Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Christmas Tree of Prague

When I landed in Prague, I stepped out of the plane onto the runway, which was being dusted with a fine coating of snow, then boarded the bus to the terminal.

As the taxi drove my family and I to our hotel, I got my first views of the city I had dreamed of coming to for so long. The headlights illuminated block after block of Baroque architecture.

It wasn’t what I had expected. I’d been told Prague was beautiful, and I’d seen pictures of course, but I had always assumed that I had seen the historic heart of the town. Little did I know that most of the city, aside from what the Soviets built, retains its historic architecture and facades.

We stopped at our hotel, the Pension Green Garland, dropped our luggage off, and walked a couple short blocks to the Old Town Square, dominated by its clock tower and the belfries of the Church of Our Lady of Týn.

The sight would have been magnificent in its own right, but it was made more so by the cluster of low-slung shacks that made up the Christmas market, selling decorations, trinkets, souvenirs and food. Towering over the Christmas market was the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t ostentatious, but it was so well-done that it just looked right at place, and the ornaments weren’t even the focal point. Aside from the bluish lights that occasionally flashed, there were another type of light that I had never seen before, but would see all over France and Germany in the next couple of weeks. They were foot-long tubes of LED lights that scrolled downward. The effect made the tree appear to be dripping light.

At other places around the square, tall wire-framed angels bedecked in lights and playing trumpets added to the festive spirit. As I worked through the crowds under the light snow to scope out some of the food, ranging from sausages to Trdlo (a cinnamon-roll type food I will write about soon), a group of carolers on a nearby stage struck up Christmas songs…in English.

I gazed around and savored the moment. I stood under an overhang out of the snow, sharing the space with a group of Czechs sipping their hot mulled wine and eating sausages. To think that it has only been 20 years since the Communists were thrown out seemed absurd. The city was brightly painted and everyone seemed happy.

My overall impression of Prague on that first night was of a city basking in

its freedom. Though it saw better glory years when it was a commercial center and prospered under the rule of kings such as Charles IV, I think that to be so alive in such a relatively short time after the drab life under Communist rule, the heart of the city makes a statement for itself and the Czech Republic.

As I explored Prague over the next few days, there was always something more I wanted to see. While it doesn’t beat Paris for my favorite city in the world (that’s a pretty tall order), I loved my time there. Unlike much of Europe, it wasn’t ravaged in the wars of the past century, and remains one of the best-preserved capitals in the world.

As I went through Europe after visiting Prague, I traveled to medieval walled cities dusted with snow, larger cities famous for their Christmas markets such as Nuremberg in Germany and Strasbourg and Paris in France, but none of them eclipsed Prague for the feeling of festivity and beauty of the tree. Despite my affinity for Paris, the tree in front of Notre Dame on Christmas Eve didn’t come close to evoking the same sense of majesty as the one in Prague.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Travel Tips: Staying Healthy

Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting sick, and you’re more prone to getting sick when you travel than staying home, depending on where you go.

I never really worried about any health issues when I traveled before I went to India. Europe was (and remains) just like the U.S. where health is concerned. The same restrictions aren’t always in place (the French don’t Pasteurize their camembert cheese, for example), but most developed nations typically don’t pose a threat.
In traveling to India, I went under the impression that I would be sick at some point. That notion was reinforced when I arrived in Mumbai and read an article in one of the newspapers that said a study had proven 98 percent of Mumbai’s water is contaminated.

Call it what you want – Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly – but it’s not something you need to experience.

Knowing that Kaiser owed me something for the obscene amount of money I have to pay them each month, I went into the travel clinic and stocked up on what I would need before heading to an undeveloped nation.

It turned out that I needed five shots – hepatitis B, tetanus, a polio booster and two others. In addition to the sore upper arm, they gave me a prescription for malaria pills and extra-strength diarrhea medication and a helpful printout showing where malaria is present and what other types of things I should watch out for.

The malaria pills were annoying, needing to be taken daily from the day before I left until four weeks after I returned, but I gather they were much more pleasant than having the disease.

In addition to going to your doctor, there are several things you need to do to stay healthy, wherever you go. I’ll focus mostly on the places where tap water is assumed to be contaminated.

1. Don’t drink the water. Buy bottled water, and make sure the safety seal is intact and that some enterprising local hasn’t just picked up cast-off bottles and filled them anew with tap water (it happens).

2. When you shower, keep your eyes and mouth closed, and brush your teeth with bottled water as well.

3. Don’t eat anything that has been washed in the local water. Salads, fruits, vegetables and even produce on a sandwich can all carry the bacteria of the water in which they were "washed." Many restaurants, especially in the areas catering to tourists, actually have filtered water for that purpose. Ask the server, and hope you get the truth.

4. Food from street vendors is OK, but be judicious in what you order. Sometimes the meat will sit in the stall, unrefrigerated, until it is consumed. Don’t eat what isn’t cooked in front of you from a street vendor.

5. Get plenty of sleep. When I went to India, I traveled for 22 hours, leaving home at 5 a.m. and arriving in India at 10:30 p.m. and then going to my hotel. That takes a toll on your body, and if you’re already feeling ill, it will exacerbate the problem.

6. Bring a selection of over-the-counter medicines for the typical problems you have everywhere. Tylenol and Advil can work wonders, and Dramamine is good if you’re prone to motion sickness and might want to do something like a boat excursion on a cruise.

7. Use hand sanitizer. It's cheap, it comes in small-enough packages to bring in your carry-on, and it weighs next to nothing. A squirt of hand sanitizer before eating will kill most of the germs you picked up on railings, door handles, handholds in the metro and all sorts of places. It's not being germophobic, just cautious.

If you have medical needs, be they pills, syringes of insulin or anything like that, you should bring a note from your doctor on official letterhead explaining what they are and why you need them. Getting locked up on drug charges for something benign would also ruin a trip.

Reading the precautions made me think I would starve at the expense of not getting an upset stomach. The reality is that most restaurant food is probably safe, and even small amounts of questionable food probably won’t pose a problem.

