A Hilltop in Umbria

Picture this. You wake to the sound of birds chirping. You fling open your bedchamber windows to overlook a spectacular Umbrian valley. You brew your own espresso and wander out onto your own terrace, still in your pajamas and perhaps barefoot. Soft morning clouds are rising from your private valley and grapes are ripening almost literally at your feet. There are no sounds. Slowly, you sip your espresso and butter your croissant. These are the pleasures of renting your own villa in Europe. For me, it was this 13th century lieutenant’s tower in Umbria, set high on a hill and surrounded by roses and other fragrant plants.

‘Torre del Tenente’ is the perfect Umbrian villa.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, 'Torre del Tenente'.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, ‘Torre del Tenente’.

Often called “the green heart of Italy,” Umbria is where Assisi is located, with its incredible churches and steep streets, its Giotto murals and endless tourist shops. A bit further north is Perugia, another grand city full of chocolate and great sights.

Southern Umbria is a good spot to center yourself for day traveling. Just 90 minutes north of Rome, our villa is in tiny Acqualoreto, between the two gorgeous hill towns of Orvieto and Todi. Orvieto sits high on the “tufa”, the volcanic rock upon which it is built. One of the most beautiful cathedral facades in Italy is here in the main square, with the whole story of the Bible carved in marble on the exterior. Orvieto boasts an artisan street where you’ll find hand-loomed scarves, hand-made leather goods, sculpture, paintings and pottery. Todi, on the other hand, is smaller and more ancient – again with extraordinary views, good shopping and restaurants, but an especially charming atmosphere.

For relaxation, we sip an icy limoncello at an outdoor Todi cafe. Nearby is the Ristorante Umbria for an exquisite lunch or dinner. We take our laundry to Todi (it comes back wrapped in pink tissue paper!) and we shop for groceries here. We get to know the shopkeepers from our frequent visits. They are warm and welcoming. The drive back to our villa is only eight kilometers.

Exploring more Umbrian hill towns, we drive to Deruta, a pottery town where they have been hand-making exquisite majolica for over 500 years. Our favorite stop is Grazia, the oldest factory; Ubaldo Grazia and family have been here for 25 generations. Their guest book displays signatures from the Beatles, (John, Paul, George and Ringo all signed.) Or try Montefalco, an incredible wine town with a church filled with frescoes. Tiny Bevagna has an amazing, hand-painted theatre (ask the tourist office to unlock it for you), plus good restaurants and shops. Spello is a stone-town, with steep streets and the amazing Baglioni Chapel, frescoed by Umbrian artist Pinturicchio. If you are into climbing, visit Gubbio, legends of St. Francis and more hilly stone streets. All of these towns are ancient, founded back as far as the Bronze Age in some instances.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

In our tiny Acqualoreto, we climb the road to the square where we find one small restaurant, one church, one bar and very few people. On our last visit, we postulated that the town was Brigadoon-like; we could picture it going to sleep every night for 100 years and waking up exactly the same!

We head up to our tower room for bed now, with perhaps one more limoncello on our terrace, gazing at the star-filled sky.


If you go:


  • Grazia Maioliche, Via Tiberina, Deruta; www.ubaldograzia.com, you can ship from here!
  • Il Crogiolo, hand-loomed weavings, Via dei Magoni, Orvieto
  • Il Girasole, hand-made linens from Florence, Via Casali, Cortona


  • Ristorante Umbria, La Mulinella and Antica Hosteria de la Valle, all in Todi
  • Il Molino, in Spello
  • Taverno del Lupo, Gubbio
  • Ottavius, Bevagna
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She Cruises; He Cruises — Downton Abbey at Sea?

  Pack lighter for a cruise and still look sparkly!

         It was bad luck timing that the New York Times Sunday Travel Section published a major piece on transatlantic cruises or crossings the very week and actual day that the second worst cruise incident in just over a year hit Carnival’s Triumph, drifting without power in the Caribbean with over 4,000 people aboard.

