China 2020 – Itinerary Planning

Ok, just for the record.. No, we’re not crazy. We are excited though and looking forward to what should be an incredible adventure.

As I mentioned in the last post, we are working with Audley Travel to plan out the details. We are working with their China Specialist, Virginia, and she has been great to work with. In fact, we have already come up with an itinerary that we are super excited about.

Backing up a little, after some discussion about where we would like to go, Sue and I decided that this would be the right time to visit China. We tossed around some ideas about places and things that we were interested in seeing and made a list.

Our list looked like this:

  • Beijing
  • Forbidden City
  • Great Wall
  • Terra Cotta Warriors
  • Giant Pandas
  • Heaven Temple
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Olympic Sites
  • Shanghai
  • Yangtze River

Our next step was to take a look at available options. I love planning out vacations and finding cool hotels and places to go, but there are so many extras with going to China that I thought it would be better if we worked with someone. We knew that we didn’t want to be part of a big structured tour. So, we looked around the web, contacted a couple people who we knew went to China and looked through some tour guides.

I was interested in the offerings from Audley Travel, so I sent an email to request a brochure and call-back. I had included a little info about us, where we wanted to go, the types of things we were interested in and the amount we were thinking of spending. I received a call the next day from Virginia and we talked a little bit about what they could provide. Since we were in the middle of planning for Italy, I asked for a little time to decide what we would do.

We liked Virginia right from the start. Very professional, but also very laid-back. I never felt any pressure to rush our decision. Though I told her we’d decide within the next few weeks, I called back a few days later and said we decided we wanted to work with her and couldn’t wait to start the process.

Armed with a plan to proceed, we started to look more closely at some of the places we wanted to visit and things we’d like to see. We looked at the hotel list that they provided and found most of the hotels that I had looked at were on the list. Documenting our proposed itinerary, we called Virginia back and over the phone in about two hours time, we laid out a preliminary itinerary.

At this point Virginia took over and tossed in some extras to fill in our days based on what we had talked about. A few days later, she sent over a proposed itinerary for us to look at. We were both excited to see things taking shape, but there were a few tweaks that needed to be addressed.

Another telephone conference to discuss the changes was arranged. As some of you know, my back is a problem and I keep looking for bottled water from Lourdes to make it a problem no longer. However, for now we needed to adjust things so hikes became walks or rides. Virginia also suggested a hotel change, since one that we had chosen required a bit of an uphill climb. When we finished, Virginia had an updated itinerary back to us in just a couple of days.

We perused the itinerary and then got back to Virginia with the good news – “Looks great, let’s book it!”

I had been saving my lunch money for a while, so we sent off the deposit and Virginia went to work on her end. Just before we left for Italy, we received an email saying that the hotels were all booked.

With that said, here is the itinerary. Our tour will be for twenty-one days and will take us to Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo, Longji and Shanghai. Everything on our list above is included, plus so much more.

We will have some adventure time on our own, but for the major visits, we will have a driver and an english speaking guide. We will travel from place to place by trains (including the bullet train), planes, boats and car. We’ve included a few fancy dinners, a couple of group dinners at restaurants, and some street food tours.

There will be museums, temples, palaces, monuments, a rice plantation, a tea plantation, a wall – a great one at that, and a visit to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Next steps will be to book flights, get our travel visas, check for any needed vaccinations and read, watch and research.

Leading up to the trip, I’ll add some info about each of the locations we will be visiting to peak your interest.

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China – October 2020

Welcome – 欢迎 – Terra Cotta Warriors

One year from today, we will be traveling to China. There are so many wonderful things that we want to see and experience.

Over the next year, I’ll tell you about the process and our itinerary. We are working with Audley Travel to create a personal itinerary for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be a self-directed trip with drivers and guides to help us along the way.

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Piedmont – Day 12 – Heading home

Hurry up and wait is the usual pattern on a long travel day and this day would be no different.

Blah, blah, blah……

Arrivederci Italia!

And with that we were off on our way to Toronto.

The flight was a good one, just a little turbulence and the cabin crew were all very nice. The meal was also very good, as were the wines.

While others in the cabin slept, I watched the two Avenger movies – Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. Both were good and the ending of Endgame was a big surprise to me.

When we arrived in Toronto, the process of getting through passport control was an easy one. They have kiosks that let you check through quickly and electronically, with just a review by an agent.

