a home not my own: lodgings in france + italy reviewed

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To say that my holidays are researched would be a grand understatement. My investigations are on the level of a CIA operative. We’re talking Jason Bourne, a Harrison Ford or Richard Gere affair. I review pages of reviews, and then analyze (and over-analyze) the reviews. Often, I read other reviews the reviewers have written for context. I interrogate friends, colleagues and web-friends, and then proceed to fire off dozens of questions, drilling down to water temperatures and fluffiness quotients of pillows. Why the blinking? Is there something you’re not telling me? I feel like you’re withholding critical information, etc, etc.

My research is torturous, maddening, riddled with a constant fear that I’ll make the WRONG DECISION. I’ve been known to cancel reservations on a whim and re-engineer itineraries based on trusted counsel, so believe me when I say that planning an itinerary for a three-week European sojourn took MONTHS.

MONTHS, PEOPLE. Let that sink in.

And then AirBNB happened. Scores of my friends have used the service and have sung its praises. Rhapsodized over the easy check-ins, the well-appointed rooms and terrific locations. You’ll save hundreds, they cried. You can cook! In an actual kitchen! Imagine the money you’ll save! Yet all the while I was thinking that this was some sort of trickery, a ploy to dupe and kidnap deal-seekers. I’ve seen Hostel, Taken and Taken 2 (brief aside: the sequel was terrible) more times than I care to admit. Who just rents out their home to a stranger? More importantly, would I book a room and lose an organ?

I’m happy to confirm that all my organs are intact. Not only do I find the concept of AirBNB genius, I had two very exceptional experiences in Paris + Rome. Registration is a cinch, and the communication (email/text), flawless.

Midway through my holiday, I decided to nix the Bordeaux trip. Since the idea of paying $250+/night (if I was lucky) in Paris gave my heart pause, I made a last-minute booking at this lovely apartment in the Bastille district (photos 1-5) (4th Arrondissement) in Paris. From the rapid response to my urgent plea for a booking confirmation, to the spacious, quiet apartment, I was incredibly pleased with my choice. Although I never met my host (I’m told this is fairly common), her boyfriend was kind enough to greet me, show me around the apartment, and was helpful answering any questions I posed (there were many). From fast WIFI to a washer in the apartment (apparently, having a washer in your apartment is quite normal in Europe, while I’d have to sacrifice a spleen to afford one in NY) to great cable, a functioning shower, and a comfortable bed, I was impressed. My only gripe was that once I booked the apartment, the host’s responses to my questions (How do I turn on the heat? The stove?) lagged, and I did experience some noise at night from drunks spilling out of a nearby nightclub.

Rating: 4/5

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I’ve written about my fondness for the quirky Hotel Original (photos 6-7), also located in the Bastille district. My love of Bastille is sentimental, the stuff of greeting cards. Over the past ten years I’ve always stayed in Bastille, and I don’t plan on breaking the trend. It’s a given that hotels in Europe tend to have smaller rooms, but this doesn’t bother me as a hotel functions as a place in which to sleep and edit photos and blog posts. Original is perfect as it’s a block from the Metro, and convenient to Place des Vosges and the Marais (two of my beloved spots in Paris). While the staff is attentive and genuinely warm, on two occasions during my trip I encountered issues with my shower and slow WIFI (constantly having to log-in is annoying). Also, I noticed that all of the cheeky accoutrements were missing from the rooms. Each room is themed — from concept to design and accessories — and I enjoyed learning about the origins of the room and leaving with a small souvenir. Minor, but I noticed a difference from my last visit in September.

Rating: 4/5

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On advice from a very discerning Brit and former colleague, I decided to book a boutique hotel off of Tablet: Continentale, Florence (photos 8-9). The description was certainly seductive (as were the photos) — a sleek, Ferragamo-designed hotel within walking distance of the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio. All of this is true: the location was perfection, the service courteous and expedient, but the accommodations were lackluster. On certain days I’d enter the hotel and there would be this smell, and the only word that comes to mind is mold. The rooms, while lovely and sound-proof, offered a leaking shower (This is just how it is, I was told by a non-plussed attendant), extreme temperature shifts (it was always too hot or cold) and a sleeping/living area that was disproportionally smaller than the bathroom. Odd. The breakfast was delicious, albeit expensive, and I found their list of recommended restaurants to be borderline touristy. Great location, great service, mediocre room.

