Plzeň, Czech Republic

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This weekend was spent in Plzeň enjoying brewery tours, beer, and the festival celebrating Plzeň recently being named the European Capital of Culture for 2015.

On Saturday morning we left early on a train and got to the city around 11:30.  It takes about an hour an a half to get there from Prague.  When we arrived, we realized that a lot of celebrations were going on due to the new cultural title.  Everyone in our travel group was so excited to see what this city of culture had to offer us!

Upon our arrival, we went and found a cheap hostel/hotel that had a nice room for the four of us that would be staying overnight.  It was a really well equipped hotel room with nice beds and a bathroom of our own and it was very reasonably priced.  We checked in and then headed to see what was going on in the nearby city center.

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We started off the day at the brewery.  When we arrived, we saw the famous arches above and walked through them into the area devoted to the brewery.  Special tents were set up due to the celebrations, so after buying our tour tickets, we went inside the huge green tent with giant Pilsner Urquell logos that was set up there.

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Inside there was traditional Czech dancing and music that was a lot of fun to watch.  It seemed like all of the performers were really enjoying themselves, and their enthusiasm was catching.

IMG_2800We all grabbed a beer from the taps they had set up in the tent and then made our way over to the food area.  There they had a catering style lineup of dishes where you could ask for what you want and they would dish it up for you.  I got a meal that would soon be remembered as one of my favorites that I have eaten here in the Czech Republic thus far.

IMG_2795It was pork with pickled cabbage and potato dumplings with caramelized onions.  All of the flavors blending together were amazing, and the dumplings were some of the best that I’ve had here.

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There were various bands playing traditional music.  This one was particularly good; I stood up near the front to get a good view and enjoy the music.

Soon, it was time for our brewery tour to start.  We left the tent and headed next door to the brewery where we began our tour.  The guide brought us through rooms displaying artifacts of history of the brewery, as well as rooms that held the vats and other machinery things needed to brew beer.  We watched a couple of different videos on the brewing process as well.

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This was the actual tank room where the beer is heated.  It was pretty warm in here because the process was happening as we were taking our tour.

IMG_2821The next and more interesting part of the tour was walking through the damp and chilly beer cellars where we could see beer fermenting in tanks, and some huge wooden kegs that were ready to be tapped.

IMG_2834In the final leg of our tour, we got to taste some unfiltered beer right out of the keg in the basement.  It was so fresh and delicious — I don’t know if I will ever have another beer like it again.

When we stepped outside after our tour, there was a large crowd congregating outside the brewery.  There were men on stilts standing in the crowd as well as a giant Angel statue manned by a few people.  One leg of the parade was starting right in front of our eyes.  We decided to join up and walk with the parade through the city and into the city center.

IMG_2846There were four different parade routes that met up in the middle of the city.  We walked with a giant mass of people through streets that were shut down and blocked off to traffic.  People looked down from their windows and watched from bridges.  The parade consisted of a giant mass of people, various bands (one man walked with his band playing an upright bass violin), flame throwers, and people on stilts.  At one point, we walked right next to some huge Clydesdale horses towing a few fake kegs on a flat bed.

IMG_2850We made it to the city center with our parade group and waited for about an hour in the cold for the festivities to start.  In the mean time, there was music playing over speakers and an interesting light show playing on the buildings in the square.

IMG_2853The show finally started.  It included a giant metal puppet partaking in some theatrics I can only describe as “art,”  as well as a man walking across a tightrope to the top of the cathedral.  He was walking that route in order to signify the returning of the bells to the bell tower that were stolen in World War II.  He made it across the tiny wire that hung directly above our heads and by the time he finally made it, we were all freezing.  So we went to a nearby restaurant and had some dinner.  I had chicken stuffed with blue cheese, spicy peppers, and bacon.

After that, our some of our friends had to leave to catch their train back home, while others headed back to the hostel.  Jordan and I decided to check out the night life around Plzeň which we had heard many good things about.

We started at the Funky Money which was a cocktail bar where we ordered some interesting drinks.  Then we went to a music bar where they were playing a lot of American dance music.  We ended our night at Music Bar Andel, an alternative music bar where a DJ was spinning vinyl record of 90s music (both American and European).  We really enjoyed dancing the night away with tons of locals in this unique atmosphere.  Oh, and, they had Discovery Channel playing on the screen behind the stage… 😉

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After our long night out, we went to get Kebabs on the way back to the hotel.  They were huge!  We headed back and hit the hay in our comfortable hotel bed.

