Saturday, June 27, 2009

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck is the capital of the Tyrol region in Austria, the mountainous western part of the country. This region is famous for its Alpine skiing and Swarovski crystal.

I was originally supposed to hike the beautiful mountains around Innsbruck but alas, it was raining! Thus, I spent my one day exploring this small city. The city is scenically situated in a valley with a river flowing through it. The most famous site is the Golden Roof. Furthermore, the city is adorned with churches with onion-shaped domes.

The most interesting part of the day was encountering a group of people who were participating in their “Amazing Race”. They had to travel around for 1 Euro a day and complete certain tasks. I even donated some hair to their cause! My CS hosts Carina and Jonas got their feet painted. I was asked to join their race, but decided against it due to my scheduling with other CS hosts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Venice, Italy

I decided to spend a few hours wandering around Venice while en route to Austria. Having visited many years ago, I wanted to see both the main and off-the-beaten paths of this canal city.

Venice certainly has its magic, with its ubiquitous gondolas, canals, bridges and churches. I particularly enjoyed wandering along the alleys and the smaller canals. However, I am getting tired of visiting touristy areas, as it is quite annoying to have to “fight” with people for a view. It is difficult to truly enjoy a view when there are tons of people yapping and shouting. I believe that a place loses its character and charm when too many tourists swarm the area.

Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast

Having visited Cinque Terre a few years ago, I was keen on visiting another part of Italy’s spectacular coastline--the Amalfi Coast. This area is located south of Naples, which I happily passed through to avoid the chaos.

I decided to use the town of Sorrento as a base to explore the region. My first day was spent on a bus ride down part of the Amalfi Coast, from Sorrento to Amalfi. The drive was gorgeous, along steep cliffs that dropped right into the sea. It’s comparable to California’s Big Sur, if not more dramatic and adrenaline-filled. The road was so curvy and narrow that I was surprised there were no accidents.

My second and final day was spent exploring the famed island of Capri. This posh island is filled with panoramic viewpoints of the sea and its cliffs. Furthermore, there are numerous grottoes underneath these cliffs worth exploring. The architecture, however, was mostly mid-20th century and lacked a certain quaintness to it.

Rome, Italy

Rome, the “eternal city” was originally not on my itinerary. I had visited with my family 13 years ago for 1 day and had remembered it being chaotic and polluted. However, that visit was so long ago that I had forgotten the city’s ambience. Plus, having thrown a coin into the Trevi Fountain then, I was ready to come back!

I found Rome to be surprisingly pleasant. Yes, there are those crazy drivers and hordes of tourists (almost half of the people walking around were), but there are pockets where you can savor alone. For example, plenty of churches can be enjoyed without the maddening crowds. Plus, many parks and hills are available for one to enjoy views and calmness.

Rome is the probably the quintessential “open-air museum”. History in the form of churches, monuments, obelisks and ruins abound in every corner. The must-sees, including the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museum (which is the “zoo” of all “zoos”), Palantine, Forum, Spanish Steps, Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, can be enjoyed relatively crowd-free in the early morning. I found it fascinating that ruins and structures from thousands of years ago could stand right in the heart of the city.

One part of Rome that I personally did not enjoy was walking along the Via Appia Antica, a 2,000-year-old road leading out of the city that is surrounded by catacombs, churches, ruins and villas. This is the road of “all roads lead to Rome”. My disappointment stems from the fact that most of the sites were shielded from the road by walls. Furthermore, the road was so narrow that sometimes, cars whizzed by a few inches from me. I felt like I was fighting for my life the entire trek!

For me though, the positives in Rome far outweigh its negatives. I will definitely be back and spend at least one week for my next visit. Three days was not enough!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Florence and Tuscany, Italy

Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and as such, half of the city were tourists. Most of these tourists were from the U.S. I have never seen so many American tourists outside of the U.S.! I guess they all head to Italy since some of them perceive the French as being unwelcoming.

