22 Nov

Hike to El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito, Guatemala

It started, as most volcano hikes do, in the dark.

I was excited. Seeing an active volcano is on my not-a-bucket-list and today we were going to have the opportunity to see a real, live, smoking volcano.

As the day dawned, we were already halfway to the mirador, or lookout. We stumbled into this meadow just as the sun was touching the peek of Santa Maria; one of the other, albeit inactive, volcanos in the close vicinity of the city Quetzaltenango in Guatemala.

Santa Maria Volcano, Guatemala

We continued to hike through the forest. It was an easy hike, although quite chilly without the warmth of the sun.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

 

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

Our first view of Volcan Santiaguito. It belches smoke and steam regularly although our guide, Edwin, explained that it stopped for a number of months last year causing great concern among the locals.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

And so we waited; both for the volcano to to put on a show and for the sun to reach us.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

The sun won the race. We were beyond grateful for the warming rays to finally reach us!

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

And then, a small explosion from Santuaguito. I realize that this picture doesn’t look much different from the other, but there is an extra plume of smoke and ash and we could hear the explosion even from our lookout more than 5 KM away.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

The view of the rest of the valley showing past craters from the same volcano.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

Both the sun and an active volcano. Two happy Giant Steppers.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

The hike down was much easier, and warmer.

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

Next on my not-a-bucket-list? To see flowing lava!!

El Mirador Volcan Santiaguito Hike

I apologize for the poor quality photos. I have been having all kinds of technical issues this past few weeks. :(

 

05 Nov

Adios Playa del Carmen! We Won’t Be Back.

My Mexican dreams were awash with early morning runs on the beach, margaritas with new friends in the evenings, and a chance to really settle down and get to know a place.

Playa del Carmen was not the place of my Mexican dreams.

Filled with all inclusive resorts, pumping restaurants, and expensive shops it’s a place built to please holiday-makers; it is not a city in its own right but exists solely for the purpose of tourism. For me, it lacked soul.

I was conflicted about coming here; I have friends who have stayed for months on end and love, love, love it and others who have come and couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t know how it would work out for us but, with tickets already purchased, we decided to give it a shot. You can put us in the camp that couldn’t wait to leave.

It wasn’t all bad though.

Our skimpy budget may have forced us into a cheap apartment on the outskirts of town, but we did manage to turn it around and started spending less than we’re making. Europe was tough on our budget and, although we didn’t spend more than we expected, I didn’t expect how it would feel to have chipped away at our savings. Lesson learned.

The funk that I had been battling for a while landed with full force, but it also made me really think things through and figure out what was going on. Through plenty of talking and teasing it out I discovered that it was a toxic combination of peri-menopausal hormones (Seriously!? I’m old enough for this?!), a homesickness that I didn’t recognize, a frustration with our budget, and a realization that being in Playa del Carmen was not turning out how I had expected. The funk has lifted, thank goodness, but it was a lot of work and I don’t plan on letting it take over again.

I discovered yoga. In an effort to find some peace and deal with the anxiety that would not go away I decided to try yoga. I found a donation-based class (good for the budget) held in a quiet palapa (think grass roofed, open walled building) in town. As the instructions floated over me in lilting Spanish, and I pretzeled my body into shapes I didn’t think possible, I also learned how to breath, and relax, and let the anxiety drain.

This travel thing, this serial expat thing, this figure-it-out-as-we-go thing; it’s definitely not all rainbows and puppies all the time. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes it’s hard because of where we are. Sometimes it’s hard because of what’s going on inside. And sometimes it’s hard because of a perfect storm of where we are and what’s going on inside.

I’m sorry Playa del Carmen; it’s not all you, but I’m afraid we won’t be coming back.

 

 

27 Aug

Worst Travel Day Yet

We left Ireland, and Europe, a little wistfully. Our final two weeks in Laytown had been perfect; filled with nothing more than early morning walks along the beach, afternoon pints at the small local pub, plenty of cat cuddling (well, as much as he would endure anyway), and meals that we actually cooked ourselves. It was chilly though. Wearing long sleeves and a poofy coat chilly; it’s no wonder the Irish have such alabaster skin – I fear they never see the sun! And so we looked forward to finally getting to Mexico and warming up.

Most of the flight had been uneventful but as we neared the Canadian coast, ready to touch down in St. John’s for a few hours, the clouds began to thicken and the plane began to bump and roll.

The seatbelt sign went on immediately; beverage carts were quickly stowed away, seat-belts were checked, and I slowly entered into the first steps of my ‘flying system’. Earphones in with favourite song playing; check. Game at the ready; check (it was Spider Solitaire this time). Definitely NOT thinking about the worst case scenario; check.

The captains voice soon muffled its way into the cabin. I love it when the captain acknowledges that the plane is dipping and diving. It makes me feel that he knew this would happen; that he wasn’t surprised by it and he has it all under control. Crazy, I know, but it’s my head so my games. He apologized for the turbulence (how Canadian is that?!) but explained that we would have to wait it out as the storm was much worse down below and the rain was too heavy to land.

So I relaxed, not exactly happy to still be up in the air but happy to know that the captain had it all well in hand and that we would soon be landing safely. For about 2.48 minutes, until the plane started to lose altitude and it became clear that we were going to land in it after all.