There are also “safe drinks.” Anyhting that has been boiled is OK. The chai (tea) that street vendors carry around in thermoses is not only good, but perfectly fine, as the water is hot enough to kill the bacteria.

I managed to spend two weeks in India without even a hint of sickness. At one point, I wanted a chicken sandwich at an airport. It had quite a bit of lettuce on it, and I saw an American-looking pilot standing a short distance away, so I asked him if it was safe to eat there.

“I thought Americans were brave,” he said jokingly, in an accent I couldn’t quite place.

“Yes well, under the right circumstances, I suppose,” I replied.

“It’s perfectly safe to eat here,” he replied. "I eat here all the time, and I never get sick." He added that he was Polish and flew for one of India’s airlines. I talked with him for a while about India’s domestic air carriers, finding out that most of them have American and European pilots who have a tough time getting into the competitive industry back home.

When I went to get that sandwich I had been eying, the friendly Pole shouted after me, “Be brave, American!”

We both laughed, but I still prefer being a bit more cautious than brave. I ate all kinds of food in India, and I enjoyed it all.

The only worrisome part came when my friend and I ordered Jack and cokes, only to get them in glasses full of ice. We looked at each other and decided guzzling them was preferable to letting the ice melt.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai - One year before the terrorist strikes

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai (Bombay) Nov. 25 were terrible, and hit home with me, as I was in many of the same spots almost exactly a year ago.

The current evidence points to the gunmen as having come by boat and landing at the Gateway of India.

My first nights in India were spent in the Hotel Suba Palace, which is a two-minute walk from the Gateway. When I took a day trip to Elephanta Island, home of a complex of caves dating back to the 600s, I embarked from the Gateway, which was built to commemorate the British Royal Family’s visit to India in 1924.
The next target for the terrorists was the Taj Mahal Hotel. Close to the Gateway of India, the hotel is one of Mumbai’s icons. Resplendent in fancy decorations and excellent restaurants, it was out of my price range, but the story behind it was fascinating.

An Indian man wanted to stay in one of the nicer hotels. The British operators of the hotel said it was only for whites, so he built the Taj Mahal Hotel next door and eventually put them out of business, then bought their building and made it the “cheap” rooms of his.

On my second night in India, my friends and I ate at what is probably one of the nicest restaurants in India – the Golden Dragon inside the Taj Mahal Hotel.

With excellent Indian wine, a round of cocktails, an appetizer plate of prawns and main dishes of Beijing duck, lemon chicken and lamb, we certainly left satisfied, albeit lighter in the wallet.

Another target for the terrorists was the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, also called the Victoria Terminus, or VT Station. The building’s exterior is one of the nicest in Mumbai, and combines several styles of architecture. While I didn’t go inside the station, I did spend a fair amount of time walking around it.

On my visit to India, I was struck by how peacefully the major religions lived among each other, without overt tension. In Goa, one of my friends, a Christian, was shopping for his father, a Hindu, at a woodcarver’s shop. The Muslim woodcarver suggested an idol of a Hindu god, explaining the god’s significance and why he should choose that one over any others for his father.

I watched Christians from an orphanage caroling through Goa’s streets, and everyone was making plans to celebrate the Muslim holiday that was fast approaching. My overriding thought was that I wished the religious sects could get along so well everywhere.

Though India has been home to much religious infighting, I get the impression that most of it is due to the extremists on both sides, as well as the tension between India and Pakistan.

When I saw the attacks on TV, I was shocked. Terrorist attacks, by their nature, are always shocking, but the fight in Mumbai took place somewhere I have actually been. The bombings of the London metro system came with a similar feeling, but even though I had used the metro many times while I was there, it didn’t come as close as seeing the attacks in Mumbai.

After all, I had eaten in the hotel, stood at the Gateway of India and walked along the grounds of the Chhatrapati Shivaji station. It was only a year ago that I was there, and seeing all those places I can still remember vividly now being a war zone just makes me angry and sad. Had they attacked a military target, I would have disagreed with it, but at least I would have had some respect for their courage. As it is, they’re just a bunch of cowards, and in using those sorts of tactics, I can’t imagine they will ever win.

Monday, November 24, 2008

England's Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London is one of those things you simply have to see, or so I was told.

A fine English tradition, I looked forward to seeing the Redcoats march in unison, their smart movements showcasing the discipline that helped Great Britain rule an Emprire spanning the globe.

At the tail end of my first trip to Europe, I was in London on an overcast day, and the changing of the guard was the only thing on my list until jumping on the Tube to Heathrow for the flight home.

Approaching Buckingham Palace, I joined the crowd massing in front of the black wrought-iron fence.

I smiled as I saw the sea of red flooding the courtyard, with mounted police and soldiers milling around the outside. Squeezing into a spot between two Brits, I could barely hear the voice of the officer shouting commands.Soldiers milled around, and a pair walked along the edge of the group, chatting with each other out of the corners of their mouths.

At one point, as I waited for the show to start, a short, elderly woman clad in black strode through the crowd.

“I do believe that was the Queen,” said a guy to my right.

Unable to resist, I asked him, in my best English accent, “What makes ya say that?”

“Well, she was short,” he replied.

It was all I could do not to laugh, but I carried on. “Sure, she’s short, but that doesn’t mean she’s the bloody Queen,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s true,” he said.

I figured that if she had been the Queen of England, she wouldn’t have been walking alone through the changing of the guard ceremony. Then again, I can’t think of too many women who could just wantonly stroll through it, either.

It seemed that the ceremony was over before it started. I don’t know if I blinked or missed it while I was pretending to be a local, but I never saw anything overly formal. The same pair of soldiers still strolled along the outskirts continuing their conversation, and the mounted Bobby blew his whistle at someone trying to climb up the fence for a better look.

