30 September 2015

The Fjords of Norway

July 31 - August 7

On a week long trip from Bergen to Trondheim I expected to be blown away by Norway's scenery, but the scale of grandeur still came as a surprise.
It all began in Bergen - a city whose charm is definitely not overrated. I mean just look at this photo taken from Mount Fløyen. Yup! Quite a stunner! We spent a packed day checking off as many "must do's" as possible. Stepping out of our hotel we gawped at the iconic row of old colorful wooden houses. We squeezed through the narrow wooden alleyways for a glance of the past, awed by the beamed structures almost leaning against each other. At the bustling harbor we absorbed the lively vibe of the fish market, cringing at the crabs and oysters, as we headed for the produce stand, where we grabbed a punnet of glossy cherries for lunch later.

As we headed out to the Kode Museums across a huge lake in the city center, we took a moment to admire and photograph the powerful fountain in the middle. A guided tour of the museum's decent collection of Edvard Munch's paintings helped us better understand the symbolism and depiction of progressive ideas, especially feminism, in his works. We learned about 2 other significant Norwegian painters - Nikolai Astrup and J.C. Dahl - and greatly enjoyed their vibrant landscapes. A substantial collection of European art at these museums gobbled up a chunk of our day.

Next we rode the funicular up to Mount Fløyen. The panorama below us was our introduction to the fjord geography we came to Norway to see. It felt like the start of a Mahler symphony. We found a spot to best enjoy the sublime vista, and munched our cherries (sweet, juicy) - smugly. The swarm of tourists around us seemed more focused on snapping selfies!
In the evening, after a very acceptable pizza at Peppe's Pizza beside the wharf, we headed up a cobbled lane to Korskirken where a cellist and a pianist performed Edvard Grieg's Sonata in A minor and a selection of other pieces. What better way to enjoy the beauty of Grieg's music than in his home country in the intimate setting of an old church! As we ambled back to the hotel after the concert it was still broad daylight at 10:00. This was the furthest north I'd ever been, and I'd be going further and further north each day that week. We couldn't imagine going to bed, so we hiked over to Bergen Castle, which was just past our hotel, close to where the fjord merged into the Atlantic. The park like grounds were great for a stroll. We circled the attractive 16th century Rosenkrantz Tower, then headed over to some ruins for better views of the islands, and the deep curves of this fascinating coastline. We gawked at the postcard scenery in front of us, and shook our heads, and smiled. This was a prelude of what was to follow in the next days ...

Coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, and yummy jams from an immense buffet breakfast spread the next morning at the Radisson Blu, our hotel, fueled us for our road trip adventure. On to our first National Tourist Route, the E16 to Hardangerfjord. Almost immediately we were driving through tunnels. A vertical landscape of green forests emerged. The Mahler symphony entering a crescendo in its first movement... Every so often a waterfall from high up came into view. Soon we were driving along the fjord heading inland. All city signs had disappeared, and instead a wild world encircled us. At some points the road ascended and we drove along a shelf with the fjord below us.
At the end of the fjord, deep inland, we arrived in Granvin, our destination for the night. We stayed in a historic 300 year old building - the Jaunsen Gjestgjevarstad Guesthouse - managed by a jovial Italian couple. In the afternoon we strolled through the tranquil hamlet which sits snugly between green mountains and the fjord. A robust stream sliced through town providing a natural sound track for added assurance that we were truly in the wilderness. Yellow and blue wildflowers brightened up the fjord banks. In the distance sunlight reflected from patches of snow on rounded mountain tops. We followed a stream flanked by thick moss and healthy ferns until we came to a gentle waterfall spilling onto a bed of rocks. The vegetation around it was so dense that it was almost hidden. I breathed in the moist air. It had a sweet, utterly pure smell. Later, at our guest house, we dined on so-so pasta with pesto. Excellent desserts though - lemon panna cotta and marzipan cake.

After a peaceful sleep, we breakfasted on healthy homemade bread and jams before hitting the road for our next adventure. The drive toward the town of Voss started out with pleasant mountain scenery opening up to fruit orchards.

Driving away from the fjord, the scenery turned increasingly dramatic. The mountains rose higher and bigger waterfalls came into view. Then, a gigantic waterfall cascading down into an absurdly green valley, compelled a stop. We got out of the car and tried to get as close as possible to the famous Tvindevossen Waterfall.

