The Swiss Alps: Hiking Above Interlaken at the Top of the World

Tags

, , , , ,

Swiss Alps Lauterbrunnen hiking

Hiking in the Swiss Alps should be near the top of everyone’s bucket list. From cascading waterfalls to flower-filled meadows and the rugged mountains – the most famous of which are the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau – there are few places where you can so easily connect with an idealized vision of a place and have it live up to expectations.

Trails are plentiful, and there is something for every level of skill and comfort. The most adventurous are the base jumpers who leap off the cliffs in squirrel suits and open their parachutes after flying through the valleys. At the other end of the spectrum are trails reached by funicular or gondola that are easy walks through relatively flat areas high in the Alps.

Lauterbrunnen is a fantastic gateway to the Alps. It’s a short train ride from Interlaken, which has major highways and a rail station connecting it to other Swiss cities and beyond.

When you think Lauterbrunnen, think idyllic Swiss mountain town with chalet-style buildings, friendly people and a gorgeous waterfall.

To get away from even a town as small as Lauterbrunnen, hop on the funicular and head toward Grutschalp. A little higher in the mountains, it’s still nowhere near the point that is covered in snow, and when I was there in June, it was shorts and T-shirt weather. From there, you can hike to Murren and then on to Gimmelwald.

From Gimmelwald, you can take the gondola down to the next step in the valley, and it’s an easy flat walk back to Lauterbrunnen along paved trails for cyclists and leisure walkers.

While that’s what I did, there are numerous routes to take for those seeking more difficulty, and those who want less difficulty have options as well. Checking with a local guide is the best way to figure out what’s right.

Walking in the Swiss Alps is like walking on top of the world. I even got that feeling without taking the train up to the top of the Jungfrau, which stood at an imposing height across the valley.

Swiss Alps Jungfrau

The trails are well-marked and popular, but when I was there it was rare to run into other hikers.

Passing through the fields, I crossed streams and made my way through meadows full of wildflowers.

Swiss Alps River Wildflowers Hiking

At times, hikers cross lands owned by farmers, and their cattle are fenced in. As someone who lives in a city in America, where property is seemingly more strictly controlled, I was surprised that I was able to pass through gates into farmers’ pastures before continuing on the hike at the other side.

Of course the pastures were full of cows, and just like everyone who’s seen Heidi imagines, the cows have bells around their necks.

Swiss Alps Cows with Bells

As I approached Gimmelwald, it was clear that the drop to the next step in the valley was steep, and there was no funicular to take me down. That meant taking a gondola.

And I hate gondolas. Planes don’t worry me. I’m fine with bridges. I even jumped off a Swiss cliff with nothing but a rope attached to me at one time (more on that in a future post), but I. Hate. Gondolas. Statistically, they’re incredible safe, but swaying a thousand feet above ground just doesn’t give me that feel-good sensation of safety.

Swiss Alps Gondola

In any case, I descended from Gimmelwald to the valley floor and hiked back to Lauterbrunnen.

Swiss Alps Hiking

The pathway is paved, and the walk is easy. It’s fun to watch the helicopters taking parachutists aloft, and then watch them sail through the air and glide to the earth. The same is true of the base jumpers, and the area around Lauterbrunnen is one of the best in the world for that particular sport, both for the terrain and the fact that it’s legal.

At the end of the journey back to Lauterbrunnen, I passed the waterfall that distinguishes the town from many in the area. Waterfalls are everywhere, but the one at Lauterbrunnen has a steady flow, and I could view it from my hotel window.

Lauterbrunnen Waterfall Swiss Alps

Don’t ever let anyone tell you Switzerland is cheap – with the Swiss Frank at parity with the U.S. Dollar and the minimum wage in Switzerland being about 22 Franks per hour (I was told both 22 and 25 when I was there), everything comes with a hefty price tag. But don’t think for a second that it’s not worth it.

Arriving in Budapest to find Hungarians celebrating independence

Tags

, , , ,

Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

Traveling to Hungary wasn’t something I’d planned much at all, but when the opportunity came to fly to Budapest for eight days, I hopped on an EasyJet flight and skimmed my Rick Steves’ Hungary guidebook on the way over.

