Posted by: JLG | 29 August 2017

A Quick Getaway

It may only have been a bit more than two weeks since we returned from our big trip, but we have already welcomed a good number of guests to the lodge, and had a chance to serve a few guests our new trip-inspired dishes, including a form of Danish-style smørrebrød on a Danish-style rye that I have begun baking, and a few Vietnamese dishes that I’ve repurposed as a canapé.

Our rather quick flurry of wintertime guests came to a temporary end on Tuesday morning, giving me a few days free just as the South Island was due to have a few days straight of ideal conditions for star-gazing. That, coupled with my desire to head up to the Mackenzie Country to check out a few places that we thought we could collaborate with, led to my decision to head up there for a two-night outing. J2 stayed behind in Oamaru to look after the dogs and to continue his gardening chores, so I had a free hand to make as many stops as I wanted along the way to take photographs.

My first outing was on Tuesday evening for a photo session that I had been planning for months. That night was to be the first new moon after our return from our trip, and I was hoping it would be a clear night so that I could see the Milky Way over the Moeraki Boulders. I headed out fairly early to be sure to get set up before darkness fell, somewhat overestimating how much time it would take me to do so, and thus having little to do but stand around waiting for darkness to fall. But it paid off in the end, since I got some pretty nice shots, including this one:

 

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Milky Way over Moeraki

 

The weather looked set to continue this way so I left Oamaru at 9:30 on Wednesday morning for Lake Tekapo, heading along the backroads through the countryside toward the Waitaki Valley road SH83. Under bright blue skies and with snow still lining the tops of the mountains, the view was simply stunning, and I ended up making dozens of stops along the way. I also stopped at the Elephant Rocks, which at this time of year is home to dozens of baby lambs who added to the area’s already significant degree of photogenics. As I prepared to leave the Rocks, I saw a rental car seemingly parked perpendicularly to the curb (and thus sticking out into the road) and with a group of Chinese tourists milling around. As I got closer I could see that their car was in fact stuck in a culvert along the side of the road, with the front (powered) wheels making no contact at all with the ground. I went over to them and tried to help them push, but that was no use. With no ropes in my car I didn’t think I’d be able to do much more than call the AA to come tow them, but then I remembered that I had Leo’s leash in the car, along with a carabiner that came with a camera support that I had brought with me, and with those I was able to tie their car to mine and pull it out of the ditch. The tourists (who were from Taiwan, it turns out) were thrilled to be ‘saved’ in addition to being surprised by my facility in Mandarin, and after taking the requisite photos with me we were all on our way.

 

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The Elephant Rocks

Continuing my drive I made a few more photo stops along the road before getting to Kurow, the centre of our wine-growing area, where I stopped for a bite to eat (I had my first-ever Scotch egg, which was a revelation!) before making my first-ever stop at the Kurow Museum (well worth a stop) and checking in with our friends at Ostler Wines. I then stopped briefly in Omarama before heading north on SH8 toward Lake Tekapo. This road is one of the most heavily traveled by tourists in NZ, since it’s the way to get from Christchurch to Queenstown and it passes through some of the country’s most stunning scenery, including the view of Mt Cook from across Lake Pukaki. However, in all the years of my having driven this road, I can count on one hand the number of times I actually saw Mt Cook. This time the conditions were just about perfect, and the view was stunning. When I finally reached Lake Tekapo, I made a quick stop for some photos at the second-most-photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd, where a tremendous number of Chinese tourists had the exact same idea. In the end, with all the stops I made for photos (and car salvage) I reached my lodgings for the night at close to 6pm, turning what would normally be a 2-1/2 hour drive into a nearly 10-hour jaunt.

 

 

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The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo

When we were last in Tekapo, in 2011, it was still a pretty small town with very limited dining options. Since then, it has grown considerably and there are now several more restaurants than there were, and the one where I had dinner was actually pretty good.

 

But the main attraction of being in Tekapo was not the chance to have dinner here but rather the chance to go to the observatory on Mt John as part of a night-sky tour. The Mt John observatory was set up by the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in the 1960s to take advantage of the excellent conditions for viewing the stars that one finds in this part of the country. The relatively high altitude, low rainfall and absence of light pollution (the town even cooperates by installing low-power sodium lighting and regulating the lights houses can use to ensure the light pollution doesn’t worsen) make for great viewing, and the observatory has played an important role in some recent discoveries. The tours are, however, highly susceptible to cancellation due to high wind or cloud cover, and in all our past visits to the area the tours were cancelled. Not this time, though! The tour takes up to 22 English-speaking guests up the mountain at close to 11pm (Chinese- and Japanese-speaking tours depart earlier) for a chance to see not only what the naked eye can see (which is a lot!) but also to peak through a few of their telescopes at some truly impressive sights–we saw: Saturn with enough resolution to make out the rings; the Jewel Box Nebula, which is home to some of the universe’s youngest stars; the 47 Tucanae globula cluster, which is one of the oldest sets of stars in the known universe, and the Tarantula Nebula, which is the largest stellar nursery in the known universe. It’s a mind-boggling experience, and one that I was thrilled finally to be able to do. They even mounted our cameras onto their gear to take a photo of the sky with our equipment, so I have two amazing photos to pawn off as my own! I got back to my lodge at close to 2am, but it was totally worth the sleep deprivation!

 

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Can you spot me? (Second from right, back row) And that’s the Aurora Australis in the background.

The next day I got an early start to head out of Tekapo toward Twizel, which is not at all far. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get up to, but figured it’d be worth heading toward Mt Cook Village to see it for myself at last. So many of our guests head from us to Mt Cook, and up to now we have never been able to say anything about it, so it seemed a good thing to rectify. Again the weather was just about perfect, and I had lots of photo opportunities along the way. As I approached the village, I came across the small airfield from where a few aerial tour companies operate. I stopped in, introduced myself to one of them and was invited to go up for a sample flight with a trainee pilot who was heading up to pick up a pair of hikers who had gone up earlier. How could I say no?? The scenery was stunning, with snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and even a small avalanche that we got to see from a nice safe distance. We got out of the plane on the snowfields as we waited for the hikers and, despite the fact that the air temperature had to be at 0C or so, we were in shirtsleeves and feeling quite warm. During our chat we put together an idea for an outing from Oamaru that would allow our guests to fly up to Mt Cook (a mere 25-minute flight, instead of a 2-hour drive), do a tour on the mountain and return in time for cocktails. We’ll see how it goes!

 

 

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On top of the snow fields of Mt Cook

After a quick visit to the hotel that most of our guests use at the village (nothing special, other than the views of Mt Cook) I decided to check out the Hooker Valley Track, a three-hour walk that promised great views of the mountain. I had never done any of the famed NZ walks, so this seemed a good one to start with. I put on my coat, just in case the weather changed during my walk, grabbed my camera gear, and headed off. The walk involved crossing three swing bridges (not nearly as scary as I anticipated) and was indeed a pretty easy walk, and one that I imagined would be packed solid during the summer, since even now it was pretty busy, primarily with Chinese visitors. I started to get a bit worried about being done before dark, since the sun seemed to threaten to dip behind the mountains, but I made it to the end of the walk in a bit less than 90 minutes, and was back at the car well within the promised three hours and still in daylight (though the temperature had dipped a fair bit). If this is what the NZ walks are like, perhaps I should do more of them!

 

 

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Swing Bridge #3 of the Hooker Valley Track

I got to my night’s accommodation–a new lodge facing Lake Pukaki with a stupendous view of Mt Cook–in time to have a drink before sitting down to dinner, and spent the evening taking a few more star photos from the patio outside my room and looking through the 900+ photos I had taken during the duration of my trip thus far.

 

In the morning, the weather started to show signs of changing for the worse, but I had one more stop to make, to visit a new accommodation built by the son of friends of ours in the hills near Twizel. Their place is really cool, and would be a great spot for viewing the night sky, so we’ll see about putting together a package of some sort to promote spending time in both our places.

 

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The sky over SkyScape, Twizel

This was a great outing, giving me a chance to reaquaint myself with the landscape not too far from us that I don’t get to see too often. I’ll have to take advantage of our location a bit more in the future!

 

There are a lot of photos below; some may be a bit repetitive, but I had a hard time deciding which ones to leave out…

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Posted by: JLG | 5 August 2017

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

The last stop of our trip, both in Vietnam and in general, was Saigon, these days aka Ho Chi Minh City. Many people had told us that Saigon was not their favourite part of Vietnam, and that we should not devote too much time to it during our visit, so we limited ourselves to just two nights here. As we arrived in town from Hoi An in the early evening, we could quickly see what some of the issues around the city are. It’s very crowded, with something like 7 million people living here, and the ensuing noise and bustle can be off-putting, especially to people unfamiliar with Asian cities. Also, the people seem to have a bit of a me-first attitude that was not in evidence as much in the other cities we visited here. As an example of this, while we waited at the curb at the airport for our driver to pick us up, we saw loads of people just leave their cars double- and triple-parked making it very difficult for people to get into their cars and for other cars to pass by.

We got to our hotel after crawling at a snail’s pace through the evening rush hour traffic, and immediately went out in search of dinner. As luck would have it, our hotel was situated just two blocks from the largest market in Saigon, the Ben Thanh market, and while it was closed already, there is a large night market just outside that had several appetising-looking places for us to choose from, one of which offered up a nice meal of bún noodles with barbecued pork, bánh xèo pancake, stir-fried morning glory and grilled squid, which we followed up with a Saigon-style dessert of sweetened varieties of glutinous rice with peanuts, coconut and other treats.

The next day we ventured out for a bowl of pho on the street near the hotel before embarking on a bit of a tour of some of the sights of town, starting with the 1960s architectural monument of the Independence Palace. Built to be the Presidential Palace for President Diem after the French-built Governor’s Palace was damaged by an assassination attempt on the president, it is truly a 1960s tour-de-force, much more to my taste than J2’s. One of the interesting exhibits here is the tank that broke through the gates on 30 April 1975 when the communist forces finally took Saigon and reunified the country.

