Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Art of the Promenade

And then there was one...anyone recall that novel?

This forced downtime isn’t all bad.  The solitude has allowed us to put together a plan for the next few weeks, fill our bellies with greasy eggs and muesli, and identify suitable day excursions that aren’t taxing to body or wallet.  Yesterday wasn’t an exhaustive effort by any means.  A 16:30 departure into Sorrento for 3 hours meant we had time to nap and squeeze in a swim before our nightly 3 hour wander in search of non-resort food.  Gelato too of course.

Wandering and dawdling are two words that seem to be typical of the tourists.  Aimless, slow, no apparent direction as they bump into you while backing away from a rack of scarves or porcelain figurines.  Here in Sorrento, it’s not the tourists that are sauntering though.  I know we saw this last year in La Spezia, but here we have the nightly promenade of what appears to be everyone…slowly taking over the main thoroughfare to the point of eliminating vehicular traffic.  We are talking thousands of people, starting from about 5PM until…we don’t know.  The only ones not on the streets are shopkeepers, who are using this time to pitch their wares to those that they know will be there to support them when the tourist dollars disappear.

There are a few of you zombie fans watching The Walking Dead (great show by the way).  These Italian speaking ‘undead’ push strollers, greet each other loudly with cheek kisses and hugs, and seem to have a general lack of consideration for any passersby around them.  A flock of 8 may stop on a sidewalk to chat, forcing mothers with newborn filled strollers into the street just to get around.  Little bambinos will ride their bikes alongside scooters and cars zipping by at speeds that seem all too quick.  I am sure we’re just conditioned to be a bit more cautious, but yikes.

This isn't a riot. No Occupy event here...just a regular Sunday night

So, promenading is a nightly thing here, and a good practice as well.  It gets everyone out of the house, encourages less boob tube time and more face to face interaction instead of facebooking your evening away.  We passed a small group of boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, playing an impromptu game of football in a plaza, with benches and poles outlining the boundaries for scoring.  Cheers, high fives, and your typical soccer celebrations upon scoring…great to see there were no video games in the hands of these kids.

More interestingly though, bus drivers down at the port that were engaged in what appeared to be some invented game to pass the time.  A game that consisted of dragging a broken gate into the middle of a relatively crowed parking lot, then lightly drop kicking what looked like a basketball over the gate into the other team’s ‘court’.  A single bounce on the ground followed up with a mandatory first strike of the ball with your head in order to put the ball back over the gate for the opposition to return in a similar manner.  Maybe volleyball-like, maybe a little like table tennis, maybe it was just to piss off the owners of the cars when they came back to find these little dents and scratches in the hood from that ball.  Obviously I wanted to get in there and play too, but dinner and our scheduled ride back still had to be completed in a timely fashion.

Another smoke-free restaurant, another early return to the hotel.  Another surprise appearance with Melanie doing a few jazz standards with the house lounge act…but we’ll save that for another article.

Planning the Sorrentina Escape

Only one way in, and one way out. You guessed it...at the top of the bluff.

Well, this is different.  I feel as if I should be plotting my way out of this resort.

After 4 weeks of shuffling from city to city, bustling action and the freedoms typical of vacationing, we are now settled for the next 6 nights in an old quarry.  This isn’t your usually quarry though, in that it’s in Italy, has a significant amount of sun and blue sky.  Birds cheerfully sing somewhere, although I could be mistaken and the hotel might be playing such sounds from carefully concealed speakers.  We have a small stretch of beach, not white and sandy, but bordering on the Golfo di Napoli…and a hot tub bound to be frequented by the handful of French Canadians also staying here.  Too bad it wasn’t actually hot.

It’s the off season, and by off…they really mean off.  Hotels we passed on the way here have whole sections, divisions, shut down now.  The streets are bustling, but a small population of 20,000 that swells to 100,000 plus…then back down to it’s usual few must be satisfied with the tourist dollars that have been brought in to date.  The streets of Sorrento still seem to be full though, and the thought of mulitplying these numbers by 5 or 10 must shut the city down for any kind of vehicle traffic.  The narrow streets with little leather shops, chachkas, glasswork and limoncello certainly must be bursting at the seams come July and August.