It wasn’t pretty. Oh, I’m sure it was as safe as all get-out, but the bumping and rolling, and dipping and diving, coupled with the rain streaming against the window and the zero visibility beyond was too much. I put the full system into place but still adrenaline shot through my body making me sweaty, with heart beating wildly and on the verge of tears. Definitely not pretty.

We, of course, landed safely. Everyone clapped. We went to the bar.

It was to be the start of one of the worst travel days we’ve ever had.

Our next flights were uneventful and we landed in Cancun, Mexico tilting our faces to the sun as we exited the plane and soaking in the humid heat that had been so long in coming.

We are not those people who get nervous at customs and immigration. We have no contraband, we follow all the rules, and generally believe that this will hold us in good stead. So our smiles were genuine as we greeted the young Mexican immigration agent and handed over our passports and immigration forms.

Flipping through our paperwork she asked how long we planned to be in Mexico. Our answer of 72 days raised her eyebrows. She looked up and asked if we had an outbound ticket. No, we nervously replied, our plan is to exit overland by bus. She asked if we had an itinerary, looked at our notes on our phone as to our plans for the next few weeks, and then, asking us to stay there, she took our passports and disappeared.

Cue anxious smiles, encouraging statements about how she just needed to check with her supervisor and that we would be just fine, and shuffling of feet for five long minutes.

Returning, she silently stamped our passports, smiled at us, and welcomed us to Mexico. Whew.

Our One Giant Yucatan Road Trip plan, of course, required us to have a car. So off to the rental agency we trooped.

Jason came out of the office, folded the signed rental agreement into his shirt pocket, and said we were all set. Perfect, I said, how much did it end up being? Forty dollars a day, he said as he acknowledged the young lot worker sent over to check the car out with him.

I looked at him with my eyes wide open mentally doing the math converting between pesos and dollars and multiplying by the number of days we had planned. And then doing it again before I said anything…just to be sure.

That’s almost eight hundred dollars, I quietly said as calmly as I could manage. Seven hundred and sixty four to be exact, he replied, turning to check the car over with the lot boy.

Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…my mind raced. Eight hundred freaking dollars. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

I was stunned. Paralysed. What the f*ck was he thinking?! What made him think that we could afford eight hundred dollars? What made him think that I would agree to this? My mind cast back to the conversations we’d had as we planned the road trip. The ones where we gleefully plotted our course unbelievably happy that renting a car in Mexico could be so cheap. Where on earth was eight hundred dollars considered cheap?!

I said nothing, tasting blood as I bit my tongue and climbed into the passenger seat for the 2 hour ride south to Tulum. He must have a reason, I thought to myself, but I couldn’t talk to him about it as he drove a new-to-him car in a foreign country for the very first time. It was a very quiet ride as I went over and over our conversations and mentally noted all the things we wouldn’t be able to do in the next few weeks because we were just instantly eight hundred dollars poorer.

Although it’s a mantra that we have used for many years it is our friends at Married With Luggage that put it into words for us; always assume your mate has the best of intentions. It has, for us, always proven to bear true and this time, again, held up to the test.

Arriving at the beach I said that we should probably talk about the car and figure out how we had suffered such a MASSIVE miscommunication. It wasn’t like us so something had obviously gone terribly wrong. It turned out to be just that; a massive miscommunication where each of us clearly thought that the other was on the same page. No malicious intent. No mean-spiritedness. Just a complete misunderstanding of what was expected.

We quickly came up with a plan; we would return the car and take the bus back the 120KM from Cancun and continue on with our road trip by bus. As soon as we could, we called the rental agency to see if we could return the car after only one day. They agreed to let us break the contract and said they would only charge us the one days rental we had used. And the One Giant Yucatan Bus Trip was born. Whew.

Heading to the hostel we realized that we had absolutely no Mexican pesos on us. We had completely forgotten to stop at an ATM to withdraw any money. Tulum is small so we were grateful to find an ATM at the local grocery store. Except it wouldn’t work. Neither would the one at the gas station. Or the Scotiabank building. Or the HSBC bank. Or the OXXO corner store. Shit. Now we’re newly best friends again but tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and with no money and no idea why our card isn’t working. Shit.

Time to call the bank and find out what’s going on. Sure enough the banks security system was fine with us gallivanting from country to country to country around Europe for the summer but the switch from Ireland to Mexico wasn’t sitting too well and they had frozen our account. I am grateful that such security measures are in place; they have saved our asses more than once when our card has  been compromised so I’m happy they are so vigilant. But it was not what we needed on this day. Fortunately it was easily resolved and we were off to the ATM as soon as we hung up the phone. Whew.

As dusk closed in we walked to the closest restaurant we could find, ordered tacos and beer, and put our worst travel day yet to bed.

This is the only picture we managed the whole day. It’s on the beach in Tulum, after we had ‘the talk’. There is no other evidence of the Worst Travel Day Yet.

 

 

17 Aug

The Iconic Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral

It was our last week in London and we still hadn’t seen two of the city’s iconic sites so we hooked up with City Wonders for a guided tour of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Here’s the thing; I’m usually loathe to hire a guide but lately we’ve been feeling as though we’re missing out and, when we have had a guide, our experiences have been much richer for it.

Marc, our guide for this tour, was a Blue Badge Guide which means that he had to earn that flashy blue I’m-a-tour-guide button hanging around his neck. In fact, it turns out that he had to study for two years in order to get his certification and thus the great honour of having people like us follow him around asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over again.

