Tag Archives: ticino

Billie’s Travel Highlights from 2017

Whether I’m traveling solo or with family or friends, my favorite travel memories are always about the people I meet. I was really fortunate to have had so many of those in 2017—made possible through a combination of travel planners who had deep roots in the places I was visiting, excellent local guides who knew how to remove that often-awkward barrier between the visitor and the visited, and my own tendency to strike up conversations with anyone and everyone around me. Below are just a few of the special moments I got to experience in 2017. Here’s hoping that my trips inspire ideas for your own adventures in the coming year. I worked with a few of our WOW Listers to plan parts of these trips, so contact us through Ask Wendy if you want more information on how to make them happen for yourself.

Meeting camel traders in Pushkar, India

traders buy a camel at the Pushkar Camel Fair in India

These men were shopping for camels.

The Pushkar Camel Fair was the reason I wanted to go to India. I ended up loving the amazing history and sights, not to mention all that delicious vegetarian food, but India wasn’t high on my list until I learned about Pushkar from Sanjay Saxena at last year’s Wendy Perrin Global Travel Summit (btw, we’re doing the summit on social media this year so that you can all be involved—stay tuned for more info on #WOWWeek soon!). Anyway, the Pushkar Camel Fair is an annual trade market for camels and horses that draws Indian farmers from around the country, but it’s also a festival with a sprawling outdoor market, a sandy fairground where families set up tents and hobble their camels and horses, and a big arena that hosts an opening-night flag ceremony and various competitions. But the best part is simply being able to wander around the fairground and watch as the families (many of whom have traveled far distances to be here) tend to their tents, cook their daily meals, and buy or sell their camels.

The trading was the most fascinating part of the festivals. But it was pretty subtle: just a bunch of men standing around talking about a camel or a horse, not all that different from groups of men standing around talking about the weather. Our guide, Kapil, however, had a keen eye for this and would discreetly direct us near sales meetings. One evening, we watched a duo of potential buyers size up some animals and then walk away. Thinking that the show was over, my friend and I quickly got distracted with other sights and photo ops, while Kapil strolled off to look at something else—we thought. Next thing we know, he’d made friends with the would-be buyers and all three of them were strolling back to us. The conversation that followed was such a natural interaction; it didn’t feel forced or voyeuristic the way some tourist-meets-local moments can, and that was all down to our guide’s natural ease and experience. He knew we wanted to learn more about the camel culture and he helped us learn about it, not through a “tour” or scripted guide-bookish lectures, but by nonchalantly making friends and then making those friends our friends. The men explained that they determine the value of a camel by patting its flanks and humps and counting number of teeth to determine age (young animals are more desirable but also more expensive). They had liked what they saw, but wanted to shop around a bit more before buying the two camels we’d seen them with before.

Making gelato in Foligno

Just look at all those flavors—and this was only a quarter of the options.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Hats are part of the uniform at Amandola Gelateria, and we got our own!
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Ricardo shows us how he makes the base for all his gelato flavors (except the sorbet, which don't have cream).
Amandola Gelateria
These are the three flavors we made: Nutella with candied almond crunch, natural pistachio, and clementine.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
This is what the frozen gelato looked like before we added the flavorings.
clementine oranges Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
We used real clementines to make our clementine gelato.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
My mom and I were very proud of our creations.
We also cooked delicious full meals during our trip. At Tony's house in Pompeii, he and my mom got serious about meatball construction.
We pressed and filled fresh ravioli with Giuseppe at his agriturismo in Montefalco.
Ettore and Lorella made us feel like part of the family as we prepared dinner and then feasted together at their farmhouse near Spoleto.
These were the crostata, little lemon-dough pies filled with homemade peach and blackberry preserves from Lorella's garden. My mom and I made them for Thanksgiving dinner when we got home from our trip.
But in the end, our handmade gelato at Amandola Gelateria was still my favorite dessert.


