Of Great Georgian Wine

Little did we know that one simple choice – a choice of our hotel in Kaheti – the famed wine region of Georgia, will lead to a travel dream come true. After some quite simple and very cheap accommodations we felt we could splurge a little and book a better hotel for a few days. We found a brand new establishment on the net – Babaneuris Marani (marani=wine cellar) in the shadow of Tusheti range, the wildest mountains of Georgia. It had a contemporary design and a swimming pool set amidst the vines and what we only found out upon arrival, a wonderful young Georgian couple running the show: Vakho, the wine production and Nino, the hotel. This young woman, a mother of three small children, an MBA student at Tbilisi University was the epitome of hard working and capable Georgian women with a can do attitude, a lovely smile, and perfect English to boot. And she is bucking the trend of Georgian patriarchy. I saw that even her father in law was dealing with her as an equal, a welcome sight in a country where women tend to do a lot of hard work and have little say. Of course the younger generation is changing, but even there Nino complained that some of her girlfriends in Tbilisi were not allowed by their husbands to go out with her in the evenings. “Not that my sweet husband would ever do that,” she said with a sly smile. “But if he tried, I would kill him!”

It is said that Georgia is the cradle of winemaking. The original tradition of “amphora” wine making is still alive and well. When we say amphora wine we imagine elegant Greek or Roman clay amphoras deep under the sea in the hulls of sunken transport ships. But before that wine could be put into amphoras for transport it was made in huge underground amphoras with a very different process of winemaking than the barrel aged wine production we know. Here after the grapes are picked they are pressed (in the older times they were stomped barefoot in huge wooden tubs) and then everything, stems, skins and pits included, is put into the quevri – special hand made clay amphoras, where it undergoes natural fermentation.

Afterwards the wine juice is pumped out and leftover skins and pips are removed by hand

and a fiery chacha (Georgian version of grappa) is distilled from the leftovers.

Besides our own Babaneuris cellar we stopped at a number of other well know cellars from old Alaverdi Monastery vineyard to new Shumi and Qvareli for tours and wine tasting. Many of the vineyards grew a demonstration vineyard where they showcased hundreds of local grape varieties. All in all there are 500 Georgian varieties of grapes. Imagine the combinations (blends) a winemaker can come up with! In one of the biggest wineries we were lucky to be serenaded by a group of traditional musicians. They have the most wonderful voices and harmonies.

What is even more impressive is their spectacular dancing – a cross between ballet, folk dancing and acrobatics! They are really keen on keeping this tradition alive and they start encouraging their kids young. Our new Czech and American friends were quite enthusiastic about Georgian Saperavi and Mtsvane wines. We, on the other hand were quite glad that a wholly 90% of Georgian wine production is of French winemaking style as we enjoyed more their classic pinots and such. Truth be told the wine we liked the best of all was a homemade batch that we shared with an Airbnb host family in Lagodekhi National Park Area. If you are lucky to experience traditional Georgian hospitality you will share great food and many beautiful toasts! We arrived at this home in the late afternoon and were greeted enthusiastically by the man of the house who quickly called his son, a young man on vacation from his high powered government job in the capital. His English was amazing and we had a great conversation over tea. Then all hell broke loose. Mom arrived from work (as a doctor), took one look and started wailing, “How could you bring such shame on our house and let our honored guests sit at an empty table!” Despite our objections she did not stop until every square inch was covered by khinkali (special dumplings) and other food.

The correct way to eat a khinkali is with hands

Many Wineries had very interesting museums of wine making where the process was well illustrated and old archeological finds were proudly presented. We also saw plenty of remnants of old amphoras in situ at a number of rock cities. The most impressive was 12th century Vardzia, built by Queen Tamar and her father. Queen Tamar was an extraordinary Georgian heroine, who became a co-regent at a young age of 18. In fact she was such a powerful ruler that everyone in Georgia insists on calling her “King” Tamar.

Climbing through the archeological site it seemed to us that every home in the ancient times had a clay quevri for wine and a clay oven for baking lavash bread.

While the baking ovens have moved out of homes and into public bakeries, every household with at least a shady trellis of homegrown grapes still produces their own wine. We had a lot of fun helping pick some Izabella variety at an American expat Mary Ellen’s summer home. Unfortunately it did not end up as wine, but as grape jelly! Every evening as we returned home to smiling Nino we had a different complementary glass of their own wine and a little debriefing of our day and a chat about kids (challenging), unruly Russian tourists (disgusting) or the status of Georgian women (unenviable).

As we mentioned how disappointed we were that we won’t make it to Tusheti mountain range because of the bad road, she looked at us and said, “You have to go to Tusheti, it is the most beautiful place in Georgia.”

“But everyone we asked told us it was impossible, too dangerous, too crazy…after all it is deemed one of the most dangerous roads in the world!”

To be continued…for now I leave you with this:

Driving in Georgia (aka საქართველო, aka Sakartvelo, aka Gruzija)

After a long summer exploring good old Europe by car it was time to greet autumn somewhere new, further East perhaps. Some years back we traveled to Armenia through Tbilisi, capital of Georgia and knew we had to come back. Much has been written and debated over the question: Where is the exact border between Europe and Asia? No matter what Wikipedia says (Asia it is!), for us, Georgia definitely has a very familiar feel of Europe, despite the incomprehensible language, strange but elegant alphabet and an interesting mess of tribes, cultures, religions, and historical alliances.

But there is one thing that quickly jolts you from the pleasant European reverie: Georgian DRIVING.

We knew that we needed to rent a good 4x4WD car, for our main goal was to go high up into Caucasus Mountains. We found our rental Mitsubishi Pajero waiting at the airport. It was much older and with many more miles on, but with fewer dents and scratches than we expected. At that point we did not know yet that we will also need it as a sturdy protection from the crazy, suicidal drivers.

We did know very well that we will need good weather to make it up the mountains on notoriously bad roads. On a number of phone apps we carefully tracked frequently changing weather patterns in different regions of Georgia and with the prospect of a day or two with blue skies we hightailed it out of Tbilisi (Tiflis) within 12 hours of our midnight landing.

We could enjoy drinking Georgian amphora wine, visiting monasteries and churches and exploring museums or the night life of the capital even if it rained cats and dogs.

Struggling with blinker, lights and wiper indicators, and with Maps.me (a better alternative to Google maps) fully loaded and open on our phone, we left town in dense traffic on the newly, very partially built freeway towards Svaneti.

The first few hours in this kind of traffic is a test of any newcomer’s patience and skill. In dealing with the local drivers one has to be on alert every minute, employing the deepest life defense instincts and capabilities.