The next morning, our compadres left early, as Jordan and I got some extra sleep after our late night.  We woke up and got ready for another day of exploring the city.

IMG_2863Today we enjoyed a relaxed day of sight seeing throughout the city and visiting all the sights that we hadn’t yet seen.  We discovered a nice small park with ice statues.  I had never seen an ice statue like this up close, and it was an awesome discovery.  There were actually 4 separate statues with one really big one (shown below).

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They were starting to melt a little, but, still very cool.  We also checked out the Jewish Synagog which is the third largest in the world.  This month, it is closed for tours, but we got to see the outside and later viewed a picture of the inside, so we thought it was close enough!

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IMG_2875The picture above is the Town Hall.  The outside of the building has amazing carving drawings in it.

IMG_2895Our wanderings led us to stumble upon some other really interesting things like the hand made boat art projects shown above, as well as a photo exhibit of the city’s culture.

Finally, we had lunch at the Beer Museum and decided it was time to hit the road back home: hopped on a train and back we went to the city of stories – Prague.

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London for Christmas

“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.” – Kurt Vonnegut

There is so much to share about our trip to London last week!  We loved the culture, and Jordan really took to saying “cheers mate.”  It seemed like everyone there was so much more jolly than in Prague.  People were definitely in the Christmas spirit.  We were shocked to find out 1 pound is almost equivalent to 2 US dollars, but hey, when in London…  Our days were packed with walking, sight seeing, and learning new things.  The trip was a great way to get away before starting work!

Day #1: We woke up early to take a bus to the Prague airport.  Everything went smoothly at the airport, and before we knew it, we arrived in London!  We loved asking for things in English – what a novelty!  Our flight came into the Stanstead airport which is about an hour bus or train ride from the city of London.  After a little figuring, we understood how to get to our hostel and took a bus there.  We arrived at the hostel to find that they could only accept cash payments for the room – and guess what?  We had no Pounds and couldn’t take any more money out of the ATMs!  So we had to find another place to stay.  This was the point when Kurt Vonnegut’s quote resonated in my head – “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”  It seemed like we were wandering around London aimlessly trying to find a place to stay.  We finally found one and ended up getting everything figured out, but not without a little stress along the way.

When we finally had a place to rest our heads, we decided to check out the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.  There were tons of rides, ice skating, food stands, and even a bar on a carousel!  We just enjoyed walking around and looking at everything in full Christmas spirit.IMG_2384

Day #2:  Our second day in London happened to be the Winter Solstice.  We decided to check out Stonehendge.  Since the Pagans give special importance to the solstices, we figured it would be the perfect time to go.  We arrived and found out that the next day they would be letting people up into the center circle.  We couldn’t believe we missed such an opportunity by one day! But we still enjoyed walking through the ancient structures and seeing some old burial hills, too.
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Downton Abby

Day #3: We went on a walking tour of the city of London.  While it didn’t really measure up to the amazing walking tour we got in Prague, we still got to see all of the famous sites and learn a lot of history about them.  We got to see the changing of the guard and feed some squirrels – the guide brought along some bread and the people on our tour loved seeing how the squirrels would come right up and take the food out of their hands.

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Buckingham Palace

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The food was great.  We loved trying authentic fish and chips and pies.  At one restaurant, a Polish waiter gave us a free flight of English beers.  We loved London Pale Ale!

IMG_2380After the walking tour we went to the Science museum which was the best museum we saw while we were in London.  It wasn’t just for kids, there were lots of interesting things for adults, too.

IMG_2493We ate lunch at Cafe Concerto where the desserts in the window drew us in.  I ordered a walnut and apple risotto and for dessert we got this piece of cake.  At night we went to see a comedy show.  It was called A Year in Review and it was interesting because there were 6 comedians competing with each other for the audience’s laughs throughout the show.  Many of the jokes were really British and related to European news, but it was still really cool to go to a place that seemed pretty local.

IMG_2524 Day #4: On the fourth day, we went to the Natural History museum and saw some dinosaur bones along with other exhibits.  My favorite of which was the gemstones and minerals exhibit where I wandered, mesmerized through the isles of beautiful natural jewels.

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Day #5: Christmas Eve! We started the day with a ride on the London Eye.  We got lots of cool arial views of the city from the little pod on the giant wheel.  Then we saw the London Eye 4D experience that came for free with our tickets.