I arrived on Oct. 23, 2009. The day held no significance for me, but Oct. 23 means a whole lot to Hungarians.

It was on Oct. 23, 1956 that the infamous uprising started, which ended with Soviet tanks crushing an ill-conceived rebellion and about 2,500 Hungarian deaths.

But Oct. 23, 1989 was a day of celebration for Hungarians, as the country reverted to Hungarian rule for the first time since World War II.

I arrived late and made my way to my hotel on the Buda side of the Danube River, and I immediately ignored the hotelier’s advice to stay away from Pest.

The front of the Parliament building had been the scene of riots the year before, but you can’t tell me that there might be riots and expect me to stay away. It worked when I was a journalist, and it also gave my mother headaches.

The first thing I noticed as I made my way from the Fisherman’s Bastion to the river was the Hungarian Parliament building lit up in red, white and green, the national colors.

This was only my second time behind the former Iron Curtain, and I wasn’t expecting something so stately: My views of Eastern Europe as a dreary place were completely wrong.

Some of that Iron Curtain function-over-form mentality was noticeable on the metro, with its its ridiculously fast escalators, older-looking cars, doors that slammed shut (no room for error there) and their warning — a two-note horn that instantly made me think it had a place in Soviet propaganda.

I found myself among a bunch of Hungarians for the first time. There were quintessential Eastern European workmen, older women who’d seen it all — from Nazi occupation through Soviet oppression and finally freedom — and of course young Hungarian guys enjoying the holiday with an unnaturally high percentage of stunningly beautiful women.

When I arrived at Parliament, I was sad to see the area devoid of big celebrations or demonstrations. No crowd of thousands of revelers celebrating 20 years of freedom.

What I found was much more somber.

I walked through a park, past a statue of victorious soldiers to a flagpole. The Hungarian flag flew proudly, but with a gaping hole in the center that made it look like it’d been hit by a Napoleonic ship of the line.

This photo was taken a few days later.

This photo was taken a few days later.

I remembered that during 1956, the rebels had cut holes in them to remove the hated communist emblems.

I stood in silence while a few older Hungarians lit candles at the base of a monument to honor the fallen.

Monument in Budapest

Nearby, an eternal flame burned in a marble pillar, and the entrance to Parliament was draped with Hungarian and European Union banners.

Eternal Flame for 1956 in Budapest

Hungarian Parliament in Budapest with banners

I spent the time wandering around and reflecting on how lucky I am to have, through some accident, been born in the United States, where our great civil rights struggles can generally be won in peace at the ballot box, our press isn’t controlled by the government and we can leave if we wish. When I later went through the House of Terror and saw the enormity of what Hungarians went through, it brought that feeling home.

————————————————

Those interested in Hungary’s experience in World War II should really watch the film “Gloomy Sunday.” As the title suggests, it’s not an uplifting movie, but it’s extremely well-done, and it shows Budapest in a bygone era.

Stepping into nothing: The Willis Tower (Sears Tower) Skydeck

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

The Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in Chicago is one of those buildings that always captivated my imagination. Touted for its height – it’s the tallest building in the United States and the western hemisphere – it upped the ante in 2009 when architects added four retractable glass boxes that allow visitors to stand on nothing more than a plate of glass 103 stories above the ground.

I was in Chicago with my family for Thanksgiving, and the Chicago Christmas market was one of the things my mom most wanted to see, but for me, the tower reigned supreme.

On Thanksgiving Day, the wait to get to the top was more than an hour, and as we wandered around after deciding to wait until another day, we realized it had worked out well after all, as it was already getting dark, and we wanted at least the chance to see four states from the tower (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana).

On Black Friday, we started the day by heading to the black Sears Tower (I still think of it with the old name). We entered from Jackson Street and descended into the building’s subterranean level to wait in line and purchase tickets. When crowded, visitors can purchase fast passes, but we bought the general admission tickets and were at the top – via the freight elevators – in less than 30 minutes.

