Our visit to Fragonard Parfumeur in Grasse France

One of my favorite things about visiting new places is the scent. Elba Island smells like basil and jasmine. Downtown Vicenza is espresso and brioche. Salzburg is wood smoke and coffee. Istanbul is pipe smoke and spices. Yes, there’s some stench, too, but I prefer to focus upon the good. Based on this fact, it’s probably not surprising that one of the destinations topping my to-do list in France was Fragonard Parfumeur. I’ll be totally up front and tell you that the kids hated it. Eddie wound up taking them out to play near the giant tree out front before we made it halfway. I, on the other hand, had a great time and actually learned so much about fragrance.

fragonard

The Fragonard building has housed perfume-making since 1782. Parfumerie Fragonard is relatively recent, originating in 1926. Open every single day–Sundays and holidays included–Fragonard is the more popular out of three perfumeries in Grasse (Galinard and Molinard are the other two). Free tours are available in many languages and take about 20 minutes.

After hearing about Fragonard’s history, our tour guide took us through room after room of holding tanks and bottles. Some held single scent notes (like the amber-colored bottles above), others held perfume blends (like the silver vats). She also talked about scent extraction methods. Today, floral fragrance is captured much the same way alcohol distilleries make bourbon and whiskey. Many years ago, single flowers were layered on animal fat (see the middle image above) and kept for weeks until the tallow had absorbed the sweet scent. And then there are other scents that are non-floral like my favorite: amber. I think I could have gone my whole life without learning that fragrance amber is actually the squid-laden vomit of a sperm whale. Thank god it’s all synthetic now. I’m not sure I could stomach wearing whale puke.

Probably my least favorite portion of the tour was (surprisingly) the sniffing portion of the tour. As much as I loved Fragonard, I was not a fan of their proprietary scents. It was all, well, too perfume-y. I skipped out to shop on my own part-way through the “testing” and found my own goodies. The Eau de Toilette scent varieties were by far my favorites, and I wound up buying a bottle of Violette, a mix of orange, blackberry, violet, raspberry, musk and amber.

fragonard violette

The home fragrance section was divine, too. Only because I had arbitrarily budgeted less than $100, I picked up a single candle. There were fragrance oil rods, candles, and soaps, all of which were less than $50 each. The Coriander Lemongrass begged to come home, so I had to oblige.

fragonard candle

If you remotely like fragrance, or if you just need some luxurious gifts to bring home, I highly recommend Fragonard. Maybe leave the kids back at the hotel room, but there’s a great yard and tree for them to play under otherwise. For great directions, hours, and visitor information about Fragonard, visit the link fragonard factory. Given that it was a Sunday when we visited, most of Grasse was closed. If you can visit on a weekday, I’ve heard the quaint town is absolutely divine.

On my radar: Italian-made O Bags

I moved to Italy expecting a lot of things fashion-wise. Everyone would wear black; everyone would wear high-end designer; everyone would school me in what it meant to be stylish. As it turns out, Italians are actually pretty normal. They wear Uggs in winter and leggings as pants and Chuck Taylors. You know, like regular humans. One thing that has lived up to my expectations is the high-end bag. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Celine…you do see a fair amount of those (and if they aren’t real, they’re pretty spot-on knock-offs) on regular people, which is why I have been a little shocked to see so many O Bags from fullspot.it around lately.

If you’re in the U.S., I wouldn’t be surprised if the name O Bag is new to you. There are just a handful of boutiques around Italy, France, the UK and other parts of Europe. Let me just introduce you to the concept because it is so much fun…like candy store fun.

o bag boutiques

Photo from www.fullspot.it

O Bags are completely customizable EVA totes. Yes, EVA, as in the same stuff the footbed of a Havaiana flip-flop is made of. High-end they’re not, but they make sense for the beach or pool–or if you happen to have sticky toddlers around.

Kind of like Build-A-Bear, you begin by choosing from one of four base bags, which come in about 20 colors. Next, choose your handles–currently leather, faux leather, or rope for the tote styles and webbed canvas for the O Pocket styles. Finally, you pick a canvas liner.

o bag

Image from www.fullspot.it

As a novelty, pricing isn’t bad. The tote bases run about €40, handles are €17 to €30, and liners are around €20. For shipment to the U.S., it looks like obagonline.com, shipping from the UK, may be your best option. Honestly, though, I bet these move like wildfire through the States soon. Italian-made, water-resistant, and less than $100? What’s not to love?