I was saying to Melanie how where we are now, at this near empty, this seems to be the complete antithesis to Prague.  When we caught our ride to the airport yesterday morning at 4AM, the driver was apologizing for his lateness due to discos letting out at that point, thereby blocking up traffic.  4, 5, maybe 6AM…or whenever the establishment has run out of places to stash those Czech crown exchanged for shots of that mint Listerine-coloured elixir, that’s when they’ll kick everyone out and prepare for a new day.  the club on the corner decided 4am was a good time for just that.

This was a brief quiet moment on the street. A gang of strollers was coming up behind us.

Our location was amidst three hostels, and that Friday night eased into Saturday morning for many a young backpacker.  In some cases it wasn’t an easy transition with bodies laying in the streets…too intoxicated to continue.  Oh to be young and foolish again…I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  The young part of course, but definitely not the inexperience.  I read a recent story on the developments in reversing the aging process on stem cells.  This isn’t the forum for such a discussion, but it does make me wonder what we could do without aching joints, dietary constraints, or fewer confidence issues related to the pounds packed on during those years of desk servitude.

Now, we are in near isolation.  About 15 minutes from town via shuttle that needs to be booked in advance.  Wifi is only available in the lobby, making short term plans and hours of Facebook time a little cramped.  Maybe we can relax for a few days, unwind in the solitude.  Watch some interesting Italian daytime soaps and nightly gameshows, while constantly trying to figure out just what might be happening.  Besides, I now seem to have a sore throat that has cropped up which needs to be nursed.  Have you ever tried easing the ache of a sore throat with Limoncello?  Highly recommended, only wish I bought a litre of the stuff.

Czech food is tasty!! Pork Knee?

After our lackluster adventures in German and Austrian cuisine, we have finally found some flavour.  That flavour isn’t in the form of sausages or dollops of mustard either.  We have finally discovered tasty, tasty food.

To eat or not to eat....I say EAT!!

Granted there are heaps of garlic and onion cooked into everything that do add to the flavour.  Unlike my typical lunchtime adventures though that would have Melanie questioning just what I may have ingested over the course of a day to have such rotten breath…she too must partake in the tasty food making us both intolerable to the rest of the non-allium (onion genus) consuming public.  Who cares?

Every foray into a restaurant doorway is to qualify the air quality to check to acceptably low levels of tobacco smoke in the air.  Upon finding a clean, relatively smoke free eatery with interesting decor and prices that don’t have that tourist multiplier…we’ll settle down to try something new and hopefully delectable.  Last night was by far the best, and this morning my belly is still full.  The only pic we have is of the salad, and that is because we just couldn’t wait to dive into the chicken roulade or broad noodle pasta.  And after realizing the semolina pudding we ordered for dessert was really just a bowl of cream o’ wheat…additional pics weren’t really required.

The presentation may not be much...but the food is oh so very tasty...

So that was last night.  Over the last few days the meals may not have looked all that appetizing, but wow…tastebud rollercoaster.  I haven’t been a typical sauerkraut fan.  Sure I might try it occasionally on a hotdog at a hockey game just to reaquaint myself with it’s vinegary crunch, but now I must say the Czech sauerkraut is an absolute win for me.  Heap it onto everything!  I would eat it for breakfast.  An essential condiment for maybe even pizza…OK, maybe not pizza…but you get the drift.  I actually checked out a recipe for Czech sauerkraut just to not only recommend it…but maybe I’ll even try whipping a little of this up at home.

The street food looks great as well, and today will be the day for testing the pork on a spit…slowly cooked over a mobile wood-fueled campfire.  Research suggests that this is ‘Old Prague Ham’ and based on the number of patrons clustered around free-standing tables with hunks of this meat on buns and beer or mulled wine in hand…it is definitely worth attempting.

If the translation isn't sufficient, these Ikea-inspired instructions are available to assemble your meal

Yesterday we tried the crepe booth right next to this Prague ham setup.  The surly service, overpriced, and unappetizing product explained the lack of business.  They were more people clustered around the fried cheese sandwich booth, and we know it’s not for a lack of acceptance of French cuisine due to the number of quiche-serving bakeries nearby.