I’d marveled at the Chicago skyline for two days at that point, and seeing it from the top gave more perspective. I’d flown in and out of O’Hare International Airport numerous times, but I’d never been to Chicago before, and I was surprised at how many skyscrapers it has. But then, it is the birthplace of the skyscraper (the first skyscraper was a 10-story building in Chicago).

I took in the views over the massive Lake Michigan on what turned out to be a gorgeous if freezing Black Friday. Growing up in California, I’ve always disdained places that are far from the oceans, because I am fortunate enough to live within two hours’ drive from the Pacific. Even from the 103rd floor, Lake Michigan stretched to the horizon, and I realized that the Great Lakes really are more like small oceans (Lake Superior being the largest).

But I was dawdling.

Why? Because it’s fun to stand in a building that’s been standing for a decade longer than I’ve been alive. It’s new enough for me to know that it’s not built on antiquated technology, so it’s solid, and it’s old enough for me to know it’s withstood the test of time. I’m not afraid of heading into tall buildings or flying in rickety aircraft, but I have a healthy aversion to heights.

And that’s why I was nervous – I was working my way to the glass ledges.

A throng of people stood in what was supposed to be three lines behind each of the four ledges but which ended up being four globs of humanity.

They looked like lemmings running off a cliff (even though I hear lemmings don’t actually do that). So of course I had to join them.

I took the middle line on the right side of the building (I later realized I should have gone to the left side, because they have a photo station set up with a better camera angle than you can get by standing. I usually don’t buy souvenir photos, but this would have been the exception).

Finally it was my turn to go out on the ledge, and it seemed like the whole world opened up before me. My mind flashed back to when I first saw pictures of the Skydeck ledges and  thought, “Oh no way. Only idiots would do that.”

But it was there, so I had to.

The glass looks like it’s an inch or two thick, and it’s bolted on with some pretty heavy-duty hardware, and it’s been three years since they were installed, so why not?

And in reality, it was far more cool than nerve-wracking. They felt every bit as solid as the interior of the building (they might even be more solid).

I walked to the edge, my feet over nothing, and stared out at the city, 4 feet away from the walls of the building behind me. I felt like I was calmly levitating, even though a small part of my mind was shouting at me, reminding me that the building sways about 3 feet from side to side in windstorms.

I took several photos, and my sister joined me on the ledge. We admired the scenery and then stepped off to give my parents a go.

For me, that was one of the highlights of the trip, which also included an awesome Thanksgiving buffet, a bout tour of the architectural sights and, of course, a meal at Pizzeria Uno, where deep-dish pizza was invented.

Aside

Prague at dawn: Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge

Tags

, , , , , , ,

 

I couldn’t sleep, and it was only 4 a.m.

The problem I had was due to jet lag, which had really messed up my body’s clock, leaving me staring at the ceiling of my hotel room in Prague as I contemplated what to do.

It was to be my last day in the city, which I had been told was fantastic at dawn. By 6 a.m., I decided I would brave the cold and experience what everyone else had told me about.

As it was just two weeks before Christmas, and snow blanketed the hills around the city, I bundled up in a sweatshirt, gloves, my full-length wool coat and the imitation Soviet fur hat I’d bought a couple of days earlier. To my surprise, the fur hat wasn’t a cliché in Prague – many of the locals wore them.

Grabbing my camera, I headed out of the room, leaving a note for my family telling them I would be back for breakfast.

When I stepped into the street, the cold air bit at my face, and I was thankful for my warm clothes. I wandered through streets illuminated only by streetlights and passed very few people. A homeless man slept sitting up in a small alcove, a pair of trash collectors puffed steam as they labored with an overloaded bin, and two British guys stumbled out of a pub, which I was surprised to see still had a healthy amount of people sitting at the bar. As I had no desire to down a pint of Pilsner Urquell or Budvar, despite how good they are, I kept going.

I was headed to the Old Town Square, and the sky wasn’t even giving the slightest hint that dawn was approaching. It was interesting to see the place without the crowds of people and the Christmas market going full-swing, and I was amazed at how alone I felt.