Almost exclusively all males, Georgian drivers seem to be born with a so called “Michael Schumacher Gene” which, as they reach legal driving age, in some cases even earlier, prevents them from driving behind any car for longer than a few seconds. When their eyes detect any semblance of any kind of vehicle less than a few miles in front of them, the above mentioned gene releases a hormone rendering the male driver clearly suicidal. He will not stop attempting to pass the vehicle in front of him NO MATTER WHAT, (double white line, blind curve, no overtaking sign, oncoming truck, or cistern full of explosive gas) until his mission is accomplished or he is involved in a fatal accident! The first fifty miles on the freeway is all you get, then you leave the relatively easy traffic of vehicles moving, at least some time, in the same direction!

You are now thrown straight into the lions’ den – the real world of Georgian roadway system where the danger from the local drivers can come from all possible imaginable directions. Enjoy it! But please be also aware that any road, freeway included, serves all kinds of traffic, which can include herds of different domesticated and wild animals such as cattle, sheep, (with shepherds instead of their flock, watching YouTube on their cell phones), goats, pigs (with baby piglets following closely behind) horses (mounted or on their own), chickens, cats (quite rare), dogs (plentiful, many of them limping from previously acquired traffic injuries). Those of mountain variety large enough to have their own breed of Caucasian Shepherd and can easily be mistaken for mountain lions, only more vicious.

Closing all your windows is well advised; besides large snarling dogs there are also bears (we were told they were plentiful, but luckily we did not get a glimpse of any, other than their skins hanging in the houses of members of the local tribes, who enthusiastically shared stories of their superior shooting capabilities pointing to the rifles used first in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877, hanging on the wall next to the aforementioned skins.)

After acquiring the basic minimum crazy driving skills don’t forget to turn towards Svaneti right at the Abkhazia border (the cross country relations are still at the explosion point as Georgians mourn their territory stolen by Russia).

On our way we passed through the town of Gori, its only (dubious) fame as a birthplace of Comrade Stalin. We deliberately did not stop to see (very few, we are told) documents of his murders. It was enough for us to deal with potential bloodshed on the roads of today’s Georgia.

We could not help but notice the state of Stalin’s communist dwellings in Gori and all other small Georgian towns. While most of the money and young people are concentrated in the capital the post soviet towns and villages are pretty much neglected with crumbling facades and moldy balconies. What a blight on the beautiful country.

A more positive architectural impact has lately come from another well known Georgian: Mr. Saakashvili. Being US educated lawyer and later elected as a President of Georgia during his term he seriously attempted to fight corruption and mafia influence, and used significant revenue increases to re-build police stations and historical places. He did better with the former, as he insured that each design was different and quite futuristic looking. One could make a whole blog on that, but don’t worry, we won’t.

In Mestia, the center of Svaneti, where we arrived late afternoon (now former) President left the biggest impact. He funded the reconstruction of old medieval towers and beside a new police station and airport and bridge (all unusual to say the least) also a big concrete Ethnographical Museum. After arguing for a while whether we like it or hate it (that’s what happens when you have an engineer and an art historian traveling together), we entered and were immediately charmed by the beautiful exhibits. We acquired a capable private English guide and for an hour and well into closing time were transported to a glorious past. Turns out despite (or because of) the geographical isolation Svaneti was rich in gold and precious metals and it is said in times of danger royal treasures from other parts of Georgia were sent there for safekeeping. The gold was found in such quantities that Svans could simply leave sheep furs in the mountain creeks and rivers for a day or two while waiting for heavy gold particles to get stuck in the dense fleece. After getting tired of waiting or getting short on cash they pulled the fleece out, they let it dry and then by turning it upside down the heavy gold particles fell out, they collected them and….voila, became easily rich and in the process created the famous tale of the Argonauts’ “Golden Fleece”.

No wonder they had to build high defense towers… to protect the residents and treasure, when facing attacks by whatever enemies were approaching Svaneti towns and villages in their quest to put their dirty foreign hands on their wealth.

Mestia is a perfect place for travelers like us. With the access to the mountain town pretty far and difficult, it still has only a limited number of young hikers, but already enough tourist infrastructure to provide decent services. Standard of housing is simple, but comfortable and clean, Svan people are pleasant and welcoming, food is fresh, local and amply spiced up with famous Svaneti salt. Yup, many Svans are blond with green eyes. This is a student/waitress that we drove from her village to work one morning.

The next day we pressed on to the village of Uzhguli which has more defensive towers in its otherwise smaller area. It was the photo of this exact village titled something like the highest continuously inhabited Medieval village in Europe, that years back I saw in National Geographic, that made me want to go to Svaneti in the first place. Because of all the diligent internet research we were weary of this difficult track but we were encouraged by the guesthouse owner. What was supposed to be an 8 hour trip turned into 2. We happily reached this place on over 44kms/28miles long road which must have been a torture even for 4-wheel drive vehicles just a few years ago but…not anymore. The upgrade/construction is continuous and moving fast forward. A part of the roadway that was just being paved with concrete on the way up, we could already drive on on the way back! It may not move with a speed of light but with only some 10km/6 miles left of the bumpy road full of muddy potholes deep up to my knees and two or three fordings of smaller creeks, it won’t take long till the tourist buses head that way. Beyond Uzhguli there is only a bare semblance of a track following the river, yet gifts of civilization reach even that far. There is a mirage of a café below the glacier serving drinks (forget espresso, go for Turkish coffee instead) and facilities (the outdoor toilet with the best view for sure) providing hiking parties a break on the sun if they do not mind screaming red plastic chairs and umbrellas, the hit of this season in all of Georgia.

On our hike up towards the glacier we enjoyed the pleasant company of a Czech couple, of surprisingly similar travel taste and style. We shared the bumpy ride in their 4×4 WD the following day up to spectacular Kuraldi lakes. Until it could not handle the steep incline, that is, and we had to continue on foot. Which was just as well, as the slopes were full of wild blueberries ready for the picking and the lake shores full of friendly horses. As we stayed longer and experienced more of the Georgian roads, and drivers with their crazy driving style, our self confidence and the dirt on the car has risen by a notch or two. Then I was unexpectedly thrown into an experience qualifying as the worst driving time of my life. For this part of our trip we were blessed with the company of a group of three Americans sharing our car to the Kazbegi mountain region. After reaching the town of Stepantsminda on a well paved Georgian Military Highway leading to the Russian border, we decided to press on to a small but most famous Gergeti Trinity Church high on the hill, promising a spectacular view. After a few attempts to find the correct road for our fully loaded rented vehicle our expectations were suddenly significantly downgraded, as after a few hundred meters of perfect surface we found ourselves on a construction site in the latest stages of its life. If I started to think this must be the worst drive of my life then I should have been prepared for something even worse after the next sharp turn. The steep dirt road had changed into a rather narrow opening between the trees, which resembled a US Army durability testing site for Abrams tanks. I have to apologize for lack of photo documentation from this part of our trip because everybody in the vehicle tried to grab any available handle and if some hands had stayed unengaged, they were busy praying for survival rather than looking for a f…ing camera!