Finally, there is pork-knee.  Maybe with a little coaching from one of my fried chicken-foot loving friends I could get a minor education in both what to expect from ordering a meal centered around the leg joint of one of my childhood pets, but I just can’t quite go there on my own.  I’ll remember this pic though as a signal of what to look for during that next Prague visit.

How to: Vacation Apartment Rentals

Sometimes a little surprising what you get

So you’re thinking of renting an apartment, townhouse, villa, or hut on the beach instead of doing the usual hotel thing for your next vacation.  The question is where to start and how to do it.  I won’t say we’re experts by any means.  We have ventured out of the comfort zone that Expedia, Travelocity or Priceline might offer though.  An apartment is a great way to stay in a place that is out of the typical hotel district, and maybe something a little more realistic of how the locals might live.  We have found fewer vagrants huddled in the streets, locals bars full of life, chatty grocers, and the best bakeries making the experience much more unique and memorable.

We have done craigslist.  Sure there is always the possibility of being scammed, but realize that for the most part people are good.  If you live in constant fear that when you arrive the accommodation you thought you arranged isn’t actually there… you can always resort to a hotel as a back up plan.

In Montreal, we rented a great little flat for about 40% of a typical hotel.  The guy that lived there was a student from UVic that needed a few extra bucks.  He simply packed a few things and moved to his brother’s apartment a few doors away.  It was interesting, drawers were full of clothes, condiments were still in the fridge, change was still in a jar by the bed.  It was as if this guy completely trusted a total stranger to stay in his place for three nights.  It was a great little walkup brownstone-type building in a neighbourhood off a park with fresh crepes and lattes only 20 steps from the front door.  You definitely don’t get that in the downtown, commercial districts.

Craigslist also worked out well in NYC, where a lady who splits her time between London and NYC decided some time ago to have her father rent out the place while she was gone.  The proceeds from the apartment rental went towards the charity her father managed from the first floor of the building.  Now, these types of reservations may be a little hit and miss.  Pics of places can be a little misleading, sometimes in a good way…sometimes in a bad way.  There are never any reviews either, and considering anybody could do it…I guess whoever has keys to our place while we’re away may also be renting it out while we’re away for beer money.  Let’s hope that’s not the case as I hate scrubbing other people’s filth.

Imagine waking up to this each day?

We were in Bermuda back in May, and for that stay we found a place through vrbo.com.  One week in a place with few hotel options made a vacation rental near essential.  Of the few places noted, we decided to splurge a little and go for a three unit vacation villa rental where the owner resided on the top floor.  Reviews were great and the owner was responsive and cooperative… but as a buyer there always has to be a little hesitation.  Apparently that hesitation was not required as a driver was there to pick us up from the airport, even with a delayed flight, and everything was included in the rental…all the way down to a loaf of bread, jam and some milk to get us started.  Complimentary kayaks down at his little dock as well… sorry, I don’t seem to have any pics of the inside of this place…but what does that matter when you have a view like this.

Quaint, balcony and great views...but those nighttime kitchen bugs were offputting

For this trip, we have been using vrbo.com and homeaway.com.  Both sites have a wide variety of accommodations and do some vetting of the entrepreneurs advertising their places (of course that vetting may be just extraction of an annual fee, but it’s something to qualify these people as real).  Each site also makes it easy to search out an area, check photos of places, and reviews from previous clientele.  Reviews seem to be the only real source of information from the web these days, but as with any movie I have been told that I must see, and have been greatly disappointed with…everyone has an opinion and it definitely isn’t yours.

When was the last time you mentioned to anyone the hotel you stayed at?  How eager the concierge was? What was the star rating was on the hotel?  For the most part, people don’t really care about those stories, and if they do…it’s a short conversation.  I could say that with our Paris apartment, it was all an adventure.  Emailing a deposit to the guy, coordinating collection of the key (secretly duct taped to the underside of the doormat).  Discovering no elevator on arrival, and 111 steps needed to be ascended with two overstuffed suitcases. Finally, meeting the owner for a final cash payment.  It turns out the guy is just a prof at a local university who has written some whitepapers on coding and how to write apps for the iPhone.  Decorating style and cleanliness were not big strong points.

