Saturday, September 12, 2009

Living in Paris

This blog is taking a backseat to what I am now doing. Though I will try to continue to add posts in line with my previous ones in this blog, I am going to focus more on my new blog, about living in Paris: La Vie Parisienne. (

The new blog will focus exclusively on Paris and the travels I make using Paris as a base (planned trips include Bordeau, Normandy, Switzerland and Munich - for Oktoberfest).

Check it out - it will be in a more compressed form and will have more photos.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Nothing symbolizes the horror and brutality of World War I for the French more than Verdun.

During the 10-month battle in 1916, French los
ses were estimated at about 400,000 killed, wounded and missing. German losses were less, at about 350,000, though estimates vary.

The soldiers lived like rats in trenches, constantly enduring enemy artillery fire and attacks. Even sending messages was dangerous, as couriers had an extremely short life expectancy. If they weren't killed by enemy artillery, poison gas, sniper fire or bayonets, the soldiers suffered from illnesses, fatigue and what we would today call shell shock.

Despite how horrific a place Verdun was, I still wanted to visit the battlefield. Understanding the French experience in World War I makes it clear why the country fell so fast in World War II, when much of the population thought that living under German occupation would be a far smaller price to pay than another war, since World War I left one in three French men between 17 and 33 dead.

The town itself is easy to find and is relatively close to Nancy. If you are, like me, interested in history, then Verdun is a must. The town has always been
a fortress city, and the Germans and French have fought over it several times.

One interesting aspect of Verdun's history revolves around two French soldiers who served there - Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Pet
ain. Petain was considered the hero of Verdun, and he commanded the French forces there for much of the battle. De Gaulle, who was inspired by Petain long before the battle, was captured at Verdun. Petain would later collaborate with the Germans in World War II and be a figurehead for the Vichy French government while de Gaulle would lead the Free French forces during World War II and emerge a hero, famously marching down the main boulevards of Paris when the city was liberated in 1944 before German snipers had been cleared out.

When I arrived in Verdun, it was cloudy, and the recent rain had stopped. After passing through the fortified gate that guards one end of a bridge over the Meuse River, I came to the visitor center, which was unfortunately closed.

A map near the visitor center showed the way to many of the sites, and after looking at statues and memorials in the center of town, I hopped in my car and drove to Fort Vaux, Fort Douaumont and the iconic Ossuaire.

Forts Vaux and Douaumont played key roles in the battle, and both were taken by the Germans, then retaken by the French. Each is worth a post in its own right, so I'll save that for later.

Wandering the battlefield is possible, but signs warn visitors to stay on the paths. Essentially, they all sum up the same thing: The weapons used in 1916 are still in the ground, and they can kill you just as
easily today as they could 90 years ago.

What was once a war-torn moonscape dotted with shattered tree stumps is once again peppered with woods. Between the tree trunks, the reminders of the war are still visible - earth cratered from artillery shells, half-filled-in trenches where men used to live and concrete gun positions that have long since had their weapons removed.

Reaching the Ossuaire, in front of which about 15,000 French soldiers are buried, I was struck by the fact that this plays such an important role in French history, and I don't even remember it being mentioned in my history classes in America - and I have a minor in history from a university.

In the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, there is a section on Verdun. Two quotes from the combatants stood out to me when I was there.

"Shells of all caliber kept raining in our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. The air was unbreathabl
e. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell." - A French infantryman.

The second quote is from a German soldier at Verdun: "Verdun transformed men's souls. Whoever floundered through this mass full of the shrieking and dying had passed the last frontier of life and thus bore deep within him the leaden memory of a place that lies between life and death."

The soldiers of both sides experienced hell at Verdun, and the huge Ossuaire, though open to the public and containing displays, is the final resting place of some 130,000 soldiers from both sides who were unable to be identified.

A tower rising from the middle of the Ossuaire is styled in the shape of an artillery shell, and on the way to the top, visitors can see mannequins dressed in period uniforms as well as some of the weaponry used.

The top of the tower affords a view of the battlefield that can't be had anywhere else. At the base of the tower, visitors can watch a short film that explains the reason for the war and the battle itself along with the stupidity - and there's really no other word for it - of that particular conflict.

The last place I stopped was at one of the communication trenches. With its moss-covered, rotting timbers still in place, I could just imagine the hundreds of men who must have passed through it. Communication trenches connected the various trench lines and allowed men to move between them without as much risk of being spotted by the enemy. They almost always moved at night, and the only guidance a man had was to stay close to the man in front of him. There were countless instances of units getting lost, then finding themselves on exposed ground at dawn, where alert artillery observers saw them. Within minutes, they would be shelled and killed.

