Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reykjavík (Iceland)

In Þórsmörk, we came across a curious breed of tourist: the northern lights chaser. He caught the bug with a spectacular display of the aurora borealis in Norway. Since then, the gentleman had travelled again from his home in Thailand to the far reaches of New Zealand to try to see its southern cousin, the aurora australis, already this season. Coming to Iceland, we had lowered our expectations for seeing them since there are so many variables affecting the display (light pollution, cloud cover, etc.). However, with his enthusiasm ringing in our ears, and assurances that the odds for this evening were particularly promising, we booked ourselves on a northern lights tour that departed within half an hour of our arrival into Reykjavík.

It was a bit of a scam. The "tour" was really a glorified bus trip to dump hundreds of tourists for a couple of hours in the cold somewhere outside of the city. Again a situation that would have been much improved if we had just rented a car. The glimpses we caught of the aurora were hazes of shifting green colors, so faint that it was hard to tell if you were just imagining them from staring so long into the dark. Amateur photographers with their expensive set ups caught a much more dramatic display in the nonvisible light spectrum. It's a shame the tour rounded us up a short time later since it was clear on our ride back that the show wasn't over yet.  

While we'd used Reykjavík as a base for some of our earlier adventures, we wrapped up our trip there to see a bit more of the capital. The art and music scene is remarkable for a country so small. One book credited Icelanders' open attitude toward failure as the reason so many in the country feel free to make a go in creative pursuits. Galleries and clubs abound, and we fell in love with 12 Tónar. This place carries the torch for old school record shops. The scruffy guy behind the counter gives recommendations and opens up new albums and, even better than that, serves free freshly-brewed espresso while you listen on quality headphones! The shop also owns a record label, where indie bands can get their start ... and really, all artists in Iceland aside from Björk and Sigur Rós, are indie. The music on heavy rotation in our household now is from Ásgeir Trausti, Sin Fang, Mammút, and Samaris.

Our new albums set us back a pretty penny, as does almost any purchase in Iceland. In Reykjavík, we had to get creative to afford some of the country's cuisine. Hot dogs are really popular and cheap. The yummy ones at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a famous stand that has served Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain, are made from lamb and topped with 3 different sauces and 2 kinds of onions. After seeing it on menus across the country, we sought out a café serving traditional Icelandic meat soup... only to find out later that shopkeepers were ladling it out free to hundreds as part of their Annual Meat Soup Day further down the street - D'oh! While the hot dogs and soup were pretty straightforward, other traditional viands were maybe not so familiar. We saw seal, puffin, and whale advertised on tasting menus... though it's debatable how many of these historical seafoods (?) are consumed by the average Icelander versus as a strange food for tourists. The appearance of jellied meat products has always been unsettling for me, but I did finally satisfy my Laura Ingalls Wilder-induced curiosity about headcheese. The Icelandic version is from sheep and, I guess, not sooo bad on thickly buttered flatbread and with mashed turnips to accompany it.

This is not the case with hákarl. This traditional Icelandic protein starts with a carcass of a shark that is then beheaded, buried in sand, left to ferment for months, dug up, and dried out before serving. In short, ancient Icelanders must have been starving to consider this edible. The aforementioned Tony Bourdain called it, "the single worst, most disgusting, and terrible tasting thing;" bizarre food enthusiast Andrew Zimmerman described it as one "of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life;" and tough guy chef Gordon Ramsay just spat it out. We both tried a cube at the Kolaportið Market. It was soft and chewy - not surprising since sharks are mostly cartilage - with a strip not unlike sandpaper running through. The taste was actually not so off-putting until one begins to chew. This results in a release of an increasing and overwhelming flavor of... ammonia. We managed to choke it down, but let's face it, the lingering finish of household cleaner is just not something you can get rid of easily. ¡Qué asco! 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Þórsmörk (Iceland)

In a season characteristically marked by constant rains and cold, we'd been graced with unseasonably good weather thus far on our trip. Even our day on the glacier was gloriously sunny. Conditions changed drastically and rapidly on our way to Þórsmörk.

In a country where babies are left unattended in prams outside in the winter because "it's good for them," the strongly-worded recommendation to leave your 4WD rental in Hvolsvöllur and take the bus into Þórsmörk sounded ominous. With good reason. The "bus" is an all-terrain beast with giant wheels, and the track into the region is on the volcanic rocks of a shifting, wide bed of the river Krossá. There are many fast-flowing streams to cross, where it's difficult to see the bottom even in the best conditions. Heavy snow was falling by the time we reached the first ford. As the weather continued to deteriorate, the bus driver had to frequently stop to wipe the windshield. Several times Rich had to get out to help him find the quickly disappearing track, directing him so the bus would avoid what the pre-recorded tour guide cheerfully informed us were "large patches of quicksand" over the speakers. The last river crossing made even the stoic bus driver balk. He called ahead as if to ask, "Are you sure we should be coming out in this weather?" Evidently, he received an affirmative. He waved Rich back in, attached seals to prevent water coming up the exhaust, and slowly drove across the 60 feet of swift, black waters.

Not far on the other side, we were surprised to find the cabins at our destination were warm and pleasantly situated at the foot of the mountains. The Þórsmörk region (literally, "Thor's Woods") is famous in Iceland for its hiking. We still had a couple of hours of daylight left so we bundled up and headed out in search of the short loop to the nearest summit. Mistakenly trusting in the older footprints of an American couple, we went off the trail, discovered our own way up the brushy slope to the top, and turned back round. When we met the friendly honeymooners later, we had to forgive them. Especially when our host at the cabins opened a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of genuine cava (!) for us all to toast their nuptials.

Despite its remote location, the trek from Laugavegur to Landmannalaugar is one of the most popular in Iceland. We didn't have the 3 or 4 days to do the whole thing, but Þórsmörk is situated along a picturesque portion of it. After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we each put on another 4 or 5 layers and walked out again into the cold. The long loop began meandering through the valley framed by ridges lined with squat, snow-covered trees. The silent, icy landscape made me feel like I was walking into Narnia still in the grip of the White Witch's power. The trail opened out onto the wide river bed where glacier-fed streams made rivulets in the volcanic rock, and we saw our first set of arctic fox tracks. Eventually we found the turn off and started the climb up the mountains.