Since there was nothing to do, I headed over to the Charles Bridge, which had been a solid mass of people every time I’d seen it. When I arrived, however, there were only two or three other people on it. The sky was finally starting to lighten up, but was just a dull red color.

I walked to the far end, on the side of the Castle Quarter, and I set up my tripod and camera, taking several extremely long exposures that I hated and instantly deleted. The gateway to the castle looked mystical, but I wasn’t able to capture it on my camera, so I decided to let some time pass and hope that the conditions would get better with more light.

As the light improved, I got a photo that I was somewhat happy with (at the top of this post), but it certainly wasn’t the “photographer’s magic hour” I’d read about. As the sun finally rose and I played around with the camera, I realized the reason that thing’s weren’t as advertised – the sky was overcast.

I walked back toward my hotel as the city was waking up. The hordes of people weren’t out yet, and shopkeepers opened their doors, swept the streets in front of them and set up outdoor displays. The smells from a bakery filled one corner, and I was suddenly eager to get to breakfast.

Paris Christmas lights on the Champs Elysées, Galeries Lafyette and Printemps

Tags

, , , , , ,

Living in Paris is easily the best travel experience I’ve ever had, and in November of 2009, the city was preparing for Christmas even as I was preparing to leave early in December.

Christmas market stalls sprung up near the Louvre as well as in places around the church of Saint Germane and more far-flung places such as La Defense. We’d had rain, and snow was expected to come soon.

I don’t remember exactly what day it was – it was sometime before Thanksgiving – but I read that French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg would be lighting the lights on the Champs Elysées that night, so I shrugged into a coat, grabbed my gloves and camera and hopped on the Metro at Place d’Italie, getting off at L’Etoile – where the Arc de Triompe is – and walking back down the Champs Elysées until I found a huddle or people and a fenced-off area.

The place around the fence was crowded, but I worked in as close as I could, considering pulling out my press pass from the United States and telling them I was on assignment so I could get close. Deciding that was unethical, I hung around the fence and waited, my breath steaming in the crisp air even as more people crowded in and the temperature started to rise from our massing of body heat.

A limousine pulled up and Gainsbourg got out with an entourage. She made her way through the crowd quickly before stepping onto a stage with some local dignitary or other (All I really knew was that the man she was with wasn’t French President Nicolas Sarkozy).

There was a quick speech that was too fast for my learner’s French to understand, and then Gainsbourg flipped a switch.

Trees that line the Champs Elysées had earlier been strung with lights, and all at once they flashed on. The boom of air canons being fired made me look to where confetti now fell, and Christmas music began playing over loudspeakers as the assembled press and onlookers clapped and cheered.

Gainsbourg hopped off the stage, shook a hand or two and then hustled back into the limousine.

Now that Paris was officially celebrating the holiday, I took a walk around the city to check out some of the other Christmas lights that the City of Light had to offer.

Some of the stores on the Champs Elysées, were turning on their lights, and I headed in the direction of Boulevard Haussmann to check out the Grands Magasins – the department stores of Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps.

The world-class shopping destinations didn’t disappoint, as the entire façade of Galeries Lafayette was alight with a constantly changing light show.

Inside the massive department store, a Christmas tree took up a significant portion of the circular entryway, and I found myself wondering if it had been designed with that in mind.

Au Printemps was more muted, but Christmas decorations hung from the sidewalk overhangs, and the storefront was lit with a flickering Christmas display.

I smelled something unusual and realized that a man actually had chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Something I had heard being sung for my entire life had never before had any real resonance for me, and now, standing in Paris at Christmastime, a classic American Christmas carol finally matched a smell.

The Aqueduct of Segovia – Roman engineering in small-town Spain

Tags

, , , ,

The Roman Empire’s influence is all over Spain, and nowhere is it more fantastic than in Segovia, a small town not far from Madrid.

Segovia has a castle that served as the model for Disney, an impressive church and a great small-town feel, but it’s the Roman aqueduct that made it a must-see stop on my trip through Spain with my sister.

