Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Taste of Travel: Apple Strudel

I wasn’t very excited to take a tour to the places featured in The Sound of Music, but it turned out to be a very nice visit to the Lake District around Salzburg, Austria.

As charming as Salzburg is, the beauty of the surrounding area beckons for a side trip. The tour I was on, aside from three Texan ladies who couldn’t stop repeating the same questions time and again, was enjoyable, with our guide offering information not only about the movie, but the history of the countryside in general.

One of the tour’s highlights, for me, was when we stopped in Mondsee. The stop was intended for visiting a church in which the wedding scene takes place, but thanks to my guidebook, I knew what the real draw was.

Diagonally across the street from the church were a trio of restaurants. A local answered a few of my questions to make sure I got the right place, and I sat down at an outdoor table with my family.

We ordered four Cokes, which were brought in glass bottles, and then we gave our server our order. “Feer apfelstrudel, bitte.” He smiled knowingly and returned several minutes later with our apple strudel.

The pastries sat in the center of the plates, steaming hot and dusted with powdered sugar. Garnishing the strudel were two petite scoops of smooth vanilla ice cream on one side, and a rich vanilla sauce on the other.

Our server took our picture, and as he framed it, the sweet scent of the sauce combining with the smell of warm apples was driving me crazy. When the shutter finally clicked, I snatched up my fork and dug in, mixing the strudel, ice cream and sauce together in every bite.

The taste alone would have made the food unforgettable, but the fact that we were in such fantastic surroundings, with the Austrian Alps towering in the distance and being reflected in the lake in front of us made it something special.

As we paid our bill, our tour guide trudged up to the van from the church, the three Texans chattering behind him. I’d been in probably 12 churches so far on this trip, and I realized I hadn’t eaten nearly enough apfelstrudel.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

For the Love of a Woman

I found myself walking down a narrow, dusty road past armed guards and children hawking trinkets. A camel cart was parked to my right, and the camel eyed me suspiciously as he chewed and bared his teeth at me.

Getting there had been the result of a harrowing ride you can read about here.

But there I stood. I was a short line away from entering one of the most fabled places in the world – the Taj Mahal.

I remembered my first exposure to it in a Scholastic News article back in elementary school. I know that, at the time, I thought, “I’ll never see this.” This was one time I was happy to be wrong.

After a thorough frisking at the security checkpoint, I joined my friends inside the outer wall. Not wanting to rush ourselves, we took photos of the exquisite gatehouse. Constructed from red sandstone with marble and precious stone inlay, it is a sight in its own right. I thought of how many people from a multitude of different places had traveled there since the Taj Mahal was finished in 1653, and the number is unfathomable.

Unable to resist any longer, I headed toward the gate and caught my first glimpse of pristine white marble peeking through the arch, the thousands of precious stones inlaid into its surface only hinting at the detail from that distance.

I walked through the gate, and it was like I had entered another world. Built by the Emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is perfect in every way. The turquoise pool lined by trees and full of fountains acts as a permanent red carpet to the fruit of the work of architects representing Persian, Central Asian and Islamic influences.

The main monument, which houses the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, is flanked by tall minarets on each corner. It amazed me to learn that each side is identical. From a distance, the intricate detail above the main arches looked like fine lacework. As I moved closer, I saw that it was really inlaid precious stones brought from all over India and installed by skilled artisans.

Taking a circuit of the monument, I ran my fingers over the smooth marble and tried to imagine what the area must have looked like with thousands of the most skilled craftsmen in the world toiling on the monument a man created to honor the memory of his wife.

Once up on the upper platform, with protective booties securely over my shoes, I gazed across the river to where, had Shah Jahan had his way, a matching black monument would have stood. Intended to house the emperor after his death, construction was never started, as his son managed to thwart what he saw as wasting resources.

Shah Jahan now rests alongside his wife, inside the Taj Mahal itself. The interior of the mausoleum was breezy, as marble screens took the place of walls to allow air and light to circulate through the room. The ceiling stood impressively high, and I thought it was a wonder that it only took 22 years to construct the whole monument.