Rating: 3.5/5

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When I arrived in Rome, I had to deal with lost luggage, incompetent Alitalia + Lufthansa representatives, and a heartless United Airlines. I spent a few hundred dollars just to stock up on the essentials + clothes since I all I had were a carry-on and the clothes I’d been wearing during twelve hours of flying. Suffice it to say, my holiday got off to a shaky start. However, that shouldn’t diminish the greatness that is Matteo’s Trevi Fountain/Coliseum (photos 10-12) abode. Matteo was born for AirBNB. He greeted me with a book (WITH DIAGRAMS!) describing the apartment, replete with color photos and detailed instructions. The perfect host, he even left me with fresh fruit, snacks and Italian coffee. I practically burst into tears because he was an AirBNB-fearing, Type-A woman’s dream. Not only was his home historic (the building is over 400 years old), it had all the modern trappings (fast WIFI, washer, terrific shower, cable TV/DVD player with videos). Conveniently located near the Trevi and all the great spots, it was still quiet at night and made for an excellent way to start my holiday (if we forget about the HORROR that is United/Alitalia/Lufthansa).

Rating: 5/5

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For those of you who have been following my exploits, Biarritz was nothing short of magical. Typing this in New York, I will remember Biarritz as the place where I composed short stories, read in front of the ocean and finally tiptoed into the dark, wondering where the next few days, months would take me. Biarritz is not the sort of place where you drop your bags and start ticking off landmarks, rather it’s a place where you lay your head down to rest. And Hotel Ocean, Biarritz (photo 13) was the perfect spot for my chrysalis. Located in the city center, Ocean is literally steps from the beach, and if you don’t start quivering over the thought of waking to the ocean, there’s no helping you. The hotel was simple, minimal. It’s not modern by any stretch of the imagination, however, Biarritz is the sort of place that doesn’t have a Starbucks and I was fine with the austerity. The room was comfortable and the staff was incredibly accommodating and kind. Ocean made for a nice respite after a long day of thinking about what I’ve got planned for the rest of my life.

Rating: 4/5

And there you have it. Two countries, many homes not my own, considered. Feel free to drop me any questions about AirBNB or the hotels in the comments!

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luxe firenze find: roberta leather factory

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It’s rare that you’ll find my talking about fashion or clothing on this space, as it’s not a huge part of my life anymore, however, I do believe in making smart investments on beautiful, quality items that will go the distance. Truth be told, I actually loathe shopping. From the crowds to the nauseating dressing room lights to brands who change their sizing annually, I experience nothing short of vertigo whilst trying to purchase a shirt. To that end, I’ve spent this year editing my wardrobe to have only the things I love, only the things I need, only the things that fit.

Then I went to Florence. Initially, I was set against buying anything beyond truffle oil and some antique cups, but then I met a very chic, elderly French woman who had the most sumptuous leather bag. She whispered that it was from Roberta and it was only $110 EU.

How fast plans change.

If you’re in Florence, you must stop at Roberta. A small shop just over the Ponte Vecchio, you’ll find excellent leather at extraordinary prices. I picked up a black leather tote, lined in suede, for $100 EU. Scored lambskin gloves for $25 EU. Not once have I used my Celine, opting for this simple, label-less tote that holds EVERYTHING.

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where we are headed {firenze outdoor markets + a meditation on self}

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Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple’s ranch, the freeway sniper who feels “real bad” about picking off the family of five…Acquaintances read The New York Times, and try to tell me the news of the world. I listen to call-in shows. — Joan Didion, The White Album

Today I sit next to a pregnant woman who smells of blood. It mattes her hair, sullies her packet of tissues and brings her to shuddering tears. For some reason this puts me to thinking of my father and the horses he cared for, and how he told me years ago that they could smell the blood right off you. You don’t want that kind of trouble, he said. Rummaging through my bag I procure a tissue and the woman shakes her head no, and says, I’m fine. Behind her, a man that appears to be her husband whispers, be quiet, don’t make a scene, and I wonder if this is the equivalent of equine trouble.