Continuing the drive, we arrived in the Naeroy Valley, a landscape evocative of Yosemite Valley.
Granite monoliths towered above us, and down below raging white water rapids dominated the soundscape. We stopped near the 3000 foot dome of granite called the Jordalsnuten or Sugarlump. A brief hike along the gushing stream, gulping in pure air, then, utterly invigorated, we were back on the E16 toward Sogne. A few hairpin bends later, we entered the famous Gudvanga Tunnel - 7.1 miles long and the second longest in Norway. What humans are capable of! Exiting the tunnel we gasped at the mountainous landscape that appeared. Then we were back in another tunnel, and another, and another, until we arrived in Aurland. This little village lay at the tip of a Sognefjord finger. Here, we lunched on bread, cheese, and strawberries at a picnic table with a view of the stunning fjord surrounded by walls of mountains.
After lunch we got on the Snow Road to Lærdal.
As we climbed up from Aurland the vistas were a constant thrill. First, watching the town, at the foot of giant mountains, dwindling in the distance. Then, the fjord, descending below us, and curving around steep cliffs. Then, came the famous Stegastein Viewpoint. We stopped here and walked to the end of the laminated timber and steel structure, 640 meters above the fjord, for more gasp inducing views. Everyone agreed that Slartibartfast deserved his award! Across the road, we hiked up for more views.
Continuing our drive on the "Snow Road" we wound around steep bends as the ascending road narrowed. Higher and higher, the forests disappeared, and the landscape took on a harsher appearance. Soon snowbanks that were higher than us straddled the road. At the highest point, 1,300 meter altitude, we parked the car, donned our winter coats, and braved the chilly bluster. There was certainly a romance in the experience of standing on snow covered ground and gazing out at the misty undulating mountain scenery. Back in the car we began our descent. The forests returned, sheep grazed on grassy banks, and the snow capped mountains receded above us. From Lærdal we crossed a few bridges (watching for trolls) across Sognefjord as we headed for Fjærland. Now the mountains were even higher, and snowier. And to crown it all, we now could see glaciers.

In Fjærland we stayed at the Fjærland Fjordstue Hotel, a wooden structure with lots of charm, situated right beside the fjord. From our room we had a perfect view of a glacier through one window, and the clear, greenish hued water of the fjord from the other window. Despite the town being really small, we were surprised at the large number of activities to do here. We'd imagined after a rest we'd sit on the terrace with a gin and tonic and soak up the beauty around us. But we couldn't resist the nearby hiking trails into the forests. For dinner we feasted on the hotel's topnotch 3 course meal in their elegant dining room with formal service. We had a green salad with marinated Belgian endive for starters, and a goat cheese vegetable pie for mains. The dessert of rhubarb cake with berry and juniper infused ice-cream appropriately concluded a day of constant treats.

The next morning as we were leaving, the owner recommended a stop at Lustrabui Bakery. So, after an aborted attempt to drive to a glacier trail, we stopped at Norway's most famous bakery for the country's specialty - cinnamon swirls. Definitely worth it! Returning on another National Tourist Route - Sognefjellet - we began our ascent up our second mountain pass. Today's destination: Geiranger.

We stopped at the summit - 1,434 meters high - to take in the stark landscape. Gazing at the large expanses of snow in midsummer, I pictured a pristine, silent winter world unavailable for human appreciation. This was Northern Europe's highest mountain pass. Moving on, the road widened and descended sharply. Then came a stretch of hairpin bends from Jolster to Stryn. Now we were in a landscape of sparkling lakes, snowy peaks, and plunging waterfalls. Near Geiranger we were back on narrow, winding roads. Several tour coaches ferrying cruise passengers, were also on the road. Not pleasant! We stopped at a lake for close-ups of icebergs.

