Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best and Wurst of Germany

Friend Andrea flew to London before Thanksgiving, and we had a great visit, seeing the sights here and in London. Then, on Thanksgiving day, the three of us took a 6 a.m. flight to Frankfurt(ish) (as with Stockholm, Ryanair puts you down 120 km from where you actually want to go). Our mission: go to German Christmas markets, outdoor craft-fair-like festivals with a fair amount of kitsch but some good stuff too, plus a lot of gluhwein, which is warm, usually blueberry wine that I don't really like at all, and several kinds of wurst (sausage), all of which I sampled, of course.

After a bus ride to Frankfurt, we were welcomed to the city by small market right on our street. We checked into our hotel, went back out, and promptly got ourselves a wurst of some kind. We then headed into town for big Christmas market. Much of Frankfurt was destroyed in World War II, but they carefully reconstructed the oldest part of the city center. Combined with modern, unique skyscrapers, Frankfurt made for a nice city to visit. The market itself was a nice, manageable size, with places to duck into when we were tired of being numb from the cold.

That night we headed to Adolf Wagner, a Bavarian tavern where you sit at big communal taverns and drink pitchers of apfelwein (apple wine). We dragged ourselves here because we were all exhausted; we realized instantly that it had been worth it. Our meal was fabulous, too: we all had various forms of meat (slow cooked beef; pork rib; schnitzel) with various forms of potato.

On Friday, we took a train up the Rhine River to a small village called Bacharach. The whole region is quite beautiful, but if there's not a special event going on, the towns are completely empty and closed. We've encountered this before. So, we made the most of it by wandering around, enjoying the half-timbered buildings, the 14th century fortification wall, and the 12th century castle Burg Stahleck, which is now a youth hostel. Bacharach would make a great base for visiting this region and drinking wine. We knew we wanted to do the latter, so we hovered outside a restaurant called Weingut Fritz Bastian Erbhof until it opened shortly after 1. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We were the only customers in the cozy dining room heated by a wood-burning stove. We ordered a wine carousel -- a lazy susan of 15 different German wines. We were surprised to learn about the variety and deliciousness of German wines! Coupled with some goulash and cheese, it was a great meal.

Saturday we packed up and took the train to Nuremberg, which hosts perhaps the most famous of Germany's Christmas markets. We stayed in an apartment outside of town but right on the subway line, so it was very convenient. After dropping our luggage off, we headed into the town and came out of the subway in the middle of the old town, greeted by the beautiful Church of St. Lawrence. Our first food sample here was Nuremberg's version of lebkuchen, gingerbread. It was absolutely delicious! We began to wander around the town, which completely turns itself over to the Christmas market. Tons of food vendors (lebkuchen, sausage, gluhwein, bread, cheese, even sushi!) and tons of ornaments, small ceramic houses, and gifts galore.

Eventually, though, the crowds got to us: It's no secret that Nuremberg has a nice market, so the aisles were jam packed with people. We got a break from the crowds by stopping for a beer at the Bratwursthausle, but didn't sample the Nuremberg specialty here -- three small bratwurst served in a weckla (roll). Don't worry; we had it elsewhere. We also stopped for potato pancakes -- definitely high on the list of our favorite festival food. After a few more hours of fighting the crowds, we took refuge in the Barfuesser Brauhaus, a brewery-restaurant in an old grain warehouse.

Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast at our apartment, we headed to the train again to go 45 km or so north of Nuremberg to the town of Bamberg, a beautiful medieval city that escaped the war largely unscathed. It too had a tiny little Christmas market that extended throughout the towns nooks and crannies. We were greeted right way by a community band playing Christmas carols. The whole town was just delightful -- lots to look at and far fewer people than in Nuremberg.

JT's favorite part was that the town boasts 10 breweries. So, our first stop was Wirtshaus zum Schlenkerla, a 16th century restaurant (the guidebook says) that's famous for its Rauchbier, or smoked beer. We tried three different beers here -- all very smoky! Our food was the ultimate in comfort food, too: John ordered the Spiessbraten (absolutely incredible roast pork) mit Kloss (a potato dumpling thing none of us liked very much) und Wirsing (savoy cabbage -- and it was delicious! Who knew!). Andrea and I had kresseschaumsuppe (watercress soup) mit griessklosschen (semolina dumplings). Absolutely delicious. This place was good fun and warm and inviting; had it not been a sunny day, we easily could have spent the rest of the day here.

Instead, we walked the town some more and headed up to the town's enormous cathedral and to a town square with nice views of the Benedictine Kloster St. Michael, a former monastery and now an old folks home.

Monday morning, John left from Nuremberg's airport on an early flight and was back in England before Andrea and I even woke up. We packed up, checked ourselves into a small, cheap hotel near the train station (we clearly got the last room -- the one they try not to rent out unless they have to. The people were over-the-top nice, breakfast was very nice, and the location incredible. The décor of our room left a lot to be desired; we were in a smoking room that smelled; and we had no hot water. But: for 70 euro a night and 1 block from the train station? OK.), then hopped onto a train to Rothenberg ob der Tauber.

Rothenberg is a popular stop among tourists, and with good reason. It's pretty small and very beautiful. And, has a small market for Christmas. The weather was pretty terrible, though, so our first stop was a German inn (Baumeisterhaus, I think) that I'd love to stay at. Its restaurant was warm, had good food and good beer, which was exactly what we were looking for. We then spent several hours in the Christmas market mecca, the Kathe Wolfahrt Christmas village. It was seriously good shopping, and so well done and decorated you often forgot you were in a shop. Another trip around the city and a stop at Zur Holl for a glass of wine, and we were on our way back to the train station and Nuremberg.

We had been trying to figure out a way to get to the town of Tubingen on Tuesday for the opening of its chocolate festival. Alas, it was not meant to be: We would have had to spend too much time on trains and had to change several times while hauling (now very heavy) luggage. So, we decided to spend our last full day in Nuremberg. We spent the morning going to chocolate shops and yarn stores, which was good fun. We signed ourselves up to take a tour of the city, which was something we hadn't done in any of the other cities we had been to on this trip. It was a lovely tour and we got to learn some of the town's rich history as the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there's the part about it being the site of Nazi party rallies and an important military location for the Nazis. Our tour guide talked about the Nazi presence in Nuremberg as being very separate from the history of the town, and she talked about what remains of the rally grounds just outside the city. There's a museum there -- "it's hard," she says. I think this also marks my first trip to somewhere that was destroyed by Allied bombs; 90 percent of Nuremberg was toppled in one hour on Jan. 2, 1945.