The holes were getting bigger and deeper, while at the same time closer together. Two-way traffic in the steep narrow forrest corridor was full of aggressive Georgian drivers honking nervously at anything or anybody delaying their progress upwards to the church or way down to Stepantsminda asap. Overall conditions would not allow any margin of error even for professional drivers of Abrams tanks. Not to say me, a real amateur in this field with no appetite for attempted suicide among those willing to kill themselves or others! To make this story shorter, we did make it to the top for the church and the view. But the driving experience made me less appreciative of the view and in the sanctuary all I could do was pray that the few bad (and loud) hits I allowed to the internal organs of our rental car, mightn’t have caused any permanent damage to its mechanics or a fatal leakage of whatever liquids are necessary to get down to the nearest public road, where help may reach us if needed. Luckily, in more than half an hour’s stay on the top, no large slick of oil could be detected. I drove down the hill slowly and carefully, ignoring the hateful screaming of Georgian drivers unable to overtake us in the narrow corridor. Everybody in the car heaved a big sigh of relief when we reached again the “downtown”, where we immediately ordered large portions of pork shashlik and a large quantity of alcohol.

Thus we accomplished two High Caucasus visits and we left happily for the gentle wine region of Kakheti. Above it the wild Tusheti were beckoning, but whatever we have read and whoever we talked to told us it was impossible to get to and over the so called most dangerous high pass in Europe. What really happened, shall be revealed in the next blog post.

Caucasus Mountain Magic

“Pinch me, I must be dreaming!” was a recurrent thought floating to the top of my beauty addled brain as we travelled through the Georgian High Caucasus. The highest reward of travel is that awe inspiring moment when you are so overwhelmed by the spectacular view, the quiet beauty, or the deep experience that you forget about time and space and you just float wonderstruck. One afternoon I found myself atop a gorgeous Georgian horse in the high mountains of Tusheti trotting through a forrest of pine and birch. The tall birch trees have all turned bumblebee yellow. Nature dipped her fall paintbrush into crimson and rose and lightly brushed their very tops. Suddenly a slight breeze picked up and as it caressed the branches the yellow leaves started trembling with delight. I stopped the horse and listened to the gentle mountain etude my heart swelling in awe, my spirit soaring. How could I be so lucky to experience this magical moment?

With a feeling of profound gratitude I urged the horse on following my nimble Tush guide on his horse. With his black beard and embroidered red cap he looked like he just stepped out of a folk tale book, one of many I read as a little girl. As we came upon a distant village an old church came into view. We dismounted respectfully and as my companion cared for our horses I stepped inside through the low wooden door. Usually Georgian churches are mysteriously dark but here the whole interior was painted in cheerful blue with queens and kings of yore offering a friendly greeting. One of them undoubtedly was 12th century conquering Queen Tamar, a queen so mighty and so beloved everyone in Georgia calls her King Tamar. After we gave the horses a drink in the cool river we raced them back galloping to our hearts’ and our spry horses hearts’ content while the tall mountains with a sprinkling of snow on their highest peaks cradled the green high valley in their protective embrace. Despite the seemingly impenetrable High Caucasus range throughout the millennia in response to the raids from neighboring tribes the villagers of Tusheti built tall defensive towers where people and cattle could weather the history’s storms. Walking through the villages was not just like stepping back in time but also stepping into a fairytale. Every minute now I expected Rapunzel to appear at the window and let down her hair. Even the clouds up high were full of fairytale magic colors. Tush hauntingly beautiful music and remnants of beliefs of worshiping the sun reach back to the dawn of time, with round white stones offering protection and white sheep’s wool spun into legends. In other mountains, in Svaneti, it wasn’t just the neighboring tribes, but also the very neighbors one had to seek protection from. The rivers there ran with gold, but also with blood of the feuding families. Each family had a strong stone tower connected with underground tunnels to other clan members houses. How sad to have your existence narrowed down like that! Living your life in fear, hatred and revenge when there is majestic beauty all around, making the heart sing with every step.

And love grow…

Meet Me in Cambodia?

Do you have travel plans for 2019? Itching to go but don’t know which destination to choose or hate organizing the details?

Join me on the fantastic Philanthropic trip to Cambodia in January! You will do some good, see the country from the back door and have a chance to photograph the real life besides the famed temples.

A big part of our family’s travel has been trying to do a little good on the way. We spearheaded different projects around the world from small distribution of toiletries in Burmese orphanages to donations funds for building toilets in Uganda and then some huge fundraising and hand building pedestrian bridges in Rwanda and Panama.

To this day when we travel in backwater places Mirek and I still look for local organizations and worthwhile projects to suggest for funding with Lanternprojects.org.

But my biggest volunteer effort has been for nearly 10 years helping make a difference in the lives of Cambodian village children through Cambodian Community Dream organization. As a board member and VP of the organization I have brought many volunteer groups to help with training local teachers or help with dental care.

It is one of the best experiences for me to share my love of travel and volunteering by showcasing the amazing work in “our” Cambodian schools and villages.

January 18-27, 2019

Make a Difference, Share, Learn, and Have Fun

What:

Visit Cambodian villages and schools while experiencing Asian cultural immersion Escorted by Jenni Lipa, Founder and President and Ksenija Olmer, Vice-President of the Cambodian Community Dream Organization (CCDO).

Why:

See first hand the progress in “our” schools and village communities and how our involvement changes the lives and future of Cambodian children and families.

How:

During our visits you will be able to observe and interact with children in schools, read to them in libraries, play with them in preschools, serve breakfast in canteens, play sports, help in computer centers and meet villagers in their family compounds & social enterprises. You will gain cultural enrichment and understanding of history, temples, art, traditional dance, cooking.

Logistics:

Travel, lodging, meals, sightseeing, and transportation organized by Spa Trek, travel partner of CCDO. Daily transport from hotel to sites in safe, comfortable, airconditioned vans.

Accommodations:

Our philanthropic partner, a beautiful hotel in the center of Siem Reap City, Memoire D’Angkor Boutique Hotel with AC, swimming pool and spa. www.memoiredangkor.com

Price:

Land only (all inclusive) $1,150

• Single room supplement: $300

• Ask about possible individual extension trips to Thailand, Vietnam or Laos.