Sign-posting is notoriously sparse and curiously ambiguous in Iceland. The trail wound its way up very narrow ridges, which were made more treacherous by the thick layer of fresh powder. I really missed the crampons from our glacier hike! By dint of climbing, scrambling, and some honest-to-God hugging of the mountain, we managed to make it to the top. And boy, was the view worth it! Vast snow fields that would make a snowboarder weep opened onto grand vistas of majestic mountaintops, like something out of Lord of the Rings… and we had it all completely to ourselves. Truly, some of the most breath-taking sights we have ever seen.

Coming around the mountains and back down to the valley was no easy feat either. It was one long game of hunt for the trail marker in the deep snow. The traverses were even narrower, all of our concentration fixed on putting one foot in front of the other to feel for the ledge. I never looked behind me, counting on the small sounds Rich was making to assure me he was still back there. If I turned and lost my balance, I could pitch headlong into the steep drop off on our right and land broken on the rocks below. A tourist hiking in the region disappeared the month before and was never found again despite mounting huge search parties. In the isolation, it's easy to imagine how difficult it would be for rescuers to find you before you died of exposure.

We made it through, worn out. Covering about 14 km (~ 8.5 miles) with a rise of 270 m (~ 900 ft) – and the same of a descent – in the deep snow, it was one of the most technical hikes we’ve done. But it was also one of the best! The landscape was stunning, and we would love to go back to do it again… in the summer!  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Hvolsvöllur (Iceland)

The next stops on our parade of Iceland’s ever beautiful waterfalls were Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, both ~ 60 m high. Skógafoss is a sheer drop off onto a flat volcanic bed framed perfectly in an idealized version of a rainbow. The extra fluffy sheep grazing in the surrounding paddocks didn’t seem to take much notice of it though. Seljalandsfoss cascades over a wide ledge in a curtain you can actually walk behind. When the wind picks up, the resulting spray makes for a pretty chilly shock.

After a long day, we relaxed at a farmstay in the tiny village of Hvolsvöllur. A couple of sheepdogs ran up eagerly to check us out. Shaggy Icelandic horses (a special breed with a couple of gaits different from normal horses) munched contentedly in the pasture. The sheds were covered with turf, and a propeller plane rested in a nearby field. Clouds moving in made our chances of seeing the northern lights unlikely, but the owner was friendly and chatty. He was enthusiastic over the local pizzeria and what must've seemed an exotic delicacy to him - jalapeño poppers! His recommendation was spot on... although Rich had reached his limit for daring for the day and stubbornly opted out of any combination with bananas as a pizza topping.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sólheimajökull (Iceland)

We were deeply disappointed when our heli-hike onto Franz Josef got aborted at the last minute due to developing poor conditions in New Zealand. So when I started looking into glacier hikes in Iceland, with its notoriously unpredictable weather, the foremost question I had for the tour operator was: what's the cancellation policy? The reaction I got was at first a little perplexed, and then slightly amused. She assured me that the trip is a go, like 98% of the time, summer or winter. At which point I realized I had just underestimated the Icelanders' ability to deal with... the ice.

About 2.5 hours south and east of Reykjavík lies Sólheimajökull. It is one of the glacier tongues of the larger ice cap covering the volcano Katla. Truly, one wonders if George R.R. Martin was thinking of Iceland when he came up with the phrase "A Song of Fire and Ice" ...and they do film Game of Thrones in the country. The landscape was full of postcard-like beauty. Underneath blue skies, the dark moraine deposited by the retreating glacier contrasted with the green, moss-covered ridges of the valley. The view was reflected perfectly in the still clarity of the lagoon formed from the melt waters.

We donned a very unflattering ensemble of safety gear - nothing like a climbing harness on top of snow pants to really make one's bottom look huge - to get onto the ice. It was my first time in crampons, and after a brief tutorial and a little practice, I was surprised at how secure the spiky additions to my boots made me feel on the treacherous ground. Maybe I should be wearing them all the time in the mountains! ...even if the wide stance and deliberate, lurching steps you adopt recall a knight in armor or a cowboy in spurs. We covered quite a bit of ground and altitude in them.

On top of the ice, the science of the place made it fascinating besides beautiful. Fairy light snowflakes compacted over hundreds and thousands of years to form the ice below us, the air forced out by the compression creating the strange blue ice color. Black volcanic cones and little peaks appear at intervals on the ice layer. These "witch hats" were created by a hole or depression with a tiny stone or fragment in the bottom. Over centuries, the little blockage diverted the flow of melt waters around it until nothing but compacted ash below it is left in a roughly conical shape. There was also evidence of man-made experiments on the ice. A couple of skeletal structures were set up as markers on the ice, where researchers could survey and measure the movement and conditions of the glacier. Sólheimajökull is retreating so rapidly (gee, thanks, global warming, you shouldn't have!) that you can actually watch it in time-lapse photography in the critically-acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice.

Another aspect of geology contributed to the sense of adventure on the hike. On this island where nature regularly trounces man, just as we were getting comfortable on the ice, we were reminded of our proximity to Eyjafjallajökull. Maybe that name rings a bell? (Probably not because Icelandic words are a jumble in your head and a gargle in your mouth.) Eyja was that volcano that erupted in 2010 whose devastation increased when the ash clouds got into the atmosphere and halted most of the air traffic to/from Europe for several weeks. On Sólheimajökull, it's the volcano next door. And Katla, on whose ice cap we were linked, is an even bigger volcano. Which historically erupts a few years after Eyja. On an order of several magnitudes greater. And one of the most likely routes of flash flooding (from the eruption liquefying the ice cap above it) was the glacier we were standing on! So... do you feel lucky, punk?