 

 

 

Black Lace & Destructed Denim

I’m fairly confident in my fashion sense. I know what I like; I know what looks good on my figure; I know what’s in (and, more importantly, out) of style. I have to admit, however, that today’s agenda gave me a little wardrobe stress. Dressing for a fashion trade show in Italy on a commoner’s budget is not for the fainthearted. That’s squarely where I found myself this morning as I got ready for Origin: Passions and Beliefs in Vicenza. This trade show puts Italian suppliers together with artists, designers, buyers, and fashionphiles from around the world together in one convenient location.

In the end, I decided to play it cool and easy: destructed jeans, a lace top, simple pumps and a statement bag. Except for the lady wearing what appeared to be a metal kitchen strainer on her head, I looked pretty much like every other attendee. Score one for the American Midwesterner trying to fit in!

And guys, cut me some slack on the photo. I am *so* not a model, I have a 6-year-old photographer, and I haven’t learned Photoshop. (What business do I have blogging, right?)

black lace destructed denim

What I’m wearing
Pim & Larking Black Lace Top (old; similar topshop lace tee), Just Black White Destructed Skinny Jeans (StitchFix.com), Black suede Pointed-Toe Pumps (old; similar Nine West pumps), Alexander Wang Rockie with Rose Gold (Barneys.com; similar alexander wang rockie).

Mother’s Day shopping in Nove Italy

nove italy

One of my favorite go-to spots for gifts is the city of Nove Italy: the ceramics capital of Italy. Even if you’ve never heard of it, I would bet you have something from Nove in your home right now if you shop any major U.S. retailers. While there are dozens of small ceramics shops dotting the Nove streets, the big daddy is La Ceramica VBC (VBC for short) and they make many (if not all) of the ceramic dinnerware and serving pieces for stores like Pottery Barn, West Elm, Mikasa…I could go on and on. Although there are other shops I enjoy (Nove Ceramiche, for one), VBC is the place I continually re-visit with or without visiting friends and family. Since I talk about it so much, I figured it was time to show it off just a bit.

The stock at VBC is varied. From kitschy pumpkins to fine place settings, you’ll find it all there. There is a striking sea life-themed pattern that we’ve seen all over Venice (Italy). That’s the pattern we’ve been sending Eddie’s mom for the past year, which is why I drove over this morning. While visiting us last fall, my mom picked out a gorgeous ivory lace embossed set that we’ve been slowly building. At retail, these pieces are $50-$60 or more per piece and $100 or so per place setting; at VBC, they ring it at half or less. With summer coming, I felt particularly drawn to the vibrant mosaic-like patterns, which I actually haven’t seen in the U.S.

nove italy

Unfortunately there isn’t a way to order from VBC or other Nove shops (to my knowledge) from the states, but it’s an excellent spot to visit if you’re stopping by the Veneto to see friends or family. And for those who are new to the Vicenza community, make this one of your first stops. The city of Nove itself is extremely American-friendly. Try out your new Italian skills on the shop owners. If you botch it, most Nove residents understand enough English to get the gist of what you need or want. And if they don’t understand, they will still applaud you for your efforts.

Our Day in Ljubljana Slovenia

Ljubljana Slovenia May 2014 002I have a love/hate relationship with the map you can access on the seatback TV screen during international flights. It is nice to track your progress, but on eight, ten, twelve (or more)-hour flights, it becomes maddening. Really? We haven’t crossed the entire Atlantic Ocean yet?? As I watched us close in on Italy last May, I began seeing Ljubljana just east. I’ll admit that I had no idea how to pronounce it (Loob-lee-yahn-yuh is pretty close) and I really didn’t know where it was. Fast forward a few days. I looked over the Army MWR calendar and saw a scheduled trip to (you guessed it) Ljubljana, Slovenia. I booked all four of us because…why not?

The trip to Slovenia was a bit arduous. Little did we know that we’d booked a trip on an Italian holiday weekend. The mid-way Autogrille (a gas station, restaurant, bathroom stop on the Autostrada) was dangerously packed. I never really understood how people died from human stampedes but I do now, and I hope to never experience that again. Thankfully we did make it through and made it to Ljubljana about 9:30 a.m. Being a Saturday, it was market day. I just can’t even tell you how charming it was!