On a television screen, a man says that it’s humane to dole out fresh works to heroine addicts. He talks about providing a controlled environment, a community of compassion, while a three-decade heroin user shoots not to get high, but to not get sick. He’s deep in the nod when he shakes his head and says he doesn’t remember what a life without junk was like.

A great woman falls to blight in her East Village apartment, is dead for days before anyone discovers her. It’s not the smell that gets you discovered, it’s the unpaid rent. This is a woman who shone too bright despite herself; she invited us to question not only our confining gender roles, but posited that nature itself should be questioned. Put on a jury trial and convicted for crimes against humanity. Children and women were shackled from birth. Before she died, friends found her wandering the streets, swathed in wigs and costumery, and speaking in tongues. Her plumage was her mask because all she wanted was a love that would not alter.

Last night I woke drenched, stirred out of slumber by a dream that unnerved me. Surrounded by the people I once loved, they speak only to a former version of me, a lesser one. A woman who was determined to ruin. A woman who would boomerang out into crowded thoroughfares just to get a rise out of you, who pushed you out into the street and pulled you back and yelled, Suicide! A woman who had her first nosebleed in front of her boss, but said she was fine, just fine, and could you give her a minute? No one wants that kind of trouble.

It occurs to me that randomness does not exist. Signs are deliberate, appearing only when you’re ready to see them. Didion notes that, Maybe that is one true way to see Bogota, to have it float in the mind until the need for it is visceral. It’s as if I’ve slept the sleep of children and have now only just woke, groggy and confused. Lately, I feel the need to protect, mother and be in a way I hadn’t before. Friends email me and say that they haven’t seen me this alive (Had I been dead this whole time? Had no one thought to dig me up from the earth? Or was it easier to continue planting your harvest over my cold body?) in years. I don’t know how to respond to this. Acquaintances talk about my chrysalis. I don’t know how to respond to this. Strangers cheer on my blooming. I don’t know how to respond to this.

All I know is this. This moment is mine. And the more I share it or allow you to navigate it, it becomes less mine. It becomes explained, defined, and put in a box. I’ve been figured out, understood, and suddenly resolved. But all this time I still haven’t figured out where I’m headed. Know what I mean?

I also know this: I’m following the signs. I’m playing out this hand and seeing where it takes me. And oddly enough it took me to two places I never thought I’d go.

MARKETS THAT DO NOT HAVE FOOD.

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Normally, I’d run screaming from a vintage fair or a crafts booth, simply for the fact that I’m probably the least creative person when it comes to reinventing the old or creating the DIY new. I don’t know what to do with a gramophone or how one would don a tutu without evoking Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? commentary. However, I found myself wandering two on Sunday and feeling inspired by the books, linens and the patina of another era. First I visited a small market for local artists located on Piazza SS. Annunziata, adjacent to the Museum of the Innocents, and the second was the monthly antiques market on San Spirito.

Granted, I didn’t think about how I would incorporate these items into my home or life, rather, I felt inspired by the items in and of themselves. A slew of Italian medical books from the 1920s made me want to return to books I own at home on psychiatry. Trays and baskets of silver inspired characters that are confined by their masks of money, whose dolorous existence is only brought to bear by the accumulation of finery. A barking dog made me long for my cat. English china had me thinking of brunch parties in the spring.

Chandeliers have served as odd guideposts in Italy, reminding me that in my reflection there is always light. That there are always signs.

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dispatches from florence: food in firenze {2}

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First off, we need to talk about La Carraria, the most exquisite gelato known to mankind. We need to talk about the silk texture, the creaminess of the whipped cream and the litany of exotic flavors. Then we need to talk about how a 20-minute line wait is worth the first taste of this magnificent dessert.

To say that I’m deep in the gelato game would be a grand understatement. My feeding is problematic, and I’m actually thrilled to leave Italy because I need to fit into my clothes for the duration of my holiday. It’s become such that I need to take alternate streets to avoid this fine gelateria, because it’s truly stellar. Many of my friends have recommended this spot, and it’s worth a visit should your travels take you to Florence.