Includes:

• 11 days of travel with purpose in Siem Reap (villages, schools & temples, including famed Angkor Wat)

• All ground transportation in comfortable air-con van

• Hotel 4* with amenities (double occupancy)

• All meals in vetted restaurants and cold bottled water

• All passes to temples, entrance fees, guides and tips

• NOT INCLUDED ARE CAMBODIAN VISA UPON ARRIVAL $30 PLUS DRINKS AND SOUVENIRS

Evening Fun:

Find bargains at the Night Market. Have a massage! Learn to prepare a delicious Cambodian meal in Khmer Cooking School. Enjoy traditional Khmer dance performance.

History, Art & Architecture:

Revel in the spectacular Angkor Wat Temples, the carved city of Angkor Thom, the giant heads of Bayon Temple, and the jungle temple of Ta Phrom. Enjoy the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Immerse yourself in History at the Na-tional Museum.

More details online.

https://www.theccdo.org/cambodian-philanthropic-experience

Drop me a line if you are coming or you have questions!

And hopefully meet you in Cambodia!

Photo Essay of Alluring Algarve

Say YES to any travel opportunity coming our way, was one of the guiding principles when we started planing our Year of Travel.So when we were asked to visit our little grandchildren and their parents vacationing on Algarve coast, we said yes, of course. We rented a small apartment on Airbnb for a week and built up a 4 week European driving trip around it.When I hear beach vacation I imagine a white sandy hotel beach with a line of lounge chairs going towards horizon. Someone’s vision of ultimate bliss and mine of ultimate boredom.But South Portugal has proven to be so much more and we loved every minute of it. There were enough diverse beaches that we could visit one or two a day and if the water was a bit on the cold side we could build sandcastles with the kids.Some were inspired by local Bronze Age prehistoric archeological sites. We made sure to pass down our love for history in fun and educational ways.We went even further back in history and showed our little dinosaur-obsessed grandson real dinosaur footprints. Even though they were from his favorite Tyrannosaurus Rex he wasn’t that impressed. But we were. The kids were much more impressed with the well done early morning dolphin tour with an old conch blowing sea captain. We lucked out with many pods of dolphins frolicking around our boat, including a mom with her little baby. The future profession ideas quickly changed from paleontologist to marine conservationist.

Even the sea food choices veered to prehistoric looking specialities of percebes (barnacles) dubbed “Dino claws”.The newer history brought forts, castles and light houses with very popular if mostly made up stories of princesses locked up in towers. From morning till night there was exploration galore. Certainly nobody was bored. Watching surfers was a favorite pastime.Every night before dinner I had a private Portuguese lesson with a lovely young neighbor Mariana, accompanied by a glass of local red.Learning Portuguese has been on my Bucket list for a long time. A week is hardly enough to learn how to order dinner but the generally sweet Portuguese were even sweeter when I asked them to “fala Portuguese” with me. One day I want to come back and learn more so I can listen to (and understand) the hauntingly beautiful traditional fado songs.

One of course can never get tired of glorious sunsets… or spectacular views…mysterious caves… or moss covered rocks… Sometimes one can even slow down a little and sit on the beach for a bit, listening to the crashing of the waves.The Merman says so.

PS. What is one thing on your Bucket List that you want to learn?

Drinking Our Way Through Europe: Part 2–Wine

When it comes to wine we have a very clear division of labor: my wife drinks it and I drive her around. She has spent many, many hours through the years helping our good friends in their California vineyard pruning, harvesting, bottling (best therapy ever, she claims) so she can throw around words like refractometer and bortrytis. But she is no wine snob, not her, and points or AV designations and especially not the contrived descriptions or ludicrous prices make no difference to her. What she really enjoys is the human aspect of wine production and tasting and that makes it really fun for me going along for the ride. Therefore I feel honored to let all important decisions of the day rest in the capable hands of my leading co-director, such as which winery to select, what wine to drink and how long to stay in any of the watering holes, while I am tasked with less important aspects like trying to enjoy myself while

1. sipping a glass of local sparkling mineral water whenever all others taste wonderful French wines. (Sometimes I am generously allowed at least a whiff). 2. staying fully compliant with the country zero tolerance policy and the new speed limit that the authorities just lowered a week before we crossed the River Rhine. (When I asked why, I was told it should lessen the high summer casualties occurring year after year as French population leaves en-mass the places of their business, exhausted by their 32-hour work week, seeking a well deserved month of national recuperation in the countryside).

3. settling the bills after our frequent drinking stops

During the necessary relocations between cellars my duty was to move fast within the constraints of the new law, so the time spent on the road was not wasted AND in case of frequent police stops my primary responsibility was to make absolutely clear that the wine vapors coming out of the car window have nothing to do with the driver himself.

Occasional gaps between wine tasting were not spent by arguing over navigation, one of the only few possible and in truth infrequent discourses between travel co-directors, as the other member of our team was dozing oblivious, before having another opportunity for a drink somewhere else.

Every evening it was a joy to pull up at a carefully pre-selected Airbnb, often times a veritable “chateau”. My wine tasting travel companion clearly realized a strong need for a sturdy, yet soothingly comfortable bed in the Louis XIV size bedroom with possibly a pool full of mercifully cold water, so we would be well prepared for another day of wine drinking duties (her) and loving gentle care (me). Our itinerary of crossing France was carefully selected so that the most famous of French wine production regions were coincidently never too far off: Alsace, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the River Rhône. All necessary effort was taken to learn…and to drink.

While thinking of French wines might immediately bring an image of a large glass of red, one should not forget the white wine, too. Alsace and its wine has a special place in our heart. Maybe it is because many, many years back when we first travelled through Alsace we had the first taste of excellent dry white wine that was not at all sour and acid reflux inducing. (Hint: grow up and stop drinking cheap white wine). I still remember the name of it – Trimbach Riesling.

Realizing lately that it is mostly wiser to keep old memories intact, we did not return to that winery, we headed for Turckheim and Colmar. Our welcome introduction to the region came via last minute email from our California friend, whose cousin married over there all the way from the Philipines. Her storytelling was nearly as good as her mean quiche baking that went really well with a bottle of Alsatian Riesling. Tasty and affordable.

Locals were just wonderful at giving suggestions to help us avoid the expensive tourist traps. One of the Airbnb hosts in Burgundy welcomed us with local cheese and wine and then immediately called her neighbor so we could be at her “cave” bright and early the next morning for a most friendly welcome

and informative tasting.

Other mornings we lingered with other guests over sumptuous breakfast

and in the evenings we continued to acquire new viticulture knowledge.

