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.