Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Safari Sampler

Week before last we took a short-notice trip to South Africa. The wife was working in Cape Town and Jo'burg -- I met up with her in Jo'burg and from there we drove all over the place. We started out heading east of Jo'burg, through the Blyde River Canyon and into Ngala Private Game Reserve for 2 nights. From here, we did 5 more nights and 2 more lodges as we burned a trail across southeast South Africa and through a little country called Swaziland. There have been some people asking so I had to get some pictures up. Seven days of safari is a whole lot of animal watching, but this time (we did this once before) we saw lots of cats -- lion, leopard, and cheetah -- and even managed to spend a morning watching hyena. Cool stuff.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Denmark Is Full Of Slots

The place we are currently residing in is a bit cramped compared to what we were used to both in England and in Chicago. No lawn, three rooms, and a windy dog. Yeesh. It doesn't take much incentive to go somewhere on the weekends.

On short notice, we decided to head to Svendborg for the night, a small coastal town on the next big island to the east of us, Funen. It was a quick 2 hour drive to our hotel that was very conveniently located right on the harbor (map markers near bottom right.)

View Danmark in a larger map

Saturday night it was too late to do much in town, so we wandered around a bit, grabbed some dinner, and wandered some more. Despite being on the water, not much was open in town.

Sunday, though, we got up early and made our way south to Tåsinge, an island connected to Funen by a bridge. You can also drive to Langeland, another island, via Tåsinge, but we didn't get around to that. Tåsinge is home to the first of two castles we saw on our little trip -- and the word in Danish for castle, by the way, is "slot".

Valdemars Slot was commisioned in 1644 by King Christian IV as a home for his son, Christian Valdemar. That didn't work out, though, when the young Christian died in battle with Poland in 1656. The castle was then given to Admiral Niels Juel in payment for victory in a key battle with the Swedes at Køge Bay. His family still owns it. It is the largest private home in Denmark. The grounds now also house a mini-golf course, a toy museum, and a yachting museum. We really enjoyed this place -- there were few other visitors and it was wide open to explore.

From here, we set out north, back to mainland Funen. About 25 minutes drive led us to the second Slot we visited, Egeskov Slot or "Oak Forest Castle". This place was built in 1554 in the middle of a lake. The builder, Frands Brockenhuus, leveled an oak forest to underly the castle's foundation, hence the name. It is now a hodge-podge of various attractions, including the castle itself, a car museum, a motorcycle musuem, something that had to do with Dracula, an award-winning rose garden, and a bamboo maze. If I had kids, I would take them there. Boo found the place hot and lacking sufficient bowls of hundvasser (that's my attempt at Danish for "dog water") -- but she did like that the only place she couldn't go was inside the castle. A very dog-friendly destination, she was allowed in the museums and restuarant.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Everyone Knows About Venice

The final destination in our mini-tour of northeast Italy was Venice. We stayed at a hotel near the airport and then rode the cheap 20-30 minute bus in to the town. Venice is an amazing place to walk around -- the surreal setup with canals instead of roads was a wonder to behold.

All that said, I would avoid going again during any festival period or on a weekend, and definitely not when there is a festival on the weekend! With each hour, the Saturday crowds got thicker and thicker. That night, there was a fireworks show starting at around 11PM. At 5PM, there was a steady stream of people flowing to the sides of one of the big canals. By the time the fireworks started, leaving Venice was no longer an option. If you are even remotely bothered by crowds or have any sort of claustrophobia, this was an awful situation. We tried to leave about halfway through the fireworks so we could catch our bus back to the hotel and simply could not. Every passage was packed with people. I had never quite understood how people get killed in the stampedes at Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving, but now I have a much better understanding of how that sort of thing gets started. We missed the last bus and had to find a taxi -- luckily we didn't have to wait too long.

Food in Venice was hit and miss. We tried for a nice dinner Saturday and had one of the worst meals I've had in quite some time. Thankfully, the pizzas we had for lunch were excellent -- mine had truffle oil on it -- nice. Sunday before I left, we had a good lunch at a newer restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto -- really good eggplant!

The pictures say the rest... salute!

“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”
Henry James quotes (American expatriate writer 1843-1916)

I've Lost My Mojo

On our tour of northern Italy near Venice, our second stop was Verona. Verona has a long and sorted history going back to around it's first written record around 550 BC. In 300 BC, it became Roman territory. Then for about 2000 years, it was a centerpoint of battle between feuding families and battling Italian city-states. A bit later, around 1797, it was held by the French (Napolean), then Austria, then finally in 1866 the Austrians left town and it became, at last, an Italian city.

Verona is well-known for the Roman architecture and other historical buildings that still stand. For this, it is listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Large portions of the original Roman city exist in tact a few meters below the surface of the modern day city. It's also the setting for Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet.