At another Airbnb in Bordeaux we expanded our discussion into world power politics with the hosts, a former French Air Force officer and his Russian wife. Regarding French wine he gave an interesting take on the stratospheric wine prices in the overheated global economy. “There is only so much boutique wine and plenty of crazy Chinese and Russian collectors willing to pay €25,000 for a bottle. (Anyone remembering tulip bulb or nutmeg fever of the past?) Personally we were quite satisfied to just drive by the two most famous wineries in Bordeaux, Le Pin and Petrus. While Petrus was securely locked up, the even more expensive 4 hectares small Le Pin was just there for the tromping. Of course we will never taste those wines, so we gleefully snuck into a row of vines and at least touched a celebrity cluster worth a few thousand bucks. Never mind the sour grapes, we were happy as a lark to stop at nearby Saint-Emilion and enjoy a modest but delicious picnic lunch in the garden of a 14 century Franciscan monastery Les Cordeliers, washed down by their lovely rose bubbly made from the most famous grape varieties of the Bordeaux region including Merlot, Sémillon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon.

Usually when the time came to mitigate the large quantities of drinks with some solids, we tried to follow the locals. Initially we did have some difficulties at this time of the the year to find any French people about. They seemed to practically disappear during a magical time between noon and 3pm. That is a window of time when France looks pretty much like after a fierce neutron bomb attack. All buildings are standing, but small towns and villages are devoid of any sign of life, including dogs and cats. Until you discover under the shade of a few trees around a village restaurant a group of parked cars. Their drivers and their families (and their dogs) are sitting at the tables enjoying the national pastime of having a “small lunch”, probably including foie gras in any shape and form. In France, forget the drive-in fast food joints. Having lunch with a minimum of a 3-course serving accompanied by a bottle of wine is a process and it is honored nationwide. At some point you realize why French army rarely won any war unless assisted by an Allied country with mediocre cuisine at best, as taking proper time to eat (and drink) everyday is de rigeur.

À Votre Sante!

Oh, and what is your favorite wine?

Drinking Our Way Through Europe: Part 1–Beer

Planing our recent European drive-about we quickly realized we really did not want to revisit Paris, in fact we wanted to avoid all big cities, inundated by the summer crowds, and get off the beaten path. Instead of planing our itinerary around big tourist attractions we figured we could hit some big wine producing regions instead and drink our way through Europe. We would not shy away from any other drinks of course, but gleefully enjoy the human ingenuity that has figured out long ago how to turn everything from fruit and hops to plain old potatoes into an alcoholic beverage. Pair this with some good food, beautiful European landscapes and small town and village architecture and of course meeting some interesting local producers and you get a unique, delectable and most enjoyable summer ever. Bonus: many old friends and family to visit and see on the way!

While my husband and I agree on most important issues of the day and life, there is one thing we have never been able to see eye to eye – beer! While my husband has grown up on hectoliters of Czech lager, (no surprise, beer is still cheaper than water in Czech Republic) I only grew to enjoy beer once I discovered the interesting diversity of American microbrews. Our “discussions” about beer to this day quickly turn into jabs like “Your beer looks like morning piss!” Or “How can you even call this beer, when it tastes of apricots?” Hey, don’t diss my Pyramid Apricot Ale or Vanilla Porter or Hefeweizen!

If you are a serious beer drinker, and you are not Czech, you will probably agree that Belgium beer is the best in Europe if not in the world. The young bold brewers are building on the strong, centuries old tradition of Trappist monks brewing their classic and very tasty and very, very strong beer. Trying to educate and persuade my husband I dragged him to a number of breweries in Belgium.

We visited for a few days with my cousin and her fiancé on the outskirts of Brussels and they advised us to head to Leuven if we wanted to experience a real Belgium town without the tourists. The city was just waking up and it was too early to start beer tasting but beer was everywhere. Mirek was much more interested in the ladiesand even more in the food. Oh, the cheese stores are just overflowing with delicacies. Even the locals have hard time to choose. And then there is chocolate…but wait, what is this…a little store with something really, really , special. OMG, famous matjes, first herring of the season. Of course we have to go into this family owned store named de Walvis. There we are warmly welcomed and indulged with answers to every possible question and then treated to a special tasting of the best. Mirek is in heaven and even I who am a bit on the squeamish side when it comes to raw seafood have to admit it is absolutely melt on your tongue delicious. Wouldn’t a glass of beer go perfectly with that?

“Maybe if it was Stella Artois,” said Mirek. “But that is just your regular lager,” I protested. “No, it is Stella!”

So off we went to find Stella… (Cue Brando yelling Stella in the play Streetcar Named Desire!)

When we finally found the factory we were thwarted in our efforts by the security officer who told us of weekend only tours, but at least if Mirek couldn’t get a glass of, at least he got a photo with the glass.

When my cousin heard about the fiasco she quickly arranged for a lovely lunch accompanied with the probably most iconic Belgian beer–Westmalle.

Her fiancé was quite sure it will be easy to book a visit to one of the Trappist breweries. After hours and hours of internet research we were empty handed and concluded that the Trappist monks keep their secrets close. There are only 11 breweries allowed to display the Authentic Trappist Product logo, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium to find one. Surprisingly there is one in the US, at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Of course one would expect that to deserve a label the brewing Abbey must follow specific rules. There are actually only three: the beer must be brewed in a monastery by monks or under their supervision, it must not be the secondary activity of the monastery and the profits can only be used for the monks upkeep or charity.

Note that a Trappist beer can only be drunk from a chalice or a goblet, certainly not a stein!

The only brewery tour we could find at the last moment was to De Halve Maan in Brugge. A good excuse to drive to Brugge, even if everyone says it will be (too) crowded by tourists. Of course, we have to take a short boat ride on the canals, too!

While some others take the bikes…The tour was great, no big secrets withheld, still I can’t give you the low down on the process, it is bloody complicated with lots of tanks and fermentation processes. Just to make sure we are all on the same page here, the basic premise is combining simple ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast. Malt comes from malting barley (and/or wheat) and it determines the color and the flavor of the beer the most.

But I can certainly share some fun facts. For example the Halve Maan’s beer travels through a unique pipeline, connecting the brewery in the inner city to the bottling plant, over a distance of 3.2 km. It was build with the help of crowdsourcing beer enthusiasts.

While tasting their beers and reading their notes I realized In my next life instead of a poet I should love to be a poetic beer note writer. How poetic is that: “…Brugse Zot double has a ruby red-brown color and has a rich aroma composed of bitter notes…”

Wait, what’s that about being made from Czech Saaz hop from Zatec? Weren’t we just there, dear?

Of course, dear, I told you the best beer in the world is Czech beer!

Ugh, I can’t win!

While Czech beer strives to be uniformly the same (read the best), Belgian beer strives to each be distinct. With Mirek at the wheel I get to enjoy tastings galore.

