Archive for the 'travel' Category

Three Days In Amsterdam

CIMG1254Amsterdam is the perfect European city for Americans. Almost everyone speaks English, and making it even better than London, the accents are more exotic. We arrived at Amsterdam’s Schipohl Airport early on a gray Friday morning, dragging our luggage to the light rail line that would take us from the airport to the city’s Centraal Station. We had agreed to try and do our unaccompanied, seven-day, two-city, Amsterdam and Paris trip without resorting to taxicabs.

The initial confrontation with the complexities of public transit in a strange city is almost always a painful process. It usually takes me several hit and miss encounters with ticket kiosks, exact fare rules, or pressing buttons to open subway doors. While we did manage the light-rail connection into the city. Finding our hotel, just blocks from the station, proved a minor ordeal with the inadequate, schematic tourist maps we were carrying. Jet-lagged, confused and over-packed, we wandered around trying to figure out where we were until a busy woman setting up a produce market stand grudgingly pointed us in the right direction.

The hotel, modern and crisp, was located in, gasp, “the Red Light District.” Ah those liberal Dutch. While it was still the morning rush hour when we wandered in search of our hotel, I noted that the numerous “Coffee” shops we passed were in full swing, with customers lounging on sofas, and I suppose, inhaling to their hearts’ content. I thought, “hey is this a great town, or what?”

Refreshed after a brief nap, we went out to discover the charms of Amsterdam. The rings of tree-lined, interconnected canals, the bow-to-stern barges and houseboats, the eccentric, centuries-old Dutch architecture, cobbled streets and the bicycles everywhere combine to create a wonderful sense of being in a one-of-a-kind place. In a comfortably down-to-earth café, I ordered my lunch, a roast-beef sandwich with egg and mayonnaise, and a large draft of Heiniken. We’d been told that Dutch cuisine was less than stellar, but with my comfort-food palate, just about everything we ordered suited me well. Thus fortified, we began walking, a process that barely stopped for any of our waking hours during the three days we stayed in Amsterdam.

The canal-side streets, block after block of them, flow with the canals themselves in concentric rings defining and demarking the old city of Amsterdam. Each turn of the head is another photo-op, another perfect Netherlands motif. I began snapping and had to exercise a force of will to cease, to say “enough.” The day was sunny and there were shopping streets, book-stalls, street musicians and cafes with outdoor seating for coffee, pastries or wine. We were in search of the St. Nicklas’ Boat Club, a non-profit, cooperative canal boat tour service, an open-air alternative to the larger, glitzier glass-covered canal tour launches. But like so many cooperative ventures, the enterprise had run aground and was no longer operating. More wandering, more pastry, more wine and back to the hotel for a break before dinner.

One residual piece of three centuries of Dutch East Indies colonial history is Amsterdam’s array of Indonesian restaurants, a cuisine I’d never experienced. On a recommendation, we selected a “Rice Table” offering at Indrapur, one of the tonier Indonesian eateries. Rice Table meals are an Indonesian version of Chinese Dim Sum or the Iberian Tapas. In deference to my Irish heritage, we chose a “mild” (a misnomer) selection of over twenty different and exotically flavored small dishes, every one of which was a treat. Returning from our East Indies meal, we caught a tram to a mid-town carnival and rode a giant Ferris wheel up and over the lights of the city. There was a brightly lit, ten-story swing with seats for two that swung out over the carnival below. I dared my wife to no avail. Two nights later we were on it.

Our second day in Amsterdam day came on cold and wet. With rain jackets, umbrellas and our new competence at navigating the city’s tram lines, we arrived early at the already crowded van Gogh museum. As a lifelong fan, I was thrilled to discover, along with so many favorites, a couple of stunning landscapes I’d never before seen. More walking in the drizzle through a half-dozen block street market, more tram riding and then a surprisingly good lunch in a pretentious restaurant with annoyingly indifferent service. Much more walking, window and actual shopping, until exhaustion and the proximity to our hotel got us back to our room for a break.

Relatively restored, we headed back out into the rain for dinner. We were to have a meal of traditional Dutch cuisine, another recommendation. When we arrived at the address, the Dutch eatery had been replaced by an Italian restaurant. At a more Dutch place down the street, we were told we could be seated in fifteen minutes and that we could wait in the bar. After a half hour, we left. Back out in the rain and several streets away, we passed a small bistro named Prego. Why not? We were seated and began what was to be one of the best meals of the entire trip. Two aging gays were running the place and the vibe was a pleasant as it was unostentatious. The food was first rate and creative. I had wild boar, my first ever, and my wife a fish dish. Everything was just right and the dessert more than just right. After warm farewells from our host and our waiter, we headed out once again into the chilly drizzle and toward our king-sized hotel bed.