Works great for us though because:

  1. We didn’t have to do the studying.
  2. We didn’t have to do any research before visiting these historic landmarks.
  3. We could trust the answers he gave to our inane questions – he didn’t have to make up the answers because he actually knows the answers!

Our day started early as we had the chance to witness the Key Ceremony where the Yeoman Warders and Palace Guards officially unlock the gates to the fortress. It is, of course, now a ceremonial ritual – I mean, they don’t actually rely only on that gate to keep those Crown Jewels safe, right?
Tower of London Key Ceremony
Tower of London Key CeremonyOnce the Tower was officially open we could enter deeper into the grounds. Historically the site was a palace; a stronghold of power and economy before becoming a prison, and the site of several executions,  later on in its evolution. Of course I kind of knew all of this but Marc brought it all to life as he spewed dates and names and stories to catch us up on all our lagging high school history lessons. A welcome refresher indeed.

Besides being the home to many a history lesson and ghost story, the Tower also houses the Crown Jewels. It was an impressive display of artifacts and royal regalia that has been used for centuries and is still used by the monarchy today. Seeing the pieces (no photographs allowed) and reading their stories brings to life those television images of the Queen carrying the sceptre or of the newest Prince George being baptized.
Tower of London Crown JewelsAfter getting our fill of gruesome history, a look at armour throughout the ages, and visiting the on-site ravens (who, legend says, must remain or the Crown will fall), we walked along the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Raven of the Tower of London
London's Thames RiverNow, we’ve seen our share of churches this summer so St. Paul’s Cathedral is not one we probably would have visited were it not part of the tour. Having Marc explain the history, the architecture, and the main players did make a difference though; he described its building, pointed out where the decorations deviate from the original vision, and took us back to World War I when the Cathedral was one of the only buildings remaining in London as its residents kept it safe during the Blitz.

My favorite part, though, was climbing to the top of the dome. The views of London were outstanding and worth the somewhat strenuous climb to get there.
London view
London ViewWe were lucky to be able to stay in London so long and to see so much. It’s a city that I really enjoy and could see spending a ton more time exploring all the neighborhoods (and all the neighborhood pubs!) but, OMG IS IT EXPENSIVE!! Really expensive. Like make me sick to my stomach expensive. We may return one day but we’ll have to be dragging a bag-o-money when we do.
Until then we’re off to a warmer, and more affordable, corner of the world.

14 Aug

Eating Our Way Through Prague

We headed to Prague on a whim. The weather in Munich was crap so we checked the weather channel, and the train schedules, and decided that Prague was perfect for a last minute weekend getaway. I love that about Europe!

Knowing absolutely nothing about Prague, I decided that the best way to get in on the secrets was to connect up with the EatingPrague gang and see the city through our stomachs. Best. Decision. Ever.

We met Mirka, Jan, and the other foodie tourists in Gallery Le Court; a beautiful, shady, hide-away in the middle of the city. That’s the thing about Prague – there are so many little hideaways to discover. Tiny streets curving in and amongst each other, secret courtyards, and veiled sanctums. The city may be humming but these quiet corners offer peaceful respite.

Gallery Le Court

Here, just like you wanted to as a kid, we indulged in dessert first. When I think of apple strudel I tend to think of Germany and Austria so I was surprised to learn that this apple layered pastry is traditional here in the Czech Republic and is, in fact, the most popular dessert. This one gets top marks; sweet and spicy, with soft apples and a pastry that holds together without being tough. A great start to the day!

Eating Prague Food Tour

There is no denying that this part of Europe has a heavy love affair with meat. I know people travel this region as vegetarians, but I have no idea how they do it!  Naše Maso (Our Meat)  is the newest butcher on the block. Modern and compact, with glass walls all along one side so you can have a peek at the skillful preparation of all things meat. The beef, ham, sausage, and meatloaf we tried here were excellent. We watched the butchers’ eyes light up every time a customer had a question; obviously a man taking pride in his work.

Eating Prague Food Tour

Eating Prague Food Tour

And then it was time for dessert…again. You know when you’re heading to a place called the Choco Cafe that things are going to be good. Believe me, there was no disappointment! Crispy wafer tubes filled with the freshest whipped cream dipped in a pot of warm, melted chocolate. Need I say more?

Eating Prague Food Tour

Did you know that beer prices in the Czech Republic are regulated? Regulated in so far as beer is not allowed to be the cheapest item on the menu!! Beer drinking is taken seriously here whether it’s mass produced or hand created in small batches as it is at Novomestský pivovar (New Town brewery). Cheers!

Eating Prague Food Tour

Our next stop was the biggest surprise of the tour. Mirka had told us we would be trying Staro?eská kysela?ka (Sauerkraut  Soup) and, quite frankly, I was not looking forward to it. I mean, how could it possibly be good? I imagined fermented and pickled cabbage in an insipid broth and was already practicing my ‘ooh, it’s good’ smile as we entered the secret location (which I won’t reveal because it’s such a cool space!).

The soup was amazing. Of course it had the slightly sour under-note of the sauerkraut but was rounded out with pureed veggies and potatoes, cream, and basil oil. It turned out to be my favourite dish of the whole tour. I know, colour me surprised!

