In my first two blogs relating to me and Mister’s Grand Ramadan Adventure of 2017 I wrote about my experiences feeling love and connection with family and friends. I’m switching gears now, to share the explorations of our senses as we viewed, listened, felt, smelled and tasted our way from Winnipeg to Rome and along the Western Mediterranean.
529 Wellington, a posh and trendy restaurant in an up-scale water-front neighborhood of Winnipeg, Canada, was our first indulgence in fine cuisine, a belated birthday gift from Greg and Julie. I was impressed as soon as we drove up, the restaurant housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century mansion. From the luxurious draperies to the ornate chandeliers to the dark wood paneling throughout, the ambience was rich and inviting. Even on a Tuesday night it was packed and the noise was a bit jarring at first, but soon we settled into our cozy corner.
We ordered a bottle of bold, peppery shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia that paired smashingly with my prosciutto wrapped scallops, not to mention the melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin rated Canadian Prime distinction shipped in all the way from High River, Alberta. The four of us shared side dishes of asparagus and mushrooms and ate, sipped and talked our way to dessert. Mister and I shared the chocolate cheesecake which was divinely decadent; rich, creamy and dense. It was over-the-top and Mister and I felt grateful for his parent’s generosity.
We celebrated our dear friend Anne Marie’s birthday two-fold, beginning with a musical production, Strictly Ballroom, in the Princess of Wales Theatre located on King Street in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. Incorporating traditional and contemporary design, the theatre can seat 2000 guests and after collecting our tickets from the box office we took our seats in the centre orchestra section.
Strictly Ballroom originally opened in Australia and featured a cast that mostly hailed from London. It began with a rather cliché opening of ballroom dancers engaged in petty competitiveness. As the story progressed and featured elements of modern choreography I appreciated the talent even if the plot and characters felt flat and predictable. Only after the play, in conversation with Anne Marie, did I discover the subtle nuances that had originally eluded me. It was no Kinky Boots or Les Miserables, but a worthwhile performance nonetheless.
We took a cab back to Anne Marie’s and drank champagne and told stories and shared photos from her Breakfast at Tiffany’s themed birthday bash in February. We caught another cab to take us to George, located in an old red brick building on the corner of Queen and Church. We chose to be seated in the courtyard patio, nestled in a corner partitioned for privacy with green bushes twinkling with lights and a tranquil fountain.
Our sommelier arrived to inquire about our drink preferences and we ordered a bottle of sparkling prosecco from Nova Scotia that Anne Marie was familiar with. It was dry, crisp, light and refreshing, a perfect way to toast and begin the evenings festivities. We all decided to indulge in the five course wine pairings and over several hours we were served spectacular food and wine with impeccable timing and service.
Chef Lorenzo Loseto created a bold epicurean adventure for us featuring local food artisans and global wine producers. After an amuse bouche of crisp, bright pea shoots with citrus we were brought a selection of first course cold appetizers paired with barely pink rose. The second course featured a warm appetizer of sweetbreads with rich Foie Gras and a complex red pinot noir. Third course was lamb rib chop served with scalloped potato and asparagus and yet another smooth, bold red. A supreme selection of Quebec cheeses was served next with a dry ice wine. Last, but never least, was dessert, a gluten free chocolate torte with a layer of cheesecake and a smattering of raspberries paired with an outrageously thick and decadent port.
Throughout the meal the conversation was lively, with Anne Marie entertaining us with a multitude of stories about her adventures at home and abroad. It was an amazing experience and by the end we all agreed, we were stuffed, literally and metaphorically, with food, wine and connection.
Rome was an explosion of art, history, architecture and ruins. As we drove along the freeway from the airport to the centre of town where we were renting a condo we noticed the shift. The streets turned to narrow and cobbled, lined with old brick and stone buildings and peppered with tall umbrella and thin cedar trees. The Italian flavour for romance and passion was palpable and my spirit was soaring as I took it all in.
The food and wine in Rome were an experience all on their own. From cheap wine and cheese selected at our local Coop market to upscale restaurants, we feasted on Caprese salads featuring creamy buffalo mozzarellas, sharp pecorinos, fresh pastas, and I even discovered an amazing gluten free pizza.
An unexpected delight was when we stumbled upon an elegant restaurant just a short three-minute walk from our apartment, adjacent to the French Embassy, called Camponeschi. The well-dressed waiter, a man of senior years and expertise, treated us to exceptional service, proclaiming as he pointed to include all of us, “Mama, Papa and the kids!” A talented guitarist strummed and sang soulfully in English, Italian and Portuguese. We drank luscious bold and smooth Italian red wine and ate delicate grilled seabass and robust cheese and a decadent soufflé smothered in dark chocolate sauce.