Nearby is a bit more sombre monument, especially for an American visitor. This is the War Remnants Museum (previously known as the American War Crimes Museum), which is as depressing a museum as anyone could ever want to visit. Between the photos of the victims of Agent Orange (who are still being born, since the toxins are transmitted several generations on) and the images of the atrocities committed during the war, it’s the kind of museum that you really need to see in the right frame of mind, and afterwards we needed to see something a bit less emotionally wrenching, so we made our way to a pagoda and temple about a mile or so away.

The day had become quite hot by the time we were done with the pagoda so we hopped in a cab for the ride back toward our hotel where we bought some bánh mì to take up to the room for lunch. Incredibly, these sandwiches were so bad that we both came to the conclusion that it would be a waste of both calories and opportunity to finish them, so instead I ventured out (in a sudden rainstorm) in search of something more promising. At the market I found a stall that did a much better rendition and that also had interesting fruit juices on offer, so I quaffed a soursop juice with my lunch. I bought another sandwich from a different vendor to bring back to J2, along with a cup of his beloved chè syrupy dessert, both of which passed muster.

By 5:30 the rain had subsided, just in time for an outing we had booked well in advance with Saigon Street Eats, which was recommended to me by a cookbook-writing friend who has written a book about Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisine. The twist with this tour is that it involved toodling around Saigon on the back of motorscooters, something that I withheld from J2 until just before we went down to meet our guides. All together there were eight participants in the tour, and we went to five places to sample about 12 or so dishes, all typical of Saigon, including beef in betel leaves, grilled seafood, broken rice with pork, and chicken pho. The other six travellers were four young Norwegians and two older Aussies; the Aussie woman was a bit of a street-food neophyte, nervous about eating anything and everything, but she gradually got over it (to a degree) and tried several things that were not in her comfort zone. I found all of it to be pretty good, though having now been exposed to Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, I can confidently aver that HCMC cuisine is the least exciting of these by far.

The morning of our last day in town we spent wandering around some of the architectural monuments of Saigon, all bestowed on the city by the French, and including the Opera House, City Hall, Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and Majestic Hotel. As we made our way among these, though, it began to rain, and the rain only got heavier and heavier so we decided it was time to move indoors for a bit. Fortuitously we were not far from the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, Saigon’s oldest and possibly best craft beer brewery. The other six people on last night’s food tour had somehow all requested that their tour be accompanied by a sampling of this brewery’s offerings, which sounded interesting so we figured it was a good idea to give it a try ourselves now. (We had no idea that the craft beer was an option, so we resorted to drinking regular local beers with our food samples.) As it happens, I’d have to say that while these craft beers were interesting (some were made with Vietnamese spices, fruits, and other exotic additions) I actually preferred the regular beers.

One of our guides at the food tour also gave us the names of two of his favourite places for chè, the Vietnamese dessert that we have come to enjoy so much, so we walked through the rain to one of them for a bit of a mid-day snack in lieu of lunch, and then retired to the hotel for a break before heading out to the market for an early dinner

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Spring rolls

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Cook at the market

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Bún noodles with prawns, pork and spring rolls

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BBQ pork skewers

before heading to the airport for our flight home.

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Bún noodles with roast pork

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Stir-fried morning glory

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Bánh xèo pancake

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Sweet rice vendor

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Independence Palace

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Saigon Traffic

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Beef in Betel Leaves being Grilled

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Things to eat with broken rice

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Seafood offerings

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Grilled conch

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Grilled scallops

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Grilled octopus

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Clams

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Grilled prawns

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Chicken pho

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Salad to go in the chicken pho

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Chè with, among other things, durian

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Me in my motorscooter helmet with the driver

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City hall

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Notre Dame Cathedral

Posted by: JLG | 4 August 2017

Hoi An

As soon as we started to plan our Vietnam trip, people who had been unanimously told us that we must spend the lion’s share of our time in the country in the small town of Hoi An, about an hour’s drive south of Hue, and, well, who were we to argue? We had very few preconceived notions of what to do during a two-week visit to the country, so we figured why not devote three nights to this village of around 100,000 people? After we decided that Hue simply did not have enough for us to do to warrant our spending four nights there, we even added a night to our stay in Hoi An, so strong was our conviction that we would enjoy this town enormously.

We had arranged for a car to take us from Hue to Hoi An with stops along the way at a beach that was once popular with American troops stationed nearby; a bunker that had been used by the Vietnamese, then the French, and finally the Americans to control traffic moving up and down the coast road between Danang and the DMZ; and the Marble Mountains, a site about which we knew nothing, but that all the cars seem to stop at. The beach was indeed very attractive (if you like beaches) and I can imagine that US troops would have loved taking it easy here. jg-20170730-Canon EOS 5D Mark IV-5155.jpg

The road from Hue to Hoi An now has a tunnel that cuts out having to take the pass over the mountains that separate the area to the north from the areas to the south, but that would have meant we’d miss seeing the bunker, which was worth seeing, though it’s in a terrible state of disrepair. But the Marble Mountain was nothing but an opportunity for the car company to seek a commission on any purchase we might have made there, and there was nothing about it that appealed to us. While the craftsmanship is pretty good, the style is not for us at all, and the marble they carve is not even from here any longer.

We also managed to make a stop or two in the Danang area, which truly surprised me. Danang in my imagination was a small town with a beach made famous by the Vietnam War (“China Beach” is here). In fact, it’s the third largest city in Vietnam, and growing fast, with a reputation as a bit of a Silicon Valley for the country. The beach is obviously undergoing tremendous development, with block after block surrounding with hoardings promoting the new hotels that are to be built there. The beach is beautiful, too, though I’m not sure I’d flock here for a beach holiday just yet.

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We got into Hoi An in the early afternoon and checked into the Ha An Hotel, a charming old villa-style building surrounding a courtyard with a pool. Our room is lovely, too, with–and this is key–a really good air conditioner. The air temperature was really close to 40C (98F) and it’s humid as hell. No sooner did we get in the room than we braved the heat to seek out lunch, determining that we’d head for Bánh Mì Phuong, a place that had been recommended to us. Fortunately, it was not too far from our hotel, and we more or less stumbled across it, and the sandwich was pretty good, though it did not knock our socks off the way we had hoped it would considering its exorbitant price compared with other banh mi we have had in Vietnam (here it cost an astronomical VND 25,000, compared with the going rate of VND 20,000 in most places; bear in mind that the current exchange rate is USD 1 = VND 22,000).

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This is what a $1.14 banh mi looks like.

The town is much more attractive than Hue, and reminds me very much of places like Lijiang or Yangshuo in China. Part of the reason for that is that Hoi An was largely built by merchants who set up shop in Hoi An from China and Japan back in the 17th Century, and the town has long had a strong influence from those countries, as well as from Portugal and France.

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But the heat was a bit too much for us, and we decided to retreat to the hotel until the sun began to go down. When it did, we started our search for dinner at the central market, conveniently located just two blocks from our hotel, where we had a pretty good couple of dishes at prices that made our banh mi seem reasonable–they charged a whopping VND 100,000 for each of our dishes, a squid stuffed with pork and shrimp and served with a bit of a salad, and a huge mound of barbecued pork (for the math-averse, that’s US$4.50 for each of those dishes). We had heard there was a night market, too, so we headed that way and did a bit of grazing, enjoying a grilled rice cracker dish that was sort of like a Vietnamese taco (far more reasonable at VND 10,000, or 45 cents) and a dish of fried spring rolls for the same price.

The next morning I woke up extra early (4:30am) to participate in a morning photo excursion to a nearby fishing village with a French photographer who moved to Vietnam 10 years ago and who now organises these types of outing. The morning was perfect for photography, initially at least, since the sun was not yet scorching and the skies were clear. We were there to see the boats come in from their night of fishing, and as they brought the catch in to shore where people bought, traded, fought, joked, and otherwise behaved in photogenic ways. Our tour also included a stop at a nearby fish sauce factory (very very pungent, especially before breakfast) and a visit to a dry dock to see them mending the boats, and I was still back at the hotel by 8am, in time to go with J2 for breakfast in town for a bowl of noodles.

Our few days in town were mostly spent with us going out for breakfast, wandering around a bit until the heat became unbearable, retreating until lunch, having an air-conditioned siesta in the room until beer o’clock, and then seeking out dinner once the sun has descended. There was time for us to do some shopping (we found some really nice bowls that we’ll use for dinners at the lodge) and some out-of-town tourism (we hired a car to visit the ruins of the Cham civilisation in nearby My Son), and we signed up for a morning food tour that started at 7am (obscenely early for J2) and that had us wander a suburban market while sampling 44 different dishes from vendors, restaurants (including another one that we had accidentally discovered for a meal the night before) and at the home of the Australian expat who organises the tours. All in all, it was a much more relaxing couple of days than our other stops so far in the country.

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Cham relic

On the last day we were in Hoi An, though, I had arranged to take a cooking class through a restaurant where we had had lunch earlier in our stay. The restaurant had a neat concept–it offers a somewhat sanitised version of the street food scene, with the whole gamut of Hoi An-style dishes cooked at stations along the perimeter and a dining area in the centre. The meal we had there was very good, though it came at quite a premium over regular places in town. Still, when I took a look at the cooking classes they had on offer, a few of them seemed pretty enticing, and their pricing seemed pretty fair. The course I opted for involved bicycling from the restaurant out of town toward a local market where we’d learn a bit about the ingredients on offer, then bike further to a vegetable farm where we’d meet the farmer and learn about the vegetables he grows, then visit a bean sprout farmer (ditto) and finally return to the restaurant to sample the dishes they make and then learn to prepare four dishes that we would then have for lunch.

J2 decided to stay behind while I took the class, so I left the hotel at 7am to grab breakfast on the street before the class, which began at 8am. The day was already pretty hot at 8am, so I can’t say I was especially excited about biking as the day would only get hotter, but it turned out to be more or less ok. Sure, the eight of us on the class sweated like pigs throughout, but we were all in it together.

