Visiting Biltmore: The French Connection

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During my quest to find a house, Lookie Lou was the nicest name realtors gave me. In four years, I saw 70+ properties and worked with 5+ realtors before buying my current house. After seeing that many homes, I’m certain realtors have a poster with my face and a red line through it. If I combined viewing all the bedrooms, all the bathrooms and all the basements of those properties, it doesn’t come close to matching the grandiosity of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Before diving into our House Hunters: Biltmore Edition, there are a few things you should keep in perspective. Calling it a house is like saying New York is quaint. If there are “You are here” maps, it ceased being a house long ago. When it has wings, it is no longer a house.

If you don’t know of the Biltmore house, it is the largest private residence in America (and that includes the combination of all homes on my block). Calling it a residence or estate seems more appropriate to me. It’s staggering when you look at the stats: Continue reading Visiting Biltmore: The French Connection

A Night at the Staatsoper

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In a city known for its music, an evening trip to the opera is a must. Prior to Vienna, I’d only been to one sampling of the operatic arts for a preview show at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. That program was 90 minutes and featured selected works from all of their upcoming operas.

On our first night in Vienna, after a flight full of aspiring baby opera hopefuls, we decided to go big and see Macbeth performed by one of the preeminent opera companies in the world. 

Looking at available tickets a few weeks ago wasn’t encouraging. Opera is expensive, especially when going to see one of the best in an opulent setting. There are tickets for 20€, but those were long gone. The available tickets were in the 60-300€ range. A bit more than we intended to spend.

Have no fear; Rick Steves is here! For tourists, or those who just want a sample, there are standing room tickets known as Stehplatz. Turn up to the theater 90 minutes before curtain, wait in line and then grab standing room tickets for 3€ each. Rick’s book on Vienna has full details on where to go to get your stehplatz ticket.

Once inside, we followed the custom and roped off two spots with our scarves. The scarves serve as placeholders so you can wander around the opera house before showtime. When I travel, I often wonder if certain customs would work in the US. I can almost guarantee this polite claiming of space would result in a Macbethian death match in the US. You’d lose your scarf, space or both. For a moment, I considered swapping my scarf with someone else’s for a more advantageous view.The opera was beautiful. Alas, after a long flight, a disco nap and wandering the streets of Vienna, my ability to remain awake was tested. Without shame, I admit I fell asleep to some of the most luscious sounds. At intermission some of the tourists cleared out so Leann and I moved up a row. After my opera nap, I was ready for Act II. We lasted a bit longer before calling it a night. Upon looking at our phones for the time, we discovered we’d only been at the Staatsoper for about an hour. There were two more hours of Macbeth.

Thankfully for me, Leann’s knowledge of Shakespeare meant I could be filled in on the ending on our stroll to find dinner.

Visiting Vienna: First Thoughts and Photos

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Pro-tip for anyone traveling: if your eight-hour flight is littered with crying babies, going to the opera can be simultaneously the best and worst decision you make for things to do on day one.

Leann and I are in Vienna, Austria; the city that seems to have invented classical music and fried meat cutlets. The weather was dreary today, but far warmer than Chicago. As has become our tradition, we spent our first day wandering the city to get oriented on landmarks and get a sense of the city’s pulse. My first thoughts are Vienna loves Christmas and commerce. There are tons of stores, many clothing brands from the US, and huge Christmas decorations on most streets.

Thanks to a disco nap post-babies on a plane, we were able to wander around and see some of the attractions. The city’s layout is reminiscent of Rome, with cobblestone streets, winding roads and huge churches. The upside is there are great discoveries as you wander. The downside is it’s difficult to stay on target with your destination since the streets often are rings and angle away from where you want to go.

We did a large amount today, especially considering we got less than an hour of sleep during the flight. We checked out an impressive baroque church, got schnit-faced with a huge pork cutlet, took in “Macbeth” in Verdi’s operatic account at the Shakespearean thriller, ate sachertorte and goulash. 

Fun fact: don’t order water in restaurants. We tried unsuccessfully to request tap water and received bottles of water that cost more than our food. I told myself I’d let it go. But I can’t.

In happy news, the city is pretty and has a lot more discoveries in store for us tomorrow.

Braised Pork with Cider and Tomatillos – Recipe

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Fun Fact: I can guzzle a lightly chilled bottle of apple juice in one sitting.

Despite my love for apple juice, I never explored the world of ciders. It wasn’t until dating Leann that I started sipping the alcohol version of apple juice. With my limited exposure to the boozy fruit juice, I didn’t know about distinctions between styles of distillation or variations in the amount of sugar.