Our final night in Rome had us walking to the trendy Eitch Hotel on recommendation and it did not disappoint. A museum hotel, the rooftop patio where we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails overlooked grand fountains in the square below and the sun dazzled in the early evening sky, lending a pristine quality to the white and glass elegance of the décor.
The restaurant featured private dining rooms with windows open to the beauty and bustle of the plaza below. We drank deep purple Amarone and toasted Susie’s graduation and dined on aromatic chef-inspired dishes.
The attractions in Rome were as plentiful and over-the-top as the food and wine. Our first day featured a whirl-wind tour of Vatican City, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Square. The hall of maps was an eye-dropper for all four of us, dazzling in its contrasts of simplicity and complexity. Floor to ceiling paintings and tapestries were featured throughout the museum. It would be impossible to choose a favourite, although the deep colour and demonic expressions in the paintings by Botticelli captured my imagination. The Sistine Chapel was magnificent in all its glory and St. Peter’s was surely the most magnificent chapel I’ve ever seen.
Day two had the four of us venturing out for a walking tour of Rome that included the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Villa Borghese Gardens. Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, the Trevi Fountain is considered the most beautiful in the world and Mister and I agreed it impacted us with its pristine ivory baroque sculptures surrounded by turquoise waters.
The Colosseum, Forum, Circus Maximus and Palazzo di Venezia were the subjects of our third day’s outing. We walked the ancient steps in the 35 Celsius heat and humidity, taking photos, refilling our water bottles and seeking shade whenever possible. The Colosseum was truly remarkable in it’s size and preservation and we all felt like we could feel the energy where spectators viewed gladiatorial contests, executions, animal hunt re-enactments and Christians being devoured by lions.
All I’d known previously of the magnificence of Rome I’d read in books like Colleen McCollough’s Caesar or Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. To experience in the flesh, with all my senses, was a gift I will treasure forever, and already my heart and spirit are calling me back.
Monday was check-out and after an hour-long transfer to the Port Terminal Mister and I boarded the Celebrity Reflection cruise ship destined for an eleven-day Western Mediterranean adventure. From the moment we were welcomed with a glass of sparkling prosecco, to the moment we left it was life-expanding and amazingly epic.
When our ship docked in Ville Franche, the gateway to the French Riviera, we took a taxi to Monte Carlo, driving past medieval style villas, mansions and castles all nestled into the craggy rocks and rolling hillside that lined the road curving to follow the beautiful beaches along the coast. The infamous Grand Casino did not disappoint in its grandeur, the gold-gilded ceiling a spectacular architectural design. Intoxicatingly elegant, we were entranced as we entered the main gaming hall where no photos were allowed. There was only one black jack table, the minimum bet 25 EUR. We sat down to play, losing the small amount we’d allocated for entertainment quite quickly, but not before two high rollers joined us, cashing in a 10,000 EUR chip and proceeding to bet stacks of 600 a play without blinking an eye.
In Barcelona, we had booked a Wine and Tapas Tour, which was an interesting walk but short on the wine and tapas. We couldn’t complain, however, because the tour ended in an outstanding Flamenco Dance performance that blew both Mister and I away. The venue was an intimate theatre in the Gothic quarter, a work of art in its own right. We had front row seats and the performance featured an amazing spectacle of talent and passion. The singing, dancing and music had my soul ignited, tears on my face and goosebumps on my arms.
Gibraltar was an unexpected surprise. Valerie, a fantastic Brit from Manchester, was our tour guide for the Upper Rock Cable Car and Walking Tour. She had a fabulous sense of humour and was a natural story-teller. We rode up in the cable car, 412 metres in six minutes, to the top of the rock where we witnessed incredible views.
Macaque monkeys were in abundance, scrambling along the rocks, playfully engaging with one another, and I agreed with Valerie that you could fall in love with the adorable babies.
We toured St. Michael’s Cave where ancient stalagmites and stalactites were wonders to behold. We walked through St. George’s tunnels, built during the Great Siege of the late 1700’s when France and Spain tried unsuccessfully to capture Gibraltar from the British.
Mister and I had a delightful time on-board as well. The food and wine were spectacular, especially at our favourite restaurant, Murano, which featured elegant French cuisine, including sharp and creamy cheeses and melt-in-your-mouth chateaubriand. We indulged in the delicious coffee and baked goods, including an impressive selection of gluten free offerings, at El Bacio. And we spent many hours in Cellar Masters tasting a variety of different wines, culminating in an Unforgettable Italian Reds tasting the last day when we were at sea.
We worked out at the Fitness Centre, including a yoga studio, both with exceptional views from floor to ceiling windows. We spotted dolphins joyfully frolicking in the ships wake. We played our luck at the black jack tables in Fortunes Casino. We took in a theatre production called Broken Strings. Throughout it all, we were treated to exceptional service from everyone.
So yeah, I’m feeling abundance, appreciating travel experiences in art, history, food & wine.