Category Archives: Europe

Ryan Lau: Beaches and Seas

(Here is Ryan’s blog post of the week. I hope you enjoy it! – Brandon)

It all started in the beautiful city of Athens which, sadly, I couldn’t go out to see because I had caught a cold on the twenty hours of travel. That however did not stop me from eating three gyros before heading to the airport. It felt like our vacation had really begun when we stepped off the small nine row propeller plane onto the Greek island of Milos.

The beautiful Golden Beach (that is its real name) is our favourite on Milos because there are hardly any rocks in or around the golden sand. I was surprised by how few beaches are organized (a beach with sunbeds and umbrellas for rent), there are only three organized beaches on the whole island!

After staying three nights in Adamas, the main town, we drove to the northeast side of the island to our stop on the waterfront in Pollonia. The beach beside our hotel has many rock formations that are fun to explore. I always look for fish when I am swimming and I found a little school of beautiful yellow two inch fish that blend in surprisingly well to the golden sand.

I am writing this while hearing the waves lap the shore, one of the many stray cats comes up and begs for food, and I feel the warm breeze as it gets blown around looking for a place to call home.

Our Adventure Begins

20 hours of travel, 2 plane rides, and a long cab ride later (long, because there was an EU meeting about Greece’s debt crisis close to our hotel), we were at our hotel in Athens, Greece. Athens is a great city, but since we had been there before, we designated it as our “recovery stop”. As it turned out, this stop was much needed. After such a rough flight, Ryan got a cough, so we took it easy with gyros and greek salad as the bulk of our diet.

The plane to our next stop was tiny with only 9 rows of four seats. It was a little scary getting in the air, but the end destination was completely worth it. We landed in Milos, home to some of my favourite beaches. To get to some however, you must go on off-road paths in a jeep to secluded and quiet spots. Mostly shielded by sand bars and rocky outcrops, these small, sandy alcoves have smooth, calm, crystal clear waters, letting you watch fish swim under the water in between larger rocks. These inlets, so distant from any civilization, have waters ranging from light turquoise, to navy blue. In short, very beautiful.

We also went to another beach which was easier to access, but more open to the ocean. A light breeze gently came up off the water, and the sand was soft and plentiful, stretching from the beach 200 meters into the open ocean. This inviting shoreline has no rocks or coral, and the gentle waves and small tides makes it an ideal place to swim.

The hotel where we are staying has a fantastic view. While there are only a few patches of sand, there are many calm inlets shielded by small rocky islands mere steps from our room. The chairs that overlook the ocean boast wonderful sunsets in the evening, and mild but refreshing breezes throughout the day. Tomorrow we will be leaving this paradise in search of a new adventure, ferrying to the island of Folegandros.

Ryan Lau: The Preparation

(The first “Guest” blog post by my brother Ryan. We hope to have him write weekly and I will post his articles here on my blog. – Brandon Lau)

This is our third summer trip to Europe and it includes some of our favourite stops from past trips as well as some new exciting stops. We are traveling to five Greek islands. Then we are flying to Oxford where we are meeting with some family for a few nights. Our last part of our trip is a cruise around the Baltic Sea from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg stopping at ports in Germany, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway before heading back. I am most excited for the islands with their  golden sand beaches and beautiful water.

The cruise is 11 nights on the Eurodam which is one of the newest ships added to the Holland America line with an additional top deck/viewing space. The stop I am most looking forward to on the cruise is St. Petersburg in Russia because I am curious what the drastic change between the rich and poor will look like in the city.

I am packing in the perfect-sized, silver Heys clam-shell carry-on suitcase which I have packed in the last two trips. For me the plane ride is the most exciting for it marks the start of our trip when we do not have anything left to do. I can not wait to embark upon this exciting new adventure.
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Heading off on Our Adventure!

I love traveling, seeing new sights, and experiencing cultures different from our own. As I write, we are preparing to embark on a six week trip to Greece, England, and a Nordic cruise. We will start our trip in Greece, island hopping to see Milos, Folegandros, Naxos, Paros, and Mykonos. The island I am anticipating the most is Mykonos, mostly for the wonderful beaches and infinity swimming pool. I am also excited for Athens, where we will go for the best gyros in town! After Greece, we will fly to London, England to stay with friends at Oxford University. It will be very interesting to see one of the oldest universities in England, where the first classes were supposedly taught in 1036, almost 1000 years ago!