This might have been the best day of my life. My mom and I learned to make gelato, from scratch, at Amandola Gelateria—and then chef-owner Ricardo let us try every flavor in the shop. Ricardo is a pastry chef who used to work at a high-end restaurant, but he left to open his own gelato shop in 2017 and so far seemed to be quite happy with his choice. From the minute we walked in, he and every one of his staff was smiling ear to ear (though who could be unhappy in an ice cream store) and happy to show us every aspect of their set-up. This immediate warmth was not at all unusual for our ten-day cooking trip through Umbria. When I asked Maria Landers to plan a culinary vacation for me and my mom, the ideas she came up with were way more than what we expected. Case in point: We didn’t step foot in any cooking school the entire trip. Instead we met local families and cooked with them in their homes. Tony grew up in Pompeii and is a guide at the ruins; we made fresh pasta with him and his daughter. Giuseppe runs an agriturismo and together we made ravioli, vegetable flan, nut bread, and molten chocolate cakes; and we spent the evening with organic farmers Ettore and Lorella, who live in a farmhouse near Spoleto that has been in Ettore’s family for centuries. In a beautiful old-fashioned kitchen, we whipped up gnocchi, a local chickpea dish, and my favorite new dessert, mini lemon-crusted pies called crostata. In all of these situations we were so warmly welcomed that we felt like we were part of the family as soon as we stepped through the doors. But while I loved all of the cooking experiences, this gelato night was a highlight for its sheer Willy Wonka-esque delight factor. Once we handmade three flavors of our own choosing in the back kitchen, Ricardo led us up front, picked up the container of tasting spoons, pointed at the case of more than 30 flavors, and said, “What would you like to try?” I could have hugged him right there. Actually, forget Willy Wonka, everyone needs a Ricardo in their life. His gelato is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. No joke: you should all get on a plane and get to Foligno right now.

Watching my mom bond with goats in Montefalco, Italy

In addition to all the cooking experiences, our Italy trip included private tours of small artisanal businesses, including an olive mill (where we met locals who’d brought in their own just-picked olives to be pressed into oil) and a small-batch, biodynamic wine-and-goat-cheese farm, Calcabrina, run by two brothers. We toured their wine facility and cheese cave, and then got to meet the goats that make it all happen. Turns out, my mom is a goat magnet. When she walked into the field and started petting one friendly goat, I thought, awww isn’t that cute. Then another one ambled over for a nuzzle. And then two more. Next thing we knew, my mom was surrounded by adoring goat fans. Yes we had delicious pasta, cheese, wine, and chocolate on this trip, but absolutely nothing could have made it better than seeing my mom laughing so hard. Just watch the video above.

Meeting the last of the Cohens in Cochin, India

Two women talking in Cochin India

Sarah was reading a prayer book in Hebrew when I came in. I know a few prayers so we sang one together.

This November, I met one of the last living Jews in Cochin, India. Her name is Sarah Cohen and she’s 95. Her eyes lit up when she heard that I was a Cohen too, and then we sang the sh’ma prayer together. It was pretty amazing…especially considering I’d started the day at Catholic mass. Catholics are the majority in the state of Kerala, but they’re not the only religion. I knew there was some out-of-the-way Jewish history here—it was one of the reasons Cochin made it onto my itinerary, rather than the more-popular beach destination of Goa. Turns out, though, no one really knows exactly when the first Jews arrived here. What we do know for sure is that the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was built in 1598 by European Jews who’d convinced the king of Cochin to let them stay, and that a few—a very few—Jewish families still live in town to this day. I hardly expected to meet any of them, but as we walked the narrow lane leading up to the synagogue (called, I kid you not, Jew Street, in the neighborhood of Jew Town), our walking-tour guide pointed out two houses where those families still reside. When we got to Sarah’s Embroidery Shop, he saw that she was inside, and offered to make an introduction. What happened next is something I’ll kvell about for years to come. You can read all about it—and see video of Sarah and me singing together—here.