If that didn't give us enough of a thrill, we also took the opportunity to try out ice climbing. I still really love the idea of climbing, although in practice (indoors, on rock, in canyons, etc.), I am terrible at it. They showed us how to plant our feet (widely, with a hard kick to set the crampon into the ice) and how to use our ice axes (squared up, swinging for an existing depression or ledge to plant it). While my attempt was straight out of one of those "You're Doing It Wrong" articles, and my aching shoulders - bad technique - forced me to quit half the way up, I am married to a monkey. Rich was the first man up to the top! I was consoled by my successful, smooth rappel/abseil down. It's only taken me 4 or 5 times to get that trick. Woohoo!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hveragerði, Skáholt, Geysir, Þingvellir, and Gullfoss (Iceland)

The grand tourist must-do in Iceland is the Golden Circle, hitting up the country's top three in a day or less. You can do it on your own, but after the last couple of self-drive holidays, we realized we enjoy looking at the scenery more than worrying about directions, the next gas station, breaking down on the side of the road, etc. Plus any guidebook or website will tell you it's suicide to drive out into the countryside in the winter (and yes, mid-October is winter in Iceland) with anything less than a Super Jeep, a monster truck version of 4 wheel-drive. So we joined the masses on the migration, but thankfully, in a smaller group than the crowded coach bus packages.

Our first stop was an extra, Hveragerði (sounds not unlike "hurdy gurdy"), one of the hottest geothermal sites in Iceland. The small town has capitalized on the energy, using it to build greenhouses and supplying the country with much needed fresh produce. There are the downsides, too. The guide told us about a family who awoke to find a new hot spring emerge from their living room floor, and the tiny shopping mall has a sad exhibit about the damage caused by the last severe earthquake.

Vatnsleysufoss (aka Faxi) and Skálholt were more extras. The former was our first view of one of the magnificent waterfalls Iceland seems to have in abundance, and the latter was an important religious center/church for hundreds of years and site of the first official school. I was more intrigued by the curious constructions on the side of the waterfall (fish steps to help salmon swimming upstream!) and under the church (patterns of carefully lain turf in the tunnel!).

The Haukadalur valley is home to active hot springs, including Geysir, as in the original source of the word geyser. While it's no longer active, the nearby Strokkur, erupting every 5 minutes or so with a peak height of 40 m (~ 131 ft), gives viewers the satisfying money shot they're looking for.

Our visit to the Bosphorus in Turkey let us take a ferry between continents (Europe and Asia), and our trip to Þingvellir National Park in Iceland ("Þ" is pronounced "th") allowed us to do the land version. The ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates presents interesting views with stark rock cliffs and seams of crystal clear water running though green plains. The location has great historical significance in Iceland as well, being the site of parliament for 800 years, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our final stop and crown jewel in the Golden Circle was Gullfoss. Two tiers of the mighty Hvítá River plummet into what appears to be a crack in the earth. Walking further up the trail (named for Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned against using the waterfall for hydroelectricity) reveals the curious perpendicular crevice, a field of strange ice crystals forming on the opposite edge, and the thundering waters rushing out into canyon below. We've seen a fair few waterfalls in our travels, and this one gets best in show for eliciting that primal feeling, "BEHOLD! THE AWESOME POWER OF NATURE!" 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Keflavík and Reykjavík (Iceland)

Iceland has had an appeal for some time. Maybe it was passing up on the ridiculous deal Icelandair was doing in college ($300 roundtrip flight + tickets to the Airwaves Music Festival). Maybe it was the PBS show where a traveling Scandinavian chef cooks a gourmet meal in the equivalent of a geothermal puddle. Maybe it was the breathtaking landscapes depicted in a mountain biking magazine. It looked a bit like New Zealand and used to be owned by Denmark - both places we adored. So we headed off to the land of Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men...

The airport in Keflavík is still quite a ways from the capital Reykjavík. A popular option for coming or going is a stopover at the famous Blue Lagoon. A geothermal power plant was erected in 1976, and shortly thereafter, people found that bathing in the surrounding pools of waste water had healing powers. Something like 70% of all visitors to Iceland come to luxuriate in the 37 - 39C (98 - 102 F) lagoon. Luckily, we arrived just as it opened and could enjoy the setting in an almost eerie quiet for the first hour. The contrast of the black lava fields, milky blue water, and mists of rising steam make for an otherworldly sight. There is a cave-like sauna with condensation dripping off the volcanic rock ceiling and a Turkish-style steam bath. You can scoop out the silica mud for do-it-yourself facials from wooden crates around the lagoon, or should your tastes run towards the professional, one of the pools is cordoned off for massages and other spa treatments. The whole experience, though costly even by Icelandic standards, has got to be the best way to unwind from an overnight flight in economy and get over your jet lag!  

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Final Thoughts on Barcelona, Part II (Spain)

I like lists so without further ado...

Things we do not miss about Barcelona:

- High cost of living + low (and unstable) wages. Most people in major cities feel this pinch, but “El Crisis” surely puts this into a whole other category. In consulting, contracts that were ending were not getting renewed, and at the university, every couple months seemed to bring further pay cuts or more layoffs. Money was pretty tight for our tiny, sixth floor walk-up apartment, not to mention the obligatory surcharges we got for being suspicious foreigners. Try also wrapping your head around numbers like 25% overall unemployment in Spain and over 50% for younger folks. Most of the lucky  survive either with as many flatmates as they can find or staying much longer with their parents - a cultural norm turned absolute necessity. We suspected this culture of strong family ties (as well as the social support structure) was the main reason you didn't see as much anarchy in the streets you'd expect anywhere else with those kinds of stats.

- Difficulty level of just doing things. Bureaucracy always sucks. Trying to get any business or anything official done requires multiple trips, multiple offices, and multiple copies… and Spaniards/Catalans fiercely guard photocopier/printer usage. Only brought 1 copy? Even if there is a copier right on the desk of the clerk speaking to you, you will need to: leave the line, possibly even exit the building, find a print shop around the corner, pay for extra copies, and join the queue you've been waiting in all morning at the end with a new number... and most of the government offices/banks close for lunch and will not reopen again.

-Alienation. A common complaint for expats. Catalans have a reputation for being a little closed. When someone still referred to her colleague Señor so-and-so after working together everyday for 40 years,  you realize learning Catalan is only one of the barriers to face socially. It was our own fault, too. Many expats get around the isolation by clinging to others of their home country, but we didn't move to Barcelona to stay in all-Brit or all-American enclaves and so avoided them assiduously. The city's got a fantastic nightlife, too, so doubtless, we could have made more friends had not our hard partying, late night clubbing days been behind us. Lastly, people don't often invite others into their homes either so it can be tough socializing on a strict budget.