Even though the piece was generally excellent – I have made this “crossing” myself on the exact same ship in the article (Cunard’s Queen Mary 2) – and agreed with most of it, I take major exception when it comes to the included packing list.

For men, there is an abbreviated list including a tuxedo and a suit, two pairs of shoes and so on, allowing for the dress code and several formal nights on this very British ship, (although my husband just takes a dinner jacket and slacks, and one sport coat.)CM5_4804

But for women, the list induces a heart-thumping ‘fear-of-packing’, including three formal dresses and two cocktail dresses; three pairs of heels and pumps for day and evening, plus boots and walking shoes; shawls and scarves of wool and silk at different levels of warmth; three purses (clutch for evening, daytime purse and spa bag); plus assorted skirts (3), blouses, sweaters, tights, socks, underwear, pajamas and a nightgown, two bathing suits, etc. The list calls for taking your best jewelry and “lots of it.”

Well, what are we dressing for here – Downton Abbey at sea? Only a man could have come up with this list; daunting enough to intimidate even the most practiced female packer.

I agree that it is much more challenging to pack lightly for a cruise than most other trips, but I think this author must face the fact that the era of the steamer trunk is over, even on board the Queen Mary 2.

Let’s dissect author Dwight Garner’s packing list for women. First, even given that the atmosphere on board is a bit more formal on a British ship, taking three formals and two cocktail dresses is beyond overkill. My suggestion: two dressier outfits – I get around the various evenings by packing one pair of black silk slacks (a long black silk skirt works too) and two sparkly tops. I wear each outfit twice; or perhaps on another night I wear a black silk blouse with a pretty scarf or shawl. Same silk slacks. I say no skirts, but rather, two-three pair of khaki or black cotton slacks. (If you are a skirt person, make it two casual cotton skirts.) No cocktail or day dresses for me; days on board remain casual. For shoes, I take only two pair – one casual and one for evening, plus I usually wear athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and walking the decks. For jewelry, I say leave your best jewelry AT HOME! For evenings, I wear fake rhinestone earrings and one string of pearls, which can also be fake. Yes, there is a safe in every cabin but why worry? And whom do we need to impress? You don’t know 99 percent of the passengers and chances are you will never see them again. When it comes to shirts,  underwear and socks, be sparing. The ship has laundry service and a dry-cleaning service should disaster strike. You won’t regret these decisions as you lug your luggage to and from the ship, on trains or through airports. Why risk a rotator cuff injury for strangers?

Here’s my shorter version packing list for a 7-night transatlantic crossing:

  • 1 pair silk slacks
  • Two dressy or sparkly tops
  • 3 khaki pants or casual cotton skirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • Scarves or shawl: 1 black Pashmina shawl (they’re warm); 1 silk scarf
  • 2 pair shoes – one casual for day; one for evening
  • Wear 1 pair of athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and deck-walking
  • If you are a swimmer or hot-tubber, perhaps 1 lightweight pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair earrings, 1 necklace and 1 pair earrings for evening (suggest fake)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 carryon bag (for airport travel)
  • 1 smaller, cross-body purse for day or evening use
  • Skip the spa bag, the ship gives you a logo’ed canvas bag which works
  • 4-5 assorted t-shirts or blouses
  • Socks or tights, underwear and 1 nightgown or PJ’s (plan to do 1 laundry load)
  • 1 warm hat for deck-walking
  • 1 rainproof and fleece-lined jacket with hood

That’s it; enjoy a lighter approach to cruise packing.

(This post originally written as a guest post for http://www.herpackinglist.com.)

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She Cruises, He Cruises – Packing for a Transatlantic Cruise

Grab my Guest Post today on www.herpackinglist.com, http://herpackinglist.com/2013/03/packing-for-a-transatlantic-cruise/. Learn my thoughts on packing for a transatlantic cruise and why the packing list in the New York Times was way off base. Catch it now — especially if you are planning a cruise — and skip most of the fuss and bother of extra luggage full of fancy clothes.