Verdun, or any battlefield, for that matter, is not the place to go if you want to experience the joie de vivre for which France is so famous. If you want to understand France, and especially its role in the 20th century, however, I think Verdun is a place that must be visited, or at least understood.

A soldier killed Nov. 9, 1918.
For him, the armistice came two days too late.

If you're interested about the battle of Verdun, I recommend Alistair Horne's "The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916." Written in the 1960s, Horne - a British historian - tends to editorialize a little bit, but the book provides a good explanation for the battle without expecting a lot of prior knowledge of the war.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Photo of the Week: Rottinger

This is typical of the small German towns along the Romantic Road in Bavaria. Rottinger doesn't even warrant a mention in most guidebooks, and there's not a whole lot to do other than wander around, but if you have a car, it's fun to stop and see a little bit of what "real" German life is like, as opposed to the touristy areas right next to the train stations.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Travel Tips: Dealing With Jet Lag

We all hate jet lag, but rather than write a post complaining about it (really, Sacramento to Rome in 14 hours is not worth complaining about), I will share what has (and hasn't) worked for me.

I'll get the one you'll hate me for out of the way first. The single best experience I've had on an airline was when I got bumped to first class for a flight from Toronto to Rome on a brand-new Air Canada plane and slept like a baby for the entire flight, except when I was tossing back complimentary beers. You can read about that here.

The London Eye Ferris wheel seen from a hop-on/hop-off bus
my first time in Europe, when I was trying to deal with jet lag.

Suffice to say that when I got to Rome around midmorning, I was ready to go and almost completely unaffected by jet lag.

Another time I did fairly well with jet lag was when I flew to India, leaving Sacramento at five or six in the morning and arriving in Mumbai (Bombay) about 10 or 11 p.m. (local time, which was about 13 hours' difference). I did not sleep on the flight over, but I was out when I laid down in my hotel room, and I woke up at about 8 a.m. the next day. My sleep schedule was a little messed up for the next three days, as I kept waking up before dawn, but it wasn't so bad.

The best way to deal with jet lag is to stay awake until it is time to sleep wherever you are. On my first trip to Europe, I didn't think that would be too difficult.

Flying to London from the states, the sun never set, though night passed (the fun of flying so far north in summer).

I arrived in London, stood in a long and excruciatingly slow customs line at Heathrow, then dropped my bags at my hotel. I honestly can't remember what I did that first day, other than wander around a bit and try to keep from imitating their accents.

One thing I do know was that I took one of the open-top, hop-on/hop-off bus tours (which I highly recommend, by the way). The photo at the top of this post was taken from that bus, but it was pushing 6 p.m. in London and I had been awake for about 28 hours without really having slept more than a few hours the previous night.

I remember trying to stay awake as the bus lolled along in traffic, and the next thing I knew, I was swearing at the completely unexpected pain in my forehead. Apparently, I had nodded off and let my face fall forward to smack the metal rail on the seat in front of me.

Jet lag affects everyone differently, and the rule of thumb is that for every hour you miss, it will take you one day to adjust. Therefore, on a trip from California to Europe, expect a nine-day adjustment time. I have found that I usually adjust in about four or five days, as long as I stay awake as long as possible when I arrive.

If you can sleep on the plane, do it. I'm somewhat unfortunate in that I can't ever seem to sleep on planes, except the time I flew first class.

Do not get to your hotel at one in the afternoon and settle in for "just a little nap." It ends up throwing you completely for a loop.

On my last trip to Europe, I took advantage of the fact that I was waking up at 5 a.m. in Pragua and not being able to sleep. I went out and explored the city at an hour I am almost never awake for. You can read about that here.

Regardless of how much you are or aren't affected by jet lag, the trip is always worth it. The only real ways to deal with it are to do everything possible to force yourself onto the local sleep schedule and to just give it time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Photo of the Week - Castle Guard in Prague

This photo was taken at the Castle Quarter in Prague. I'm actually curious how close I would have had to get before I either got a reaction out of this guy or was kindly escorted away by his comrades (or colleagues, since we're talking post-communist era here).

Though my ushanka with its Soviet emblem clearly labeled me as a tourist, I couldn't resist buying it. The shopkeeper swore that the emblem wouldn't offend anyone, but I removed it shortly after this photo was taken and only replaced it when I got back to the States.