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Cooking Class at Vegetable Farm

The market we visited was the same one our food tour visited the previous day, the so-called “Tiger Market” (named after a nearby temple), and the rice farms we rode through were the same ones I biked out to a few evenings before to get some sunset photos, but this time there was a lot more activity to see. The farmers we visited were a delightful elderly couple who have been married for more than 70 years; the husband had been in the war for 10 years, wound up in prison (perhaps re-education) and now has a successful vegetable farm where he raises all sorts of produce for the local market. They have a nice house, five kids, and the sweetest smiles you ever saw. The wife was especially concerned that we all have adequate sun protection while out in her fields, and gave several of our group conical hats to wear during our visit.

 

Back at the restaurant, they offered us tastes of everything they make, which includes a section they call “weird and wonderful”. J2 and I had noticed those things on the menu when we came for lunch, but did not dare to order things like pig brains with Hoi An pepper; fertilised duck egg (“balut”); pig ear salad; or frogs in chilli sauce, but when they’re being offered to you for free, I figured why not try them all! I have to admit, all of them were actually pretty good, especially the pig brain and the frogs, but I’d even now be able to stomach the balut if I should ever decide to become a contestant on Survivor.

 

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Balut

We moved on into the teaching kitchens on top of the restaurant for our lesson, during which we learned to make fresh spring rolls; crispy rice pancake with bean sprouts (“bánh xèo”); “White Rose” dumplings (open-faced steamed dumplings with shrimp); steamed vegetable-filled dumplings; and cau lao noodles (special Hoi An noodles with braised pork), all of which turned out really well, and some of which we’ll surely make again and perhaps even serve guests.

 

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Bánh xèo

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Bánh xèo (finished)

When the course was just about over, J2 arrived in the car that would take us to the airport in Danang for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City and the last stop on our trip!

 

 

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Posted by: JLG | 30 July 2017

Hue

As much as we enjoyed our time in Hanoi, we were looking forward more to the Central Vietnamese cities of Hue and Hoi An, which we set up to occupy the most part of our time in the country. We had an early flight from Hanoi that would necessitate our leaving the hotel before it started to serve breakfast, so we decided to venture out and find something on the street instead. Even at 6am, quite a few places were already open for business, and we had no trouble finding a place that served up a really nice bowl of pho to set us up for our morning of flying.

Our flight was unremarkable, leaving on time and arriving on time, and we were met at the airport in Hue by a driver sent by the hotel. Our hotel is really well situated, just about a block away from the Perfume River that separates the body of Hue from the side of town that is home to the Citadel, built in the early 1800s as the seat of the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty that ruled from 1803 to 1945.

As the former seat of the emperor, Hue became known for its refined cuisine, as well as for its imperial architecture, so we made our first stop of the day a nearby restaurant for lunch, picking a place more or less at random. When we arrived, Madam Thu’s was bustling with a rather incongruous-looking group composed of Germans, Americans, Chinese and others at one table (we assume they were part of a tour) and a few tables of Vietnamese diners. The menu was small, but it consisted of nothing but Hue specialties, all of which were things we hadn’t had before. We ordered two items–minced pork with shrimp wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass and then grilled, served with rice paper, fresh and pickled vegetables and a peanuty sauce; and translucent rice paper cakes filled with pork and shrimp and dipped in a vinegary sauce. Both were delicious but we decided to leave it at that and see if maybe we’d find something else to eat on the street.

We wandered the streets a bit, eventually making our way across the river, not to visit the Citadel, but to see the Dong Ba market. At the market we ran across a stall serving more Hue snack foods, so we stopped and ordered some, much to the enjoyment of the locals nearby. It was apparently siesta time, and many of the stallholders were napping on their wares, but some were awake, and they were very interested in selling us whatever they had to offer, but we were able to resist in all cases, except for one lady who was selling interesting-looking sesame candies.

The heat of the day was oppressive, so we decided to retreat to the hotel for a break until it was time for us to go on an outing we had arranged to sample the foods of Hue with a guide. Ngan is a young local woman who took us out to seven or eight places all within walking distance, and each of which she and her colleagues had vetted to make sure they offered good examples of several Hue specialties. Funnily enough, the first stop on our tour was Madame Thu’s place, and Madam Thu herself recognised us and told Ngan we had been there earlier. Luckily, we were having different dishes this time, but I think it would not have mattered had we had the same things, since Ngan taught us how to eat the dishes we were having, and it turned out (we learned when we later had those same dishes at a different venue) that we had eaten them incorrectly.

By the time our tour was over, J2 and I were stuffed to the gills, but we had sampled quite a number of dishes that we had not had before, and all of them were things we’d happily have again, and some are things we might see about recreating at home for guests (or for ourselves).

On our second day in town we managed to sleep in a bit, and arranged at the hotel for a boat to take us from the dock nearby to the Thien Mu Pagoda, about 8km down the river. The weather was already warming up by the time our boat arrived at the pagoda, and while we were given 30 minutes to wander the grounds, we were flagging after just 20 minutes, so we returned to the boat a bit early for the trip back toward the Citadel, much closer to where we started.

The Citadel is highly reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and is almost surely modelled on it. Unfortunately, it suffered a bit during the wars of the 20th Century, and while the Vietnamese are clearly making great strides in restoring and rebuilding it, there is still some way to go. One nice distinction between the Citadel and the Forbidden City, though, is the far smaller crowds here, which make visiting the place far more pleasant, though that is counterbalanced by the oppressive humid heat, which saps one’s energy quickly. We were thus very happy to discover that a few of the pavilions had large fans going that were a life saver, though one rather self-centred (and over-sized) Chinese lady decided that the fans were there just for her benefit, and stood right in front of one of them at one spot, even going so far as to disengage the oscillation function so that it would cool her and only her. That did not fly with me, however, and I remonstrated with her over her selfishness, which had the desired impact as she shame-facedly turned the oscillator back on and moved off.

We had a light lunch of Hue-style noodles at a little street stand near the Citadel and walked back to the hotel to cool off for a bit before venturing out again in the evening for a beer and dinner. We ended up grazing for the rest of the evening, stopping here and there for a beer and a bite, then moving on in search of the next place. In the end, we had a really nice evening, and had a plate of rice with a few bits and pieces of duck, pork and vegetables at a teeming place near the hospital for the princely sum of $3.75.

The next day we had arranged to have a driver take us out of town to see several attractions that dot the countryside outside of Hue. These included three imperial tombs, a pagoda or two, and a village that our food tour guide recommended we visit since J2 had told her he was into vegetable gardening. The tombs were very distinct from one another–the first one we visited, Ming Mang, was quite similar to a Chinese-style tomb, whereas the second, Khai Dinh (belonging to the penultimate emperor, who was a bit of a French puppet) displaying a noticeable European influence. The pagoda was interesting, since it was still operational and we were there while the monks were chanting during their morning prayers. The village, unfortunately, was a bit of a dud as far as we were concerned, with not much to recommend it. Add to that the fact that we were broiling by this time, despite the pleasure of having an air-conditioned car to retreat to after each visit, and we were very happy to return to the hotel in time for lunch, which we enjoyed at that same restaurant, Madam Thu’s, that we had visited twice before. She was tickled pink that we were back again, and led me into the kitchen to show me how to make the banh it cakes that I particularly like.

While J2 cooled off in the room after lunch, I ventured back into the heat to walk over to the Dong Ba market and take some photos. While there, I couldn’t resist the chance to sample the grilled pork skewers from the place that Anthony Bourdain had visited a few years ago, and quaff a delightfully cold glass of Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

In the evening we decided to graze one more time, starting off with a banh mi sandwich from a streetside vendor, then a few more substantial dishes at a roadside cafe, and finally a glass of che hem, the dessert-y drink of starchy things in a gingery syrup that we sampled with Ngan on our first day. We have really grown to like this little treat, so much so that when we went walking through the night market on our way back to the hotel and ran across another vendor selling a different version of it, we could not resist.

We feel that we have done justice to Hue in our two-and-a-half days here, and are looking forward to seeing what Hoi An has to offer, which will be the subject of the next post.

 

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Che vendor, night market

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Banh mi vendor

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Grilled pork at market

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Dong Ba Market

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Dong Ba Market

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Dong Ba Market

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Dong Ba Market

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Dong Ba Market

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Dong Ba Market

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Banh It

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Banh Khoai

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Tu Hieu Pagoda

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Tu Hieu Pagoda

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Khai Dinh Tomb

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Khai Dinh Tomb

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Khai Dinh Tomb

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Mang Ming Tomb

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Incense at Thien Mu Pagoda

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Minh Mang Tomb

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Minh Mang Tomb

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Citadel

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Posted by: JLG | 29 July 2017

Hanoi and Halong Bay

The morning of our departure for Vietnam J2 was not feeling terribly well and asked me to see if I could find throat lozenges and decongestant to help him get over what appeared to be a bit of a summer cold. I ventured out, and found him what he needed, together with a nice street market where I picked up a poppyseed cake for him to have as breakfast back at the room, which to my surprise he ate with gusto (I suppose I was kind of hoping to have it to myself). With nothing better to do, we figured we’d get to the airport a bit early, giving us time to check in and have time to deal with getting the tax refund on the lens we bought in Berlin earlier in the trip. Taking the S-Bahn to the airport turned out to be pretty easy, and far cheaper than the 13.50 Euros we paid the other day on the ICE train, but it turned out that there was some sort of problem with the shuttle between Terminal One, where the trains arrive, and Terminal Two, where our flight was to depart from, so all the passengers were being directed to take a bus between them. The bus runs too infrequently, and the passengers were far too numerous, that we decided, despite the heat of the day, that we’d be better off walking than struggling to get on the bus. So we headed off for the 20-minute walk, tugging our bags behind us, and arrived, sweaty and somewhat more malodorous, having been passed by not a single bus. We checked in quickly, and were even given highly desirable exit row seats for the flight to Saigon, and even passed quickly through passport control and security.