Wearing sparkly stuff packed in one small suitcase!

Wearing sparkly stuff packed in one small suitcase!

You can still look good!


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Two Cities, Two Flights — A Tale!

It should have been so simple. Just a quick weekend trip from Minneapolis, Minnesota to South Bend, Indiana for a family event. My mate and I are big on getting to the airport ahead of time so we arrived at 11 am  for a 1:30 flight, had lunch and made our way to a far-away gate about 12:45. And yes, last weekend there was a huge storm in the northeast but we weren’t worried. The weather was cold but sunny in Minneapolis; the same for South Bend.

But, as it happened, our plane was in Toronto, caught by the storm. We were flying a small regional jet listed as Delta but operated by Pinnacle Airlines. And there are few choices for a small carrier when a plane is out of action – in other words, a substitute plane was unavailable. Crew and passengers were in place, but no plane. Because of the weather, the plane had to be de-iced numerous times and we finally got our flight four-plus hours later, arriving at 7:30 pm, missing the first event but able to join our family just a little late for dinner.

OK, we chalked it up as an anomaly. This is only a short flight, just over an hour. But then came Sunday when we were heading home. Here we got to the airport about 2 pm for a 3:40 flight, but it was snowing a bit in Minneapolis! The airport had slowed down and, as we learned, regional jets are the lowest priority because of their smaller passenger loads. No Delta Club here so we settled into somewhat comfortable chairs with the Sunday New York Times, which we had the foresight to have brought with us.

The hours ticked by. Around 6pm we learned that in the course of so much waiting, a mechanical problem had been discovered with the plane. It took over an hour to try and fix it, but the fix was unsuccessful. Finally, another plane did become available and was sent down to pick us up. We unlocked our front door at about 10pm, when we had planned for a 4:40 arrival.

This has happened to everyone, right? We had found a small café on our concourse with fresh salads and sandwiches, and our little group of passengers became quite friendly as we waited. The next day we each received a note from the head of Delta’s customer care division, apologizing for the long wait and adding an extra 1,000 Worldperks miles to our accounts. An unprecedented gesture.

So it wasn’t all bad. As my husband says, “when does one have the opportunity to read the entire Sunday New York Times in an airport?”

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Paris, Still the Feast

With just a few days in Paris, both before and after my immersion language stay in Sancerre (about 2 hours south of the city), there was just too much to see and do.  I had friends to contact, favorite haunts to visit, favorite writers to meet, and one day when all the museums were closed (Monday), so I had to be selective. Not easy in Paris — there is just so much and one wants to do it all.