The tombs of Jahan and Mumtaz sit side-by-side, and Jahan’s tomb has his royal symbol inlaid in precious stones over his head.

Emerging from the tomb back into the garden area, I took the time to look at the mosque, the Masjid, which is on-site and still used on certain days.

Walking around the Taj Mahal again, I paid attention to how the sunlight played on the marble from different angles. I have heard that the best time to see the light’s effect is at dawn, but even in the afternoon the sight is mesmerizing.

As I left, I couldn’t help but wonder what type of a woman Mumtaz Mahal must have been. To inspire such devotion from her husband, she had to have been something special, and I wondered if she would really live up to the beauty of the building she spends eternity in.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Air Canada, eh?

With all the news about canceled flights and airlines going under (aloha, Aloha), I thought I would write something positive about the industry that takes me where I want to go.

I love travel, but squeezing my 6'2" body into a coach seat for as much as 16 hours (Mumbai-New York) has yet to become something I look forward to. When I flew to Italy last year to visit my sister, I was prepared for a quasi-night of restlessness only to arrive in Rome in the morning ready for bed.

I flew Air Canada, and the trip from San Francisco to Toronto arrived on time. I ate my last cheeseburger for 10 days and got ready to board my plane to Rome.

It was delayed. All of us were sent to another gate, where our new plane supposedly arriving from the hangar never showed. Then we went back to the first gate and boarded the original plane - now apparently mechanically sound.

I got my boarding pass printed, and the ticket said, "5K." I tried to picture the layout that would allow 11 seats per aisle.

I was all the more puzzled when I saw the first 10 rows or so were first class. My ticket was for coach. With the feeling that I was about to be cruelly teased, I hesitantly approached the inexplicably numbered "5K," which sat in the middle of a three-seat row.

The "seat" looked like a small cubicle and had an electrically articulating seat, a real pillow and a down blanket, not to mention the flip-out TV screen.

I stood in the aisle, blocking it like an idiot. The flight attendant came up and asked me if there was a problem. I think I motioned to my ticket and pointed to the seat. She laughed and said, "Yes, this is your seat."

I wasn't about to argue. I sat down and snickered as all the other passengers trudged to coach.

Because the plane I had been ticketed for was in a different configuration than the one that actually pulled up to the gate, I was automatically bumped to the world of the wealthy. On the LCD screen that flipped out, I could watch more than 40 movies or set up playlists from more than 2,500 tracks.

But what did I do? I read for an hour, reclined my seat into a bed and didn't wake up until breakfast was served somewhere over the U.K. or France.

I was four hours late to Rome, but rather than resembling a narcoleptic, I was well-rested and ready to catch up with my sister in the Eternal City.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It Wasn't the Popemobile, but...

The line stretched around two sides of the wall enclosing the Vatican. There was nothing to look at, except the people who tried to cut.

I heard a helicopter overhead, and looked up to see the big white aircraft circling the area around us. The landing gear was down, and I realized it was the pope's chopper. I watched it circle and circle, but it still didn't land. I wondered what would be so important to keep the pope from landing, and then police officers ran down the street, ushering the crowds to hug the wall.

Suddenly I realized what was going on. The helicopter was part of a security detail, and was probably scanning the rooftops for snipers and keeping an eye on the route of a motorcade.

Two motorcycle cops sped past me, and, heedless of the police, I stepped past their line of control to look down the small thoroughfare.

That was when I saw the motorcycles flanking a pair of black sedans. The only camera I had was my point-and-shoot, and it barely turned on it time to get the first shot.

Unfortunately, as Pope Benedict XVI leaned forward and waved, my camera was not ready to shoot again, so I got a rather poor photo of part of his vestments.

But I still saw him, and even though I'm not Catholic, I thought it was a nice experience.

It even turned out that it was a fluke I saw him in the first place, as the Italian daylight savings time had taken effect that morning, causing me to be an hour late, and thus being in position to see the pope - and be an hour late to catch my train to Siena that night, which was just not good fortune at all.