A Visit to Belfast, Ireland

I booked tickets for Belfast, Ireland about 2 months ago. My mind was saying Dublin while my eyes were seeing really cheap tickets to Belfast. Somehow the two didn’t fully connect until after my credit card had been charged for a weekend in Belfast. I was left thinking “So… I’m going to Belfast, that should be interesting”.

I’m enjoying my whirlwind trips around Europe. Each is giving me context for what I thought I knew about a region. Belfast, is certainly a city that needs some context to understand. As a non-Irish American, my concept of Belfast was borne from news reports of the IRA and subsequent peace accord. I thought I’d be visiting a city torn apart by the “Troubles”, looking more like Athens, with its empty destroyed buildings, than London.

Belfast actually resonated with my experiences growing up in California. Belfast is exactly the same, though totally different than Southern California. In particular:

Similarity Belfast Southern California
Neighborhood vs. neighborhood violence and tensions Catholics vs. Protestants Bloods vs. Crips
Social and Political Murals as a tourist attraction Murals on houses about the “Troubles” Barrio Park murals depicting Latino pride and history
Working class neighborhood destroyed by freeway construction Sailor Town Little Italy
Icons of the troubled era now mainstream Gerry Adams Ice Cube, Ice-T
Cheap takeout food on every corner Fish and Chips Taco Shop

The Food

I really didn’t have much hope for the food in Belfast. Let’s face it, fish and chips, pub grub, and boiled meats are what they are best known for. The only thing I wanted to try was real Irish Soda Bread. The rest of the meals would be… interesting.

I had probably the worst meal of the year in a neighborhood outside Belfast. I should re-phrase that. I had the worst meal of the year that I actually finished. Finished while licking my fingers to appreciate the utter horror of a meal I was… savoring?
Gourmet Belfast food
I was on a bus going who knows where when I decided to get off at the next stop that had shops. I found a Fish and Chips stand that surprisingly had a veggie burger. I also decided to try the exotic sounding “Curry Chips”. Oh what a treasure was in store for me. I wish I could have photographed it, but I had to eat it on the street, in the freezing wind while waiting for the next bus.

The veggie burger looked good and I was really looking forward to it. I haven’t had one in a while. The first few bites were good, but I couldn’t place the patty. Finally I realized the veggie patty was a hash brown. Still, this wasn’t too bad, just a bit less than stellar.

The piece de la resistance was the heaping order of curry fries. Oh my what have I gotten myself into. Imagine big chunky fries, cooked but not crisp, with an otherworldly yellow tint. Now cover these with a “curry gravy”. I don’t know where they came up with this sauce. It was like water, corn starch, and curry powder, only greasier and with even less taste. No, that sounds too culinary. Think of a cross between curry and naval jelly. That would be more like it.

But when in Rome, act as the Romans. I was in Belfast and gosh darn it I was a fighter! I was going to show those curry fries who was boss. I shoved those fuckers into my mouth as I shivered on the sidewalk waiting for the infernal bus to arrive and return me to the hotel. I did it, I showed that yellow Styrofoam container of yellow sticks with yellow goo a thing or two.

Surprisingly, there was more yellow on the horizon.
The best pizza combo ever
The bus finally arrived and I had a nice journey back. It was  so nice that I missed my stop. I got off at an intersection that I recognized and walked by a pizza/turkish kabob shop. I glanced at the menu and noticed the Yellow Pages Pizza: Tomato, Cheese, Tuna, and Banana. My stomach full of curry chips did a complete somersault. Naturally I returned the next day to photograph the menu and get some cheesy chips.

The next morning I had a nice continental breakfast at the hotel and headed off for the century-old farmers market. I was expecting something larger and older, but the market was nice. There was an artist selling paintings for 30 pounds that looked somewhat interesting. However, I was on the hunt for soda bread and finally found a stand that had plain and fruity versions.

I wanted to buy some jams and sauces but they couldn’t be carried onto the plane. Check out the stands in this market for some great tasting jams, marmalade, and curry sauces.

They also had two stands serving whole roasted pigs. How is this even remotely appetizing? These deflated creatures look like a Macy’s day parade float on the morning after. Even if I ate dead animals this would be repulsive.

Comedy Show

I started Saturday with a tour of the central part of town and the docks. I stopped at the new Waterfront theater and found out there would be a private performance for a comedy show on the BBC. They couldn’t sell me a ticket but the lady suggested I return around 7 and there may be some open seats. Fortunately I returned just at 7 on the dot and sure enough an open ticket was available. I need to try this more often.

The Michael McIntyre Comedy Roadshow featured 6 comedians from around the UK, I believe most were from Ireland. I’ve never been to a stand up comedy show as I usually find them boring on the screen (except Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin). However, I found myself laughing much more than I expected.

At one point McIntyre was talking about salt and pepper being the leaders. All the other spices were jealous of their position on the table. He mentioned other leaders and at one point asked the audience to clap if they didn’t Google stuff; to prove Google was the “leader”. You guessed it, I was the sole person in the entire theater that started clapping. I was hoping he wouldn’t come back and ask why I don’t Google stuff.

“I work for Yahoo! and build search engines in my spare time” would have been my answer. What a pretentious answer.
Deail of a Belfast dry docks
I don’t use Google search. I hate how they assume I want French results when I’m located in France. Let me choose if I want local results. I also don’t use gmail for anything important, google toolbar, or google desktop search because I don’t trust them. I don’t trust what they are doing when they track your every move, document, and click. That’s just too much information.