We headed off to get our luggage, which was starting to come down the carousel as we arrived. We watched as all the bags finished coming out of the chute except ours. Since we were tagged priority and had a direct flight we were a little annoyed that our luggage didn’t get there.

However, we walked down towards the end of the belt and there, sitting on the floor, were our bags. Some nitwits had taken it off the carousel and never bothered to put it back on when they discovered the bags weren’t theirs. Since foul language is not appropriate, I just wished a plague upon their home and bedbugs in their underwear as we called to get directions to our shuttle.

The shuttle was right where they told us it would be and our driver, Mark, was waiting to whisk us home. We had a nice conversation along the way as he maneuvered us through the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. It was nice having someone else drive and the time actually passed by quickly. Soon enough we were crossing the Lewiston – Queenston Bridge and then before you knew it he was pulling into our driveway.

I can definitely recommend the Buffalo Airport Shuttle service if you need a ride up to Pearson Airport or to bring you back home. The price was fair, the van was roomy enough and the driver and others we dealt with were all pleasant.

And now the coupe de grace, walking up to our front door, we spotted a package hiding behind the post. It was the first case of wine that we had shipped home. I can’t always get a regular package delivered in four days and here was a case of wine from Piedmont, Italy.

It felt good to get home. We were gone just the right amount of time to appreciate Italy and to keep from having to go through detox.

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Prologue: We had a great time in Italy. The Piedmont region is beautiful and for wine lovers, it’s hard to beat. We enjoyed all the wine, ate some fabulous meals, took in the beautiful scenery and met so many wonderful people along the way.

The people we interacted with were kind and reassured us that they appreciated our efforts to speak a little Italian. Sometimes the reassurance came in the form of a smile or a little grammar lesson, but never did we feel we were being laughed at for trying.

We had lots of help in making the trip such a great experience. We worked with Valerie Quintanilla from Girl’s Gotta Drink, who put together the winery visits, cooking class and tours for us. If you’re thinking about going to the Piedmont region, I would highly recommend you contact her.

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Piedmont – Day 11 – Moving on

It’s hard to believe that our time in Alba is over. We had a such a good time and enjoyed sharing that time with Jan and Dave. The mathematical equation is: Good friends + good food + good wine = good times!

While Jan and Dave continue on for a few days in Turin and then Brussels, Sue and I are heading home. Today we traveled to Casorate Sempione, where we will stay overnight before catching our flight home tomorrow.

Our train arriving to the Alba Station

We’re staying at the Osteria della Pista. We have stayed here before; it’s very close to the airport, so it will be easy to get to our flight. The rooms are nice – very clean and comfortable. We’re on the top floor, so we also have nice high ceilings to make the room feel even roomier. There is a balcony, but it’s a little chilly and buggy to sit outside.

Night approaching
Sunset in Casorate Sempione

When we checked into the hotel, we had made reservations for dinner at 7:30 pm at the Osteria and also at 10:00 am for the airport shuttle. When 7:30 arrived, we were both hungry and looking forward to dinner.

We started with a glass of prosecco to go along with their homemade potato chips. We ordered a pizza to share as an appetizer and then Sue ordered sea bass and I ordered veal scallopini and a bottle of Arneis. While we were enjoying our prosecco, people were literally pouring in. By 8:00, the restaurant was packed.

We enjoyed our meal and since neither of us had room left for dessert, we offered to finish our wine in the lobby to free up a table since people were waiting in line. I guess that surprised them, but who would have thought it would be so busy on a Thursday evening. Besides, I would have felt rushed watching people waiting while relaxing with a glass of wine.

Once we did finish our wine, we headed up to the room to rest up for tomorrow’s day of travel.

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Piedmont – Day 10 – Final day in Alba

Both couples needed a chill day. David and I both talked about being tuckered out and Jan and Dave still have another eight days to go.

In the early afternoon we met up with Valerie and Martina to pass on the wine that we had purchased. Valerie is going to help us ship the wine back home.

On the way back to the apartment, we decided to stop in the piazza and grab a quick bite to eat. Most of the places were nearing the close of the kitchen for lunch, so we were lucky to snare a quick dish of tajarin with white truffles, a bottle of Barbera D’Alba and a piece of Hazelnut cake. Not bad for a quickie lunch.

We walked back to the apartment and just relaxed for the afternoon. It felt good to just rest my back, while downloading pictures and working on the blog.