After our tour, which ended at Kaiserburg, a castle of medieval knights that's also now a youth hostel, and a quick stop to thaw at the Brauerei Altstadthof, we made our way back to our hotel to grab luggage and head to the train station for an evening journey to Frankfurt. Andrea's flight was in the early afternoon the next day at Wednesday, so it was easiest to get ourselves back to Frankfurt that night.

An aside here: Although the German train system is fantastic, you can spend a small fortune if you don't know a few tricks for avoiding full-price tickets. There's a special weekend ticket that's good for up to 5 people in ALL of Germany -- that's what we used to get to Nuremberg the first time. We also used a Bavaria ticket during the week, which is good for up to 5 people in all of Bavaria. (And kids and, well, anyone, will look over your shoulder at the train station and ask to travel on your Bavaria ticket.) After hours of combing our guidebooks and websites and asking clueless ticket agents at train stations on how we could get from Nuremberg to Frankfurt cheaply on a Tuesday, we discovered the secret: Ask a ticket taker. It turns out we could use a Bavaria ticket (27 euro) to get us most of the way there, and then we had to buy a supplementary ticket from the ticket taker (this ticket isn't available from a machine) from Kahl to Frankfurt, nevermind that the train doesn't actually go through Kahl. You would NEVER come up with this on your own. This scheme was less than half the price we would have paid if we just punched our journey into a ticket machine.

So anyway, we went back to Frankfurt, checked into the adorable Hotel Am Berg, one of the few rooms we could find because of the Christmas market and a giant convention (for the engineers in the crowd, it was EUROMOLD - as in manufacturing molds), and had our final German meal at Zum Gemalten Haus, another tavern a few doors down from the one we had eaten at a few days before. It was a warm, friendly place and a great way to bring our trip to a close.

Well, almost to a close. Due to wretched weather, we hopped in a taxi the next morning to the main train station, and Andrea headed off to the airport. I still had 12 hours before my flight, so I found myself a nice perch in a lounge that looked down on the activity in the train station and worked. Several hours later I put my suitcase in a luggage locker and headed out for one last stroll around the city. Reinforced with potato pancakes and doppelbock, I got on the bus to Hahn airport and back to the U.K. -- for some rest!

Photo album here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


The world economy continues to implode, India just suffered a historic terrorist attack, and Venice is flooding--so of course, the Thursday front page of the Independent, one of the better UK newspapers, devoted most of its front page to a huge picture of a woman wearing a puple beret. What the heck? The woman in question was Sarah Brown, wife of the prime minister, and she sported the apparently questionable headgear at the annual Queen's speech. When I expressed puzzlement at the Independent's front page coverage, one of the Brits in the office said it was just another sign that England's class system remains firmly in place. Apparently berets are just not posh (i.e. upper-class), especially if they are bought for about $12 at a discount fashion chain--a fact the Indepedent and other papers took care to point out. Don't believe me? Check out the Guardian's essay by a writer who found the hat "Beret annoying", as well as this press wrap-up on how the beret divided media opinion. I hope Michelle Obama is paying attention.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Travel Maps

My family is using this Web site to add up who's been where. Cross-country road trips really add to the tally for U.S. states. Here's mine:

visited 35 states (70%)
Create your own visited map of The United States or try another Douwe Osinga project

I may have also been to Oklahoma and Kansas on a road trip from Texas to Wisconsin, but I'm not sure.

And here's my map for the world:

visited 15 states (6.66%)
Create your own visited map of The World or try another Douwe Osinga project

I can't get a map of just Europe, but I can tell you I've been to 13 European countries -- all but two of them in the last 12 months! On the one hand I'm quite proud of that; in fact, the agent at passport control last night (because of course I'm just back from Another Country) told me I need to get extra pages in my passport. On the other, I see the list of countries to check off and realize how many I *haven't* been to. It's a big, big world.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

(Business) trip report: Stockholm

This was one of those work trips that I (KT) did on my own -- out Friday, back Monday. And it came 2 weeks after our trip to DC and just as I was getting over a cold that I surely acquired on the flight home from DC. I assure you it was a cold virus with superpowers. So, outside of the work stuff, I didn't do a whole lot of sightseeing and I don't have that many pictures, largely owing to the 3:30 pm sunsets and therefore bad lighting. But: Stockholm was nice, and a nice place to spend a weekend. I felt very comfortable there and would love to go back.

What took me there was a career day my work was putting on at one of the big research institutes in Stockholm. I arrived by very cheap flight on Ryanair, which means that I arrived 100 km from where I was supposed to be. Nevermin
d; Europeans are organized. Walk out the terminal and onto a bus that, in 80 minutes, gets you to the center of Stockholm. My hotel was a bit outside of the center, but it was absolutely fabulous. It's always a good sign when all the ladies at the front desk are absolute clean freaks. I had the sweetest little room that came complete with its own teddy bear. And, the bear came home with me (for a price, of course). This is what happens when I travel by myself.

To get your bearings, Stockholm is here. The city itself is situated on 14 islands, so there are a few boats involved in getting around. I got a slow start on my free day, Sunday, but when I did I went straight for Gamla Stan, the city's old town. It's pretty much a tourist attraction at this point, but that's OK -- it's a nice one. Windy, cobblestone streets cover the island, whose northeast corner is dominated by Kungliga Slottet, or the royal palace. My understanding is that this is where the royals work, not live. I walked around a bit and pondered touring the royal apartments, but couldn't be bothered to stand around and wait for 15 minutes until they opened. I eventually circled back to this area, brought in part by the sound of a marching band. (I have a knack for finding marching bands.) The occasion this time was the changing of the guard and it was quite a show.
From Stockholm

I spent a couple more hours on Gamla Stan, shopping and wandering the adorable streets. I then took the ferry over to Djurgarden to visit the Vasamuseet. The Vasa was a
ship that set out on its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, then promptly sank. In 1961, it was brought back up to the surface and restored, and they built the museum around it. If that doesn't sound like the coolest thing you've ever heard, then I can't help you. The ship was 69 meters long and adorned with incredible carvings, many of which survived. In retrospect, I wish I would have allowed more time to spend here. The next day I heard some exchange students in a coffee shop complaining that the museum had "only one boat." Gads. I also dropped by the Moderna Museet -- modern art museum -- although admittedly I just went to the giftshop. I got there and realized I just wouldn't be able to appreciate it. It's a fantastic space, though, and looked like a great museum.