Things we miss about Barcelona:

- The city. I personally think it's the most beautiful city in Europe, possibly the world. We've always been drawn to bright colors, mosaics, and wrought ironwork, and Catalan Modernisme brings these elements together in intricate detail and with the finest craftsmanship. These architectural gems are sprinkled all over so that walking around Barcelona feels like visiting an open air art gallery. Should these man-made creations not stir or inspire you, the city is book-ended by the sea and mountains. Even though we're always a little too ADD for sun-bathing, our regular strolls along the beach and port (25 minute walk from our door) were weekend favorites. The pleasant alternative was hiking in Parc de Collserola, where a scant 15 minutes on the commuter train would bring you to the trail head on the mountain.

- The neighborhood. Even though Barcelona is a big city, you feel like you live in a little village within it. We lived in the barrio of Sant Pere, or as Rich first described the narrow streets and old buildings, "like in The Bourne Identity." We got to know the people in our neighborhood - our bread guys, the super nice vet, the pet store lady, the bodega man, all the dog owners in the park, the man from the theatre, etc. - at least in a friendly nodding and chitchat way.

- The weather. Barcelona is almost always sunny with something like 300 days/year. The perfect blue skies made hanging the laundry out to dry off our balcony my favorite chore. While it can get unbearable in the summers, the temperature can also be mild in the winters. We sat drinking coffees outside one day in February in t-shirts. Beware though that too much of this makes one's sense of bad weather get grossly out of whack. Any day it rains in the city (usually about two weeks total in the spring) is the equivalent of a blizzard hitting the Midwest. Classes get cancelled, traffic gets ridiculous, and people come into work late, or not at all.

- The food. There is the obvious. Michelin stars have been awarded to quite a few Catalan chefs, and while we never got into the world's best restaurant El Bulli, we had the best meal of our lives at Cinc Sentits. But even beyond that, we miss even the basics. What Spain may lack in variety, they make up for in freshness and quality of ingredients. A pair of tea-drinkers really miss the excellent and cheap coffee. Ah, the perfection of the cortado (1 shot of espresso: 1 warm milk) mid-morning or after a meal! Then there is the unifying lament of every European moving to the U.S.- the bread. For less than a euro, we picked up our crusty barra natural (like a baguette but wider) newly baked everyday. Even the cheap cheese for our sandwiches was fancy - the generic store brand was still a mild blend of cow, sheep, and goat's milk. In the U.S., everyone's big on eating local or with the seasons. As a concept, this might seem strange in Spain since it's just how people have always eaten. My favorite seasons were  clementine/satsuma (I had to stop a 4/day habit because my stomach acids were churning), strawberry, fig, wild mushroom, chestnut, and jamón (ok, the last one isn't quite but most people buy one around the holidays). It helps that the country grows much of the produce for the rest of Europe. Still, it never ceased to amaze me how much more affordable fruits and vegetables are there. I could go into the greengrocer and come out with a stuffed shopping bag for less than 5 euros! For one thing, within the stores, produce appears to be graded (and priced) at different levels, ranging from the cosmetically perfect apple Americans have come to expect down to sad-looking apple that got a little beat up in transit but is still edible inside and probably half the price. But I digress. Oh, the seafood! the butchers! the 3 course menu del días that are 10 euros! the sausages! the cava! I could go on and on...

All in all, while there are a few other things we don't miss about our lives in Barcelona, there are many more we are nostalgic for. It was a great and rewarding experience to live there and absolutely the best decision for us. Though we're calling this post "Final Thoughts...," we can hope that we haven't seen the last of Barcelona. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Final Thoughts on Barcelona, Part I (Spain)

This week marks 3 months since Rich turned in the keys to our Barcelona apartment. With some time and distance between us and the city, it's a fitting moment for us to reflect on our grand adventure there.

I had originally intended to blog about many aspects of settling into our lives there. But I held my tongue for a variety of reasons. It was really hard, especially that first year. Pinching our pennies  because we had grossly underestimated the cost of living. Sending out hundreds of resumes, and yes, pounding the pavement old school, searching for employment in the midst of the world's worst economic crisis in one of the hardest hit countries. Struggling with the languages, spending a fortune on Spanish classes, and ever struggling in Catalan. Knowing our families - and particularly my immigrant parents - would be our main and possibly only audience for the blog, I didn't want to worry them even more. And we were exhausted. Battling all day with a foreign bureaucracy (I'm pointing a finger at you, too, British consulate!) or bank or service provider, you come home confused, humbled, shaken, and possibly crying. Sometimes it was all we could do to muster our energies and try again the next day. So forgive the blog for only accentuating the positive.

As time went on, our situation improved, and we also just got the hang of things... It's ok if we forget to write our meter reading down on the sheet appearing on the front door to the building (or, as in one case, if I accidentally write down a number several orders of magnitude different!)... This is the corner shop that doesn't overcharge for fresh milk (since most people seem to prefer the horrific UHT milk)... Being able to sleep through the hourly ringing of the bells from the 4 surrounding churches, the relentless clanging call of the butano men one must hail to deliver orange gas tanks to your door (we dodged a bullet renting a place with piped gas), or worse, the drunk French tourists on the balcony of the illegal vacation apartment just outside our bedroom window... There were other aspects of everyday life I could have commented on. But Barcelona seems like the world's most popular place for attracting expats and there are even more Catalans. To presume my foreigner's observations would contribute anything different smacked a little of implied judgement of local norms or conceit, which, as an American abroad, I am conscious of the stereotype. So I stuck to a mostly tourist's perspective.

My further reflections will continue in the next post...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hopscotch Music Festival 2013 (Raleigh, NC, U.S.)

The Triangle (the Raleigh - Durham - Chapel Hill area in North Carolina, aka "home" for most of our adult lives) has always been a surprisingly fantastic place for music. There's a vibrant local music scene, and sitting roughly midway between D.C. to the north and Atlanta to the south(east), bands doing the whole East Coast tour thing often put in an appearance... in smaller venues and for much more reasonable prices than you'd catch them for in the big cities. Coming back to the Triangle, we were thrilled to find that, in our absence, the collective interest in live shows has amassed into an eclectic music festival called Hopscotch.