 In Geiranger we stayed at the very luxurious Union Hotel which stood above a mighty waterfall. Jaw dropping views greeted us from every window, inducing the obvious conclusion that this was the queen of Norway's fjords. It was also a popular cruise ship destination. We relaxed in the hotel's outdoor hot tub, soaking up the dreamy landscape around us. In the evening we went down to the busy harbor for a pizza dinner with killer views. It was the walk back to the hotel, however, that was the main event of the evening. We climbed up a long, long flight of stairs built alongside a raging waterfall. The staggering force of the water close up, its pandemonium drowning out all other sounds, conjured up images of ruthless gods unleashing their wrath. Wow! Another climactic end to our day.
The next morning we went on the famous Geiranger - Hellesylt ferry cruise. This section of the fjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the ferry was full of tourists as well as a National Geographic tour group. The one hour cruise gave us a different perspective of fjord scenery. From the water we gaped at the sheer cliffs and the many waterfalls flowing in long, long vertical rivers into the fjord. If each of our previous fjord experiences could be compared to sampling increasingly finer French champagne, then this surely had to be the Dom Perignon of them all. Each exquisite drop delighting the senses, every new frame keeping us mesmerized. A full frontal of the famous Seven Sisters Waterfall created quite a bustle as everyone frantically tried to capture the best shots with their various cameras. After an hour of sensory saturation, we were back on the road heading north. The scenery now went into a decrescendo. Two more ferry rides later, with a lunch stop (which included ice-cream and strawberries) and a hike through bog land in between, we arrived in sedate Molde.

In Molde we had to make the figurative adjustment to good Prosecco from vintage champagne. Here, the mountains teased from a distance, the fjord looked like a bay, and the town was laid-back. Our modest hotel had the one redeeming feature of being beside the harbor, providing enjoyable views from our room. After an okay Mexican meal at the hotel restaurant, we wandered through the quiet town into a pleasant park. We saw farmhouses with a thick layer of grass and weeds on their roofs for winter insulation. Long, long days this far north made evening walks utterly delightful. Later, the 4 of us sipped whiskey in the hotel room and gazed out at the fjord - a flat sheet of blue tinged glass. Then, the water creased into wide ripples as the Hurtigruten docked. We watched passengers alight, wondering if they had arrived from the remote Lofoten Islands. After the ferry left, a cruise ship pulled in, totally blocking our view. Thankfully it left a short while later and the fjord panorama opened up again. Across the water snowcapped peaks glistened as the sun lowered into the horizon. Hours earlier we had been at the foot of those mountains.
In the morning, before leaving Molde, we drove up to the Varden Viewpoint from where we had the most breathtaking views of Moldefjord and the range of jagged peaks framing it.
 On the Atlantic Road to Trondheim the land opened up for ocean views. This scenic drive took us over a series of bridges linking islands. We stopped just past the famous bridge that arches across a bay, and walked along a viewing platform. A combination of photogenic bridge and natural beauty from weatherbeaten crags and open ocean exposed us to completely different scenery than we'd seen in previous days.

Trondheim, a proper built up city with significant traffic, jolted our senses. This university town, smaller than Bergen, was a really fun place to knock us back into the real world. We wandered into the Old Town, past historic wooden houses, then over to the main square, then crossed the Old Bridge - "The Portal of Joy" - as we made our way to the town's main attraction, the Nidaros Cathedral. This 11th century gothic cathedral, built on the tomb of St. Olav, was similar in awesomeness to most cathedrals of its ilk. So we sat across from it and squinted at the gargoyles and the intricate carvings, then moved on. A pleasant walk along the harbor and back to The Clarion, our very fine hotel.
On our first night at the Clarion, unable to resist the sublime fjord and ocean views (blame it on inertia!) from the top floor restaurant, we splurged on G&Ts, which we enjoyed on the terrace, followed by a gourmet meal in their posh restaurant.
We spent our last evening at a lively pub by the river, sipping local craft beer. Our view of the Old Bridge and traditional Norwegian architecture along a pretty river, though not stupendous, suited our low-key mood. The Mahler symphony was now in its final moments of the last movement. Softer notes, andante.

Some Final Thoughts about Norway:

1. Everything here was eye-wateringly expensive. At restaurants, meals were easily double what we pay back home. To preserve sanity we didn't look at prices.
2. The vegetarian food scene was dismal. Ate a lot of pizza. Berries and cherries in season, but not much other fruit to be seem. Very few types of vegetables at markets.
3. All hotels provided enormous buffet breakfasts. I was completely blown away by the variety of fresh baked rustic breads and homemade jams. Of course, the other usual stuff like cheeses, meats, eggs, pancakes, fruit, cereals, yogurts, etc. were always around too.
4. Loved the long daylight hours with sunset close to 11:00 P.M.
5. The weather was mostly mild during that first week in August. Sometimes it got chilly enough for a coat, but it was never uncomfortable. It rained briefly almost everyday.
6. When we arrived at some places, e.g. Fjærland, we realized we needed more than a day to avoid disappointment. It should have been a longer trip.

