to Friday until 11:00 and Saturday and Sunday until 14:00, offers the choice of baguette, butter, jams and white cheese for only 8.50 CHF, which is indeed a very good price for Zurich. You can also choose from other favorites such as œuf à la coque (boiled eggs), pain au chocolate, croissant and brioche.

Lunches are served from Monday to Friday between 11:30 and 14:00. You have the choice of a soup du jour, salad with warm goat cheese, croque monsieur (toasted cheese and ham sandwich), home made terrine (excellent!) with salad and quiche, either vegetarian or Lorraine. We tri7_Franzos_Quicheed the quiche végétarienne with salad and were more than happy. The size for a lunch meal is perfect, the taste excellent and freshly prepared. Meats are either Swiss or French.

The apéritif, Monday through Saturday until 22:00 and Sundays until 19:00 offers a platter with a portion of one choice from the following – cheeses, cold cuts (meats), black and green olives, and rilettes (kind of pâté). You can also order vegetable dips, the croque-monsieur or soup of the day.

The deserts, served at any time of the day include tarte tatin, fondant au chocolat, truffe au chocolate, cherry liquor and ice cream with whipped cream.

The wine menu has French whites and reds including my all time favorite for the name, Whispering Angel, a 2012 Château d’Esclans, Côte de Provence, Grencache, Rolle, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes. According to Raffaele and Marc-Antoine, this wine is always suitable – to everything.

The Franzos can be summed up by the words they write on the first page of the little bistro’s menu:

«A dangerous love affair he is, the Frenchman. Steals flowers and steals hearts. Knows to enjoy life. Lives with categorical nonchalance. Beams when he invents or plots something new. And he often does. The cheekiness suits him well. Let yourself be wrapped around the finger: Bienvenue au Franzos! »

Address:
Limmatquai 138, 8001 Zürich
Telephone: +41 44 542 46 33
bonjour@franzos.ch

Opening hours:
Monday to Thursday: 08:00-23:00
Friday: 08:00-01:00
Saturday: 10:00-01:00
Sunday: 11:00-19:00

Special Thanks to Meri for reviewing the Franzos with me :-)

Follow the Medicis’ steps – Ponte Vecchio Suites Florence

It is no surprise that the Ponte Vecchio Suites, in the heart of old Florence, are only a few steps away from the famous Ponte Vecchio itself. Opened in 2008 by manageress Valeria Raspini, the nine available Ponte Vecchio Suites offer apartment like rooms of different sizes, including all the comforts and luxury you would expect from a high-class hotel, without feeling overloaded and too busy.

Strategically located only a short walk from the name giving Ponte Vecchio, it also provides easy access to the Piazza Signoria and Uffizzi, the Duomo, Palazzo Pitti (with it’s magnificent gardens), and the Borgo San Jacopo. You can enjoy the nearness to all the main sights, but also experience the relaxation offered by the boutique suites only a short walk away.

The suite we stayed in on the first floor had two separate rooms for the bedroom and living area. The living area included a sofa, dinner table, and small kitchenette equipped with basic utensils and dishes as well as a Nespresso machine. The only downside was the fact that you had to pay for the coffee capsules and sugar was from Mc Donald’s, but the nice fruit basket made up for that small inconvenience. Breakfast, ordered in advance, is served directly to the room from a nearby bar. As an alternative, you can decide to take the short walk to the bar itself and eat there.

The spa and gym at the Ponte Vecchio is in the basement and has to be booked in advance, as it is for exclusive use. It is rather small and cold, but probably very comfortable after a hot day in the city. You can also book a massage if you desire. Highly recommended is Alessandro (+39 303 76 278) who is an experienced therapist. Beauty treatments are available as well, but need to be booked in advance as the person is external. Not sure if I would recommend the beauty service, so beware when you book it.

The excellent booking service provided by Larisa, and the very friendly personnel Elena and Tatiana at reception deserve a special mention. All three ladies went the extra mile to make sure that you feel at home, gave good recommendations for restaurants, and made any requested bookings with a smile. They were very helpful regardless of the request.

In addition to the room, we also booked a private tour through the hotel with a local guide named Paola. While her tour of Firenze was informative and provided a local view on Firenze, the one we would really recommend was the one we booked (with Paola’s help) the following day. The tour was through via florencepass.com, and Maurizio (the company’s founder) was an extraordinary tour guide. He is passionate about Firenze’s history and arts and we could have listened to him for days. In addition, he has a delightful sense of humor. On our private tour we did the Uffizi, accessed by a side entrance that saved us a ton of time avoiding the normal entrance lines. The Uffizi is great on it’s own, but with Maurizio, who knows where to go and what to look for, it became an exceptional experience.