Our next stop is Copenhagen, Denmark, the starting point of a 11 day cruise of Northern Europe. On the cruise, we will visit Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and Estonia. The stop I am most looking forward to is Stockholm, Sweden, the stop that I have planned. There we will visit a museum, focused around 17th century Scandinavian Shipping, it even has the reconstructed remains of a real ship from that place and era.

I am looking forward to this trip very much, and hope to be able to document it all for your enjoyment. Ryan will also be writing weekly along with me! Come back every week for new blogs about our latest adventures!

My bag is mostly packed!
My bag is mostly packed!

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The French Finale


Our French adventures start in ST Remis, where we visited the large market that is held in the center of town every Wednesday and Saturday. We also went to a fish spa, this is where you put your feet in a large tank of fish that eat the dry skin of your feet and toes, it was really fun!

Our next stop was Avignon, where we took a ferry across the river of Avignon to France’s largest island surrounded by a river, where the old city is located. The city started when the Pope decided to leave Rome and settle in the small city of Avignon. He bought the entire village, and proceeded to build large walls around it, putting many palaces and large buildings in it! The palace the Pope built for himself took up over 3 acres of land inside the city walls. Just a few years after all of this had been completed, the Pope decided that Rome was better, and moved back to the Vatican. If he had not moved, Avignon might very well have been the new Vatican!

Our last stop on our trip was Marseilles, being a major trading city, established by the Greeks, it has small walled forts dotting its coastline. While there, we saw the main church for the area, complete with a 3 ton statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the main dome! We went to one of the largest forts in the area, built by Louie the 14th, it was made to keep the residents of the city under control. It is connected to the old town by a long foot bridge, which is over 60 feet above the highway that runs outside the city walls. My favourite activity was a boat ride to see 3 of the 9 Calunques (small inlets) that are around Cassis, a smaller beach town very close to Marseilles.

This concludes our trip. I am one of the few lucky people that has seen so much of Europe. The thing that stood out to me the most was the overabundance of heritage and history, from the meals we ate to the buildings we saw, everything was special in one way or another. I love the culture, the cuisine, and the history, and I am so thankful to my parents for taking me on a truly one in a million experience!

Venice and the Cruise

I love cruises and how you can travel between stops so effortlessly with no packing and unpacking. In Malta, we went to the famous Blue Grotto where we boarded a boat that took us through all the caves and under natural bridges to see the stunning blue waters. After the boat ride, we rented a golf cart and, thanks to the cart’s audio guide and navigation system, we drove all around the clean, historic, and beautiful city with its lovely harbours and views.

Our next stop (and last day) in Greece was Corfu, known for its many castles. The reason for all these outposts, is for protection from pirates! Most of the small villages are not visible from the sea as they are hiding from the pirates who would sail by and attack. There are many villages on Corfu and it is Greece’s second largest island. We had a taxi-tour on this stop so we were able to see a few castles as well as a lot of fantastically scenic view points along the way. Topping off the tour was a refreshing swim at the beach before boarding the ship (it was one of the best swim of my entire vacation).

The port that I planned activities for was Dubrovnik, a Unesco World Heritage Site. This small walled city has survived many invasions, most recently by the Serbians in 1991. During this war, many of the old buildings were hit by grenades or shrapnel, some being burned down completely. You can see the damage by the age of the roof, the lighter the roof’s colour, the newer it is. However, the city of Dubrovnik pulled through this latest war as it has after so many other invasions and occupations and has since been restored to its former beauty.

The city was invaded by the Romans, pirates, the Napoleonic French and the Turkish! Most attacks were defeated thanks to its city walls, running for 2 kilometres and completely surrounding the city. Even today the drawbridge connecting the one of two entrance to the old city to the surrounding area is still in use. As we walked along the walls, the views were made even more stunning by the height of the walls. The water crashed into a sheer 60 foot tall cliff, on top of which was a 50 foot tall wall, perching the walkway over 100 feet in the air. Making the walls a daunting task to anyone wanting to scale them.

The last stop on our cruise was Venice. This remarkable city was made by refugees running away from the barbarians that were destroying the Roman empire. While the barbarians were excellent horsemen, they were poor sailors, so these refugees sought refuge in this large 550 square kilometre lagoon. These early Venetians had to figure out how to access a source of fresh water from a salt water lagoon, how to farm in the marshes, and most importantly for the existence of Venice, how to build on the soft sandy soil that made up the islands of the lagoon. To solve this last problem, they used poles driven into the islands to support the weight of the buildings.

After we had checked into the apartment we had rented, we walked around with friends from Vancouver we had met there. We visited two other islands in the lagoon, Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass blowing, making beautiful sculptures, chandeliers, and vases of many colours, while Burano is famous for its lace making. In Murano, we were able to see how they make some of their glass products. The piece we saw them sculpt was an arm for a chandelier. It was amazing how the master worked with such precision and knew exactly how the molten glass would behave! On Burano, we saw an elderly woman making the lace, and I was surprised when our tour guide said that she was the youngest lace maker they have. Indeed, lace making will soon be a lost art which is unfortunate.

We attended a food tour while in Venice and tasted some of the local dishes. My favourite was a wine bar that sold small sandwiches that the Venetians eat every morning as a midmorning snack (after having a coffee for breakfast). Another stop was to sample the only coffee that is manufactured in Venice, which was very good. Before the walking tour all I saw while walking through Venice were tourist trap restaurants, but on the tour I found that in even the most tourist reliant cities, there are still little local gems of restaurants.

Bologna, Modena, and Lucca

Bologna is the place where a meat ragu was first recorded being made and has been dubbed “Bolognese sauce”. Strangely, this relatively modern nick-name for the ragu has not been embraced by the residents of Bologna, but has been labeled offensive to the chef, so you will not see the word Bolognese anywhere in Bologna. The town attracts quite a few Italian tourists and there are very few North American and Nothern European travellers.

One of the main attractions is the world’s longest arcade. This arcade is not a store full of games, but is a walkway beside the street that is covered to protect from rain and heat. Above the roof of the walkway, there are usually 2-3 floors of apartment buildings. These were built for students studying at the University of Bologna which was built by the Pope. What makes this arcade unique is that it is over 4 kilometres long! Unfortunately, while the parts of the arcade inside the city walls have lots of stores along the sides, the ones outside the walls are in a state of economic downturn.

A few other sights we saw included a church where the bottom half was ornately decorated with marble and limestone, while the top half is an ugly brick that jaggedly sticks out making the incompleteness of the church even more obvious. The reason the church was not completed, is because the Pope moved his sights off the church, and onto building one of the first Universities in Europe. Another sight we saw was a set of medieval towers, one leaning 11 feet to one side while the other stood straight up making the precarious state of the first tower quite visible.

Our next stop is an Agrotourismo close to Modena. While there, we went to a family’s house where they make balsamic vinegar. It started hundreds of years ago with an accident, someone who made wine put some freshly pressed grape juice in the attic instead of the basement. It was forgotten up there and it slowly turned into the balsamic vinegar that we use today. To make the special balsamic vinegar, first you press grapes in the same fashion as making wine, then they let the juice sit in large mother barrels for 2-3 years. After that, they put the liquid into 5 barrels, the first one being the biggest and the ones after it getting consecutively smaller. The liquid sits in the barrels for 1 year, they are left open so during that year all the barrels loose about 20% of their contents due to evaporation. At the end of that year, juice from  the second smallest barrel is transferred to the smallest barrel, and then the middle sized barrel fills the second smallest barrel, and so on. The largest barrel will be topped up with grape juice that has fermented for 2-3 years. This happens every year for a minimum of 12 years, and a maximum of 50 years (even so, they don’t normally age it bend 24 years). They make different kinds of vinegars by changing the type of wood that is used to make the barrels. For example, a balsamic aged in Juniper wood has more of a spice and less fruitiness than a cherry wood barrel set. The favoured wood used for barrels is a combination of juniper, oak, and cherry tree wood. My personal favourite was the balsamic aged in cherry wood.

Outside Modena, we took a course at a gelato university on how to make gelato and the history behind this popular treat. It started in the Roman times when snow was mixed with fruit juice to form an ancient slushy. At about the same time, kings in the middle east were enjoying the ancestor to our modern day sorbet. Their cooks would put snow and salt in a bowl, and then put a smaller bowl inside the larger one. Then they would pour fruit puree into the small bowl and stir until it froze. In the workshop, I replicated this sorbet. It turned our even better than the modern equivalent. I made apricot gelato by hand using this ancient method, while our guide and gelato expert made the same flavour in a modern gelato maker. After comparing the two, I decided that the ancient way makes the gelato much more flavourful.

Lucca (our next stop) is famous for its extremely wide walls that circle the city. They are so wide in fact, that we were able to easily bike on top of the walls. The city is only 2 kilometres across and the walls are only 4 kilometres in circumference, very thick walls for such a small town. From our bikes, we were able to see the gardens of many large buildings, one even having its own fountain and statues.

