Narrow Street in Florence Leads to Amazing Leather Artisan!


Many may have passed under the archway entering the narrow Via Santa Margherita on their way to Dante’s Church (Chiesa Di Dante). Sometimes we can be so focused on our destination, we miss treasures nearby.


Tucked in his small workshop/store across from Dante’s Church, Simone Taddei works his magic creating leather boxes and accessories by hand that are true works of art.


I couldn’t resist holding one and then another…and soon I was selecting several for myself and gifts for friends.


The process starts with wooden forms that are covered with dampened rawhide and bound with rubber bands until dried.  Simone is a perfectionist and explained that he only uses hide from the shoulder.


His desire for the best is always part of his creation. Notice the black band of paraffin that is added to allow the lid of the finished box to glide when it is opened and closed!!


He now applies thin calfskin over the dried rawhide and with experienced hands shaves the edges so there is no visible seam!


His tools have been handed down from his father and his grandfather, all makers of leather pieces before him. The small hammer is very special as it was used by his great-grandfather in his shoe making business…4 generations!


In the final steps, the calfskin is colored, waxed, and polished…3 weeks from start to finish!


The quality of Simone’s hand-crafted leather pieces has earned him articles in world publications. Yet, Simone continues to work with no assistants, creating each piece with timeless care.


Via Santa Margherita, 11


(across from Dante’s Church)



Some of my best travel experiences are unplanned…

I had spent most of the day hiking the fishing villages in Cinque Terre, Italy and my legs begged for an afternoon break. Nessun Dorma, a wine bar perched high on a cliff in Manarola, was the perfect place to recover with the town’s best scenic view as a bonus! 


Their strawberries with sugar and lemon was a refreshing partner to my glass of local wine.

Then the best surprise…I discovered morning pesto classes were available here! Pesto classes in Italy’s most famous pesto region PLUS this view again…I immediately signed up for the next morning’s class.


Class started with each of us picking our own basil leaves from the restaurant’s small private garden. I was off with my small bowl and the instructions to only choose the small top leaves.


The necessary ingredients were ready for us…garlic, sea salt, tender pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese.

Plus extra virgin olive oil will be added as the last step.


Simone, our instructor and owner of Nessun Dorma, gave us his first Secrect to great pesto…he immediately placed ice cubes on top of our freshly picked basil leaves. The ice kept the leaves fresh and retained their beautiful green color for the pesto.


Simone is a perfectionist when it comes to flavor and taught us to cut out the tiny stem that runs through the garlic clove before crushing .


Then the fun began…in our mortars, we mixed sea salt and 1 big garlic clove until a white cream paste.


After removing the ice and drainng any water, we added our basil leaves, a sprinkle of pine nuts, and started more grinding. 



Now time to add  Parmesan cheese.  Simone leaves nothing to chance and insists we use Parmesan cheese that has aged 24 months.


I was excited as we added our last ingredient, extra virgin olive oil.


My most interesting discovery was the flavor difference between pesto made in a “new” marble mortar (on the left ) vs made in a seasoned, marble mortar from 1920s (on the right). 

Simone had told us at the beginning of the class we would experience a flavor difference between the two mortars.

Seeing is believing ! 

The pesto in the older mortar was smoother and sweeter! (I am now searching for an aged mortar to bring home.) 

 Simone’s passion for food and non-stop enthusiasm made his pesto class the highlight of my Cinque Terre trip.

Schoolteacher Walking 500 Miles Solo Along French Pilgrim Trails


Sometimes you meet people in ways you were not expecting…

Thus my story of meeting Amara begins…with wonderful scents from her big pot of homemade vegetable soup in the communal kitchen of Le Village Hostel in Paris. As my nose followed the smells that reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen, my eyes spot her friendly note inviting all the hostel guests “to share”. 

Food has a way of starting conversation. Soon we were both eating soup and talking about where we had traveled and where we were traveling next.

The “next” for Amara, a 28-year-old, 4th grade schoolteacher in Minnesota, is to walk 500 miles solo along Pilgrimage Trails in southern France to Spain! 


Today starts her adventure with a three hour train trip from Paris to Avallon in southern France…followed by  a 10 mile hike to Vezelay and her first stop…two nights contemplative refuge at the peaceful monastic run Maison Bethanie where “silence is required”.

After Vezelay, her next 490 miles are without reservations. Like the Pilgrims before, she trusts she will find housing along the way, meet other travelers, and soak in the beauty of the route and its architecture. 

In 50 days, she ends her 500 mile walk just before the Spanish border in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

We can follow her adventure as she blogs her walk.

What an inspiration to her 4th grade students.  She has shown them it is possible for anyone to live their dreams! 


photo (71) The creative, painted book sculptures of Pascal Courcelles quickly caught my eye at the “Paris Art Fair”. I wanted to know more about the sculptures and the artist.