Over 3 days in September, venues all over downtown Raleigh host nearly 200 bands of all shapes and colors and styles. Nathan Bowles's banjo pickin' brought us back to the land of bluegrass, a fitting homecoming for our first stop. Checking in with longtime local rockers The Kingsbury Manx next door was soured by the poor acoustics and the distracting media. Photographers from various news outlets and websites (do 'zines even exist anymore?) flitted about the open pit obnoxiously, angling for up-the-nose close ups and then abruptly turning their backs on the band when they got the shot. Smaller outfits gave us the opportunity to peek into venues that have sprung up since we moved out of the capital city, er, *cough* 7 years ago. From the Bon Jovi tributes on the wall, it's doubtful we'll be back at Deep South Bar, but we were eager to visit the old indie hangout Kings Barcade, risen from the ashes (aka the city demolished it for a parking lot) and reborn in Martin Street Music Hall's old digs. Unfortunately, the wall-of-sound-or-is-it-just-noise? act Merzbow had us high-tailing it out of there. In contrast, Angel Olsen's strange vocal stylings (I thought war-time radio/Edith Piaf, Rich thought female Johnny Cash) were pure enjoyment, and Local Natives's exuberant and super-tight set was one of the festival's highlights.

The main stage in City Plaza also had some great moments. I was thrilled for my old neighbors in their new band Gross Ghost as the opening act (and hearing them promote the show on the NPR station earlier in the day). N.C.-boys-made-good Future Islands played a synthpop set that got everyone in the crowd to boooogie, even with the lead singer's weird crooner-turned-demonic voice. The dance party continued with Holy Ghost! and A-Trak, who Rich thought looked familiar from his Duck Sauce video Barbra Streisand. As a connoisseur of electronica, Rich had a few bones to pick with him, but I couldn't tell if he was just playing to the audience's slightly more mainstream expectations. At any rate, there will be plenty of time for that sort of critique if we end up at one of the other North Carolina festivals - Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit or Moogfest!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Quepos, Rio Savegre, and Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica)

We jumped into Jimny 2 and headed out of the mountains. The views were really quite beautiful with rolling green landscapes dotted with the occasional livestock, reminiscent of the South Downs in England or parts of the North Island in New Zealand. Our journey continued down the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific Coast, where plenty of parking attendants beckoned hungry truckers with their come-hither motions to roadside restaurants.

Quepos may be on the doorstep to one of the more popular stops on the Gringo Trail, but other than a street of souvenir shops, the town retains a strong local vibe. We hunted down a real ferretería (a catch-all store with hardware and other odds and ends) to pick up our own souvenir: a good machete! A quick survey of Costa Rican farmers would indicate the handy tool/weapon to be as essential an accoutrement as the ubiquitous rubber boots. The specimen we found was of a hefty steel for 4000 colónes (~ 8 USD), far superior to the sad excuse we got from our local Lowe's that got a chip in the edge at first use.

Avoiding the afternoon downpour, we had one of the best meals at a hole in the wall in Quepos. Their version of tacos were crunchy rolls filled with slow-cooked, shredded pork hidden under a heaping helping of cabbage slaw. With one of the fresh fruit juices, they made for a delicious meal and probably our only reasonably priced one in the country.

Whitewater rafting on the Rio Savegre was not quite as extreme as they had sold it to us. However, our guide was much more knowledgeable about the flora and fauna than the one in Monteverde, even elaborating on the booming palm oil industry in the region as we passed plantations and processing facilities. Our transport to the river was a yellow school bus, delighting Rich who had never ridden in one. The trip included plenty of opportunities to stop and swim under waterfalls - helmets strongly advised! The last set of rapids were so gentle that we all floated down sans raft... although keeping your head above water is still a bit of a challenge.

Manuel Antonio National Park was the reason why we and everyone else were there. From Quepos, drivers must navigate the gauntlet of unofficial parking with touts insisting their lot really is the last one before the entrance. It was very quiet when we arrived, but the rains seemed to have driven away much of the famed wildlife of the park. Our early arrival did mean we got first pick on the gorgeous mangrove-lined Manuel Antonio beach. This also made for prime viewing of the only wildlife we did see: a couple of sneaky raccoons making off with a beach bag... and the hilarious attempts of the owners to pursue the thieves!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Monteverde and San Luis (Costa Rica)

The Monteverde cloud forest is one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, and our digs were distinctly off the beaten path. The University of Georgia has a campus-turned-ecolodge outside the village of nearby San Luis. Populated with mostly study abroad students and professors teaching special summer sessions, visitors can also pay to stay, space permitting. Our visit began with a brief orientation with one of the resident naturalists asking about our interests and outlining a personalized schedule for us. We started off on one of the night hikes in the area, where our guide catered to my interest in creepy crawlies and shined her flashlight into the den of a particularly burly tarantula. Lest we missed out on any specimens, they also were kind enough to arrange a viewing of their insect collections back in the lab. Our natural history day hike in the transitional forest was also very informative, and we lost track of time discussing biodiversity, conservation, and agriculture with our guide. The campus also maintains an on-site farm focused on sustainability and providing a substantial proportion of the food for the 3 square meals included daily in the lodge stay. We tried our hands at milking the campus cows, a first for Rich, despite growing up on dairy farms. It's a lot harder than it looks... especially aiming into the bucket.

Off campus, we did make it into the official Monteverde Reserve, but after our one-on-one time with UGA guides, the tour was a bit of a letdown. Most visitors are rabid to spot the iconic quetzal bird ("Beautiful plummage!"). After a couple of 15 minute stops spent peering forlornly into the misty canopies, our reserve guide clearly felt the whole trip was a wash and high-tailed us back in the dismal rain to the entrance. 

A far superior experience was ziplining. Costa Rica was one of the places that popularized it, and even if it is a tourist trap, we do have a weakness for adrenaline sports. There were 15 proper cables: fast enough to need to brake hard at the end, without much of a delay between rides, and the longest was a whopping 1 kilometer ride! The best part was the giddy drop-off (maybe 50 feet?) as a human pendulum in the Tarzan Swing. Stopping was a bit tricky as two of the guides had to either grab for your feet (I nearly lost a shoe) or quickly loop a giant rubber band around your midsection to catch you like some Wile E. Coyote move.