Eating Prague Food Tour

Our last stop was in the opulent Cafe Imperial. This historic Prague institution is absolutely magnificent inside. Hailing from the Art Deco era it stays true to its roots with stunning tile work, impressive furniture, and well dressed servers. Here we sampled the sví?ková na smetan? s brusinkovým džemem a houskovým knedlíkem – I know, a mouthful, right? It’s braised beef in a cream sauce with cranberry compote and bread dumplings. This is a very traditional Czech meal; we had tried a few versions during our time in Prague and this one was the absolutely best that we had.

Eating Prague Food Tour

As always, it is the guide that makes or breaks a tour. Tasting the worlds best foods, or taking in the sights, with an insipid guide is no better than walking around blindly. Luckily for us Mirka and Jan were absolute gems. They each have an unbridled love for Czech food; they are foodies first and guides second – it shows in their enthusiasm not only for every dish but also for the history of each. Their knowledge of Prague, and its food, was extraordinary. Thanks to them we sampled the best that Prague had to offer in our very short time there.

Interested in taking a tour while in Prague? (and you should be!) Check out the Eating Prague Food Tours website or the EatingPrague Facebook Page for more info.

24 Jul

Cycle Tour Europe: Rad & Reisen Cruise Review

Disclosure: We were guests on the Theodor Körner however this in no way impacted the fabulous time that we had. I just thought you should know. :)

Our cycle tour Europe itinerary got a bit convoluted part way through. Itinerary is, in fact,  a bit of a strong word for what we actually had. What we had was a basic circle route penciled out on a map that included most of the places that we wanted to see. Our real plan, though was to cycle as much (or as little) as we wanted to, enjoy Europe to its fullest (read: eat and drink everything possible!), and take advantage of every opportunity that came our way. Mission: Accomplished.

Our real plan took us through the beauty of Northern France,  through historic Luxembourg, along the south end of the Rhine River in Germany to Freiburg to visit old friends. It saw us up and over the Swiss Alps (by train – we didn’t cycle over the Alps!) to feast on pizza and red wine on the banks of Lake Como before taking an epic 8 train (with seven train switches!) journey to Brussels in Belgium. After drinking as much beer as possible in Belgium, and falling head-over-heals for Amsterdam, we rode along the absolutely-unexpectedly-stunning coast of the Netherlands before entering Germany (again) to cycle the truly-appropriately-named ‘Romantic’ section of the Rhine. Another slightly-less-epic train journey took us to Passau in eastern Germany so we could finish our cycling adventures in style as we boarded the Theodor Körner and biked and cruised along the great Danube river. See, convoluted but a truly successful plan!

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

So, I wanted to tell you about the Rad & Reisen Cruise because I think it’s an absolutely perfect way for folk (like you) to enjoy cycle touring the best parts of Europe without having to enact a plan like above and cycle the 2500+ KM that we did.

Everyone can cycle tour Europe. Everyone. In fact, I’ve already recommended this exact cruise to my sister-in-law and my friend here in London because I think they would love, love, love it.

Here’s a link to the Passau-Vienna-Passau cruise that we took. I won’t detail the route as you can look on the site for that information (and see all the other options they offer all over Europe) but I will tell you what I liked, and what I didn’t like, about the cruise (because that’s what really matters!)

Generally the cruise works like this. The ship acts as a floating and moving hotel. You check into your cabin at the beginning of the week, leave all your non-cycling stuff there, and go cycling along the river each day.  At some point during the day the ship passes you and magically appears at the end of your cycle just when you need it for a hot shower, a cold beer, and a great meal. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Cycle touring perfection. Easy, peasy.

Ship Facilities

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

Built in 1965, the Theodor Körner is one of the oldest passenger ships fording the waters of the Danube. Lucky for us though it was completely renovated just this past winter so the facilities on board were brand new and very comfortable.

Our twin, side-by-side, berth cabin was more than I expected from a river boat. The beds were comfy, the window opened, the closet easily held all our stuff, and the full bathroom had a real toilet and a powerful, and hot, shower. During the day one of the berths was tidied away to create more space and was magically made up for us each night while we enjoyed dinner. No, it’s not a massive room but keep in mind that you’re on a ship – it was more than comfortable and, really, you’re only sleeping in there – there is plenty to do on, and off, the ship to keep you out of there!

The Panorama Bar at the front of the ship is where all the action happened. Coffee and cake in the afternoon, before dinner beers, route information meetings, and evening entertainment all occurred in this quite stylish lounge. I enjoyed spending time here except when the entertainer was playing. I really did not like the entertainment. Perhaps it was a demographic thing. Maybe I need to better appreciate old ‘classics’ from the 60’s and 70’s. It may just be that I have a thing against Casio keyboards and electronic accompaniment. It doesn’t matter; it was like nails on a chalkboard and I just couldn’t handle it. Luckily, there were other options.

The Back Deck was where you could usually find us. Comfy lounge chairs, great views, shade from the sun (or, more likely, the rain), and blessed silence. Perfect. Although there wasn’t a bar on the Back Deck we could bring our beers back or ask for service if we didn’t feel like making the hike to the bar.

There were two other lounge areas available; neither of which we really used. The Library is a comfortable, quiet, indoor lounge and the entire roof of the ship is a sun deck also – alternately too hot or too wet to use during our journey.

The ship was really comfortable, and casual. You won’t need to bring your best sparkly dress and high heels, just some comfy clothes and a smile.