While it was nice to be surrounded by Medieval and Renaissance buildings, at times it was overwhelming to be swarmed with tourists. Highlights include Pont Vecchio, the only Renaissance-style bridge remaining; the Duomo, the green, pink and white marbled structure with frescoes; Palazzo Vecchio, with its replica of Michaelangelo’s David and tall tower and the Uffizi Gallery, with its vast collection of art throughout the centuries.

I also visited the Tuscan hill towns of Siena and San Gimignano and understand why so many Americans are in Italy. Italian food and the Tuscan landscape are promoted and idealized in the U.S. The hills and vineyards of the region were indeed stunning. Add city walls, churches, Medieval buildings and you’ve got a fairytale setting!

One food that I discovered and now love is focaccia. This crunchy bread, sprinkled with salt
and topped with olive oil, is simply the best! Just like I had to have my daily baguette and pain au chocolat in France, I have to have a focaccia and gelato everyday in Italy.

Verona and Mantova, Italy

I hadn’t visited Italy in 13 years (except for a brief stop in Cinque Terre a few years ago) and was excited to revisit the tourist sites , sample the food and live la dolce vita. My first stop was in Verona, a city in the north central part.

I had envisioned Verona to be part of the crowded, chaotic Italy I had in mind. I was pleasantly surprised by the relative calmness of this city. Verona is the scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Juliet’s house, site of the famous balcony scene was of course swarmed with tourists. I did not come to Verona to see Juliet’s house; rather, I came to wander the streets of this charming, historic city. The architecture was the typical pastel-colored buildings (yellow, red, orange with green shutters and brown roofs). Most of the churches and palazzos (palaces) were from the Renaissance era, made with brown bricks. These edifices also frequently contain courtyards.

Verona also has two Roman era structures, an arena and an amphitheatre, both of which house performances during the summer. One particular highlight was crossing the bridge to the other side of the river, climbing up to the Castel San Pietro and admiring the views of Verona from above.
Mantova, on the other hand, is a UNESCO world heritage town surrounded by three small lakes. It too, has plenty of Renaissance era churches and palaces that make for a pleasant stroll around town.

Now, for the ultimate highlight--what did I eat? My mission was to eat my way around Italy in order to gain knowledge as to what constitutes Italian food (I am often confused at its authenticity when I eat Italian food in the U.S.). The first item I savored was tiramisu gelato, which literally translates to ice cream but is creamier than American ice cream.

Then I went for an apertivo (pre-dinner drink). Unlike Spain, where one often has to buy tapas in addition to the drink, in Italy, some places have free buffets if one buys a drink. The buffet I ate had finger sandwiches (with salami and prosciutto), finger pieces of pizza, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, potatoes, puff pastries, cantelope, and strawberries.
To top off my great visit, I also ate a pizza Napolitana. Pizza in Italy is always thin-crusted, which is the style that I prefer. Unlike the U.S. pizzas, the one I ate did not have as much cheese on it.

Au Revoir, France!

I just thought of writing a “tribute” to each country at the end of each visit. Since my visits to Portugal and Spain were weeks ago, let me start with France, where I am leaving as I write.
I have been in France for 3.5 weeks, longer than I have been in any non-residence country. Furthermore, I have visited France more than any other country. I have also traveled to every region in France, minus the center and Corsica. What about France that keeps on drawing me back? I did not realize how much I missed this country until just after I arrived.

I am amazed at the cultural, culinary and geographic diversity in a country the size of Texas. Every region is unique in its own way. Haute Savoie is known for its mountains and lakes whereas Cote d’Azur is known for its beaches. Alsatian culture has a strong German influence whereas Brittany has its own distinct culture.

The food of course is in a class of its own. The gastronomy ranges from haute cuisine dishes such as escargots, boeuf Bourguignon and magret de Canard. The various fruit tarts and chocolate cakes are to die for! And I have come to love the “holy trinity” of French cuisine--bread, cheese and wine. I simply cannot live without them! From baguettes to croissants, chevre to Camembert and Bordeaux to Burgundy, these are some of the finest (and affordable) pleasures in life!