16 September 2015

Summer Travel - England, Germany, Scandinavia, South Africa

Summer vacation started out in England's North, mainly for a family wedding. Then four days in Berlin with Fabian and Julia. Scandinavia was next, where we had 3 weeks of constant highs and exhausted all available superlatives in the English lexicon. Ten pleasant days in South Africa with family and friends, and the obligatory game park. A final 3 days in London - ahh glorious, lovable London - to round off a shockingly extravagant five weeks of travel.


From Heathrow's swanky Terminal 5 we rented a car and hurtled onto the M25. "Keep left," I had to remind a surprisingly alert and calm Daryl every few seconds. A few somewhat uneventful hours later, we exited on to the Snake Pass, where the greenness and shapeliness of the Derbyshire countryside thrust our spirits skyward.
Loughrigg Tarn, Lake District
Peaks, Derbyshire

For the next 2 days Glynis and Mike fed us tasty meals, and took us on delightful walks in the moors of the Peak District. Warm, just baked scones and a flask of tea accompanied us the first morning, and we scarfed them as we gazed in wonder at the unreal lush world around us. Back home in California the four year drought has turned our landscape a dismal brown. I filled my lungs with grassy sweet moist air and smiled at the gray sky, giddy with the anticipation of drizzle.
Next we drove up to the Lake District. The Apple Pie Inn, where we stayed in Ambleside, had the satisfying balance of old stone exterior and modern bedrooms. A 10 mile hike across tarns and fells elicited from us the full range of "wow" reactions for which the region is famous. And to ensure the total English experience, we stopped at Rydal Mount, home of William Wordsworth, for afternoon tea and cake which we had in the garden beside a murmuring creek. Later, wandering through Ambleside's beguiling downtown, we dined at Fellini's, a fine vegetarian restaurant, where we were once again reminded of England's highly evolved food scene.
Off to Lancaster and a lovely opportunity for a family reunion provided by Joe and Rachel. First, a beautiful wedding ceremony in the stately town hall, then a splendid reception in Forrest Hills. The speeches were short, the food was tasty, the countryside setting was gorgeous, and best of all, was the chance to chat with loved ones we see so rarely.


In Berlin Julia, Fabian, Daryl and I stayed at the Titanic Deluxe, a 5 star hotel - due to some miraculous online deal. It was near the Gendarmenmarkt, and had a Turkish hamam spa. After a day of sightseeing we got steamed up on the marble stone bed then sweated in the Finnish sauna. Afterwards, just lying in the relaxation room, sipping cucumber flavored water, we thought about how deprived we'd been all those years with our budget travel! Better planning this time in Berlin allowed us a visit to the Reichstag Dome. Went up the spiral ramp and got eye popping city views. A helpful audioguide educated us on the history of the Reichstag and the design of the Norman Foster dome. On Museum Island we were blown away by the Gates of Ishtar at the Pergamon, and the Greek sculpture at the Altes Museum. Fabian, after a restless hour, perked up when he saw sarcophagi and also seemed intrigued by the Golden Hat from 1000 BCE, but he was unimpressed by the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum.
After our unforgettable experience a couple years ago at Cookies Cream, the vegetarian restaurant hidden behind the Westin Grand Hotel, we had to return to it this time. Their potato chanterelle lasagna reaffirmed our high opinion of this place! Berlin has such an exciting culinary scene that we consistently ate well here. On our last evening the four of us enjoyed a take out meal from Galeries Lafayette in our hotel room. We sipped French wine, played games, and just enjoyed being together.


From Berlin Daryl and I flew into Bergen, Norway where we met up with Troy and Jon and picked up a rental car for a 5 day car journey to explore the fjords. We drove through numerous tunnels and over mountain passes. We lost count of the number of waterfalls we past. Further and further north we went where daylight lingered beyond 10:30 P.M., until we got to Trondheim. The details of this part of the trip are in a separate blog.


