Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sometimes the personal touch is the thing

And sometimes not.

Have you noticed how tourists like to help each other out by taking each other's pictures? That way everyone can be in the picture. And with easy digital cameras and phones its pretty easy to do without having in depth knowledge of how each and every camera works.

However, as this picture of us taken at San Gimigiano shows, relying on other people can lead to having towers growing out of your head.

We thought we had this one sorted - we got ourselves a monopod to attach the camera to - activate the time and away we go.

Sometimes it works.

And sometimes 

Not so much

The category is - towns that start with P

In 2007 we visited Positano, on the Amalfi coast. Awhile back we were watching a television program with Andrea Bocelli and David Foster. And we kept saying that Positano looked different than we remembered. Until, that is, we figured out that the concert was filmed on Portofino, not Positano. That would be different. And now we've been to Portofino.

From our apartment in Santa Margharita we could walk along the coastline for several kilometres. Being Italy said walk was along a busy narrow road, and at times the sidewalk was canted out over the water - pretty dramatic!

The beaches along here are mostly stone  but in a few places there were sand beaches. In the summer season you have to rent a chair on the beach - at the sandy beach at P..... It costs €100 or more to do so. Summer ended on October 1, so the beaches were free again. It was a pleasant enough day, but even a €100 discount wasn't enough to tempt us.

Eventually we were able to hook onto a walking path that took us off the road and up and into Portofino. It is very pretty but much smaller than I expected. A clue to the usual visitors came from the shops - in addition to the usual tourist stuff there were Dior and Hermes. I was expecting Valentino, but no....

There was a cruise ship in the harbour, which kept things lively in town. The cruise people were mostly staying in town and we had the walk up to the lighthouse pretty much to ourselves. At the end of the walk, in addition to the lighthouse there was what may have been the most picturesque cafe ever - perfect spot for a drink with a view!
(That's the barista, checking his messages high above the town)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rick Steves has a lot to answer for.

Part of our trip to Italy was a visit to the Cinque Terre, the 5 hill towns on the coast south of Genoa. Once upon a time the only way to get to the towns was by boat. Eventually came the train via a series of tunnels, and much later came road linkages. But a large part of the claim to fame of the towns is the  fact that they are linked by walking trails. 

I expect that the towns were a pretty quiet backwater when Rick Steves ( stumbled upon them back in the day. The towns were probably slowly dying. He began to write about them in his guide books, and soon the tourists began to show up in ever greater numbers. Many guidebooks hardly even mention the region - a page, maybe, as a side trip from Genoa. But Rick's faithful followers come in droves and the area is over run with tourists. Its quite astonishing.

A further oddity of the area is due to a natural disaster. Two years ago there were torrential rains in the area, causing landslides and flooding in two of the towns. It has taken a huge amount of work, but Monterosso and Vernazza have been able to repair the damage and remain open for business. Both towns have wound up with an oddly Disney like air to them - everything is spiffy and new. The old buildings have been repaired, so they are still old buildings, but the paint is fresh and clean and everything looks just a little too perfect. A trip to the harbour to take pictures of the rustic old fishing fleet reveals a small flotilla of brand new shiny boats. 

Hordes of tourists and a certain unreal charm - that may be true. But it is a beautiful part of the world.

Pretty, huh? I guess we'll forgive Mr. Steves for sending the whole world to visit.

What's that? Did we hike the famous paths between the towns? Well..... not so much. Paths are still susceptible to landslides and erosion. The most level path - the Via della amore is currently completely closed and awaiting repair. We arrived during a cycle of tremendous rain storms, which meant all the other paths were closed until the morning we were leaving. Greg made the 90 minute walk up and over from Monterosso to Vernazza. The rest of us enjoyed the vineyard walk above Manorola and left it at that.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dear Italy

Why are you afraid of towel racks? Perhaps you were frightened by one as a child? Do you leave your wet towels on the floor? Are you assuming that Mama will always be by to pick them up?

We ask because we care.