Sunday, our last full day in Amsterdam, began with the Hotel’s inclusive and first-rate buffet breakfast. Then, a one-hour canal tour on a glass-covered boat accompanied by a large group of Chinese tourists. Strangely enough, my canal photos taken from water level proved less pleasing than those taken ashore. The loop of the city by boat and the accompanying sound track was instructive.

One of the sights from the boat was the lineup of visitors waiting to tour the Ann Frank House, an Amsterdam attraction as famous as the canals and the van Gogh Museum. For better or worse, I opted to pass on the Ann Frank house, feeling as I do that I’m already too well aware of the horrors of the all too recent past. Prior to this trip, a friend had given me tourist information on Amsterdam that included a brochure from the “Dutch Resistance Museum.” The brochure rightly celebrates the heroism of those who dared to actively resist one of the most brutal terror regimes in human history. On the other hand only a single allusion notes the existence of the NSB, the Dutch National Socialist Party, the active collaborators with the Nazi Occupation. Over 100,000 Dutch Jews perished during the war, the highest death rate per capita in the occupied Western European countries. That and the fact that 100,000 Dutch citizens volunteered to serve in the German armed forces, mostly in the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front, speaks for itself. And finally, the Frank family, like so many of the resistance heroes, was betrayed to the Nazis, it seems, by a fellow Dutch citizen.

More shopping, a lot more walking, some lunch, dinner, more photo taking and finally back to the hotel and bed. On our way back through the Red Light district, I noted that by comparison, the coffee shop scene with its stoned college kids and dreadlocked skateboarders appeared downright wholesome.

In the morning, I managed one last stroll around the canals before leaving to meet our noon train for Paris.

Where The Appalachian Trail Meets Appalachia

imagesWe’re just back from a week in Hot Springs, North Carolina. It took ten hours going and twelve coming back, most of it through some of the loveliest country imaginable, down through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Appalachians. Hot Springs is in the mountains at the very western tip of North Carolina where Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina come together. The big attraction down there is Asheville. We had been there about ten years ago and Asheville remains a very hip town; good restaurants, arts, crafts, lots of music, coffee shops, book and record stores, a cool place.

Hot Springs, where we stayed is about thirty-five miles northwest of Asheville, deep in the mountains, absolutely beautiful country, but very much a part of a still depressed Appalachia. With a population of just over six hundred, Hot Springs has escaped, though not completely, some of the visible poverty from squalor of the “hollers,” if only because of its proximity to the Appalachian Trail. The trail comes down into town to cross the French Broad River on the bridge at Hot Springs, and then climbs back up into the woods on the other side of the river.

We were vacationing in the North Carolina mountains in the first place was because my niece’s husband knew somebody who knew somebody who had a house to rent, an Octagon House. Octagon Houses were a sort of nineteenth-century architectural fad, one whose idea never really arrived. There are just a few surviving. The one we were in was built in 1857 and was eccentric in the extreme, just the right touch for our stay.

The town of Hot Springs itself, about a block and half of ramshackle sprawl, includes a couple of decent restaurants, a whitewater rafting outfitter and well-equipped store filled with hiking equipment and supplies. There is one very upscale bed and breakfast and spa a block in from the main street. What the presence of the Trail does for the town is that it creates an interesting mix of locals and hikers, and those who serve the hikers. Think of a hardcore country music audience mixed in with a Dead show crowd. It’s a jarring combination of rural hardscrabble caricatures with dreadlocked through-hikers. At breakfast one morning in the local diner, the smoking section had enough toothless, jug-eared old locals to conjure up the Walker Evans Depression photos, while the rest of the place was filled with bearded, tattooed young guys in tie-dyes and technical gear. Everybody seemed to get along. If you said hello to people in either group, you usually got a smile and a response.

The presence of the hikers is everywhere. At first, I thought the empty parking lot of the dumpy motel meant no guests, but going past just after dark, every window was lit. Hikers come out of the mountains after however many days, looking for a shower, a bed and some restaurant meals before getting back on the trail. I chatted with one kid who looked about twenty. He was coming off at Hot Springs after sixteen days on the trial, alone. It was his first time doing extended hiking and I asked him if things got a bit weird after a few days alone in the woods. He grinned and said, “you bet.”