My favourite small town in Italy has got to be Lucca, because of how small and cute it is, it makes for a fun evening walk or bike ride around the town!


Parmigiano Reggiano

The art of making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is over 800 years old, going back to the 1200’s. Making the cheese can only take place in certain places in northern Italy, specifically the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna. The production starts with the cows, their feed is strictly regulated organic grass grown only in specific areas, which are the same as the production areas. Some 270,000 cows produce milk that goes into making the cheese, the small dairy we went to however, specializes in a specific white cow, so they only have 50 cows in total. They are milked twice per day, and their milk is taken to the cheese house no more than 2 hours after milking.

It takes around 16 litres of milk to produce 1 kilogram of cheese, so it takes about 600 litres of milk to make one wheel of cheese. The first step is to take the milk from the last evenings milking that has settled in large shallow containers, skim the fat off the top, and then put it in a large copper cauldron to be mixed with whole milk from the morning’s milking. After warming the milk in the cauldron, natural whey starter is added. It is a culture of natural lactic ferments obtained from the cheese making process of the day before. Rennet, a natural enzyme from the stomach of suckling calves, is added which causes the milk to curdle. Once the milk has curdled, the cheese maker will take a large wire ball on the end of a rod (called a Spino), and break up the curd into granules smaller than grains of rice. The cheese curds are then cooked for around 10 minutes, after which the granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron, forming one large mass.

30 minutes later all the grains are now just one large wheel of soft cheese. Using a net, they pull out the wheel which weighs over 35 kilograms, and put it into a press to make it the right shape. After 24 hours in the press, it is submerged into a brine, and then placed into the aging room. This room is 30 feet high, with shelves laden with rows upon rows of massive cheese wheels. We then tasted all the different ages of cheese; 12, 24, and 36 month old cheeses. I am amazed at how much work goes into each wheel, and it makes me appreciate homemade cheese so much more.

The Small Towns of Tuscany

The cities in the province Siena are some of the most picturesque little towns I have ever seen. When driving through the country side, one is never more than a 15 minute drive away from one of many small villages. Each has a main street, a church, and a few restaurants. Since there were many wars between cities, each city is built at the top of a hill for good war strategy. We are staying at another Agrotourismo (essentially a B&B) that is not situated in any specific town, but is close to a couple different towns.

As we drive along the high way through the country side, I can see the rolling hills of the countryside stretching out for miles. The hills look like they are checkered with green, brown, and yellow fields. The main highway is very well kept, but the smaller roads used to get to the smaller villages can be quite bumpy, and sometimes seem to be paved with gravel.

As we visit each town, we will look for a good gelato place. The biggest tip for finding the best gelateria is to make sure it is not piled up high or is soft. When it is piled up high, it is full of preservatives to make it look better. That type is also whipped so that more air is incorporated, making it less creamy and rich. Another tip is to look at the banana flavour, and the mint. If the banana is yellow or the mint is green, then that place adds food colouring to it. Handmade banana gelato that has no chemical enhancements has a grey colour as the actual banana oxidizes, while mint will be white because the colour of the leaves do not colour the dairy.

The town of Siena (which the area around it is named after) was once a superpower to rival Rome, with palaces adorning the streets we walked along. Now-days the city is separated into 17 different districts, 10 of which are chosen to compete in yearly Siena horse race. rivalries between areas are common, so there is a large police presence at the race. We were there 3 days before the race, and already the dirt circuit was in place in the main square, spectator stands put up, and fencing surrounding the race track. Each district has its own flag that people wear as scarves, and there is a big feast for all the people in the district to attend, so it brings each district together while creating rivalry in the city.

The city itself looks very medieval, which shows that when the town was created, war was an ongoing event, happening frequently and without warning. In a painting in one of the churches we visited, one of the 12 months depicted in the picture was the month of war, shown by a man on horseback carrying a sword.

My favourite small town was Pienza. I liked it because the views from the city walls were superb, the hills rolling on and on for miles, completely untouched with mass development projects or blocks of townhouses. In the city, we found the best gelato shop we have ever been to, the man who served us was the same man that made the gelato himself! There were 8 flavours total, and all of them were exotic combinations like strawberry and rosemary or chocolate ginger. Even though the flavours didn’t sound especially good, they were perfect, the spice never overpowering the main flavour.

