The Essence of Tuscany

Tuscany can be bottled.

The olives in a sunny Italian grove are pressed into a bright oil to be taken anywhere in the world and poured over crusty bread. A few drops of the region’s dark, sweet balsamic vinegar on this bread is a very happy start to any meal, and opening a bottle of Chianti Classico seems like a vacation in itself. It’s almost like the sweeping vistas, patchwork farms, and sunny days of Tuscany can be can be distilled, reduced to a powerful essence.

Castello di Verrazzano

I had the privilege of visiting the centuries old Castello di Verrazzano this summer. At the castle, my group’s tour guide enthusiastically told us the estate’s history as well as the process of making delicious wine. Then we got to try some of the estate’s own bottled heritage, including a few types of wine in a range of taste and price.

When asked what the best wine in the world is, our knowledgeable guide explained that her grandfather had always told her, “the wine with the highest price and the most awards is not necessarily the best wine. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for a bottle, if you are with good company, in a beautiful place, and the wine tastes good with what you are eating, then that is the best wine.”

Looking back at our stay in Tuscany, I love to scroll through my pictures of the loggia at the Villa il Poggiale where we stayed. The idyllic villa sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by olive groves and allowing panoramic views of innumerable, picturesque farms dotted across similar hills as far as the eye can see. At the end of the deep set front porch is one tall, open air window which seems to frame the best of the countryside for the viewing pleasure of anyone lounging outside.

Villa il Poggiale

Before my trip, I had watched Monty Don’s Italian Gardens on Netflix, eager to see what the world would look like in Italy. On the show, I learned that a trick in gardening is to frame a beautiful view in order to bring it into focus for the visitor, and by concentrating on one part of a vast expanse, the view outside the garden becomes something precious to be admired like artwork.

It seems to me like this framed view, like a good bottle of wine, condenses what is beautiful about the surrounding area and makes you feel warm and happy to experience it especially when enjoying it surrounded by friends and family and good food. I love to picture the porch in Tuscany, but there are many other views worth an architectural frame.

Hope you have a chance to enjoy the essence of wherever you find yourself this summer, and maybe you too can take a little bottle of Tuscan sun home with you.

Swiss Sheep

Memories of Switzerland always turn to mountains and the picturesque farms and villages perched on steep, green slopes.

When I went to Zermatt a few summers ago, I had expected to spend two full days skiing on the highest slopes that remain snowy all year round. Instead, I spent most of my first day hanging out with sheep. We had arrived during the hottest summer in dozens of years.

Summer skiing the next day…not even warm enough for coats

When my little traveling group showed up at our adorable hotel, Le Petit Charme Inn, our friendly host explained that the ski slopes were currently slush, so we should take a hike over the village to get a good view of the Matterhorn. The hike began at the edge of town and passed a few cows lazing in the grass before climbing pretty steeply through a dense forest. Olivia and I were seriously over the hike after five hundred feet that felt like approximately five miles.  We sat on a quite a few rocks while Dean (who is basically Disney’s Tigger in human form) bounced around coaxing us to keep going.  That is until Olivia heard the twinkling of sheep bells in the distance.

Everywhere we went in Switzerland, every adorable sheep wore a little bell around its neck to help its shepherd keep track of his flock. The sound of a whole flock of sheep bells softly clinking in a field truly sets the soundtrack for a timeless fairytale.

The sound of bells also means there’s surely a group of cute animals just around the corner, which was definitely the case on our hike! The first tiny farm- livestock farms in Switzerland are like the size of my room, nothing is Texas size- was just feet from the path, and we hurried to take picture of them next to their slate roofed barn. This wasn’t the first group of sheep, though. We spent the rest of our hike hurrying from one little pasture to the next. Soon, without even remembering how “tired” we had been, we found ourselves above the tree line and with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn brooding over the field. 

 

Olivia, Dean, and I spent some time taking selfies with sheep and absorbing the beautiful mountain-scape around us. We also found that as always, you never know exactly where you’ll end up on vacation, and cute animals plus beautiful views equals extreme hiking endurance.