Yahoo! collects info as well, but they are much more upfront about when they collect and share data. Who knows what Google will do in ten years when they have a complete history of your searches, emails, phone calls, friends, physical locations, etc.

The wharf

Belfast has an interesting wharf with an art walk studded with sculptures. The most intersting parts were the hidden vestiges of the life a century ago. There were two old dry docks hidden behind some large construction areas that had great structural lines. There were also two churches that were unfortunately closed. One looked like it hasn’t been open in a long time.

Sailor Town was a working class neighborhood with cheap housing and pubs for the men who worked the ships. It looked like it was a lively community. However, the city tore it into pieces to build new freeways and larger port access. This community is now a series of empty buildings, vacant lots, and some signs of rebuilding with an eye towards Yuppie condos.
leftovers in Sailor Town
This reminded me of Little Italy in San Diego. This Italian and Portuguese neighborhood was filled with tuna fishing families. The community was split into two during the construction of the large Interstate 5. The original families disappeared as the tuna fleets left San Diego. Little Italy is now a tourist area centered around the original Filippi’s pizza restaurant and surrounded by Yuppie condos.

Next to the wharf is the Cathedral Quarter. This neighborhood has been on the docket for renovation for many years. The restaurants and night spots are the only bright spot in a downtown that closes at 5 p.m. Unfortunately it is mostly upscale joints and you need to head to the outskirts to find a quick bite to eat.

The Belfast kids

How many times have you heard someone say “When I was a kid, we could roam the streets without a worry. Nowadays a rugrat can’t even play safely in their front yard”. In Belfast, the kids are given that kind of freedom and safety. Packs of roving rugrats run up and down the streets, ride the buses, play in the lots, parks, and basically make themselves a nuisance. Can you tell how much I enjoy being around kids?

To prepare for the trip I watched Henry Rollins do a spoken word performance in Belfast. He told the story of being scared of a bunch of Belfast teenagers walking towards him on the street. Rollins… scared? Give me a break. The angriest man in punk rock? Black Flag! My War! Search and Destroy! Henry Fucking Rollins was scared? I don’t believe it for a second.

But I started to see what he means. Every kid walked around like he had a chip on his shoulder. Especially when there were more than one around. I’d see the boys act as gentle as possible when with their mothers and butching it up as soon as they were away. I still don’t believe Rollins was scared. Personally I never felt threatened; more amused by the behavior.

The teenage girls need to go into a twelve-step program for makeup. Those bonny old lasses were tarted up like veteran hookers on a Sunday morning. Not to mention some really bad hair styles. It’s no wonder the little boys have chips on their shoulders.

The troubles

I won’t even begin to act as if I understand the conflict in Northern Ireland. I came to Belfast with some pre-conceived notions. I thought the IRA were the tough guys and the Protestants were more meek and hidden. That probably comes from being a protestant by birth, although I was raised agnostic and consider myself agnostic. I think of Protestants as mild-mannered folk, not very exciting, maybe even Scottish.

I was surprised to see the majority of the murals were Protestant. Further, the protestant murals were very militaristic and anti-catholic. To be fair, I looked for pro-catholic murals but couldn’t find more than a few. So there could be the equivalent set of angry murals on both sides, I just did not see them.

I met several protestants while walking through the neighborhoods. There was a strong sense of pride. They were also hesitant to give me directions towards the other side, several of them gave me directions that led me towards more protestant murals and away from the Catholic section. They even acted as if they didn’t know where they could be located.

I also came across one of the most passive-aggressive scenes I have ever seen. At first I thought it was a rubbish bon fire at the border of the protestant housing. Down the street is a tall wall separating them from the Catholic Falls section. This is the scene of many skirmishes over the years.

I didn’t realize until after I walked around the wall what the fire was doing. The entire neighborhood reeked of burning plastic, rubber, and melamine. It wasn’t strong enough to make you sick, but it was irritating.

In the Catholic section I came across the Clonard Monastery. The interior walls were covered with ornate mosaics. It was preparing for a candle-lit mass and I was torn between returning to see the mass and going to the comedy show. I usually find Catholic ceremonies to be tiring. They can be beautiful, but they’re so regimented an outsider has no idea what is going on. Still, the church must be magnificent with the candles lit. I spoke briefly to the priest. He was charming.

Next to the church is Bombay street, the scene of a fire bombing that became a turning point in the conflict. There was a somber memorial park that contrasted strongly with the previous, garish memorials I had seen in the Protestant neighborhoods.

I don’t want to sound like I’m pro-Catholic. I really don’t have a position and think that inter-religion hostility is a bunch of bull crap. Belfast’s regrowth and prosperity during the recent peace years will hopefully keep it from falling back into discord. I know I wouldn’t have made the journey 10 years ago.

I’m glad I accidentally chose Belfast over Dublin. I wouldn’t say it was a pretty city. I didn’t come back with beautiful photographs of the landscape, buildings, and such. However, it is an interesting city and you need to look beyond the big pictures and start looking at the small details. Belfast is more than the Troubles. It’s more than sectarian battles. It’s more than a city filled with pubs and an active port. It’s the people that make it fascinating, take some time to talk to the cab drivers, the people in the market, or those on the street.

