Monthly Archives: June 2012

Red Sea Rendezvous

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Where: Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt

Evening sky from our balcony. *sigh*

Plate of food: You will have to forgive me, but the best food I had in Sharm-el-Sheikh was at Rangoli, an Indian restaurant on-site at our hotel. Keep in mind that this was at the end of a wonderful 3 week trip through Egypt, and once in a while you need a slight departure from the local cuisine (as tasty as it is). This was not your average take-away curry; not in flavour, nor in price. This was exquisite, refined Indian food. And it needed to be great because the view was so incredible that I may have ignored my plate completely if not for such complex flavours enticing me. We sat outside in the balmy evening air with views out across the dark waters of Naama Bay, the twinkling lights of the city centre, and the dusky hills beyond. Stunning. Oh, and the samosas? Yum.

The best: Snorkeling in the Red Sea. We could walk directly from our room down the hill to one of the hotel’s private beaches, which is about as far as I wanted to walk in that Egyptian heat. The cool water was a huge relief, but that first glimpse of the coral reef just off the beach was extraordinary.

One of the beaches…don’t worry you can go check airline ticket prices in a moment.

We would swim a short distance over the top of the reef, its ragged top making my tender knees nervous, until we would swim right off the edge of the reef plateau. There we would station ourselves with our backs to the open sea (probably not sound advice with regards to shark attacks), facing the wall of the reef as it plunged to the sandy sea floor.

In contrast to the dull top of the reef, the wall was a riot of colour and movement. With water so perfectly clear, we watched spellbound as small bright fish darted about, larger fish lazily looped past, and broad sea fans slowly swayed in the current. Everywhere we looked there was another colour, size, or pattern of fish. They were all the lovely tropical ones I had seen in my dentist’s waiting room fish tank….only, well, better.

The deeper water was cool, though, and eventually we would reluctantly return to the beach to warm up (that only took approximately 4.5 seconds). A few more pages of our books or a few moments gazing at the one cloud floating past, then back into the inviting waters we would go. I never tired of it.

Story that needs to be told: 2 things that you never want to happen when you are flying (other than the obvious…):

  1. Hear the pilot begin his announcement with “Well, if any of you are religious….” Turns out he was just breaking the news that Pope John Paul II had died, but – SHEESH – there were some nervous moments wondering why we would need to pray.
  2. Find out that your plane traveled from Cairo completely devoid of ANY luggage.

Both of these things happened on our way to Sharm-el-Sheikh for the final few days of our Egyptian adventure. The second one was a bit of a bother.

We waited in the Sharm-el-Sheikh airport while the luggage conveyor belt silently circled. For a really long time. Eventually we were told that no luggage was loaded onto the plane before it departed Cairo. Huh.

I like to imagine what those baggage handlers in Sharm-el-Sheikh thought when they opened the hold to find it completely empty. Not just missing a few bags, but empty. I also like to imagine what prevented the baggage handlers in Cairo from doing their sole task. Forgot? Couldn’t be bothered? Thought we all overpacked anyway?

Two airline officials turned up with clipboards to start filling in lost baggage claim forms for every passenger. The foreigners dutifully queued up to wait.

And wait.

And strangely never move ahead in the queue. That’s because the locals would shrewdly step in at the front of the queue. Never had I felt so hobbled and let down by my good Canadian manners.

When it was our turn to fill in the form, the official seemed fairly laidback with regards to critical contact information. That is to say, he neglected to take the name of our hotel or a contact phone number. We suggested that those details would be helpful in reuniting us with our bags. He reluctantly scribbled it down and told us to expect our bags later that night.

We never received a call, and our calls to the airline went unanswered, so in the morning (with the same clothes on because that always makes you feel like a million bucks…) we took a taxi back to the airport. Our plan was to force people to deal with our plight by looking them straight in the eye rather than down a dodgy phone line.

Security is tight at the airport, though. Or rather, security is rampant at the airport, but not particularly tight. Armed with baksheesh – small bills for bribing tipping – we effortlessly sailed through security check points, metal detectors, and even customs. It was hard to feel triumphant without feeling seriously unsettled.