When we got to the tax rebate line, things seemed set to slow down markedly, since the queue of passengers snaked through a large part of the terminal. The problem was, I think, that the travellers, who were mostly Chinese, a) had not filled out their forms beforehand, and were therefore filling them out only when they reached the front of the line, and b) not all of them had the items that they were claiming tax back on, which meant the officers had to turn them down, which the travellers then argued about. I noticed that there was a separate window from the one we were queued up behind that had no one waiting at it, so I went and asked the person behind it what the difference was between the two windows. It turned out that that window was for people to get the stamp on their forms to attest to the fact that the purchased item was leaving the EU, so that the form could be posted to the refund office for them to post to the buyer’s credit card. Well, that’s what we needed, so we did that and were done with the whole thing in less than a minute.

Vietnam Airlines operates quite a nice flight, with a brand-new Boeing 787 (my first time in one of these planes) and competent service. Our seats were not especially comfortable, but at least we had lots of leg room, and we even had an empty seat next to us so we could spread out a bit–it’s amazing what little treats like this mean in modern air travel! The only downside with flying with VN is that their selection of entertainment was a bit limited–I spent the flight watching such current film sensations as Beetlejuice and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Because we had a pretty tight connection for our flight from Saigon to Hanoi, we decided before leaving NZ that we’d be better off getting our visa in advance, rather than risking a long queue at the visa-on-demand window at the airport. This turned out to have been good thinking, since our flight left Frankfurt an hour late, and we figured we’d need all the time we could get to catch that connection. Alas, that was not enough of a time saving, and we ended up missing the flight. Happily for us, Vietnam Airlines operates three flights an hour between Saigon and Hanoi, and they happily rebooked us on another flight.

It had been three years since our last visit to Asia (Burma 2014) so it had been that long since we had experienced the kind of heat that Hanoi had laid on to welcome us. Fortunately our hotel in the Old Town of Hanoi has air conditioning, and we had turned it on full-blast in our room. J2 opted to remain in the hotel and try to sleep off some of his cold while I ventured out to explore our neighbourhood. Hanoi’s Old Town is a maze of small streets that seem pretty indistinguishable from one another to a newcomer like me, so I tried to keep track of all my turns so I could find my way back.

One of the things that everyone warned us about who had been to Vietnam was the traffic and the need to be vigilant and daring when crossing the streets. Sure enough, the volume of traffic was intense, though it consisted mostly of mopeds and motorcycles rather that cars, but that meant that their trajectories are a bit harder to predict as their drivers zig this way and zag that way to get where they’re going, though they seem to have no particular desire to hit people as they do so and I emerged from my first outing unscathed.

I’m not sure what possessed us to ask the hotel for a recommendation for a restaurant for that night’s dinner, but that’s what we did, going to a place just a few blocks away from us called Restaurant 96. (The name has nothing to do with it’s address; it’s meant to be reminiscent of a yin-yang symbol.) There was nothing wrong with the restaurant, but the food failed to wow us, which was a disappointment for our first meal in Vietnam. (Actually, now that I think of it, this was our second meal, since we had a bowl of pho each at the airport while waiting for our flight, and it was damned good!)

Vietnam has the reputation of being great to wander around early in the morning, before the heat sets in and while people emerge for their breakfasts at the pop-up stands that line the streets. So when my eyes opened and I saw it was nearly 6, I decided that time was a-wasting, threw some clothes on and ventured out while J2 stayed asleep. In contrast with the swarms of motorbikes that were everywhere the previous night, the streets in the early morning were nearly empty, and the sidewalks were clear of parked bikes and motorbikes so I could walk a straight line from point to point. Before too long I found a busy place that was serving bún chả, one of the Vietnamese breakfast items I wanted to try, made of rice noodles served in an aromatic broth with grilled pork patties, shredded lettuce, lime segments and other bits to add in as you like. It was delicious, and at only D20,000 it didn’t even cost $1.

I got back to the room, showered, and found that J2 was interested in heading out already and was hungry for breakfast. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had already eaten, so I just found another place that seemed promising, this time serving bún riêu, a soup similar to the one I had had earlier, but this time made with a crab-based soup that I wasn’t sure J2 would like, but indeed he did! It was still not quite 8am, so it was still not too hot just yet and just about perfect to do a self-guided walking tour of Old Town Hanoi from the pages of Lonely Planet. Hanoi may be a charming city, with interesting nooks and crannies to explore, but it’s not really that beautiful, though there is certainly something to be said for the old colonial buildings that are in need of a bit of TLC  and how photogenic they can be with their rats’ nests of electrical wires coiling around the façades. There are no stunning edifices in evidence, though, so while the walking tour was nice to do, it did not leave us agape at the beauty of the city.

For lunch we found ourselves at Bánh Mì 25, which seems to be a bit of an institution among the bakcpacker crowd. You have to give the place credit though, since not only do they serve delicious sandwiches (bánh mì are the traditional Vietnamese sandwiches that are served on a localised version of baguettes that miraculously stay crispy despite the humidity, filled with things like grilled pork, sausage or pressed meat with pâté, fresh and pickled vegetables, and chilli sauce), but they make them all to order, serve them quickly, and charge D25,000 (slightly more than $1) each. They are so popular that they’ve expanded from their original base into a neighbouring building to provide guests with more seating, and the people there make really good Vietnamese coffees, fruit popsicles and fruit juices.

We kept wandering the streets after lunch for a bit, until J2 started to wilt under the heat, leaving me to explore the food market on my own until I began to wilt myself. We took a breather until dinner, this time determined to find our own place. The streets of Old Town take on a new look at night, especially in the area near our hotel, since loads of restaurants pop up with touts trying to lure diners in. Most of them looked fairly boring but we found one that looked different. There you sat at little plastic tables on the street with a little brazier and grilled your food yourself, getting either a mixture of beef and chicken, or seafood, or a vegetarian selection, along with greens and onions to go with and a side of either rice or bread (interestingly, while we chose rice, all the Asians who dined here either side of us opted for bread). The food was pretty good, but just as we were about to finish things got weird–our waitress came over and quickly grabbed our little table, motioning us to get up. Was it about to start raining, or what there a natural disaster coming down the street? No, it was a police patrol, apparently on the lookout for unauthorised street-side dining venues like ours. Since we were nearly done anyway we just paid our bill and left; the other guests who had just sat down just walked away and sought another venue for their dinner, leaving the restaurant out of pocket for the food they had already delivered. Not cool.

The one place that people seemed unanimous that we must visit in northern Vietnam was Halong Bay, a UNESCO site and natural wonderland that is visited by boat from the coast about 1-1/2 hours from Hanoi. I booked an overnight cruise with Orchid Cruises, who seemed to be very professional and competent; our hotel people even commented that they were a VIP operation. Sure enough, the car they sent to pick us up was very luxe, and there was only one other couple in the car with us, a young couple from Northern Italy (whom we will continue to run into in later stops on this trip) . When we reached the boat, we learned that there were only nine passengers on the overnight, and 27 staff to look after us, but the guests who were doing the two-night cruise would be returning to the boat later on, bringing us nearly to a 1:1 ratio with the crew. Our cabin was very comfortable, though it had a weird feature–no door between the bathroom and sleeping area, just a Venetian blind sort of thing. What’s with all these “modern” room dividers these days??

As we drove to the port, we passed through a torrential rainstorm, and thought that did not bode well for our cruise. But at the waterfront things looked more promising, and indeed the weather held out perfectly for our outing, making for what I hope will be great photos. The cruise went through some amazing landscapes of vegetation-covered limestone karsts jutting out of the water here and there, much like a watery Lijiang. I had wondered if I had made a mistake not booking us on the two-night trip, but after our outing I think one night was plenty, since the only thing the two-night trip does that we didn’t do was visit a local village, which I have done enough of around the world to last a lifetime.

Back in Hanoi the next day we checked ourselves back to the hotel and grabbed a taxi to see a part of town we hadn’t covered yet, to see the Temple of Literature (a Confucian temple that was home to Vietnam’s first university); Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, stilt house and other Ho monuments; and the presidential palace. This is definitely a whole different side of Hanoi than we had seen thus far, but I’m not sure I could say I preferred it, since it’s a bit too Maoist/Leninist for my taste, with far too much brutalist achitecture.

Before dinner we found a little hole in the wall place for a glass or two of “bia hoi”, the freshly made beer that is a mainstay across Vietnam (something that Czech comrades taught them to do in the 1950s-70s), where we had a couple of fresh beers and a dish of tiny quails with a salty-lemony-spicy dipping sauce. Dinner our last night in Hanoi was at Green Farm, a wonderful restaurant in Old Town that turned out to make excellent food, some of which may work its way onto our menu at home.

Posted by: JLG | 22 July 2017

Finishing off Europe in Frankfurt

After our few days of no meetings in Copenhagen we had to get back to business and work our way to Frankfurt where we would have two more agent meetings before putting an end to the work trip and commence our holiday. We had booked a train ticket for the trip to Frankfurt, which we knew would involve a change in Hamburg, but what we didn’t realise was that it also involved a ferry from the Danish coast at Rødbyhavn to the German coast at Puttgarden, during which we would be required to get off the train for safety reasons, and perhaps also to persuade us to make a purchase at the tax-free shop (since it was a 45-minute crossing, and the boat was pretty full, the shop was a mad house and we did not feel at all tempted to brave the crowds to save a few pennies on things we didn’t need).

We had an hour ‘lay over’ in Hamburg, just at lunchtime, but it was only in hindsight that we realised we had missed an opportunity to have that city’s famous culinary export for our lunch, since we instead fell back on our favorite German snack food, the currywurst, which I can confirm was better at Hamburg railway station than anywhere else we had it in Germany, including its home town of Berlin.