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The whirlwind continues – Athens, Greece

Another week, another city in the travel blitz before summer and high prices arrive. This week’s target was Athens, Greece. More than any other trip, Athens did not match my expectations. That’s not good or bad, just not what I expected.

I expected a city like Paris that is surrounded in history with archeological wonders and important architecture everywhere you looked. I thought the city would be full of tourists and the businesses that cater to them. I expected hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread, eggplant, and feta cheese on every corner. I expected restaurants to throw dishes on the ground all the time to celebrate and draw attention from people passing by. I expected it to be hot and polluted.

I found nothing as I expected.

History and Architecture.

Athens has more than its share of architectural wonders. You can stumble across a humble excavation between houses or turn around and see the massive Acropolis standing behind you like a sentry. I expected Athens to be like Paris and other cities where the icons are the center of tourism money and efforts are made to get as much of that cash as possible.

However, the museums and archeological sites close at 3 p.m. That is much earlier than I expected. I thought the Acropolis would always be open, at least accessible like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the 2 dinosaurs outside Palm Springs or the Thing in Arizona.

So, unfortunately, I actually did not get up close to any of the Greek ruins. Nope, none, nada. I could see them through fences, but that’s about it. So you’ll need to plan ahead for this. Fly in the night before so you can get that early start. My flight landed at around 10 a.m.. That didn’t leave me much time when you account for transportation and checking into the hotel.

Airport Transportation

the money shot
Athens has lovely transportation. The buses, metros, and trams are very nice. However, the bus from the airport to the city can be crowded and it seems like it takes forever. You need to expect the ride to last 1 hour and probably more during rush hour. However, it is fairly cheap at 3.20Euros.

The metro will be extended to the Airport in 2010. I’ve read the taxi cabs can be expensive, but I didn’t use any.

Modern Greek Ruins

While I didn’t get a close view of the ancient ruins, there were plenty of the modern variety. Athens looks like a city that underwent a tremendous building boom (for the 2004 Olympics?) and then fell into a sudden bust. There are half-built concrete shells all over the city. For every new shell, there is an old, decrepit building falling apart; unused and untouched. It almost looks like a war zone with pockets destroyed by bombs.

Greek Food

I’d like to say I visited Greece for its history. I might even like to say I came for the architecture and island life. The truth is I came for the food. I love Greek and Mediterranean food. I had a checklist of what I wanted to eat. The standards you’d find at any Greek restaurant around the world.

I did find a touristy restaurant when I first got to the city that had great baba ghanoush, hummus, and cheese pie. The hummus was actually on the dry side and not smooth. The baba ghanoush was to die for. The pita breads were puffed, and the cheese pie was a simple dish with feta in a crust.

Athens, Greece
Politi.co
Anatolian Cuisine
3 Mitropoleos Street
metro: Syntagma
Athens, Greece
210 894 0170, 210 894 0180

This was my introduction to native Greek food and I was stuffed and happy. But I still found some room to visit the street vendor with odd looking pretzel-like bread. These popular rolls have a slightly sweet flavor with hints of peanut-butter (tahini?). You’ll see the Athenians snacking on this bread throughout the day.

That night I searched for a tiny restaurant far from the tourist crowd. I found a place whose only neighbors were auto shops and a gas station. It’s interior was artistic with hand-made lamps that looked like bad abstract expressionist paintings having sex with Ikea drop lights. This seemed rather promising.

I ordered spanakopita and the chef’s special rice. The spanakopita was a huge serving of baked spinach and cheese in a pie-crust. I was expecting filo dough. This was followed by a huge plate of the chef’s “risotto with vegetables”. Let’s just say it was inspired by the idea of risotto. However, it was very tasty. It had rice, feta, mushrooms, peppers, and carrots. Once again I ate until ready to burst.

There were two more items on my check list that I needed to find the next day: Haloumi, a firm cheese that is grlled and baklava.

American coffee just plain sucks in Greece

I started the next morning with a cup of coffee from the hotel. The hostess presented it with pride and I didn’t have the heart to tell her it looked like it was going to rip my head off and tease me afterward. I could’ve probably stood my spoon up in the cup. Surprisingly, it was drinkable with a hefty portion of creamer and sugar.

I ordered another coffee on the ship to some islands. The “barista” spun around threw something in a cup and whooshed it with steam. This he handed to me for 3 euros. I looked at it like someone just farted on my toast and said, “did you just serve me powdered coffee?” Keep in mind he used a perfectly good espresso machine to blast the powder with steam.

“It’s American coffee” he replied. Ugggh, I said give me some espresso I didn’t want “American coffee”. Don’t get me wrong, I like American coffee. I love “jus de chaussettes”, as the French call it. Sometimes I really crave a big cup of Starbucks instead of the cute little coffees in Europe. But powdered coffee like that is just bad.

This reminds me of an adventure I had with the ever fabulous Durward. We had a goal of drinking coffee at a different cafe every sunday for a year in San Diego. Our worst was a donut shop near the trolley line in National City. They gave us a white Styrofoam cup with hot water and asked us how many spoonfuls of coffee crystals we’d like. Then, she held the powdered non-dairy creamer like it was gold and watched to make sure we didn’t take more than our allotted amount. Don’t even ask about the sugar!