The mass of Redcoats marched away, leaving only the guards in their shacks, who would stand in that position until they couldn’t handle it anymore, then go through the comical exercise routine that they’re supposed to do.For me, the changing of the guard came as something of a letdown. I wanted to see a huge production, but then again, they have to do it every day. Seeing that many soldiers wearing the classic uniforms was cool, and it was a notch in my belt, so to speak, but it wasn’t what it was hyped up to be.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Misadventures - When Monkeys Attack

Going to India, I really looked forward to seeing monkeys. I don’t know what it is about them that fascinates me, but I’d always wanted to see one.

Reading up on what, before the trip, loomed as an exotic, wild land draped in stereotypes, I was amazed at some of the stories I encountered, especially those regarding monkeys.

The most ominous of those stories was about a pack of monkeys murdering New Delhi’s deputy mayor. OK, maybe murder is the wrong word, but they pushed him off of his balcony, and he fell to his death.
In other news, I read about the problems New Delhi was experiencing with monkey break-ins. There were several reports of monkeys rummaging through refrigerators, then slapping women who tried to stop them. I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.

Possibly the most intriguing story I read regarding the furry little bipeds was the effect they had on New Delhi’s transit system. Apparently, small, mean monkeys frequently rode in the passenger cars on the trains, forcing passengers to ride on the roof by chucking…stuff…at them.

While many countries would find a way to eradicate the problem with varying degrees of damage to the monkeys, Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, is sacred, making monkeys protected.

What, then, to do?

The answer authorities came up with was rather creative. A larger breed of monkey was drafted into city service. These larger monkeys, Langurs, are friendly to people, but scare the little tyrants out of the train cars.

I did not see this firsthand, but read on a reputable news site that passengers and Langurs ride the cars in harmony.

With so much monkey mayhem evident in the place I was about to spend two weeks, I read up on how to get them to leave me alone.

Don’t make eye contact, and don’t show your teeth, as these are seen as challenges, and the monkeys simply aren’t afraid of people. If you’re holding food, and the monkey asks, then the monkey should get. The “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” phenomenon apparently doesn’t apply.

Being the conscientious travel companion I try to be, I sent off an e-mail to my friends so they, too, would know how to avoid confrontation.

It was on Elephanta Island, in Mumbai’s harbor, when I learned that my friend, Peter, hadn’t bothered to read.

Home to a handful of villages, a cave complex dating back to the 600s and a colony of small monkeys, Elephanta Island is a must-see for tourists. Its caves are one of India’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Walking through the bazaar on the way to the caves, we saw monkey after monkey. Some sat, some played with each other, one stole a vendor’s water bottle and one attacked Peter.

I tried to warn him. About the time I said, “Don’t—” he was dodging the surprisingly agile little beast.
He managed to dodge the attack and retreat in time, but the monkey then stood in the path like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Peter stomped his foot, and the monkey held his ground.

None shall pass, indeed.

After a few seconds, the monkey found something more exciting than the standoff and swung through a tree.

We had no more trouble with monkeys for the rest of the trip. In Ranthambore National Park, famed for its tigers and 10th-Century fortress, we saw several. These ones had apparently “gone green” as they drank from the taps and conscientiously shut them off when they were finished.

Down south, in Goa’s capital city of Panaji (Panjim), I was excited to see the bright orange temple to Hanuman. While the sight was certainly impressive, it was oddly devoid of monkeys.

I got my fill of the little creatures on that trip. I still think their antics are hilarious, like watching a semi-human society acting outside all the laws of civility, but I have a new respect for them. They’re noble in their own way, and, being so genetically close to humans, I can see why so many people choose to study them.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Siena - the Embodiment of "Bella Toscana"

Siena is one of those towns where, just by speaking the name, you can capture the imagination of just about anyone. For those who have never been there, it’s a mystical paradise, a small town nestled in the sun-soaked Tuscan hills. For those who have been fortunate enough to walk its cobbled streets, it has the same basic effect.

Due to the vagaries of the Italian daylight savings time, I arrived in the idyllic town with my family after dark, when the shops were closed and everyone was in bed for the night. We took a cab from the deserted train station to our hotel, catching shadowy glimpses of the town’s hidden beauty.

When my alarm went off the next morning, I rubbed my eyes, dragged myself out of bed and opened the shutters of my second-floor room. Looking out the window, Siena, and Tuscany for that matter, was everything I’d anticipated.

Narrow streets were bordered by multistory buildings topped with mossy tile roofs. The view over the town was of rolling hills vaguely reminiscent of California’s Napa Valley in the spring. The hillsides were peppered with villas and other buildings that could have been 20 years old or 200 years old.

Breakfast in the hotel turned out to be one of those moments many travelers experience when outside their own national borders. The family-style meal was shared by us, the Italian owners and an Italian family. None of them could speak English, so a lot of finger-pointing and smiles from everyone made sure we each got our share of the food.

Once outside, we let my sister lead, as she’d been living in Florence for a month and a half and had already visited Siena.

Our first stop was the most magnificent – the Duomo. Built in the late 1300s, the cathedral embodies the Italian Romanesque architecture. It’s smaller than the builders originally intended, since money ran out before its epic proportions could be realized.

What is there, however, doesn’t disappoint. The façade is a medley of colored marble and carvings. The winged statue at the peak looks down on all who enter. Such elegance was built to inspire people’s faith, and standing at the base of the wall, it’s easy to see how that was achieved.

With such a beautiful exterior, I wasn’t expecting the interior to match its splendor, but my assumptions were unfounded. The interior was fantastic, and words really can’t do it justice. Unfortunately, my photos are mostly terrible, but the walls were covered in religious paintings and statues. The black marble floor had white inlaid images of saints and religious figures, and the inside of the dome was painted a deep blue and detailed with golden stars.

Leaving the Duomo, I didn’t believe my sister when she said Florence’s Duomo had a more beautiful façade. I marveled at the power the Catholic Church had in the middle ages, to be able to build so many cathedrals across so many lands that survive to this day.

Our next stop was the Piazza del Campo, where, twice each year, horse races are run, and Siena’s 17 neighborhoods renew their rivalries. When we were there, however, the piazza was full of people, most sitting in the sunlit open center and admiring the architecture surrounding them. We decided it was a good idea, so we bought gelato from a nearby vendor and joined them.