So new and clean...a welcome sight for a week

Munich required standing in the rain for 20 minutes waiting for the guy to arrive, let us into the building and do the key exchange.  Once again, cash in hand to complete the transaction…but we had a stunning apartment all renovated in the last month.  So new the Ikea barcodes were still stck to the bottoms of the dishes.  Not all was simple though with the lack of a shower door soaking the entire bathroom every time you rinsed off the grime from a day wandering around town.  No bio on the guy, but he was there promptly to deliver any requested items, and was also the cleaning staff when we left the apartment on the final day.  A nice experience.

Vienna was arranged relatively last minute, with only a few days notice.  Another cash transaction this time with no deposit required to even secure the room.  Local hotels in the same area were going for 200+ euro/night and we worked out an 80/night deal.  Upon arrival, we had a brand new european bathroom on the third floor of an amazingly located building, and a storage bed with a fabric dating back at least three decades.  The room was topped off with a chandelier over the bed!  When was the last time you woke up thinking you were about to be served for dinner?

Bigger than our place at home! Clean! Awesome!

Finally, Prague.  A few apartments found through homeaway.com, which were managed by Prague City Apartments.  I haven’t specifically listed the individual vendors above, but feel I must put together a specific shout-out for these guys.  Unlike the typical property managers, these guys were always very quick to respond, had updated calendars, and offered several other services such as train or airport transfers for local rates.  Prices that were a fraction of hotels, in locations you couldn’t beat.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, as everything seemed too good to be true.  A price only 40% of nearby hotels.  Excellent reviews from previous customers.  A location only 5 minutes walk from the Old Town Square.  All I can say is the company really knows what they’re doing and customer service is number one here.  Something we haven’t seen in previous rentals is a maid service…here we have our towels also changed daily.  Unprecedented!  Even the dishes from breakfast are cleaned on a daily basis.

So, this article may be a little long, but is intended to share a little of our varied experience while renting.  If you’re a newbie and scared to try it…maybe this will be that push you need.  Give it a shot and you may be nicely surprised.

Poop on the sidewalk and bubbles in the park

This sidewalk is clear!

Maybe I am just a little conservative, but the polite citizens of Vancouver are certain to make sure any droppings their pets may leave are usually scooped up…and definitely not on the sidewalk.  Over the last 15 years in Vancouver of strolling those streets, I could probably count the total number of times seeing poop smeared into the sidewalk on just one hand.

These beautiful, hand assembled cobbled streets though seem to be a minefield at times.  You could be walking down the street focussed on the architecture and statues only to suddenly find yourself slipping on the greasy excretion of a purse mutt.  We have been lucky thus far, and by writing this I am sure my luck has run out.  Fingers do continue to be crossed though that we can make it a few more days ‘feces-free’.

Reminds me of a Batman movie. The spotlights are sure to reveal him.

The cobbles and paving stones are really quite impressive.  To most, these would just be a sidewalk…something hard to shed the rain from the storefronts to minimize the amount of mud accumulation on 6 inch leopard print knee high boots.  Each stretch of sidewalk has a slightly different pattern, stones cut to fit around corners, drainpipes, those sloped curbs for stroller and wheelchair access.  These must be specialists they bring in just to clean up the job after digging up the sidewalk.  Artistry rarely noticed with timeworn street pebbles.  What I really am saying is how to I smuggle a few of these out of the country in my luggage without tipping the scales at check-in?  In addition, who punishes the kid who keeps throwing these prized cubes of marble over the railing into the Vltava?

So my fascination has been with the cobbles, only really noticed out of self-preservation of poo-free footwear.  Melanie’s has been with the pretty rooftops.  I guess time and the influence of various cultures will do just that to a city.  Turquoise copper patina, rust red, black oxide, ceramic tiles…no tar and gravel, or flat roofs here.

It's the simple things in life...I should be that kid!