On Monday I did a couple of work interviews and then headed back into town to drop by the Ostermalms Saluhall -- the food market, of course. It was small relative to ones I've been in around Europe but had a fine offering of food stalls and restaurants. I bought some elk sausage, then had a second lunch of marinated salmon. YUM. I spent the rest of that afternoon working in a coffee shop before my evening flight back to England.

Food: I had some pretty decent food in Stockholm, including, yes, Swedish meatballs. We had a company dinner at Clas på Hörnet, which serves traditional Swedish food. I had herring and another fish dish here. The restaurant was excellent and the food quite good. The next night some colleagues and I walked down to the center and ended up at a place called Drottninggatan 6. I had serious reservations about; it showed all the signs of a tourist trap. But oh, was it good. I had reindeer steak and and two of my colleagues had the Swedish meatballs -- both were fabulous. The following night I took a trip out to Sodermalm to go to Pelikan, a restaurant hyped in my guidebook as great for meatballs and beer. I couldn't get this fabulous combo out of my head, so I took the 12-minute train ride out to it. Indeed the atomopshere was nice and I did have good meatballs here. But, after seeing several places with an extensive offering of Belgian beers, I was a bit disappointed to get to Pelikan and see no Belgian beers, but the likes of Red Stripe and Anchor Steam on their beer menu. Nevertheless, I had a great meal and even better people-watching here.

Photo album here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The little village that could

I haven't provided too many Cambridge United updates this season so far. They're playing pretty well, but I haven't seem many games and they have a lot of new players--plus our favorite player has been absent due to injury. Simply put, they've failed to ignite a lot of enthusiasm so far, and lost a chance yesterday when they lost 1-0 to knock themselves out of the FA Cup.

Now Histon is another story. A small town just a few miles north of Cambridge, Histon fields what many dismiss as a "village" team. i.e. many of the players have other jobs. But Histon has been on quite a run. They beat United last year and also got promoted from their league into the same one as Cambridge United. This year they have even risen above United in the rankings, once making it as high as third place. I also like that their nickname is the Stutes, since they were originally called Histon Institute

Since United's FA Cup game was away, I decided to take the bus to Histon to see them battle Swindon, a team in League One, two levels above Histon. As I walked to the small stadium (see picture), Swindon fans could be heard remarking about quaint the village was. They were expecting an easy victory. The stadium itself was wee, with perhaps a capacity of 3000 at most, and everyone from Histon, and their kids, seemed to be there. The children running around the field even got to request the songs played over the loudspeaker--for the first time, I heard the theme from High School Musical at a soccer game.

Histon was the more aggressive team from the opening whistle and never showed a trace of being intimidated. They scored 1 goal, and had 2 others controversially waved off for infractions, and Swindon never put away its few chances. An amazing 1-0 upset and Histon moves on to the next round of the FA Cup. At this point that means a lot of money to such a small "village" team--they might be able to afford some new players in the spring and give United a battle for promotion into the Football League. I haven't abandoned United by any means, but I'm now a Stutes fan.--J.T.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

President-Elect-of-the-World Obama

The Economist had an interesting interactive feature recently on if the whole world could vote for the U.S. president. England most definitely would have cast its vote for Obama. JT got exactly no work done on Wednesday because everyone wanted to come and talk to him about the election -- conversations we've been having all year. And, given the reaction of the UK media above, I have a feeling we'll be talking about this election for a long time. Proudly.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, November 2, 2008

October in Review

How is it November?! Sincere apologies to our loyal readers -- if we blogged everything we said we should blog, you'd probably stop reading, unless you've already stopped reading because we haven't updated in three weeks! :)


I love fall (always "autumn" in British). Always have. Maybe it's because my birthday is in October, or maybe it's because nothing lifts my spirits like crisp air and brightly colored trees and falling leaves. I am also a sucker for a festival, so put the two together, and I'm there! On a mid-October Saturday, we hopped on our bikes and rode 3.5 miles to Burwash Manor in the village of Barton for Apple Day. The manor is an old farm whose outbuildings have been converted to shops. The big draw for many was the promise that you could bring apples from your yard and they would press them into juice for you. First they threw the apples into what looked like a chipper, then dumped them by the bucketful into a hand press. We had no apples to offer, but I did get to try a glass of the juice -- taken directly from the press. Mmm, delicious. We tried about nine different varieties of apples and went home with three kinds -- Pippin, Cox, and Blenheim. We enjoyed watching a cooking demonstration by the Cambridge Cookery School (I'm planning to make the apple-scented chicken this week), checked in on a "ploughing" competition, and saw baby piglets and other animals. We will definitely go back to Burwash Manor.

On that Sunday, we headed out to Ickworth House, where we've been before, for their annual Wood Fair (where we've also been before). It was much bigger this year, which was nice to see. they sell wood from trees on the grounds, and there are furniture builders, carvers, and all kinds of craftsmen and women there, too. We bought beer from one of our favorite British breweries, St. Peter's, and sat and drank it and ate a hog roast sandwich while listening to lovely folk music performed by the Floozies. We took advantage of the nice weather to walk the grounds for about an hour. It's a gorgeous estate, and I'd love to go back and walk the 7-mile loop around the entire grounds.