Once on the “other side”, an official from the lost baggage office seemed perplexed by our complaints that no one had called us about our bags. With a bored expression, he led us through the terminal until we reached a large pile of luggage heaped on the floor. He gestured toward it.

Suddenly it dawned on us that our bags were somewhere in that pile. Disposed of. In the middle of the airport. Unattended. With no hope or intention of ever being reunited with any passenger.

In fact, if you were on that flight in 2005, your bags are still there if you want to pick them up.

With relief we spotted our bags and hauled them out of there. We asked the guy if he would have ever called us or delivered our bags to the hotel, to which he just shrugged his shoulders. And then extended his hand and asked “Baksheesh?”

Yeah, right.

“Most travel is best of all in the anticipation or the remembering;

the reality has more to do with losing your luggage.” Regina Nadelson

Who needs luggage? Okay, I do, but in this moment I didn’t care.

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Isn’t it 5 o’clock somewhere??

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Well, we have had stunner, my friends! We broke 1000 all-time views of this “little blog that could”! Thank you so much for visiting, for reading, for allowing me to share my stories.

We should celebrate, no? That usually means a drink (you must know this about me by now), but since it is early Monday morning that just feels like we would be on the verge of needing an intervention. Instead I am going to poach an egg, get the kidlets dressed, buy some shoes, and rely heavily on convenience foods for dinner. Man, that’s a buzzkill…let’s get back to where we were going to celebrate….

Thank you again. It’s 5 kinds of greatness traveling with you.

Perfect Groningen

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Often on the weekend I find myself daydreaming about what I would do on a Saturday in a certain city. Usually it is the cities I have lived in and I can vividly picture what I would do, where I would go, and what I would eat on this imaginary Saturday. It is a Perfect Saturday because the weather is perfect, I’m wearing that pair of shoes that makes me happy (we all have them), my hair is cooperating, and there is no limit to how many meals I can have on this fantasy day. Do you do this? Or am I the only one who is terrible at ‘living in the moment’, not to mention ‘living in the same continent’?

Let’s have a Perfect Saturday in Groningen, The Netherlands, where I lived for 4 years. This is gonna be….well, perfect!

  • Let’s leave the apartment and walk 50m to the Vismarkt where the Saturday market is already bustling. There are vegetable and fruit stalls at one end, cheese and meats in the middle, and fish and “frites” down the other end. We’ll go to the bakery stall and buy some fresh ham and cheese croissants still warm from the oven. Then we’ll cross over the cobblestones to the flower stalls that stretch all the way down the street. We go to our flower guy who we buy from every week and choose bunches of peonies or tulips. Check the change he gives you for counterfeit coins (yes, it happened. I went back the next week and bought a bouquet from him. I paid him with the same coin and a knowing smirk. Ka-ching).

Lovely Dutch flowers! Just don’t try to screw me over.

  • We go home and eat our croissants on our roof-top patio in the sunshine. We drink our coffee, listen to Keane (their album will be forever linked with our time in Groningen), and look out at the Aa Church steeple and the sugar beet factory chimney in the distance. On the wind we can smell the sweet, earthy scent of sugar beets being cooked. It pervades the city in the Autumn and is strangely comforting. It is far better than when the wind blows from the tobacco factory and the city unfortunately smells like wet cigarette butts.

Stunning sunset from our deck. That’s the sugar beet factory chimney in the distance. Breathe deep!

  • Out we go again to walk the diverse shopping streets (with names that translate to “Big Crooked Elbow” street). We will watch with amusement as Dutch men happily buy red pants. This is a genuine phenomenon: read about it here. They love some red pants, and to their credit, they can pull off that look with relative ease. Not possible for the rest of us, though, so don’t get any fancy ideas.

A busy Saturday afternoon on Herestraat, a main shopping street. 50 points if you can spot red pants.

  • Let’s stop at a cafe for lunch. I always liked Het Land Van Kokanje where we can sit beneath huge chandeliers and Art Deco stained glass windows. There is no question that we have to order a bowl of snert. The name is terribly off-putting, but hold fast because it is delicious. Snert is a thick split pea soup with slices of pork sausage in it. Thin slices of dark rye bread usually come alongside. It is traditionally served in the winter as a hearty, warming meal. Now, my Perfect Saturday in Groningen is not in the winter (let’s be honest, that would be less than perfect), but due to freedom of fantasy I can have snert whenever I want. (Never thought I would type those words…)
  • We’ll take our bikes now and cycle north out of the city centre. Our bikes are proper upright Dutch bikes with maximum 3 gears, a “dynamo” wheel generated light, a bell, and a luggage rack on the back. The second-hand bikes clunk and rattle as we go over the cobblestones, but we have an easy jaunt along crowded streets past the University and to the canal that rings the city centre. On we go, through leafy residential neighbourhoods until we reach the green haven of Noorderplantsoen. This is a large public park with meandering paths and duck ponds. We’ll sit awhile under the big trees in the afternoon sun working up a thirst for our next stop.

Just surrender to the fact that you will feel more like Mary Poppins than Lance Armstrong on these bikes.

  • Back on the bikes and back into the main square (Grotemarkt) where we will sit outside and order a beer and bitterballen. These are deep-fried, breaded balls of meat ragout. Appetizing, right? Right? Again, just hold fast because with a touch of mustard and a cold beer to wash it down…it will be great. We have prime seats to watch the comings and goings of the city against the backdrop of the impressive Martini Tower. The pub we sit at may well be De Drie Gezusters (The Three Sisters) which is cleverly interconnected with multiple pubs along one side of the market square. Once inside you can weave through tables, passageways, booths, and serving bars until you stumble out of the front door of a property 100m away. Funny. Or, if it is after a particularly dubious night, extremely disconcerting.

The main square with city hall on the right. As seen from the top of the vertigo-inducing Martini Tower.

  • As the market winds down and the shops close, we can make our way to dinner which will be without a doubt at Cervantes, a tapas bar (okay, okay, it’s not Dutch, but how much snert and bitterballen can one handle in 24 hours??). You know how I love my menu-stoppers (remind yourself here and here), and at Cervantes it can only be dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon, then breaded and fried. Spicy, sweet, salty. Amen.
  • Because my Perfect Saturday can weave through months and seasons, we will go back to Noorderplantsoen after dinner for the annual arts festival, Noorderzon. You can hop on the luggage rack of my bike and ride side-saddle . It is a sight often seen, but we will have to work on your running mount onto the back of my bike. The Dutch make it look effortless and smooth, but we can all imagine just how VERY wrong that could go.

Dreamy image of the canal surrounding central Groningen. Truly lovely.

  • At Noorderzon we will enjoy the free music performances while eating poffertjes: small, puffy pancakes served with butter and icing sugar. A dozen of these little gems sit on a paper tray with a Dutch flag toothpick stuck in the top. Eating these morsels under the glowing lanterns hanging from the trees with Groningen gently winding down around us, we give thanks for a Perfect Saturday…and for our large appetites.

We Odda go to Norway! (forgive me)

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Where: Odda, Norway (unfairly called Norway’s ugliest town by Lonely Planet!)

Looking down the fjord from above Odda. Kindly ignore the smelting factory down there.

Plate of food: At the time of our visit, Odda had not expanded its culinary offerings beyond hotdogs (which are a national obsession) and Dolly Dimple’s pizza (arguably another national obsession based on their sheer number of locations). Turns out that suited us just fine because we felt we earned pizza and beer after some day-long hikes and all of that fresh mountain air.

We did eat at a cheerful cafe in Kinsarvik at the other end of the Hardangerfjord. It was nestled next to the camping site and the ferry dock which sums up Kinsarvik in all its glory. The cafe was run by a Kiwi couple who served us some great fish and chips with fish caught from the fjord that morning. I love when you can look up from your plate and see the precise spot your food came from. Doesn’t happen very often, does it? Unless your apartment faces a Dolly Dimple’s….