Tourists in your lovely land

Friday, September 27, 2013

Starry, starry night

Once upon a time I was doing some reading about the Byzantine empire, and there was discussion of the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which are nice, but not as good as the basilica in Ravenna, Italy. Hagia Sofia was pretty impressive, and I figured that would have to do, because what were the odds of going to Ravenna? Well, guess what. Ravenna is 90 minutes east of Bologna. An easy day trip. So of course a trip became part of the 2013 Sharon and Wilf Tour of Churches, and Eating. 

From the train station it is about a 15 minute walk to the old town of Ravenna. The centre is mostly pedestrian streets and the town has a lively feel to it. First up is the Arian Baptistry. And there, on the ceiling:
To modern eyes this may be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, observed by his apostles. Back in the day this was pretty seriously heretical, showing Jesus young and obviously human, attended by a pagan river spirit as well as saints. 

The magnificent mosaics of the dome are all that remain in this small building. 

The real fireworks begin at the Basilica de San Vitale:

There is also a mausoleum that is a little mosaic jewel box, including the most beautiful field of stars:

It is quite humbling to look at these mosaics, with all their millions of tiny tiles, that have been in place for more than a thousand years.

Bolonga la Grassa

I think our favourite type of food is Italian - I tend to cook Italian-ish and that's often our choice in restaurants. And yet, we've always found eating well in Italy to be a challenge. It has always seemed darn near impossible to get away from the dreaded tourist menu and the same dozen dishes, often badly done. Venice was the most difficult.

Then we came to Bologna. Bologna la grassa - Bologna the fat - is one if its nicknames. It is a foodie city. And more importantly, it is not a touristy city. Not like Rome, Venice, Tuscany, the Amalfi coast. There is a huge university here - somewhere around 100,000 students, which keeps things lively. And there is a big trade/convention centre in the new part of the city. In fact the biggest trade show of the year is going on this week - the ceramic tile people are in town. (Seem like a quiet bunch)

But what there is not is hordes of tourists in busses and all the infrastructure that they need. There are lots of things to see and do, but mostly the people around us are the local people doing there own thing.

The great thing about this is that it is easy to avoid the dreaded tourist menu. Being tourists we're always wanting to eat too early, but we've managed to turn this to our advantage. We show up right at noon when its not busy and we can have the full attention of the wait staff and tell them we want to eat the specialties of the region or the town. We've been eating such good stuff! 
Antipasto plate in Ravenna.
Pumpkin filled ravioli with walnut sauce for me, salama de sugo with mashed potatoes (and sparkling red wine) in Ferrara.
Parmesan cheese and Parma ham in .... Parma!

The only downside is that after these huge lunches, with wine, there's no way we can face dinner! But I think one good meal a day beats a couple of indifferent ones, anytime. We may have more of a challenge ahead of us as we head to the coast and the more touristy areas. Here's hoping!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Because life is full of surprises

On the flight to Amsterdam the young man next to me was quite insistent that we should go to the town of Naarden. He approved of Amsterdam and Haarlam, but felt that we would really be missing out if we didn't get to Naarden, an historic fort. Our guidebook had nothing about the town, but the Internet always obliges - you can look here: . We took the train from Amsterdam and found ourselves in the not so bustling metropolis of Naarden-Bussom. Being a Saturday there was no info available, but we are resourceful. While we were studying the station map two guys went by printouts with a picture of the fort, so we followed them. Luckily for us they were in fact going to the fort area. 

The town turned out to be a lovely surprise. Within a huge star shaped moat there is a tiny little town - narrow streets with ancient brick houses, shops and restaurants and a Saturday market. We had stopped for a coffee when groups of people started streaming by - dressed in matching outfits. It turns out we were in town on the day of an amateur choral festival. 31 choirs, 1000 participants, 16 venues. They seemed to range from very serious classical music to young people doing 'Glee' type repertoires.
This is one of the old town gates - big moat on the other side, so you pretty much had to be invited in back in the day.
Beautiful old town hall - built during the 1500's, with interior decorations from the 1700's. And yes, after awhile you do stop seeing the bicycles that are parked everywhere - I hadn't even noticed them until I saw this picture!