Arriving in built-up crowded Stockholm after the wilderness of Norway was a bit of a culture shock. We past a parade of homeless panhandlers, mainly the Roma, on our way to our hotel. When we checked in at Freys, a cute hotel on a quiet lane, we were warned about pickpockets. There were warning signs everywhere! Crime and homelessness in Sweden? Jesus! Is there any hope for the developing world?
Stockholm is instantly seductive. Since it's a collection of islands in a lagoon by the Baltic Sea, it has a lot of natural beauty. This is enhanced by its grand architecture spanning several centuries, many parks, outdoor sculpture, fountains, and bridges .
Maybe it was the perennial blue sky and blissful temperatures. Or was it the summer buzz of outdoor cafés and the mainly pedestrianized center? Could it have been that nothing was difficult, everything was convenient, and everybody was happy to speak English? Or maybe it was the open display of progressive attitudes - rainbow flags, highly evolved green policies (e.g. bulk toiletries in hotels), Fair-trade coffee within meters of you everywhere. There was a je ne sais quois about Stockholm that invited fantasies of setting down roots here. Okay, okay, we know all about the dreaded winter. I did say fantasy. I'd love to spend an entire summer here, though.
As promised by the guidebooks, the Gamla Stan, Stockholm's well-preserved Medieval quarter, was indeed fun to wander through, though exploring other less touristy neighborhoods was a lot more enjoyable. We toured the Nobel Prize Museum and learned more about Alfred Nobel and past laureates. At the Vasa Museum we gawped at the Vasa, a 200 foot warship that sank on its maiden voyage 400 years ago.
On the culinary front, Stockholm reminded us of Berlin. Using TripAdvisor we sampled some impressive restaurants. Rolf's Kök, a popular place with an open kitchen and famous chef, was our favorite. The sole vegetarian main was an exquisite spring vegetable pasta dish, and for dessert we smashed a pavlova, rendered unforgettable by a lavish topping of liqueur infused strawberries. We also loved the restaurant Chutney, in the Sodermalm area, for its cosmopolitan vegan food and the fact that it was inexpensive, casual, with outdoor tables, and a local vibe. Went here two evenings in a row, and this gave us the opportunity to enjoy panoramic city views from the Katarina foot bridge! We tried out Gro on our first evening and found it absurdly overpriced, and despite a 4 course meal, we were still hungry afterwards. Still, it was fun watching the three young men in the open kitchen labor over each course so that the plates looked like works of art.
The Stockholm Festival had just begun on our final day in the city. Stages were set up for a full week of live music by big names. The city throbbed with celebration. Scattered around were pianos painted in bright colors, and the words "Play me, I'm yours" splashed above the keyboard. We, along with a crowd, were drawn to a pair of talented jazz pianists who played some very entertaining tunes on the Stortorget Square. On this balmy evening in Stockholm, twilight creeping in, crowds heading to various outdoor venues,  long lines forming at food trucks, and the air thick with summer energy, we hated the thought of leaving the next morning.

A 4 hour train ride through the mainly flat Swedish countryside got us to Lund, a smallish town defined by the presence of a major university. Wandering through this mainly car free town with cobbled roads and old stone buildings, you could almost feel like you're in a past era, but for the cyclists - everyone cycles here - chatting on their smart phones, and bars advertising craft beer. We checked out the famous 17th century astronomical clock inside the 11th century Cathedral. A stroll through the Botanic Gardens with its beds of bright flowers was quite pleasant. We also enjoyed Kulturen, an open air museum featuring real models of historic Swedish buildings, e.g. a farmhouse and a church. We were fascinated by the original furnishings, tools, and equipment which allowed us to vividly imagine life as it was then.
What we enjoyed most in Lund was meeting up with friends of Santa Barbara friends. They took us for a drive around the nearby countryside and Daryl was excited to see similar vegetation to Suffolk. There was even a sugar beet mill! At their home we were joined by their neighbors and this gave us a chance to really get to know the locals. It was a mild Swedish evening - rare this summer - so we sat on the terrace and had a barbecue dinner. We covered a range of topics -politics, homelessness, education issues, mental health issues, and most unexpectedly, crime (!). We were utterly amazed to learn that they'd all had their homes broken into - out there in small town Sweden!
It was almost 11:00 when we broke up the party. What lovely people, and what a privilege it was to spend time with them.
We got dropped off at our hotel - The Grand. A pretentious name for a rather modest hotel, though I'm sure it once was a grand place, judging by its stately exterior. The breakfasts at this hotel it has to be said, were the best we'd had on this trip! And that's saying a lot, considering the lavish buffet spreads in much of Norway. There were freshly baked scones, fresh cream and various jams. There was a waffle station, a selection of excellent pastries, and the usual eggs, beans, sausages, cold meats, cheeses, breads, fresh fruit, etc., etc. So we stuffed ourselves the next morning before heading out to the station.