The city’s mascot is the dragon, as you can see in the image above. This bridge, Dragon Bridge, features two dragons at each entrance to the bridge. Myth says that the dragons’ tails are anchored in the water. When a virgin crosses, they wave their tails, thus making waves on the river. I’m not going to make any judgements about anyone but I can say that I didn’t see a single wave that day.

Also according to our guide, Ljubljana largely missed the unrest in the former Yugoslavian region back in the ’90s. Both the people and the land were resilient, and Ljubljana is absolutely picturesque and pristine.

From the Cathedral of St. Nicholas to the Ljubljana Castle, this city was just awe-inspiring and I hope to return before we leave Europe.

The entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas. This door was created and hung before the 1996 visit of the Pope.

The entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas. This door was created and hung before the 1996 visit of the Pope.

The ceiling fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas.

The ceiling fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas.

Having just recently visited Lake Bled Slovenia, I can heartily suggest this area as a vacation destination. I’ll probably get around to featuring Bled by itself. For now, add Ljubljana to your travel bucket list.

Ropes Ranch Vicenza: A Little Piece of Texas in Italy

ropes ranch vicenza

One thing Eddie and I have embraced since moving the family to Italy is the importance of giving our family experiences instead of things. Maybe we’re spoilers at heart or maybe it’s a side effect of being old parents, but we’ve always given our kids more than they ever needed. Without closets, you really see how much crap you’ve amassed. The beauty of an experience is its lasting effects. Neither of the kids remember what they got just a few months ago at Christmas. The 6-year-old does, however, look back at her pictures and talk about visiting Ephesus in Turkey and seeing the giant Christmas tower in Heidelberg. This will be a part of her much longer than the 10th Monster High doll.

Last Sunday, we decided to visit a spot close to home for one of our “experiences.” To fully appreciate this story, I need to set the scene for you. As we parked along a treelined side road and opened our doors, Garth Brooks–loud and proud–boomed into our ears. Nearly simultaneously, the strong scent of summer hay wafted into our faces. A few paces further, we heard the soft thumping of horse hooves and a whinny. Finally–the piece de resistance–a huge Wrangler banner came into view. Back where I come from, this is just another day. In the middle of the Veneto Region of Italy? It was pretty surreal but this is Ropes Ranch.

ropes ranch vicenza

Tucked between the Autostrada and farmland in Grisignano di Zocco (VI), Ropes Ranch is a small but well-equipped place for casual riding and riding lessons. Honestly, it had been on our to-visit list for quite sometime but we had never taken the time to just go. They were opening the ranch that day for rides, food, and early camp sign up. The minute we signed Zoey up for summer horse camp, Denis (the owner, who speaks fluent English…bonus!), handed cute cowboy hats over to each of my girls. He couldn’t have delighted them more if he’d handed over gold ingots. The staff graciously let the kids have the run of the ranch, peeking at the new foal, watching the calves, and taking guided rides on Nacho, the most patient American Quarter Horse that I have ever seen.

I am absolutely clueless about such things as horseback riding lessons, though I have been told they’re expensive back in the states. They’re more than reasonable and budget-friendly here. The one-on-one lessons at Ropes Ranch are $15 per hour-long session while lessons for younger kids run 30 minutes and ring it at around $10. The staff offer lessons on weekday mornings and afternoons, then all day on weekends.

Zoey has her first lesson tomorrow morning, then camp begins when school is out for the summer. I’m even considering some lessons. There are some great-sounding horseback riding tours around local wineries here from time to time. I suppose I should be solid on horseback before trying to sample vino while riding.

If you’re new to the Vicenza community, the easiest way to get in touch with Denis and the ranch is through their ASD Ropes Ranch Facebook page.

The Conscious Closet Challenge: An Update

Just to get new readers up to speed: I began the Conscious Closet Challenge sponsored by grechenscloset.com midweek last week. I pared down to what I would’ve once called a minimalist closet last year but I’m ready to edit down even more. You can read more about it in my initial article here.