Incidentally, about a third of Prague's population sports similar fur hats in the winter, and my touristy trinket actually helped me fit in - until I opened my mouth and butchered the language.

The two vents in the photo (one under the guard's feet and the other just behind it in the shack) are heaters to keep the guys warm.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Snorkeling in Hawaii

The best thing Hawaii has to offer is its natural beauty. The nightlife and posh resorts are nice, but that experience can be had just about anywhere.

No trip is really complete without getting an up-close view of the myriad tropical fish.

There are, literally, hundreds of places to snorkel on the islands, but one of the easiest to reach for most visitors in Hanauma Bay, on Oahu's eastern shore about 10 miles from Waikiki.
The best advice I can give for a trip to Hanauma Bay is to get there early. The nature preserve is invariably crowded during its open hours, and the more people out kicking through the water, the more sand gets stirred up, obscuring your view.

After paying $1 to park and $7.50 per person to enter, there is a mandatory video before visitors can descend to the beach, either on foot or by tram.

I've been to Hanauma Bay several times, and despite snorkeling opportunities elsewhere, it is still worth the cost.

I brought my own snorkeling gear, but there are numerous places to rent it in Waikiki, as well as at the bay itself. The benefit to renting in Waikiki is that you can take it to other parts of the island once you're done with Hanauma Bay.

On my last trip, I swam along the surface as I snorkeled - something it takes some people a while to get used to, as breathing underwater just isn't natural.

With the narrow inlet to the bay, there is really no danger of being swept out to sea as long as you stay close to shore, and the water is shallow enough to stand up in if you get tired.

The fish you'll see the most of are schools of unimpressive silver fish, but they are exciting at first.

After about 10 minutes in the water, I spotted several angelfish, with their tall, narrow bodies slicing through the water as they scurried for cover. I also notices several rainbow-spotted fish, a number of skinny trumpetfish that resemble eels and dozens of other sea creatures.

After about two hours at the beach, the cars and buses brought more and more people, and I decided to head out to another part of the island and get on with the trip.

For more information about Hanauma Bay, visit the official site here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Photo of the Week: The Bay Bridge

This is the Bay Bridge, heading to Oakland from San Francisco. During the 1989 earthquake, a portion of the top level - Oakland to San Francisco - famously smashed down onto the lower level.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Many travelers following Germany's Romantic Road would love to find a town that is the non-touristy equivalent of the picturesque Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Unfortunately, such a town does not exist, as Rothenburg's preservation as a medieval city was only made possible through its fall in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and the ensuing poverty that lasted until the 20th century.

One town, however, comes close - Dinkelsbuhl.

Dinkelsbuhl sits along the Romantic Road less than an hour away from Rothenburg by car.

With many of Rothenburg's charms - a medieval wall, a Gothic cathedral, cobblestone streets and excellent local eateries - Dinkeslbuhl is less crowded and feels more like Germany and less like Disneyland, but it lacks the historic significance of Rothenburg and the myriad restaurants.

I visited Dinkelsbuhl in 2006, and I found it to be worth a stop on the way to Munich if you have time. It seems like much of the wall has been taken out, but substantial portions still stand. You can't walk its length like you can in Rothenburg, but after Rothenburg, you should have your fill of walking around the walls.

There are a few shopping streets in Dinkelsbuhl, and you can find the sorts of shops the locals typically frequent. Rather than Rothenburg's tourist traps - where sellers hawk spoons, beer steins, fake medieval weaponry and Christmas decorations - Dinkeslbuhl's shops include clothing stores, soccer shops and grocery stores.

What Dinkelsbuhl has that Rothenburg lacks is a lake full of swans and a nesting spot for the birds atop one of its buildings. (There's a chance the nest is for a stork, but swans are on the lake).

When I visited Dinkelsbuhl, I wandered around the town's uncrowded streets, visited the cathedral and had an excellent serving of apple strudel with ice cream at a small restaurant near the cathedral recommended by one of the helpful locals.

One of the trips I want to take in the future is a bicycle trip along the best sections of the Romantic Road, with more time to explore each individual town and the surrounding rolling green hills.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Photo of the Week: Fannette Island

A helpful cloud shadowed the shore in the background, allowing a good look at what Fannette Island, in Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, looks like without losing it in the nearly identical background.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hundredth Post - My Five Favorites

After 99 previous posts, I have a few I particularly like, so I'll just list them here.