 

 

Deign at home

Walking around Zermatt after our hike, we were reminded of the afternoon we had spent with sheep and of the town’s inextricable relationship with the countryside around it. Everywhere we looked was wool and lambskin décor. Many of the cafes had draped sheep skins over chairs to keep customers warm as they ate outside, overlooking the (typically) snowcapped mountains. The use of these local wool products showcased regional heritage while creating a cozy, inviting look.

Back home, you can recreate this warm Swiss look with sheep skin throws available online or even relatively iexpensively from your local Ikea store.

You can also honor your new lamb friends by using faux lambskin.

Either way, paired with a warm wool blanket (in very Swiss bright red) your house will feel warm and inviting.

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Night at Oak Alley

History Comes to Life at Louisiana's Oak Alley Plantation and Inn.

Oak Alley emerges hazily from a Southern fairy tale, humid and sweet with a strongly graceful beauty. A first drive past the planation allows a glimpse of two even rows of very old live oak trees leading up to a symmetrically columned house peeking under the branches at the end of a brick path. Yet, to spend a few hours here only begins to hint at the depth of its timeless character. The ability to spend slow hours at this property affords it a special feeling I haven’t experienced at any other historical site. Every moment of the girls’ weekend I spent at the Oak Alley Inn with my best friend felt like I had discovered a treasure.

After driving rural miles down the old river road, past other fabled plantations, my friend, Sarah Rice, and I arrived in the wake of a gulf coast evening downpour. The staff greeted us warmly in the Inn’s welcome center near where a wedding party was gathering. One of the friendly employees handed us frosty lemonades and escorted us to the cabin we had booked for the night. She showed us all of the amenities in the essentially perfect little house tucked away on the back of the twenty acre property.   My friend and I had chosen the next to last guesthouse on the row of cottages.

The décor felt fresh in a contemporary manner, and the best part of the little house was that it was so clean, there was very little evidence anyone else had ever even stayed there before this weekend. I joked that I could have happily changed my address to Cabin 8 Middle of Nowhere, LA. A rustic fireplace made living area feel cozy, and a large screened porch invited lounging while watching the last of the summer hummingbirds buzzing around the cabin’s feeder. I’ll also mention, the place was bigger than my sister’s apartment in Atlanta.

Yet, the most exciting feature the hostess led us to was a flashlight charging in the bedroom. “You’ll need to bring this flashlight when you explore the property tonight,” she told us.

As soon as my friend and I heard this, we couldn’t wait to take up the invitation to discover what happens after dark on a property with over 200 years of history. The true magic of the Oak Alley Inn is that guests are encouraged to stroll the grounds of the planation twenty-four hours a day, whether or not any public tours are open. After eating a hearty, casual meal at the nearby DJ’s restaurant, my adventurous friend and I hurried back to the cabin to put on sneakers and grab the flashlight.

Not to lie, I had expected to frighten myself a little, imagining what could be lurking in the country fields or even (despite my rational thoughts) what presence from the past may be gliding in the shadows. Yet, the only resident to creep behind us was the tabby cat we had met earlier in the moving and educational slave quarters exhibit.

The long walk from our cabin, through the heart of the planation and almost to the Mississippi River beyond was surprisingly comfortable in a way that felt like I was truly getting a chance to live on the property and get to know it for myself without anyone else’s interpretation. I got the sensation that if I did discover there were vampires to interview in the sticky, Louisiana night air, they truly would be suave and sophisticated and would join us for a stroll before disappearing back across the low-lit brick porch and into the house’s locked front doors. It felt like we weren’t just imagining scenes from movies or the past, we were living them.

Design Moment

Two candles that spark memories of Oak Alley

One of the most memorable things about the immaculate little cabin I stayed in at the Oak Alley Inn was the soft, mint wall color. The tone was fresh yet soothing and lent a relaxing vibe to our cabin.

If you aren’t ready to repaint an entire room, though, this Williams Sonoma candle in the same color can help set a restful tone in your home. I like to enjoy the fresh Lemongrass Ginger scent in the kitchen.DSCN2378

I also can’t help but picture New Orleans gas lamps flickering over columned porches whenever I think of Louisiana nights. Although, this little Lifetime Candle by White River Designs isn’t exactly gas, it’s a different than a regular wax candle and the flame flickers more dramatically when reflected in the oil base.