Breaking my phone in Valle Bavona, Ticino, Switzerland

Valle Bavona stone village Ticino Switzerland

The valleys of Switzerland’s southern Ticino region are dotted with ancient stone villages still in use today.

I have only one photo from my best day in Switzerland, and that’s because I dropped my phone right as it started. The ground all around me was carpeted in soft grass, but I found the one sharp rock to crack my screen on. The upside was that I got the rare-for-me experience of seeing a place solely through my eyes and not through my screen and note-taking app. Being forced to unplug was particularly poetic because the place I was visiting, the Valle Bavona outside the city of Locarno in southern Switzerland, is dotted with centuries-old stone villages where the residents still refuse to use electricity. My guide, Anna, spends summer weekends in a home like the ones we were seeing, so she was able to explain how the otherwise modern homesteaders accomplish daily tasks like laundry, gardening, and cooking, and how those who live high up the steep mountains use pulley systems to load in their supplies. Later we hiked an off-road trail dotted with ancient cave grottos still used by area residents to store cheese and wine. It was a gorgeous day in an out-of-time valley, each rustic village more beautiful than the next. I have no photographic reminders of most of it, but I will certainly never forget it.

Going behind the scenes in Lisbon

Museu De Artes Decorativas Portuguesas

This brass carver was just one of the artisans I got to meet on my private behind-the-scenes tour of the workshops.

There are a ton of reasons to visit Lisbon, but in my opinion two of the biggest are the delicious local cuisine and the beautiful artisan craftwork. But instead of staying on the outside of the Lisbon experience—i.e., sitting down at any old tourist-trap restaurant and then meandering through the streets snapping pictures of the colorful building tiles—I spent a day going behind the scenes. My morning was all about food. I spent it with a hip private chef, hanging out in her stylish boho apartment learning to make vegetarian versions of traditional local dishes while we chatted over snacks and music. My favorite: tomato rice with a sous vide egg—so good. My afternoon was all about the arts, for which I headed to the Foundation Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva. Silva was a wealthy lover of the arts who donated his Azurara Palace and a chunk of his private collection to create the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1953, and founded a related school to preserve Portuguese craftsmanship. Today there is a building full of workshops adjacent to the museum, where skilled brass carvers, bookbinders, furniture makers, textile weavers, and tile makers hone their crafts, restore historic objects from around the country, and pretty much preserve a national legacy. And, lucky me, I got a private behind-the-scenes tour of those ateliers. In one particularly cool moment, I watched up close as an artist carved the decorative metal leaves that would adorn a piece of furniture I’d just seen in another room. Merely walking around Lisbon—a city with such visible history—is a treat in itself, but meeting the people who are still practicing those traditions elevates the entire experience. Plus, I got to try my hand at painting my own tiles. They don’t belong in a museum or on a building, but they look great in my apartment.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Valle Bavona stone village Ticino Switzerland

Switzerland Is More Than Chocolate, Cheese, and Mountains

Switzerland is an increasingly popular destination for our readers—so much so that I’m spending a few weeks traveling the country to get to know it better and to test different Switzerland travel specialists for potential inclusion on The WOW List in the future. Each Switzerland specialist has different strengths and offers different insider experiences, so if you’re looking for a WOW trip to Switzerland, click over to Ask Wendy to get her recommendation for the right trip designer for your needs. In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here are key things you need to see, taste, and know about traveling in Switzerland—beyond the usual and expected draws (though those are pretty good too).

Follow more of my trip on Instagram @billietravels and at billietravels.com.

Don’t call them macarons.

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Zurich confectionary Sprüngli has its own branded version of the colorful almond-flour sandwich cookies. They’re called Luxemburgerli, and they are a little smaller and lighter than classic macarons. Sample the always-available flavors including raspberry, hazelnut, champagne, caramel, and chocolate, but don’t miss the seasonal Luxemburgerli. May’s specials were mango and strawberry-rhubarb.

Wear thick-soled shoes even if you don’t plan on hiking.