Most of the properties in the town and along the winding switchback roads leading in and out of town are marked by run-down trailer homes, usually surrounded by lots of old cars and pickup trucks. One place I walked past all week defined hard-core Appalachian shack squalor. It looked like nobody in three or four generations had ever thrown anything away, including empty stacks of old twelve-pack cartons lying everywhere. The drive from and to the Interstate is gorgeous in terms of scenery, but heavy on collapsing shacks, trailers, though most do have satellite dishes, and rusting old cars.

It would seem that the problems of Appalachia are rooted in an obvious truth: there are just not enough jobs for far too many of the people still living there. It also seems that if you are there and fortunate enough to land a paying job, life can be quite good. Even the clerks in the Dollar General store had that gloss of prosperous respectability that most of their customers seemed to lack. However, if you are on the outside looking in, there’s not much left but a subsistence lifestyle supplemented by state and federal programs. The storefront offices of social service agencies appear to be the dominant business and administrative activities in many of the communities we drove past. If there seems little evidence of the current economic downturn, it could be because Appalachia is a region that has been pretty consistently bypassed by the good times. And, the region’s history of moon-shining adds credence to rumors of a thriving cultivation of backwoods weed.

One evening, we attended a bluegrass jam in an adjacent town, the county seat. Aside from the coffee shop where the jam was held, another restaurant and the county court house, most of the commercial buildings on both sides of the main street were empty. I’m sure that the town of Hot Springs, where we were staying, would be a ghost town if it weren’t for the Appalachian Trail traffic bringing in the outside money it does.

Another night, we drove close-in to Asheville where a friend’s band was playing old-time acoustic swing from the 20s and 30s; two guitars, a jazz banjo and a bass. The proximity to Asheville assured that the town was quite up-to-date, but a drive of just a few miles would put you back among the old trailers in the left-behind hollows.

Back up here, the cities isolate the poor and render them almost invisible. In the Appalachian back country, the reality of poverty is inescapable, third-world hardscrabble in such a beautiful place.

Fourth of Four Cities: Berlin

On our way to Berlin from Prague, we stopped for lunch of wurst and beer in Dresden. As in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” “so it goes.” Much of the reconstruction of the city, once called the most beautiful in Germany, has been completed. The original architectural plans, some dating from the twelfth-century, had been moved for safekeeping in 1943 and were used in the reconstruction that’s been going on now for almost sixty years. Some of what’s been accomplished  is mind-numbing in its beauty. But wait, let me describe that divine sausage and beer lunch we had from an outdoor vendor.

It was dark when we reached Berlin. It must be hard to get bad food in much of Europe. Going out blindly on a Sunday night, we stumbled upon a café-restaurant, that proved more than adequate. My wife however, ordered a pork knuckle, something that turned out to be as unappetizing to her as it was challenging to manipulate. The red pickled cabbage that accompanied my excellent schnitzel will remain forever in my memory.

Despite having served in Germany as a draftee in the mid fifties, I remained trapped in the wartime mentality of my childhood. I never met a German that I didn’t begin doing the arithmetic, calculating the person’s age and zeroing in on the unasked question; where had this person been and what had they done, 1933 -1945?  This trip, going into the Germany of 2007, has largely banished those fading ghosts. The WW II generation, our “Greatest,” however their’s is remembered, is quickly disappearing. On any German street, I was among the more senior passers-by. The people I encountered had no more to do with what happened then than I did or young people anywhere. It is vital to maintain an honest historical consciousness, and not forget what happened, but also to let the rest of it go. An aside, Hitler, it was reported, disliked Berlin, believing the city and its people insufficiently zealous in their embrace of him and the regime. Continue reading ‘Fourth of Four Cities: Berlin’

Third of Four Cities: Prague

Our hotel in Prague, The Diplomat, though very good, was located far from the center of town, but just steps from a subway station. Nothing like riding public transportation to give you a sense of place. Coming to Prague from Vienna, there had been a lunch stop at a highway service area just inside the Czech border, and a fine lunch it was, complete with a large draft of Pilsner Urquelle, the national beer of the Republic. As in Hungary, we were no longer on the Euro, but both Hungary and the Czech Republic are scheduled to join the Euro zone.