Let’s just say that Greece left me a little decaffeinated.
symphony of orange
At our first island, Hydra, the majority of the boat rushed on shore to attack the tourist shops and dockside cafes. I mosied over to a closed museum (it wasn’t even 3), photographed some cats and a memorial, then climbed up the steep streets to see the town. I shouldn’t say climbed, as that would imply I was a healthy mountain climber. My ankle has been sore, so I limped up the hillside.

After clomping my way through the town I stopped at a tiny cafe next to some children playing. They asked me into the kitchen to point to what I wanted. I saw some stewed artichokes and potatoes in a lemon sauce. That’s what I want. A Greek salad was also suggested. The resulting meal was great, especially the salad! The tomatoes and vegetables tasted like they were picked from the garden that morning.

I also had some dinner guests. Two wild cats shared my feta with me. The younger one was the first to say hello. I gave him chunks of cheese that he would quickly scamper away with to eat in peace. The older guy, with gooky eyes that just begged to be cleaned, was more relaxed. He sat by the table and purred as the cheese was served.

This was the Greek food I was hoping for. I wanted some authentic food that I couldn’t find in the typical Greek restaurant but didn’t know existed.

The ship to myself

waterThe ship announced lunch was being served as soon as we got back on board. I was stuffed, but went down for curiousity sake. I saw what looked like bingo-aholics excitedly downing big lamb meatballs and rice. No thanks.

I went upstairs and had the ship to myself for about 30 minutes. it was great to be away from all of those damn Americans! I haven’t been around so many Americans in a very long time. They are exhausting. They can’t go five minutes without complaining about something. blah blah blah blah, but it was cold, blah blah blah blah, she was late, blah blah blah blah it was too expensive… Is that how you enjoy your vacation? How about staying home and complaining about each other.

It was also exhausting because I couldn’t ignore the conversations. It’s easy to tune out other languages; but American English, especially southerners, breaks right through the filters and makes its way straight into my brain. It felt like my mother was sitting at every table and I was waiting for her to say “taaayyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeddddddddd??????!!!!” Who knew three letters could take so long to be pronounced.

But all good things must come to an end and the lunch-fortified fellow travelers found their way back up to my little eden. Luckily we were just about to pull into the next port, Poros, with 30 minutes to explore the tiny town. It was just enough to take some photos and purchase some postcards.

One more to go

Time was running out and I still had some eating to do. Luckily we had a longer stop at the next island, Aegina. I rented a bike and rode back and forth for an hour. It was surprising to see a Yahoo! yodel button at the bike shop:

My Greek ChariotPipinis Travel
2, Kanari street, Aegina Greece
+30 22970 28780

.

The bike was fairly cheap at 5 euros for an hour and it let me rationalize an extra meal. I wanted some of that grilled cheese. I went into a restaurant around the corner from the bike rental and asked if they were open. A guy pointed to a door at the back of an empty patio. I walked in and found myself in what appeared to be someone’s family kitchen. There were two birds, a television, mom, dad, grandma, and the daughter. There were also two tables. I asked if they had the cheese and some mint tea.

Greece 2009
This was probably my favorite meal in Greece. I’ve had Halloumi cheese in San Diego as a fancy entree. Here it was good ol’ comfort food; served on top of french fries, pita, lettuce, tomatoes, and lots of mayonnaise. The tea came in a mug with a three dimensional smile and was sweeter than what’s her name in Misery before she goes psycho. It was a big plate of greasy, salty, stick to your greek ribs loving. To top it off, a commercial came on the tv for CSI: Miami. I don’t know how that show follows me around the world. I hated to leave this place but the boat was getting ready to leave.

How dare you leave on time!

The boat was ready to leave the dock, but first it gave out two big blasts to warn people to get their ass on board. Just as the boat was leaving a woman below deck starts yelling, in her bible belt best voice, that her friends are not on the boat. Sure enough two women, with hair closer to god than most could pull off, start yelling at the ship to come back and get their asses. They greeted their rescuing ship not with an apologetic thank you but arguing they were not late and the boat left early. It’s funny how EVERYONE on the boat was on time but these two belles, yet the boat was at fault. Suck it up ladies, you were late and the boat should’ve dumped you back on the dock for acting like divas.

The last box to check off

I went out that night for the last item on my culinary list. I wanted some sticky sweet baklava. I wanted something that would make my teeth ache for weeks. I wanted something so sweet it made me seem like what’s her face in Misery before she went psycho. I actually found a baklava store at the bottom of the acropolis that was open late at night. Let me tell you, it was good, damn good.

pARTymusic-cafe
11 Odysseos Street | Karaiskaki Square
Athens 10436, Greece
phone: +30 210 524 5700

With all my checkboxes for mandatory Greek food filled, I was ready to find a cafe with wifi to make some skype calls. I found a great place right next door to the hotel. Cafe pARTy is a tiny, artsy cafe with very friendly people and a strong wifi signal. I was able to call everyone, including my parents.

“Hi Mom, I’m in a cafe in Athens.”

“Did you find a girlfriend? I want you to bring home a new wife!”

“No Mom, there are no women in Greece. They must’ve left when they heard I was visiting. Maybe next trip…. “

We have this running joke. I doesn’t admatter what destination I’m in. Imagine her surprise when I found one in Rouen. Unfortunately Joan was a little tied up at the time and couldn’t commit. However, she was practically burning with anticipation of meeting mother Drake.

Was there anything other than food?