Another aspect of French life I have grown to enjoy is its culture. Someone mentioned to me that France has a culture of culture. Now I understand why. Every level of government--national, regional, departmental, city--has a cultural ministry/department. These institutions are funded by the taxpayers (which I would gladly pay if I could; it is better use of funds rather than for bombs). Thus, there is a huge emphasis on providing cultural events, both fee and free, to its residents. Every city/town I visited had flyers advertising festivals, concerts, theatre, cinema, expositions and dance. One simply cannot get bored in France!

I would also like to comment on what’s on the screen, notably French TV and cinema. I didn’t get a chance to watch much TV (one reason is that most of my hosts did not watch TV, which is great!). However, I can say that public TV broadcasts high-quality documentaries often. Furthermore, there exists a French/German channel, Arte, that showcases cultural happenings. French cinema, in my opinion, is also of a higher quality than Hollywood. The cinematography may be simple, but French films provide more food for thought in its portrayal of daily life.

I was also surprised at the love of reading that the French display. It appears that a substantial portion of the population enjoy reading books for fun (and it is not only the upper classes or college-educated folks). Just observe the number of book fairs and stores (almost all mom-and-pop) there are. This helps to create a very educated and aware population.

Thus, the combination of haute cuisine and haute culture has created a society where it is intriguing and fun to live. This is plenty of room for spontaneity and creativity in French society. Living in France is like being part of a beautiful tapestry. Look no further than the multi-hour, multi-course meals; the endless conversations at a café; tasting and shopping at an outdoor market; admiring the displays at a mom-and-pop florist; the aimless wandering down alleys in search of art; staring in awe at the neo-classical buildings; the sound of the beautiful language; the buttery smell of a croissant as one enters a boulangerie; the taste of Brie as it melts in one’s mouth; the sight of an artistic display of cakes at a patisserie; and of course, the unforgettable first bite into that fresh, crunchy baguette.

Lastly, let me talk about the French people. Yes, there are those rude Parisians who ignore you as a tourist and those who snarl at you when you ask them, parlez vous Anglais? However, I have found the French to be a very polite people in general. One ubiquitous example is saying bonjour and au revoir every time one enters or leaves a store or museum or institution. I have also been blessed with the kindness and generosity of my CouchSurfing hosts. They have taught me many things about France and have shared their culture with me. This trip would not have been possible without them (and I mean ALL of the CouchSurfers), so I thank all of you!

Thus, it is with sadness that I bid farewell to France. I am already feeling nostalgic, especially for the fresh baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat. I will definitely be back in the future, only this time, hopefully with someone whom I can share my experiences with.

Lille, France

Lille, the northernmost major French city, is full of Flemish history and influence given its location. Highlights in the city include the old town with Flemish architecture (particularly the Bourse). Because of its proximity to Belgium, the region has some of the best frites (fries, with mayo of course!) and beer.

Toulouse, France

Toulouse is known as the “rose city” and it’s easy to see why. Many of its buildings are composed to red brick, which looks gorgeous when matched with blue shutters. I was also planning to head to the nearby mountain range, the Pyrenees to hike, but unfortunately, that didn’t work out. There’s always a next time!

Lyon, France

I originally was not going to visit Lyon. However, after learning that it is the ‘gastronomic capital of France’, I simply had to check it out!

For my first night, Cser Jean-Marie took me and another friend to a restaurant in Vieux Lyon (old Lyon). Apparently, Lyonnais cuisine is centered around pork. I ordered a three-course menu. The entrée (appetizer) consisted of pig brain, nose and foot, which I could not believe the French would eat! The brain tasted like jellyfish. This dish tasted good with a sauce similar to mayonnaise. For the plat (main dish), I ate blood sausage with apples. The sausage was cooked so well that is was very soft and tender. The apples were also soft and its slight sweetness complemented the saltiness of the sausage. Lastly, for dessert, I ate a praline tart, which was rich but satisfying!