I’ll make a quick note about bar prices. I have been on other cruises which, not only did not allow outside drinks on board, but then fleeced me when I ordered a drink. Not cool. This didn’t happen on the Theodor Körner. In fact, we felt no need to bring drinks on board because they served cold, perfectly poured, beer where ever we were for the same price as on shore. Very cool.

Dining

Seating is assigned on board; you receive a table number and sit with the same people all week. We were seated at a table for six amongst a few tables of English speakers – thoughtful, as we have had a few meals on our trip with non-English speakers and it can be a bit…quiet. Our group of Australians, New Zealanders, Russians, and Canadians had a great time getting to know each other over our meals. Space was a little tight but we managed although I wouldn’t want to be at a table with a bunch of burly guys.

Breakfast was buffet style with a good variety of bread, meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit, and cereal along with some hot options such as eggs, bacon, sausage and mushrooms. We filled up at breakfast in order to fuel the riding for the day. Those who stayed on board during the day were offered a prepared lunch; those of us riding made up some quick sandwiches which were wrapped up for us with a piece of fruit and a chocolate bar for a picnic lunch later on.

Dinners were good and varied. A menu was placed in our cabin each evening so we could choose our evening meal the next day; usually a choice of meat, fish, or vegetarian. Each meal had an appetizer, a main entree, and dessert. Some meals were better executed than others; I would say that the fish dish was the most consistently good throughout the week. Wine was available at a cost but you could buy a bottle, have a glass or two out of it, and they would save it for you for the next day. Nice. My favourite part was after dinner. Along with the usual coffee service they came around with a bottle of schnapps or digestif to finish off your meal. A different bottle was offered each night; I sampled them all and proclaim them all to be delicious!

Bikes/Gear

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

Of course we had our own bikes and gear for the cruise, as did a number of others on board, but it was possible to arrive with nothing more than your bike shorts and a smile. You could rent all the gear that you needed; 7-speed, 21-speed, and electric bikes were all available at a very reasonable price. The bikes all appeared in great condition – and were well sized for each participant. Each had a small repair kit, a handlebar bag (which all riders received even if you had your own bike) and a side pannier to store the stuff you’d need for the day. Helmets aren’t mandatory here but you could buy one for a a couple of euros if you wanted to be safe. Each rider was assigned a bike but there were many, many, many more on board so, if you didn’t like the one assigned, another could easily be found. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be quite pleased with the equipment they had rented.

The crew took excellent care of the bikes, whether rented or our own. They stored them away on deck for us each night and had them all lined up and ready to go well before we were ready in the morning. My only complaint here was that it had rained on the bikes one night and my seat was wet in the morning. Petty, I know, but it wouldn’t have taken much effort to have given them all a quick wipe to save our wet bums.

Route Information

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

This is what made the experience for us. We’ve spent weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks cycling through Europe. Determining where to go, figuring out the best possible route, discovering interesting stops along the way, searching for places to stay, and always looking for regional cuisine and the best beer we could find. It’s takes a lot of time and effort and there is no doubt that we cycled right by some of the best that Europe has to offer simply because we had no idea it was right there!

On board, each cycling group had been issued a route book which not only included daily detailed maps but also turn-by-turn instructions to accompany the map. Every afternoon Andreas the cruise director held a meeting (once in English and then again in German) to review the next days cycle route. It wasn’t the detailed routing information that we were after though – we could easily get ourselves from Point A to Point B – no, the best part of the meeting were all the secret spots he pointed out along the way. Places that you wouldn’t know were there unless someone told you about them (or you could read the German signposts).

It was the charred mackerel (with ice cold beer) for ‘second breakfast’ one morning, knowing which castles were worth climbing up to (and which brewed their own beer!), refreshing glasses of Most (local apples cider) on hot afternoons, bicycle museums to explore, schnapps tastings on the cycle-only river ferries, platters of delicious food we enjoyed at the taverns he recommended along the way, whiskey and wine tastings, and the best coffee and ice cream must-stops.

Each days cycle had two possible routes – usually one on either side of the river – a recommended route and an alternate route. Andreas described each route (along with each ones hidden secrets) and explained why one would be recommended and one would be alternate so it was easy to choose which route we wanted to take. You can bet we always chose the one with the most tasty options along the way. :)

Biking Route

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

The riding was easy. Really easy. Downhill-trending-smooth-flat-with-a-tailwind easy. Anyone could ride it easy. You could totally ride it easy. There were some alternate routes and spurs that we did that were not flat and smooth but you don’t have to do those bits. The regular route is mostly on bike only paved or packed gravel paths and only on lightly trafficked roads occasionally – and those roads expect cyclists on them. It is very safe. There were a few families riding with children as young as seven or so and they were fine. Any hills or roads with cars on them were clearly pointed out by Andreas during the route information meetings so there are no surprises. You could totally do this.

It’s beautiful. I’ll let you in on a secret; we preferred riding the Danube to riding the Romantic Rhine. I know! I’m surprised too but the Danube was so peaceful, and green, and quaint. The villages were cuter and friendlier, the people didn’t seem tired of tourists or expect them to be there, there was no railway right along side with trains barrelling along every 10 minutes, and most of the time the only river traffic were the kayakers slowly drifting downstream. It was nice, and calm, and relaxing.