I'm not sure if I like them for the merit of the writing, the subject matter or from remembering the experience, but they stick out to me as my favorites. Click on the bold text for the original article.

Paris Throws a Party
This was my first blog post, and I originally wrote it as an assignment for my column and review writing class in college. I had a habit of procrastinating, and that assignment was no different. I wrote it an hour before it was due in The State Hornet newsroom while the fire alarm was going off over my head and my editor was interviewing me for a copy editing position (no joke). It worked out, since I got an A on the assignment, I got the copy editing job and the school didn't burn down.

Bruges: Belgium's Jewel
In the movie In Bruges, the characters hate this canal city that was the financial capital of Europe in the past. I happen to love it, and I plan on returning. It's tied with Rothenburg ob der Tauber for my favorite small town in the world.

Prague at Dawn
I really enjoyed Prague. It had a special appeal as it was my first trip to a former Communist Bloc country. Wandering around the city by myself an hour before dawn and watching it wake up was a unique experience, and one I hope to replicate the next time I'm in Paris.

A visit to Normandy
Having minored in European history in college, and having been interested in World War II before that, Normandy always held a special fascination with me. Growing up, I never thought I would get the chance to visit the battlefield.

The Mad King's Fairy Tale Castle
Schloss Neuschwanstein is the epitome of a fairy tale castle, and it should be at the top of the list for anyone visiting Germany. Disney based a castle on it, and it has graced thousands of postcards, TV shows and movies. The views from the top of the Alps and the nearby lowlands are fantastic, and a walk across the wood-planked bridge nearby isn't for those with a fear of heights.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Photo of the Week: Art in Ranthambore

Since India's Ranthambore National Park is ranked among the top places in the world to see a tiger in the wild, all the shops in the tiny nearby town cater to tigers. The man in the plaid shirt paints all day, and I bought the painting with the black background above his head for the equivalent of $10, which hopefully represents a decent profit to him.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting Matisse

Every once in a while, when I'm traveling, I meet someone who simply can't be classified.

That was the case with a German man I ran into in Colmar, France, a week before Christmas in 2008. Colmar's Christmas market was in full swing, and part of that market was a display of various farm animals.

When I saw a man walking a donkey on a leash down the street, I made the assumption that he had been involved with the display.

I was completely wrong.

The donkey was being ornery, as they often are, and the man stopped to pet his muzzle and calm him down. We stopped a few feet away and asked if he spoke English.

His German accent wasn't a surprise, as Colmar is in Alsace and is very close to the German border, but what he told us was surprising.

The donkey was named Matisse - after the French painter - and he wasn't in Colmar as part of the Christmas market.

"I take him to the city because he likes to see the lights," the German said. "He really likes to go on walks."

I kind of thought he was kidding, but he was quite serious.

I've seen men walking elephants through the streets of Jaipur in India, but I had expected that. I never would have guessed that men would just hook a rope up to a donkey's bridle and lead him on a leisurely stroll through a French city.

This particular German - I wish I'd gotten his name - said Matisse was 14. Donkeys live into their 40s, he said, adding that they and their owners develop relationships every bit as meaningful as those between dogs and their owners.

We petted Matisse while the German kept beaming and sharing his experiences, and when Matisse looked at the lights, the German nodded in his direction, as if to say, "See, he loves them."

After my mom and sister posed with Matisse for the photo, the German led him off down the street, and not a single person even gave the odd pair a second glance.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Photo of the Week: Home of the Sun King

This is the home King Louis XIV had built - Versailles. Not far from Paris, I stopped here on the way to Normandy with my family. We had our luggage with us, but didn't think it would be a problem, since there is luggage storage at the palace.

Rolling a suitcase, however, across all those cobblestones not only takes forever and jars your whole arm with each stone after a while, but it is also incredibly loud.

Despite that, the palace was worth it. As were the gardens (which I don't have pictures of, unfortunately).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis is the biggest little attraction in Brussels.

As the Dutch name implies, Manneken Pis is a small statue of a naked little boy making water on a street corner.

Many myths, legends and untruths surround the fountain's history and inception. Some say he was a nobleman's kid who urinated on an opposing army in the Middle Ages. Others claim he used his natural means to put out the fire of a fuse set to blow up parts of the city. Another popular tale is that he was the son of a wealthy traveler or merchant who was lost, then found by citizens as he did his business in a garden.

I personally found it odd that no one seems to be able to give an exact reason for the statue's construction, but I knew I couldn't see Brussels without paying homage to the bronze boy.