I love the small towns of Tuscany because they are a perfect example of a medieval town built to defend against attacks. I also like the walls that surround all of the cities, rising up perhaps 50 feet, it would have looked like a daunting task for any intruders, but happily I can stroll right in!

Rome and Driving in Italy!

Rome, the city that laid the foundation for our modern civilization. Rome, the home of some of the most vicious tyrants and emperors in history. After flying to Rome and settling into our apartment, we go to our first tour for Rome. Since Rome’s attractions can be very far apart, We booked a golf cart tour to see the monuments that are very far from our place. On the tour, we saw a water level gauge that showed the flood water height of the Tiber river. Since all main cities had to be right by a main river (Rome was no exception), the city had its share of large floods, the latest being in the late 1800s! Because of the massive floods as well as fires creating debris, modern Rome is 25 feet above the street level of ancient Rome. Our tour guide described it perfectly, “Rome is like one big lasagna”.

There are little fountains that just pop up in small squares all across Rome. Completely drinkable water constantly runs out of a faucet for filling up bottles, but when you want to just take a drink, you plug the hole the water comes out of, and the pressure forces water through a much smaller hole on the top of the faucet, making a perfect drinking spout.

We went on a private tour of the Roman Colosseum. The Colosseum is made up of 4 different walls, each supporting a separate section of viewing areas. The closest section of seating in the arena, is reserved for the Emperor and his family, as well as Senators. The second closest area was for teachers and knights. The third closest area was for the middle or working class, while the furthest area with seating was for the women (of all classes).

In the evening, we went on a food  tour of Rome. We visited a few of the shops, an example is the bakery we went to where you order pizza by telling them with hand gestures how big of a slice you want. After that, they take a massive knife, and chop of a section from a 4-5 foot long flatbread style pizza. However, if you order pizza in a restaurant, it will be a full 10” very thin crusted pizza, meant for one person.

One of the 3 districts we visited on the food tour, is the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. This specific Ghetto is the oldest European residence for Jews, and that area is where the word “ghetto” originated. The Jewish district is about 2000 years old, the first residents arriving from Jerusalem as captives of war (slaves) in 70 AD. These were the slaves that built the Colosseum and other great buildings in its time. Over the centuries, the Jewish Ghetto was plagued with diseases thanks to regular floods from the polluted Tiber river (Rome’s source of water and sewage drain). On top of all of that, the whole area was walled in and gates were locked from just after sunset to one hour before sunrise. Thankfully, the walls and gates were all knocked down in the 17th century, but for over 1700 years, the Jewish Ghetto was separated from the rest of Rome. At the Ghetto, we saw gold blocks installed into the pavement, these were to commemorate people of Jewish heritage that were taken by the Nazis during WWII and that never returned. Today, the Jewish “Ghetto” is one of the cleanest and safe places to live in Rome. We ate Mozzarella , rolled in rice, dipped in a tomato sauce, and then deep fried. Needless to say, it was really good! We finished our tour across the river where we had a traditional pasta with bacon and tomato sauce, and fresh homemade gelato.

The next day, we picked up our rental car and left the historically rich city of Rome, and drove a few hours into the Italian country side. Our destination was an Agritourismo in Umbria, a small village with many farms surrounding it in all directions. An Agritourismo is a special licence given to people that want to have a B&B attached to a fully functioning farm. Our host described it perfectly, “in Canada, you can do anything unless it’s against the law, but in Italy, you can’t do anything unless it is approved by the government.” This system makes doing anything a lot more complicated than in Canada. This specific farm has a restaurant attached to the main house, so we ate there for dinner. We had a home grown rooster, as well as stinging nettle ravioli. Once the leaves of the stinging nettle plant have been cooked, they don’t sting anymore and it tasted somewhat like spinach.

While staying in Umbria, we went to a cooking class hosted by the B&B, where we learned how to make an Italian custard cake, some Tagliatelli pasta, some ravioli pasta, and a special dish where you take two sheets of pastry, and put a filling of your choice (tomato and goat cheese) in between. We also went on a tour to see our host’s solar power farm. It consists of over 900 separate panels that make a combined 180 KW of power. All that power is then put back into the electrical grid to power other peoples homes. Also on the farm is a natural spring that produces water for watering crops, as well as supplying water for the residence.

What I loved about Rome, was the overabundance of ancient buildings and sights to see. I really enjoyed Umbria, especially the rustic, local feel that is not affected by tourism yet!