We rode between 35 and 50 KM’s each riding day. There were 5 riding days total and one day off in Vienna (if you didn’t book the biking tour, that is). There was no set starting time each day – we didn’t all leave en masse or ride together, although we all generally left between 8 and 9 AM and tended to ride in the same groups leapfrogging each other along the route all day. We had all day to get to the end point and were free to stop wherever and whenever we wished. We were often the last on board, having taken our time eating and drinking along the way, and we always had plenty of time to get ready for dinner. There is no need to rush the cycling – there is lots of time.

We luckily had no breakdowns or accidents (well, one of our group did have trouble staying on his bike but fortunately suffered no real injuries other than the hit to his pride) but the cruise director is always available by phone should the need have arisen. This isn’t a guided tour but it is well supported.

Excursions

There were a few excursions available throughout the trip. A bus or bike tour was offered in Vienna – we did the bike tour and really enjoyed it. An evening operetta was also offered in Vienna but opera sounds, to me, like cats screeching and makes my ears bleed so we went to a nearby wine house instead. I think we made the right choice. In the small village of Grein a young resident came and gave us a tour of the historic theatre in town – it was a fun glimpse at what used to make a small town click and a revealing look at how villages like this are struggling now as young people move away and tourism replaces industry in the economy.

Who Else Was On Board?

I wasn’t at all surprised by who our fellow passengers were. Mostly Germans, with a smattering of Belgians and our little international English speaking section. There were a couple of families with children on board but the average age was mid-60’s I would say. It’s an active cruise so people are fit and mobile of course. Although we never had any deep conversations, most people spoke some English and all were very friendly. They certainly were all interested in having a good time – we were often tucked away in bed well before they had danced their last dance in the Panorama Bar in the evening.

Value

So, is it worth it? I can’t decide that for you. We usually travel on a tight budget and Budget Girl (that’s me!) is loathe to spend extra on things that we can do ourselves for a lesser cost (and really, it doesn’t matter how much less, Budget Girl is a hard-ass!). Having said that, I am SUPER HAPPY that we took the cruise. We really enjoyed it, thought the facilities and service were excellent, and got SO MUCH out of having someone do most of the planning work for us.

If you’re wanting to do some cycle touring yourself but aren’t sure if you want to do all the work involved then this is definitely a great option. Like I said, I have already recommended it to my friends and family as I think they would really enjoy it.

You can check out all the Rad & Reisen Tours on their website; they have a bunch, there’s bound to be one where you’re going!

 

17 Jun

Discovering Amsterdam Through Our Stomachs

I think I’m in love with food tours. I have often said that walking tours are a great way to get a ‘lay of the land’ when we first arrive in a city; food tours take it up a notch by taking us into the cafes and restaurants, hidden treasures and hole-in-the-walls that make a place. Do I want to take a jaunt around a culturally significant neighbourhood with new friends while tasting the best that a place has to offer? Yes, please!

After love-love-loving the Eating London Food Tour a few weeks back we signed up for its sister tour Eating Amsterdam Food Tour as soon as we rolled into town. Best. Decision. Ever!

Amsterdam Food Tours

My favourite part about these tours – well, besides the amazing food, of course – is the work that has obviously gone into researching the neighbourhood and finding the best that it has to offer. In fact Annamaria confided that she had gained 5 kilos in her pursuit of the tastiest apple pie, the freshest herring, the best bitterballen, and the most amazing broodje pom in the area. A sacrifice to be sure but one I am most definitely appreciative of. :)

The Amsterdam tour takes place in the historic Jordaan neighbourhood; an old working class section of the city with narrow streets and alleyways filled with cafes, butchers, shops and markets. Though working class no more (it is now one of the more hip, and expensive, areas of the city) it retains old world charm that hints at its past.

We started in one of the oldest ‘brown cafes’ in Amsterdam. With dark walls and smoke stained ceiling it’s easy to see why it’s called a ‘brown cafe’ – it takes years and years to gain character like this and Café Papeneiland has the pedigree having been around since about 1642! They make a mean Dutch Apple Pie here…of course here it’s just called ‘Apple Pie’ ;) Part cake, part sweet apple goodness, and part crumbly topping, it was the perfect start to our day together.

Cafe Papeneiland Apple Pie

The Netherlands may be a small country but they have historically spread themselves across the world. It is inevitable that they would return with some of the best culinary secrets of the places they ‘visit’. Pom is one of the tastiest imports; chicken and malanga (a starchy taro-like veggie) are baked together for quite some time and then served on the freshest of bread alongside a pickly mixture with a spicy kick. Completely unexpected but absolutely delicious. This is a dish that I would have never discovered on my own but am so glad to have tried.

Broodje Pom

Another chance to try something we would not have otherwise – I mean, who walks into a butcher and just starts trying meat? We did! Louman’s has been around since 1860 and they know their meat! We tried the ossenwurst (a raw, smoked beef sausage) and the grillworst (a more traditional grilled sausage) – guess which won out? The raw, smoked sausage had a smooth texture and a sweet, soft, smoky flavour that was the favourite of everyone on the tour!

Amsterdam Food Tours

We were lucky enough to be in the Netherlands during the time of the Neuwe Haring (or New Herring) season – a chance to try the freshest fish the North Sea has to offer. Here they eat it raw with onions and pickles – being a huge sushi fan it’s no surprise that I loved this although others in the group were not quite so keen. It’s worth a try though – a fresh, oceany flavour that, for locals, heralds the arrival of spring.