The last Monteverde mention must be a shout out to the cheese factory. We didn't end up taking the tour, but we finally understood the fuss about the best milkshakes ever. They make the ice cream on-site with local flavors like cas (a type of guava), soursop, and some fantastic combination involving sweetened condensed milk and fig... AND they use whole cow's milk (i.e. with floating cream) for these concoctions. Mmm, mmm, good!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Las Brisas? and Monteverde (Costa Rica)

In the 1950s, pacifist Quakers left Alabama in protest against the American draft during the Korean War. They chose to move to a country with no standing army: Costa Rica. They settled in what is now Monteverde, got busy dairy farming, and oh yeah, set aside land for conservation which National Geographic has called, "the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves."

This was our destination. Getting there was an adventure. Everyone warns you about the roads in Costa Rica. "Four-wheel drive," insisted our most bad-ass friend who leaps man-high dirt jumps with his mountain bike in a single bound. The guidebooks have a section on what to do when - not if - you have to ford a river. We came in the rainy season expecting deep ruts and sinking mire. Instead we got bone-rattling, teeth-chattering, hard-packed dirt roads embedded with sharp stones. Akin to riding a rickety wooden roller coaster... for 4 hours!

Sure, it was raining. The scenic drive around Lake Arenal was somewhat marred by the highway getting completely washed out. The resultant detour passed scowling neighbors and seemed to climb everlastingly up the mountainside. "Go, Jimny, go, you can do it!" we shouted encouragingly over the din to our beleaguered 4WD. Mostly though, the rainwater did less to soften the impact and instead just exposed more pointy surfaces and render existent potholes to mysterious and dangerous depths. After one such encounter, Rich had to lay down on the side of the road to investigate a disturbing scraping sound. Thankfully, only the plastic bumper needed to be shoved back into place.

The second time we weren't so lucky. Coasting downhill, we hit an unusually straight stretch whose potholes made it look like a giant Whac-a-Mole game. Jimny's engine stalled, and he didn't start again. Most of the tiny village (of Las Brisas?) seemed to turn out to inquire and offer opinions once we propped up the hood. Our Spanish was a little rusty (why would we have needed to learn "sparkplugs" when we didn't have a car back then?), but we managed the basics. An old man offered to telephone the mechanic for us, the local store owner let us use their facilities, and a delivery van driver insisted we call the rental company. They said they'd send a car out immediately... from Alajuela, 5 hours away. At that, an American-Costa Rican family, back home in the village for a vacation, fair demanded we wait at their place.

Beth and her in-laws truly laid out the welcome mat for us. They invited us to share their "humble" (their words) lunch: rice, potatoes, cheese, and some giant variety of chayote squash in a black bean-based broth. The cheese was homemade, as the family still milks 30 head a day as part of the dairy business. Hearing I work in agriculture, Beth got her father-in-law to give us a tour of their farm. He showed us the small greenhouse he was starting, the massive vegetable garden in the back, and the worm composting operation. Rich felt right at home in the sweet smell of cowpies, and sucking on the sticks of sugarcane the farmer cut with his mean-looking machete brought back my own memories. The rest of our wait passed by pleasantly in rocking chairs on the front porch chatting and eating the best arroz con leche (rice pudding) I've ever had in my life. Full fat dairy style!

We bid them adeiu and met up with the rental guy who brought us Jimny 2 with the intention of getting Jimny 1 back up and running to take him back to Alajuela. Only later did we discover Jimny 1 never rose again, and the poor sot had to call a tow truck in the end to get him home. We, on the other hand, made it to Monteverde without further incident.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Alajuela and La Fortuna (Costa Rica)

We have been so occupied getting our *permanent* move on (more on that later) that we haven't had a chance to do much else... until now. Our next destination is a popular one among Americans - Costa Rica. We thought we'd go see what all the fuss is about.

The airport for the capital San Jose is actually in nearby Alajuela. Arriving in the evening, we heeded the horror stories about driving at night in the country and bunked down for the night. Even picking up the rental - a 4WD called Jimny, like the cricket - was a bit of an adventure. As my experience with a stick shift has been limited to tractors with, say, a maximum speed of 15 mph, Rich was going to be our primary driver. The gears are the same as in left-side-driving British cars, but the relative orientation to the driver makes it a tricky switch (e.g. pulling towards you for first gear rather than pushing away in the UK). Also, addresses in Costa Rica are of an idiosynchratic nature, with most roads not having a name and based on local spots that may, or may not, exist any more. For example, one place is listed as at "600 meters from the old school." Luckily, the rental car agency actually drove us by the hostel, pointing out the relevant landmarks- Delta gas station, hospital, etc. - to make sure we'd find our way back.

Bright and early we hit the road towards La Fortuna. The 3 hour drive into the mountains is pretty and lush now in the rainy season. "Sodas," or cheap eateries, beckoned to us along many turns, all boasting the best "mirador" (= scenic viewpoint), and roadside stalls hawked pyramids of spiny rambutans and fresh mangoes.

La Fortuna is the gateway to Mount Arenal. We did a bit of hiking around the observatory lodge, but cloud cover hid the top of the volcano most days. We paid the hefty entrance fee to see the La Fortuna waterfall, a striking 75 meters (about 250 ft) in height. The plummeting waters created a surprisingly strong and choppy current, easily wearing swimmers out from any romanticized notions drawn from The Blue Lagoon.

While the Arenal volcano may not be active any more, the natural hot springs are still a big draw. We took advantage of a low season 2-for-1 deal at a swanky resort to check out how the other half  (or 1%?) lives. Eighteen pools of varying temperatures were laid out in secluded nooks of tropical plants and with little cascades offering gentle massages. The day pass meant us plebes could also sneak in a game of billiards and check out the onsite wildlife rescue center. Living there are toucans, monkeys, sloths (called "perezoso" by Costa Ricans, which translates to lazy!), and a variety of predator cats confiscated from illegal owners.        