Leann and I escaped to Michigan for a quick trip before I started my new job. The area surrounding Holland, Michigan, offers the perfect amount of activities for a weekend. After a few Google searches for “Things to do in Holland” we compiled our own list. I’ll post our guide as soon as I can decide which pictures to share.


High on our list was visiting Virtue Cider in Fennville. They have a treasure trove of info on their site showing how cider is made. But I’ve never been one for reading. I’m more of a visual and experiential learner. Plus, it’s a real farm with pigs! So, Leann and I reached out to setup a tour (I highly suggest you do the same). It was a roaster of a day when we visited the farm. Thankfully, Virtue had plenty of beverages to curb the heat.
I’ll write more about the tour experience later, but while there, we chatted with the staff to learn about different ways to cook with cider. Did I mention they have pigs? And apples. Nearly a month later, Leann and I opened the mini growler of Percheron cider to braise pork loin. Continue reading Braised Pork with Cider and Tomatillos – Recipe

Tastes of Barcelona at Home

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In Barcelona, they eat dinner late. That’s what all the guide books advised. Fearing that we wouldn’t be able to eat when our stomachs expected food, we shifted our lunch to later in the day during our exploration of Barcelona-by-foot last December.

One of my supreme joys when traveling is experiencing new food and flavors, the museums and cultural attractions are an added bonus. That joy is a stark contrast to my frugality and indecisiveness. Unlike some travelers, I don’t travel for the food, willing to spend whatever it costs to have the finest meal in each city. Instead, I wander the streets looking for restaurants that have the perfect balance of star ratings and dollar signs.

The Barcelona nightlife in December may not have been the zenith of the summer club scene, but the streets were still full of people enjoying food, drink and temperate weather. We stuck out as tourists largely for our sporting short sleeve shirts while locals donned winter coats and scarves to brave the frigid evening winter temps in the low 60s.

Early this summer I received a bottle of Beronia wine from the Rioja region. The Rioja region is a major wine producing region in Spain and worth exploring. The bottle sat on my shelf as I debated what to pair it with. After a few weekends of uninspired dinner creations, it was time to revisit the tastes of Barcelona and uncork the Crianza. That varietal was not one I knew. Continue reading Tastes of Barcelona at Home

Take Jesus on Vacation

That’s what the sign said outside of a church near my house.

I imagine Jesus waving from the porch as His family drives off in the minivan without Him.

With most of these church signs, I repeat the message in my head for a block or so. Then someone cuts me off and my thoughts turn less religious. But this sign got me thinking. 
Where would Jesus want to go? Does He like beaches? Mountains? Rolling valleys? Which of His creations brings Him the most joy?

If He flew, do you think Jesus would check a bag at the airport? Would the TSA make Him take off His sandals? I imagine Jesus would travel light, just the good book and some water.

What if you took Jesus on a road trip? Would He take the wheel? Would “One of Us” be in “Jesus’ Jamz” playlist? What are His road snack preferences? 

Would it be awkward if you go to a museum with Jesus? Is that His way of looking through family portraits?

“Raphael really botched this one. My mom wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that blue. She was more of a fall complexion. Amateur.”

How would He feel about the long lines at amusement parks? You know you’d be tempted to ask for an intercession.

“Hey Jesus, any way you can make this line move faster? You don’t happen to have an express pass? You know…being the son of God and all…”

Did Jesus ever even have a vacation? In 30ish years, did He ever take a holiday? Forty days in a desert doesn’t sound like much of a respite. Even when He went to a wedding He had to work it. Whenever He tried to be alone His disciples followed like, well, disciples.
If Jesus worked in an office, what would His out of office message look like? Who is His backup?

“I am currently out of the office through August 15 (the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). 
If you require immediate assistance, please reach out to one of my 11 associates.

Peace,

The Christ”

As my mind wandered through all these questions I realized I was parked in my driveway. I doubt Jesus would want to vacation with me, but if He did, I can guarantee you would read about it on a church sign.

Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering

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Whenever snow is predicted, I scroll to my photo album “Warmer Places.” Increasingly I turn to my photos from Puerto Rico. With five inches of snow predicted to fall in Chicago, let’s jet for Luquillo beach, just outside of Fajardo.

Every article we read advised to get to the ferry office a few hours before it opened to guarantee a spot on the boat to Culebra, considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Our hotel echoed the advice. Despite all those warnings, I couldn’t fathom we would have to give more lead time for a boat than for our flight to Puerto Rico.

Leann and I looked at the ferry schedule, discussed what time we should wake up to arrive at the ticket office. The boats leave every two hours, which throttles how many people can enjoy them at a time. The ticket office opened at 7AM and I thought an hour would be plenty of time. For the record, Leann suggested we go earlier. We got directions from the hotel staff and opted to walk instead of driving the half mile. Continue reading Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering