Thursday, October 25, 2012

Munich (Germany)

Work brings Rich to Munich sometimes, so this time around, I thought I'd join him for the weekend. We just missed the hordes visiting for the city's most famous festival, the 16 days of beer-drinking known as Oktoberfest, but there were still plenty of chances to check out Bavarian culture.

The Viktualienmarkt is a huge outdoor market selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, flowers, and honey. Many stalls do a roaring trade of food and drink over busy counters and picnic tables. We opted for the Munich tradition of weisswurst (fresh white sausage), pretzel, and sweet mustard. By midday, the drinking was already going quite strongly, and we quietly edged away from the bellicose elderly German gesturing wildly with his beer stein at the other end of our table.

The House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria for hundreds of years, built the Munich Residenz. The lovely court garden (Hofgarten) is free, and for a scant 7 euros, you can also visit the inside of the palace. Some of the spaces might seem a bit sparse after the damage done during World War II, but with over 100 rooms open to the public, no visitor could leave without an appreciation for the scale and grandeur. The rich furnishings and architectural elements would provide a veritable feast for an Antiques Roadshow enthusiast with the audio tour continually dropping words like Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. In case the gilded clocks and brocade drapery still weren't immersing you in the history, you might be fortunate to catch a performance in one of the salons by musicians and dancers in period costumes. Be forewarned though, the lead dancer and sometime narrator looked a lot like Captain Hook!

For a more contemporary take, visit the Deutsches Museum on the bank of the Isar river. Though its name might imply differently, it is less about Germany itself so much as celebrating the pride of that country - German engineering. Hall after hall is devoted to pistons, pumps, and all kinds of mechanical devices. There's even a room on robots! Unfortunately, many of the exhibits we would have liked to see running were not (e.g. the model train set, the miniature brick-making factory, and the Frankenstein-looking electrical contraption that begged you to call out "It's alive!" in your best mad scientist voice). Luckily, the waterwheel was going, a glassblower was hard at work, and an old man was resetting the pendulum that indicates the rotation of the earth.

Besides the world's largest museum of science and technology, Munich is also home to one of the world's largest urban parks. The Englischer Garten (bigger than New York's Central Park) is a huge greenspace with little footbridges, small waterfalls, great open plains, and quiet wooded trails. Though the picnickers, footballers, and drum circles packed the lawns, the biggest hubbub could be found at the Chinese pagoda-style tower. From the second floor, an oom-pah band played some traditional tunes before devolving into a swing band, including a rousing rendition of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön. The crowds at the bustling biergarten below and the surrounding horse-drawn carriages were highly appreciative.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

La Mercè 2012 in Barcelona (Spain)

Another year, another La Mercè. Barcelona's major festival is in honor of its patron saint, Our Lady of Mercy, and it was interesting seeing it this time through the fresh eyes of our visiting family. They gasped as the human towers of castellers climbed higher and higher (and had to stop watching after seeing a tumble or two), flashed photo after photo of the dancing gegants and capgrossos (giants and big-headed figures) during the processions, and thought all of Barcelona mad as the diablos of the correfoc (or "fire run") shot rounds and rounds of fireworks into the crowds. The accompanying wine and cava festival was set up by the Arc de Triomf, and we all got a little carried away with our tasting of the local vintages.

Finally making it up to Montjuic, circus-style performers from the invited city of Montreal showed off their magic tricks and acrobatics just outside the walls of the 17th century fortress that overlooks the city. The Canadians could be found down over in the Parc de la Ciutadella, too. A pair of artists channeling Daft Punk danced in sophisticated lighted robot suits to electronic music. Another performer drew scenery and characters with sweeps of sand on a lighted display, which when projected, produced a fascinating kind of shadow puppet theatre. For a more interactive event, there were all sorts of steam punk-style machines - or movable sculptures? - spread throughout the park, and a big stage featured alternately dancing tutorials (even lindy hop!) and some loose kareoke.

While the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city council building) again featured an entertaining light show on its edifice, it was clear that this year, the pièce de résistance was saved for the city's most iconic building - Sagrada Família. Even without adornment, everyone can agree that the facades of Gaudí's masterpiece are impressive. But putting a perfectly executed, three-dimensional light show onto the Nativity Façade was absolutely mind-blowing. The extravaganza highlighted the intricate detail of the carvings, and all the world's creatures seemed to flow forth from the Tree of Life sculpture. The building itself was a chameleon, shifting convincingly from molten gold to crumbling stone to an Eden-like waterfall and even to an under the oceans view. The production was so faultless and so vivid that everyone watching had a minute or two of stunned, jaw-dropped silence before erupting into raucous applause. It was truly one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Paris (France)

The fast train that goes under the English Channel can get you from London to Paris in a scant 2 hours and 15 minutes. High walls obstruct your views of a lot of the English countryside, but the ride was very smooth, and the security obligations were much less onerous than any airport.

In another railway station, the beautiful Musee d'Orsay houses mid-1800 to early-1900 art. The Impressionists and post- artists (Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc.) were out in full force, and though the place was still fairly humming with visitors, I prefer the atmosphere and artwork here than at Paris's most famous museum. The Louvre, aka home of the Mona Lisa, is simply overwhelming. The place is a 12th century palace with all the ostentation one might expect of housing royalty for 500 or so years, and that's just the architecture! Once you pry your eyes away from the ornate ceilings, gallery after gallery holds the roughly 35,000 objects on exhibit everyday. Even with an art student leading another guy and us on a 3 hour crash course tour, we barely saw all the headliners.

For a country so renown for food, we had quite a few so-so and subpar meals, including some truly awful crepes (pre-cooked with underdone eggs and canned mushrooms). This was entirely our fault. Strolling in the crowds along the chestnut-lined Champs-Élysées and realizing suddenly you are all hungry is a deck stacked against you. Our two best meals were from proper planning and spontaneity, respectively, and above all, following the cardinal rule of eating in regular neighborhoods - or arrondissements as they're known - away from the tourist sites.

Luckily, our plans included a safeguard for Parisian patisseries. We took cooking classes! For 3 hours, we labored in the high art of croissant-making. Our floury, handwritten notes and diagrams covered both sides of the recipe sheet. Hint: The dough requires not a pat, but what could only be described as a whole frickin' tile of butter! The results were golden crisp on the outside and flaky soft on the inside. Besides your plain ol' croissants, we also made them with fillings of chocolate (the ever-luscious pain au chocolat) and almond (the divine croissant aux amandes). Another day and another cooking class saw us preparing our own Cafe Gourmand, which is a fanciful way of saying dessert tasting menu. We had fun with the blowtorch, making our tiny dishes of crème brûlée, and got messy coating chocolate onto our madeleines. The shell-shaped Proust favorite is actually a little cake, not a cookie as many Americans might think.

With so much butter and cream in our system, it's a blessing that Paris is a lovely city to walk. Magnificent churches like Notre Dame and Sante-Chapelle rise with glorious stained-glass windows, and the beautiful basilica of Sacre Couer towers over Montmarte, which fans of Amélie will recognize from the film. Of course, most visitors to Paris will want to check out that most dominant feature of the  skyline - the Eiffel Tower. But for a different look, the Tuilleries Gardens are a fantastic greenspace and sculpture park along the Seine, and if that doesn't do it for you, surely you'll find at least one of the 37 bridges over the river picturesque.