And while we were in town the sun actually came out!

It made our lunch of beer and croquettes by the canal that much more pleasant!

At the Museums

Amsterdam has all kinds of museums - I expect that you could do nothing but museums for day after day. Heck - the Rijksmuseum alone has 8000 artifacts - practically a lifetime of looking just there.

We decided that we needed to be selective so our brains would not over fill and decided on the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum, both of which have recently been extensively renovated and recently re-opened.

The Rijksmuseum is a celebration of all things Dutch. It is full of a wonderful selection of paintings, ceramics, furniture, and sculpture, not to mention the astonishing building itself. One huge draw are the Rembrants, the highlight of which is probably his 'Nightwatch'. As is so often the case the sheer size of it is surprising. Being familiar with a painting from a book does not prepare you for the impact of the size of the actual painting. The opposite is also true - some of the paintings are surprisingly small.

One thing about a museum of this stature - there is never an off day, a day of peace and quiet. There are always swarms of people clustering about, taking pictures of the pictures. So we didn't really take any pictures in the museum. Well one. Of a boat. A pretty big boat. On a table.
Perfectly to scale, perfectly detailed. 

We did stop in the museum cafe for some fortification:
Classy cafe, with sculptures and everything!

In the afternoon we visited the Van Gogh museum. It is really beautifully done and ranges both widely and deeply through Van Gogh's life. We learned a lot about him, the artists that he knew and admired, how he worked, the materials he worked with. It was really very well done. And the, of course, there were the paintings. If you really want good pictures of his painting the web is full of really good ones. But here are two that we particularly liked:

Those X's may not mean what you think.

And then again, they may. In this picture, for instance:

The bench and the truck? See the X's?

And here, on the city's coat of arms:

(and yes, whole building is slumping to one side...)

These three crosses represent the cross of St. Andrew and are the official symbol of the city.

Of course, in Amsterdam another form of triple X comes to mind.

Forgive the blurry picture - they're on the other side of the canal, second floor. But yes, the red light district it is. 
Early in the morning, late in the evening, the gals are there. Any shape or colour you can imagine. And they are dressed so that there is nothing left to the imagination. The Red Light District has been cleaned up a lot from the bad old days - one stretch of street like this has a day care centre sponsored by the Queen smack in the middle of the block. That's not to say that the clean up has totally tamed this part of town. Between the theatres advertising live sex shows and the shops full of sex toys and the 'interesting' scents wafting from the 'coffee houses' all down the street it is clear that this town still likes to get it on and get high.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs

And here we are in Amsterdam. And it looks just like the pictures - canals and bikes and bridges. 

Everyone we meet apologizes for the weather, but really - it is pretty much as we expected. Sure, hot and sunny would be nice, but cloudy and drizzly is kind of how it goes here.

We have rented an apartment not too far from the train station on the northern end of the Red Light District. We're on a street of restaurants - pretty much any type of food you can think of. The not so sexy sexy part of town is a few blocks away.

Our street.

Our building (We're the three windows of the third floor)
And here is the gateway that takes us to the side door entrance of our building. That's an Argentinian steakhouse on the ground floor of the building next to ours.

Our landlady gave us a couple of suggestions for places to eat. One was a restaurant called Meatballs. And can I just say - Bless the organized Dutch. Streets with street names at every corner! Numbers identifying each business. We found Meatballs even in our stunned post flight state (unlike our restaurant hunting adventures in Japan). And then - they were open for dinner early. No waiting til 8 or 9 or 10 as in Southern Europe. 5:00 and we were sitting at the bar contemplating what kind of meatballs we wanted for dinner. As Henry Ford used to say you can have your car in any colour you want as long as you want black, here the message was you can have anything you want to eat, as long as it is meatballs. It was delicious, and came with delicious and interesting sides. We had the opportunity to try a rhubarb liqueur called Rubarbacello, which was surprisingly good. I'll finish by showing you one of the side dishes from my meal:
Yes, that is mashed carrots and pine nuts, topped with popcorn. Unorthodox, but surprisingly good!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A tale of two cities, Dubai edition

You know how it is – go away on a big trip, come back and fall into life and suddenly almost a month has gone by and the last part of the trip hasn’t been told. Hmmm – sorry about that!