IMG_2546 IMG_2573 IMG_2577Afterwards, we wandered around a bit and went into the Southside Center to regroup.  We grabbed some lunch at a burrito place that was a lot like Chipotle except better.  Then we went to a candy store and bought some chocolate bars.  Mine was called Christmas Pudding and it had fruit, nuts, and spices in it.  Jordan’s was called blueberry flapjack.  Next, we went to the theater to see a show called Nevil Island.  It was about a group of businessmen that get stranded on an island.  The play was funny, but it also made you think.  We both really liked it.

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The set of Nevil Island

Most of the city was starting to shut down around 5, so we found a place that was still serving dinner and hunkered down.  It was an Asian small plate restaurant that was packed.  We sat at a table with 3 other couples.  You order by filling out a slip of paper with bubbles on it for what you would like.  After dinner, we came back to the hostel and drank some ciders at the hostel bar and talked to a girl we met from New York.

Day #6: Christmas!  We woke up early and hit the empty road to rent bikes and partake in the Charles Dickens ride.  It was a group of about 50 bikers and us with our rented city bikes.  We went to various Charles Dickens sites around the city.  The entire bike ride was over 10 miles.  We were exhausted by the end of the morning!  We ditched the tour early and returned our bikes, glad to be rid of them, and sat on some park benches to contemplate.  Later in the day, we both got to talk with our families and went out to a Mediterranean restaurant for dinner.

IMG_2621 Day #7: After waking up and checking out of our hostel, we went to see the tower bridge and London Tower.

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We walked back to Big Ben and Buckingham Palace where we wanted to take a few more pictures.  After some soup to warm up for lunch, we had to go meet our Couch Surfing hosts!! They live in south east London.  They were Ukrainian and Bulgarian.  They had an amazing dinner ready for us when we got there and we had a great time talking all night and drinking wine with them.

Day #8:  We woke up to a traditional Bulgarian breakfast of banitsa – deliciously greasy puff pastry with feta cheese and egg.  We loved it, and learned the recipe!  We were stuffed for a day full of tourist adventures.   We walked with our hosts to various tourist spots nearby their house.  We saw the prime meridian, the old queen’s house, the painted hall, and the maritime museum.

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The Prime Meridian
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A laser points out of the small black hole at night to show the Prime Meridian.
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View from the Queen’s house
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The Painted Hall

Our host, Evol, knew a ton about history, so we basically got a free walking tour just by him showing us around.

After all that, our hosts wanted to head back and rest, so Jordan and I decided to go to the Tate Modern art gallery.  We had been wanting to go since we first got to London.  It was a great way to end our visit.  We really enjoyed exploring the countless rooms of interesting art.

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We left London early the next day, sad to leave our hosts, but surprisingly, we both felt excited to head back “home” to the Czech Republic.  It only took a trip away to realize that this foreign place is really starting to feel like home!

Velka Amerika and Old Town Square Christmas Market

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This weekend, we decided to take a break from our studies and go out and explore.  Our housemates had heard good things about the “Grand Canyon of Prague,” Velka Amerika, so we decided to make a day of it and check it out.

We had to take a bus to the metro, and then road the metro to the end of it’s line.  When we got off we were at a giant bus depot and metro station.  There were different stands with food and goods everywhere and across the road was a mall.  We had 45 minutes before our next bus came so we decided to grab a snack.  We finally got to try Trdelnik, a sweet pastry that is rolled over a metal stick and cooked over hot coals and then coated in a sugary nut mixture.  We had seen them everywhere but never tried them until yesterday.  It was great!

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Our bus finally came and we had to pay 24 crowns to ride.  Our public transportation passes didn’t work because they are only good for within Prague’s city limits.  Everyone getting on was able to pay the bus driver directly and then our 50 minute ride commenced.

The bus ride was enjoyable because we got to see a whole new side of this country.  There were some areas that looked quite rundown, other places were huge green pastures, and there were also some normal looking country homes.  Our eyes were opened to the world outside of the city center.

When we arrived at our stop, we had to walk up a hill for about 25 minutes because the bus stop that was closer to the canyon was not in service due to it being Saturday.  The hike up the country road was one of my favorite parts of the day.

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The canyon was visible by a parking area right off the road we were walking on.  We rushed up the small dirt path to the first view of the canyon and wonder struck us all.

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We ended up walking around the entire canyon, stopping at different view points, finding natural clay to play with, and just generally enjoying the beautiful view.

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The canyon was created from limestone mining.  There were small caves lining the walls and a dirt road that we saw people walking on.  We figured out how to get down to the road, but we were somewhat intimidated by the huge, extremely heavy metal doors that stood in our way.

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So at this point, we decided it was time to call it a day.  We had to wait at the bus stop for the bus to come for a pretty long time because the weekend schedule only had it coming once every three or so hours.