Here are some random observations of the trip:

  1. There are lots of wild dogs in Athens. They are much friendlier than the dogs I’ve met in Bangalore, Bucharest, and Tijuana. The Greek islands are filled with wild cats.
  2. Nothing is free in Greece. I was a bit surprised at the cost of food, I thought it would be cheaper than Paris. Just don’t be surprised by the extras for water and tip. It wasn’t as expensive as London, just more than I expected.
  3. The public transportation is great. Buy a daylong ticket for 3 euros and get access to all of the metros, trams, and busses. Take those busses to see the city’s neighborhoods. You never know what will be around the corner.
  4. Don’t forget the museums and such close early.
  5. Bring a book or something to do on the island tour. There’s a lot of time to catch up on writing postcards and reading.
  6. Stop to try the different cookies, breads, and pastries. They remind me of the panaderias in Mexico, only not as sweet and more complex flavors.
  7. Try to find foods that you can’t find in your hometown’s Greek restaurants. There’s a lot more than hummus, tabouli, and pita bread.
  8. The flea market is boring. It’s the same old crap you’ll find at any commercial swap meet. Save your money and time and visit a different set of markets.
  9. Smoking is allowed indoors. Don’t be surprised by people smoking in restaurants, hotels, on the sidewalks, etc. The Greeks are heavy smokers.
  10. The city felt very safe. There are your standard tourist attraction beggars, but I didn’t see locals guarding themselves against pickpockets and the streets felt safe to walk around at night. You might worry more about the dogs than crime.
  11. Everyone told me Athens was dirty and polluted. I didn’t find that to be the case. There was a lot of graffiti and abandoned buildings. But the weather was fantastic, the streets were well maintained, the metro was spotless, and the air was clear. I can imagine it is worse in summer. I think their new public transportation has probably solved a lot of the pollution issues. There’s not a lot of traffic for such a large city.
  12. The airport offers 45 minutes of free wifi. However, I couldn’t figure out how to refresh that time period. I didn’t even see an option to purchase access. There are also kiosks with free internet usage scattered around the airport.

A Swiss Weekend

I’m on the train from Geneva back to Paris after a long weekend filled with cheese, cheese fondue, cheese making, more cheese fondue, and a few sites in between. It truly was a cheesy weekend.

I visited with Silvana, a fellow Yahoo!, and her husband Brian at their abode outside Geneva. They’ve got a great flat with a view over lake Geneva. Trigger and I enjoyed watching the fog rise over the lake as I plugged away on the computer. Yep, it’s always a working weekend.  I added caching and some user-friendly features to InsiderFood.com. So let’s get to the cheese and fun activities.

Geneva

I rode the TGV directly from Paris to Geneva and would recommend paying the extra 10 euros or so for first class. It’s nice to have a power outlet and room to stretch out, read, etc. While Gare de Lyon in Paris is large, bustling, and confusing, the Geneva train station is smaller, quieter, and still a bit confusing.

I needed to grab a surface train from Geneva to Lausanne to get to casa Silvana. There were no ticket windows but plenty of little computer kiosks. They’re fairly easy to use and are more satisfying than the coffee I suffered through from the station cafe.

Keep an eye out for the surface trains. The screen only mentioned a single train, but I barely missed one on the platform and another arrived as I was waiting for the one mentioned below in the main station.

Geneva was not an exciting city. I was expecting something very “Swiss”. I didn’t know what that would mean, but Geneva was not inspiring my Swissness. I would compare a Swiss vacation in Geneva to a trip to California and staying in Sacramento. The mere thought sends shivers down my spine, although it could be worse… Riverside!!!! AGGGGH

Not to completely diss Geneva; they had some nice Catholic churches that were stripped of their fabulousness during the reformation, the lake is super clean, the United Nations had some interesting buildings, and I found a great Hello Kitty smart car. The Hello Kitty car was enough to give the city an ounce of respect.

We also had our first fondue experience in Geneva. The Swiss Chalet featured a huge pot of the melting goodness with piles of bread. I was afraid that I would trip and roll down the street like the chewing gum girl in Willy Wonka, only my inflated bratbody would be creamy yellow instead of purple.

After the Chalet we discovered a great Russian orthodox church. It was small but full of gilded goodies. More than anything, it revved us up to visit France, a mere stone’s throw away.

Evian was our destination. We’ve got water to drink.

I didn’t know what to expect of Evian. I figured it would be a small, artistic village on the side of the lake. There would probably be some shrine to the water and a huge industrial complex in the center of town. The people would probably be quiet and friendly.

Fortunately we arrived for the Carnival, their belated Mardi Gras celebration. The Evianers know how to party. It was a blast to watch the parade and the interaction between the paraders and the parade watchers. Everyone knew each other and particularly enjoyed blasting horns, pelting with confetti, and spraying silly string on their neighbors.

The ground was littered with confetti, hats, children writhing in pain after throwing confetti in the face of the wrong person (who shall go nameless :) ), and the detritus of a festive event. The parade was so good they decided to have an encore as all the floats returned down the same street in a faster, albeit still explosive manner.

We finally went in search for the Evian spring after the parade. Lo and behold it was right there on the main street. It is a gorgeous Art Nouveau folly. It looks like it belongs in Disneyworld. It was closed for the parade but the spring is always flowing for whoever is thirsty. We drank our fill and then climbed the hill to see the rest of the city and lake.

Evian is a great town. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in pre-modern architecture, the spas, and enjoying a small city that knows how to party.