I am always curious about the stories in people’s lives. Why did they choose their path?

france april 13 315

This thirst for more sent me traveling from Paris to his studio outside Brussels.

Pascal’s passion for his work was quickly obvious as he talked about the inspiration for the book sculptures. His deep belief that “books” are such a foundation of life gave him the vision to include his life in his work.

The books are not just any books…but rather books from his parents and grandparents, books on art, books with knowledge, even a cookbook!  Books are no longer left alone on shelves but are now seen and enjoyed.

Making his life part of his art continued in other works. The colorful tower is made from a year’s worth of his used paint tubes!

Old postcards received from friends are painted and given new life.

Talk about Living Green!!

Pascal Courcelles, an artist sharing his life mixed with his love for color.


In 2013, after a long day in Paris, I was at last ready for dinner. I was in my favorite Montmartre section of Paris and peeking through restaurant windows to discover the right mood among diners to say, “yes, this is the one.” I often select a restaurant or cafe’ more on the ambiance than reading the posted menu. I ask myself, “would I be happy here?”

france april 13 118 I never miss an opportunity to glance into shop windows as I often find my most cherished pieces by accident. My hunger was put on hold when I discovered on rue Audran a small shop window filled with one-of-a-kind cafe’ size cups…each with its unique nose and lips.

The young woman artist and creator, Alice Lothon, was still inside working at her pottery wheel where she creates each piece one at a time. I loved all of her pieces…cafe’ size cups, cafe’ au lait bowls, and even large table-top size pieces. She could see my enthusiasm and between my not-so-good French and her not-so-good English, I learned the story of how she came to create her vision.

The next year, I brought my 12-year-old granddaughter to Paris and took her to Alice’s shop.  Alice remembered me AND my enthusiasm and she treated my granddaughter like family.

What a great surprise, our connection a year earlier led to Alice taking my granddaughter under her wing. Sitting side-by-side around the small pottery wheel, Alice taught her how to make her own unique cafe’ cup. More importantly, Alice showed her the soul of people we meet in travel.

Many people would just pop into Alice’s shop and buy some cups to take home. My granddaughter and I took home life-long memories!


image  I frequently stay in Paris for several weeks.  Hotels are too expensive for long-term stays plus the added necessity to eat daily in restaurants drains my budget AND gets old quickly. Often, after a long day, don’t we all just want to stay in….especially on those rainy or cold evenings.

After many years of enduring frequent hotel stays, I was rescued by discovering VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) for my Paris short-term apartment rentals.

Yes, Airbnb has become a household word….but Paris VRBO delivered all of my must-haves: affordable convenient locations, speedy Wi-Fi for Skype and Internet, apartments are always as they appear on their site, staff speaks English and always available to help, never surprise cancellations, and my deposit is refunded within 2 days. 

I have spent weeks in all of the pictured apartments and have always been happy. They are my home away from home!

I love my small private outdoor terrace at this Montmartre studio. I even dine on the terrace wearing a sweater…and in warm weather, totally the place to find me!

This Montmartre one bedroom EVEN has a pull down Murphy bed in the living room and the modern shower rivals 4-star hotels!

For those times when I am looking for extra economy, this studio is the answer. The sofa opens to a full comfortable bed and it is my GO TO apartment for cost and my favorite location!

Booking an apartment for a week is the best value and can keep the cost as low as $60-$80 per night.


image I finally arrived in Beijing and couldn’t wait until my life changing tour of the Great Wall! After Googling tour groups after tour groups, my enthusiasm took a dip. It seemed like all the tours used large buses packed with tourists and forced frequent stops at souvenir shops and jade/gem factories. Plus, they usually traveled to highly renovated sections of the wall that I feared would be no more exciting than a trip to Disneyland.

image Refusing to give up my search for real adventure, I was at last rescued when I discovered a small tour group through Peking Downtown Backpackers Hostel in the Nanlouguxiang hutong area of Beijing. They traveled to the Jinshanling section of the wall, an area still retaining much of its original wall and towers.  Plus, they used only a small van, and NO stops at souvenir shops or factories! I was sold!

imageA surprise bonus! The hostel is on a charming street lined with small shops. I changed my plans and spent the day exploring.

The 68 mile trip to Jinshanling was worth every mile. The scenery was spectacular and easy to enjoy without the crowds.


Several locals would walk beside and offer an outstretched hand to help over the steepest parts.  I finally completed the 20 tower walk, tired in that good way that makes one smile. The local guide, that adopted me during my trek, offered to show me a few tee shirts he carried in his sack.

I now wear mine proudly, remembering his kind assistance. The best souvenir I could imagine!