Throughout the past 200 or so years, visiting dignitaries have sought to clothe the boy. According to some accounts, French King Louis XV's soldiers made off with the little statue. Louis, furious with his soldiers, had a costume made for the boy and returned the statue.

Regardless of how the tradition came about, Manneken Pis now has a few hundred costumes at his disposal.

When I saw the fountain, he was naked as the day he was forged. He was, to my disappointment, eliciting a stream of common water. I'd heard he is sometimes hooked up to a beer keg and that passers-by are offered a drink. I think that would make quite an interesting social experiment, as some people would go for free beer at any cost, others would refuse it out of principal and still more might be on the fence.

Personally...I would have gone for the free beer from a unique tap.

In any case, I looked at him for a few minutes, shrugged and headed to the town square for a visit to the Manneken Pis museum - displaying hundreds of his outfits.

Wandering through display after display of outfits and photos, I realized the little lad has had quite a storied life. He's worn the uniform of multiple armies, including Napoleon's Imperial Guard and an American World War II uniform. Business suits, police uniforms, clown costumes and many, many more were on display as well.

At the time of my visit, I didn't know there are other Mannekens Pis in the country, but Brussels claims to have the oldest, and quite honestly, it's not that impressive, but is definitely worth a stop for the novelty of it.

And speaking of novelty, why not have a pint at the Taverne Manneken Pis, then pick up a Manneken Pis corkscrew/botttle opener combo? The latter has great shock value as a gift.

Manneken Pis is located at the intersection of Rue de l'Etuve and Rue du Chène, a few hundred yards from the Grand Place (town square).

For more information, visit a Web site claiming to be the official one here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Photo of the Week: Vatican Guards

A pair of the famous Vatican guards - Swiss mercenaries in uniforms designed by Michaelangelo.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island appeared as a phantom through the haze from our boat as we neared the halfway point of the one-hour ride from Mumbai. The island, named by Portuguese colonists after the huge elephant statue they saw when they first arrived, is home to a complex of caves carved out of rock between 600 and 700AD and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My travel companion, Deon, was visiting India to see his ancestral homeland. His father is Hindu, and Elephanta’s caves were carved by followers of the cult of Shiva, one of the most powerful gods in the Hindu religion.

Once our boat docked, we hired Milind, a local guide. He led us down the pier past moored fishing vessels alive with Indians scraping barnacles and weaving nets to the 120 steps leading up to the caves.

On the way up, we passed through a bazaar of vendors all selling items made on the island and included everything from pearl necklaces and silk paintings to carved fishbone elephants and religious statues. A mischievous monkey stole one vendor’s water bottle and finished it off in a tree.

After paying the $5 entry fee, we saw the mouth of the main cave. It appeared as a square hole cut out of solid rock supported by four pillars reminiscent of Greek or Roman architecture, but distinctly different. Milind explained that the whole cave, along with all of its pillars, adornments, reliefs and details, is carved from a single piece of rock.

Inside, we marveled at the artwork, which is a combination of the Gupta and Chalukyan styles. Enough light filtered between the square stone pillars to illuminate the relief scenes carved in the walls.

Standing in the center of the caves, walking in the footsteps of artists who carved them without machines almost 1,400 years ago was a humbling experience. Gone was the oppressive heat of Mumbai, the constant din of honking horns and hubbub of a city at once too large and not large enough. I traced the outline of a small elephant sculpted into the corner of a pillar and asked Milind about the namesake elephant that used to stand on the island, but which is now in Mumbai’s Victoria Gardens.

“The elephant is a Hindu sign of welcome,” he replied. “The Portuguese didn’t know what it was for.” He then pointed to a panel along one side of the cave. Shiva’s arms were missing, and there was some damage to the flat surfaces as well. “The Portuguese did that, too, with their guns.” I leaned closer and felt the rough edges of a hole made by a musket ball centuries ago, trying to picture the soldier who was a long way from home finding small amusement in a foreign land.

I turned to Deon and saw that he was transfixed by the relief on the back wall, portraying the three-headed incarnation of Shiva – Mahesamurti, in which the aspects of creation, protection and destruction are brought together, each represented by one head. Milind told us it is one of the most powerful in the Hindu religion.
Off to the right was a sculpture of the Seed of Life, which Hindus believe sprouted into the lotus flower and eventually became mankind. It sits in its own room, protected by towering stone guards.