Things began to get interesting as we approached Frankfurt. About 30 minutes outside of the Frankfurt station, the former guests whom we would be spending the next two nights with advised that our train would not be stopping at the airport as expected, and where they planned to meet us, so instead they told us to get off at the central station and board another train to the airport. But when we got off the train, no one seemed to be willing to offer us any help whatsoever. The first conductor I went to, when I asked if our ticket was valid on another train, said he did not know the conditions of my ticket, and yet when I offered to show it to him he said he only had 10 seconds to spare and he wasn’t going to spend them on me. I tried to just buy a ticket to the airport at one of the machines, but none of them would accept my payment card. Frustrated, and knowing that I was about to miss the connection that our friends told us to catch, I went up to a conductor for that train and asked (in English) if he could help me, to which he said “No”, with a bit of a laugh. I then asked (in German) if he doesn’t speak English, and he said he did. I persevered and asked if my ticket was valid on his train, he said it was not, and that I’d have to buy another ticket, at the extortionate price of Euro 13.50 each, and only in cash. That seemed surprising to me, but we didn’t want our former guests to wait unnecessarily, so we boarded, and as we did so, so did a family group of three people, who told the conductor (in German) that they had one more bag to load on the train, but he nevertheless hit the door-close button before they had a chance to grab it, laughing that they would have to figure out a way to get it. They were furious, as was I, so I decided to get mine back by reporting him to Deutsche Bahn. He didn’t have a name tag on, so I grabbed a photo of him (which he tried to step out of, unsuccessfully) as we disembarked, along with a photo of our train’s number and sent a letter to DB. We shall see what happens. When I told our friends about it, they were aghast, but said that DB had a pretty bad reputation so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Our friends own the winery Gut Hermannsberg, located about an hour away from Frankfurt in the Nahe River area, so that’s where we headed. They stayed with us back in November and we hit it off right away, so when they invited us to come visit them we thought we actually might, though we let them be the first to remind us of the invitation. It turned out to be just a wonderful visit. Not only is their winery beautiful–it sits over the river Nahe and was established in the early 1900s by the Prussian Royal Government so it was set up very nicely with beautiful buildings and nice, orderly vines–but they are very warm and lovely people, and there was no weirdness about our having met when they were paying guests of ours. They organised a bit of a tasting of their wines for us over some light snacks, and then they served us a nice dinner, and we had a rollicking good time. The next morning we met with their wine maker, a charming young guy named Karsten, who led us through a more thorough tasting of their wines, which is almost all Riesling, albeit with a few Pinot Blancs thrown in, and who topped the tasting off by opening a bottle from 1979 that was revelatory–I hadn’t known you could cellar Riesling that long and have such a beautiful wine as a result. It was a beautiful golden colour, much richer than the younger wines, and the flavour was round and soft but with a nice contrast of acidity. Absolutely delicious! Karsten also organised an outing for dinner in the evening in the nearby town of Bingen, where we sat on the banks of the Rhine, enjoying a tasty meal and watching the boat traffic go by. It was a very relaxed, fun couple of days, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

On Thursday a cab was ordered to take us to Frankfurt since our friends were heading to Majorca, and we were sent off with a bottle of their wine that we hadn’t tried yet. Back in Frankfurt we took care of another load of laundry, had a way-more-than-two-people-can-eat dinner at a nearby beer garden, and prepared for our last meetings, which took place on Friday. Now that our time in Germany was coming to an end, we decided we’d had enough of heavy German food and opted instead for a lighter meal of salad at the hotel, which we washed down with our friends’ wine, which suited it very well. Both of us were feeling rather exhausted after all this running around, so despite it being J2’s birthday we called it an early night and packed it in in anticipation of a long travel day to Vietnam on Saturday.

Posted by: JLG | 22 July 2017

Tallinn and Copenhagen

Our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn was to sail at 7:30am, so we had to get up pretty early to be sure to reach the terminal in time, leaving our suitcases in the hotel’s storage room since we had to check out by noon and would only return later in the evening. The weather could not have been better–blue skies with puffy white clouds–but it was a tad chilly, especially as our boat got under way, since we were determined to sit on the deck and take in the view. We had brought our packable rain jackets though, and those provided sufficient wind-breaking action to make the journey more or less comfortable.

As we made our way to Tallinn we started chatting with two Americans sitting near us, from Michigan, whom we had overheard griping about the state of affairs in Washington, and wound up not only chatting with them on the boat, but also helping them find their way from the Tallinn boat terminal into town, and then wandering with them a bit once we got into the Old Town.

My last visit to Tallinn was in 1993, when I was there for the signing ceremony of the treaty between the US and Estonian governments to allow the tiny government agency I was then working for, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to provide insurance for small American private businesses to invest in the country (that same trip had me going to Latvia, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, too). Apparently, the country made good use of the capital that such a treaty made available, since there was simply no comparing the Tallinn of 2017 with that of 24 years before. The Old Town, which I remember as being somewhat dark and dingy, was now nothing of the sort. The buildings have been so well restored and repainted that there is pretty much nothing there at all to remind one of the city’s Soviet past, the sole exception being the greater presence in this city than in others we’d been to on this trip of signs in Russian (and Russian-speaking travellers). One very interesting change that I observed is that those Russian-speaking travellers had to make recourse to broken English to speak with the locals, since it seems that the country no longer teaches its young people Russian (and I only heard one older person speaking it, and then not very well).

We had lots of time in Tallinn–our boat was not due to leave for Helsinki until 4:30pm–so we had plenty of time to visit just about every corner of the Old Town, climb a few of the church spires for views over the city, have a very tasty lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the town’s charming squares, and enjoy a surprisingly good coffee and pastry at one of the town’s oldest cafés (which dates to the 18th Century, according to the sign, but there’s no way it was working to this level during my earlier visits).

Our boat got back to Helsinki by 6:30, giving us plenty of time to get back to the hotel, reorganize our stuff and walk to the train station to catch a ride to the airport. We figured we’d grab dinner at the airport–we had seen several nice-looking places there on our way flying in a few days earlier–and just while away the time before our 11pm flight over a nice Finnish meal. Well, so much for that plan, since the airport pretty much closes for the night at 8pm. We were fortunate to find one place still serving that wasn’t a Burger King, and the manager felt sorry for us so he even gave us a discount on our meal. But by 9pm we had to vacate the premises so he could close up for the night, giving us no choice but to make our way to the gate. The airport was desolate, with only about five or six flight yet to depart before the airport would shut down for the night, but with the latitude and the time of year it was still bright as day, giving the place an especially eerie feeling.

As luck would have it, our flight was delayed several times, and eventually only left for Copenhagen at close to midnight, landing at around 00:30 local time in Copenhagen. Just like in Helsinki, we were one of the last flights to land, yet for some reason they relegated our flight to the farthest gate they could find from the central airport area, so we had to walk for frikkin’ ever to get to the baggage claim area and figure out how to get to town. Getting into town was a piece of cake though–there’s a metro line that goes from the centre of town to the airport, taking just about 20 minutes to do so, and our AirBNB was just a two-minute walk from the Nørreport stop right downtown.

Our hosts for our stay were away in Italy when we arrived, but they had arranged for one of their boarders to let us in. The flat was pretty big, as was our room, and we went to sleep pretty much immediately upon hitting the bed–it had been a very long day for us!

I woke up fairly early, and figured I’d find something for breakfast nearby. There’s a great new foodhall just a block from the apartment, but it only opens on Sunday at around 10, so the best I was able to do at 8:30 was find a coffee (very, very good) and sandwich (not bad) at a little café nearby.

When I got to the apartment again, J2 was up and ready to go, so we actually got an early start on the day. Unfortunately, the weather was looking very threatening and we had no idea what we wanted to do, so we came up with the idea of taking a free walking tour like I did in South America last year, figuring this would give us an idea of what’s around to see and what we’d like to see more of when the weather improved the next day (as promised). There are two competing tour companies, it seems, and both collect their clients in front of the City Hall, not far from our place. We went with the “red umbrella” tour, along with about 25 other English-speaking visitors, and followed Agnete around the sights of town–the City Hall; the monument to St Absalon, Copenhagen’s founder; the home where the founder of Carlsberg beer was born; and several imposing buildings. But between the rambling and unnecessarily lengthy stories about each place we stopped in front of and the worsening rain (which was accompanied by really chilly temperatures) we decided we’d had enough and ditched the tour at Nyhavn, the beautiful little harbour that has been photographed a gazillion times, where we figured we’d grab a bite to eat.

On my one and only previous visit to Copenhagen, back in 1986, I remember having sought out a place for less-than-eye-wateringly-expensive Danish sandwiches (“smørrebrød”) to take the group of kids I was leading around Europe for the summer and finding a place somewhere off the main drag near Nyhavn. With the rain and a somewhat more comfortable bank balance than I had in 1986 I was not as obsessed with the price we’d pay, but I was fairly determined not to go to too touristy a place. Happily, we found a place that seemed to fit the bill around the corner and down the block a bit from the crowds of Nyhavn, at a place called Told & Sild (“Customs & Herring”). They had a sumptuous menu of sandwich toppings, including herring and salmon of all descriptions (smoked, cured, marinated, in mustard, in curry, etc etc etc) as well as things that did not come from the sea at all. I of course had to have the herring, while J2 opted for roast beef, along with a glass of beer made for the restaurant, and all of it was fantastic.

After lunch we decided to brave the rain a bit more and visit a giant street food centre that was very close to us as the crow flies, but very difficult to get to, since it was on the other side of a big body of water. But nothing will deter me from making my way to interesting food, and we got there only slightly soaked. Sure enough, the place was packed to the gills with people escaping the weather and enjoying some very interesting food options from around the world. But we were not in Denmark to have tacos or banh mi, so we headed to the only Danish place we found, serving creative takes on the country’s beloved hot dogs (“pølser”), sharing one that was so overloaded with stuff–roasted potatoes, pesto of some sort, fried onions and other bits and pieces–that it was nearly impossible to eat, but it was undeniably tasty. As we exited the area the rain seemed to show no signs of abating anytime soon, and we had no great desire to brave the elements (though the appeal of a nap was unmistakable) that we decided to take a bit of a break back at the apartment.

While J2 napped, I ended up meeting our hosts, who were just back from a week or so in Italy on vacation. To my surprise, they were not Danes–the husband is French and his wife is Austrian–but they’ve been living in Denmark for a very long time, and both of them have interesting jobs, though they have the idea of retiring from that and turning one or the other of their family homes in their respective countries into a sort of lodge, so we spent a good couple of hours discussing the pros and cons of that, along with just about everything else there is to talk about. Eventually I decided to let them have their day back and go grab a few winks, but when I woke up they invited us to join them for a bottle of wine and some cheese before going to dinner. What a very nice AirBNB experience this turned out to be!