Amsterdam Food Tours

Have you tried Dutch liquorice? They like it salty. Very salty. At Het Oud-Hollandsch Snoepwinkeltje we tried a range – from the sweeter version saved for children to the salty versions (although not the locally favoured double-salted) and the flavoured treats also. I’m not ashamed to admit that the kiddy version was enough for me!

Amsterdam Food Tours

There are many ways to discover the secrets of Amsterdam but seeing it from the water is very special. Seeing it from one of the oldest salon boats on the canals is beyond special. We had noticed The Tourist from afar a few days prior; with its gleaming wood and stately presence it was hard not to notice as it docked next to one of the most prestigious hotels in the area. We had chatted about taking a canal cruise while in town and joked about how it most likely wouldn’t be on such a beautiful vessel. Imagine our surprise when Captain Bruné welcomed us aboard for a floating tour of the city!

While being treated to some of the best views and stories of the marine history of the area we enjoyed bubbly wine, Dutch Gouda cheese, beer from the local Brouwerij ‘t IJ, and other treats delivered to the boat from the canal side as we sailed along. What a treat!

Amsterdam Food Tours

Amsterdam Food Tours

Amsterdam Food Tours

The only other food related item on my to-do list in Amsterdam was the pannekoek, or pancake. Luckily Annamaria came through at our final stop where we were able to fill up on poffertjes with an excellent cup of coffee. These ‘little ones’ are dense and sweet – a full meal in themselves!!

Eating Amsterdam Food Tours

This was the end of the official food tour but, as is our tradition, we ended our afternoon at a local watering hole. Wynand Fockink is more than a funny name; it’s one of the oldest jenever bars in the city. As the lady behind the counter will tell you, jenever is NOT gin – the English tried to replicate jenever but used too much juniper and ruined it – THAT’S what gin is. Regardless, I have become quite a fan of having a glass of the clear, bitter, liquor along with a nice glass of pilsner. Now that’s how to end the afternoon!

Interested in taking a tour while in Amsterdam? (and you should be!) Check out the Eating Amsterdam Food Tours website or the EatingAmsterdam Facebook Page for more info. I can’t think of a better way to get under the skin of a place than through its food – definitely worth it.

17 Apr

Eating Well in the East End of London

You’ve all heard how bad the food is here in England. Soggy fish and chips, boiled vegetables, and grey meat with insipid gravy.

You’d think the only saving grace here was the beer. Believe me the beer is THAT good but the food is also very good. We have not had a bad meal in the week we’ve been here. I’ll admit that most of our experience is with pub meals – we have spent an inordinate amount of time (but not TOO much time) in pubs – but the fish and chips, hamburgers, and even Thai food we’ve sampled have all been above board.

Wanting to sample a little further afield than our local we signed up for an Eating London: East End Food Tour.

We met our guide Emily in the courtyard of a coffee shop. She was bubbly and kind right from the start; her background in theatre and her love of her own East End neighbourhood showing through immediately.

Eating London Food Tour

We set to the task at hand right away making our way to St.John Bread & Wine for the mother of all breakfast sandwiches…a bacon butty!

Eating London Food Tour

Besides cutting their own back bacon and curing it in salt, maple, and sugar, they also bake all their own bread in the tiny in-house bakery.

Eating London Food Tour

I wish I could show you the salty, bacon-y, buttery, toasted creation but Jason snapped it up quicker than a pig can roll in a mud hole. Gone.

Eating London Food Tour

What goes best right after breakfast? That’s right, pudding! We rolled up to the innocuously named The English Restaurant which looks suspiciously like a pub both outside and in. No beer for us yet though.

Eating London Food Tour

Bread and butter pudding. Smooth and custardy, bready and sweet.

Eating London Food Tour

Cheese. Who doesn’t love cheese?  Our next stop was the Androuet Cheese Shop. I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about this one. I love cheese but I know that Europe does cheese on such a grander scale than we’re used to in Canada. I worried that I would be faced with a stinky-feet, over-powering, mouthful and not know where to turn.

Eating London Food Tour

The super-cute, and super-kind, owner (with an oh-so-sexy French accent) described the evolution of English cheese and introduced us to the three we would be sampling. I don’t remember anything he said really (remember…cute and a french accent…) but I did try all the samples, including the scary blue cheese on the last platter (which was surprisingly mild and pleasant).

Eating London Food Tour

One of my favourite things about the tour (okay, two things) was Emily’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and interest in each of the places we visited and the glimpses into East End London history and culture.

Emily not only introduced each restaurant and it’s story within the neighbourhood but also delved into the historical and cultural significance of each dish. We learned how bread and butter pudding came to be during the war, why there are so many Indian restaurants in England, and how bagels came to find their way here.

More than that, though, we learned about the inhabitants over the years; how international events shaped the demographic of this area leaving a lasting mark on the cuisine, the architecture, and the feel of this diverse neighbourhood.

The food was good but it was Emily who made the tour for me.

Eating London Food Tour

What’s an English food tour without fish and chips? Poppies is an institution in these parts and are not just resting on their years and years of success; they were voted best fish and chips in all of London just this year…again.

Eating London Food Tour

Light and fresh isn’t something you say often about a deep fried meal but this one was just that. I also loved the mushy peas.

Eating London Food Tour

A really, truly, English ‘local’, The Pride of Spitafields is the first ‘free house’ we’ve visited here in London. Meaning it is run by the resident owner, a free house isn’t beholden to any one brewery. They can pour what they want for whatever price they choose. This one is truly local; like stepping into someones living room almost.