The best: The beauty of Norway. Odda sits at the edge of a stunning Norwegian fjord in the Hardanger region. It is surrounded by deep green pine forests, glass-like water, and an iron-smelting factory (therein may be the argument for LP’s “ugliest” comment). We arrived there after driving from Stavanger, marveling at the views along the way: thundering waterfalls, rocky peaks, and perfect reflections in the lakes and fjords.

Mirror images from the road to Odda.

On one side of the Hardangerfjord is Folgefonna glacier and on the other there are apple orchards which were in bloom when we were there. It was spectacular to look out across rows of white blossoming trees to the dark waters of the fjord and the icy lip of the glacier above. The composer Edvard Grieg composed some of his most famous works here – it’s no surprise, this scenery nearly rendered me musical, too.

The fruit orchards and Folgefonna glacier on the far side.

Story that needs to be told: One of our hikes took us straight up out of the sleepy town through a pine forest. The path climbed sharply following the equally steep side of the fjord. We stopped often to admire the view and to drink fresh glacial water that poured from special spouts in the hillside. It was refreshing, but we could only drink a few handfuls before our fingers became red and stiff from the cold. We continued up along pathways made bouncy by the deep cover of fragrant pine needles until we reached a waterfall.

This was our destination chosen from our map, but we saw that the route continued upwards. We consulted the map and, indeed, you could follow the path up to a hiker’s hut. We still felt fairly fresh so we decided to forge on.

Soon we were above the tree line, walking through scrubby heather and over great bulges of rock. Out of the protection of the trees the wind howled and we were soon met by the cold air blasting off of the glacier. We piled on the layers we had shed earlier in the day with the exertion of the climb. Up and up we went. Colder and colder it became.

I started to lose interest in our little hike and I’ll tell you why: I knew that freakin’ hut wasn’t worth dying for.

Although we started walking on a sunny spring day, we somehow found ourselves smack dab in a foggy wintery hell. Clouds rolled in, obscuring the view and, more critically, the red-painted ‘T’s that showed the direction of our route. The wind stung our cheeks and cut through our many layers of clothes. Further along, hard-packed snow covered the rocks, making it treacherously slippery. I was forced to adopt the classic “walking on ice” technique. That is: I got low, my arms went wide, and I moved at the same pace as the glacier itself. I also cursed Norwegian weather, the steepness of fjords, and Edvard Grieg (for good measure).

This image does not properly capture the icy blast of glacial air coming from behind me. It does, however, capture my desire for this hike to be over.

Eventually we reached the small wooden hut and went inside. We sat on two simple benches to catch our breath. We looked around at the wooden floor boards, the one small window, and an empty tin can sitting on a beam. Then we looked at each other.

My face said this: “This clearly was not worth it”.

Matt’s face said this: “I’ll buy you a stuffed-crust pizza”.

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Henry David Thoreau

Today’s the day!

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Holy Shazam! Remember when I said that my goal was to surpass 30 views of my blog in one day? Well, my kind friends, you did it! 32 views today! Thank you. Now go celebrate with a glass of red wine, a piece of chocolate, and an episode of Downton Abbey. How rock and roll is THAT?!

Now, we must always look to better ourselves, so we are now aiming for 1000 total all-time views of my blog. We stand at (drum roll)…934. Oh, we are so close now. There will be a reward when we get to 4 digits, people. Some blogs give away iPads, KitchenAids, signed books, etc. I will freely give away…heartfelt compliments. If you leave a comment on the ol’ blog, I will lay the love on thick. Yessir.

Man, I know how to motivate people.

On another note, Canada is by far the country that views my blog the most. Yeehaw! Thanks, Canucks! I will take that as a vote of confidence from my homeland…or just as a vote of solidarity from my extended family. Either way, it’s great. Love the Great White North!

Seriously, though, thank you. The fact that you guys are reading this and coming back for more is humbling and simply wonderful. xx

 

 

A little bag from a big city

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Where: Rome, Italy (you don’t need a map for this one, do you?)

If that’s you in the first floor window, send me a note!

