Archive for August, 2010

Rheingau Wine Region (Germany)

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

July 30, 2010 (Friday) – August 1, 2010 (Sunday):

So as you know from Miriam’s post the Germany portion of our trip started off rough.  But we eventually reached Koblenz-Lutzel and made our way to the Rheingau.

You may be wondering why in all of Germany would we be going to Koblenz-Lutzel.  Well, many years ago, Miriam first visited Germany and took a river cruise down the Rhine River.  And on this boat ride, she enjoyed views of majestic mountains and rolling vineyards all around.  And upon these majestic mountains looking down on the river Rhine, laid series of medieval castles to which some were now converted hotels.  Then and there she dreamt that one day she would return to the Rhine River with a charming and handsome man and spend a fairytale adventure in the medieval castle-hotels.

Well, things don’t always happen as you plan, so instead Miriam gets to spend time with me in the castle-hotel.  And so, Koblenz-Lutzel was the nearest train station to Schloss Schoenberg (the castle-hotel) from where we could rent a car.

Miriam already touched upon our tough time navigating through German roads without a GPS device and relying solely on directions saved from Google maps.  But really, with all of the intuitive engineering coming out of Germany, you would think their road signs would be logical and easy to follow.  But then again, it was the German company, BMW, that did afterall give us the non-intuitive iDrive system.  Luckily, the car we had was only temporary and in a couple of days we could switch to an Audi with a proper GPS.  At any rate, after several mis-turns, trackbacks, and circling around we eventually did manage to make it to Schloss Schoenberg.  And what was waiting for us when we entered our room, and nice decanted bottle of sherry, a welcome gift from the hotel.  Germany is turning out alright afterall.

The castle-hotel was first-rate with 360-degree views of the Rhine River and surrounding valley.  The property itself was on the less larger size; not small, but not like those palatial castles built for kings that are now various tourist attractions.  Sleeping in the room (as well as walking around in the castle), you could get a sense of how life could have been like back in the day in the castle (obviously now with updated amenities and upholstery to warm the feel of the interior).  While not cheap, but also not expensive, staying here was an experience that was well worth trying.

The next day we spent driving around the Rheingau to visit various wineries for wine tasting.  The region, which runs along the Rhine River, is famous in Germany for its vineyards and their Riesling wines.  Yum.  We visited Schloss Johannisberg and Kloster Eberbach.  They were both situated along the hills overlooking the Rhine, with great views of the sunny valley.  A wonderful setting to be tasting wine, especially crisp, white wines.

After the full day of wine tasting, we headed down to Mainz where we would stay the night before we headed onto our journey of Germany’s famed Romantic Road.

To view more pictures from Rheingau, visit the Photos.

Living on the edge – not my favorite thing

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

July 30, 2010:

Our day started out something like this…. It was 1 am on Friday in Amsterdam, and we were leaving this cool little local bar we found. We enjoyed our rare night-out and ended up staying for a lot longer than we should have and consumed a little too much beer – given we are supposed to catch a train in 6 hours (to arrive in Koblenz, Germany around noon, pick up our rental car at 1 and drive down to a hotel in a small town called Oberwesel… then our week-long road trip in Germany would begin..) It was also our last night in Amsterdam so we got carried away along with great beer (finally got access to Belgian Trappist beer Westvleteren!) and fun company.

The next morning, we did not make it on the 7 am train. We also missed the next (almost) direct train at 9:40 am by 5 minutes! So we got on the next train to Germany at 10:40 am, which involved 4 connections! We ran from one train to the next to make sure we didn’t miss any connections. We also got to catch up on season 3 of Mad Men whenever we were on the train – best part of these train rides 🙂 We would’ve ended up in a different city on one of the connections had we not moved to the “right” side of the disconnecting train. Apparently, trains sometimes split and head in different directions. Of course, most people on the train are aware of this and it is announced (in their native language and very rarely in English) before it happens, but it is not much of help when you’re new to the train system and are in a foreign country. Luckily, we overheard another English speaking couple talking about it and got on the right side just in time and arrived at Koblenz Lutzel station at 4:30 pm.