Seeing Dubai was the starting point for this whole adventure, and throughout our trip people kept telling us ‘If you think that’s great, what ‘til you see the one in Dubai’, so we were pretty excited to actually get to the city. A little bit sad, too, because it meant the end of our great adventure, but first – a city to explore.

From our berth at Port Rashid we could look across to the famous skyline. Here’s a shot from later in the day, with the late day sun glinting off the Burj Kahlifa:


The Burj is 163 stories tall, which means that those other buildings around it are also very tall, which in turn means that things are spread out quite a bit further than we first thought. The scale of everything is quite deceptive.

A bus service was in place to take us to the Dubai Mall, which seemed like as good a place as any to begin our adventures. We’re getting used to these giant Asian and Middle Eastern malls right? And the Dubai Mall is connected to the elevated train system, right? Well, yes and no.

Turns out the Dubai Mall is immense – 1200 shops, to begin with. I’ll tell you about it later. And it is connected to the train. By an air-conditioned sky walk (like Calgary’s Plus 15 network on steriods), which was nice. The presence of moving sidewalks throughout should have been a clue. It was probably about a kilometer to the train, but it was interesting, being above the traffic, looking down into one after another construction site.

There is an old town part of Dubai, which we visited on day two. But the city has pretty much been built since the early 1980’s. That does make for a certain kind of organization – there is a main expressway that runs parallel to the coastline, and the metro runs above and to the side of the expressway. On either side is a forest of high rise buildings – mostly office space but lots of condominiums, too. And shopping centres. Moving away from the transit corridor we could see subdivisions of various types laid out.

Reading the guide books most of the attractions seem to be centred around shopping centres – want to go skiing? Mall of the Emirates. Skating or a trip to the aquarium? Dubai Mall. Fancy shopping with an ancient Egyptian motif – there were at least two malls with that theme. We had a suggestion from a friend to check out the Ibn Battuta mall, so we decided to do that first, which was why we found our way to the metro and took the long ride to the suburbs.

I’ll let you look up Ibn Battuta for all the details – short version is that he was a famous scholar and explorer in the Medieval Arabic world. And the mall named in his honour is divided up into sections representing some of the many places that he visited. The guide books are quite sniffy about it, and the concierge at our hotel seemed surprised that we would bother going there. But it was a hoot. Totally over the top. The condescension comes, I believe, from the fact that it is not a really high end mall. No Chanel or fancy French designers. It is 1.3 km long – you can pay a couple of cents for a ride in a cart if you decide you don’t want to walk back and forth. Where else, after all, can you stop in what looks like a mosque and find a Starbucks?



or a full sized Chinese junk dashed on the rocks in China?


Our cart driver took us via Tunisia:


so that we could get back to the exit for the train, which was the Egyptian area:


All around the world, and groceries, too.

From Ibn Battuta we decided to head to another shopping/entertainment complex, so back on the train, then a taxi to the waterfront. We were headed for the Jumeirah district, where among other things they have a souk. We were in the souk in Muscat, which was very interesting. This one would be different, being indoors, for one thing. But since the temperature was about 35outside,  indoors seemed like a good idea.

First clue that we’re not in a regular souk – the lapis lazuli inlaid floors:


Everything very pretty, very elegant, very just so for the tourists.


Kind of like the Disney version of the real thing….

While we were in the Emirates is was hot, a bit humid (but not like Asia humid) hazy and threatening rain. In fact we ran into rain showers in all three Emirate cities. What this meant in Dubai was poor visibility. We had talked about going to the Burj al Arab hotel for a drink in the bar and a look at the view out over the Palm Islands, but decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to see anything. Instead we made our way to one of the hotels in the Jumeirah district where we could sit and look at the Burj al Arab itself.