On the 17th, we left for a 10-day trip to Washington, DC. I (kt) haven't been back to DC since last June, and, well, that was hard. So, I was braced for it to be hard again -- but it wasn't. Instead, it was remarkably easy -- almost eerily so. In fact, it was almost like we hadn't been gone, and I found that a bit scary. But, we had a fantastic -- if hectic -- time. The weekends were the most relaxing -- hanging out with friends in the suburbs, doing a little shopping and football watching (I'll let you guess who did what), and hosting a brunch at our old condo. (Big Shout Out to Julia here -- aren't we great houseguests? "Hi! We're coming to stay for a week, and oh, by the way, can we take over the place and invite 10 people over?" Thanks again, J. You're awesome!)

During the week, we both worked at our employer's headquarters. This was weird for me, since I didn't work for The Company until moving to the U.K. It was weird for John, because he was in his old office, which had been taken over when he left for England but is now vacant. We both had tons of meetings and piles of work to do, which we tried to cram into a normal workday before racing off for evening meet-ups with friends and work colleagues. It was well worth the trip work-wise.

We managed to squeeze in meals at places we'd missed -- Vace, Bertucci's, and Chipotle -- and wound down the week with an amazing meal with friends A&C at a new-to-us place, Mendicino Grill in Georgetown. We also managed a trip to Ray's Hell Burger, the newest of the Ray's restaurants, with friends A&J, with whom we've dined at every single Ray's restaurant. We ran out of days before we could hit all our favorites, though!


The day after our return to the U.K. was my birthday, and JT had given me one of my presents months ago: Tickets to a new Annie Liebowitz exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The original plan was to spend the entire week in London. However, our trip to DC changed those plans into just a few hours. No matter -- we made the most of it. We headed down in the morning, went to the exhibit, then had an exquisite lunch in the gallery's restaurant, which has a fabulous view. (The exhibit was great -- but I always, always want to know more about her shots.)


We were asked often while in DC how much longer we'll be here. It's a question to which we only have a general answer. "The work permit expires in February 2010." Nevermind that work permits can be extended, or that we've technically fulfilled our minimum required stay. I worried when I felt so at home in DC, walking around our old neighborhood, strolling through the zoo, riding the Red Line, visiting old haunts, seeing good friends. Would I be able to go back to Cambridge and feel at home there? Shortly after returning, I went for a walk -- nothing special, just the same walk I always take when I need 30 minutes of fresh air. I smiled as I remembered that the low-hanging sun was already at its peak for the day, making even high noon look like dusk. I stopped to admire the firey orange and yellow leaves on the bright green grass of Jesus Green. I took the long way around to catch the 500-year-old skyline formed by Kings College and its Chapel -- a view I've seen 100 times yet never tire of it. I am, for now, home. That's my answer.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Read All About Me--Or Not

The gal who approached me on Saturday as I walked on Fitzroy Street wasn't a charity worker--whew. Uh-oh, it was worse. She was a reporter for the local tabloid, the Cambridge Evening News, and she wanted to interview me about the credit crunch and how people in the UK are reacting to the financial crisis. Feeling sorry for her, I agreed only to learn they were videotaping the interviews as the CEN has gone multimedia to lure in the internet generation. If you dare, here's the result--a story that doesn't quote me but a video in which I'm the first respondent. I didn't even buy the Monday paper after seeing I wasn't quoted in the story. But too late I realized they do photospreads and quotes in addition to such stories--anyone save their Monday CEN?!--JT
(Updated link to video--hope it works now. or go to Cambridge Evening News, find the video page and look for "Counting the coins...")

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Free-wheeling through Paris

We already did a brief post on the Paris portion of our 3-week trip in August, but we now have captions on the pictures in the photo album if anyone wants to look. As our previous post noted, it was a slightly odd week in the sense that we both worked quite hard--I think I edited more pages that week than any other this year. But that didn't prevent us from enjoying Paris. A few highlights:

--We became big fans of Velibs, the ubiquitous bikes spread across the city that are free for the first 30 minutes of riding (The next 30 minutes cost $1.50 and prices keep rising--keeps trips short.) There was a Velib station just outside the apartment door (right) and while the bikes are heavy and clunky they're just fine for city commuting--they come with lights and a basket. We each bought a week pass for 5 euros (around $8) and amazingly never used the Paris subway system the whole week--and we like the subway system. But we found that we could get almost anyway on a Velib in 30 minutes and if we needed longer, we just parked our bikes after 29 minutes and checked out a new one. It added a sense of adventue to Paris as we zoomed along famous avenues and buildings. By the end of the week we were Velib-pros--we had learned to check that a bike had all its parts before checking it out, for example!

--We tested our parenting skills with the resident bunny, Kiwi. Our friend MB, whose apartment we were staying in, left detailed instructions on how to care for the rabbit but that didn't make us any more confident. I think KT stopped worrying when she finally got Kiwi to play "stick"--he would carry a stick in his mouth and hop in circles around her arms. An amusing video of it is in the photo album. We also got to watch a mother pigeon feed and take care of two babies on a nest just outside the bedroom--not nearly as cute as Kiwi. The babies basically stuck their whole heads in the mother's mouse to get the food she had eaten for them--disgusting!

--A day at the beach. There's a new summer tradition in Paris where they shut down the streets along the Seine on certain Sundays and try to recreate a beach atmosphere. It somehow works. Folks stroll along the river eating ice cream, sun themselves on beach chairs, play volleyball on sand trucked in for the event. We even came across a spot where people were swing dancing on the street next to the river!

--The food (hence the new gym membership and diet). We stuck close to the neighborhood and visited all the bakeries, cheese shops, and patisseries that we could. We also had several delightful multi-course dinners at local restaurants. I think the hightlight must be our visit to Astier, which is has long been famous for its amazing all you can eat 15-plus cheese course. Another highlight (well, for KT anyway) was smoked herring in olive oil. Those dishes would send germophobes reeling, I'm sure: They bring you a big bowl (herring) or platter (cheese), you take what you want, then the waiter whisks it away to the next table. The best meal, though, was the one a colleague cooked (we rode Velibs to his house - too cool!), where we were joined by another colleague and his family who were in their first days of a year-long sabbatical in Paris. We enjoy our travels and our culinary adventures, but the best meals by far are the ones shared with friends.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

All Aboard

Here's another way in which the English differ from Americans: they have a love affair with trains. Witness the fact that BBC4 saw its best ever ratings this week because of two shows on trains. Here's an excerpt from a story about the channel's big night.