As I write, I have a huge stack of clothes to donate. I feel like this is a really great time to be working through my thoughts and feelings about clothing–and possessions–in general. This challenge didn’t exactly start this process but it was my incentive to actually sit down and create a list of Dos and Don’ts to follow. I think this topic will spin off in a number of directions but I wanted to just create a simple update of some things I’ve learned.

1. Stop Shopping Clearance
I pride myself on never paying full price but there’s a difference between shopping clearance and being financially smart when shopping. Between last year’s purge and this year’s edit, I found that almost everything unworn in my closet was a clearance acquisition. We itemize and deduct our donations on our taxes each year, which means I keep meticulous notes on donated items (their purchase price, brand, style, year, etc). Pages upon pages of my 2014 donations included clothing and accessories from Loft and J. Crew. Those $4.99 steals add up to several hundred dollars over the course of a few years (and I’m not even kidding about that number) fast. I will always look for coupon codes or wait for percentage off sales but the clearance rack is NOT my friend.

2. Just Buy Coveted Items
So let me explain. I have a solid track record of trying to buy cheap to quench a desire for something expensive. A case in point: I fell in love with the Helmut Lang Villous Jacket. It retails for $230 but can often be found off-season for $150. I wanted it. I loved it. I tried it on when I saw it in a store. I never bought it but instead went everywhere buying up cheap inspired-by styles. I have two versions of it from Modcloth; I bought one from JC Penney; I bought another from some other off-price place. In total, I spent about $300 on jackets inspired by the Villous. They just never did it for me. I wore them sometimes but just not very often. I finally bit the bullet and ordered the Villous during the late winter of 2014. That did it. I wear it constantly. I love it. It doesn’t just hang in my closet like the knockoffs. Had I just bought the damn thing when I decided it was a must-have, I literally would’ve saved $300. I do this much too often and it’s time to stop.

3. Purge/Buy For My Current Lifestyle
I have a habit of hanging on to clothing items because I once wore them non-stop. When I worked at Brown Shoe, tailored cardigans were a staple. Our dress code was business but the D2C department was creative. This meant that I could get away with denim trousers and a cardigan. On Friday, destructed denim and platform wedges worked with a cardigan. I had a million and wore a million. In the last three years or so, I haven’t worn a single cardigan (well, maybe an oversize Grandpa style occasionally). As of today…GONE. They served their purpose but they don’t fit into my life now. At the risk of going all KonMari (I wonder if she knows she’s a verb now…hmmm), they needed to go on to help others who could love them more.

Another example: the Mansur Gavriel Bucket Bag. I very briefly thought about getting on a waitlist for one. They’re so sleek and gorgeous. But…BUT…I live in Italy. Pickpockets are not just a possibility, they are life. I am constantly balancing a 2-year-old, a diaper bag and goodness knows what else. I can’t be bothered to watch my cinch-top handbag every second as we travel. $400 saved…period. If I have to worry about it (whatever “it” is, it isn’t worth my attention).

I know, I know. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much–3 realizations–while contemplating my whole adult wardrobe. I have to say, though, that these three areas have cost me more than I would even like to consider. Hey, it’s a place to start. I feel like this challenge has been really good for me. Maybe it can help others. Either way, I’m glad I took this next step.

A Minimalist Wardrobe: The Conscious Closet Challenge

conscious closet challenge

One year ago, a major move from Texas to Italy forced me to create a minimalist wardrobe. The final tally included donating and/or selling nearly 60 pairs of shoes and about 90% of my clothing. Since moving into our Italian home (no closets…gasp), I’ve come to the realization that I needed to get rid of much more. The makeshift wardrobes and racks are full. Earlier in the week, Grechen from grechenscloset.com–one of my longtime favorite blogs–announced a Conscious Wardrobe Challenge. Grechen is very focused upon building a minimalist wardrobe with U.S.-made pieces. Living in the land of Italian fashion, buying American is nice but not a goal for the next couple of years. That being said, I would like to be a little more informed about where my clothing, shoes, and accessories originate. One thing I learned quickly while living here, a “made in Italy” label like we find so often on high-dollar goods in the U.S. doesn’t always mean you are getting a product sourced 100% from Italy. It has been very eye-opening.