With the google map walking direction and lots of asking around, it took us another 30 minutes to get on the right street, 15 min of bus ride, and 15 min of more walking to get to the car rental. Every bit of walking is hard when you’re lugging around all your stuff (our rollies and backpacks) in 85 degrees heat and humidity. I really don’t know how backpackers do it!! So the car rental, which was only 2 km away took us 1 hour to get to!

It was already 5:30 pm and we were just crossing our fingers that they wouldn’t close early on Fridays…. We had no way of checking since we are traveling without voice/data plan on our phone. We were happy to see that they were still open! However, when we got to the receptionist after waiting in a long queue, she told us that our reservation had been automatically cancelled because they have a two-hour grace period and we said we would pick it up at 1 pm. Thus, they already gave away the car we had booked and they were sold out for the weekend! I just wanted to cry when I heard this and walked away. The calmer Frank explained our need to get to another town that night, and the not-so-helpful receptionist said sorry, but there may be more cars available on Sunday. Then she told us that there are a couple more car rentals nearby, but she was not able to call to ask them whether they had any available cars….because why? So all we could do was pick up our bags once again, and continue walking to another car rental shop. Luckily, one place still had a car available for a week. Although much much more expensive than the deal we had booked at the first rental place, we were grateful that we could get to our hotel that night. However, they didn’t have any more GPS left, which meant that I was going to be a navigator since I cannot drive a stick-shift. Bad news! At least, we had the driving directions from Google maps that we had looked up in advance and saved on our laptop.

Navigating in a foreign country takes some time to get used to. Not only are the signs in a different language, but it’s not as clearly marked as in the U.S. Oftentimes, they don’t bother posting the highway number/name (e.g. 5 south); instead, it only states the destination city (e.g. Los Angeles). This doesn’t work very well when we barely know the name of town we are heading to, let alone the lay of the land. Naturally, we missed a lot of turns and exits because we couldn’t match the highway signs with Google map directions. Anyhow, a few hours later, we finally arrived at our hotel Schoenburg (a unique place that was built in a real castle) in a small town by the Rhine River. We were famished by then, and just made it in time for the last serving at a local restaurant.

I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time that things don’t go as planned and/or miss our trains on this trip (we still have five more months to go and numerous train rides ahead of us), but hopefully I will learn to cope with surprises and deal with it better each time. And I will continue to pack my backpack with plenty of snacks so we are not lost and hungry at the same time 🙂

Amsterdam

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

July 25, 2010 (Sunday) – July 30, 2010 (Friday)

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Solvang anymore….” Where are the windmills? Where are the colorful tuilp-lined hillsides? Where are all the blond ladies with pigtails wearing wooden clogs? This is definitely not Solvang. This is Amsterdam. Home of the canals, home of the bike-riding populous, home of the famed red-light district, home of amstel light. And of course, home of many people’s favorite herbal lady, MJ (and I’m not talking about my MJ….correction, MK)

I don’t know what I quite expected of Amsterdam, but in some ways it was what I expected (the canals; the bikes); and in other ways not what I expected (marijuana smell was not pervasive; windmills didn’t litter the city).

We were to be in Amsterdam for five days, so we wanted to get the obligatory museum / tourist sights out of the way in the beginning. So we spent the first two days visiting the Van Gogh museum, Rijks museum, couple of the main churches (Oude Kerk and Nieuwe kerk), and the Anne Frank museum (technically I visited this later in the week, but for the sake of fluidity of my blog posting I’m lumping it in together here). The Van Gogh museum was quite fascinating as it exhibits Van Gogh’s works spanning the whole of his career. Side note: interestingly, when I first learned about Van Gogh in elementary school, the teachings highlighted that Van Gogh cut off his ear as an act of passion towards his love (and if I recall correctly, a female). But in the museum, there was no mention of this. But rather, that he cut off his ear after a fight with his friend. So, either our elementary schools are once again massaging history to get kids interested in learning art by making up some romantic story, or, I day-dreamed all of that, perhaps as a glimpse into my own soul and romanticized delusions. At any rate, Van Gogh ended up with only one ear, and I still have both of mine.