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While the service may be lacking (the insouciance reminds me of the French stereotype, where customers are treated with a certain brusqueness), Trattoria 4Leoni redeems itself in flavor. To be candid, I don’t really need my waiters to engage me in dialogue — I very much prefer my own company — so as long as they take my order, bring me my dishes and said dishes are fine, a woman is GTG (good to go). I dined here twice during my time in Firenze, and on both occasions the dishes were quite good. I ordered the very verdant arugula pesto and devoured the pear ravioli. Within the same piazza — away from the bustle of the main squares — I also sampled the gelato (simply ok) and the cappuccino (quite good) from the other Leoni establishments.

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Finally, I believe I may have found the finest pizza in Firenze, and it is at Gusto Pizza. You will marvel at the in-house brick-oven and the charred, bubbling hot creations that are unearthed in minutes. While the joint is understated, reminiscent of mediocre New York pizzerias, the creations are ANYTHING BUT. For $7, you’ll savor buffalo mozzarella, homemade sauce, fresh basil — all draped on a chewy, tender crust with bits of burnt edges. I LOVED THIS PLACE SO MUCH I WENT BACK FOR DINNER.

If it’s pizza you crave, look no further than Gusto. Snaps to Daniel for the tip-off.

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dispatches from firenzi: il mercarto dei sapori {the market for flavors}

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Right now you should know that I’m distracted. Today I spent the day traveling through the Tuscan countryside, and I started jotting down notes on an essay on masks. So far I’m calling it: “A Disturbance on One Face.” The essay is a fusion of personal narrative and cultural madness. From Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay to the Susan Faludi profile of Shulie Firestone to the Clark Rockefeller trial, from Picasso to Dostoyevsky, the The Red Shoes fairytale and an episode of The Twilight Zone, I’ve become fixated on the mask that is one’s face. The internal fissure, the external cracking. So it’s hard, as you can imagine, to turn back the clock and talk about what happened yesterday when all I want to do is get on with the work.

Hemingway once said that one should never write until the well is bone dry. You still need to tread to the deep, so lay down the pen and walk away, and come back when the well swells and threatens to drown again. Or something to that effect.

But I digress.

On the way to find the Mercato Centrale, a place that has been known to send foodies into ecstasies, I discovered a “pop-up” market of sorts, Il Mercarto Dei Sapori. A highly-curated affair, the traveling market features tastes and traditions from all over Italy, including Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany and Emilia. You’ll find fine leather goods, hand-carved soaps, local wines, oils, honeys, truffles and vinegars, and more importantly the abundance of cured and smoked meats, cheeses, handmade pastas, sweets and breads. I spent two hours sampling chocolate covered dried fruits, focaccia, cantucci and so many flavors of Italy and fell madly in love.

One extraordinary stand-out: Antico Forno Santi. Their cookies were arranged in grand baskets veiled in cloth, and they were tender, crumbly, sweet and baked to perfection. I secured a mixed bag of typical biscotti, bruto bruno (!!!) and hoards of other treats. As I type, I keep slipping my hand in this forbidden bag, itching to get on with my essay.

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dispatches from firenze: the finest chicken you’ll ever eat in your life

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. ― Joan Didion, The White Album

Last night I slept on pavement, a sliver of concrete that is a terrace that overlooks the Ponte Vecchio. My journey started one way and ended in another. I tossed. I turned. I fluffed and punched pillows. I read Susan Faludi’s searing profile of the radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, a woman who sought an unimpeded love but would never find it. I tongued pills and spit them out again. Until finally, I made a makeshift bed on my postage stamp of a terrace and fell asleep.

This is what happens when you allow things to consume you. All this anxiety over two bags making their way, albeit at a snail’s pace, to my hotel in Florence. All the while I convinced myself I was fine, just fine, and I’d prove it by going manic on social media. The equivalent of throwing a blanket over a fire, who knew my thumping heart would be composed of kindling? Who knew I’d burn from the inside out? Who knew the whole of the past two months would plague me, like swallows, and I’d drown in the swarm. Water. Fire. One tends to oscillate between the extremes.