For my second night, Jean-Marie cooked for me and his friend. Since I had mentioned the previous night that I have never eaten rabbit before, Jean-Marie decided to cook a traditional rabbit dish. The rabbit was tender, having been cooked in white wine for 45 minutes. Also in the rabbit dish were potatoes and mushrooms. For dessert, Jean-Marie made a banana cake; the recipe was from Madagascar. The cake was filling and not too sweet (which I believe constitutes excellent dessert).

Lyon is also famous for silk makers and traboules. I visited several of the latter, which are passages that lead into a courtyard and out into another street. Many of these courtyards and buildings contained Renaissance-era helical and rectangular staircases.

One last highlight was the visit to the Basilica de Fourviere, from where one can see the Saone River and Presqu’ile (center of Lyon). Furthermore, the basilica is quite ornate within, with columns containing statues of hens and angels and Medieval mosaics on the walls.

Annecy, France

My next stop in France was to another eastern area, the department of Haute Savoie. This place borders Switzerland; thus, the scenery and food are quite similar. Haute Savoie is a land filled with Alpine mountains and lakes, world-class ski resorts and delicious cheese (such as Raclette and fondue cheeses). I decided to spend my exploratory 1.5 days in Annecy, a town adjacent to a lake that bears its name.

Annecy, as you probably could have guessed, is a charming town. The old town contains buildings with pastel colors (yellow, red, orange) with passages (pedestrian tunnels) dug underneath them. There is also a small river that flows through town, which along with its bridges gives Annecy another angle of beauty.

I spent a considerable amount of time walking and relaxing along Lake Annecy. This lake contains crystal-clear, blue-green water, even during an overcast day. It is a glacial lake, similar to those found in the Canadian Rockies and in Patagonia. To describe how beautiful Lake Annecy is, let’s just say I thought I woke up in heaven even when I was lugging my heavy backpack.
Along the lake, one can participate in a multitude of activities: windsurfing, kayaking, paddle boating, sailing, etc. The adjacent mountains also provide plenty of hiking. I can only imagine how picturesque this place would look in the winter, with snow-capped Alpine peaks all around.
One intriguing event that occurred in Annecy while I was there was the Animation Film Festival. This again illustrates the commitment that the French government and public have towards culture. This festival showcased films from around the world at multiple venues, including an outdoor lawn overlooking the lake.

Burgundy, France

Burgundy is one of France’s premier wine regions, producing fine wines using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Chablis. I came to experience the food and wine of this heartland in France.
I stayed with CouchSurfers Raph and Christoph in the town of Beaune and in many ways, their hospitality and accommodation made me feel like I was in a B&B. I got the wonderful opportunity to stay in their “zen room”, beautifully decorated with wooden furniture and artifacts.
Raph drove me around the vineyards of Beaune in which we had a birds-eye view of the towns, hills and vines of the region. The place is as beautiful as heaven. We also walked around the town of Beaune, which has Medieval stone and shutter architecture very similar to Sarlat.
One of the highlights was visiting an old hospital called the Hospices de Beaune. This complex has a courtyard with ornate and colorful tile architecture. Furthermore, it has a Hall of the Poor with beds lined up alongside the walls.
Another highlight was tasting the gastronomy of the region. I ordered a menu de jour and savored escargots (snails), boeuf Bourguignon (tender beef cooked in wine) and an apricot tart. And of course, this meal was accompanied by fine Burgundy red wine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Alsace, France

Alsace is a region in eastern France that has a strong German influence in its culture due to its sovereignty changing hands between France and Germany a few times during the past few centuries. I decided to visit the largest city in the region, Strasbourg, to experience this Germanic culture.

Strasbourg is a small, cosmopolitan city that is very livable. It is often not crowded and people are on bikes all the time. The highlight of this visit was viewing the German-like wooden buildings that adorn the central areas of Petite France and Grand I’le. These were in all sorts of colors.