Old Town Piazza Grande Locarno Ticino Switzerland

The old town areas of Swiss cities, like this one in Locarno, are charming—but the uneven stone surfaces can be tough on your feet. Photo: Billie Cohen

You might think you only need solid footwear if you’re going to be trekking in the mountains, but the cobblestone streets of an old town (and every Swiss city has one) will quickly lead to tired, painful feet if you’re wearing thin sneakers or sandals.

The hype is true: The trains are spectacular.

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The famed panoramic Glacier Express and Bernina Express live up to their reputation as gorgeous scenic experiences but, honestly, a lot of the regular train rides throughout the country offer equally stunning views. Switzerland Tourism sells a few varieties of train passes to make system-wide travel easier and more economical (you can purchase consecutive-day or flex passes for 3, 4, 8, or 15 days). Since I’m here for about a month, I chose the half-fare travel card; it gave me discounted tickets on long-distance, panoramic trains and local transportation, including buses, trams, and many scenic cable cars and even some local taxi services. I also tested an eight-consecutive-day, first-class Swiss Travel pass, courtesy of Switzerland Tourism, to see what that kind of freedom feels like and to experience first class. The Travel Pass covers all of the above, plus gives you free admission to more than 500 museums and attractions. There is plenty of info on myswitzerland.com to find the right one for your trip.

Second class is really nice.

comparison of first and second class seats on Glacier Express train in Switzerland

On the Glacier Express, first-class seats (the red) are a bit roomier than the blue second-class section, and there are fewer seats in each car. But second class is still quite comfortable, even on regular trains. Photo: Billie Cohen

When traveling on trains or buying your Travel Pass, you’ll have a choice between first and second class. As you’d expect, first class is more spacious, the seats are bigger, the tables are bigger, and there are fewer people in each car, but second class is really nice too. This is no coach vs. business class dichotomy here—second class is very comfortable and the seats are roomy. In many cars, if I was sitting in a foursome (two seats facing another two seats with a little table between), I had enough room to keep my roller bag at my feet without crowding the person opposite me. I also found outlets in several second-class cars during my travels. Where I really appreciated first class was on my seven-hour Glacier Express trip. Since I was on that train for so long, it felt luxurious to have room to stretch out, a big table so I could spread out my maps and my laptop, and a less-crowded car.

But trains are not the most scenic way to travel.

That is not to say Switzerland’s trains are not spectacular. They absolutely are. I’ve criss-crossed the country on long-distance routes, inter-city expresses, regional connections, the famed panoramic Glacier Express, and even a 125-year-old cog railway that chugged to the summit of Monte Generoso at 1,704 meters. And I loved every second of every ride. Whether you travel first or second class, trains are comfortable, roomy, clean, and even the most basic local carriages have big windows. So I am not saying you should skip train travel. If you don’t travel by train in Switzerland, you are missing out. But I really shocked myself to find that after a month in this country, my personal favorite way to see it is by bus. Granted, it is slower, but that’s why I prefer it. Buses can also go where trains can’t. (Renting a car and driving introduces complications such as navigating scary roads, not being able to gawk at the scenery and drive at the same time, and not being able to have a local beer or glass of wine with your meal.) I rode the most amazing route in the Ticino region to see the famed Church of San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, by Swiss architect Mario Botta. We started out winding through charming tiny villages (where our driver knew everyone who waved to him from the streets because he’s been driving this route for 28 years) and then graduated to a series of steep hairpin turns that led up a mountain with sheer cliffs on one side and eye-popping views of the valley. I also really enjoyed the fact that we drove through many towns and villages. Yes, this meant a slower ride with more stops, but it also meant I had the chance to see where people lived and get a better sense of how the various villages are connected.

Long-distance routes like this one are run by the PostBus company, which, as its name implies, got its start as a service for delivering mail. It’s still part of the Swiss postal system, but it’s grown into a far-reaching, easy-to-use, and affordable public transportation network that’s also covered by the Swiss Travel Passes. You’ll recognize it by its bright yellow buses. The app even offers downloadable audio guides that point out sights and history along some of the routes.