But. But. I refuse to let this happen when I’ve made this brave decision to leave a job that was killing me, when I finally pried open my eyes and mouth, and let all the moth balls flutter out. Then I let all the right people in. No way will I be my own ruin. So I did what I know best to do and took some time, and will continue taking it. We often want to create tremendous noise — a holocaust of sound — all because we’re frightened to hear our own voice. We’re terrified of the words we might say, thoughts that give shape and form to our singular experience. When we say it out loud it suddenly becomes real, and can we bear it out? Can we endure the hours after?

So this is what I tried to do. I spent the early morning hours in the Uffizi, wandering the galleries. What a joy it was to ghost the rooms of a near-empty museum, a place free of phones, cameras and the hoards of chattering groups. It was just me, my own footfalls, and a considerable amount of Botticellis.

Later, tipped off by Lauren, I checked out Trattoria Sostanza (read Elizabeth Minchilli’s astute review). Tucked away on a side street, the eatery is nondescript, homely even, but the word-of-mouth on the pollo al burro was too formidable to dismiss.

I NEED TO PAUSE HERE AND SIMPLY STATE THAT TODAY I’VE EATEN THE BEST CHICKEN I WILL LIKELY EVER EAT. IN. MY. LIFE.

Two breasts are charred while butter browns. The meat is dredged in egg and flour and cooks in cast-iron pan in a pool of sweet butter. The result are tender breasts steeped in butter and thawing the iceberg that is my heart. One would think that the dish would be heavy, fatty, but this is not the case. The technique locks in the flavor, and the chicken is neither greasy or heavy, but rather tender and yielding. OBVIOUSLY I DIPPED EACH PIECE OF MEAT INTO BUTTER. OBVIOUSLY.

And can we talk about the butter lettuce salad? Normally, I’m all blase about an appetizer, but the leaves were so fresh and the oil so perfect I nearly cried eating my salad.

The seating is communal, so I queried folks around me and everyone was thick in the business of cleaning their plate. From thick slabs of beef steak to stuffed tortellini to rich soups, everyone was lapping it up with the fresh ciabatta.

I left, satiated and calmer than I was the following evening. The rest of the day was spent napping, walking, climbing 436 steps to the Duomo cupola and reading Joan Didion.

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dispatches from florence: food in firenze {1}

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Would you believe that as soon as I dumped my bags at the hotel and yelled at Alitalia, I ran out into the streets of Florence determined to eat. Typing this now, I’m pining for a green juice as I’ve never eaten so much pasta, focaccia, gelato, and parma ham in a span of three days. Imagine the moment when I set eyes on a chicken breast — I nearly cried. Don’t get me wrong, a woman loves her crudo with the best of them, but I am longing for some virtue. Or for my Tracy Anderson DVDs to arrive in Florence. THANKS, ALITALIA!

But onward! When traveling to Florence, elastic is highly recommended. Leggings, yoga pants, anything that will refrain from reminding you that no sane person should be eating gelato at EVERY. SINGLE. MEAL. or BEFORE. AND. AFTER. MEALS. (read: me). I first hit up Venchi, home to artisanal chocolate since 1878. From the cocoa-topped, feather-light cappuccinos to the whipped dark chocolate gelatos to the rows of wrap individual chocolates, you will want to bathe in nougat. Spy on the robust outdoor leather market from the upstairs nook, whilst sipping your coffee.

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Since it was a few scant hours since my last gelato fix, I decided to hop into Coronas Cafe. Located near the Duomo, you’ll find unexpected flavors (figs, passionfruit, coconut creme, mandarine, meringue) along with the usual suspects, and the price is pretty favorable for an ice cream that was creamy, light, luscious and flavorful. The space is open + colorful, and if you’re not keen on cones and sweets, swing by the other side for a bevy of mortadella sarnis, crudos, sandwiches, cookies, cornettos and other Florentine delights. You won’t be disappointed, and since it’s been a few hours since my last gelato, I might slip out after writing this post and tuck myself in an alleyway with some passionfruit. Consider me addicted.