Thanks for CS host Pascal, I was able to savor two of the region’s specialties. We went to a German-style bar to taste tarte flambee, a naan-like pie with cream, ham and onions on top. Optional toppings include mushrooms, cheese and sauerkraut. Moreover, Pascal cooked, a tarte de l’oignon, which is an quiche-like pastry with onions and ham. Both were absolutely scrumptious!

Lastly, I journeyed to a town in Alsace called Colmar, which is in the heart of the Alsatian wine region. Not having a car, I went to a wine cellar in town and sampled the region’s famed whites--Riesling, Muscat and Gewurztraminer.


Since I bought a Eurail pass, I decided to visit this tiny country that has one of the world’s highest GDP per capita. I was only in the eponymous capital for a few hours, but my CouchSurfing tour guide Deborah made sure we covered all the highlights.

I came to enjoy the town’s serenity and calmness. This is definitely a town where one can get away from people easily and spend time by the river. That is exactly what we did--picnic lunch in the old town.

Normandy, France

To most foreigners, Normandy is famous for the beaches where the Allied troops landed on D-day and liberated France. I was in the area near D-day (apparently, Barack Obama would visit Caen, one of the towns I stayed in, 2 days after I left), but was not interested in WWII history.
Instead, I came to Normandy to try the famous Cs: Camembert (cheese), Calvados (apple liquor), cider, crepes (Normandy shares this famous food with Brittany). I especially enjoyed the Camembert and have turned into a cheese lover the short time I have been in France.

One highlight was my visit to the Bayeux Tapestries. This intricately woven piece of art depicts the Battle of Hastings, the reason William the Conquerer was able to claim the English throne.

Another highlight was visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen. This is the cathedral that Monet so famously depicts in his paintings. It has the tallest spire of any cathedral in France at 150 m. Furthermore, I was impressed with the numerous statues and intricate façade of the cathedral.

Mont St Michel, France

Mont St. Michel is this fairytale-like abbey perched on an island in northern France, in a region called Normandy. Below the abbey on the island are several alleys, filled with souvenir shops, restaurants and tourists.

The highlight of this visit was exploring the surroundings of Mont St Michel. The area contains beaches, cliffs and fertile fields. I especially enjoyed walking along the causeway as the views of Mont St Michel were at times magical, if not surreal.

Bretagne (Brittany), France

I next stayed in a town called Quimper, which is in Bretagne, the northwestern-most region in France. Bretagne is a fascinating, natural place, full of lush fields, open spaces and black-and-white cows. I must say that initially, I was attracted to the place due to its remoteness, distinct cultural heritage and gourmet crepes.

What I came to enjoy was Bretagne’s authenticity. Finally, there were no Japanese tour groups (and few other tour groups)! There were no famous sites to snap pictures at. Instead, one could be at peace and enjoy nature. I especially enjoyed the rocky coastline, pristine beaches and rolling fields. It was also an added bonus that I experienced perfect weather the two days I spent there. (In case you are not aware, rainy and overcast weather is the norm in Bretagne.)

One particular highlight was visiting Pointe du Raz, the westernmost point in France. Similar to other geographic “points” I have visited (e.g., South Africa’s Cape Point), this area was rocky and contained several lighthouses. I hiked along the coast north of Pointe due Raz to a nearby beach. I could see the Atlantic Ocean, the numerous coves and yellow wildflowers all along the way. It was indeed a relaxing and rejuvenating two days.

Paris, France

Having been to the “city of lights” several times before, I was glad that I could walk around neighborhoods this visit and live life. Some of my favorite neighborhoods include the 4th, 5th, 6th and 16th arrondissements.

The 4th arrondissement contains the Marais, one of Paris’ oldest neighborhoods with Medieval and Renaissance architecture. The area contains many hoteles particulares (pardon my spelling), gorgeous mansions that are now museums or government buildings. And of course, no visit to this quarter would be complete without going to the Place des Vosges, a square with beautiful Renaissance buildings that now house many art galleries.