Dinner proved to be a bit of a challenge to organise, since it was not only Sunday (lots of places are closed on Sunday) but also the middle of summer when lots of places take a three-week holiday. But our hosts found a suitable place not too far away and gave us directions to get there. The walk to the restaurant took just about 30 minutes and involved walking through a cemetery (the Kierkegaard cemetery, no less) and a formerly inhospitable neighbourhood that is now being quietly hipsterized. The restaurant, Manfreds, is a vegetable-centric place that uses seasonal vegetables grown for them (or perhaps by them) in interesting dishes. They offer a seven-dish chef’s menu that seemed appealing, so we ordered that, together with biodynamic beers (again, made for them) and settled in. We shared our table with a Swiss former food blogger who had long heard about Manfreds and was treating himself after having driven to Copenhagen from three hours away to drop his mother off at the airport, and from him we learned that Manfreds is owned by the same people who are behind Relae, one of Northern Europe’s most acclaimed restaurants. Sure enough, the meal was exceptional, and we had some very nice and interesting dishes, and were glad of having a 30-minute walk afterwards to work some of it off.

The weather was much more cooperative the next day, so we headed out early to make sure to make the most of it. There were no meetings for us to get to (all our Danish contacts are on vacation!) so it was a gingerbread-scouting mission for us, along with a photo outing. Nyhavn looked much more inviting in bright sunshine than in rain, and wandering the streets was far less tiring than it was the previous day. But the holiday closings made finding a lunch spot a real challenge (we finally found a very local smørrebrød place, where the price we paid for four sandwiches and two drinks was less than we paid the previous day for a single sandwich) and we even stumbled upon the changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace (where the police on duty ironically told us to be on the lookout for pickpockets who apparently target the area relentlessly). We did the requisite schlep to see the Little Mermaid statue, and just as we were starting to flag the weather clouded up and we decided to take another break before dinner, which we had at one of Denmark’s oldest restaurants (“Puk”) where the manager and our waiter turned out to be Kiwis, so we got a free round of akvavit and a sample of some of the country’s strongest beer (not very flavourful, as it happens). It was a very nice coda to what turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful visit to Copenhagen.

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Helsinki Airport, empty at 8pm

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What passes for a Danish hotdog

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Copenhagen

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Copenhagen Waterspout

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen

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Cool spire in Copenhagen

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Another cool Copenhagen spire

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Changing of the Guard, Amalienborg Palace

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Danish guards

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Little Mermaid Statue

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Tallinn Street

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Tallinn Buildings

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Tallinn Door

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Tallinn Roofs

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Russian Church in Tallinn

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Tallinn

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Tallinn from a Steeple

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Tallinn

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Copenhagen City Hall

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Copenhagen

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Copenhagen

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Rainy Copenhagen

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Copenhagen

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Copenhagen

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen

 

 

 

Posted by: JLG | 16 July 2017

Sweden and Finland

After our wonderful visit to Berlin (wonderful in that we enjoyed the city a lot, not so much that the business side of it was so promising) we flew out of the city on Thursday morning for Sweden. Being old pros at the transit system, we took the tram from our hotel to a bus that took us straight to Tegel Airport, one of the dingiest and least inviting airports I have visited in a developed country. Apparently the Germans are working on building a new airport in Berlin, but it has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and other problems, and the government is extremely embarrassed by their predicament, since what self-respecting world leader doesn’t have a state-of-the-art airport these days (the US is excepted since it’s no longer self-respecting or a world leader)? Nonetheless, our check-in was pretty easy despite the crowds and apparent chaos, and our flight on the much-maligned Air Berlin was comfortable and on time.

We arrived in Stockholm rather early, but had to rush to get to our hotel in time to check in and get to our first meeting of the day, which was to be at around 11:30am. Things started to look dicey when our flight’s bags took forever to start to arrive on the carrousel, and then they seemed to stop arriving just after my bag had been delivered but before J2’s was. Fortunately, after a brief delay, a few more bags came to the terminal, among them J2’s, and we were off to find the bus that I had pre-booked into town.

The reputation of Sweden for being expensive is justly earned. Everything here was quite a bit pricier than in Berlin, and the transport from the airport was no exception. NZ$50 for the bus into town seemed rather high, but there appeared to be no better option so that’s what we did. The bus only took us as far as the City Railway Terminal, and from here it was a bit of a walk to our hotel, which we did not think we should risk doing when time was of the essence. So I bought a 72-hour transit card, figuring that would be the safest option and would give us a way to get from place to place around the city. Even this was not at all cheap–it was also NZ$50 or so–but it was better than getting a fine for being without a ticket…

Our hotel, the Scandic Anglais, was recommended by a friend, and it was very centrally located and has a nice lobby area. Our room was also on the top floor (the 8th) which promised to be quieter than lower floors, since it’s on a busy street. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of being on the top floor is that that’s where all the heat seems to collect, and since we arrived on a very sunny day, the top floor was getting baked by the sun, yet the room had no obvious means of regulating the temperature. But we had no time to deal with this, we had a meeting to get to way on the other side of town.

The meeting was OK, with a very nice (and handsome) young travel agent, but his agency neither sends a lot of guests to NZ, nor do they really deal with the high-end. But he has been in the industry for a while and was able to refer us to several other people, and a few of them were able to meet with us during our time in Sweden, so that was a plus. When we were done with the meeting, we grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby café and then put our transit card to good use by taking a ferry from where we were to where we wanted to be, the Vasa ship museum.

As we made our way around Stockholm we observed that it’s not quite the same as when I was last here in 1986. Back then it was pretty universally blond and blue-eyed, and seeing someone who was not meant that they were most likely a tourist. Now, however, there are far more dark and swarthy people, including quite a few in headscarves and the like, and there were even a number of Roma begging on the streets and outside churches, shopping centres, etc. None of them gave us any trouble, but it was definitely a change. Also, back then the tourists were mostly Americans and other Europeans, whereas today there were copious numbers of Chinese, Russians, and Japanese (and Americans still seem to be here in large numbers). It’s also much more noticeable how much people smoke here (this was also true in Germany), perhaps since we are now accustomed to people not smoking in the US and in NZ.

The Vasa museum has also changed–back in 1986 it was relatively newly opened, and the building it was housed in was fairly basic, whereas now it’s a vast multi-storey modern building with fascinating information about how this 17th-century wooden military ship was built, and then sank within a mile of the harbour on its maiden voyage, sinking to the bottom of the sea and landing in silt that ended up preserving it for 333 years until it was salvaged in 1961. It’s now the best-preserved 17th-century wooden ship, and as interesting as seeing the ship itself is, it’s also really something to learn how they managed to preserve it, and what they learned in the 30 years since I was last here about how some of what they had done was actually going to cause the ship to deteriorate (such as not regulating the ambient temperature and humidity from the influences of all the visitors who come, heating the building up and breathing in the confined space).

When we were done with the museum we met up with our friend Jeff, who is from the US but whose mother married a Swede in the 1980s and has lived here ever since. He is visiting for a few months and met with us to give us a bit of a walking tour of some of the sites, including Stockholm’s synagogue and nearby memorial to Raoul Wallenberg (which has to number among the most opaque memorials I have ever seen–I have no idea what it is supposed to represent, other than his signature, which he used to sign the passports that he issued to Hungarian Jews trying to escape the Nazis). At the end of our walk was a visit with Jeff’s mom and her Swedish husband, Bo. Their apartment is vast, and full of art (Bo is a painter) and they treated us to some lovely Swedish canapés and drinks before we departed for dinner at Den Gyldene Freden, one of the world’s (and surely Stockholm’s) oldest restaurants, for dinner, in the Old Town of Stockholm. J2 was determined to have Swedish meatballs, while I had two starters, one a selection of herring prepared in a few different ways, and the other a piece of rye bread with a salmon concoction on top, and both very good indeed.

We got back to the hotel around 11pm, and found that our room was still stifling. We also learned that our remote control wouldn’t operate the TV, and that there was no indication of how to ring the front desk for help (the phone had three buttons that were clearly meant to be used for things like room service, the front desk, etc, but the labels were faded and illegible). So I went downstairs and asked the front desk for help, but the guy on duty was completely clueless. He said he had no batteries for the remote, and he was new so had no idea whom to ask (I suggested an empty room might have working batteries in its remote, but that was a bridge too far). He also said he did not know how to regulate the room’s temperature, so that we should open a window (we had already thought of that, and did so earlier, but it was still hot as hell in there, and leaving a window open was going to let light in when the sun rose very very early in the Scandinavian summer). I guess not all hotels have the service standards that we do…

The next day we had meetings in the morning, including one with a Kiwi who has been living in Sweden for a decade or more, followed by a free day to wander around. The weather was beautiful again, so it was great for photographs, and we found a few gingerbread contenders. In the evening we again met up with Jeff for a drink and dinner, this time at a less fancy place, though still within eyeshot of the previous night’s meal. Here J2 had Swedish meatballs (better than last night) and I had venison with chanterelles and juniper jelly, which was great. After a short walk we were back at the hotel, where even after two more people to activate our room’s air conditioning nothing had happened, though happily for us it was a bit cooler that night than the previous one.

In the morning we found ourselves at loose ends with nothing really to do before our flight. Deciding that we weren’t in the mood for a museum or walking tour, we opted to make the most of our transit card and use local transport to get to the airport, which involved: 1) walking to the City Terminal; 2) taking a tram out to some suburb; 3) boarding a bus to the airport. The journey took us around 90 minutes altogether, but we had nothing better to do and we felt like we had beaten the system.

We landed in very rainy Helsinki toward 5pm with the time change (one hour ahead of Sweden) and boarded a bus into town, which dropped us off not too far from our hotel, at the central railway station. Having been to Helsinki countless times, I felt I knew my way to the hotel, but ended up using Google Maps to help out since I didn’t think J2 would appreciate walking around any longer than necessary in the downpour. This hotel, the Helka, is pretty nice, though it’s under renovation and our room was on a floor that has not quite been finished–for example, the hallway leading to our room was uncarpeted and had wires lying across. Also, the doors in this hotel open outward, and ours was at the very end of the hall, and opened in such a way that you had no room to put your suitcase out of the way of the opening door, necessitating that we do a bit of a weird luggage dance to get in the room.