Don’t miss the toilets on the trains.

funny design wallpaper in a bathroom on a Swiss train

The bathrooms on Swiss trains are much cleaner and more whimsical than you’d expect. Most of them have some kind of funny wallpaper to make you feel like you’re anywhere but in a train toilet. Photo: Billie Cohen

For one thing, this is practical advice, since bathrooms at train stations often cost a franc, while the toilets on the trains themselves are free. For another, the train toilets (look for the WC sign) are not only clean, they’re adorable. Yeah, I know, that’s not a word anyone would normally use to describe a bathroom, but just look at this picture! Most of the WCs on inter-city routes have whimsical wallpaper that’ll make you feel like you’re somewhere else: a homey powder room, in an under-the-sea submarine looking out a fake porthole, in an airplane flying through the clouds— and I never saw the same design twice. When the bathrooms are this nice, you know trains are a valued, respected, and well-maintained mode of transportation.

Don’t be a hero; take your Dramamine.

Hairpin turn on road in Ticino Switzerland

One unfortunate consequence of all those beautiful Swiss mountains: very, very, very sharp turns to get up them. Photo: Billie Cohen

The roads in the mountains can be very sinuous—ideal for causing discomfort to those of us who suffer from motion sickness. Even some of the trains rock side to side and may take some windy routes. And then there’s the buses, which can navigate even more serpentine roads and do a lot more stopping and starting. Also keep in mind that all modes of transportation here have front- and back-facing seats, and you may not always get your first choice, so you’ll have that additional trigger to worry about. So do yourself a favor and don’t try to tough it out. You’ll end up feeling too sick to look out the window; take whatever aid helps you feel better. If it makes you tired, you can always pep up with a coffee and a piece of chocolate!

There are gems of modern architecture, but some of them are hidden.

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Mario Botta has several structures around Switzerland that are worth visiting. In addition to the San Giovanni Battista church, there’s La Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angeli at Monte Teramo and the Fiore di Pietra at the top of Monte Generoso (both in the Ticino region). Pritzker Prize-winning Peter Zumthor is another Swiss architect worth seeking out. In addition to the Therme Vals (in Vals), he designed a shelter for Roman archeological finds in Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city. That one is way off the main streets; although it’s not widely publicized, you can ask for a key at the tourist information center to access it. If you make the effort, you’ll be rewarded. I had the place entirely to myself when I visited, and I loved the contrast between the way the open-air structure incorporates light and shadow, which are always changing from minute to minute, and the ancient artifacts, which haven’t changed in 2,000 years. Another architectural gem that’s not obvious from the street is in Zurich: Santiago Calatrava’s law library at the University of Zurich is inside another building, so unless you know it’s there, you won’t notice it. The library is free and open to the public and worth the trip. There are so many other gems of modern architecture throughout Switzerland, so be sure to seek them out: the last building Le Corbusier ever designed is in Zurich; creations by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and other starchitects are gathered at the Vitra Campus outside Basel; and Renzo Piano designed the undulating Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern.

It’s very easy to accommodate food allergies and preferences here.

I’m a vegetarian with many food issues, none of which were a problem here. Not only does everyone understand “vegetarian” and “vegan,” but I saw many menus that noted those options as well as gluten-free offerings. In grocery stores, packages mark these things too. Some stores have separate gluten-free sections. And I love to visit grocery stores. The two main ones you’ll see around Switzerland are Coop and Migros; the larger locations have inexpensive buffet-style restaurants and sections of housewares and even clothing.

Try all the Swiss cheese. There’s more than you think.