It’s one of the best-preserved aqueducts in the world, and while 36 of its arches were damaged during a Moorish attack in 1072, they were restored in the 1400s, so it looks much today as it did when it was built.

Its exact build date is unknown but, according to the Spanish tourism website, it’s estimated to have been constructed in the first century.

I’d seen pictures of the aqueduct before going, of course, but like so many of the world’s other marvels, pictures didn’t do the structure justice.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and our hotel was a short jaunt from the aqueduct, so we had to head toward it past the cathedral.

As we got close, the street broadened, and the aqueduct appeared, spanning the ground between two hills, more than 28 meters tall.

My sister and I stopped for a moment and just stared. Restaurants and cafes took up the ground floors of the buildings leading up to it, and tourists and locals milled about under its arches.

Drawn to it, we dragged our suitcases over the roadway as we approached, the stones seeming to glow a golden hue in the late summer sun.

After we checked in to our hotel and dropped off our bags, we went to dinner, strolling along the length of the aqueduct as we did so. Staring up as we passed under the arches, it was amazing to me to see that it was built without mortar.

Each stone had been so precisely cut that in 2,000 years, the structure – whose sole purpose was to carry water almost 15 kilometers – survived the ravages of warfare and erosion, and it didn’t succumb to anything like an earthquake, people thieving the stones or any of the other problems that have turned so many ancient structures to dust.

After dinner – and a stop for a beer in a local pub – we found ourselves back at the aqueduct, which was well-lit. In Roman times, it would have probably been just another dark area, but it’s now one of the major reasons people visit Segovia, along with the cathedral and the alcazar – the castle that inspired Walt Disney.

The next day there was a car show under the aqueduct. It struck me as funny that signs touted the display of old cars. Cars that were made in the past 100 years seemed like infants compared to the engineering wonder the Romans built so long ago.

And that brought me to a thought I’ve had so many times when I’ve visited a roman site, be it Pompeii, the Roman Forum, or even the Arenes de Lutece in Paris: Will anything built in my lifetime withstand the test of time and display the same classic elegance as the Roman structures? Or will they, like the exact origins of the aqueduct at Segovia, be lost to the sands of time?

Predjama Grad: Slovenia’s castle in a cave

Tags

, , , , ,

Predjama Castle in the Karst region of Slovenia is a unique fortress – it’s a castle in a cave. It’s one of the many awesome sights in Slovenia, and it’s something I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Work on the castle began in the 1100s, and it got its current look in 1583 when Count Ivan Kobenzl added the entrance tower. It’s the best-preserved cave castle in the Julian Alps, and it’s only 10 km from the world-famous Postojna caves.

Unlike later castles, which were built for status and opulence as palaces, Predjama is a castle built for warfare. Approaching the castle, I was confronted with an imposing defensive wall. The two major parts of the wall face the approach, and it would give defenders a great opportunity to fire concentrated arrow volleys at any attackers.

Of course Predjama Castle – Predjama Grad in Slovenian – no longer serves as a fortification and is relegated to a historical attraction with a yearly medieval fair, the Erasmus Tournament. Its most recent owners used it as a hunting lodge before it became a tourist site.

The Erasmus tournament is named after the 15th century robber baron Erazem of Predjama. The tourist pamphlet describes his rebellious life and his use of Predjama Grad as a fortification that was not taken by force.

After running afoul of the Habsburg empire, he was besieged for a year and a day, in which he confounded the attackers by continually lobbing cherries in their direction.

A secret tunnel was allowing him to leave the castle to get more supplies, but it was the treachery of a servant who let the attackers know when Erazem was using the toilet that led to his downfall. The besiegers fired a cannonball, which killed Erazem as he answered nature’s call.

Despite its status as a relic, the castle is in remarkable shape, and it was definitely worth a visit. Walking across the drawbridge was fun in itself, since most drawbridges in castles that can be explored today are fixed – this one still appears functional.