Our train from Lund took us over the famous Oresünd Bridge to Copenhagen. We stayed in a centrally located apartment, furnished with professionally restored antique furniture (the owner runs an antique furniture business). The weather cooperated too - gloriously warm, with clear skies. So we spent our days taking in the major sites on foot in this fairly compact city.

What we liked:

1.  Christiansborg, the seat of the Danish Parliament, being fans of Borgen - a Danish TV series.
2. Nyhaven - the Old Port - with its attractive, brightly colored houses and great atmosphere from the outdoor bars. Took a boat tour from here through the canal and almost into the Baltic Sea. Got to see the city's famous buildings and the Little Mermaid.
3. Christiana - the hippy, car free commune with its homemade houses, workshops, and galleries.
4. The National Museum for its Viking collection, ancient Greek vases, and mosaics. Absolutely free entry, with no collection boxes to guilt you into paying something
5. The SMK - National Gallery of Denmark for its Matisse, Modigliani, and Munch pieces, as well as its decent collection of Northern European masters. Also free, and if you really feel you want to make a donation, there isn't any obvious way to do it!
6. Marzipan pastries at the many "to die for" bakeries.
7. The rainbow flags displayed across Strøget Street and everywhere else; and the over the top Gay parade
8. The walk via Kastellet Fort to see the Little Mermaid. Enjoyed the parks, sculptures, bird life, and moat along the way. Loved the Gefion Fountain, and catching glimpses of St. Alban's Anglican Church, an old-fashioned windmill, and old church on the way back.
9. Popular food market near us with fresh produce, specialty culinary items, trendy bars, and cafés
10. The city is designed for cyclists to get everywhere and anywhere. And there were thousands of cyclists. It was so cool to see very little car traffic in a major city.

Did not like:

1. Lack of vegetarian restaurants (should mention that veggie burgers were ubiquitous!)
2. Walked for frustrating, futile hours looking for lunch and found nothing appealing between Christiansborg and the Tivoli Gardens. Actually, at the entrance to the gardens we saw some possibilities, but at that point we thought, why not eat inside!
3. HATED Tivoli Gardens. Found out very quickly why we should have eaten before entering. The choice was between overpriced fast food and mega overpriced snooty food. Daryl wanted to get the hell out as soon as he saw all the stupid rides. I desperately wanted to find something redeeming to justify our entrance fee. Surely there were amazing gardens and sculpture and fountains? When we learned that it was this theme park that inspired Walt Disney, we hightailed it. The timing was perfect - the Gay Pride parade was in full force near us, and the joy emanating from this restored our moods.
4. Broken beer bottles and trash all over the city the Sunday morning after the Gay parade which had culminated into an all night party.

Our list of likes far outnumber the dislikes, so yes, Copenhagen has been added to our list of "Favorite World Cities".

South Africa

On to South Africa for the full range of emotions that only my land of birth can stir up. It was truly a joy to meet up with old friends and various relatives. Everyone spoiled me with affection and exceptional meals of the South African Indian variety. Is there any cuisine in the world that can compete? I was heartbroken to see an aunt in advanced stages of Alzheimers. Fortunately, her responsible daughter is ensuring a comfortable and dignified final stage of life for her. Felt the usual disillusionment at the glacial pace of progress, especially with education and jobs. Felt disgust at the obscene greed of the nouveau riche. Disappointing too was hearing everyone relate a personal experience with crime, and some homes I visited were equipped with cameras and TV monitors for safety. Despite anxiety over an impending economic crisis and the rand hitting rock bottom, the locals were just as warm and friendly as ever, which was uplifting. In Ladysmith, Mum fussed over me, 9 year old Cayden showed off his chess skills by beating me a few times, and 4 year old Shreyan entertained me with cute stories. Two days at Nambiti Private Game Reserve with Mum was quite the high point for multiple reasons that will be elaborated in a separate blog. On my last two days in Durban I had great conversations with relatives I adore, bringing the trip to a satisfying closure.