Saturday Night in Paris

Staying in my favorite small hotel, Hôtel des Marronniers on Rue Jacob (6th Arrondisement, Left Bank), is like coming home as I have stayed there many times before. I am just a few steps from the famous church, St-Germain-des-Prés, the famous and fabulous Café de Flore and Café Deux Magots, and my favorite smaller stop, Café Bonaparte with its delicious omelets. On my first day, I headed up to the Boulevard St. Germain and just walked, reconnecting with the street and drinking it all in. A friend joined me for tea at the Flore and later I ventured out for a light dinner on my own. Next day, I walked more, heading for Shakespeare & Co. to say hello to Sylvia Beach Whitman in her usual spot surrounded by books; then walked across the bridge to Notre-Dame and continuing on to Île St. Louis, stopping at boutique Grain de Sable for gloves and Berthillon for the best scoop of ice cream in the world. OK, predictable? Touristy? Probably, but I just wanted to reconnect and to feel the pavement under my feet. From there it was a long way home and having not gotten my Metro smarts up to date as yet, I walked. Then it was Saturday and I headed for the smallest railway station in Paris, Bercy, to catch my regional train south.
Returning two weeks later, I had another few days. Had a long lunch at Amoré & Jalousia with the Fabulous Mr. G, Terrance Gelenter, the guru behind Paris Through Expatriate Eyes, http://www.paris-expat.com, where we sat next to a long-beloved French movie star, Pierre Arditi — still handsome and with all his hair! My favorite celeb sighting, though, was running head-long into the infamous DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in the FNAC electronics store — without bodyguards and just shopping. (Remember that little incident in New York’s Sofitel where he was arrested for assaulting a maid?) Well, he is no longer aiming to be president of France, just doing a little holiday shopping like the rest of us.
So what didn’t I get to do? Did not make it to the Louvre, or to the Musée Maillol with its special exhibit of Canaletto’s, or to another favorite, Musée Jacques-mart André, or to the Tuileries, But I did have a kir at the Hotel Meurice where the tidbits of delicious nuts, olives and crisps stood in for lunch; I did have a wonderful morning at Musée d’Orsay reveling in the glorious L’Impressionisme et La Mode exhibit of French fashions of the day mixed with spectacular Impressionist masterpieces; I did have dinner with friends at Astier,  a delightful little restaurant in the 11th. And I did meet with favorite writers John Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World) and Diane Johnson (Le Mariage, Le Divorce, Lulu in Marrakech and many more), and the charming Alec Lobrano, food writer supreme and author of Hungry for Paris. I didn’t shop much but bought a beret on the Quai opposite Notre Dame for 7 euros which I saw later in a shop window for 35!
I must head back to Paris soon, to fill in the gaps and to continue to try out my fledgling French.I have concluded that Paris is not, as Hemingway said, a movable feast. It’s there — and you have to go and be there to find it, to experience and taste it for yourself once again.

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Angel on my Ceiling

French and the French!

As I drift off to sleep each night during my 14-night stay here at Coeur de France, www.coeurdefrance.com, the immersion language school I have been attending, I gaze up at my ceiling where a beautiful, hand-painted angel floats above me. My appartement at the top of this 400-year old chateau where the school is located is named Gabriel. And indeed, it is Gabriel who is painted on my ceiling, along with two adorable cherubs. Additionally, a real horn (Gabriel’s horn?) is hanging on the wall above my headboard and the wallpaper that goes around the room is of baby cherubs.

Altogether a lovely place to stay!

Living in an old chateau has its problems though. The steps up to my room from what used to be the main entrance of the chateau are broad and wide. But the spiral stairway down to the schoolrooms is a true castle stairway — twisty and windy. Luckily, it has a good handrail which makes it all possible for me. And the building is cold — not in our individual apartments or classrooms where there are giant radiators, but in the hallways, entrances and stairways. It is almost December and the weather is chilly. One can easily imagine how it was to live in these chateaus and castles when there were only fireplaces to keep one warm.

Sancerre itself is charming and interesting, with a wealth of little shops and wonderful cafes that I can walk to, and do walk to, almost every day. Each afternoon, I buy my one croissant and a half baguette for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. I have told the baker that he must think about opening a Boulangerie in Minneapolis — he said he is considering it! And as I have said before, this is a wine town — with the divine Sancerre wine everywhere. My book tells me there are 300 wineries operating around here, making terrific wine from this clay, chalk and flint soil. The goat cheese from this area is named Crottin de Chavignol. Also marvelous. I was introduced to about 200 goats so I have a personal interest.

And then, there’s learning the French language. As I have said in an earlier post, it is difficult. But interestingly, I am gaining a better understanding of the French people by learning the language. French is very precise (like the French people), very exact and expressive, as long as you use the right tense and the correct pronunciation. If you don’t, the word will mean something else, or it won’t mean anything. Even though I have had many visits to France, by truly learning the language, I have gained new insights into the French culture. Now I know why my taxi driver corrected my pronunciation on a previous visit — the street I was asking for didn’t exist, because I didn’t pronounce it correctly. It isn’t arbitrary; if you want to speak and be understood, you have to do it their way. And the villagers here are very patient and helpful.

The school has been a revelation — I am now speaking a bit — and sort of correctly. Voila! Now if I could only understand more I would be on my way. Big improvement though, with these great teachers and a clear and simple learning system.