In the courtyard between the main cave and one of the smaller ones, we learned there should be a statue of a bull, which Shiva rode, but it was another casualty of the Portuguese colonization.

Another pair of caves whose stone was too soft for sculpting provided housing for the builders of the main caves. Rather than tour those, which are empty, we asked Milind if we could see his village instead. He readily agreed and led us over a barely discernible trail he said is a local shortcut. It eventually opened into a larger path, and we rounded a corner to his village.

I felt like I was the first foreigner to ever set foot within its bounds, although that is highly unlikely. The first building I noticed was squat and no bigger than my bedroom. It had a brightly colored conical dome rising from one end, indicating it was a temple. A low stone wall set it back from the paved footpath and the other pastel buildings around it. A couple of dogs chased each other in front of it.

It turned out to be the 10th anniversary of the temple’s construction, which is dedicated to a local god. A festival was planned for that night, and a woman at the temple’s door handed us each a spoonful of masalah, a mixture of grits, raisin and butter for eating during prayers, when meat is not allowed. It tasted doughy and sweet.

As Milind led us through the haphazard streets of his village to his house, few people were out. Most were working as guides, selling trinkets at the market or fishing. The entrance to his house was guarded by a yellow lab named Lucky. His father sat on a plastic chair in the corner and greeted us in Hindi.

The house itself was only one main room with a small bedroom, but was floored in beautiful tile and well-kept. Silks hung on the walls, a vibrant cloth divided the bedroom from the main room and a family photograph sat on a shelf to one side.

Milind told us he would play the keyboard at the festival that night. We insisted he play for us, and he eventually gave in. After playing a song on the keyboard, he handed it to Deon and pulled out another instrument for himself. Together they played while I sat watching and taking pictures.

After they finished, we thanked Milind and his father, then headed back toward the pier for the next boat to Mumbai. We left Elephanta Island as we’d found it, a specter in the haze. Only this time that specter represented a new cultural perspective for both of us.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Photo of the Week: Vintage Car Races

I took this photo almost exactly a year ago, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Every year, at the Wine Country Classic car races, vintage cars from as early as 1910 through 1975 are raced on the course. The car pictured above is a 1970 Dodge Challenger participating in the "Golden Age of Trans Am" group.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Taste of Travel: Sausages in Nuremberg

It was by accident that I found what claims to be the oldest sausage restaurant in the world.

Wandering through the old section of Nuremberg with my family a few days before Christmas, 2008, we were arguing over where a restaurant we had seen the night before was actually located. After asking several locals, we got as many different sets of directions.

My mom wanted someplace "cute," and I just wanted to eat, so when I saw a quaint-looking building around the
corner, I pointed it out and said, "We're eating there."

That building happened to be the Zum Gulden Stern, a sausage restaurant established in 1419.

We looked at the menu, decided the price was quite reasonable and went inside to be seated at a long communal table next to a kind, elderly German man.

We ordered half-liters of Tucher weissbier, and I asked the older German man what is good in my poorly accented German.

Fortunately, he was more than willing to tell us all what his menu favorites were, bang glasses in a toast (teaching us that the thick bottom of a pilsner glass is where they should actually be hit - useful inform
ation for any wannabe beer snob), explain the history of the building and talk to us about life in general.

I wish I could have understood three words of it. He sure was nice, though.

We all ended up ordering the same thing - plates of eight sausages and potato salad. The sausages, as small as one of my fingers, are a Nuremburg specialty, and they are absolutely delicious. I've never had another sausage that tasted quite the same, and nothing I've had in the States even compares.

As for the potato salad, it wasn't the creamy, cold, onion-infused picnic food we have in the United States, but chopped potatoes with a vinegary sauce that complemented the sausages very well.

The sausages - available in orders ranging from six to 12 - were not very expensive, with six coming in at about 7 euros and 12 costing slightly more than 12 euros. You can also get them in eight- and 10-piece orders. By the way, "stuck" means "piece" and "beilage" means "potato salad."

For more information about the restaurant, visit the website. (You'll have to be able to read German, but the address is listed on the home page).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Quick Jaunt to San Francisco

Last week was Mother's Day, and I took my mom to dinner in San Francisco's Italian District.

The benefit of living so close to the city is that the decision was spur-of-the-moment after lunch, and we still got there - after an unusually long wait at the toll plaza for the Bay Bridge - in time to take a quick run through the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

The cost of admission is small - either $3 or $5 - and the garden is a nice serene little spot within the greater Golden Gate Park, filled with all sorts of flora and fauna as well as a couple of buildings and a few ponds and streams. Not being inclined to botany, I have no idea what I was looking at, but it was pretty.