The 5th arrondissement, on the other hand, is popularly known as the Latin Quarter as it contains the Sorbonne, one of France’s oldest universities. It has a lively student population with lots of cafes and restaurants. One of my favorite streets there is Rue Mouffetard, with its eclectic range of eateries.

Both the 6th and 16th arrondissements don’t have a lot going on, but I like each neighborhood for one certain characteristic. For the 6th, known as St-Germain-des-Pres, I enjoyed the numerous tiny art galleries. For the 16th, I enjoyed the viewing the grand mansions.

Champagne, France

I decided to continue my wine tour of France by visiting the famed Champagne region, just 45 minutes by high-speed TGV train from Paris. I arrived at Reims, the regional capital.
I have to say that Reims is one of the few places in France that I dislike. This is because the city’s architecture is very hodgepodge, with both unattractive old and new buildings. I did, however, enjoy Reims’ gigantic Gothic cathedral with its stained-glass windows. This was the place where most of France’s kings were coronated.

At Reims, I visited one Champagne cellar, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, one of France’s most prestigious brands. Despite the prestige of the winery, I wasn’t impressed by the visit as I felt it was expensive, commercialized and formal, quite opposite from what I experienced in Bordeaux and in the Loire Valley. The tour consisted of an explanation of the Champagne making process, visiting the cellar and tasting one sample of Brut Champagne.

Loire Valley, France

This is a region in France that boasts some of the world’s verdant countryside and best chateaux. Having visited 5 years ago and seen the Chateau Chambord, I decided to come again with the main purpose of visiting the fairytale Chateau Chenonceau.
Thanks to my CS friend Eric, who drove me around, I was able to see the sights much easily than via the train. We visited two chateaux-- Amboise and Chenonceau. Amboise is where Leonardo da Vinci is supposedly buried. Also, in the same town is where da Vinci lived. This mansion is called Le Close Luce.

Chenonceau was the absolute highlight. From the beginning, one gets a sense of regality as one strolls down the grand avenue with tall trees leading to the chateau. My favorite interior part was the kitchen with its copper utensils still intact. Outside, two splendid gardens, one with a fountain and the other with a lake, surround the chateau. The best view had to be from one of the gardens, in which one could see Chenonceau’s bridge reach across the Cher River.

We also visited several wineries in the region. The main wines I tasted were Vouvray, which is made from chenin blanc. I enjoyed wine tasting here as it was more informal and intimate than in St. Emilion--many of the wineries don’t even have formal tasting bars.

To top off this great day, my CS host Camiel prepared an excellent 4-course French meal for us. First, our entrée (appetizer) consisted of crab sticks and tzazitki (yogurt and cucumber dip). The plat (main course) was a delicious and aesthetically pleasing salad with potatoes and chicken gizzard. Third, we sampled some of the region’s famed chevre (goat) cheese with bread. Dessert was a light tarte au citron (lemon tart). To top it all, we drank a red wine (which I forgot the name) from the Loire Valley.

St. Emilion, France

St. Emilion is blessed with two things--a UNESCO world heritage-listed Medieval town that is surrounded by beautiful vineyards. Thus, I decided to make a quick trip from Bordeaux.
The town’s architecture was similar to Sarlat’s, consisting of stone homes with wooden shutters. I guess I’ll never get sick of wandering down alleys with historic architecture.

As for the wineries, since I didn’t have a car, I was limited to the few wineries within walking distance. Many of these wineries have wine tasting by appointment only. Furthermore, many are closed for about 2 hours for lunch. Wine tasting in France is an informal affair. For example, it is less commercialized than in the U.S. and hours are not strict. I got a taste of the latter when I arrived at a winery during operating hours, only to find the doors shut and the staff nowhere to be found.

I only got a chance to visit one winery in town. I was amazed at the underground stone cellar, dating from Medieval times. This is definitely something they don’t have in the “new world”. As for the tasting, I sampled a series of Bordeaux reds (blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon). Several of the reds tasted “spicy”, which was interesting.