We all made it back at last and were starving and freezing.  We went to a restaurant in Wenceslas Square to warm up and get some good food.  Jordan tried Grog and we both got Goulash for the first time.  It was so good!  Jordan’s came in a rye breadbowl, and mine came with bread dumplings.  I love dumplings. 🙂

IMG_2232Next, we took a short walk over to Old Town Square for their Christmas Market.  Since it was the first day they were holding it for the season, it was as busy as Black Friday!   But it was well worth fighting the crowds to see the many vendors selling crafts, homemade foods, artisan honey, and so much more.  We are planning on going back to get some of the amazing food on Friday for lunch.  I was particularly eyeing the Chocolate fondu parfait.  Just imagine, instead of yogurt in a parfait, they had chocolate.

Our friend Amanda was intrigued by little slices of a loaf of marzipan and she got one to try.  We decided it was interesting to try but not something we were crazy about.  The best part of the Christmas market were all the lights lighting up the square and the christmas choir that was singing in one area.

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We were so happy that we could get out and see some cool sights this weekend!!

Thanksgiving in Prague

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The first of our series of holidays away from home was a success.  Since we live with mostly all other Americans (and one Indian), we were all very onboard with the whole idea of celebrating Thanksgiving together.  We went through a series of ideas starting with making our own Thanksgiving dinner, but since our TEFL House kitchen is not extremely well equipped, we decided to go out to eat.  And luckily there were even a few options of restaurants that serve American Thanksgiving dinners.

We chose Jama, a restaurant in Prague 1, not too far from our school where they have been serving Thanksgiving dinner for 20 years.  They also had American Football games on TV, so that made the men in our group happy.

Our evening started with some jovial Thanksgiving-themed games in our flat where we all put the immense workload of the course aside for the night at got to know each other a little better.  There was Czech beer, wine, Swiss Chocolate (one of us is from Switzerland), and pretzels. What more could you want for pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres?

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After lots of laughing, reminiscent talk about our families, and drinks all around, we had to leave the flat to make it to our 9pm reservation for dinner. We were quite loud, and possibly annoying on the bus and tram, but, we justified, it’s a special occasion, so what if they don’t understand.
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We made it to the restaurant and got a nice table in a small back room next to a group wearing Pilgrim hats and Native American headdresses. They too were English teachers from the US. We ordered our drinks and the first course arrived. It was corn chowder. Not quite synonymous with one of my favorite dishes, corn casserole, but the warm, potato based soup was great to get warmed up on a cold night.

Next, our main meal came out. It was definitely a Czech spin on Thanksgiving dinner. They love to pile plates up with food – sides go under the meat – and this meal was no different. We were faced with a pile of Thanksgiving foods all looking and smelling great. There was ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and stuffing all topped with cranberry sauce and gravy. All of the flavors mixed perfectly together for a Thanksgiving feast like no other.

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FInally, we got some very flat slices of pumpkin pie.  Although they looked different that what we’re used to, all of the flavors were there, and the crust was some of the best Jordan, a pumpkin pie connoisseur, had had.  The whole meal, with drinks and tips cost us about 450 crowns.  Money well spent.

Sure, it wasn’t just like home, but I am thankful that I got closer with my course mates, ate some delicious food that we didn’t have to cook ourselves, celebrated the holiday even being so many miles away.

Early June Weekend Adventures

This weekend was filled with good food, good friends, and good adventures.  Let me explain.

Friday night, Jordan and I went out to dinner at Pane Vino, which is located on Water Street in Downtown Rochester.  We both loved the location and outdoor seating overlooking the Genesee river.

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The food was Classic Italian with an extensive menu.  Their special appetizer of the night was alligator fritters, so naturally we had to try those.

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The came out with some delicious chipotle mayo which was very creamy with a little kick.  The fritters were slightly sweet and kind of similar in texture to crab cakes.  The bits of alligator were tough but didn’t have a very distinct taste.

For our mains we both got pasta dishes.  I had the Tortellini Boscaiola which was cheese filled tortellini with bacon, peas, mushrooms and a light garlic cream sauce.

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All of the flavors blended together nicely.  The bacon bits were definitely the highlight and the portions were huge.

Jordan got the Chicken French which was delicious and flavorful.

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After dinner, we went to the movies to see Edge of Tomorrow.  Although I wasn’t sure if I would like it, it ended up being a pretty good movie.  I am not usually into action movies, but this one had elements of humor, drama, and action.  It was overall an enjoyable film.  It was not too gruesome and actually had an interesting plot.  (World is at war with aliens, Tom Cruise’s character must live the same day he dies in battle over and over again.)