Variety of Appenzeller cheeses in switzerland

There a so many kinds of cheeses to taste in Switzerland, try them all. This selection is from the Appenzeller dairy. Photo: Billie Cohen

There are myriad varieties of cheese here beyond the familiar hole-pocked slices we picture when someone says Swiss cheese: There’s Emmental, Gruyère, Appenzeller, and many that are local to each region. Be sure to try them all and seek out opportunities to see it made. In Appenzell, I visited the Appenzeller show dairy and tasted several varieties. You can also visit the Gruyère factory and Emmentaler show dairy, and a well-connected Switzerland travel specialist can arrange more personal cheese experiences

There’s a rosti for every region and you should taste them all.

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If you want to get very basic about it, rosti is just a big hash brown. But that’s really oversimplifying it. When done well, a big fat plate of browned and crispy rosti is exactly what your belly needs after a day of touring or hiking or shopping or whatever it is you did that day. What’s cool is that different regions in German Switzerland have their signature versions: In Appenzell, the rosti is served with a fried egg and Appenzeller cheese. The Bern version has bacon. Ask about it and try them all.

There are also regional desserts. Try those too.

biberli cookie dessert from Appenzell Switzerland

Every region of Switzerland has specialty desserts. This biberli, a gingerbread cookie filled with nut cream, is popular in Appenzell. Photo: Billie Cohen

Keep your eye open for cakes, cookies, and treats in each area you visit. In Zurich and Appenzell, you’ll see a lot of small round mini cakes called biberli, which are soft gingerbread on the outside and filled with a nut cream. In Chur, I was introduced to Bündner Nusstorte (Bündner indicates it’s from the Canton of Graubünden, of which Chur is the capital), which is more like a walnut pie. Birnenbrot, also from Graubünden translates to pear bread. It’s a log of pear filling wrapped in a thin pastry.

Even the grocery stores sell good chocolate.

Swiss chocolate bars in grocery store in Switzerland

Every grocery store sells a large selection of chocolate at very affordable prices—and it’s good. Photo: Billie Cohen

You will likely want to try the fancy and famous chocolatiers of Switzerland, including Sprüngli in Zurich, Merz in Chur, and my favorite, Chocolat Stella in Bellinzona. And, of course, you should—they’re famous for a reason. But the quality of Swiss chocolate is so high that, as a rule, even the bars you buy in regular grocery stores are delicious. You’ll find large selections including Lindt aplenty, as well as Maison Callier and in-house lines. And whereas bite-size pralines from an upscale shop can cost 1.50 francs, standard chocolate bars are 100g (about twice the size of an American bar) and usually not more than two to three Swiss francs. The Migros grocery store’s house-brand milk chocolate bar is at the inexpensive end, and even that is creamier and more indulgent than any 80-cent chocolate bar has a right to be. Ask a local for his or her favorite brand, and you’ll get a different recommendation every time.

There are villages in the Ticino region where people still live without electricity—by choice.

Valle Bavona stone village Ticino Switzerland

The valleys of Switzerland’s southern Ticino region are dotted with ancient stone villages still in use today. Photo: Billie Cohen

The Ticino region of southern Switzerland is a varied landscape of steep cliffs and verdant valleys. And in those valleys, you can drive right up to—and walk respectfully through—miniscule villages of stone houses that date back hundreds of years. In the Valle Bavona outside the city of Locarno, for example, some families spend their summers in rustic homes, eschewing electricity and modern plumbing in exchange for being surrounded by nature. You can visit these on your own, but a local guide who knows the area, the history, the context, and some of the residents, will make a big difference since there are no signs to give you info on what you’re looking at, how the houses were built, or what daily life here is like. For example, my guide Anna, who still spends summer weekends in a mountain home in the area, shared anecdotes about residents she knew personally and how they handle basic tasks like laundry and gardening, as well as insider stories such as why the locals here chose to refuse electricity (it had to do with taxes in the 1970s), and how those who live in high-up mountain crevices get their supplies (hint: look for ground-level posts topped with orange balls, they mark the beginning of pulley wires that ascend to the heights). Anna also led me through an off-road trail dotted with ancient cave grottos still in use by today’s residents—I never would have found that on my own, or even known to look.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.