The ride around the lake

We continued our trip around the lake and stopped off at a restaurant named after Alexandria, one of Napolean’s nieces. It was a bit hoity toity, but good for a rest stop.

Montreux, where the uppity ups spend money and listen to jazz

We drove through Montreux, a city known for its jazz festivals. Its a beautiful city and looks like it costs thousands of dollars to even walk on the sidewalks. It reminded me of Beverly Hills, only without the hookers down the street and people on every corner selling maps to stars’ homes.

Lausanne

Laussane at night
We didn’t pull into Lausanne until after 10p.m. and I was pretty damned tired. The city was fascinating. It’s an ancient city on the shore of the lake. It sits on the edge of a very steep mountain and the city rises like a terraced rice paddy. The city is built with layers and bridges fly over buildings as they cross from one section to another. I have a fear of tall bridges and these were freaky high. It reminded me of the futurama drawings of cities with monorails that zoom through sky scrapers.

The city’s heart is an ancient chateau and cathedral high up on the mountain. The views are amazing as the city pulsates below you.

That was the end of a great day touring the towns around Lake Geneva.

Gruyere – cheese, cheese, and more cheese

We planned a few activities for Sunday. Visit the Chateau de Gruyere, the cheese factory, an artist space for Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely (thanks Jana for the correction), and finally go to the Ice Palace, a fantasy construction of frozen water.

Gruyere was supposed to be a quick stop to look at the cheese factory, buy some cheese, and see the chateau. We were not expecting the town to be so fabu! We spent the entire day here and threw our plans out the window.

The Maison du Gruyere is a small factory, restaurant, and gift shop. There’s a small trailer out back with two men making the cheese the old fashioned way. They started with buckets of milk and a huge copper cauldron heated by a wood fire. The cinders floated up and into the milk. I was sold, I wanted some of this cheese!

Inside is a more modern fromagerie with a large glass cave for cheese fermentation. Wall-e’s little buddy works inside here. The robot travels down the rows picking up large cheese rounds, flipping them, and placing them carefully back on the racks. It also does the hokey pokey when it reaches the end of the aisle.

The gift shop was super expensive but had some unique items. I got some postcards and butter from Gruyere. Yep, no cheese.

The Chateau de Gruyere

Above the cheese factory sits Château de Gruyères and village. The village reminded me at first of many towns that live off the chateau’s tourist traffic. But this one was different, it had soul, artistic blood, and a huge fat kitty that loved everyone.

What can you say about a tiny midievil village that boasts not only artisinal cheese makers, a wonderfully restored chateau, and an H.R. Giger museum/cafe. This ain’t your standard tourist trap.

The chateau tour starts with a short movie about its history. The small auditorium projects images against every wall and ceiling to give the user an immersive experience. I have to say it was very well done. I’ve seen a lot of places attempt this without the sophistication of this chateau.
Chateau de Gruyère in Switzerland
The chateau has been nicely restored and is completely open to tourists. There are no guides and equally few areas are off limits. You are free to explore the rooms and grounds.

You are also free to photograph to your heart’s content. The only rooms with restrictions include delicate fabric and works on paper, so don’t use a flash! Each flash is like sticking the object in the sun for a day. It makes paper and cloth based items fade quickly.

The windows look out onto the Swiss mountains and landscapes. It was nice to have a few openings without glass for better picture taking.

The chateau at one time was owned by an artist who made some restorations and decorations. Corot was invited to spend some time and helped paint a room. It’s quite a time warp as you go from ancient castle to impressionist parlor.

The ramparts surround the back of the castle and provide various openings for photographing the scenery. You could also shoot invading armies and dump boiling oil on the uprising cerfs if needed.

H.R. Giger museum

Giger is a polarizing artist. You either like or appreciate his art or run out holding your stomach and swear in disbelief. It’s an erotic vision without the eroticism, violence and degradation join self-idolatry. Giger is most known for designing the sets and monster from the movie Alien. His figures morph between human and machine, organic and industrial.

It’s surprising to see his museum and cafe in such a small tourist village. But it actually makes sense when you think of the artistic pulse that has survived in the city, especially after Daniel Bovy took over the chateau in the 1800’s and invited his friends to help decorate the chambers.
raspberries and coffee with la double crème de Gruyère
The village also houses multiple restaurants that naturally encourage large cheese-based meals. I threw caution, and a month long diet, to the wind and had fondue two days in a row. I survived yesterday’s pot so why not? I even had raspberries with la double crème de Gruyère afterward for dessert. I’m so full of dairy products my udders are swollen. I also bought some bizarre local specialty. It’s a spread made with mustard, honey, chocolate, and god knows what else.

Gruyere ate up the day like a fat Ted wolfs down melted cheese on bread. Before we knew it we were on the freeway trying to get back to Geneva before my train took off. We made it about 10 minutes before the train took off. I was able to waddle onto the train just in time.

Paris is only a few miles away. I don’t think I could look at cheese for a few days. But I could use an Evian right now.

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London really is the capital of bad food

I’m on the Eurostar returning to Paris from a busy trip to London. I cannot remember another week in my life when I consistently ate horrid food. I’m talking really, really bad.

I mentioned this to my buddy Glen who remarked: London restaurants make good food as good as any city in the world. But they are the best at making awful food. Amen, glory hallelujah, and pass the bread.
London Cityscape at night
It’s truly amazing my stomach and tongue didn’t go on strike and leave me stranded. I even tried to find good places. I walked for seemingly miles among the west end looking for a new place that had good food. But over and over, i ended up on the short end of the fork.