We had signed up for a group dinner and a night at the opera; there are neither Marx Brothers nor Marxists left in Prague. Back on the bus through heavy traffic for dinner at the Opera Restaurant, and then a few steps to the Prague State Opera House for a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. The sets were dramatic and ingenious, and the orchestra and company seemed, to my untrained ear, more than up to the task. There were three of us seated in a box for six, all quite upscale in an old worldly way. Unfortunately during the Habanera, I suffered a violent leg cramp and began knocking over empty chairs in my efforts to escape the pain in my calf.

The first morning in Prague, like the first mornings in each of the cities on our trip, was given over to a guided tour, which we did the first day in each city, a good way for first-time visitors to get bearings in a strange town. Prague Castle, another contribution to my sense of architectural overload, is the center of government and is protected by unsmiling, but unserious-looking Czech soldiers in baby blue, comic opera uniforms. Continue reading ‘Third of Four Cities: Prague’

The Second Of Four Cities: Vienna

From the window of the tour bus between Budapest and Vienna, the Hungarian countryside had a vague strangeness to it. Open farmland broken by the occasional tree line, by distant red-roofed villages, the larger towns marked by dreary Soviet era concrete apartment blocks. The landscape itself seemed oddly different, the greens, just a bit grayed and muted.

Once across the border into Austria, the windmills appeared, hundreds and hundreds of gigantic hi-tech windmills, all facing east into the prevailing winds that blow from the not-so-distant steppes. It was once written of Vienna that Asia began on the Landstrasse, a street on the city’s eastern suburbs. Our guide told us that Austria is one of the world’s leaders in the production of wind driven electricity.

The hotel wasn’t ready for us, and we stopped for lunch, decent, at a large railroad station on the outskirts of the city. We were now on the Euro and the prices were at least comparable to those in the states. The first thing I picked up on was that the people generally were much better dressed than those in Hungary. Once in the city itself, the contrasts with Budapest were even sharper. No graffiti, no trash, and again a prosperous looking crowd. The cars were now large, almost as large as those in the states, many of them high-end Mercedes and BMWs, and most were relatively new.

With still a bit of time to kill, we walked the grounds of The Belvedere, the 18th century palace built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, a general from Italy who saved the Hapsburg empire from the Turks. Interestingly enough, one of Nazi Germany’s WW II heavy cruisers was named the Printz Eugen, in honor of the Italian who is Austria’s national hero. The magnificent Belvedere, built to rival Versailles, appears to be another case of  Hapsburgs trying to keep up with Bourbons. Continue reading ‘The Second Of Four Cities: Vienna’

The First of Four Cities: Budapest

When we found out that we’d be flying to Europe on Czech Airlines, my wife remarked that she wasn’t aware the Czech’s had an airplane. In reality, it’s a good-sized and crisply run operation.

We flew into Prague and transferred to Budapest. Forty plus years of East-Bloc incompetence have left a mark on what we saw of Hungary. Almost two decades after the fall of the Communism, the Hungarians still have some catching up to do. 

If you listen closely enough to tour guides, you can catch some inadvertent revelations. In Spain last year, on a tour of Madrid, the guide continuously referred to the Civil War era Nationalists as the “fascists.” In Budapest, our moonlighting school-teacher guide made several references to the distasteful extravagances and flashy Mercedes’of the new rich, free-market capitalists, wistfully recalling a more egalitarian Hungary. 

Our introduction to the city was a well-conducted, guided boat tour on the Danube, which on that day and in that city was anything but blue. Budapest, despite the slovenly maintenance of public spaces, graffiti and uncollected trash, has a lively flair in a beautiful setting. The really old buildings, mostly 18th century, combine with the turn of the century (19th to 20th) streets to create the effect of a mildly sinister 1940s Carol Reed movie set. There’s a bouyant café culture, pre-war trams and an ornate subway system as old almost as those of New York and London. 

A friend of a friend, a Hungarian émigré historian, recommended a Budapest restaurant named Gundel, and on our last night in town, we did it. The place has been in business since 1896 and works hard to replicate the dining experience of those times. I felt like Ralph Kramden imitating a Hapsburg Count. Our evening at Gundel was one of the most elegant outings I’ve ever experienced; garden dining, exquisite service, over-the top food and a Hungarian string ensemble complete with a cimbalom (the Hungarian version of a  hammered dulcimer). It was also among the more expensive restaurants in Hungary. The tab matched anything a trendy Manhattan joint could have laid down. It was our extravagant gesture of the trip, and worth the price. And as we left the restaurant, a major fireworks show began in the park just across the street. We watched from under the trees and across moonlit water.

Continue reading ‘The First of Four Cities: Budapest’