Siena’s old town is small, and we decided to see if we could lose ourselves within it. That proved to be difficult, but we were happy to wander the many small streets and alleyways, seeing how new buildings were built right on top of the old.

During our wandering, we came across many ceramics shops. The friendly proprietors of one invited us in, and explained that they make all of their wares by hand. The pieces are extremely good, and the prices tended to reflect that.

For lunch, we ate pizza, which always seems better in Italy. The thin crust and varied toppings complemented each other perfectly, and the Peroni beer had the effect of confirming that I was, in fact, in Italy.

With limited time in the town, we made our last stop before leaving for Florence – the Basilica of San Domenico. In stark contrast to the Duomo’s elegance and beauty, the basilica, which was built a little more than a hundred years earlier, is a mostly ugly, symmetrical brown building with a fairly boring exterior.

Despite its unimpressive exterior, it houses something I have yet to see anywhere else – the head of a Catholic saint. The head belonged to Saint Catherine, who lived during the building of the Duomo. I wasn’t at all spiritually moved by seeing the woman’s head (complete with skin I seem to recall was added after a hundred years or so), but it was definitely a memorable sight, as it sat there looking back at me.

Leaving Siena, I was left with the impression that it was everything it was cracked up to be – which should speak volumes for the town. Though I doubt I could live there for too long before feeling the need to be in a bustling city, it joins Rothenburg and Bruges as one of my favorite small towns in the world.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Travel Tips: Foreign Airlines Provide Good Alternatives

Air travel is expensive, and options often seem limited for that flight to, say, Prague. One thing I discovered in flying with United Airlines was that money can be saved by flying with their Star Alliance partners, including Air Canada and Lufthansa (of Germany).

The benefit to programs like the Star Alliance is that travelers can make use of different routes and, often, cheaper fares. Furthermore, with a partnership program, you can book different legs of your flight on different carriers, but since they work together, you're not out of luck if you miss a flight. From my experience, the amenities on foreign-flag carriers exceed those of American carriers.

Lufthansa, for example, offers free beer and wine, and you need not be 21. Oh, and the beer is good German beer. You can actually have anything you want, said one male flight attendant to my sister, adding, "even me."

I don't mean to bash on American carriers, but I just felt more pampered when I flew on Air Canada, Lufthansa and British Airways (Even economy carriers in India, like SpiceJet and Kingfisher, took great care of the flyers).

There are, however, boundaries. Unlike the United States, where we have a tradition centered around the ideal of the customer is always right and really have good service ingrained in our culture, some other cultures are more willing to give it to you bluntly.

When I was aboard a Lufthansa 777, soaring somewhere over Ireland as we dropped toward Frankfurt, a German flight attendant carrying a pitcher strolled down one aisle, offering, "tea, tea, tea."

Though it was obvious to me what she had, a woman in the row in front of me wasn't so perceptive. "I'll have coffee," she said, excitedly.

The flight attendant leaned toward the lady and said, "I have tea. That's why I'm saying, 'Tea, tea, tea.' " With each "tea," she moved a few inches closer to the woman.

Perhaps the customer is usually right, but sometimes stupid.

Waiting to take off from Brussels on a British Airways flight, the chief flight attendant, in her English accent that just somehow added to her authority, told everyone to turn off the cell phones, electronic devices, etc.

Several seconds later, her voice addressed the entire cabin again. This time, she was clearly annoyed. "One of my cabin attendants has informed me that someone is using a mobile telephone. Turn it off immediately. You may think you're being clever, but you're not."

Of course, everyone in the plane looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sufficiently chastened passenger.

To me, those episodes were comical and well-deserved. Having served a few thousand people in the restaurants I worked at, I also understand that many Americans simply can't take that kind of criticism. If that's you, perhaps you should stick with Delta or something.

Foreign-flagged carriers are a great alternative for flights to distant parts. They often allow a better option for arrival and departure times, and are sometimes government-subsidized, allowing for cheaper airfare. I would do a quick Internet search on their safety records before booking a flight, but it's always in their best interest not to crash multimillion dollar aircraft, so they all typically make safety a chief concern.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Misadventures - The (Way) Overpriced Lunch

Walking through Paris, with its rich culture and seemingly endless supply of the best-looking pastries and desserts I’ve ever seen, it’s nearly impossible to go a day without indulging in something. After all, I know I’ll walk it off.

Sometimes, however, it’s more than calories that add up.

On my second trip to Paris – as in “I should have known better” – my family and I happened to be walking around the square where the Bastille used to stand. I was prattling on about the part the storming of the infamous prison has played in French history when we happened to pass by a pastry shop.

The display case in the window drew us like moths to a flame. Cheesecakes, éclairs, chocolate cakes, macarons, strawberry pies and a host of other delicious-looking desserts called our names.The prices seemed fairly reasonable, with just abut every dessert being less than five euros. Did we see the sign that said – even in English for us stupid Americans – “take away prices”? Nope. We even took a picture of it, but who would expect us to even notice the sign with all those desserts distracting us?

The French, apparently.

We each decided what we wanted, and ordered from the counter.

“Would you like to sit inside?” the woman asked.

We looked at each other, peered through the window at the cute little elevated seating area overlooking the obelisk in the center of the intersection and thought, why not?

Once we were seated, the stereotypical Parisian waiter waltzed over to us and smiled, then took our order in perfect English.

A moment later, our mouths were salivating as plates were set in front of us. The Cokes we ordered each came in a little glass bottle, accompanied by a glass with a slice of lemon and, luxury of luxuries – ice. That should have been a warning.

Seriously, if you’re in Europe and your server speaks flawless English, the signs are in English and your drink comes with ice, don’t order another thing.

Oblivious to what was looming at the end of the meal, we ate like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the Revolution. My cheesecake with raspberry sauce was the best I’ve ever had. Most likely because I was eating it in Paris, but it was definitely excellent.

My sister enjoyed every last bite of her strawberry cheesecake, and my parents laughed as they cleaned their plates.