BBC4's night of train programming secured the channel's best ever performance as Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails averaged an impressive 1.3m (6.65%) at 9pm. The hour-long show presented by the Have I Got News For You captain, which looked at the notorious 1963 Beeching Report, was up by a staggering 365% on the channel's slot average for the year so far of 281,000 (1.43%).

The Beeching report was a debacle that the English still swear about. It resulted in the closure and dismantling of many train lines, including one we would love to have today, the Cambridge to Oxford route.--JT.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Around the World in 24 Points

Hey, remember that post about all the food in Italy? It should come as no surprise that we're back on Weight Watchers, and will be for the forseeable future. Maybe forever. But the good news is WW is very popular here. Here are some products we've seen on our travels:

A ready meal (British for TV dinner) here in the UK: sausage and mash. These are in the refrigerated section, not frozen.
Italy: Whole wheat crackers (not that exciting, I know. It it looks more exciting in Italian.)
France: Duck liver mousse. Mmm.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A summer weekend at the beach

Another almost-forgotten post, this one dating back to the last weekend in June when we decided to dash up to the Norfolk coast to Hunstanton. We had already made a quick visit to the Hunstanton lighthouse last year, but this time we picked a beachside B&B and stayed for two nights. We had no plans and that was nice as the place was a typical beach town with not much to going on. We spent the first day strolling the beach, most of it along the dramatic Hunstanton cliffs. And to our surprise, we stumbled across dozens of people kite surfing--folks using massive parachute-like kites to pull them along mini-surfboards on the water. Turns out that where the cliffs end a strong wind streams across the beach making Hunstaton a hot spot for the sport--it was the home of an extreme kitesurfing competition the weekend after we visited.

The second day we planned a long bike ride along the coast, which got off to a rocky start as my back tire blew out in the first minutes of the ride. Fortunately we found a friendly bike shop and were again on our way about 90 minutes later. The route wasn't right along the coast but still was pretty as we glided through the English countryside and struggled up more hills than we expected. We stopped at pretty churches, watched a bit of two cricket games we happened upon, cycled through the amazing estate of Holkham Hall, and ended up at the gorgeous beach of the seaside town Wells-next-the-Sea. As we rolled into the town, dramatic clouds we saw on the beach started to produce a hard rain so we locked up our bikes at the tourist center, had a pint at two local pubs, and hopped a bus that sped us back to Hunstanton, hoping our bikes would still be around the next day when we drove home--they were. And to cap off the weekend we stopped at the ruins of a medieval castle and picnicked with food we had picked up a Hunstanton deli. --J.T

Norfolk coast weekend photo album

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh, Porto

After weekends in Barcelona, riding a bike from London to Cambridge, attending the folk festival, and the 3 week trip to Paris and Italy, I had almost forgotten my wonderful weekend in Porto, now more than three months ago. That's a shame so I'm reviving the post I began so long ago. Porto--its English name has long been Oporto but the city actively discourages that now-- is Portugal's second biggest city, after Lisbon, but we consider it first-rate after our recent (ok, not so recent--early June) weekend there. Our friend Andrea was attending a meeting in Lisbon and wanted to vacation first, so we decided to meet in Porto the weekend before her conference and she and KT would then drive to Lisbon, stopping off at various sites while I went home to work. Andrea's friend Caroline, who was touring Europe, decided to join the fun so we went ahead and rented an apartment for the Porto weekend.

Although we like the space and flexibility of an apartment, we're always slightly nervous about going that route--will it look like the pictures on the internet, is the location ok, etc. Who knew the biggest problem would be getting to the place. The apartment wasn't actually in Porto, it was in Vila de Nova Gaia, the town across the river from Porto--they're really two sides of the same coin, but our taxidriver at the airport was mystified. It's never good when you tell a taxi driver the location and he hops out of the cab to ask the other drivers. Turns out the instructions he got were confused and the other driver told ours to go someplace near the coast--we could see the ocean--and far away from Villa de Noa Gai. It took KT and I a bit to realize we were off track and even longer to have the nerve to tell the driver (maybe he knew a secret route) but we eventually headed back in the right direction--only to get lost again. And again. We were in the right neighborhood but not even the local cop could direct our driver the right way. Eventually he stopped at a local taxi stand and the drivers there put us on the right path to the apartment.

And no one is home. We were supposed to get keys from Rosie, the neighbor and cleaner of the apartment but she didn't answer the bell. KT finally called Rosie's cell phone but we don't speak Portuguese and she doesn't speak English. Fortunately, the embarrassed cab driver had stuck around to help and he started chatting with Rosie and learned she had left the keys at the cafe across the street. A long walk up the stairs to the 5th floor apartment and we had finally made it! And it was worth it--the apt was huge and the living room view (the picture at the top and at the end of this post) was worth being outside of Porto itself.

After unpacking, KT and I made our way down the hill to the river on a curving street with no sidewalk. We also passed Graham's port lodge, the one whose sign we could see the back of from the apartment (see picture at top). After roaming the riverfront a bit, we gave into hunger and stopped at what was apparently a brewpub. There we had our first encounter with the francenshina (right), the carnivore-lovers sandwich that's popular in Portugal. As I recall, mine had steak, ham, and sausage--hmm, I may be forgetting another meat--and was then covered with a huge slice of melted cheese, before a spicy tomato souplike sauce was poured on top. KT had the same, but added prawns--which she expected on the side but came in the sandwich. Each sandwich was a meal for two and certainly slowed us down for the rest of the afternoon. We meandered along the Vila de Nova Gaia side of the river, crossed the bridge and strolled along the bank on the Porto side. By that time we had to rush to meet our friends at the train station and take them back to the apartment, thankfully with a cab driver who knew his way.

Still wondering if there was an easier route from the apartment down to the river, we decided to take what looked like a promising back-street route that soon turned into a back alley and then a walled hidden walkway that we worried would hit a dead-end or contain muggers waiting for silly tourists. But we eventually found a way out and walked the city/cities a bit more, having a glass of port naturally along the river, before landing for dinner at a guide-booked recommended restaurant that was clearly a locals place. The food was decent but we spent much of the time debating what leafy vegetable made up Andrea's caldo verde (green soup)--we learned at the market the next day when we saw elderly women shredding lots of kale on a hand-powered machine.