Our daily wanderings also happened upon a solar powered bubble machine.  An artist/sculptor has just recently completed the installation, the Bubble Stroj, at Karlovo Namesti (for us english speakers, Charles Park) as part of a revitalization project for the park.  No idea what may have happened in this park in years past, but how can you ever go wrong with the addition of bubbles.

Of course now Melanie’s wish list for me to complete now includes building some cannon defended castle or fort, with lots of towers and stone spiral staircases.  A grandiose bubble machine, also solar powered, needs to be integrated into the complex to continually fill the bronze-statued compound with soapy spheres on sunny days.  Oh, yeah I forgot the clock…astronomical of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way.  Maybe I’ll be able to hide a cotton candy machine in the walls somewhere too.

Where to? Your call. Polling the limited audience…

Can you speak a little louder please? I can't quite make it out

I can see there aren’t many readers, but a little feedback is always appreciated and could be accomplished with a simple poll.

This is our first crack at a poll.  We’re still not likely to bow to peer pressure, but we can be swayed.  Have a look below and if none of the answers below reflect your personal preference…the option is there to write in your own suggestion.

French, maybe a B- and German, a definitive F

Where does the schnitzel come into play here?

Let’s call it a massive fail in German.  After two weeks of being exposed to nothing but German text on signs, menus, and Google search results…our vocabulary consists of a total of about 20 words.  We can now count to two (Melanie is good for up to one, and that’s if you don’t count zero).  Yes, is definitely confirmed to be ‘Ja’, and we haven’t figured out the correct pronunciation of ‘no’ just yet.  Pumpkin has been confirmed to be ‘Kurdis’, and I am sure that will continue to be useful for the remainder of our trip.  And can any non-german speaker explain the random capitalizing of words in a sentence?

We can find our way to the entrance and exit of places.  First it was trial and error, but we were able to piece a few things together based on the direction of people traffic.  Same goes for the roads with ‘einfarht’ clearly indicating ‘one-way’, but still no clue on if pedestrians have any right-of-way when crossing.  We know that isn’t the case on bike paths as we have seen many a biker verbally accost dawdling tourists, and we too have been subjected to a barrage of angry bike bell ringing.  Is there a ‘move-the-hell-out-of-the-way’ setting that I haven’t yet found on that little alerting device?

And we actually stood a good chance of picking up some German.  How many people have mentioned the similarity between German and English?  Soup, carrot, and tomato are easy to pick up, but when they are blended together into a single word about 80 characters long, it’s like one of those newspaper word jumbles.  We had enough people coming up to us to ask for directions…so we must have looked like we belonged there and knew where we were going.  It’s also a little disappointing that by defaulting to an Italian restaurant, we always know we can read the menu…even if in Italian.  The confusing part is which language to thank the staff in.

So, considering the complete lack of grasping the German language…what kind of lingual hell are we in for next with Czech?  I just saw an accent over an ‘r’ on a railway sign and can’t begin to imagine what that might indicate.  Are you supposed to roll that ‘r’, maybe a little less than in the Tim Horton’s Rrroll up the Rim commercials.  Is it actually a ‘j’ sound…just to really mess with you?  Quick checks on the greeting essentials, plus those basic numbers also looks a little daunting without any kind of audio.

Due to our lack of german, this was hilarious the first 3 times we saw it.

Of course, we could always just force our way through by demanding English of everyone, but we’re Canadians and too damn polite.  Making a minor effort is possible, so let’s see where a week takes us.  Plus, if we’re thinking of Crete still as a possibility…Greek might be even more of a challenge.  Certainly those years as a bartender in a Greek restaurant, listening to the family flight in their native tongue must have sunk in a little.  Maybe we just need to spend a little time finding a similarly hot-tempered family run establishment to kickstart the learning process.

I am guessing this week will be cuisines of India, more Italy, and croissants if we can find a bakery that bakes up items we can vaguely recognize.  Melanie was elegantly surprised with the Nougat Struckl I snagged earlier today though.  A bit of a surprise for both of us as it’s another baked goody that Nutella has been carefully hidden inside.  Boston Creme, you are dead to me.