I drained the last of my soda and sat back, satisfied and thinking I could get used to this kind of lunch.

Then the bill came.

I did the math in my head. We’d ordered the cheap desserts, and they should have totaled 12 euros, give or take. Add in the beverages, small as they were, and I thought we were looking at another 10 euros, tops. Then the pittance for the service charge that is almost always factored in, and we’d be good to go.

I never expected the bill to be 44 euros. We stared at the scrap of paper like cavemen contemplating a TV, our mouths comically open.

Flagging the server brought him hustling over, a small miracle in France, where meals can last for the better part of an afternoon.

“Yes, but you sat down and ate in here,” was the end result to our disbelieving questions.

How glad was I that dad was paying? Factor in the exchange rate, and that little snack had actually cost us just under $60.

What could we say? They put a sign out, in English, and we were the idiots who suddenly lost our literacy, not them. There was nothing for it but to leave the money on the table and beat a hasty retreat. At least we knew for next time.

It didn’t help any that, walking to the closest ATM, we passed the shop next door, which happened to stock the same basic selections. Not only were they cheaper, but they advertised no extra charge for sitting inside.

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Salzburg - The True Eternal City

Nestled on the northern frontier of the Alps, Salzburg is one of the places I could visit a hundred times and still look forward to another trip. Formerly a Roman city called Juvavum, Salzburg is today one of the most visited cities in Europe, and with good reason.

Some of the places I have been are only worth mentioning because I had a good time or something funny happened to me in them. My mind is definitely full of fond memories of Salzburg, but they barely contribute to the allure the city has for me.

My first impression of Salzburg was that the fortress dominating its highest point was imposing. Originally built in the late 11th century, it is so impressive that no one ever dared attack its walls. It took a moment for my focus to move to something else, but when it did, I was amazed at how quaint the old town was.

Having just come from Vienna, which has its charm but shows signs of later centuries' ill-guided architecture, Salzburg's Baroque architecture was a sight right out of a fairy tale.

I could have spent several hours soaking up the sunlight and ambling through small streets time has forgotten, but, unfortunately, time never seems to forget me and always moves too fast.

The first order of business was checking into the Hotel Weiss Taube, located right in the center of town. Two peculiarities detracted from the timeless ambiance in front of the cathedral – the massive screen showing World Cup Soccer with its accompanying grandstands, and the helicopter, which sat upside-down on its rotors as part of an art exhibit aiming to demonstrate life's dramatic highs and lows.

Being on one of life's highs, I didn't take any time to ponder the art. With my family, I set about exploring the old city.

Wandering through the streets, we made frequent stops at shops – both artisanal and mainstream. My mom and sister enjoyed the Swarovski crystal shops, filled with hundreds of pieces of fine crystal jewelry and figurines.

After sweating under the halogen lights the crystal merchants use to showcase their wares, I decided it was time to trek across one of the bridges and up a cobbled pathway. I simply can't resist a cobbled pathway weaving through walls of foliage to a mysterious destination, and this one was no exception.

As it turned out, the destination wasn't very exciting, but it is usually more about the journey anyway, and that held true this time. The pathway I'd inadvertently stumbled upon had some of the best views of the city I have seen, showing the Baroque buildings, the Salzach river and the snow-capped mountains in the background, separated by improbably flat green plains.

Back in the Old Town, it was time to pay homage to one of Salzburg's greats. OK, probably Salzburg's greatest – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

I'm not a purveyor of classical music, and I doubt I could even pick out one of his compositions if I heard it, but I appreciate the fact that the man was a genius – and so do the Salzburgers.

Men and women dressed in period clothing roam the streets and tourist destinations, handing out advertisements for concerts. I, however, was interested in something more tangible, and that came in the form of his house.

Largely preserved to showcase the way the young musician lived, his house is not only a window into his past, but a glimpse of Austria's rich history as well. Original and reproduction furniture graced the old floorboards, and informative audio guides explained everything, accompanied by samples of his music.

After eating an unremarkable lunch in the entrance to the Mirabell Gardens, we walked around the immaculate grounds. They are similar to the palace gardens throughout Western Europe, but they have some cinematic history as well.

The statue of Pegasus was a featured in the film, The Sound of Music, as were many of Salzburg's famous sights. On a raised terrace, several statues of dwarves brought back images of the fairy tales I read as a child.

As darkness fell, Salzburg's lights took over. We joined several hundred others in watching a World Cup game, but it lacked the excitement of being in Munich when the Germans won. Nevertheless, it was fun, and I often find myself wishing Americans got into soccer like the Europeans do.

The next day was a fast-paced tour of the fortress followed by the Sound of Music tour. I wasn't for taking the tour, but got outvoted, and was surprised at the depth to which the guide went, and the fantastic sights I would have missed had we opted to skip it. After all, the tour included luge racing and sampling some apple strudel.

Upon returning from the tour, our next stop was the city's famous shopping street, the Getreidgasse. A narrow medieval alleyway maybe wide enough for two cars, the winding street is adorned with fancy iron signs – reminders of a time when the populace was illiterate and a shop's specialty was advertised by pictures formed in metal. Even the McDonald's followed tradition, with the golden arches in a unique frame.

Sadly, we were back so late that the shops were closing, and we missed out on some of the traditional Austrian souvenirs and collectibles. Oddly enough, it is the street that Mozart's house is on, and we'd missed the main drag during our visit there.

Leaving Salzburg was not what I wanted to do, but the blow was softened by the fact that our next destination was Paris, which happens to be my favorite city in the world. I know I will return to Salzburg, and the first thing on my list is to hike the Salzkammergut, a trail that wends its way through some of the astonishing beauty the Austrians live in every day.