Rijks museum housed Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch. Impressive, indeed. To experience firsthand the sheer size and detail of the work was alone well worth the price of admission. And considering that they’re renovating most of the museum for another few years and The Night Watch was the highlight piece on display in the temporary exhibit, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate statement.

Anne Frank museum. I went in alone because Miriam doesn’t like Anne Frank and her plight. Just kidding. Miriam didn’t go because she’s been already the last time she was in Amsterdam. She said that I should go to learn some compassion and tolerance. Psh….good luck. Anyway, after reading the Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade, it was great to actually see firsthand things I remembered from the book, not exact details, but things like the bookcase hiding the secret stairwell, or being in the room where the families had to hide day and night, or being in the house and seeing some of the preserved walls from how it was when Anne Frank and her family lived there. Quite an eye-opening experience.

Okay, enough of that, let’s talk happy. Unlike Vincent from Pulp Fiction, we did eat at Burger King. And also witnessed that at McDonald’s in Amsterdam, there is in fact, a quarter pounder with cheese. Food in Amsterdam was surprisingly quite good (fast food chains notwithstanding). Led by our trusty guidebook and recommendations from my former coworkers, we experienced the exquisite low-priced, but tasty Van Dobben croquettes, Jonk herring, and Dutch pancakes (mix between a crepe and omelet); excellent Indonesian food and Argentine steaks (it’s hard not to try when you’re inundated by Argentine steakhouses literally on every corner); and nicer establishments such as Envy and De Kas (excellent fresh vegetables and edible flowers).

In between all this eating and museum-hopping, we did manage to take in the city, separately by both bike and canal. We spent a morning trying to blend in with the locals (despite our obvious differences in hair and skin color) by riding our bikes around town and through Vondelpark. Miriam is becoming quite the hell-on-wheels “bikeress”, confidently ringing her bicycle bell at approaching, unsuspecting pedestrians. What have we created!

And last, but not least, the bars. This is becoming a bit of a too common mention, the bars. But honestly, we are not alcoholics (yeah yeah, step 1). Anyway, the first bar worth mentioning, my friend recommended, and I’m glad he did. We finally saw a windmill!!! This bar, Brouwerij ‘t IJ, was great. Not only did it have the aforementioned windmill, but it had a great outdoor seating area, and the beers were cheap and good. A welcome combination on these warm weather days here in Amsterdam. The second bar, which we enjoyed (perhaps a bit too much) was Gollem. We found this “locals” joint after a day spent wandering around De Negen Straatjes (“The Nine Streets”). This bar was small, but with a good crowd without too many tourists. And, they served an extensive selection of Belgian beers (including all the Belgian trappist beers). This is where we capped off our Amsterdam trip: into the wee hours with good beer, good friends we met at Gollem, and 3 hot dogs at 3am. All this fun, and we didn’t get high once.

To view more pictures from Amsterdam, visit the Photos.

Belgium

Monday, August 16th, 2010

July 20, 2010 (Tuesday) – July 25, 2010 (Sunday):

We’re on our way overseas from Ireland to continental Europe heading to Belgium. We booked a room on the overnight ferry from Rosslare, Ireland to Cherbourg, France. From there, we’re on a train through Paris towards Brussels. To our amazement, what they call a ferry was not anything we had imagined. I was picturing some rink-a-dink transport ferry that I’d typically see in the states. But the ferries here (at least the overnight Irish ones) are essentially short-term cruise ships. Several decks (I think I counted 10), with several restaurants, a shopping gallery, and even a movie theater. In addition, there were several floors of rooms, ranging from a 2-person sleepers to full-on 2-bedroom suites. Pretty nice.

