hotelaprile.jpgRecently I was fortunate to journey to Florence, a Renaissance jewel. I caught an Alitalia flight from Birmingham airport that is most convenient for short journeys between the UK and European continent. Flying via Milan, I found the seating aboard this Italian airline very comfortable and enjoyed being bussed to and from the plane. The seats are of grey leather and, although an airbus, quite roomy and spotless unlike so many other airlines I have flown on.

The Hotel Aprile was my place of abode for four deliciously comfy nights. This ancient Palazzo dal Borgo, formerly a 15th century Medici Palace, has been lovingly converted into a charming hotel with every comfort and excellent service. Their delightful courtyard garden where breakfast and afternoon drinks are served in the spring and summer is a green and verdant spot situated within sight of the Church of Santa Maria Novella and the bustling streets of this Renaissance city. The bedrooms are furnished differently and all with private bathrooms which have been beautifully fitted. For families, there is a full size suite with two bedrooms. You will find many surprises as you wander through the hallways and passages, 16th century paintings, alcoves with Florentine Renaissance antiques, original frescoes on walls and faded oriental carpets.

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mexican-bus.jpg The woman at the desk has never heard of that bus station before. It's on East 7th and Shady Lane, in the shady part of town.

I arrive at ten o'clock. The woman at the counter tells me the 10:15 ticket I bought online doesn't take me where I'm trying to get.

So she puts me on the 9:30. Which doesn't show up until 10:45.

This was the second leg of a mythic bus ride. I'd scheduled this route in January 2007. I was going to fly from New York to Austin. Bus from Austin to Monterrey. Monterrey to Central Mexico. My flight was canceled because Austin was frozen.

I gave myself a high-five for following through, three years later. I took a sip of water.

Earlier, hotel security accused me of shoplifting. I had elaborately stolen a bottle of water, M&M cookies, and a package of Fig Newtons. Then the mook realized the hotel didn't sell those products.

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CR-WeatherMost of my travel is food focused. I’m headed somewhere to meet people who make interesting food tied to a place and to taste that food. Over the past decade I find that the line between vacation, educational junket and personal exploration has blurred. If I travel with food friends then we tend to be like dogs searching for the same tasty bone to turn up. It can get weirdly competitive or punishingly about the next bite even when enough bites have been had by all.

When I started traveling as a kid I wandered. Often I traveled alone, free to choose this road at that speed to stop and see this thing, sink into the culture of that place and eat those dishes. They were my decisions at my pace. No “have to” or “can’t miss”, just wandering and discovery. I miss those days. Of course time tends to be an impediment. I don’t have an extra five or six weeks to spare anymore, so focus is to often at the root of today’s travel.

But, recently a friend (who loves to cook, but is not a foodie) took possession of a long sought shack on the beach in the Pacific Northwest of Costa Rica. She was taking the first trip back to see how the beginnings of rebuilding the shack were going and to install her 21 yr old son for a two-month stay as “remodeling supervisor”. Would I come along?

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ImageTucked into the tiny village of Meranges, high in the Pyrenees of Spain and a stone’s throw from both France and Andorra, is Can Borrell. In Catalan, the home language of Meranges, Can means house. This little treasure of a house is a very old inn with 6 rooms for guests and a restaurant that turns out fantastic breakfasts and dinners. We got to Can Borrell the hard way – taking a 5-hour drive with endless switch backs on a cliff-hugging road. This is deep in the Pyrennees, home to Catalan, French, and Spanish speakers in miniscule stone villages, lots of cows and sheep, and granite faced cliffs in the distance. We learned too late that there is a 2 hour drive from Barcelona complete with a tunnel that literally cuts through the mountains. For scenery, the long way is better viewing, but 5 hours of constant vigilance on mountain turns can be nauseating and exhausting, so I suggest the tunnel.

We saw only about 8 of the reported 75 residents of Meranges when we were there for a 4 day stay. There was the old woman with chickens and roosters living on her front patio which was just a few steps down from her bedroom, and another woman sweeping the steps of a small café which never seemed to be open when we wanted it to be, a farmer repairing his tractor alongside his wonderful loping spaniel that accompanied us on a morning walk, and the family that runs Can Borrell, Oliver Verdaguer, the chef, his wife Laura Forn, the manager who spent summers in Meranges as a child, and their 3 adorable and sturdy young sons.

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brendaage6.jpgLike a mother hen sweetly teaching their young how to find the water and food bowl is the way our Mother taught us how to appreciate the world of wonderful food that awaited us at a very young age. We were on our first trip to Europe, I was 6 and my sister was 11 when my mother became very ill in Paris. We were staying in the 5th Arrondissement at the Lutetia Hotel and as my mother faded in and out of consciousness she was worried that we needed to eat. She gave us money and told us that we weren’t allowed to – #1 not cross any streets and #2 we had to hold each other’s hands. We could eat what ever we wanted and we were armed with plenty of francs.

On our first sojourn, we happily discovered a precious little Bistro with a delightful French female owner that surely must have wondered what the story was with the two small hungry American children popping into her restaurant hand in hand. But all curiousness aside, her mission was to feed us and introduce us to French food and maybe our story would unfold. For three days we visited morning, noon and night always hand and hand. As we waited for our meal she placed a tiny kitten in each of our hands to help pass the time until we ate and to make us feel at home.

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