Truth be told our trip to the North is not based on beer but for a very special occasion – the birth of our Dutch friend Ylvie’s baby. I am honored with the invitation to lend moral support to her as I am a big proponent of home birth and Ylvie plans the same for her little daughter.

We cross over to the Netherlands and spend nearly a week hanging out in the Dutch countryside close to our friend’s horse farm.

And who shows up but our home-born baby Naya? She brings along California sunshine.While we wait for the baby to make up her mind, we enjoy rides to the beach and iconic sights.

We even visit with a son of my old schoolmate in Rotterdam where we toast to the old times and new friendships with what else – Belgian Beer. Mirek is driving, so no Dutch Heineken for him!

Baby Nikka arrives healthy, strong and beautiful one sunny morning.

Her parents are ecstatic and so are we! How often does one get to hold a newborn in one’s arms? Tears are shed, blessings counted. These special moments will surely be the highlight of our Year of Travel.

In all our excitement we forget to open the bottle of champagne to toast to Nikka’s health and bright future.

No, worries. There is always another glass of good beer on the way back.

Proost! To new babies and to new travels! The world is indeed a beautiful place! As Louis Armstrong sang the message so clearly:

I see trees of green…….. Red roses too

I see em bloom….. For me and for you

And I think to myself…. What a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue….. Clouds of white

Bright blessed days…. Dark sacred nights

And I think to myself….. What a wonderful world.

The colors of a rainbow….. So pretty.. In the sky

Are also on the faces….. Of people.. Going by

I see friends shaking hands….. Sayin.. How do you do

They’re really sayin…… I love you.

I hear babies cry…… I watch them grow

They’ll learn much more….. Than I’ll never know

And I think to myself….. What a wonderful world

Written by Bob Thiele (as “George Douglas”) and George David Weiss.

And what is your favorite beer? Let us know in comments bellow!

sLOVEnija is to Love

Without any subjectivity whatsoever on my part (wink, wink) I do have to state: Slovenija is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. How could it not be when even the name itself connotes LOVE. Love locks on Lake Bled

Slovenia is a tiny little country (less than 8.000 square miles and only 2 million people) tucked under the Alps with neighboring Austria to the north, Italy to the west, Hungary to the east and Croatia to the south. I have never met anyone who visited that did not fall in love on first sight. I have met plenty of people who confuse Slovenija with Slovakia or even Slavonia. Just to make it clear once and for all: Slovakia is the divorced half of the former Czechoslovakia and Slavonia is a part of Croatia. And then there was Yugoslavia of which Slovenia and Croatia used to be a part of.

Sunrise over Julian Alps

Just recently I somehow managed to finagle my youngest daughter into the first ever mother-daughter trip back to Slovenia, my home country. While she has been there countless times since childhood, this time she saw it with the eyes of an independent young woman, who has now travelled a big chunk of the world on her own. And to my surprise she could not stop raving about the beauty of her mother’s homeland. The mountains, the meadows, the lakes, the mediaeval castles… all the sights she has been taking for granted on all her childhood summer vacations suddenly took on a new meaning and beauty. It probably helped that her best friend just spent two weeks hiking in Slovenian Alps and raved to her about all the wonderful experiences and nice people she had encountered. Our daughter Naya hiking in the Alps

Of course one can trust one’s friend’s opinions much more than one’s mother’s life experience! Still, I felt gratified and excited about her excitement. Maybe even a little vindicated…

Despite its tiny size and population Slovenia has won quite some bragging rights. Slovenian athletes are world class, and whatever the sport, Slovenians will show up in droves and win a lot of medals. When you look at per capita Olympic medal wins we are right up at the top. A giant billboard with Olympic rowing medalists

Not surprising, as Slovenes are quite an athletic nation-it is mandatory for every child in the elementary school not only to learn the 3 R’s (and consequently bring the country’s literacy rate to 99.7 percent and the fifth top place in the world) but also to attend a week of swimming lessons in a camp at the Adriatic Sea and a week of skiing lessons in the Alps. Every weekend you will see people of all ages on bikes, boats, skies, or at least lacing up their hiking boots. There is likely no other nation that is as crazy about their national sports teams and not only when it is time to soccer tournaments. Biatlonists or rowers or ski jumpers-they are all beloved national heroes.

Slovenia has also been named, according to some Internet travel sites, the safest country to travel to. It is also one of the cleanest. Alas, that only applies to its recycling programs and general cleanliness of streets, pubs and toilets. Not so much to the clean government; since the independence some 27 years ago when new Slovenia was declared the least corrupt and safest to invest in from the former Eastern European nations, her ranking kept on dropping. That is something that pains me nearly as much as the birth connection of the current First Lady to the country of my birth. Turns out that we have another connection, we both attended the same university, except that I really graduated and she said she did.

There is an undeniable cuteness factor: darling small villages with small cozy houses with small carved balconies with small wooden boxes spilling over with an abundance of colorful flowers. Small undulating hills dotted with tiny white mediaeval churches,

which rise above narrow checkered fields in green rainbow colors. Yet there are also big, beautiful, breathtaking places and sights to see – natural and man made marvels: the snow caped peaks of the Julian Alps rising from the green meadows; clear blue-green lakes with swans and fairytales castles; underground caves with fantastic karst formations, vineyards ablaze in fall colors, blue-green rivers and streams, even a small a small piece of Adriatic Sea. For me the biggest Slovenian treasure are swaths of lush forests, where you can tramp freely; rich green woods filled with abundance of chestnuts, mushrooms, wild blueberries, and raspberries. You can have your truffles anytime, let me have just a fistful of intoxicating wild strawberries. In the cities, you will find a thoroughly modern standard of living with glass skyscrapers and business centers, air-conditioned public transportation, and five star restaurants and casinos. But just a short hop, skip (forget the jump) you’ll encounter quaint ethnic villages with cottage gardens where all vegetables are organic, sausages home made, honey golden, and fresh chicken eggs have yolks orange like the setting sun.On a short drive or a hike in the mountains, you will often come across centuries old methods of cutting grass with a scythe or transporting hay with a horse cart. In the mountains you will find summer pastures with sheep or cow camps and there you can indulge in home made cheese or buttermilk crafted from the milk milked from the cows that have eaten only fresh juicy green grass sweetened with meadow flowers. People are helpful, interested and educated. They speak at least one foreign language — English if not also German and Italian. Slovenians are quite hospitable, and if you are lucky to be invited into a Slovenian home, you will have to drink and eat until bursting. Ditto if you eat in a pub, where large quantities of meat and potatoes are a staple diet. Culinary-wise Slovenia tends to lean towards healthy Central Europe with soups, meats, dumplings and yeasty cakes. As you move to the edges of the country, you can taste the influence of its neighbors, especially Italians with their pizzas, pastas and gnocchi. Fresh river trout and sea food and, for the more adventuresome, game (deer, boar and bear) are easily found. There are a few unique specialties that I absolutely have to sample on every visit to my home country; surprisingly, they are pretty much all special desserts. Ah, my sweet tooth gets me in trouble all the time!