Our next stop was a short walk away - the rose garden. Literally hundreds of roses are planted in neat rows, and they come in all colors and sizes.

We were getting hungry, so we headed to North Beach to park the car and stop in at Calzone's - one of my favorite restaurants in the Italian District.

After a bruschetta appetizer, I dug into my lasagna calzone. Everything I've tried there has been great, from prosciutto calzones to crab pizzas. We were eating inside, but it's possible to sit on the sidewalk and watch the people go by.

With darkness falling, we stopped into City Lights B
ooks - a great place to get everything that no one else has. Unfortunately, we were both after something everyone else did have, so we headed for the Borders across from AT&T Park.

And ran into a massive traffic jam.

We couldn't figure out why there was so much traffic until we heard the explosions.

A local radio station was having its 15th annual Kaboom concert, and the fireworks were just starting. We maneuvered to a spot in the street where everyone was stopped and had a clear view of the fireworks over the Bay Bridge.

The show went on for quite a while, and my mom said they were the best fireworks she's ever seen. I happen to disagree, as I think the ones over the Washington Monument in D.C. on the Fourth of July were way, way better, but she disagrees.

Once the fireworks ended, the Embarcadero was shut down, all the side streets were choked with pedestrians, and made it to Borders five minutes before closing (just in time to grab a book and head out again).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Photo of the Week: A Church on the Main

This is a church on the Main river just across from Frankfurt's altstadt, or old town.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Taste of Travel: French Champagne

France considers its wine a national treasure, and the crown jewel of that treasure is champagne. The houses - Bollinger, Krug, Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot - are well known to aficionados and many welcome visitors for a look behind the mystique.

By law, only champagne created in the Champagne region of France can bear the name - everything else is merely sparkling wine, and no matter how good, lacks the prestige of the iconic French bubbly. Though you can travel to myriad small champagne vineyards throughout the region, the most accessible place to enjoy a glass of authentic bubbly is in Reims, capital of the Champagne province and a short 45-minute TGV train ride from Paris.

Rich in history and home of the cathedral where France's kings were crowned, Reims has a lot to offer, but for a touch of life in the lap of luxury, two cellar tours top the list. Domaine Pommery and G.H. Mumm are both walking distance from the city center, and the cellar tours give visitors an excellent overview of the process of making world-class champagne along with the history of champagne and the individual companies. Keep in mind, tours of the champagne caves should be booked in advance to ensure a spot in an English-language tour. Each lasts about an hour, with a tasting at the end.

Madame Louise Pommery built the Domaine Pommery Estate ten years after taking over her late husband's champagne business, and she was responsible for creating brut (dry) champagne in 1874. Before that time, champagne was a very sweet drink, generally consumed with dessert. Brut is also lighter and fruitier than the original.

In addition to playing a key role in the history of champagne, Madame Pommery was also a great supporter of the arts, and as you follow your guide down the stairs into the caves, which were originally carved out of the chalk earth 2,000 years ago by Roman slaves, you will see numerous pieces of art spanning a variety of genres.

The caves at the G.H. Mumm Estate, created by Georges Hermann de Mumm, a short distance away are newer, but fill the same function of keeping the 20 - 25 million bottles at a constant 10 to 12 degrees Celsius and 85 percent humidity. Similar in size, both Pommery and G.H. Mumm produce about 5 million bottles each year.

Following your guide through each tour, you will have the process of making champagne explained in depth, from the planting and harvesting of the grapes to the aging process, riddling and removal of sediments and, finally, opening the bottles. Each tour travels past stack after stack of bottles, walls in their own right, frequently pausing at points of interest to talk. Pommery's caves still have labels on the walls of various cities throughout the world - reminiscent of the time when champagne was prepared differently according to a particular region's tastes. Now, however, it follows the same recipe.

Champagnes are blends of wines, and the cellar masters have the ultimate say in which wines will be selected for that year's vintage, giving the champagne its final style. At Pommery, up to 150 different wines are involved in the process.

After blending, the champagne is fermented with yeast and sugar. This is the second fermentation in the champagne process, as the blended wines are each previously fermented. The second fermentation must be aged at least 15 months, but both Pommery and G.H. Mumm age all of their bottles a minimum of 30 months.