Inside, the castle is decorated and furnished, though it doesn’t feel like it’s all that authentic. Looking at it from the perspective of a medieval historian, it probably doesn’t measure up. But the furnishings really give visitors a feel for how life in a castle would be, and I thought it was a nice touch. Cavernous rooms in other unfurnished castles only tell half the story.

Being built in a cave, the castle has unique architecture. The cave is nowhere as deep as the massive Postojna, where visitors take an electric train several kilometers underground, but it’s substantial.

Entering the castle, I walked through the entryway and then took stairs upward. The stairs generally head upward, following the slope of the cave. That’s good defensive architecture, because any attackers able to breach the main door would have only one entry point, and the defenders would always have the high ground.

The initial rooms were small, but progressing through the building, it opened up. The guidebook I had (Rick Steeves’ Slovenia and Croatia), advised skipping it.

I disagree with skipping it. Simply put, castles are cool, and I feel compelled to go into as many as I can. But also, the entry fee is reasonable, and looking at the way medieval engineers incorporated the natural landscape into their architecture is worth it.

I also think it’s nice, coming from an American perspective, to see castles in places far from Germany, France and the United Kingdom – the places I generally learned about when studying history in the United States.

There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the view from the castle. Yes, it’s good, and you can see quite a distance in the beautiful countryside, but if you’ve gotten to the castle, you’ve already had similar views.

Predjama Castle is best accessed by car, and there was ample parking when I was there in late September. Parking might be more difficult during the high tourist season – especially during the medieval festivals – but I think using a car is the best way to see the Karst region. Biking would be good as well, and the ride from Postojna would take you over generally mild foothills terrain.

‘Paris, Paris’ book review

Tags

, , ,

David Downie’s “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” did something that few books on Paris have managed to do: Given an entirely new approach to the city – one in which I lived – while still recalling all the classics that were the reasons I moved there in the first place.

The book is divided into three parts, and each part is composed of essays taking up only a few pages. It makes for an easy read, and they can be read in any order.

“Paris Places” is the first part, and it, to me, was probably the least inspiring point of the book. I enjoyed reading Downie’s take on the physical aspect of the city, from a walk along the banks of the Seine to time in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, but it felt like other books I’ve read.

That’s not to say the first part was boring. Far from it. And to be honest, the essays about Les Halles and the recent construction dilemma with regard to restoring versus bulldozing and building anew, were excellent. Those two in particular gave me an insight into the recent history of the city, and why things are the way they are – and how glad I am that some politicians didn’t get to leave the imprints they wanted to on the city.

Where the book truly shone was in the second part, “Paris People.” And I hadn’t expected that. Brief biographies of people such as Coco Chanel, Picasso and Modigliani were just what I wanted. They gave a snapshot of the lives of people who truly embody what it is to be Parisian, and I didn’t have to wade through hundreds of pages. They’re great primers on some of the famous people who’ve lived in the city, and they’re enough to give a basic understanding.

My favorite parts were the ones about Parisians in general. One essay details the lives of the Paris “boat people.” Anyone who visits the city sees boats traversing the Seine. They’re not all tourist-laden bateaux mouches, and many of them actually carry goods. Downie describes their plight with the authority that only someone who has lived in the city and worked as a journalist can. He shows how the boat people are possibly a dying breed, navigating France’s waterways on boats more than 50 years old while trains and vehicles take the cargo they once depended on.

Another set of people I truly enjoyed reading about were the Paris artisans – the men and women who specialize in some obscure craft and still produce something better-made and longer-lasting than modern technology and machinery can. Paris is full of independent artisans, and Downie describes in an easy-to-read way the system that makes that possible.

The third part of the book is called “Paris Phenomena,” and it hits on all the things that make Paris what it is. From the vibrant cafe scene to the sometimes-overgrown tombstones in cemeteries, reading the last third of the book evokes Paris as few books do.

I was fascinated to find myself actually engrossed in the piece about cobblestones – from their evolution as a ubiquitous paving material to the role they played in making barricades during revolutions. They were then paved over by the government and now they’re enjoying a renaissance in which they, merely by their presence, increase the value of surrounding real estate. I assumed it would be a skippable chapter, but like the rest of the book, it held my attention and made me want to know more.