On the Saturday trip to the market--thankfully we discovered a bus that went from our apartment down the huge hill and right into Porto--we loaded up a bag with bread, cheese, meats and olives because we had decided to hop a train out to the Douro valley, which is essentially the port equivalent of what Napa valley is for wine. All the grapes for port are grown in this region, often on spectacularly terraced hills than can only be handpicked during the late summer heat. Once the port is made it is then shipped down to Porto where it ages in huge lodges, either in bottles or casks. The port used to be transferred by boat, and you still see port sailboats on the river, mostly for show. I should note the train stations in the Porto region are noted for the beauty of their hand-painted tile murals (left) called azulejo. You can see many more pictures of them at our Porto web album.

The second hour of the train ride when we got into the river valley was beautiful and when we reached the town of Regua we found a park on a hill overlooking the Douro river and lunched on our market purchases. We then roamed Regua a bit aimlessly, not finding the port lodges we expected to see but finally making it to the Port Wine Institute, which was part a museum devoted to the history of port production and part a beautiful tasting room where one could sample hundreds of ports at ridiculously cheap prices. I think the 4 of us had 12 different glasses of port and I bought a bottle of port, all of it for less than $50--in the U.S some of the ports we had would have cost more than $50 a glass.

Sunday was a day to roam Porto itself. And we started with finally visiting a port lodge, Graham's since we could see it outside our window. We had a great tour where we learned the differences between, ruby, tawny, crusted and vintage ports. don't ask me what they are because we followed the tour with a leisurely tasting of 6 different Graham's ports! And if starting Sunday morning by drinking port wasn't bad enough, we then moved onto a brunch with endless supply of more drinks. Andrea had read of a great restaurant that serves an all you can eat buffet of Portuguese specialities but the first two nights we passed on it for dinner as we weren't that hungry. Sunday we more than made up for it with a nearly 3 hour frenzy of food and drink that started around noon--a huge cheese table, endless buffet, bottles of the lovely vino verde wine, champaigne, port and our new favorite, an almond liquer called Amenoda amarga that is served highly chilled and with a squeeze of lemon. We spent the rest of the day working off the meal and the port tasting by walking up the many hills of Porto. One sidetrip went a beautiful church with an impressive crypt full of bones. And we ended the day at a little riverfront plaza where a huge TV screen had been placed so people could watch each day's Euro2008 football matches. That night Portugal was playing Switzerland and we got good seats and waved the flags handed out--Portugal lost but the crowd wasn't too depressed as the team had already qualified for the next round. I'm not sure we saw all Porto had to offer in the short weekend I had there, but we certainly had fun.--J.T.

Nighttime view from our apartment, courtesy Andrea's skill and camera.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Trip Report: Food in Italy

This wasn't a very sightseeing-intense trip (well, by our standards, anyway), so why not talk about the food before we get to the sights?



First courses range from salads to soups to meats. Our favorites:

Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup): You have to suspend your notion of "soup" for this one; the consistency is more like a bowl of oatmeal or grits. This picture looks the closest to what we were usually served -- what one commenter rightly calls "a bowl of red goop." It's pleasure is in its simplicity: Tomatoes. Olive oil. Garlic. Basil. Bread. Salt. That's it. Absolutely heavenly.

Insalata caprese: Again, simple: Slices of fresh tomato (which are freakishly delicious in Italy), slices of fresh mozzarella (buffalo or otherwise), a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, torn basil. Sooo good.

Prosciutto e melone: "Prosciutto" is Italian for ham, but what we're talking here is prosciutto crudo -- dry-cured ham. In the US, you find this at the deli for something like $25 a pound. You don't eat pounds of this, though: Paper-thin slices do the trick.

The north-central region is famous for its prosciutto production. Some of our foodie friends will be horrified to learn that we did not go to the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma while we were there. It was a tough call, but let me assure you that it is quite possible to eat prosciutto on the beach (or anywhere that doesn't involve a map or driving or learning or wearing something other than a swimsuit). I have a twinge of regret about not going to the Museo del Prosciutto di Parma or Museo del Salame (yep, ham and salami museums) because, seriously, could there be a cooler museum?

Anyway, prosciuttos are named for their regions of origin: prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Danielle, etc. Some are sweet, some are really really dry. All are delicious. Prosciutto is rather ubiquitous, but one way to eat it is wrapped around cantaloupe as an appetizer. Salty and sweet. Fabulous.

Lardo: That looks suspiciously like lard, doesn't it? It is. But not in the US sense of rendered and clarified pork fat. Instead, it's pork back fat, cured with salt and spices. I'm sure this will be a tough sell to many of you, but trust me, it was delightful. We visited a town known for its lardo production, the mountaintop town of Colonatta. This link tells you even more about the Slice thinly and serve on toast. Melts in your mouth like butter, with a nice buzz of spice and herb.

Primi Piatti

After antipasti, the next course in a restaurant will be a small portion of pasta. Various forms of tomato sauces made appearances, as did lots of pesto and of course plain old butter, perhaps with some sage. My favorite ravioli came from the market in Florence -- pumpkin ravioli and potato ravioli. Paired with tomato sauce and pesto (respectively), they were fantastic.

We also really like gnocchi, which are small dumpling-like things made from potato. I had gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce one day -- it was almost too rich. Almost.

Secondi Piatti

An antipasti and a main makes for a fine meal. But why stop there? The "main" in Tuscany is meat. Portions usually assume you have had a course or two before it -- that is, they aren't enormous portions of meat. That is, unless you've have …

Bistecca alla Fiorentina: This is a giant t-bone steak that appears on menus with a price per 100g. But you don't get to say, "I think I'd like 400 g of beef, please." Oh, no. We ended up with about a 1.2 kg steak. What's so good about it? Once again, the simplicity of the preparation: Cook over hot charcoal. Heavily season with salt and pepper. That's it. So, so very good.