Dinner tonight was going to be at the Ape Wine Bar, however they were closed on Wednesdays. Instead, we went to Caffe Umberto, which is the sister restaurant to Enoclub where we ate on Sunday. Caffe Umberto is more casual than Enoclub, but the kitchen is the same.

Jan and Dave were already there and enjoying a glass of wine when we arrived. We walked back to the table admiring the wall of wine with each step.

Caffe Umberto’s Wall of Wine

Our server took our order and our buddy the sommelier came over to check out our wine order. We started with a nice glass of Arneis and then we moved on to a nice Domenico Clerico Nebbiolo for our final meal.

It was a very enjoyable final meal together. We had a chance to talk about the things was did and the wines we tasted, along with just being friends enjoying each other’s company.

Tomorrow we’ll all move on, but we’ll have the memories.

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Piedmont – Day 9 – A day in Turin

Ok, right off the bat, I promise – no cheap jokes about how our tour was ‘shrouded’ in mystery.

We woke up early to catch the train to Turin, which is known as Torino in Italy. We met Luca at the train station and at 9:07 am we were on our way. Luca lived in Torino for a few years, so he’ll be with us for the day and Valerie will be meeting up with us when we arrive and will be with us through lunch.

The train from Alba to Torino takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s a pleasant journey with nice scenery along the way. The train isn’t as crowded as I expected it to be; people going to work or school must be on an earlier train.

We arrived at the Porta Susa rail station, which is a newer station and easy to maneuver through. The canopied roof is embedded with small solar tiles so they can generate their own electricity – and it looks good too!

Torino Porta Susa train station – the little squares on the roof glass are solar panels.

We caught up with Valerie and then we set off to visit the daily market. Walking through the streets, the architecture looks very French to us. Luca explained that since the ruling family of the region was the Savoy family, they did bring a French influence.

Our first stop today would be at the market. It’s like a giant outdoor supermarket, clothing outlet and household goods store. Though we enjoyed the market in Alba, this one was a little more intimidating as it was large and tightly packed together. That said, the fresh produce, flowers, cheese and meats all looked great. Across the tramway, there were loads of weather-sheltered shops or stalls with just about anything you could want or need.

After walking through the market, we headed over to the Mercato Building. From there we could get a bird’s eye view of the market, plus they also have a bunker from the World War that was used to hold ice. It really is different and interesting to see the way people go through their daily lives compared to what we have at home.

Located in the central court of the building is the old war bunker. It seems strange seeing it, let alone seeing it in the center of a market building.

After exiting the market area, it was time for a little coffee break, except three out of four of us don’t drink coffee – so it was wine time!

We took a little walk through the streets, checking out the architecture that was definitely in the French style. The marriage of French and Italian architecture and Italian piazzas makes for some very welcoming spaces.

It was nearly lunch time and we were ready to eat and to sit for a little bit. It was really interesting to get to sit and chat with Valerie and Luca. Besides both having helped make our vacation so great, they’re both just nice people to talk with.

Valerie had to leave after lunch, so Luca, Sue and I walked around for a little while before meeting up with our guide. We walked through some of the main piazzas and had a chance to see the palace, the duomo, the Mole Antenelli, the university and the shopping streets of via Roma and via Garibaldi. We even had a chance to stop for a gelato before our tour.

Our guide for the city walk was Savanna. She showed us a few additional things that we hadn’t seen with Luca and provided lots of good information. It was fascinating to see the interiors of magnificent galleries and historical shops still popular today. Savanna pointed out details that really made the history of Torino come alive. Luca’s comments about individual locations also were insightful and very interesting.

As the walk continued, my back was telling me it needed to rest. All the walking and standing on the stones the last couple days had taken its toll. We were nearing the end of our time and needed to catch our train. While it wasn’t too long of a walk, we decided that a taxi would be the preferred method to get to the train station.

The train ride back went pretty quick. This would be the last time we would see Luca before leaving. We really enjoyed traveling around with him and getting the benefit of his wine and regional knowledge. Just in case he happens to read this – Go Juventus!!!

We met up with Jan and Dave for dinner at La Libera Ristorante. We had a nice time sharing details about our day. While I was grumbling a bit about my back, they had climbed the 126 steps to the top of the bell tower and walked through the Science Museum. I decided to have a little wine instead of whining.

Our meal was very good. While they didn’t speak much English, we were able to speak enough Italian to order up a nice meal, good wine and dessert. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

It was a nice night, so the walk home was pleasant and it sure felt good to wash up, change and relax for the rest of the evening.