In London Angie gave us the five star treatment in Belsize Park, forever condemning us to unreasonably high expectations whenever we are in London! The weather, though not glorious, was pleasant enough for walks in Hampstead Heath and along Regents Canal through to Primrose Hill Park. It's the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, and the Cheese Grater that catch your eye first as you stare out at the ever changing London skyline from these parks. We gobbled up first class cuisine at Black Velvet, Nopi - an Ottolenghi restaurant in Soho, and of course, at Angie's. We spent a lovely afternoon with the Self family, and over tea and cake, we chatted about all that had happened since our last visit. Mahler's Symphony #1 at the Royal Albert Hall (BBC Proms) was a spiritual experience for us both. Flooded with ecstasy we couldn't help wondering if this was all a dream. The 5 week trip came to an end. But a new adventure was to begin ...

08 September 2015

Living on the East Coast and Another Birthday

Princeton is our home this fall. Daryl is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and we get to live in a very comfortable apartment at this prestigious institute, with academic families for neighbors. With my birthday falling on Labor Day this year we went into New York City for the weekend to celebrate.
 First on our agenda: the Broadway play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. We sauntered through frenetic Times Square, ducked into the Hilton's quiet and air-conditioned restaurant for a mediocre pizza lunch, escaped the dense crowds at the Brazil Day festivities by heading to the Rockefeller Center where we found Bouchon, a gourmet French bakery. Fortified by a satisfying cappuccino and superb chocolate tart, we headed to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. From our front row seats we were kept spellbound for two and a half hours. What an impeccable script! Alex Sharp astounded us in the lead role as Christopher, an autistic 15 year old math genius. Based on Mark Haddon's novel, the story plays with all your emotions. A soundtrack and a background screen with special effects and math equations and formulae were effective in manipulating mood. Every word, action, nuance was attention grabbing. I loved Christopher's search for meaning in everything he saw. When he looked at the rain coming down he wondered where in the word that water had journeyed from. The stars at night, he mused, had become extinct long before their light had reached us. And, most touching, was his belief in his intellect and abilities. Like finding his way to Wilsden Green (we smile - the Jubilee line to Wilsden is a must do for us in London!) in London from Swindon. Loved every second of this play!

 We dined at Blossom, a smallish upscale vegan restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. We shared a starter of enchiladas covered in a molé sauce and slices of avocado. I had a seitan steak cooked in a red port wine sauce, and Daryl had a pasta dish served with a creamy sauce featuring almonds. The food, with interesting flavors and textures, was clearly the result of creative and talented chef/s.  An Argentinian Malbec paired very well with these dishes. The dessert of apple cobbler with vanilla ice-cream was also superb. We loved everything about the place - the ambience, the service, and the excellent cuisine.

Walking back to our hotel in the balmy September night, we got this view of the Empire State Building.
When I woke up in the morning in New York City I knew I had to have a bagel for breakfast. Bagel Maven was closest to us and that's where we ordered 2 "everything" bagels. They were still warm from the oven, but we decided to have one toasted. When you chew a fresh from the oven still warm New York bagel - chewy on the outside, soft inside - smeared with cream cheese, you have to sigh both with contentment and with resignation that this is one experience you can never replicate in California. It must be pointed out that the cappuccinos at this bakery were crap. So bad we couldn't drink them! But it's the bagel I'll remember!

We spent four captivating hours at the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side. The collection and displays here are truly magnificent. Some highlights for us were the huge, unusually striated rock collection, chunks of meteorites, and fossilized dinosaur skeletons. An almost intact skeleton of a T. Rex hogged the attention of crowds of kids.

In the afternoon we strolled through Central Park. It was Labor Day and the weather, though hot, was not unbearable. The park had a festive atmosphere - everyone making the most of the final day of summer vacation. People rowed boats on the lake; others picnicked in the shade; small bands of musicians provided entertainment. It was such fun to be immersed in this cheerful atmosphere. We rested our weary legs on the terrace of Le Pain Quotidian - right in the middle of the park - and enjoyed a cappuccino and yummy fruit tart.

Celebrating a birthday can't get any better than this. I'm so grateful for all I have.
I'm ready to face another year ...