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Usually I eschew all eateries recommended by hotels, as they’re often in financial cahoots, leaving me with tepid greens, suspicious lighting, and an outrageous bill. However, everyone in the free world has raved about my hotel, which I quite like save for the odd smell in the lobby (for another time, friends), so I decided to break my cardinal rule and ferret out recommendations from the concierge. And I’m glad I did, for Caffe Pitti was an exquisite pick. Steps away from the Ponte Vecchio and located on the Palazzo Pitti, the restaurant offers traditional Florentine dishes with a touch of creativity. Their quite known for their truffles from the natural reserve of San Miniato, a true rarity which highlights Pitti as the one and only place where each dish assumes an extraordinary depth. For fifteen euros, I enjoyed a delicious primi of pesto and perhaps the best chicken I’ve had in years. Soaked in lemon and butter, the breast was tender, falling apart, and begged to be consumed, voraciously. And if you’re not keen on a full-on meal, you can opt to order a DIY sandwich from Botteghina, where you can sample local cheeses and meats from the region — all on fresh focaccia.

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Are you surprised that I found a cookie? I stumbled upon Migone, an old-school sweets shop located near the Duomo. Although the prices are steep (I spent $40 for these cookies + a few packages of homemade chocolates), the confections are decadent. You’ll find traditional Florentine sweets including panforte, ricciarelli and cantuccini, as well as delightfully packaged chocolates and candied sweets. Well worth a visit, albeit an expensive one.

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Finally, a former coworker informed me of a sandwich spot I would’ve surely missed: All’Antico Vinaio. If you’re aching for a spot that is purely patroned by the locals, this is it. It’s a proverbial shoebox joint, with a great wine list and a terrific selection of fresh meats and local cheeses. The bread, my friends, is FUCKING OUTSTANDING. I stood outside the eatery and devoured my sandwich. Did I mention that the bread was WARM and YIELDING. I will definitely be back for more.

Would you believe this is only my first day? Clearly I’ll need some Crisco to make it through customs at JFK.

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love.life.eat. of the week: in which a woman shakes in her pants in anticipation of her european holiday!

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love.: As most of you know, next month I’m spending three weeks traveling through Italy and France. People who know me well know that I am a woman who likes to be prepared. To that end, I’ve spent endless hours preparing my itinerary of hidden chow spots, tucked-away streets and art that will put my heart on pause. Some of my choice favorites: Localers, a service offering cool day tours by Parisians. At present, I’m swooning over the food trips. Whilst in Paris, I will definitely pass time in these coffee shops, as recommended by Sous Style. After over a decade of traveling to Paris, photographer and writer, Janelle McCulloch, serves up a sumptuous take on her picks for art, architecture, fashion, vintage, food, and all the hidden streets that are a must-visit in her vividly photographed book, Paris: An Inspiring Tour of the City’s Creative Heart. Clearly, any advice Ines de la Fressange doles out I’m certain to follow. So I snapped up her beautifully bound, Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, and it’s chockfull of etiquette, tips and Ines’ picks for the ultimate Parisian holiday. Finally, the Bloggers Guide to Paris is a must-print {while you’re at it, devour all of Pret-A-Voyager’s posts, please!} When in Rome, I plan to follow Twitter friend + travel writer, Erica Firpo’s tips to the letter.

When it comes to apps, I’ve scored David Leibovitz’s divine Paris Pastry Tour, because if David’s writing about it, it’s certain to be DELISH. And to help me with my pitiful French and non-existent Italian, I’ve already downloaded the simple Mindsnacks apps.

**If you have any links, resources of tips for me, please share them in the comments section. I’m headed to Rome, Florence, Siena, Paris, Bordeaux, Biarritz, and possibly Basque country.

Brief aside: Golden Tip Cups. Aren’t they dreamy?

life.: Just as I ceased the endless trip vacillation {Basque country, no, Switzerland!}, do I read about Ashley’s visit to Southern Spain. You will fawn over the rich history, architecture and the sloe-gin vibe. Meanwhile, Jessica’s literary riffs remind me why I’m so delighted to have returned to books, articles, criticism with such fervor. Some days it feels as if I have a tapeworm when it comes to literature, and trust me, this is a good thing.

eat.: Indulging my passion for chocolate + chocolate are these yummy Homemade Bounty Bars. While I’m noshing on this and pretending to be more virtuous I can feast on Quinoa Salad, x3, Carrot Soup + Blood Orange Oil, Sweet Potato + Rosemary Biscuits.