I had booked us a table at a restaurant for dinner, since a NZ-based Finnish travel agent recommended it so highly that I didn’t want to miss it. Restaurant Jurri is in the centre of town, and we had very little time to get there so we took an Uber, surprised to have a Somali guy driving us. Sure enough the restaurant was busy, and the food was exceptional. They serve modern interpretations of Finnish dishes, and specialise in what they call ‘sapas’, which is similar to tapas. To start they gave us an amuse bouche of carrot soup with carrot purée and marinated carrot that we absolutely loved (and plan to copy), and then we shared two sapas–a dish of very rare thinly sliced horse with rhubarb and horseradish, and another of pork sausage with goat ragout, smoked red pepper sauce and ground elder leaves. We also ordered main courses–in my case a piece of pike perch with lemon sauce, cucumbers and a dill-based tzatziki, and in J2’s a cutlet of lamb with celery purée and broad bean “cassoulet”. It was all delicious, as were the local beers we enjoyed with them. A good find!

We rushed back to the hotel so that we could take care of laundry, something that I wasn’t sure we’d manage to get done before reaching Vietnam. Happily for us there’s a new coin-op laundry business in Finland (with aspirations to open around the world) where for a reasonable price you can do a load of wash in 30 minutes (the price even includes the soap, which the machines add automatically) and then dry in around 25. What a find!

The next day we had two meetings starting early, so we walked our way to the centre of town (the rain had ended and we had a beautiful, though brisk, start to the day) and after the second meeting we stopped into the office of an agency that we had wanted to see in Stockholm but had no time to do so, where they graciously took our information and gave us the email of someone who might be receptive to receiving our promotional info.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around town, and quickly coming to the conclusion that, much as I have a deep and abiding fondness for Helsinki, it’s just not that lovely a city. Sure, there are a few nice churches and the harbour area is nice, but it’s a bit utilitarian and not really rewarding to wander around. We had a nice lunch in the market hall next to the harbour, and I enjoyed chatting with one of the vendors about her tinned bear meat (made with some of the 130 bears that got culled last year), but otherwise we were left a bit bereft. We took a ferry out to Suomenlinnen, the island fortress that was built by the Swedes, taken over by the Russians, and finally put under Finnish control 100 years ago, but while that was interesting in spots it took barely 90 minutes to cover, so we returned to town and had a break in the hotel before meeting up  with that NZ-based Finnish agent and her family for a drink on the waterside. During our chat with her we discussed what to do the next day, since we had no meetings and our flight to Copenhagen isn’t until 11pm, and she recommended a ferry outing to Tallinn in Estonia, just a two-hour journey from Helsinki. She didn’t have to twist J2’s arm, since for him this meant adding another country to his roster, and I was excited to see the place after an absence of 25 years. So I got online and booked us on the 7:30am trip out, and the 4:30pm trip back, and we set out in search of dinner. This was a bit of a challenge, since several of the places that we found via Yelp were closed for the Finnish summer holidays, but we finally found a satisfactory place near our hotel (albeit one where only one of us could find suitable local fare–I had a bowl of salmon soup with black bread while J2 made do with a burger). We made it an early night, given our early start tomorrow, packing our stuff and watching a bit of the news (on French TV, since the only other English-language options available in our hotel were from China and Russia) before bed.

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Stockholm

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Venison with Chanterelles

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Swedish meatballs

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Stockholm waterfront

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Stockholm spire

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On the ferry in Stockholm

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Stockholm spire

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Us in Stockholm

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Stockholm market

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Royal Palace, Stockholm

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Stockholm Old Town

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Stockholm Old Town

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Stockholm

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Changing of the Guard, Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Tesla cab in Stockholm

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NZ venison for sale in Stockholm

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Vasa Museum

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Vasa Museum

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Vasa Museum

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Swedish Meatballs, Den Gyldene Freden

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Herring assortment, Den Gyldene Freden

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Salmon on Rye, Den Gyldene Freden

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Stockholm

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Bear Meat, Helsinki

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Russian church, Helsinki

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Military Band, Helsinki

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Suomenlinnen

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Suomenlinnen

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Suomenlinnen

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Helsinki Cathedral

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Salmon at Helsinki Market

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Karelian pastry

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Smoked salmon sandwich, Helsinki

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Smoked reindeer sandwich

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Russian church, Helsinki

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Burger in Helsinki

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Salmon cream soup, Helsinki

Posted by: JLG | 14 July 2017

Munich and Berlin

We flew into Munich overnight on 5/6 July, arriving in the Bavarian capital just after noon during a heatwave. As Kiwified as we are, we no longer can manage in 30C (82F) temperatures as we once could, and we sweltered as we waited for our bags to be delivered. From the airport we took the cost-effective S-Bahn into town, which is very convenient, especially since I had chosen our hotel based on its proximity to the town’s central train station. But since Germans fear little in the world more than a draft (and I don’t mean the military kind), there was absolutely no air to be had in the train, whether from an air conditioner or from an open window. Several of our fellow passengers made a stab at opening the windows, but, while German trains may sometimes have windows, they are only there for show, apparently.

We arrived in Munich a few pounds lighter, and walked the short distance to our hotel, a quirky place called Cocoon that seems to have been modelled on a Swiss chalet, since there was a huge photo of cows over our bed and there was hay in the partition between the sleeping area and the bathroom. On that subject, it seems that the trend of installing glass partitions between the bathroom and sleeping area has not abated, yet if there is one thing I hate about modern hotel rooms it is this senseless aesthetic. Do they not consider the possibility that one half of a couple staying in a room may be an early riser, whose illumination of the bathroom would surely wake the other half? Please write your congressman and get this stamped out!

Anyway, we quickly cleaned ourselves up and headed out to attend our first meeting of the European part of our trip, with a travel agent who had sent us only a few guests so far, but all of them have sent her back such glowing reports that she was only too happy to meet with us. (In fact, it’s one of her clients whom we’ll be visiting in Frankfurt later on in our travels.) This travel agency is very bling-y, with billowing silk hangings all over the ground-level sales area and vaguely Oriental-ish nooks where they could meet with clients. We had a very nice meeting, and within a day of it we even got a new booking from her!

That taken care of, we returned to the room for a bit of a nap before meeting with Damir, another agent whom we had met on our last Munich visit, for an evening at a beer garden. These are of course a prominent feature in Munich, and on such a hot day, the one the agent had chosen was full to capacity, despite being one of the largest one in town. This was the Augustiner-Keller, located quite close to our hotel. The benches are all very close to one another and very few spots were unoccupied, but we managed to find three spots together and we went and bought ourselves three huge steins of beer and a few enormous pretzels with obazda, the Bavarian cheese-beer-onions-and-paprika concoction that Damir introduced to last time we met. We always have a good time with Damir, and this was no different, and somehow we managed to down three litres of beer each before the end of the evening, and yet we still stayed up well past 10pm, perfect to help us acclimate to the time zone.

On the next day we had a few more meetings, this time with new agencies to us, and they went very well, too. We also had a nice lunch of wursts at the Viktualienmarkt and made our way for dinner to another beer garden, where this time we had just one beer and a proper dinner–a fantastic duck leg for me and a crisp-cooked pork knuckle for J2. I never would have thought J2 could finish his pork knuckle, but the bone was clean when he was done–I guess all the walking around I forced upon him caused him to work up an appetite.

On Saturday we made our way back to the railway station to catch the train to Berlin. I had taken the train between Munich and Berlin once before, way back in 1987 when I worked for the summer at Radio Free Europe. Back then, of course, the trip crossed through the territory of East Germany, and no stops were made in cities like Jena and Leipzig that were verboten without a visa. Now those cities are part of the Federal Republic and Berlin is no longer bisected by a wall, and the train journey was extremely fast, considering the distance covered. We had a first class ticket, too, so our seats were relatively comfortable and we were offered complimentary gummi bears.

When we arrived into Berlin Central Station I was shocked by how different it was from the rather cramped and dingy station I remember from 30 years ago. Now it’s huge with a modern glass exterior and countless shops and restaurants. It was noticeably cooler in Berlin than in Munich, which was a welcome change, especially since the walk to our hotel was a bit longer in the capital–close to 15 minutes, made even longer by the fact we were lugging our bags.

I chose our hotel for the three nights we’d be in Berlin more or less at random, based on reviews I’d seen and wanting to be close to the station. The one I picked was called i-31, in honour of its address–Invalidenstraße 31. When we got there, I was immediately pleased with my decision. Not only was the lobby area smart and welcoming, but it turned out that the room was huge (for Europe), came with free fast WiFi, and the minibar contents were complimentary. They even offer free gummi bears in the lobby area (what’s with the gummi bears??). On top of that, the location of the hotel could not have been better, since it is between two metro stations and is surrounded by bus and tram stops.

On our arrival day we decided to head right away to start visiting the city, a new one for J2 and one I had not visited in about 15 years, so we started at a sort of ground zero–the former Checkpoint Charlie. I actually crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie in 1987, despite knowing that, as an employee of Radio Free Europe, I was not supposed to enter Eastern Europe at all. I remember the anxiety I felt as I walked from the American guards on the Western side, through the no-man’s land that I knew was mined, wired, and closely observed by snipers on the Eastern side, and then passed through GDR passport control. (I also remember having to change a fixed number of Deutschemarks into Ostmarks at a very unfavourable exchange rate–and not being permitted to change them back–and having a very hard time finding anything to spend them on, so I would up treating myself to a splurge of a meal, enjoying caviar and champagne despite my penury and student status.) Those days are long gone now! The checkpoint is now in the middle of a busy tourist area, with many shops and restaurants and a museum housed in one of the buildings that once stood on the Western side recounting the history of the divided city. There is even a renowned currywurst stand where we enjoyed a bite to eat to refresh us before viewing the museum.