Some of the cities I have been to (like New Delhi and Brussels) hold nothing special for me. They were notches in my belt, so to speak, and I don't feel particularly compelled to return. Salzburg, on the other hand, is one of those rare destinations that just feels...right. The people are extremely friendly, it seems to lack some of the tourist traps dotting other cities like black holes and left me with the impression that I could live there. Surrounded by history and beauty, both natural and architectural, Salzburg remains a place not quite like anything I've ever seen before or since. It's so charming that it almost hurts – in a good way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Apple Hill - A Fall Must-Do

To me, fall used to mean going back to school and facing the drudgery of homework and – horror of horrors – waking up early for class. Since graduating from college a few years ago, fall has come to mean something else, and the idea of cooler days, the approach of Halloween and the changing colors has turned it into one of my favorite times of the year.

Getting outside during this time and taking part in some of the festivals and activities that accompany the harvest can really be a good way to spend time with friends and family. Fortunately, I don’t have to travel very far to reach one of the best fall destinations I’ve ever seen – Apple Hill in the California foothills.

Originally composed of 16 Apple ranches, Apple Hill has come from being just a working farmland to being a tourist destination. My best advice is to avoid, if at all possible, going there on a weekend – or brave the crowds.

I went up the hill this weekend with my family, and we visited several of the apple ranches, eating pie, drinking cider, eating caramel apples, petting a few animals, eating fudge and watching kids fish – followed by eating apple donuts.

Yeah, if you’re going to Apple Hill, leave the diet at home.

All of the major apple ranches are easily accessible by a network of roads off of Highway 50 just east of Placerville, so though you can spend hours walking around the properties or through orchards, you don’t have to walk off any calories if you don’t want to. All the ranches are easily reached with the help of the maps offered at many of the locations and published in “The Cider Press.”

Our first stop was Rainbow Orchards. It was crowded, but not as badly as some others. Craft tents were set up, and handmade scarecrows dotted the area. A band played music on stage, and the air was festive. We looked around at the various stalls and a trailer loaded with gourds, then went into the barn to join the line of people waiting for food.

Deciding not to wait in line for the moment, as we’d just eaten lunch, we headed on to Plubell’s Family Orchard. Like Rainbow, it is one of the larger places, and there was quite a bit of activity.

I walked past a wagon that had just emerged from the pumpkin patch, where the family had gathered its pumpkins and the father was pulling them – and a cute chubby baby bedecked with sweater and beanie – to the spot to pay.

The petting zoo featured a bevy of goats who were all too eager to lap up the food visitors could buy. The baby goats, being the cutest, got a disproportionate amount of food, causing the bigger ones to climb the fence high enough to stick their heads over and, in one case, eat the food and polish off the Dixie cup in which it was sold.

Walking past decades-old tractors with very simple mechanical accessories, I spotted a clown giving a free show. I headed instead to the booth of free apple cider and made sure I got the cup as full as I could.

After that, driving down the road toward High Hill Ranch, which would be our final destination, our attention was grabbed by a 1920s-era car with a sign touting apple pies. Unable to resist old cars and apple pie, we pulled over and had a treat that was not unlike the apple strudel we had outside Salzburg.

I scored a free cup of hot apple cider, and then we were off to High Hill.

High Hill Ranch, to me, simply is Apple Hill. Each year, after cutting Christmas Trees with my extended family, we stop and finish off the day with apple donuts and hot chocolate. As a kid, I ran back and forth with my cousins in a small valley that sits next to the small lake in which I once caught a fish.

The place was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, but the line for the free cider samples was relatively short, and we all dispersed to stand in the various lines to mitigate the waiting.

I headed past the pony rides and the wolf rescue display to the fudge shop, which is technically not part of High Hill, but a place I simply must stop at, since they always have what I need for my white chocolate fix.

Had there been less people, we would have sat on one of the outdoor tables and eaten our donuts, or, if we wanted to be cruel, eaten them inside where all the people waiting in line could see us, but we headed home instead.

It seems funny to me that we always come home from apple hill sans apples, lest they be covered in caramel. Even though I rarely eat apples by themselves for some reason, I do truly enjoy visiting Apple Hill and just being there. Once the leaves turn color, the colors on the hillsides explode, and it really becomes the idyllic place to spend time with family and friends.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Tips: Don't be the "Ugly American"

Everywhere I’ve gone (except India) has been awash with Americans. In Europe, we’re easy to spot with our tour guides and clothing choices. I’ve only ever been able to blend in in Germany and Austria, and only then until I speak.

Being so recognizable has its advantages, such as people instantly speaking English when they see you, but it can also be a minefield if you don’t pay attention to the culture and customs.

The “Ugly American” unfortunately roams the streets of Europe and other well-traveled destinations. Don’t be the “Ugly American,” and you’ll have a better trip.

What is the “Ugly American”? Well, it is usually someone who is so convinced that what we do in the United States is far and away the best way of doing things, and feels the need to impress this upon the populace of wherever it travels.

Yes, there are many things about America that I miss when I go overseas, and there are many things I think we do better. I do not, however, necessarily believe that I am always right, and when I do, I don’t feel compelled to tell everyone in the loudest voice possible.

An example? The following story was told to me, and, unfortunately, I have no reason to doubt its veracity, in the face of what I have seen in my own travels.

A woman checked in to a hotel in France, but was upset with the accommodations. Unwilling to accept that, in a foreign country, some things are just different, and you aren’t likely to get your cookie-cutter Holiday Inn room with all the amenities of a refrigerator, minibar and wireless Internet, this woman was angry with the hotelier.

The nine-room hotel was clean, and the staff friendly, but this Ugly American felt the need to complain and moan about something, and said, “I am a middle-class American, and I deserve a certain level of accommodation.”

Whoa, what? If you feel that way, pay 400 Euros a night and stay at the Marriott by the Eiffel Tower. Otherwise, accept that things like elevators, showers and bathrooms will often be exceedingly small compared to American standards in most foreign countries.

The way things are done in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and even Canada might be different, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

I, for one, like ice in my soda. Very few places outside the U.S. seem to care. I either accept it or order something else.

While some things are obvious, being an “Ugly American” can often be accidental. If you’re not familiar with a country’s customs, or what the people find rude, I recommend buying a guidebook that addresses those issues. The guides in the Culture Smart series are very good for that.