Even though the country is so small, you can stay for awhile, as each region is quite diverse and offers interesting places to visit or lovely drives to enjoy. But if I had to choose three highlights, these would be it:

A stroll Through the Old Town of the Capital Ljubljana (Don’t try to pronounce that, you might tangle, if not break your tongue.)

It is a miniature version of Prague’s Old Town sans endless hordes of tourists and hawkers. Going back five millenniums you can see well preserved walls of the Roman town of Emona. Walk the pedestrian zone on the cobbled streets with Renaissance fountains, restored Baroque facades or Art Nouveau decorations. Climb, or if you wish, take a funicular up to the tower of the medieval castle for a beautiful view of the city. You will see the glistening roofs by the green river Ljubljanica, meandering slowly through the city, separating the oldest part from the new by many elegant bridges. Descend and explore the big Framer’s Market (right next to the Cathedral) with its colorful umbrellas and variety of foods and ethnic products. Have a delicious gelato by the Three Bridges, observing the people meeting at the monument to the national poet and his muse. (No statues of military men on horseback here). Or have a beer in the beer garden right across the square with jazz artists and students playing every day in the summer.

Stroll along the lighted paths by the river to the outdoor Krizanke Summer Theatre and enjoy an international performance of opera or ballet.

When last year our oldest daughter Tisa chose Ljubljana as her wedding venue, surely her American friends and family did not know what to expect. It only took checking in at the Vander hotel (designed from three medieval houses with a roof terrace peeking at the castle above) and a few hours at the night-before-the-wedding-bash on the banks of the Ljubljanica river and everyone was in love with the place. Lake Bled

The day after the wedding we all took a trip just half an hour north of the capital to the jewel of Slovenija – Lake Bled. Its unique setting is simply magical. The panorama of the small blue-green lake is edged by the distant peaks of the Alps and its highest mountain Triglav, the symbol of the country. In the middle of the lake is a miniature island accessible by traditional wooden boats or a swim for the brave and sturdy. It is an old tradition that the groom must carry his bride up the ninety-nine steps on the island leading to the white church built on an old pagan site, replete with old frescoes and a wishing bell. The tradition also says people who ring the church bell three times, get their wish fulfilled. Our middle daughter Lana ringing the bell for the newlyweds’ happiness…

The best view of the lake and surrounding villages is from the medieval castle perched on a hill by the edge of the lake. After you catch your breath climbing the stairs it will be immediately taken away for the view is truly to die for.  You can easily walk or bike on the path all around the lake, stopping to admire the families of white long necked swansor young rowers of Olympic fame. On a recent early morning walk around the lake my husband and I could not help ourselves but double the time it takes to go around. Every few steps there was a new sight begging to be enjoyed and photographed. We encountered some early runners and with his typical sarcastic take Mirek observed, “Half of them look phenomenal, and half look like they might be running straight to their doctor. And of those, I think, half won’t make it.”

To replenish your energy sit on a terrace of one of the hotels or coffee shops, enjoying the romantic view, good coffee and famous Bled kremshnite (Custard slices). Bled is a starting point for many short or long hikes to the countryside, waterfalls, or mountains of the National Park. For the young and/or the daring it is also a center for adrenaline filled sports of river rafting, kayaking, canyoning or paragliding. For my 50th birthday I took to the sky over the neighboring Bohinj lake on a tandem paraglide and it was one of the more thrilling experiences of my life!

Postojna Caves

An hour south of the capital is one of the more famous European wonders of the natural world-the underground caves created by tiny drops of water over millions of years. Deep underground await thousands of stalactites and stalagmites of all sizes and colors to dazzle the visitor. Personally I am not big on caves, but this one really is a marvel. Multilingual guides bring you along well paved paths to the most attractive areas on a 1.5 hour long tour, part of it on an open electric train. It is exhilarating for young and old alike to zoom through black passages only to be greeted by dramatic lighting revealing pillars and curtains of calcite formations. Back up in the sun make a short detour to visit Predjamski grad, a romantic white castle built into the rock in a hidden valley that was occupied in the middle ages by a robber baron. For horse lovers, a stop at Lipica stud farm nearby, where the famous Lipizzaner horses of the Vienna High School of Dressage have originated from, is a special treat.

You can easily make Slovenia your base for exploring some other better known European destinations. It is only 186 miles across the whole country so from the capital it takes about three hours of driving to Venice and four to five hours to Vienna. You can also head down to the Croatian Islands or to Budapest in Hungary, but you might first want to see how hard it is to leave the fairyland of SLOVEnija after you inevitably fall in love, too.

Prague Primer – Slightly Sarcastic Edition

Wading through the crowds in the intact historical old town of Prague or visiting the many medieval castles crowding the countryside you could easily be mistaken in your assumption that Czechs have lived here since forever. But no, the now 10 million strong hard (beer) drinking, pork roast and dumplings eating folks, the most western of all Slavic tribes, have moved into this area only some 1,500 years ago.

How, is the story that every Czech school kid from kindergarten on can recite by heart. Never mind that it is totally fictitious.

A small band of brothers was led on a long walk about by a leader whose name and “title” was….no kidding, our Great, great….grand-father Forefather Czech. On their long march from the eastern steppes of Europe they arrived on the flatlands encircled by protective mountains. Here, rising from the fertile lowland crisscrossed by two mighty rivers, they stopped bellow a breast shaped hill, not too high and easy to ‘climb’. The leader decided to have a look from this convenient vantage point and what he saw pleased him so greatly, he right there and then decided to put down their roots. The great beauty stroke a cord in his heart and poetry flew from his tongue. When upon his descent his long suffering comrades looked upon him expectantly, he spoke with a dramatic voice, “I saw a land overflowing with milk and honey. Here we stay!” At first everyone was happy to chill and rest their weary feet and fix their worn out sandals. Later on some, finding out there was a lovely blue Adriatic sea just a little further, felt a bit cheated. In spite of his major reconnaissance worthy of senior position on Google Maps team, some of his descendants still hold a grudge and complain that Father Czech did not necessarily have to stop at that bloody hill and was probably too lazy to press on towards the shining sea. Yes, they still blame him for the fact that this nation is landlocked for good with no access to the salt water! Thus Czechs have to undertake an annual pilgrimage called summer vacation to the sea and very unfairly also have to pay highway tolls to the stinking neighboring countries.