I will say that my hotel’s breakfast bar had edible food. But when the culinary highlight of the day is medium strength coffee, toast, and Weetabix, you know something is going down the wrong way. It’s a good thing I was on a business trip. I kept the receipts for the expense report and they remind me of such lovely meals.

Day one: Canela – a Portuguese/Brazilian cafe.

This was an easy place, they are across the street from the hotel, it was late, I was hungry, I bit the bullet. Their vegetarian options were pretty sparse, so I got the vegetarian lasagna with salad and a plantain dessert thing. The lasagna wasn’t bad before it took a ride in the microwave express for 5 minutes. Throw some salad on this nuclear lunch and you’ve got a slab of pasta/cheese with broccoli, smothered with wilted salad and dressing. YUMMMY! Fortunately, this was filling enough for me to save the plantain thing for later, oh how lucky…

Day two: Yahoo! cafeteria and Sartaj Limited

The Yahoo! cafe had a lovely serving of pasta with veggies and tomato sauce. It wasn’t awful, just typically British and mediocre. I think this sums up a lot of the food I eat in London. It’s edible and mediocre. You forget what you ate 30 minutes later. Unless you end up burping the flavor every 30 minutes; like today’s unfortunate falafel wrap. *burp*

Dinner was at Sartaj Limited. The menu promised unique Balti food, a rare cuisine in India. I figured, what the heck. It couldn’t be bad. Everyone says you can get good indian food in London. Which is true. You can also get some horrible Indian food in London. Like the Hari Krishna cafe on the last trip where everything tasted like it was cooked in dish detergent. At least it was all you can eat.

But I digress, let’s savor the flavor of Sartaj. I asked the waiter what was so special about the cuisine and why were they the only ones to provide such a service outside of India? The answer: we serve it in the cooking dish, a small wok.

Stop the presses! I think we have a true culinary revolution! They serve the food in the food in the iron skillets that they cook in. Now that is novel! Have I ever had anything like that before? Oh yeah, every truckstop dive in America has their skillet eggs and potatoes. But those dives are not Sartaj!

So, I told the guy I would like the quintessential vegetarian Balti dish. Did I mention I was the only customer for about 40 minutes? I also ordered some variation of naan, raita, and water.

He asked if I liked it hot. I chuckled and said “does the pope shit in the woods?“. Of course I like it hot, I grew up on the Mexican border. Make me sweat, make my nose run, make me beg my momma for mercy, give it to me hot and hard,… ooh, maybe I’m giving away too much information…

The waiter gave me a single glass of water, about three gulps worth and left to chat with the other person working in the cafe. Remember, there are no other customers in sight. After a while, I get the fabled iron skillet of Balti legend. It’s a mixture of onions, peppers, and onions with a spicy broth. The raita is yogurt with a chopped cucumbers on top and the naan had some kind of greasy, pressed creature inside it.

Hold me back, I knew I was in for some dining pleasure with this.
On the train to London
I will say the food was spicy and i appreciated the snot dripping out of my nose and flavoring the dish. I had to mix in some raita to soothe my rapidly eroding tongue as the water lasted about three bites. The creature inside the naan started to look like Bambi and the waiter was nowhere to be seen.

I’m a bit of a silent sufferer. I’d rather sit in the chair and stew in a pool of self pity than get up and pour myself another glass of water or steal a napkin from one of the many empty tables for my waterfall of a snotty nose.

After the dish was finished, I started to cough, sniffle, and read my book until the waiter decided it was time to acknowledge me again. That’s ok, he was busy with the other customers, no wait, I was the only one.

This meal was edible, as spicy as I requested, and not the same ol’ same ol’. I’ll give it that. Besides, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d eaten that day. I walked around the area for a while and decided it was time to hit the hotel and finish that lovely plantain thing from the night before.
Durward
Let me start by describe this thing visually. Imagine a soft cake/pie with layers of plantains (a starchier, less sweet cousin of bananas). It reminded me of a gingerbread/plantain tart. How could such an exotic dish go so bad? I took one bite of this lovely piece of goodness and nearly broke a tooth on the top plantain, while my lower jaw made its way north through something best described as brown semi-solid goo. It had no flavor and reminded me of legos in mud. Yummy, give this one to Durward!

Day 3: Questo the Italian Buffet and Diana’s Diner

I grew up with buffets. I was the youngest of six kids and a night out for our family included a trip to the smorgasbord, where kids ate free. My mom always had healthy advice for us: “Skip the salads and head straight for the meats and desserts. Load up on the expensive stuff!”
Mom
I love buffets, from the good, the mediocre, and the bad. You’re gonna get crap, you pay too much, but oh what a selection! I remember people fighting over hamburger patties, cut in half, with a slice of cheese on them at Hometown buffet. That’s the spirit a buffet should inspire. Give me more dammit and don’t you dare take my fifth serving of canned peas!

So, I couldn’t pass up an Italian buffet with promises of pasta and pizza. I instantly thought of my friend, moo, who would join me at Shakeys for the pizza buffet. He would actually visit the vomitorium to get rid of the first batch so that he could continue going through the buffet lines another hour. It’s all about getting your $4.99’s worth of grub.