 

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Just remove the little glass ball and add the wick, which is included in the box. The lifetime candle can be refilled over and over to enjoy for a lifetime…or many, just like time spent at Oak Alley.

 

 

Swiss Adventure? ALPsolutely!

Hi Readers,

If you’re from a very flat city like I am, let me tell you a little story about driving in the Swiss Alps.

Creeping along the narrow road, we faced the unnerving reality that the other side of a steep mountain lay between us and a straight road. We had steered ourselves wrong. Well, maybe that way was right. Actually, it was definitely right and then left and then right again about fifty five times. Our rented Peugeot had just tackled half an alp. Olivia (my sister), Dean (her boyfriend), and I had accidentally found ourselves at the apex of Switzerland’s Furka Pass.

This adventure had begun in the picturesque ski town of Zermatt, Switzerland where we had spent the day summer skiing, and our destination was Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Dean and I had spent the evening before choosing what appeared to be the most reasonable route for this road trip. We had eliminated any drives through Lichtenstein and Austria, which would have required the international driver’s licenses we didn’t have. Also, a highway passing through Italy before returning to Switzerland also seemed like a poor choice because, “why drive more miles and add more border crossings?” Therefore, we chose what looked like the least complicated path from Zermatt, through Zurich, then up to Germany.

The first leg of the journey wound through miniscule, post card towns where our chief complaint was the wildly fluctuating speed limit. Olivia road shotgun, reading aloud about our destination while I passed snacks of raspberries and tomatoes up to Dean, the driver. After meandering past dozens of chalets with dark wooden balconies and slate roofs, we were finally speeding through what seemed like an endless spring green valley when we noticed a street cutting back and forth up the rocky mountain parallel to our drive. We all agreed that would totally be a perfect road for the Grand Tour guys to tackle in one of their death defying challenges and breathed a sigh of relief when our highway continued without turning to toward that mountain.

Then we noticed the highway had started to climb almost imperceptibly off of the valley floor. Weird, but at least our road was wide and straight…until it wasn’t. We were about a third of the way up the mountain when we realized we were on that Top Gear road. Our chosen route had switched back to snake steeply up the mountain.

My GPS resembled a messy signature, and every few feet, we saw memorial markers near the sheer drop off the side of the single lane road.

To make matters worse, we discovered that what would only make sense as a one lane road was carrying two way traffic. At every one of the dozen or so switchbacks, we had to wait on the far side of the street with only inches between our tires and the cliff while oncoming cars inched past. Visions of Bolivia’s “Death Road” filled my imagination as tension grew in the car.

Olivia and I found Dean’s nervous laughter abrasive in the light of the life or death experience we believed we were facing. My right hand was sweating profusely from my grip on the door handle despite the temperature drop outside as we neared the snow line, but we finally reached the top. Focusing through Olivia’s and my ceaseless warnings to “watch out for that car!,” and “stay away from this cliff,” Dean had gotten us safely to the glacial peak of an Alp. I realized all Olivia and I could really do as passengers was trust that our driver would navigate us carefully to the valley on the other side.

Descent from the mountain was no less stressful, but Dean stayed focused, avoiding cars and cliffs, both inches from the sides of the car and often at the same time. Once we reached flat ground, Dean and I switched drivers, so he could basically rest off the effects of shock and a tension headache in the backseat.

I don’t think any of us will forget this alpine pass, known previously only from action movies, such as James Bond. I also learned the importance of traveling with people you can trust in stressful situations.  Travel challenges us as we face the unexpected.  You can’t plan for every adventure, and you never know what’s around the next corner, but you can choose your travel companions.

Safe travels,

Erica

Mini Vacations: Arkansas

 

Blanchard Springs, AR

    July trip, Swimming & Spelunking

Even if your family is anything like mine and loves Heber Springs just as much as the next Memphian, I’m back in town to tell you…it’s time for a change.