One thing did annoy me as a reader. I felt that Downie was repetitive on a few points. I must have read three or four times how his office used to be close to Père Lachaise, and he enjoyed walking through the cemetery daily. I also rolled my eyes by the time I’d read about Baron Haussmann’s facelift of the city for what seemed like the fifth time – briefly explained in each essay in which it’s relevant.

But those were minor, and the organization of the book as a collection of essays makes that a byproduct, though one I would have preferred to see taken care of in the editing process. It does, however, leave the reader free to skip around in the book and not get lost.

The photos by Alison Harris bear mentioning, and they start each chapter, along with a quote. They didn’t capture my attention as the writing did, but they added to the book.

Overall, I felt that “Paris, Paris” was an excellent book that can be enjoyed by those who have never been as much as by those who have. As someone who is a confirmed francophile and once had the joy of calling Paris home, if only briefly, I found that it taught me new things about a city I haven’t stopped studying, and it provided evocative reflections on Paris, triggering memories I cherish.

————————————–

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, by David Downie. Published by Broadway in 2005, 2011. 303 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-88608-8.

The Parisian Pastry Parade: A few of my favorite French patisserie offerings

Tags

, , ,

French pastries draw people to France in droves. They’re often imitated in other countries, and whether it be a Napoleon, crème brûlée, macarons or any of a hundred others, no trip to the City of Light is complete without an unhealthy dose of pastries.

When I lived in Paris in 2009, I had a problem, however – money. I lived in one of the world’s culinary capitals, but I had quit my job to join a study abroad program, and I couldn’t sample that every day. In fact, most days I ate Carrefour-brand pasta with cheap sauce and steamed broccoli.

My mother, always a fan of pastries, asked me one day why I wasn’t eating more of them. I told her I was trying to be smart about my money, and that my savings was only worth two-thirds of what it was, due to the euro being worth $1.50.

So my mom put $50 in my account and told me it had to go toward pastries. Did I mention that my parents rock?

That day, I walked from my 13th arrondissement apartment down the street toward Butte aux Cailles, passing my laundromat, a bar called Sputnik and a few other places I’d come to frequent.

I found a small patisserie, and it was packed. The area is not touristy, and it was mostly locals inside, so I scoped out the pastry case and selected a fraisier: white cake topped with crème brûlée. Strawberries inside the crème brûlée were complemented with a sliced strawberry and kiwi on top.The fraisier was excellent. The cake was moist, and it paired well with some fruit I had at home.

A few days later, I was walking around and came across another artisan patisserie with a line out the door. Not knowing what a caracas was, I bought it, they wrapped it up, and I took it to a nearby park bench to enjoy. Few things are as enjoyable as sitting in a park in Paris eating a pastry.

The caracas was chocolate mousse topped with dark chocolate and peanuts. Inside were peanuts mixed with caramel on a pie crust. It was a great salty-sweet combination that hit the spot.

While I tried to go to local spots as much as possible, I did grab some macarons at the Paul pastry shop near my apartment from time to time.

I still think Ladurée makes the best ones, but Paul’s are excellent, too. Macarons are almond meringue cookies that sandwich ganache, jam or icing. In the photo above, the one on the left is vanilla, and the one on the right is pistachio. My favorite flavor, though, is probably orange blossom, which Ladurée tends to have most of the time.

Back in the mood for something more exotic – these days, even McDonald’s locations in Europe sell macarons – I found an artisan patisserie near my friends’ apartment in the 10th arrondissement.

And there I discovered the forêt noire – the black forest.

The pastry is shaved dark chocolate on top of chocolate mousse. Under that is a thin crust topping black cherries in whipped cream on a pie crust base. The top is dusted in powdered sugar, and it was rich, chocolaty and awesome.

While many of the desserts I’d tried were overly complicated, I decided I also wanted something a bit more simple. Walking through the 20th arrondissement – defintely not touristy – I found a small pastry shop and picked up a gateau Basque: a Basque cake (Basque being the semi-autonomous region in Northern Spain and Southern France along the Atlantic).