Anyway, as it turns out, our first full-day in Brussels happened to be Belgium’s National Day (i.e., their Independence Day). As we were walking around Brussels there were booths and activities set up around the capital that displayed their military prowess, including real tanks and a fighter jet. Essentially everything was a military recruitment ruse for the young-uns’. All countries are the same. Support your country, support your troops.

As we walked around Brussels, we came to their Grand Place (their magnificent central square) and marveled at its splendor. A typical European town square with beautiful surrounding buildings. The architecture and fine details of its facade was spectacular. Equally impressive were the town squares of Antwerp and Bruges, to which we made separate day-trips later in the week (more on these cities later).

Also enjoyable in Brussels was the Magritte Museum. It housed a large collection of his works from early in his career as an advertisement poster artist to his works in the last years of his life; all told, spanning close to 70 years.

Of course, being in Belgium we had to sample their mussels and trappist beers (in addition to their waffles and frites). We stumbled upon a quite touristy stretch of streets with restaurants lining either sides. (For those in SF, think Beldon Alley times more. For those in LA, use your imagination). Anyway, despite the obvious tourist population, the mussels were good. And to quote Miriam, “they weren’t smelly”. Which apparently is the standard by which good mussels should be judged.

One of five days in Brussels was spent taking a day trip to Antwerp, about a half-hour train ride from Brussels.

The main area of Antwerp was all easily viewable by foot, with the sites interesting to us being the De Kathedraal and Grote Markt (market square). The Cathedral was impressive both architecturally and by the works of art it housed. The more famous paintings that the Cathedral housed were Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings “The Raising of the Cross” and “The Descent from the Cross”.

On one of the other days we took a day trip to Bruges. Apparently there was a “famous” American movie made several years back, “In Bruges”.  It seems the Bruges-y people are so proud of this movie that when you walk into their tourist info office right at the train station, their wall is lined with the movie poster and even have copies of the DVD for sale. Go Colin Farrell!

Anyway, Bruges seemed somewhat surreal to me. I don’t know why, but for some reason, as we walked through the little town, I kept getting this feeling I was walking around Disneyland. There were no roller coasters in sight, but the series of canals/waterways and picturesque “Old European” building-fronts seemed quite similar to what is replicated in parts of Disneyland. Good for Disneyland, bad for Bruges? Regardless, I really liked the feel of Bruges. We had lunch on the Stevin’s Square under the tree-lined plaza (no mussels this time, chicken). Browsed through their farmers market and picked up delicious, sweet cherries. Took in the sights of their old monuments, churches, and belfry. Had dinner overlooking the Markt (yes, mussels this time, again). All-in-all, a pleasant day-trip. A good escape from a capital city like Brussels, and from a more commercialized town like Antwerp.

Throughout our stay in Belgium, we tried to take advantage of trying all different kinds of Belgium, and specifically, trappist beers. Be it at bars/restaurants or picking them up from the local supermarket and drinking them back in our hotel room. Other than re-confirming our enjoyment of Belgium beer (and their lovely high alcohol content), we learned that there are only six true (Belgian) trappist beers (beers made by monks at their monastery): Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle, and Achel. See…and who says drinking can’t be educational.

That’s all for Belgium. We’re off to Amsterdam.

To view more pictures from Belgium, click for Brussels or Antwerp or Bruges.