We left the boating and innter tubing behind a few weeks ago & spent a day swimming in the little river between Blanchard Spring and Gunner Pool.


It was so beautiful!

The water is crystal clear.  Even the shallowest part in this photo is about a foot deep!

This is Blanchard Spring, whose water feeds the swimmable river.

…but a word about the water…

It is swimmable…it is NOT potable!

Just on the other side of that waterfall is a cave

…a cave full of bats!

The National Forest Service tells me I don’t want to drink bat debris, and I’ll take their word for it, but more about the bats later… 

Be sure to bring waterproof shoes!

You’ll also want at least one float (or two life jackets & a pool noodle).There are lots of places to wade into the stream.

If you’re lucky, you can see little fish and huge tadpoles.

If you’re like me, you’ll need to watch out for water snakes. I wish I were kidding. There is even the Mirror Lake fishing pond…which I enjoyed more for the waterfall than the trout.

After swimming & hiking, you can even cool off with the bats.

Well, actually you probably won’t see the bats (thank goodness), but it is perpetually a pleasant 58 degrees in the Blanchard Springs Caverns.


The “battleship,” or “Titanic rock,” as my sister & I like to call it is my favorite formation (excuse the nerdiness). Can you see it in the spotlight? Isn’t that neat?!

The network of lights & pathways through on the Dripstone Trail is truly impressive, and even though I just don’t feel comfortable taking a tour that combines the words “wild” and “cave,” the Wild Cave Tour (without theater lights & meandering pathways) also sounds really fascinating.

So, those are some of the high points from Blanchard Springs!

With Fourth of July only a few weeks away, I just wanted to share with you a new place to celebrate with a short adventure.


Hope you’re having a truly wonderful weekend,

  Erica

Mini Vacations: Millington, TN

Millington, TN

      July weekend trip/ Winery Visit Round 2

Ok, I get that Millington isn’t even outside of Shelby county, and some people even consider it part of Memphis (ahem Justin Timberlake), but still isn’t a vacation any break from ordinary life?

Yes, it is, so here are some of the things my sister & I recommend after our first trip to Millington:


1. Shelby Forest– It’s nice that Memphians have such a large, natural setting so close to home.  Point of interest: apparently Shelby Forest is home to one of America’s best disc golf courses (haha, strange).


2. Shelby Forest General Store– The atmosphere is very Bass Pro meets Appalachia. My sister’s boyfriend recommends the ice cream bars.


3. Old Millington Winery– This winery may not be as showy as Arrington in Nashville, but these wines are also delicious, and there is a large deck where you can relax and enjoy your purchase. Also, many weekends, there there is live music. I recommend the blackberry wine, although everyone else loved the Strawberry. We brought home a bottle of very refreshing Delta White…here’s its cheery label!millington vineyard

Mini Vacations: Ghost River

Ghost River, TN

    June weekend trip/ fun at a swamp


By now, everyone in Memphis has probably heard of the Ghost River Brewing company. So, when my family found out that there really is a section of the Wolf River that looks just like the mysterious picture on  the brewery’s labels, we decided, why not check it out?! 


Now, I don’t want anyone to think this isn’t a fascinating place to visit, but I’ve added some some travel advice to this little vacation post that other websites didn’t let me know before I visited.


1. Canoeing and kayaking are decidedly the best options for experiencing this natural area.You can follow the driving directions on the few websites that offer them.

However, really this one view is all you can see from the road:Wolf River

from Bateman Rd, again:

ghost river

2. Even with directions, the park isn’t exactly user friendly.

After stopping at a few muddy, river landings, we followed locals’ advice & drove down a random road, through what I’m sure was someone’s back yard, across a temporary bridge, and into the woods to find the only visitors’ info board we saw all day.ghost riverHere’s the info, just in case you don’t want to traipse through other people’s property.

ghost riverghost river

3. Ghost River is, in fact, a swamp, not a river. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Notice the intense mud at the foot of the trees… yet another reason to boat through here.ghost river

4. Despite some drawbacks, Ghost River really does have a unique beauty.0526141317a-3
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