The Vasari Corridor though was the icing on the cake. The corridor tour is private and not something you can buy a ticket for at a ticket office. It’s very limited and we felt special having the opportunity to pass beyond the locked doors into the corridor while everyone in the Uffizi looked on and wondered why we were allowed in there. It was incredible to see all the artwork hidden behind the doors that most people will never see in addition to walking the exact path that the Medici family walked from the town hall to their palace.

Tipps:
Book a private tour with Maurizio: www.florencepass.com
Park your car at Garage Lungarno, but make sure you call in advance because spaces are limited. The hotel staff will help you with that.

Garage Lungarno
Borgo San Jacopo 10/R – 50123 Firenze (FI) – Italy
Tel: +39 055 28 25 42

www.pontevecchiosuites.com

Seek and hide truffles in Siena – Taverna San Giuseppe

The choice of restaurants in Siena is just as large at the hotel choice. Some of the restaurants you can find on TripAdvisor or other sites catering to frequent travelers. Luckily we had recommendations from a friend’s wife (with support from her local colleagues) presenting us with an exclusive list of local favorites to choose from. We trusted our friends’ direct and especially authentic, Italian suggestions and were rewarded with a special experience at the Taverna di San Giuseppe. This is how fromfriendsforfriends.ch works.

The Taverna di San Giuseppe is a short walk up an inclined street leading away from the Piazza del Campo. It is somewhat hidden and a nice surprise when you find it as you are in an area where you don’t expect a restaurant anymore.

The interior is warm and inviting and really feels as though you are in a Cantina with its wooden tables and rustic walls. The owner’s son Matteo told us that the current building dates back to the year 1100 and older still, the wine cellar housed in the tufa rock of an old Etruscan house dates back to 200 BC. Opened in 1998 by Marco Neri and Lorella, a Sienese family, the restaurant used to be an auto garage and a carpenters’ workshop. Matteo could still remember the cars lined up for repair and mechanic parts hanging off the walls.

The San Giuseppe menu features several classics such a Ribolita (a hearty potage made with bread and vegetables), Brasato (braised beef or stewed with vegetables), and Bistecca Fiorentina, but the recommendation we selected was the fileto with truffels and Prunetti olive oil and the cinghiale (wild boar). Of course you will also find a great variety of homemade pasta including Gnudi, Pici, and Tagliatelle, choices of meats such as prosciutto, salumni, sausages, and finally a great choice of cheeses from the wine cellar.

When you order your food, ask Matteo for a recommendation on the wine in combination with the meals and then take a walk down to see the wine cellar while the food is being prepared.

The cellar is indeed tremendous with more than 500 labels of national and local wines, of course mostly Tuscan ones. The wine cellar can be reserved for private parties and events as well as private wine tastings and wine classes.

La Taverna di San Giuseppe is indeed a restaurant worthy of a recommendation in Siena. While the choices on the menu are vast, it is the small things that matter in the end, and for me it was the attention of the service (one waiter even brought me a little stool for my handbag), the excellent quality of food and the comfortable environment.

Tipp: Book a table after 9 pm and you will get the local environment, rather than the non-Italian visitors.

Address:
La Taverna di San Giuseppe
Via G. Dupré, 132, 53100 Siena
Tel +39 0577 42286
www.tavernasangiuseppe.it

 

L’épicier Grand Cru – Cheese library of Strasbourg

You might plan to eat lots of “Tarte flambée” in Strasbourg, which I can definitely recommend, but if you want a truly unique experience, in a rather uncommon place – you have your lunch or snack at the L’épicier Grand Cru.

Strolling through the charming streets near the “little Paris” area in Strasbourg, we came across a shop that was decorated with lots of happy birthday snick snack and preparing to host a party.  Looking through the window we were drawn in by the cheese room in the back protected by a glass sliding door. What followed was something you cannot plan, but just “happens” whenever you allow yourself to dive in and just take things as they come.

Our adventure began with the very friendly staff giving us a short explanation (in English) of the different wines, meats and cheeses available as well as our options for how to combine them all into our very own lunch tasting.  The store also carries a large choice of teas, honey, traditionally made jams and marmalades, a very special, medieval cooked wine with pepper (you should definitely try this), snacks, spices and other assorted treats.

We asked for whatever they recommend, tried at least 5 wines and were happy when the surprise platter with local cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and spices with fresh bread arrived.  Each glass of wine increased the chances that I would begin singing in a short while. The cheeses on our platter included a Munster accompanied by cumin powder (even if you normally don’t touch cumin – you’ll love this), a local brie with jams, Roquefort, and was accompanied by salami, dried hams, salad, and fresh bread.  What a feast!

I really have to comment again that the Munster with cumin is a must.  The wines are all delicious, but you will need to find your own way regarding the taste that suits you best.