It was nothing fancy, but it was soft, sugary and tasty.

No selection of European pastries would be complete without something involving Nutella, the chocolate/hazelnut spread that is growing in popularity in the United States.

I picked up a beignet au Nutella, which is similar to a glazed donut filled with Nutella.

Not someone who is huge into pies, I still like them, and I decided I should add one to the experience, so I bought a tartelette aux framboises – a small raspberry tart.

The crust was a little tough, but the raspberries and the filling were fresh, and at about 3 inches in diameter, it was the perfect size.

Eating the pastries – and walking through numerous Parisian neighborhoods on my quest to discover good pastry shops – had satisfied my sweet tooth. And as much as French food is excellent, traveling abroad often leaves me craving some of the flavors of home.

In general, I miss Mexican food the most, but every once in a while when I was living in France, I’d shamefully leave my apartment, take the elevator to the ground floor and go to one of the American icons the French have so wholeheartedly embraced, and I’d commit culinary sin.

Italian for dinner: A night in Trieste

Tags

, , , , ,

Trieste seen from the jetty.

Trieste is a city that long captivated my imagination: Just miles from the former Yugoslavia (present-day Slovenia), the Italian city was a crossing ground for spies during the Cold War.

I was traveling through Slovenia with my parents in 2011, and I made sure we at least set foot in the city, as it was only 20 minutes by car from our hotel.

We drove in and parked with no problems and then headed to the waterfront. It was too late to go to any museums, but then, Trieste doesn’t rate high on that scale in any case, and I was more interested in doing as the locals do.

We joined a host of people walking on the waterfront promenade, perusing an outdoor market and popping into shops.During the Cold War, Yugoslavs were able to go shopping in the West, and Trieste was a popular destination for its proximity. After buying items not available in the Soviet Bloc – chiefly jeans – Yugoslavs would go to Prague or Budapest, whose citizens had far more restrictive travel laws, and sell the items at a huge profit. Since the money could only be spent in Czechoslovakia or Hungary, respectively, otherwise-poor Yugoslavs would blow their newfound wealth on five-star hotels and caviar dinners before returning to Yugoslavia.

Ah, the bad old days.

Fortunately, that’s in the past, and I was able to pass through the borders without even flashing my passport.

We walked to the end of a jetty as the sun set over the water. Though it’s in eastern Italy, Trieste is on the part of the country that hooks around onto the rest of the continent, so the waterfront is actually to the west.

It was too early for dinner, so we wandered through the city, past stately buildings and down narrow streets. One of the great traditions in Italy is the evening walk, and it’s something I wholeheartedly wish we did more in the United States.

Everyone was out, from groups of teenagers in leather jackets to the elderly, families with dogs and lovers holding hands.

We sat at a bar with tables set outside in a pedestrian street and had a beer while watching the evening pass.

Deciding it was time to eat, we strolled past a picturesque canal with boats lying at anchor toward a row of restaurants all facing the waterfront. Like any oceanside area, many of the restaurants are overpriced, and there’s probably some great local spot just a few blocks inland.

That night, however, we wanted the ambiance of the ocean and outdoor seating, and the food where we ended up stopping looked fantastic.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara and lasagna came out with some fantastic bread. The late-September night was perfect for being outdoors.

When my mom wanted more bread, she hailed the server and asked for “a piece of bread,” which he didn’t seem to understand despite his good English. She repeated it a few times, he frowned, and then his face lit up. He scribbled something on his notepad and darted off.

“You’re not getting a piece of bread,” I said, and my dad agreed, wondering what would come out.

Several minutes later, the server returned, a triumphant grin on his face. In his hands was a pizza tray. He set it down, and we saw it was pizza, sans toppings, but it had been brushed with a mixture of garlic and butter.

“Piece of bread” had been understood as “pizza bread,” and he did as he thought we’d asked. And he only charged us €2.30 for a side of focaccia. Of course we ate the whole thing and wished we’d had more.

It was getting late, and we had to head to Piran, Slovenia, the next day, so we found our way back to the car.