So, interesting no? I love it here. It has been a grand 2 weeks — now for a few more days in exquisite Paris and I will head home.

Planning to come back definitely.






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France On My Own

This goat took a fancy to me!

A Three Week Journey In Learning French


I look out the tall windows of my small apartment to gaze again at the petite village of Sancerre, about two hours south of Paris in the southern Loire. I have been here for just over a week now, ensconced at the top of a lovely old chateau in the heart of town. My goal in coming to Coeur de France, an immersion language school here, is to begin learning to speak and understand French. Somehow I never studied this language at school and for just the last year or so, have been taking some occasional lessons and classes beginning at the very lowest level. It’s been difficult and so I made this supreme commitment in hopes of a breakthrough. For the past week, it has been hours of French each day, grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation (tres importante in France) and listening for comprehension. And I am loving every minute. The learning is so challenging it takes absolutely all of my attention and energy. Amazingly enough, I am beginning to get it — at least a little. No English spoken here at all, and even though the four students here are either English or American, we are requested not even to speak English when we are alone together. So we eat, shop, stroll, and everything else, all in French. One can’t help but learn!

Living in Sancerre has been an unexpected pleasure. I am not strictly a tourist as I go to the Boulangerie (bread shop), the Fromagerie (cheese shop),  L’Epicerie (grocery shop), the Patisserie (pastry shop) or the Charcuterie (deli) almost every day. I see the same people daily and we say “Bonjour” and make other pleasantries about the weather, or how we are feeling, or I am ordering lunch or having tea, and I am speaking. Everyone in the village understands that students of the language school are trying to learn to speak, and they are very patient with us — mostly. The women at La Poste have been particularly patient. I see my server from yesterday’s café in the Boulangerie, or the pharmacist’s wife at the grocer’s and we greet other as friends.  It is a great experience.

The school itself is marvelous — dedicated, inspiring teachers determined to help us learn. I made so much progress my first week that I couldn’t believe it. My greatest difficulty has been being able to understand what I am hearing. The first two days I  couldn’t understand much. Then, on the third day I was listening to a long conversation between my fellow student and our instructor discussing some obscure point of grammar and suddenly realized I understood everything they said. It was such a revelation that I burst into tears!

The chateau itself is over 400 years old, constructed about 1590. Classrooms and a day room are on the first floor, and student apartments are above.  I love my cozy chamber — it has a small kitchen, comfy bed, my own bathroom and all sorts of other conveniences, like free Wifi, TV, DVD player, radio and CD player, plenty of storage and a beautiful armoire for my limited wardrobe.

I love Sancerre too. It is a town of less than 2,000 people, dedicated to wine and goat cheese. The soil on the Sancerre hill itself is unusual in that it is made of clay, chalk and flint. It is the flint that gives the famed Sancerre wine its distinctive taste. And the goat cheese is named Chevre de Chavignol in this region. We visited a winery, tasting right out in the vine fields and also visited a ‘chevrerie’, a goat farm to learn how the cheese is made. And such goat cheese! Beyond delicious. The goats themselves were also adorable. These excursions add even more to this experience.

There is so much more to say but I will save it for next time. I hope to write soon about my days in Paris on my own, which I also loved. Have to stop now because I have to study French!






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A French Adventure

The Chateau/School for Coeur de France

I am off today on a solo journey to France, stopping in Paris at the beginning and end of this sojourn but spending most of my time in an immersion language school in the southern Loire district in a little village called Sancerre. (Yes, this is where that wine comes from!) I will be gone just over 3 weeks altogether — it’s exciting and challenging too, because my French is not really very good at all. The school, Coeur de France, www.coeurdefrance.com,  tells me I am not supposed to be speaking English at all for the whole 2 weeks! I’ve got to return speaking better, right? That’s the plan anyway. Keep watching this space for updates on my adventures, including a back-packing weekend on the weekend break. Where to? Haven’t yet decided so stay tuned. Au revoir!