You will have a better time of it and be met with friendliness if you learn some of the basics. When you enter a shop in France, say “Bonjour/bonsoir monsieur/madame.” In Germany, make sure you ask for your check at the restaurant, rather than getting upset over its not being delivered to you. In Italy, understand that some restaurants charge a cover just to sit down, and that the bread, while brought to you, is not free, and you will pay by the slice for what you consume.

Knowing a little bit about the culture, being accepting of it and making the smallest attempt at the language really does go a long way. In all the towns, cities and trains I’ve met French people, I have only found one who was rude, yet there exists an unfounded stereotype that the French are rude.

Understand that you are a visitor to the country, and as such, you should conform to the local customs, rather than the other way around. If it’s too bad to handle, go home and watch the Travel Channel.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Lodgings: The Villa Ludovici

One of the benefits of traveling in India is the fact that the value of the dollar hovers around 40 rupees. If you can avoid the tourist traps and indiscriminate extravagances, you can travel and stay for a bargain.

The Villa Ludovici in Goa is the perfect example of excellent service with low costs.

When I stayed there with a friend of mine in December of 2007, five nights - with omelets, papayas and toast for breakfast each morning included - the stay only set us back $100.

We arrived in Goa at the middle of a long day that started when the sun was rising and involved a four-hour taxi ride (where our driver got cited for speeding) and a flight, with the necessity of arriving at the airport two hours early so we could hop on a flight that lasted less than two hours.

Not having researched Goa very much – at all, to be honest – we didn’t really know where to stay. We asked a bunch of travelers in the airport, and settled on the Siquerim Beach area, since it was close enough to the entertainment at Baga Beach to the north and the capital, Panjim, to the south.

Cruising through the Lonely Planet guidebook, I selected Villa Ludovici for its economy listing. A quick phone call settled the rates and reserved a room, then it was a 45-minute taxi ride through beautiful tropical scenery juxtaposed with poverty-stricken villages to arrive at our home for the next five nights.

We were greeted by the friendly owner of what turned out to be not a hotel, but a house. It was actually the first house built on that section of the coast a few centuries earlier. The plaster walls, elegant wood doorways and interlocking clay tiles on the roof all attested to its age. The antiquated electrical work running through the interior struck me as having been original to the 1940s or so.

After dropping off our bags, Deon and I decided it was time to hit Goa’s legendary beaches. As “our” house was right across the street from the beach, it should have been a short walk.

Only it wasn’t.

Not sure about trespassing laws, we hunted and hunted for public beach access until we decided it didn’t exist, and we just walked through a neighborhood, past a construction site and alongside a trash heap to reach the strand.

Turning around, of course, we saw an easy access route we’d somehow missed, but would have allowed us to avoid the hassle we’d just gone through.

After filling up on 85-cent beers and a dinner of fried prawns for a few bucks at a beach shack run by British expats, we headed back to the room for bed.

The mattress was nice and firm, and the blankets were light enough to cover up with and not get too hot in the absence of air conditioning. That’s right, there was no air conditioning. I wasn’t worried about that, as I’ve stayed in condos in Hawaii without AC, and it never proved necessary. The same was true for Goa.

Breakfast the next morning was excellent. I’d slept like a rock, and with absolutely nothing planned for the day except gorging on prawns and tossing back several bottles of Kingfisher beer, I was in seventh heaven.

Deon, on the other hand, was suffering from a plethora of mosquito bites. I made fun of him, and incurred some bad karma that ended with my lily-white skin turning a distinctly reddish hue after the SPF 20 sunscreen utterly failed me during the day (Seriously, it’s all they seem to sell over there. If you need your extra protection, bring your own).

Not wanting to end up with an army of insects feasting on my already-abused body, we asked for, and got, mosquito netting. By the next morning, Deon’s bites were in recession and my sunburn was healing.

That night, it poured. I groaned, lamenting the fact that I’d remembered being able to see sunlight through the roof tiles during the day. Sitting on the patio reading a novel, I knew I was in for a rough night.

And I was completely wrong.

Somehow, the tiles from generations earlier kept the rain out entirely. The restaurant I worked in at home in California had been built seven years earlier, and leaked like a sieve. This house proved far better at withstanding the tropical rain it sees so often.

For the next few days, while eating breakfast, Bessie the holy cow stopped by the gate, always mooing to get in. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, and traffic will stop for them if they lie down in the road, but their sanctity doesn’t guarantee their admittance to breakfast. Each morning, after several minutes of gawking, Bessie left.

Paying the bill at the end of our stay, I still couldn’t believe it had cost us each a measly $10 per night. Part of me felt guilty at getting off so cheap, but my rational side won out, reminding me that if it wasn’t profitable, they wouldn’t be in business.

For great value, a decent location and friendly proprietors, I couldn’t have been happier with the Villa Ludovici.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ponte Vecchio

Bridges always fascinated me. The fact that a road spanning water can be so iconic of a city, while being such an essentially utilitarian structure, is intriguing. Take, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge, London's Tower Bridge, Paris' Pont Neuf and Florence's Ponte Vecchio.

When I arrived in Florence, it was to visit my sister, who was living there at the time as part of a study abroad program through her college. She was lucky enough to get an apartment right in the center of the city, and the Ponte Vecchio was a short walk away.

Most bridges today serve solely as a means to transport people and vehicles across a body of water, beautiful though some of them may be. What I never realized before reading a few novels set in the middle ages was that, throughout history, bridges were often lined with houses, shops and other buildings.

The Ponte Vecchio (literally meaning 'old bridge') is one of the few examples of this practice left standing today.

Standing on the bridge, it was easy to forget that I was over the Arno river and not in an everyday street, since the buildings lining each side give that impression. Only in the center could I see the water below.

At first glance, I didn't like the bridge. It doesn't have the grace or style of others I've visited, and I wasn't exactly familiar with its history.

It wasn't until I saw it lit at night that I suddenly realized how beautiful it actually is. Standing under a clear sky, with my jacket pulled tight against the wind, I stood on the banks of the Arno and just gazed. The lights reflected in the water gave it a surreal feeling, and I suddenly felt a connection with the bridge.