Saltimbocca: I got this one day at the market and cooked it at our rental apartment. It's thinly sliced veal with a thin slice of prosciutto and one of cheese inside, dosed with sage. Fry quickly in olive oil, add salt, and it's a little piece of heaven.

Tuscan bread: This isn't necessarily a secondi, but if served bread in a Tuscan restaurant, best to resist until you get your meat course. We went a few days of all trying the bread, and politely pushing it aside. Finally JT thought to Google it. As this NYT article explains, traditional Tuscan bread lacks salt; it's meant to accompany the heavily salted main dishes. We quickly learned to buy pane con sale -- bread with salt -- in the bakeries.


You look at dishes like General Tso's Chicken and think they couldn't possibly eat this in China. Well, they definitely eat pizza in Italy, and we had some good ones. I'm not sure we found pizza nirvana, but we certainly didn't have a bad one. They're always made individual-sized, and the crust is pretty thin. My favorite toppings were spicy sausage or salami, probably because those are so exceptionally good in Italy. I also enjoyed pizze quattro stagioni -- mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and ham. Our favorite pizza came from a tiny little walk-up place in Lido di Pietrasanta. We had pizza on more than half of our 14 days in Italy. Maybe more.

I dolci

Oh, the gelato. Gelato is basically ice cream, but more dense because it has less air in it, it has a lower percentage of milkfat in it, and for those reasons tends to be more intense. David Lebovitz explains here. My favorite flavors were the dark chocolates, but fruits such as lemon and strawberry were fantastic as well. And: It's EVERYWHERE in Italy.

(You might think I'd also write about tiramisu here. I'm not sure we had any tiramisu of note -- it was often too much like a bowl of whipped cream with some cinnamon on top. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you've had stellar tiramisu, well, anything less just won't do.)

Market finds:

Porchetta: Mmm, porchetta. We wish we would have encountered this again because it's is something we'll never make or encounter outside of Italy. Here's the description from the Wikipedia entry: "The body of the pig is gutted, boned, arranged carefully with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted, traditionally over wood. Porchetta is usually heavily salted in addition to being stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel, or other herbs, often wild."

Sooo good. We got ours at a market one day. I thought it would make good sandwiches to take to the beach, and hoo boy, did it ever. I think we waited all of 45 minutes before saying, "Gee, don't you think it's time for lunch?"

My mother-in-law has said that she rarely cooks pork anymore because they now breed them so lean in the US that the meat has barely any flavor. Well, let me assure you that there are some big fat flavorful pigs in Italy. I'm not sure where they are, because I didn't actually see any live pigs. But the prosciutto, lardo, and porchetta all suggest that they are fed well and enormous, wherever they are.

My most substantial market trip was to the Mercato Centrale in Florence, where I got all the makings for the meal I've mentioned a few times. I didn't really have to cook a thing, other than boiling and frying -- fresh ready-made pastas, fresh sauces, etc. Tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella get you insalata caprese; prosciutto and melone, well, self-explanatory; one vendor had pappa alla pomodoro all ready to go, as well as the pesto and tomato sauces for the pasta; pasta stand had the two kinds of ravioli; a butcher had the saltimboccas all ready to go, complete with toothpicks holding them together. The dessert (chocolatey baked cookie-like goodness) came from a store outside the market but is irrelevant because none of us could touch it after eating all of the above.

Restaurants of note:

Nuti, Borgo San Lorenzo, Florence: Our first dining experience in Florence, and it was delicious! We had a hankering for pizza, and Nuti satisfied. House chianti was the best we had on the entire trip, but we think a big reason for this is because it was slightly chilled. There are two Nutis across the street from each other, but we didn't bother to figure out the difference between the two. The street looks like a tourist trap, and perhaps it is. But we had good food and good service for a good price, both here and at …

Giannino, Florence: This is two doors down from Nuti. The website proclaims the bistecca alla fiorentina to be its specialty, but we didn't have that here. Instead, we thought their pastas were the best we had on the trip -- one was in tomato sauce with red wine and lamb, and another was a divine pesto. We remember having excellent desserts here but can't remember what they were.

Ciro and Sons, Florence: This is where we had the bistecca alla Fiorentina. Everything we had was delicious -- pizza, steak, pasta, etc.

Acqua al Due, Florence: Niece J suggested this place to us. Really good! The nice thing about it is that you can get a sampler of their salads, a pasta sampler, a main course sampler, etc. The attraction, though, was a beef fillet with a blueberry sauce! Very delicious.

Lo Sprocco, Pietrasanta: We walked by this place and knew right away we'd dine here. Why? The giant baskets of salami on the table. They bring you this basket, plus a cutting board and sharp knife, not to mention olives and various other veggie antipasti. Our pasta courses were excellent, too. Mine was formed from pumpkin and ricotta, and was in a butter sauce.

Enoteca Il Pirun, Corniglia: Il Pirun is definitely worth the stop if you're doing the five villages of Cinque Terre. We were hot, tired, and in need of a rest. There was an empty table for us at Il Pirun, so we sat down. In my version of Italian, which is Spanish with hand gestures, I got us two white wines -- turned out to be vermentino. The cold, crisp wine was just what we needed -- and it was absolutely delicious. The raspy voice of Italian bluesman Folco Orselli blasted throughout the small, cozy store. We tried another wine, and then the local limoncino (not to be confused with limoncello). The proprietor makes his own wine, too, and is very generous and friendly.

As always, here are more pictures of food in Italy. I wasn't as diligent as usual with photographing my food.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The rebounding dollar

Did you put off that trip to England because of costs--well, it's getting cheaper by the minute as the UK economy tanks worse than the U.S. The graph says it all but here's an excerpt from the Wall St Journal article it was in.