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Paris Met the Mississipi and Conquered!

Our delightful guest from Paris, American expat Terrance Gelenter, came to Minneapolis this past weekend — or rather, I should say — came, saw and conquered. We had eight or more events in three weekend days, enthusiastic audiences at all events, loving to hear all about Terrance and his life in Paris. Appearances at Magers & Quinn bookstore, the Alliance Francaise, a pop-in at Espresso Royale’s French-speaking group and on and on. Standout events were Saturday morning at Temple Israel — a crowd of 75 asked many serious and cogent questions about Terrance’s Jewish life in Paris; and then we had another sell-out Mill City Commons crowd at Madeline B’s gorgeous condo atop the Towers overlooking the Mississippi on Sunday afternoon — about 45 enthusiasts showed up for the reading and chat, plus delicious wine and treats from Elite Epicurean caterers. Saturday evening’s reception at French boutique C’est Chic in the Warehouse District was elegant and fun. Many thanks to Pam S. for hosting — be sure and stop into her shop to pick up something divinely French!

Terrance on the Stone Arch Bridge in Mpls

Terrance on the Stone Arch Bridge in Mpls

Sunday night we had another enthusiastic crowd of 40 or so at the Nicollet Island Inn where Terrance charmed us with his romantic renditions — everything from “What Kind of Fool Am I” to “Over the Rainbow.” And folks followed us from event to event — showing up again and again.

The whole thing was ‘tres chic’ and fun for both Barbara Redmond and myself — we just decided to host Terrance, cobbled together all sorts of FF miles and other donations to bring him here. He and we truly loved every minute.

We are recovering, but we would do it again in a heartbeat.


Other links: paris-expat.com; Terrance’s wonderful online site and blog; awomansparis.com; Barbara Redmond’s singularly special blog about Paris.


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Paris Meets the Mississippi!

A weekend of appearances by Paris-based author and bon vivant Terrance Gelenter, the quintessential American in Paris. All events are free.

Merle Minda (www.travelovereasy.com) and Barbara Redmond (www.awomansparis.com) invite you to a series of events on and near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis with Paris-based bon vivant and author Terrance Gelenter. An American who has re-invented himself into a Parisian life, Terrance is the talent behind “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes”, www.paris-expat.com.

Terrance at Cafe Flore in Paris

He knows all the expats in Paris and runs with a host of talented writers, authors and artists. What fun! Come hear him speak and read from his book Paris par Hasard/Paris by Chance: from bagels to brioches!”

Terrance events include: author reading and conversation on Friday, October 26, Magers & Quinn, 7:30 PM, 3038 Hennepin Avenue South in Minneapolis; Saturday, October 27, Temple Israel in Minneapolis, 9 – 10:15AM, Terrance leads the morning study group talking about life in Paris; also Saturday, 3-5PM,  author reading and chat at the Alliance Francaise, 113 No. 1st Street, Minneapolis.; followed by a reception at C’est Chic Boutique, 5:30- 7:30 PM, 212 3rd Avenue North, Minneapolis. Terrance will also pop in about noon to the French language discussion group on Saturday morning at Expresso Royale, 1229 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. On Sunday, October 28, meet Terrance for breakfast at Wilde Roast, 8:30 – 10:30 AM, on Main Street in Minneapolis.  Mill City Commons* event from 3:30 to 5pm at the Towers, 115 S. 1st Street, (note: for MCC members and guests only.) On Sunday evening, we will recreate an event Terrance holds every week in a Paris hotel — he sings!  Come and enjoy as Terrance warbles your favorites from 6:30 – 8:30PM at the Nicollet Island Inn on the river in Minneapolis, accompanied by Mark Bloom. Books available for purchase at all events.

Terrance is a charmer! Don’t miss any of this!!


(Click icon at right/top to see the full “Paris Meets the Mississippi!” flyer.)

*See www.millcitycommons.org for info/reservations to the Mill City Commons event.

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