So what are my goals? First and foremost, I want to assess what I still love in my current minimalist wardrobe, then donate the rest. From there, I can make some decisions on where holes exist and what needs to be replaced. Do I still need 10 jeans? How many tees will it take to make my life complete? Secondarily, I have been trying to buy quality over quantity. Instead of buying three pairs of boots this past winter, I bought one pair of Prada moto boots. It was the best idea ever. It was a chunk of change up front but wound up costing less than buying boots in volume. I would like to strategize to build a nicer, smaller wardrobe with the rest of my clothing.

I started the challenge a bit late but will update as things progress. If you would like to join Grechen’s challenge, click the Conscious Wardrobe Challenge link above. All the instructions are there.

Travel tips: Cahergal Farmhouse, County Clare Ireland

Sometimes travel can be a series of crapshoots. As we found out during our trip to Skerries, all the great reviews in the world can still net you some cruddy experiences. County Clare Ireland was nothing but fabulous from start to finish, I am happy to say. Through a series of Google searches, I found that many Irish venues offered Easter weekend events for families. The two-day Craggaunowen and Bunratty Folk Park ticket sounded perfect, so we searched for nearby lodging. Another search brought me to Cahergal Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast. The reviews were great, Google Maps showed me it was close to both venues, and their website mentioned that they offered horseback riding (a major draw for my 6-year-old).

To fully appreciate how good this part of the trip was, you have to know that (1) I typically hate bed & breakfast lodgings and (2) high-end department stores are my thing, not working farms. We landed in Dublin early on a Saturday morning, moved our suitcases into a Citroen Berlingo (the horror at first), then shot off west to the farm.

cahergal farmhouse county clare ireland

Cahergal Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast

Owned by Michael and Noreen McInerney, Cahergal is a 100-acre working horse, sheep, and cattle farm located in the heart of Newmarket-on-Fergus. They literally don’t have an address. We used Google Maps to get close, then followed signs to the tree-lined drive. Noreen greeted us with brown scones coated with creamy butter and jam, as well as a pot of hot tea. Our room was roomy and comfortable; the bathroom shower was consistently hot with decent pressure. When showing us the room, Noreen mentioned that the master bed was a queen. Honestly, it was closer to the size of our king at home. Little Harper co-sleeps with us most of the time, so we had plenty of room for 2 1/2 in the big bed. Zoey’s twin bed was termed a cot but it was also extremely comfortable. Honestly, though, the farm itself was the star of the show. Even in early April, the grass was emerald green and dotted with beds of yellow daffodils. Just driving onto the property, we heard cows moo-ing. It was just quintessentially Ireland.

Being spring, baby animals were a fixture at Cahergal. Michael was so kind to let us bring both girls out to the barns. It was almost comical how unprepared I was. I literally walked into a barn stall with over-the-knee boots and a leopard coat. I promise that I’m not usually that…I know there’s some derogatory term to describe that.  I was timid; we brought two boisterous girls into a stall with five delicate newborn sheep. Michael, on the other hand, took one look at Zoey and started filling her arms with warm, wooly lamb. As I watched her fumble, I went into total panic mode. Not Michael. He started folding that baby up into her arms and told me loudly “No worrying. Take pictures.” Next up was the side of the barn with pregnant cows moo-ing for their breakfast. Michael handed Zoey a pitchfork (inciting fear in my heart) and showed her how to rake silage toward the eager mouths of five hungry post-partum cows, two pregnant cows, and one really eager new bull. Even when she nearly poked the pitchfork into a soft nose, Michael was totally cool.

On another day, one of Noreen and Michael’s adult sons took all the guests on a trek though the fields. The sheep and cows wanted to keep their space…especially from the eager 6-year-old, yet this was so much fun. Noreen took pity on me and gave me her boots to wear through the field so I wouldn’t sully my poor choice of packed footwear. It was just such a great experience. None of us were ready to go on a real horseback ride but Zoey was allowed to take a short escorted ride on one of the farm’s horses. Again, Noreen’s son kindly took her on this “ride,” which absolutely thrilled her.