Dublin

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

July 14, 2010 (Wednesday) – July 19, 2010 (Monday):

Taxi. Train. Walk. Ferry. Bus. Those were our modes of transportation from Edinburgh to Dublin, Ireland. After a full day of travel, we were famished. We checked-in to our hotel then went out looking for some food. Oddly, we ended up in Dublin’s “Chinatown”. Of all places, we would have never thought we’d see (albeit sparse) a collection of Chinese stores and restaurants in Dublin. We walked by one, and they claimed to be a Korean and Chinese restaurant. Miriam craving Korean food, no matter how bad, we ventured in. Once seated, we were handed their Chinese food menu, so we asked to see their Korean food menu. They said they don’t serve Korean food. Odd. Even though the restaurant name is “Alilang” (an English translated Korean word) and everywhere in their establishment it says “Korean and Chinese Restaurant.”. That was probably the time we should have cut our losses and left, but we didn’t. We were hungry so Chinese food would have to do to satiate Miriam’s Korean food (now Asian food) craving. Without boring you with too many details, the food was horrible. The Kung pao chicken (simple dish, how can they mess this up) was not even edible. It was sweet, yes sweet (and salty at the same time). As if they poured a box of brown sugar and soy sauce and let it cook and marinate with the chicken. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe in Ireland, Kung pao chicken is translated to mean “caramelized chicken.” After another unpleasant Asian food experience, we vowed to never try Asian food again for the rest of this trip while in Europe. Serves us right anyway, who tries Asian food while traveling in Europe. Maybe my parents.

One good did come out of finding a Chinatown in Dublin. We walked into a Chinese market and found the holy grail….Shin ramen!!!!! Hoahhhhhh…..I think I actually saw a halo of light emanating from around the package as I sprinted to grab the last of the market’s stock. Hallelujah, our Asian/spicy food cravings shall be healed. We guarded these puppies with our lives, and began scheming when we should eat them. Because something this special and rare (in Europe) can not be wasted for any random meal. More on this later. This is supposed to be a travel blog, not a food blog, afterall.

We were to be in Dublin for 5 days, which made it one of our longer stays yet. So we took it easy on the tourist sightseeing and leisurely walked about the city. We spent the first full-day taking care of travel logistics (i.e., we nixed Switzerland and moved Belgium and Amsterdam up in the itinerary).

The second full-day we took in the sights south of the Liffey River, visiting the areas of Trinity College, Temple Bar and St. Stephen’s Green.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the Guinness factory for the requisite tour and tasting. What tourist in his/her right mind visiting Dublin wouldn’t visit the Guinness factory for the freshest pint of Guinness. (Side note: contrary to popular belief, Guinness in Ireland is not served at room temperature or warm. Granted, it’s not served ice-cold like Coors/Bud, but rather at the optimum temperature of 6 degrees Celsius (or 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit). We took the visitors tour and Miriam even got to pour her own pint of Guinness. She’s a natural.

The following day we took a day trip out to Glendalough to take in some nature. Glendalough, “Glen of Two Lakes”, is located a couple of hours outside of Dublin. While there, we traveled via car across several miles of back-country roads, hiked to one of the lakes, and took in the sights at the early medieval monastic settlement.

On the final we checked out the Hugh Lane gallery and its excellent Francis Bacon exhibit.  In the museum, they excavated Francis Bacon’s actual studio and reconstructed it in the museum.  Quite fascinating.  The chaos of his studio mirrored the chaos in his art…or vice versa.  Also quite fascinating was the stain glass window exhibit, in particular, Harry Clarke’s “Eve of St. Agnes”.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out.  The details in his stain glass and fineness of the strokes was quite impressive, the likes of which we haven’t seen in other stain glass work before.  (Sorry no pictures, as pictures were not allowed in the museum).

That’s about it for Dublin. We didn’t do much / there wasn’t much to do. A lot of time was spent just recuperating from all the walking we did the past couple of weeks from which we put our body into shock. Although, we did walk a lot in Dublin, just not everyday. At any rate, the next time we visit Ireland, we’ll spend less time in Dublin and spend time in either Cork, Galway or the Dingle peninsula. As for the shin ramen, we ate a couple of regular packs on our last night in Dublin, paired exquisitely with a couple of bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra (a higher alcohol content Guinness, yum). The cup versions of the shin ramen we saved in anticipation for our overnight-ferry journey from Ireland to Belgium (by way of France).

To view more pictures from Dublin, visit the Photos.