Saturday morning we woke up early to go to Cummings Nature Center in Naples.  We stopped for an early lunch at Cafe Sol in Bristol.  We got to meet a cute little dog named Tim who seemed to belong to the restaurant owner.  We sat on the front deck to eat and enjoyed seating in comfortable outdoor furniture.  After full deliberation on the menu — almost EVERYTHING looked good — we all decided.  I got the House Salad which was recommended to us by our waitress due to the “Green Goddess” dressing which ended up being a slightly creamy herb dressing.

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It had mixed greens with chopped avocado, blanched asparagus, pistachios, and blue cheese.

Jordan got the Cesar salad which came with a circle of grilled cheese – what he said was definitely the highlight.

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My mom got the turkey salad sandwich which came on a whole grain croissant and had wonderful undertones of pear – unusual and delightful.

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We arrived at Cumming Nature Center with the intent of hiking some of their trails.  When we arrived and paid our donation ($3 per person) we were informed that they were having a porcupine demonstration.  We wandered out to the pavilion where two porcupines were dwelling.  One was able to be picked up by his carrier.

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She was the only one able to touch him due to laws regarding dealing with the animals.  We learned they are a part of the rodent family and that they were bread as animal ambassadors who are kept in the woman’s home.

The other was a breed of African Porcupine who’s quills were hard and wood-like.  The two porcupines did not get along due to their territorial nature.

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We ventured out onto the trails and we checked out the Pioneer first trail which had a great overlook.

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We got to see tons of little salamanders swimming under the water while the sun was warming our backs.  It was so quiet and peaceful on the overlook.  We also enjoyed the tall pines that enclosed the trail near the beginning.

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Next we went on the other side of the woods and checked out the Haudenosaunee Trail which had a maple house as a stop off the trail.  The trails were very easy to hike and no longer than 2 miles each.  Being outside was relaxing and peaceful with the beautiful weather we had.

After our hike, we went back to Canandaigua for my friends’ birthday party.  Two of my friends were having their birthday’s this weekend, so we met for a pool party where my friend Jamie was making delicious blended strawberry margaritas.  We relaxed around the pool catching up and enjoyed some beer made with organic barley.

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After a few too many Wegmans Oreos and salt and cracked pepper kettle cooked chips, we decided to go to the Wine Walk that was taking place in Down Town Canandaigua.  We walked a half mile to Main Street where we meandered in and out of shops to wait for our wine samples.  Around 15 shops had a mixture of wine tasting and food samples.  For $5 we were able to get a wine tasting glass and various samples from local wineries and food vendors.

The lovely weather this weekend facilitated enjoyable outdoor activities with good friends and good food. Here’s to more exciting adventures to come!

 

The Rochester Lilac Festival

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Last night I made my second trek to the ever-popular Rochester Lilac Festival in Highland Park.  This time, five of us went for the “Perfect Pair Event” that featured local vendors serving samples of wine, cheese, and chocolate.  The event cost $15 and for the cost, we got 15 sampling tickets, free food samples, and a small wine glass with the Lilac Festival logo on it.  They also sold tickets for designated drivers or non-wine fans which cost $5.

Upon walking into the huge tent, we saw a flurry of activity with wine drinkers crowded around the 30 different vendors’ tables.  The majority of tables were giving wine samples, while some tables had delicious cheese, and one table even had fudge samples.  All of the food samples were free with entry.  Each wine vendor had 5 or 6 different choices for wine to try.  I was able to go to pretty much every table to try one type of their wine and still had some sampling tickets leftover to revisit some vendors.  Some of the highlights were sangria slushies, a wine named Yummy, and blueberry cheese!  Each wine table had Vigneri Chocolate displays on them, but the chocolate was definitely not the center of attention.

After our enjoyable jaunt through the tent, we explored a little bit of the festival.  We took this picture in front of the lilacs that are finally starting to come out!

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Jordan and I in front of the lilacs at this year’s Lilac Festival

It was around 8 when we made our way to the food tent and got garbage plates (a Rochester classic with cheeseburgers, home fries, mac salad, and spicy meat sauce) for dinner.  The food was delicious, but as the festival was nearing a close, the service wasn’t that great (no ketchup, etc.)

It was overall a lovely evening.  The Perfect Pair event was well worth the $15 dollars to get in.  15 wine samples ends up being more than you might think!

Until the next adventure…!