And after all this, I’ve neglected to talk about the “breakfast” part of bed and breakfast. I’m by no means a vegetarian but bacon and sausage and ham and eggs…not my speed. I figured “when in Ireland…” and just decided to eat what Noreen cooked. (She did provide a wide array of cereals and breads, too.) My traditional Irish breakfast included a fried egg, two slices of bacon (what we called country ham back in Missouri), two sausage links, white and black pudding, and toast. I tried it all. That Noreen…she’s a great cook. Admittedly, I was most drawn to her pumpkin seed brown soda bread but…BUT…I actually liked all of it. The black pudding (made of congealed blood) was a little too much for me to wrap my head around. I did taste it but left it at that. The white pudding was awesome. I wound up eating an Irish breakfast each morning that we were there, then found that no one’s breakfast compared to Noreen’s after we left.

Cahergal was such a great experience, I felt it was worthy of an entire post. Check back for more on our trip to County Clare Ireland. And if you want to make reservations with Noreen and Michael, make sure you visit their site: cahergal.com.

 

Travel tips: Skerries Ireland

So…Skerries Ireland. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I. We were looking for one more place to visit before flying back to Italy, read about the Skerries Windmills, and decided that was as good a place as any. Skerries is a seaside village just outside of Dublin. We had a rental car and drove it in about half an hour, but I have heard it’s quite easy to get public transportation from Dublin to the Skerries station.

Things to do in Skerries Ireland

Skerries Mills.
After a week in Ireland, this was one of our favorite attractions. Traveling with two very small kids, we were constantly in search of spots that were appealing to adults but kid-friendly. I thought this was an iffy pick; turns out it was perfect. Although I didn’t see any signs of active flour milling, the self-guided tour (€12 for a family) allows you to see the fully-functional mill. Once we made it through the various rooms in the millhouse, the reception person came through and turned on the wheel, allowing us to re-visit the mill’s rooms to see everything in action. Once exiting the mill, visitors are allowed to walk the fields to see the small and large windmills.

After freezing outdoors, it was a real treat to come back to the millhouse for warm drinks at the Watermill Cafe. Although we only chose a pot of tea for ourselves and hot cocoa for our 6-year-old, the cafe served really delicious-looking scones, pastries, and sandwiches. And they do have a liquor license, so Irish coffees are ready to go in seconds.

Especially with a small market outside, there were plenty of opportunities to shop at Skerries Mills. The gift shop had oodles of made-in-Ireland items like pottery, woolens, jewelry, and flour (duh…it’s a flour mill). The market in the courtyard seems to be new. There were very few vendors that Saturday morning but I have a feeling it’s growing based upon the fact that their ramping up their social media efforts.

mills collage

Ardgillan Castle

I love a good castle in ruins. My kids, however, prefer the fully-restored variety. For this reason, we figured Ardgillan Castle was a good bet. As it turned out, they weren’t giving tours of the actual castle that day. We still managed to make the best out of the visit. The tea room is the spot where the tours begin. Since it was lunchtime and tours were out, we decided to grab lunch there. The sitting-rooms-turned-dining-rooms were pretty. The period decor was busy enough to keep the kids entertained–nothing was drab or boring. They had highchairs, too, which was a major bonus. Sans tour, we headed back out to see the grounds. Early spring is probably not the best time to view the walled gardens. There were plenty of blooming flowerbeds but the gardens appeared to be geared toward mid-summer-bloomers. The view of the sea was breathtaking. Perhaps the real winner here, though, was the huge play area. The playground was divided into an area for little ones and an area for big kids. It was perfect for letting the kids run out some energy.

ardgillan castle

The biggest “bust” of the day was our Bed & Breakfast. Despite its great reviews, it was terrible. The bedroom looked clean enough but the rest of the house was nasty. It was so bad, we paid half a night’s stay to get out of there and booked a room at Maldron Dublin Airport. Maldron was a little overpriced but it’s a 5 minute shuttle to Terminal 2 at the airport. Most importantly, the Maldron was clean.

As a whole, I wouldn’t skip someplace like the Cliffs of Moher or Rock of Cashel for Skerries, but if time permits and you have little ones, Skerries might be worth your time. Especially in the summer months when sea breezes don’t lead to frigid windchills, you could easily spend the day beachcombing.

If you’re traveling to Ireland–especially if you are traveling with kids–check back in the coming days. I will have some other can’t-miss attractions, places, and pubs to discuss. Visit me over on my Facebook page if you have questions or just feel like discussing Skerries Ireland.