I walked into Questo and saw the enormous buffet after sitting down. It stretched from one end of the wall to another. Unfortunately, that wall was only 4 feet long. I ordered the buffet (approx. $12) and a Pepsi (approx. $4) and asked where the pizza was. “Oh, the pizza is extra, that’s not included) 16 bucks for four feet of buffet and a Pepsi.

How bad could this food be? I honestly was driven to sample everything to find out what was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. It seemed like a challenge to find something with a satisfying texture or taste. The eggplant parmesan consisted of micro-waved eggplant with tomato sauce brushed on and two crumbs of mozzarella baking in a steam table, the pasta was decimated broccoli/cauliflower with white sauce and penne, there was a semi-solid polenta thing in ketchup, and dry basmati rice with a single stem of saffron waved over the pot during cooking. I was in hog’s heaven.

Just as I declared the polenta thing as the truly worst thing I’d eaten in 2 1/2 years, I noticed a customer going to another buffet bar in the back. Could it be? Am I lucky enough to try yet another treasure trove of culinary delight?

I grabbed my plate and headed for the promised land. I was amazed to see a salad buffet bar. But, do I go against my mother’s advice? Should I skip the salad and grab some ice cream from the freezer next to it? Nah, that’s not included. It’s another 4 bucks for a scoop. So, i marveled at the salads and started grabbing spoonfulls of pre-processed macaroni, egg, bean, etc salads.

The polenta remained on top as the worst dish. Frankly, it will take a truly hideous dish to knock that sucker off its throne. I only wish I had brought my camera to document the awards ceremony.

To top off this luxurious lunch, the cash register guy tacked on a mandatory tip and crossed out the “NOT” in the “SERVICE NOT INCLUDED” statement at the bottom of the receipt. They must have known I was cheap and would have left without some coin on the table. Don’t worry, you were not forgotten. :)

After the lunch, I was feeling a bit less than healthy. *falafel burp just happened* I wanted to tread lightly for dinner and settled on a tiny diner that looked like it belonged in a hippie movie. It was no-frill comfort food. I should have gone for a classic breakfast, but was tempted by a vegetarian risotto. How could this be bad?

I will say that the restaurant was pleasant, the people were nice, it was very affordable, and I did enjoy my meal for what it was worth. I got a salad and the risotto. It’s just a shame to call it risotto. It should have been called veggie stew and rice. They used long grain rice instead of the stubby, starchy stuff of risotto legend. So, I’m giving them a pass. The place was pleasant the food was perfectly mediocre, not over-priced, and didn’t leave me burping risotto for the next two days.

Day 4 Yahoo! catering and Browns bar and restaurant

I was in a big meeting day 4 and 5 and Yahoo brought in trays of snacks and sandwiches to quench our hunger. I hadn’t slept well the night before. It was probably the polenta getting its revenge. For some reason I was also hungry all day long and kept grabbing cookies, snacks, and coffee in the morning. By noon, I was ready for something with protein and tried the egg salad triangles and tomato-cheese finger thingies. Once again, perfectly mediocre and hardly satisfying. But it’s all good once you’ve eaten enough brownies, diet coke, and cookies.
Yahoo! Din Din in London

Afterwards, the meeting participants went out for a real dinner. Some Browns restaurant. It was almost forgettable due to it’s perfectly edible food that actually had taste and texture. I actually licked the plate clean. No, really. I was that impressed. I picked up the plate and began licking it clean, first the front and then the back.

Day 5: More Yahoo! catering and attack of the killer falafel, scone and potential pizza.


The second day of the meeting also had an assortment of cookies, snacks, and tea sandwiches. I prepared for this spread by having a large breakfast at the hotel. I skipped the Weetabix and went for eggs, hash browns, and mushrooms. Yep, they eat mushrooms for breakfast in England, those silly chaps.

The catering was unremarkable and less than filling. So, I figured I would get something for the ride back to Paris. I should have gone to a decent sandwich shop by turning left at the office door. But no, I had to make a right and go towards Soho and the land of bad takeouts. I stopped at the first falafel place and ordered a sandwich to go. I spotted some pizza with corn as a topping and thought that would be good if I was absolutely desparate on the Chunnel and didn’t feel like eating my shoe.

I knew I was in trouble when he dropped a ball of falafel and it bounced off the floor and landed back in his hand. He promptly placed a few of these super bouncy balls in the microwave to heat up. Oh yes, this was going to be good. These were wrapped in a large pita with a shmear of hummus a tease of flavor and a hint of taste. I asked for the pizza to be left cold, no need to heat up this wonder.

Needless to say, the falafel was really awful. It wasn’t as bad as the polenta from earlier in the week, but truly bad. I’ve been burping this chickpea-garlic flavor for the past few hours. *falafel burp*
Scary pizza from London
I was starting to thing twice about the pizza sitting in my luggage. Could I really be hungry enough to eat it? I’d better not chance it, so I bought a scone at Le Pain Quitodien. This restaurant is actually pretty good. It’s a chain of bakery/cafe’s. Leave it to me to buy the worst thing in the cafe. The scone was bad. It was flavorless and dry. Perhaps I’m jaded. I’ve been spoiled by the sublime scones at Rebecca’s in San Diego. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out today’s scone was a bomb.

So, now I sit on the train heading to Paris. I’ve got a piece of scary pizza in my luggage, I’m burping falafel from lunch, and writing about a week of truly bad food. I can’t wait until my next trip to London.

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