We spent the last hours of the day here, wandering around the cobbled streets. A storm was passing overhead -- we had to take refuge underneath the large umbrella's of a small café for about an hour at one point. Once the storms passed, we found a small restaurant just off the main square and had a good dinner (truffled mortadella to start -- fantastic!)

Our drive back from here to our hotel near Venice was a nightmare --- for some reason, most of the signs for off-ramps on their recent highway renovations are posted well after you would have already need to taken the ramp. This, combined with a very confused GPS navigation, caused me to miss the right exit over and over -- at one point forcing us to go about 20 miles before we could turn around. Finally, we got off in the right direction to get caught in a drenching down pour that, combined with a construction truck blocking a lane on a bridge for no obvious reason, brought us to a halt for over an hour. Not cool.


There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene iii

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Somewhere in Italy

The wife and I were able to spend some quality time in and around Venice. Venice was great, but the first part of the trip in an area around Lago del Garda and Verona was just as good -- if not better. The food was miles ahead of what we found in tourist-trap Venice.

View Danmark in a larger map

We stumbled first upon Provenza wines... and spent an hour talking about local wines, olive oil, and grappa and tasting with our host, Lorenzo. That stop led to some very heavy baggage on the way home -- 6 bottles of wine weighs around 4 kilos, by the way. Lorenzo recommended a restaurant in nearby Desenzano del Garda by the name of La Frasca. What a find this place was -- easily the best food of the trip. He specifically recommended the taglilini with a fish from the lake -- fantastic. The pasta in this dish is fresh. Another interesting entré was my main course, a seared steak of horse meat. I'd had horse in Japan, but there it was thin slices served raw. Eating a whole steak is a different story. Horse is a very sweat meat but the flavor is good -- if you can get over eating Mr. Ed.

After lunch, we walked the lake front, wondered out loud about the glowing green water, had some gelato and then we were on our way again. Next stop... Verona!

“Show me your horse and I will tell you what you are.” - English proverb

But It Is My Cheese!

Tacos are not easily found in this part of the world. England wasn't any better. The stores here sell taco kits for around $9 that are good enough for an occasionaly fix. But the real surprise in Denmark is that they apparently love nachos. And by nachos, they mean mountains of taco-spice seasoned tortilla chips, a load of melted cheese, and then some combination of jalapenos, salsa, and sour cream. It works for an occasional fix of Mexican pizazz but I normally regret eating it when I'm done.

"I was wondering if you would like to join me in my quarters this night... for some toast." -- Jack Black as Nacho Libre (2006)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Night at the Wine Bar

From Cologne, we made our way along the winding Rhine River to the tiny tourist town of Rüdesheim am Rhein -- recommended by a coworker. The trip there had to be one of the most picturesque stretches of road I have had the pleasure to travel on. Not only was there the wide river and the hills covered thick with trees, but dotted along the entire way were terraced vineyards and cozy towns and towering castles. We had to keep stopping to take pictures.

By that evening, we arrived in Rüdesheim am Rhein and checked into our hotel. From there, we made our way to the river to scope things out and stop at a small wine bar we had seen on the way in. We thought it would be a tourist trap but good enough for a cool drink of one of the local wines.... ... ...

... fast-forward 4 hours later. We had now seen only one other non-local and everyone except for Boo was a bit tipsy. Every one there was someone local from town and they get together at this place every night. This was far from a tourist trap. The wine never really stopped flowing and everytime we turned around another glass was there to try. The white wines were quite good, the reds were best avoided.

The barkeep spoke about 50 words of English and one of the ladies spoke English well. Between the two of them, we had many broken conversations with the folks around the bar. They were surprised that we lived in Denmark -- and maybe this came across as more critical than intended but their overall opinion of our current home country was that it's a bit odd, said with some eye-rolling. Huh. Hmm.

At one point, I ordered what was apparently 'wine cheese' and bread (not many food options here, only this and chips and pretzels) and my handling of the bread and cheese was apparently good amusement for the locals. I still fumble with using a knife and fork for just about everything here -- what's the point of a sandwich if you are going to eat it with knife and fork?

It wasn't long before we had tried all of the wines, I think, and moved on to the schnaps -- some I ordered, some were just served. These are nothing like what we call schnaps in the States -- these are strong spirits without sugar and the light fruit flavor wafts (burns?) up through your nose as you drink it down.

We hadn't eaten dinner yet, so we polled the locals for the best place in town and were given a few options. We finished our wine and I went to pay the tab. Four hours of drinks came to 20 euros (about $30) -- I think more than half of our drinks had been on-the-house, especially since at one point I would order a schnaps for me and another for the happy barkeep.

The next day we started a bit slowly -- Boo especially (seriously, she wouldn't get out of bed) -- and backtracked to some of the towns we had driven through the day prior, including a long stop at Bacharach. From there it was on to Frankfurt for the night.


“How could drops of water know themselves to be a river? Yet the river flows on” -
Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French Pilot, Writer, and Author, 1900-1944)