Eating London Food Tour

My only complaint of the whole tour…who pours beer into a glass this small?! Tasty but definitely wanting for more!

Eating London Food Tour

Did you know that curry is the #1 dish in all of England? The most restaurants, the most take-away, the most ready made at home than any other. And Brick Lane seems to be the epi-center of it all with 50+ curry houses in a few short blocks all claiming to be the ‘world’s best’, ‘England’s #1’, or ‘voted #1 again’.

Eating London Food Tour

Aladin was a great choice. We sampled a vegetarian and a chicken curry but it is this lamb dish that stole the show. Sweet and spicy, soft and tasty….it almost makes me want to return to India…but why, when I can have all I want right here?!

Eating London Food Tour

There are two bagel shops on one block of Brick Lane; choose carefully for once you patronize one you are forever beholden to never step foot in the other. Hint: choose Beigel Bake.

Eating London Food Tour

All they do is hot salted beef on chewy warm bagels with hot mustard. The line up snaked inside all the way to the counter. We were lucky to visit during the day – the evenings see the line extend out the door and down the block.

Eating London Food Tour

I can’t think of a better after drinking snack. Hot dog? Pfft! Try this first.

Eating London Food Tour

Our last stop was, for me, a little disappointing. Not because the food wasn’t good. Oh, no; the salted caramel, chocolate tart with a perfect cuppa tea was a great way to finish but the venue was larger, and more corporate, than all the other intimate little neighbourhood spots we had visited. Pizza East was beautiful – in an old converted warehouse with rustic finishing, a hipster clientele, and wood fired pizzas on the menu – but I can’t show you because the head-office-type-folk wouldn’t let us take pictures. Boo.

Eating London Food Tour

Looks good though, doesn’t it?

Eating London Food Tour

The tour officially finished with the tart but, after waving good-bye to all our new friends, we popped around the corner to a pub recommended by Emily. A pint at The Owl and the Pussycat really was the perfect way to end the tour – I recommend you all do the same!

Eating London Food Tour

The Eating London: East End Food Tour runs six days a week (not Sundays – poor Emily needs a day off!). I’ll admit that the cost put me off at first; at 59GBP it is an investment and I wondered if it would be worth it.

After enjoying the four hour tour, eating 7 great dishes and learning about their historical and cultural backgrounds, I can say that it is totally worth it. In fact I even tried costing it out a bit – once I added up what all the dishes would have cost us (if we could have even found them, never mind the entertainment factor) and I looked at the cost of other tours in London (street art tours, bus tours, etc) I found that the cost of this one is more than reasonable.

In fact I would say that if you didn’t take the tour you’d be missing out. I enjoyed it that much.

 

28 Oct

Monday Moment: Temple Incense

Temple of Literature

Temples in Asia fascinate me. Unlike our North American churches with their air of solemnity, hushed tones, and calm divinity, Asian temples are often a whirlwind of swirling incense smoke, banging drums, and merchants hawking offerings to the gods for the faithful who didn’t come prepared.

I feel uncomfortable entering churches. I don’t know why. I feel intrusive; like I don’t belong but might be mistaken for someone who does. I feel like an interloper; watching the faithful pray is like taking a peep through the curtains into someones private life. I feel noisy; as though every rustle of my coat is disturbing the peace that cloaks the pews.

Yet I don’t feel this way in temples. Perhaps it’s because so much of Asian life is lived in public; witnessing someone at the temple is no different than witnessing them read their paper on the front stoop, have a meal at a roadside stand, or chat with their scooter-mate at the stop light. I so obviously don’t belong that I don’t have to worry about being mistaken for someone who does and, with all the commotion going on, it’s unlikely that I will disturb anyone.

It is the incense that I love the most. The sweet, cloying, scent that drifts upward welcoming all those who enter. I love the great vats of it smouldering away and being added to constantly. In fact, whenever I smell incense, no matter where I am, I am instantly taken back to a temple like this one in Hanoi.

 

 

11 Aug

Monday Moment: Thai Chilies

Thai Chilis

How hot can you take it?

Markets and food stalls abound with hot red and green chilies. They are used in everything from salads to stir fries to curries. Most often the cook would ‘westernize’ the recipe for us and, where they might usually throw a handful (seriously!) in, they would only pick one or two.

Believe me, that was enough! The Thais definitely like it hot though and wouldn’t even break a sweat eating such spicy food.

24 Jun

Monday Moment: Chai-Wallah, Jhunjhunu, India

Chai-wallah Stand, Jhunjhunu, India

While in northern India we hired a car and driver (that’s Laxman with his back to the camera) to take us from site to site, town to town.

The first day of the drive he pulled into a tourist restaurant complex on the side of the highway for us to have some lunch. It was a bland, banal affair with jacked up prices and toned down food. We got back in the car after lunch and asked him not to stop at places like this again. We agreed that each day we would stop for breakfast and lunch at spots that he, personally, would usually stop at.

This turned out to be a decision that showed us the ‘local’ way of life but also mostly had us wondering when, not if, we would be sick.

This was a typical afternoon stop at a chai-wallah, or Indian tea, stand. It was as dirty as you imagine it to be; my only solace being that the milk and tea were heated to beyond boiling. We may have burned our fingers endlessly trying to hold the tiny, hot, glass cups and our tongues on the scalding liquid but we never, ever, got Delhi Belly.