Weakening Pound Has Room To Continue Downward Spiral
LONDON -- After holding its own against the U.S. dollar throughout the financial crunch, the British currency could be in for a prolonged pounding.
Already down nearly 10% against the dollar over the past month, the pound faces a crisis of confidence as investors fret about U.K. policy makers' efforts and ability to manage a sharp economic downturn. While short-term surges are likely, analysts and economists see deeper issues that could cause it to slide further.
The bleak outlook stems from a confluence of factors. For one, while the credit crunch will prove punishing for the U.S., the prospects for the U.K. are increasingly worse.
Many forecasters believe the British economy is already in a contraction that will last at least through the end of this year. The gloomy outlook, together with waning inflation fears, increases the odds that the Bank of England will lower interest rates, lowering the returns investors can reap by putting their money in pounds.
More important, conflicting messages from the U.K. government have raised concerns among traders and investors that policy makers don't have a handle on the depth of the country's economic woes, or on how to respond.
We'll now return you to our regularly scheduled vacation highlights.--JT

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Random Italian Scultptures #2

One of the many leftover sculptures from previous exhibits in the town of Pietrasanta--the current exhibit, by Mexican sculptor Javier Marin, was amazing and pictures will follow, but this morning we're off to explore Cinque Terre, the 5 beautiful villages cut into the rock cliffs along the Italian coast.--JT

Monday, September 1, 2008

Under My Own Tuscan Sun*

August 31, 2008

I wake up this morning -- our first night a rural beach town after a week in busy Florence -- and roll aside the shutters. Squinting, I see a hazy, calm morning outside. But I don't want to look just yet -- my eyes weren't ready for this after a 9-hour slumber. It's the best sleep I've had in a week. In Florence we had to close up the windows and shutters and use the air conditioning, as the noise of every conversation and argument and dropped bottle and zippy motorbike from the busy street below echoed up to our second-floor bedroom as if it were happening right there. But here, there isn't even air conditioning if we wanted it. So this morning, I breathe easy, with no hint of the pain of a dry throat.

I head into the kitchen to look for the Moka pot that's surely there; I find two. It's a ritual I've had for two weeks now: Rinse out the pot -- never soap, as that would get rid of the layer of coffee oil that die-hard Moka pot fans proclaim is necessary for the proper function of the pot -- fill the bottom with water, put the coffee into the basket and gently tap it down with a spoon, screw on the top of the pot, and put it on the stove. As I start the process of puttering around the kitchen while waiting for the coffee to boil, I open the door in the kitchen and look out. A man sits in a chair next to the neighboring stream which I wouldn't have guessed held fish. Two women a few houses down are already out on their balcony, perhaps taking their morning espresso with the morning sun.

We have a leisurely breakfast, then pack up and head to the beach. We're surrounding by all types of groups: Small families, big families, groups of couples, groups of singles. We were warned it would be crowded on this last day of August and therefore the end of the European holiday season. But by our standards, it's hardly crowded -- there are enough people milling around to provide constant people-watching, but few enough that no one ever encroaches on your sand space.

The beach is beautiful: fine sand, calm surf, orderly rows of tents and chairs. Behind us the skyline is that of the Apuan Alps, whose marble has provided material for Italian sculptors for centuries. Many people complain about the private beach system in Italy, but we decide we don't mind it, as we're quite happy to have the comfortable chairs, sun umbrella, beach bar, and facilities at our disposal.

We're instantly calm when we land in our chairs -- this is a vacation we've anticipated for weeks but that only took shape a few days before it started. We have nothing close to the tan (or physique) of most of the people around us who are leaving today after spending weeks here. But we find peace at the sea nevertheless -- the license to people-watch, read a book, nap, stroll, run, socialize, keep to ourselves. After a couple of hours, John decides to go into the water. He likes to float in the sea; when I join him a half an hour later, I quickly spot his head and two feet undulating in sync in the water. The beach is relatively empty now; it's lunchtime in Italy, and that's not taken lightly. Many people return to their hotels or villas or homes for a feast.

Unremarkable hours pass, perhaps a little too quickly. Soon it's nearly dusk. We start to talk about evening plans, but it gets complicated, so we just go for a walk on the beach. Nearly everyone is gone now, and we don't understand. The sun is falling into the sea and the light on the water is phenomenal. The day's heat is gone -- it's perhaps even brisk. This is the best time to be walking along the beach. Finally we see a woman just arrive, strip down to her bikini, and walk straight in the water to her waist. She knows what a precious time of day this is. When we finally make it back to our beach, we realize the woman has been walking just behind us in the water -- what a fantastic way to exercise.

We head back to our house, a spacious apartment about two kilometres from the beach. After showers and a quick bit of research, we head to the nearby town of Pietrasanta, which we learn upon arriving was a brilliant choice, no matter that it was random. It's nearly 9 p.m. and the town's main piazza is alive with people and light. We're anxious to look around but we're also hungry. We quickly settle on a restaurant based entirely on the fact that the people at its outdoor tables are grazing on antipasti that includes a huge basket of salami -- at least 10 different kinds. It ends up being a good choice. We take our seats in the restaurant's side garden and settle in for what ends up being a two-hour, three-course affair, including, of course, the antipasti, a pasta course, and a meat course, washed down with a bottle of the restaurant's delicious house red.

We leave the restaurant entirely too full. Just a couple of doors down we gaze into a gallery at a perfectly clear sculpture of a telescope. It takes a minute to register that I'm looking at it through an open door -- the gallery is open. In fact, most of the galleries in town are open, despite it being past 11 p.m. on a Sunday. Indeed, more people are strolling now than before, including Italian women decked out in designer dresses and towering heels. We take in the art, most of which is amazing. The piazza and a local church have been taken over by the gigantic works of Mexican sculptor Javier Marin -- eight horsemen mounted 10 feet in the air march through the center of the piazza; three huge sculpted heads are perched around the square; the church displays human forms that require much more thought and introspection than we were able to give them. It's absolutely phenomenal.

We later learn that the town is quite famous for its sculpture displays, and its studios house the likes of Fernando Botero and others. There are many marble quarries in the nearby Apuan Alps and much of the stone ends up in town workshops where artists produce new sculptures or replicate the masters. We're also overwhelmed by the town's duomo, or cathedral, San Martino, whose roots go back to the 13th century. Its marble columns, frescoes, and paintings leave no doubt that we are in Italy.

One gelato later, we're in the car heading home. There we quickly get ready for bed, completely exhausted by our day of relaxation. We fall into another slumber, so we can wake tomorrow and do it all again.

*Disclaimer: I actually am reading Francis Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun right now, hence me pretty much ripping off her writing style.