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Piedmont – Day 8 – A Day in Barolo

On Thursday we visited and praised the Queen of Nebbiolo wine – Barbaresco. Today, we will visit the King – Barolo.

Nebbiolo – the grape of Piedmont

Per usual, we met up with Luca at the Piazza Michele Ferrero to start our journey. Our day’s itinerary includes visits to two wineries and lunch up in the hills of Barolo. It’s just a short, but beautiful drive to our “breakfast” tasting at the Aurelio Settimo Winery.

The Settimo Family settled and began farming the land in 1943. In the beginning they grew grapes, hazelnuts and other fruits – selling their grapes to big nearby producers. In 1962, the first Aurelio Settimo wines were labeled and by 1974, they stopped selling their grapes to others. Though Aurelio has passed away, they family continues the tradition of making wonderful wines in the Annunziata area.

Arriving, we met Francesca, who would be leading our tour. Francesca is the grand-daughter of Aurelio Settimo. We started with a nice walk into the vineyards to learn a little bit about their property and vineyards. As we were walking, we could see the ripe nebbiolo grapes hanging from the vines waiting to be harvested and the fragrance of the grapes was in the air.

Next we took a little tour through the winery to learn a little bit about their production methods. They have an annual production of about 40,000 bottles and about 60% of the production is exported.

To wrap up our visit to the winery, we headed into the beautiful tasting room and tasted some of their wines. All of the wines were either nebbiolo or dolcetto based, with the Rosato being a 50/50 blend. You’ll have to take my word on this one – they were all very good. In fact, I even gave them a new advertising slogan – ‘Molto Yum!’

Just to prove how much we enjoyed the wines, a case of them will be winging their way to the USA upon our return.

We had a little time before our lunch, so Luca suggested we stop in La Morra for a little look around. La Morra is located on a hilltop overlooking the many vineyards of Barolo. The ride up the twisting road was full of incredible scenery – vineyards as far as the eye could see.

The town of La Morra is full of charm. We walked UP to the town square to look around and enjoy the views. The square was a combination of classic Italian buildings along with some modern art works sprinkled in.

We took a few more pictures before the sun would become a nuisance, though nobody was complaining about another perfect weather day.

The church bells were chiming and my tummy was rumbling, so it must be lunch time. We headed back to the car and then drove up to the town of Perno. Our lunch would be at a small place called Repubblica di Perno Ristorante. Very quaint, with gorgeous views and delicious food.

After lunch, we drove to the town of Barolo. We would be making our last wine tasting stop at the Brezza Winery. Since we arrived a little early, we took a short walk. These small towns that we have visited are all nice to take a little stroll through. Even though they cater to many tourists, they haven’t lost their identity and culture.

There always seems to be that last uphill climb before arriving at our destination – jeesh! It was time, so we made our way to the Brezza Winery. Brezza is another historical winery in Barola that makes delightful wines. Little did we know this would be like the finale of a fireworks show.

We entered and met our guide, Nioni (sp) and she told us a little bit about the winery while we walked through the production and cellaring areas. We then made our way to the tasting area -where the fun began.

Luca begins the lesson while we drink some water
You are here… And so are seven bottles of wine
Abracadabra…. now there are ten

I know what you’re thinking, ten tastes of wine? Yes, ten tastes and they were all pretty good, especially the Nebbiolo and Barolos. They were big wines with lots of tannins and well structured; these wines packed a punch and can easily age for years to come. Even the folks at the winery like them with about 5 years of age, but say twenty years would be possible.

Did we enjoy ourselves? You tell me…

David looks like he enjoyed himself
Luca, Nioni and Me

Once again, there would be wine winging its way back to the US. These were too good to pass up, especially since they are not easily found in the US. Remember the earlier posts where it was just a couple bottles for back in the apartment?

After a heartfelt ‘Thank You’ and a stop at the rest rooms, we were finished with our tastings and heading back to Alba. The tastings we’ve done over the last week have been incredible. Valerie did a great job of selecting wineries with wonderful wines and very nice people, and Luca brought his Somm experience and knowledge to make our journey educational and interesting.

No dinner reservations were made for this evening – we’re just going to grab some goodies and sample some of our purchases at Jan and Dave’s apartment. They met a couple from the US staying in their building and they’ll be joining us.

Tomorrow, Sue and I will be heading to Turin for a day tour. Since Jan and Dave will be visiting Turin for a few days after we leave, they will be hanging back in Alba and exploring.

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