The second fermentation leaves sediment of dead yeast, and that must be removed before the bottle is eventually sold. To get the sediment to the neck of the bottle, it subjected to riddling, the careful twisting of the bottle at different angles during the fermentation to allow sediments to collect at the neck of the bottle.

In the past, the sediments were removed by quickly opening the bottle and allowing the pressure to shoot them out before re-corking. That had to be done with skill, to prevent losing too much of the champagne, but still allowing the removal of the sediment. Today, the necks of the bottles are frozen, so the sediment is trapped in a block of ice. The bottles are opened, the frozen sediment is expelled under pressure, and the bottle is re-corked.

At G.H. Mumm, there is a small museum featuring some of the antique tools and devices used in the champagne-making process in the past. Pommery's caves are adorned with objets d'art throughout, but both take tours past their most precious bottles - safely behind protective bars.

On display at Pommery is a bottle of the first vintage of brut and every vintage since. G.H. Mumm has a similar display, with bottles from the current vintage all the way back to the 1800s.

At the end of each tour, there is a tasting. The basic tours include one glass for about €10 per person. Additional glasses of champagne will add to the cost and the experience. Bottles, t-shirts and a number of other souvenirs are available in gift shops at each estate.

Practical Info

Reims can be done as a day trip from Paris if your only goal is to tour champagne caves, but even then, it is best to stay at least one night in the city.

Getting There: The best way to get to Reims is on a direct, highspeed TGV train leaving from Paris Est station. Prices start as low as $20 one way if booked online in advance ( A tram is being built in Reims to make transportation within the city even easier, though construction is ongoing.

Reims Info: Online Guide to Reims

Champagne Houses

Domaine Pommery
5 Place General Gourand, +33 (0) 26 61 62 55
E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , Website

Tours start at €10

Hours: Easter to mid-November 10am - 5pm daily

G.H. Mumm

34 Rue du Champ de Mars, +33 (0 )326-49-6967
Email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , Website

Tours start at €10

Hours: Daily March 1 to October 31, 9am - 11am and 2 - 5pm; other times weekend and holiday afternoons

9 Place Saint Nicaise, Reims Cedex, +33 (0) 326-85-4535, Website

Hours: mid-March to mid-November Daily 9:30am - 1pm, 2pm - 5:30pm; other times Monday - Friday only.

Veuve Clicquot

12 rue du Temple, Reims Cedex, +33 (0) 326-89-5440
Email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , Website

Visits by appointment only

Note: This article was originally published on The Savvy Explorer

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Photo of the Week: This is a Car?

I have no idea if this is supposed to be a car for use by paramedics or not. It seems like it would be too small to do any good, but maybe it's used to get through some of Amsterdam's narrower streets. Either way, it is definitely smaller than a Smart car.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Keysersberg: Simple Living in the Alsatian Vineyards

Keysersberg barely rates a paragraph in most guide books, but it really is worth a visit.

It's not unlike a host of sim
ilar towns in Alsace, and that in itself is the draw for me. Located just a short distance from Colmar on the eastern edge of France, Keysersberg is a quick drive to a place that is largely away from the tourist crowds - at least when I was there in December.

Surrounded by vineyards, Keysersberg is dominated by a ruined castle on a hill. The buildings themselves looked medieval, and I like to think someone transported from 400 years ago would recognize the town.

The first thing I saw when I approached the canal was a rainbow. After taking a few pictures, I walked through the old streets with my family, crossed stone bridges and headed toward the castle, which was flying the Tricolor, giving me the hope that I could climb its tower.

The hill on which the castle stood was blocked by a wall, and I hoped it was possible to reach the ruin. I stepped into a shop and, in my halting French, asked if it was possible to get up to the building. The problem with knowing just enough of a language to ask directions is that it's impossible to understand the response, but after quite a bit of pointing, I got the message.

Two paths actually led up to the castle, and we followed the nearest one as it wound through a copse of trees and past vineyards before finally ending at the castle walls.

Once inside, I immediately headed for the tower, expecting a closed and locked door, but was happily surprised to find it open. It's the kind of thing that would probably never happen in the United States, and I climbed to the top for a great view of Keysersberg and the surrounding lands.

Keysersberg probably won't ever be a tourist attraction like Rothenburg, Germany, simply because there isn't much to do once you're done wandering the handful of streets and seeing the castle, but it's definitely worth a trip if you're looking for small-town charm. I still find it hard to believe that people live in these sorts of places, since they're what you see in fairy tale books when you're growing up, but for the inhabitants of Keysersberg and the many villages like it, it's just life.