Walking across the crowded structure, I passed shop after shop, mostly selling jewelry. At the time of construction in the mid-1300s, most of those shops belonged to butchers, but the fact that each opens like a treasure chest makes the current residents seem more appropriate.

Walking the bridge is an interesting experience. I was at once dazzled by the expensive jewelry and fine art in the shops, and annoyed with the beggars hawking cheap trinkets. It's the same junk you can find at the Trevi Fountain, Eiffel Tower and half the other attractions in Europe.

Legend has it that when the Germans pulled out of Florence in World War Two, the Ponte Vecchio was spared the fate of demolition Florence's other bridges were sentenced to because Hitler had a particular affinity for the Ponte Vecchio. True or not, it adds to the mystique.

Though I still don’t find the Ponte Vecchio to be the most beautiful bridge in Europe, I can say that it serves as an excellent example of a medieval bridge that retains some of its originality.

As always, whenever I’m in a historically significant or just plain old spot, I feel somehow connected with the people who laid the stones, using technology we would laugh at today for its simplicity. Despite the lack of heavy machines, concrete that set underwater, and modern materials, the men who layed the original roadbed on the Ponte Vecchio managed to get it right. The fact that it still stands is a testament to their craftsmanship, and I find myself wondering if I’m capable of creating something that will last for 700 years.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The National World War One Museum, a Reason to Remember

The Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” but I think World War One is equally forgotten, at least in the United States. The National World War One Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, however, strives to ensure that what was once called “The War to end all Wars,” is remembered.

After paying the entrance fee, visitors walk across a glass bridge, under which lie 9,000 poppies, each one representing 1,000 combatant deaths. The poppies pay homage to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae.

A short introductory film does an excellent job of explaining the background of the conflict, and how powers that had no reason to go to war were thrust into the most brutal combat ever seen at that time by the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Even though I minored in history in college and knew a fair amount about the why and the how of World War One, it amazed me to watch the film of soldiers eagerly strutting off to war in uniforms that were still colorful, with officers having feathers in their caps and cavalry thinking they still had a role on the battlefield.

After the first few fights, where commanders thinking they were still fighting the Napoleonic Wars forced their men to walk forward into machine guns, the soldiers quickly realized what a folly it was, and the museum makes the progression of the war - from “We’ll be home for Christmas” into something entirely different - understandable.

The right side of the building covers the war from its beginning in August, 1914, through 1916. Weapons, artillery pieces and uniforms complement the timeline running the length of the hall, giving visitors both the broad picture and the best thing we can get to an idea of what the average infantryman went through almost 100 years ago.

Quotations by soldiers, taken from their correspondence, put an emotional picture on the faces depicted in grainy black-and-white photos. One I found particularly descriptive was written by a French infantryman about an artillery bombardment.

“Shells of all calibers kept raining down in our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell,” he wrote.

A mock-up trench runs along the wall opposite the timeline, and depicts vignettes of life and death in what was home to millions of men for four years.

The figures depicting the cost of war are everywhere, but it is still hard for me to wrap my mind around them. Looking at a placard about the Battle of the Somme in 1916 told me that 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the offensive, their advance measured in yards, not miles. Roughly double that number were wounded, and that’s not counting the French and German losses.

Numbed by trying to imagine what that must have been like, and still failing to understand why it even happened, I went to the next room, which housed computerized interactive displays. Want to know about a particular tank or airplane? Use the laser pointer to select it and watch a short video on it. It’s great for kids, and also a good way to get more out of the museum if you have the time and the inclination.

At the far end of the museum is a second theater, showing another short film, but this one explaining the United States’ entrance into the war.

The entire left side of the museum (standing at the entrance door) is devoted to America’s experience in the war, from the first battles at Chateau Thierry and Bellau Wood in 1917, to the final offensives and the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918.

As with the first portion of the museum, a timeline runs along the wall, complete with quotes from soldiers, civilians on the home front, nurses and civilians in the embattled areas. Again, uniforms and artifacts fill display cases, and there is even a French-built Renault FT-17 tank that was hit by an enemy shell during the war.

A few months before I was there, America’s last surviving World War One veteran, Frank Buckles, was photographed in front of the tank. It was sobering to think of what he must have felt when he visited the museum. Of the millions of Americans in uniform at that time, he is quite literally the last one alive, and one of only a handful worldwide.

Once he is gone, the only chance we will have to appreciate the American experience in that war will be in films, stories and archival documents, fortunately being preserved in places like the National World War One Museum.

The tower rising out of the center of the building visible in the photograph at the top of this post is the Liberty Memorial. A fixture on the Kansas City skyline, it has a simulated eternal flame at night.

I rode the elevator to the top on an absolutely gorgeous day, being served an unobstructed view of Kansas City, as close to being in the dead center of the United States as possible. I gazed off in the distance, seeing the towering skyscrapers of the modern metropolis and beyond, to the green flatland of the part of the country half my family comes from.

Surrounded by the peace and splendor I can enjoy today, I couldn’t help thinking about the museum below me, and the sacrifices made by my great grandfather’s generation. My father’s grandfather served in France in the First World War, suffering some of the horrible conditions I am fortunate enough to experience only through a museum. He lived in the trenches. He faced enemy fire. He was gassed. A quarter-century later, he volunteered to stand guard at a power station in Dutch Flat, Calif. against possible sabotage by our enemies in the Second World War. He did it armed with the Luger pistol he picked up in France.

I happened to look down on the well-kept back lawn of the museum and saw a group of Marines holding a change of command ceremony. It took no great leap of imagination to see them as exactly the same as the soldiers from World War One. I wasn’t sure what to think when I looked down on them. I felt pride and sadness, but more than anything else, I felt respect and thankfulness.

World War One ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Unfortunately, it didn’t end anything. All it did was set up World War Two. U.S. Gen. Tasker Bliss put it best when he said, “The wars are not over….There will be the devil to pay all around the world.”


Museum Web site