It was a lovely evening, so we wandered from Checkpoint Charlie to find dinner, opting for Der Meisterstuck, a place that was reputedly a good spot for wursts and beer. The meal was as good as promised, and set us up nicely for a leisurely walk back to our hotel through Berlin-Mitte. As we walked I came to the conclusion that our hotel was in fact located in the former East, a supposition that was later confirmed. Considering how even in 2002 there was a marked difference between the East and West sides of the city, it’s amazing that those difference are now largely gone.

The next day was Sunday, so we took ourselves out for a walk around town, starting out by trying to find our way back to some buildings that we noticed during the previous evening’s walk and wanted to check out in better light. One of these was the new synagogue, whose enormous bulbous dome and bright gold and blue colours drew our attention immediately. The building is not actually new–it was built in the 1800s–but when it was new it was quite the thing, since it was a modern synagogue that drew less religious Jews of the day. Even the future Kaiser Willhelm attended its inauguration. Unfortunately, it suffered tremendous damage during Kristallnacht and the Allied bombings, and lost its roof, but the roof was rebuilt during the GDR period and renovated recently. The heavy police presence around the building indicate that things are still a bit dicey here, but alas the building was not open so we did not get to go in.

There are countless monuments and memorials to the many atrocities that took place in Berlin in the 20th Century, and we saw quite a few of them, including the monument to the Roma and Sinti (aka Gypsies), persecuted homosexuals, the murdered Jews of Europe, and others. We visited the moving Holocaust Memorial with its deceptively moving monument, which looks from the street fairly innocuous, but as you wander through it, you realise that the ground is disconcertingly uneven and you can quickly become disoriented and lost as you try to find your way out, much as the Jews caught in the Third Reich must have felt. We also got to wander Unter den Linden a bit, and walk through the Brandenburg Gate, which in all my previous visits to Berlin was either off-limits (1987) or covered by wrapping while it was under restoration (2002). We visited the fascinating museum called the Topography of Terror, which is housed at the site of the former Gestapo HQ not far from the Gate, where outdoor panels illustrate the coming to power of the Nazis and their imposition of totalitarian control over the populace. I was not the only one present who was making comparisons with the current situation in the US, as evidenced by several comments I overheard. Inside the museum they go into great detail about the work of the secret police and the criminal police in enforcing Nazi doctrine on Germans and conquered nations, and then into the work done to bring them to justice after the war. It was a fascinating museum, and one that you leave with a rather sick feeling. J2 decided to take a bit of a break at the hotel after this, while I headed out to a section of the wall that still stands very close to our hotel, where there was a fascinating memorial put up recounting the experience of local residents in 1961 and beyond after the wall was erected.

After J2’s break and my wander around the memorial we were ready for dinner, so we made our way to the Nikolaiviertel, a charming corner of the city in the former Eastern side with a beautiful church dominating a small square with lovely shops and cafes. Our meal was very good, and the beer even better.

While we enjoyed wandering around Berlin over the past 36 hours or so, the purpose of our visit was of course to meet with travel agents, two of which we had set up meetings with. One of them wrote to us over the weekend to advise that his grandmother had fallen gravely ill and he’d have to miss us, though his colleagues were looking forward to our visit. So that day, which started off rather rainy (the first rain of the trip) we started off from our hotel, buying a day-pass for the local transit system to head over that way. When we got to the office there was only one man there, and he knew nothing about us. We explained the situation, and he knew that our guy would be out, but it turned out that just about everyone else called in sick, too. So we left him our brochures and continued on our way.

Our next meeting wasn’t for several hours, so we had time to kill. On Saturday, when J2 started to try to take some photos, it turned out that his lens was kaput, and there was no fixing it, so I did some research and found a camera store with good prices where we could replace it, but not until Monday (shops in Germany do not open on Sunday). We made our way to this shop, conveniently located not far from where our meeting would be, bought the lens and then visited some nearby things, including the amazing KaDeWe department store and the Kaiser-Willhelm-Kirche, which was badly damaged during WW2 and left unrestored as a war memorial. After lunch we thought we’d see if we could move our meeting up a bit, so I sent the guy an email, which immediately was replied to with an auto-response that he would be out of the office all week! So I phoned his office and spoke to a lady who confirmed that indeed he was out, though she was happy to meet us if we could come right away. We sped over there, and met, though I don’t think it was a terribly worthwhile session. So much for Berlin!!

The silver lining was that the rain had let up by now so we dropped off our stuff at the hotel where I then went to visit a bit more of the wall memorial (it’s 1.3km long, so it take some time to take in) before we headed out to Kreuzberg for dinner. The first place we headed to turned out not to be open, so we found another place nearby that turned out to be very nice, though neither of us was able to finish the enormous pork hocks that we ordered, despite finding them to be delicious. We needed to walk off the dinner afterwards, so we hoofed it to another wall memorial, this one a spot where artists from around the world were invited to paint the sections as a form of peace protest. From there we boarded a tram for the rather long ride back to our hotel. After just one stop, the ticket controllers came on board (in Berlin, the transit system works on the honour system–you are expected to stamp your valid ticket at the beginning of the journey, so it’s rather easy to get on without a ticket, but if a controller boards and finds you without a valid ticket you are fined a steep 60 Euros) and we presented our day tickets…or thought we did. It turns out that when J2 changed in the hotel, he took the wrong ticket out of his bag and instead had one from our first day in town. The controllers made us get off the tram, explained the situation and made us pay the Euros 60 on the spot. They also told us we’d have to buy a new ticket when we got on the next tram, so it was quite an expensive mistake! On top of that, the next tram inexplicably stopped running only two stops after we boarded, and no other tram of that number was going to come, so we had to do a quick revision of our travel plan to figure out how to get back to our hotel. We finally made it, a bit chagrinned, but able to laugh at the comedy of our error.

The next morning we had an early departure

Posted by: JLG | 9 July 2017

Reunion Time

My train journey to DC from NY was swift and uneventful. It went especially quickly thanks to my using the time to update this blog, so I figure I’ll take advantage of my now being on a train between Munich and Berlin and see if lightning will strike the same place twice.

When I arrived in DC I caught a glimpse of my first piece of Trumpware at the little kiosk that has always sold flags and political paraphernalia. Unfortunately they did not have the hat I wanted to buy, one that read “Make America Great Again” in large letters, but with “Impeach Trump” below it. (If no one makes this hat yet, you are welcome to use my idea, as long as the proceeds go to the resistance movement.) I made my way by metro to meet J2 at the Tysons Corner shopping mall, where we spent a few hours doing some damage to our credit card balance by taking advantage of an amazing sale at Macy’s, where we’d have had to be crazy not to buy something.

Our hosts for our time in the DC area were due home from work around 5:30, so we made our way to their house then and after a quick hello and a bottle of excellent Dogfish Head craft beer, we headed to dinner at one of our favorite places in the area, Myanmar, for an excellent dinner of Burmese dishes. The next day we had a lunch with my old Chowhound friends at a surprisingly good Italian place in a shopping mall that didn’t even exist when we last lived in the area.

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Contrast in vehicles

Unlike previous visits to DC, this time the vast majority of our time was to be spent not in the immediate area, but instead in West Virginia, at our hosts’ country house. I had last been to this house back in 1988 or so when my friends and I finished our MAs. One of my fondest memories of that house was the wall covered in Balinese masks that dominated the large sitting area, and which I had mentioned to J2 many times over the years. Imagine therefore our disappointment to learn on arrival that the masks had been taken down and stored unceremoniously in the house’s attic! The first night in WV we were joined by one of our classmates, a friend of his and his great dog, Junie, and we got right into the spirit of the weekend by eating a tremendous dinner after downing a number of cocktails.

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One of the great pieces that remains on view at the house

On our second day in WV we ventured out into the surrounding area to experience some of the culture of Appalachia. One of our stops, and one that everyone else talked up enormously before our arrival, was the Rio Mall (pronounced “rye-oh”), which turned out to be nothing more than a tumbledown building stuffed to the gills with all manner of junk that I couldn’t imagine would be of interest to anyone. But sure enough, not only did our friends find something to buy (for kitsch value) but we saw a number of locals come through and find all sorts of things that apparently they had a use for. This really gave me a sense of the disparity between my experience of America as a member of the coastal elite and what much of the rest of the country experiences, and gave me a bit more understanding of why Trump became the president last year.

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One of our many gatherings

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The Rio Mall

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West Virginia starscape

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West Virginia nature

More friends came and joined us at the house, so that at our peak we had no fewer than 17 people staying in this four-bedroom house, with sleeping bags sprawled all over the place, just like it had been during our grad school days. I can’t imagine a better way to have spent the July Fourth weekend, and we all had a blast reconnecting after, in some cases, a long gap since our last gathering. We returned to DC on the fourth, stopping en route to see a friend of J2 about halfway between WV and DC, where we had a bit of fun dealing with getting our rental car open after I stupidly locked the keys in the car. Normally that would be a challenge, but it was more so since it was a big national holiday, but we managed to get a locksmith out relatively quickly, and we were not too late getting into DC. We again spent the night at our friends’ house, this time with the addition of our friends from Boston also staying (they were also in WV with us and wanted to break up the drive home) and since we couldn’t bear the idea of cooking one more time, we instead wandered across the street to a newly opened Northeastern Thai restaurant where we had a fantastic meal. (It is worth noting that all my grad school classmates were students of Asia, and spent most of our careers working in and on that continent, so we tend to gravitate toward Asian cuisines when we’re together.)

 

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Scenes from the Air & Space Museum, including a study in contrast

We checked out of our friends’ place at last on the morning of July 5, spending the day taking care of some errands, including grabbing lunch at our favorite local Jewish delicatessen and meeting friends of J2 for dinner at our favorite microbrewery-cum-restaurant (where J2 had dined twice before I joined him in DC). We even made time to visit the Northern Virginia branch of the National Air and Space Museum for a bit of a cultural experience before leaving the Capital Area.

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Friends sent us this photo of our old house in Virginia

Late on the evening of the 5th it was off to Dulles Airport for our flight to Munich, which, now that we’re accustomed to the 12-hour flights associated with getting to and from New Zealand, seemed like it took no time at all at merely 7 hours. But you’ll have to wait to read about that, and our time in Germany, until my next post.

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