We also really enjoyed the “cheese library”. Literally set-up as a library, behind the sliding door, it was kept so nice and cold that you had to put your jacket on to go in.  Each cheese was carefully labeled and presented making this a small, but great cheese lovers paradise.

The service, modern décor, and variety of French foods from local providers (each with their own background story) are worth the investment of 2 hours of your Strasbourg visit.  Beware, you might spend a lot of money here, but you’ll love every cent you spend – I promise.

White Turfing in St. Moritz

My first exposure to St. Moritz was extra special due to an annual event started in 1907: the White Turf.  While St. Moritz is well know for skiing, bobsleds, shopping and celebrities it also hosts a unique, exclusive, top-class (with lots of fur and jewels) event with exciting horse-racing, gourmet catering, live music, and exhibitions all of which takes place on a frozen lake surrounded by stunningly beautiful, snow-capped mountains.

The best location to stay if you want to experience all of within walking distance (no taxi needed) is the La Margna Hotel. A traditional superior hotel with excellent views of the mountains and the lake, the La Margna is well-managed by the young and attentive manager, Nina Stockburger, and offers a uniquely pleasant and peaceful environment, despite the proximity to the main train station on the south-facing slope of the hotel.

The La Margna was built in 1907 (the same year that the White Turf started) in typical Graubünden style and has preserved its charm to this day. The nostalgia is especially felt in the heart of the building, the unchanged hotel lobby in the Jugendstil, with its original cast-iron chandeliers.

Some might find the room furnishing quite old, the bathrooms rather simple and antique, but it is very clean and the room service provided a really touching surprise.  As part of the turn down service, the towels were exchanged, a little chocolate placed on the pillows, and the foot towel put in front of the bed (with a nighttime wish and morning greeting).  But the touching surprise was the lovely set-up of the pajamas on the bed that was simple, thoughtful and heartwarming.
Highlights:

  • The staff, including manager Nina Stockburger were attentive, very friendly and extremely professional.
  • The original Hotel Lobby and Bar was delightful with impressive arched ceiling and granite pillars, original chandeliers and forged iron fireplace
  • The proximity was close to the lake, St. Moritz town, and train station
  • Dinner at the in house Stüvetta restaurant, offering traditional Engadin specialties, fondue and Mediterranean dishes
  • Breakfast choices including Gipfeli that were better than an original French croissant

The only downside is that the La Margna will be closed at the end of the 13/14 season and will reopen in 2015 as the Grace St. Moritz. On completion of renovations the hotel will comprise 36 rooms and suites plus several serviced apartments. It will have three restaurants – the premier restaurant being an all-new internationally branded fine dining experience. There will also be a classic Swiss restaurant specializing in local cuisine and a more casual restaurant offering all-day dining, plus a new martini and cigar bar.

We can only hope that the future hotel manager and staff will be as good as the current ones.

Heidi&Tell is the answer to the American Hooters

Heidi&Tell is a burger place that simply delivers great, fresh tasting burgers, crispy fries, soup and some sweets of the day. Ah, yes, all that and beers as well. So what made me think of the Swiss Hooters reference? Actually, it is just because of one poster and that’s really the only reason.  The food is way better than any Hooters, McDonalds or Burger King together.

If I think of burgers, I think of McDonald’s sticky floors, spongy bread, cheese that doesn’t taste like cheese, and fries that are made of some potato starch paste. Honestly, the only times I actually go to McDonalds is to use the bathroom.

Now, I’ve had good burgers, but since I live in Zurich, it would be quite a way to go to a Five Guys burger place in the US.  After a friend recommended Heidi & Tell, I no longer have to cross the Atlantic to satisfy my burger fix.  I even like the place itself with the non-sticky wooden floors, simple wooden tables, a really nice terrace towards the Tessiner Platz at Bahnhof Enge, and live streaming music courtesy of Carolina webradio.

The best of all is that all the ingredients are 100% natural with no additives, preservatives or any of the other junk that makes me dislike fast food in the first place.

An added bonus also is that the burgers come in a little carton box, which helps non-experienced burger eaters like me to minimize the mess. Great idea!  All cups, cutleries and serviettes support their sustainably friendly environment (you won’t find any plastic at Heidi&Tell for sure).

Burgers are made with Swiss meat and come on a handmade bun, and cheese with a Swiss twist, which basically means that you choose from Gruyere, Appenzeller or Emmentaler cheese, and get some HT (Heidi&Tell) fries on the side. The fries are even sprinkled with cheese and parsley and somehow make you feel healthy as you eat them.

Heidi&Tell is comfortable, even though clearly set up as a Take Away. You can definitely spend some time in there, surfing the Wi-Fi for free. The atmosphere is down-to-earth, music in the background, maybe the waitresses are not the most happy ones, when you don’t get the ordering system right away, but the good coffee and the brownie manage to make up for any problems.

personal and unique travel