It was very pleasant, and they didn’t seem to mind sweaty, windblown tourists, so we had a beer and read some newspapers and admired the view. What with the rain some of the locals were considering it a bit cool and certainly too chilly to go to the beach, but from where we were sitting we could see the hardy Europeans sitting down on the beach. In the picture above that is a little lake that we over look, with little hire boats to take you about – something to do, don’t you know!

We made our way back via taxi, train, and moving sidewalk to the Dubai Mall – which was now wide awake and going full steam, unlike in the morning when things were just barely opening. We found a familiar site:


for a restorative cup of Timmie’s best before finding our way back to our shuttle bus.

It was all very interesting, but it was strange, too. We had covered a lot of ground and seen many sights. But it was all within the confines of highly organized private spaces. From one shopping centre to another via public transit. Through private walkways to and from the shopping centre. Everything was corporate, branded, managed. It was all perfect, tidy, safe and clean. But there was nothing spontaneous, nothing lively, nothing real.

Monday, April 29, 2013

First two Emirates

So - here we are in the desert - and its raining! Go figure! In fact it has finally cooled down enough at night that the cruise director decided to have our first night time deck party. And then it rains....

We didn't join any shore excursions in Fujairah. The ship had a shuttle organized to a local mall, so we went along hoping for wi-fi. Sure enough, a Starbucks obliged and we had a chance to check in with the world. Not much to take pictures of - we kind of treated it as another at sea day. In fact we actually spent the afternoon on the pool deck and went for a swim. Usually it is so hot up there that I risk spontaneous combustion if I set foot on the deck.

Abu Dhabi was also rainy and overcast. And this really isn't a bad thing - it kept us from being just slayed by the sun. Again we decided against any shore excursions, and again a shuttle was laid on for a local shopping centre. While both Muscat and Oman were very low key cities, Abu Dhabi is hugely developed and full of skyscrapers. We went to the Marina Mall, which is huge. And being a Saturday it was packed - locals, expats, tourist. A blizzard of shopping. And of coffee drinking - because it was so chilly outside!

From the mall we could see the very big and very famous Emirates Palace Hotel - we thought we'd walk over for a look see. After about a 45 minute walk around the perimeter we approached the gate, only to be told that long pants were required - for Wilf. So, back to the mall we went.

And still everyone is saying - pffff. Wait til you see Dubai!

And after the lush and tropical part of the trip

then comes the desert. And I must admit when we arrived at Muscat, in Oman my first thought was 'Wow - they must be some tough people to live here'. The city itself is green enough, but it backs right up against the most desolate range of low mountains. Not a blade of grass to be seen. Until the early 1970's there was very little here, so the Sultan has gotten a lot done since he took charge.

One of the main things to see is the mosque. There seem to be many ways of measuring how big a mosque is - by some reckonings this one is the third largest in the world. When we saw the mosque in Casablanca it was the second largest - don't know if it still is. Anyhoo, the mosque in Muscat. Oman is a very conservative country, and we were told repeatedly that we would have to be covered up for this tour - long pants and sleeves for women, nothing low cut and our heads had to be covered. This did not stop many people from showing up on bus in crop pants, short sleeves, you name it. Before we got off the bus the bus driver inspected us and issue abayas (long sleeved, floor length black coats) and or head scarfs to those who didn't pass. Before being allowed into the grounds we were scrutinized again by a policeman - a few adjustments but no one was rejected.

Was it worth it? Yes, it was. A lovely lovely garden and building. Enormous crystal chandeliers, a huge rug, carvings, tile work - all just beautiful.

After the mosque we visited the souk - one of Oman's special items is frankincense. It smells fantastic. There was lots of tourist stuff, but it was also a souk for the Omanis, so it was fun to visit.

Even if it was 37C in the burning sun (and less than 30% humidity at the height of the day)