Plate of Food: Well, how long have you got? This could really get out of hand. Choosing a favourite meal in Italy is like choosing a favourite child…although we all know you have one.

One of our trips to Rome was to visit friends who were living there for a year (I know! You love ’em aaaand you hate ’em). They made us a pasta dish on our first night that I still think about and periodically try to recreate. As with all good Italian food, it is simple: rigatoni (large tube pasta), roasted squash, chunks of crispy pancetta, pecorino cheese, and olive oil. Combine. Pile on your plate. Eat. Be closer to God. (Thank you, Steve and Sophie)

We also had lunch at one of their secret neighbourhood restaurants, a place that was hidden behind a large wooden door on a quiet cobbled street. Inside it was a like a rabbit warren, tables tucked in every available corner and all of them packed with locals having lunch. I don’t remember ever seeing a menu (this often bodes well – remember Buonamico?), but suddenly small plates of food began arriving at the table.

First, grilled aubergine, then small balls of mozzarella, then a basket of fresh rustic bread. We passed around the dishes, sampling everything. Next came thin slices of Parma ham, marinated mushrooms, stewed white beans, artichokes, grilled red pepper, juicy melon…ack! The onslaught of deliciousness!

We carefully stacked the dishes 2 or 3 high just to accommodate the selection on our small table. There was so much to taste and savour.

Admittedly not a great photo, but I was disoriented from all that fabulous food.

The best: My first glimpse of the Colosseum. We walked from our tiny hotel by the train station (not a salubrious neighbourhood, just FYI) through a park on a hill just as dusk was approaching. As we crested the hill we saw the Colosseum with the last golden rays of sunshine peaking through the arches. Breathtaking.

That first sighting. Incredible.

We sat and watched the sky turn deep blue, then black, as shadows enveloped the Colosseum’s ruins. Its arches loomed above us, now lit from within. The Colosseum has a commanding presence, partly from its size and impressive architecture, but also from its epic history which seems to seep from its stones even with a modern city bustling around it. Beautiful.

Story that needs to be told: In a move that may have altered the universe forever, I actually made a purchase at one of the designer shops on the famous Via Condotti, at the Prada store to be exact. This was a huge departure from my usual shopping habits at, say, H&M.

View of Via Condotti from the Spanish Steps.

The day before my momentous purchase, I scoped out the store and had my photo taken in front of the open door (no, there is no shame). One of the carefully coiffed women working inside silently closed the door. Point taken.

The following evening we went back and I mustered all the confidence I could in my corduroy trousers and sensible walking shoes (we will never know why I was channeling a 58 year old woman), and walked into the store and straight up the stairs. There the real merchandise was kept in small rooms on sumptuously lit shelves. Delicate garments hung on sparsely stocked rails. The carpet was very plush. There were velvet covered benches and fresh flowers.

Eventually I found the room with the handbags (my carefully selected target; timeless, useful, one size fits all) and set about finding the right one. This was complicated by a thin reed of a woman who busied herself with folding official Prada tissue paper in the same room (the alarm was obviously raised when they caught sight of the corduroy).

It was further complicated by the fact that I could not find a price tag. Anywhere. This was not a place where you wanted to guess at the price. After opening clasps, zippers, and buttons I finally discovered a discreet price card tucked in the innermost pocket of a bag. I then had to repeat that conspicuous unearthing of the price tag with a further 6 bags until I made my choice.

I took it to the tissue paper woman who then took my bag away to be wrapped. I was ushered to the payment area which, surprisingly, was a grimy little counter with a computer. Gone were the soft lights and music. It appears that the veneer of luxury stops when reality hits and money has to exchange hands. Once that deed was done, I was reunited with my bag which was now ensconced in a soft monogrammed pouch and secured within a dark blue Prada shopping bag.

This time the door was held open for me as I left, but really I should have kicked it shut with my well-worn sneaker. Next time.

Great handbag, though.

I have had this shot hanging in every home I’ve lived in since that trip. It takes me right back.

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.

The mind can never break off from the journey.”  Pat Conroy