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Paris (France)

Since Rich was going to be working outside of Paris for some time, I decided to tag along so I could actually see my husband and some more of the city. This was my third trip to the City of Light, and let me say straight out (and hope not to earn your eternal ire): Sorry, folks, I'm still not quite feelin' it. Maybe it is because there are so many expectations from films and literature and pop culture, it would be impossible to live up to. The architecture is impressive but not really my style. People rave about strolling along the bridges on the Seine, but my attempts to capture this romantic interlude have been more gray Paris than gay Paris. And while I am sure that dining in the hallowed halls is everything I would dream it could be, for most meals, it seemed to my mind (and budget) that you had to pay dearly for it... But maybe also, Barcelona has spoiled me - give me Catalan modernisme, eternally sunny beaches, and affordable gastronomy by chefs named Jordi!

That is not to say that I found nothing of interest in Paris. Indeed, we were so dazzled by one place that we went twice. E. Dehillerin is a dark, unassuming spot in the 1st arrondissement (as neighborhoods in Paris are called). Inside, what looks like a dusty hardware store is, upon closer inspection, a veritable treasure trove. For a chef, it would be easy to believe this place has everything your heart desires. The ceiling-high warren of shelving holds every conceivable size and shape of pans (bundt pans the size of a half dollar!) and utensils for which you could only hazard a guess at their purpose. Should your preference run to copper, cast iron, or stainless steel, E. Dehillerin is like a fine armory from which to choose your gleaming weapons. The styles and options are myriad, but for the uniquely French cook, there were such specialized items as soft-bristled croissant brushes (they look like something you should groom a horse with) and escargot dishes (not unlike those dented platters for devilled eggs). To add to the temptation, none of the wares are marked with prices. Each shelf or container has a coded number that you look up in one of the three binders in the store, and one of the aproned old men will wrap up your selections in brown butcher paper. We managed to tear ourselves away with a particularly fine chef's knife, fierce-looking shears, and a French rolling pin.

The other reason for visiting Paris, for me, is the art. I had been to the Louvre (overwhelming) and the Musée d'Orsay (wonderful) previously, but this time, I wanted to try to make it to some of the other 204 (!) art museums in the city. The Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Petit Palais had some nice, free permanent collections of modern and fine art, respectively. The Musée de l'Orangerie is small but superb for contemplating Monet's series in water lilies. Again, I have to admit the artistic high point reveals my slight Catalan bias. The Centre Georges Pompidou had a phenomenal Salvador Dalí exhibit occupying almost the entire expanse of the sixth floor. We were a little concerned that having waited for 1.5 hours in line and having been to his museum in Figueres, we'd be disappointed. How wrong we were! With some ridiculous number like 400 of his works on display, there was plenty to amaze, astonish, and just plain be weirded out by. Although I may not always understand it, I am always fascinated... and as a much bigger fan, Rich, who gave up the chance to sleep before his next shift, thought it was totally worth it!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Granada (Spain)

One of the places in Spain I have always wanted to see is the Alhambra... and I am not alone. Over two million people per year come to Granada to visit the massive palace and fortress complex. The Muslim kings who ruled much of Spain - and, indeed, most of the Iberian peninsula - for over 700 years originally built it for defense. You can still visit the remnants of the early citadel, known as the Alcazaba, and appreciate the restful luxury that the Generalife and its extensive formal gardens could provide royalty as a summer palace.

Most of the postcards of the Alhambra focus on the Palacio Nazaríes, built by the Nasrid emirs in the 14th century. Getting in is a little tricky, as there are signs everywhere reminding that entry is strictly controlled by a limited number of tickets with set 30 minute entry slots. Rich and I were a little concerned that our past visits to similar sites in Turkey and Morocco would dim our opinion of the Palacio Nazaríes, and we are quite happy to report that it did not. Always enchanted by colorful mosaic work and intricately carved stucco, the architecture and decor we saw were of particularly fine quality, and probably more importantly, in far better state of upkeep and preservation. Restoration work on the iconic marble Fountain of the Lions was only just finished this past December.

Back down in the city, we decided to pamper ourselves like sultans. A hammam is a traditional Arabic bath, and even though we'd had some experience with these elsewhere in Europe and Morocco, this place really pulled out all the stops! Located in a 13th Century building, the owners of this hammam really tried to recreate ancient baths with more intimate rooms, gorgeous mosaic work, and superb temperature controls. The circuit consists of a warm room with the pool set at a cozy 36 C (or 97 F);  a blissfully hot room at 40 C (or 104 F); and a cold room, whose 18 C (or 64 F) plunge pool makes your whole body feel like it's having a heart attack. In between, you can take breaks in the steam sauna or at one of the tables with piping hot pots of traditional mint tea. Rest, and repeat!

I also tried out the traditional hammam treatment. They lay you on a table and pour buckets of warm water over you. There is a light, tickling sensation as you get covered with a thick blanket of bubbles. Then, using a rough glove (or kessa), they scrub you down like you haven't been scrubbed since your mom caught you making mudpies. After the rinse, your exfoliated skin feels fantastic, and you adjourn back to the pool rooms.

Any description of Granada itself would be lacking without a shout-out to its overwhelming ghosts of the past - Ferdinand II and Isabella I. Known simply as Los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Monarchs), this power couple were the ones who created the unified Spain. Not content with simply ousting the Muslims from the peninsula, they also ushered in the Inquisition. They were also the ones who sent Christopher Columbus off in 1492. You can visit their sarcophagi in the ornate Capilla Real and view the actual coffins through a window set a few steps underground. Creepy!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Dublin and Malahide (Ireland)

Curiously enough, when we mentioned planning to visit Dublin, a few people in England remarked, "Oh, that's in southern Ireland, isn't it?" Mentally, I registered it as just some mistake in their geography (er, not really, I'd have called it eastern... after all, it's not exactly Cork or Kilarney). It wasn't until later that it dawned on me that, to some people, "southern" Ireland = not Northern Ireland. Hmm... I imagine some republicans would take offense to that.

Everyone I've ever met has been enthusiastic about Dublin. Maybe it was the high expectations... or the weather (grey, cold, and drizzling)...  or because we had been in England for awhile (same weather, similar food)... but I wasn't blown away. It was just nice.

One pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon we discovered was the Chester Beatty Library. A mining engineer somehow amassed a huge fortune and used it to acquire an impressive collection of Oriental art and ancient books. The exhibits were extraordinarily well-curated, making such dry topics as paper-making, book-binding, illuminations, and scroll work fascinating. As well as thoughtful documentaries and descriptions, the exhibits on world religions included some of the earliest known copies of the Gospels on crumbling papyrus!

Probably the most obligatory stop on any visit to Dublin is the Guinness Storehouse. The massive facility at St. James Gate is a museum, store, and collection of drinking spaces in which to celebrate that Irish icon. It took us a little time, but we eventually got it down: a stout is a type of porter which is a type of ale. I think. The other main lesson, for which you can actually attend a class, was the correct and respectful way to pour a pint (hint: patience is key). One thing we'd have to agree with the other tourists about - the Guinness does taste better in Dublin.

Another spot we really enjoyed the pints at was the four-storey Porterhouse Brewing Company. With a dozen in-house brews and a couple of pages of imported bottles, it's not hard to find something to like. Especially since there are tasting flights. Our favorites were the award-winning plain porter and the oyster stout - made with real oysters! They also had bands regularly so we were able to listen in on the time-honored tradition of live Irish music without having to go into one of the other plastic paddy places in the Temple Bar district.

For a change of pace, we also headed out of the city on a day trip to Malahide Castle. The 12th Century construction was home to the barons of the Talbot family for nearly 800 years. In person, it's a little small for its grandiose appearance, but you can visit the furnished inside with a knowledgeable docent, and the ruins of the abbey are very picturesque. The grounds are also quite extensive including botanical gardens and - even better than that -  an Avoca Café serving delightful selection of pies and cakes!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Food Fantasyland in San Sebastián (Spain)

Celebrity chef and consummate traveler Anthony Bourdain once named San Sebastián the place he would want to die in. Even among Catalans (who include such Michelin-starred luminaries as Ferran Adrià), the Basque Country stands out as a culinary destination... with Donostia-San Sebastián as its crown jewel.

In the Basque Country, tapas (small plates) are known as pintxos, which roughly translate to something speared. This makes sense since the bulk of options are a slice of bread with a pile of interesting toppings pierced by a long toothpick. Since the pintxos are usually laid out on the bar for customers to help themselves, the toothpicks serve a practical purpose, too. Once finished, you hand over your fistful of toothpicks for the waitstaff to tally your bill. Somehow this grand honor system works.

The traditional manner in which to partake of such beautiful bites is... bar-hopping. You stop in each place, grab a pintxo or two (preferably that bar's specialty), and move on. A nice accompaniment is Basque txakoli, a dry white wine that gets a little sparkling with its traditional high pour into the glass. Our first night, we decided to hit the pubs in spontaneous succession down one street in the old part of the city. Most joints are packed with patrons juggling plates and jostling for space along narrow counters. While the food was still above average, we weren't blown away by anything. Expectations running high, we were a little confused and disappointed so we had to regroup.

Things went phenomenally better on subsequent nights. Armed with a well-researched list of each place's premiere pintxo, we didn't allow ourselves to get carried away by the proffered abundance and frantic energy. The results were incredible! Truly sumptuous plates with well-balanced and many layered flavors. By far, the most successful were items we ordered à la minute - succulent seafood, crisp and melting pork belly of piglet, rich veal cheeks in red wine, and the list goes on and on. We only had one misstep - asking for what roughly translates to "a cone of lamb and cheese," we instead received a large plate of as-yet-unknown cut of meat consisting of mostly tiny bones, skin, and cartilage sauteed with bell peppers! At Bar Zeruko, we succumbed to the fajitas effect (as in, sizzling platter passes by: Ooh, what's that?! I'll take one of them!), ordering avant garde tapas that encouraged playing with your food. However, our favorite place by far was tiny La Cuchara de San Telmo. Tucked away down a back alley, the chalkboard with its rapidly disappearing menu items are a testament to its popularity. It was so good that we went twice!

See pictures in the Spain album on the left for gratuitous food porn.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

San Sebastián and Bilbao (Spain)

The Basque Country is an autonomous community in the northeast corner of Spain. The Basques have an immense pride in their ancient culture and language - Euskara bears no relation to Latin languages and throws in a lot of x's and k's to boot. The resulting differences culminate in repeated calls for Basque independence from Spain, and in the past, nationalists in the separatist ETA sometimes punctuate the struggle with incidences of violence and terrorism, not unlike the IRA in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, many people are drawn to the region for tourism because, as some Spaniards simply put it, it IS like visiting a different country.

San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language, is only about 20 km from the French border. The city has a population of only about 180,000, but its reputation as a holiday destination far exceeds its size. The biggest draws stem from the sea. San Sebastián is gorgeously picturesque with its own perfectly curved stretch of sandy beach in La Concha and the small island of Santa Clara in the middle of the bay. If sunbathing seems a little too tame for your tastes, the beach of Gros (or Zurriola) regularly puts San Sebastián on the list of best surf cities. Finally, you can learn more about the long tradition of Basques as whalers and fishermen at the aquarium and sample the bountiful briny catch at Bretxa market.

The express bus from San Sebastián to Bilbao (100 km to the west) made it quite convenient for a day trip. Along the way, we passed sheep-dotted mountains, snug farmhouses, and a few vineyards - not surprising, since Spain's most famous wine region La Rioja includes a slice of the Basque Country.

With about 1 million inhabitants, Bilbao has a distinctly more metropolitan flair than little San Sebastián. But we braved the steady rain for one reason and one reason only - the pièce de résistance  of Bilbao -  the Guggenheim Museum. Flowing and shimmering metalwork from Frank Gehry houses contemporary art on the banks of the Nervion River. Inside, there were exhibitions on droopy plugs and bathtubs from Claes Oldenburg as well as disturbing drawings from Viennese artist Egon Schiele who may or may not have been a pedophile. We also really enjoyed wandering through the giant, metal labyrinth by Richard Serra (and I got excited when I recognized another of his pieces in the Toronto airport!). But let's be honest, even on the inside, most of the museum's actual contents were out shown by the swooping and soaring spaces of Gehry's architectural wonder... so, go, see it for the building, just not for the art!