Nevertheless they have been more or less happily living here ever since, and they certainly do not like others to descend on them and their beloved homeland, especially the hordes of bloody tourists and even less any immigrants or, god forbid, refugees.

The fact that we do not know the exact words or actions of our forefathers is due to a little problem of – no alphabet. No beer yet either. Their alphabet came with Christianity. And da beer? God knows which thirsty Czech brewed it first. While beer brewing is a relatively simple procedure, creating an alphabet isn’t, especially for a strange language with unusual sounds that can easily break your tongue and your willingness to learn it. The relief here is that at least it is in Latin, even if it has 42 letters and not Cyrillic as some other Slavic languages.

The good news is that some English (with a very sexy accent, says my wife) is spoken, so don’t hesitate to come. Still, I feel compelled to inform you of certain peculiarities of living with the locals.

Point number one: Czechs are very proud of their beer. Period. They can talk about it ad nausea and they prove their love by drinking it ad nausea. At the Golden Tiger, a typical Czech pub, simple and full of beer swilling men.

You should not be surprised that they dream about having beer drinking as one of the disciplines in the future Olympic Games. They would most certainly be the favorites for Gold medal! Hands down, as they are currently certified as the greatest beer drunkards of the world. How much beer do they drink per capita (including women, children, even newborns, and senior citizens) in a year? Are you ready? There are quite a few statistics to google and those statistics are stunning! The Czechs are the biggest beer drunkards of them all by a significant margin with 142.7 liters (that is almost 430 regularly sized American servings) of beer drunk a year. I can hardly visualize my three year old grandson having a can of Budweiser a day and sometimes 2 cans, but it looks like a solid statistical truth! Moreover the statistics leave the next runners up in the dust by about one hundred beers a year! Well, if the Czechs have been missing the real ocean on their shores for more than fifteen centuries, they have certainly been more than compensating for their Forefather’s great misdeed by drinking an ocean of beer year after year after year! When in Rome…Cheers!

Point number two: Contrary to their champion beer drinking qualities, Czechs are NOT Masters of the Universe in championing quality services to their visitors. Generally, when you want to buy something or eat something or be involved in any other basic life activity, you would expect a seller to be interested in accomplishing his fiscal or other, maybe social goals! But not here, you are dead wrong! Because whenever you attempt to get/buy/learn something a strange game ensues. For example: entering a place of business you would expect to be immediately ambushed by an attentive employee keen on satisfying your needs (getting goods, food, drinks, information) in exchange for monetary compensation or at least a pleasant smile. Instead you are mostly ignored as sales people, waiting staff or officials disregard your presence. Unperturbed, they carelessly continue in casual conversation with colleagues about yesterday’s World Cup match, or intense observation of seasonal movements of migratory birds to their nesting grounds in South Africa through the shop windows. They might also try to disappear en-mass in the shop’s storage area, kitchen, toilets, smoking dens unless they actually stay seated and focus on finishing their coffee or lunch with their legs criss-crossed in front of them as an impenetrable medieval city defense rampart. Either way, they are real masters in avoiding any eye contact which, God forbid, would inevitably uncover to their customers the real purpose of their presence. That game of cat and mouse can last long and if you leave the place empty handed, then they have won!

If you press your case and somehow manage to make them notice you, then there comes the second line of defense. No matter how friendly and smiling YOU may look while presenting your intent to enter into a financial transaction, their rule of business is: Never ever crack a smile! Instead clearly indicate with your facial expression your high level of annoyance, and put no great effort in hiding your deep desire for the customer to disappear ASAP.

If you dare express your wish such as:

“I noticed in the store window a wonderful red model of high heels I cannot live without. My size is about 6 in the US which I presume is an irrelevant piece of information for you. So would you mind giving me one or two pairs to see which size can fit me best?”

Manolo Blahnik shoes at a local exhibition – did you know he is half Czech?

In the follow up to this innocent opening salvo from your side you can detect a slight change of expression on his/her face now bordering on disgust, as you hear the answer:

“Can’t you let me first finish my lunch/observation of important movement of the birds or…….(see the list above)?”

If you insist, he/she makes a point as his/her head moves towards the location where the desired shoe model of broad range of sizes might be gathering dust,

“Don’t you see that pile of boxes in the corner? Check for yourself!” And then he/she turns his/her back on you, possibly catching the sympathetic eye of the other shop assistant.

It goes like this for a while and if by any chance you leave the store with the shoes of your dreams you can be congratulated. You passed the test and can now attempt to apply for permanent residency. The restaurant staff love to entertain another strategy. On entering that beautiful restaurant that beckons so invitingly from the outside, you have a choice of a long wait for your table or moving boldly and sitting down at the first empty one. Never mind if it is not clean. Either way your wait is going to be long because the waiting staff has more important things to do such as…see the list above…plus cleaning all the OTHER tables of the dirty dishes. When your choice of table is approved by a grouchy waiter, you might be offered a drink, while you wait for someone else to clean your table. You are probably lucky if by the time you finish your second drink and feel starving and slightly drunk you get blessed by getting a glance at the Czech menu. If you need an English version order another drink first. Famous Savoy, snotty waiters.

After you had a chance to learn all the items by heart the waiter will return not to take your order or explain the ingredients, but to point out which dishes are not available any more. Then, have another drink, as it takes a little bit shorter than forever, before your dish arrives. Unless, your waiter comes back from the kitchen sooner, explaining with a smirk on his sour face that the last dish you selected has just been served to a guest at the neighboring table. Ha-ha. Pretty decent rabbit with dumplings at St. Norbert brewery. Pretty decent service, too.

“You better order something else and meanwhile have another drink!”

All in all I believe this is a winning marketing strategy of the Czech beer industry that is now being taught in MBA courses to the exchange students at the good old Charles University (founded 1348). Exception to the rule: The nicest, friendliest restaurant staff to be found at Roesel’s close to Charles Bridge on Mostecka.

At this point you might not be so keen on visiting let alone trying to live here. And you can stop reading.

FOR POSSIBLE EXPATS ONLY

In case you still want to press on let me give you some pointers on how to deal with the local bureaucracy.

A visit to the local authorities’ office offers an excellent insight into the historic workings of the bureaucracy of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Certainly you are not there to be served, but to satisfy a commanding official, sitting behind the desk in his office. If you think that after waiting for a few hours, clutching a little paper with your number in your sweaty hand being called to hopefully correct door, the process will start, you are only dreaming. First, you will be grilled what do you want and why, providing the official with an excellent first opportunity to get rid of you by sending you somewhere else. If you pass the first hurdle then the official would encourage you to present him with all possible supporting documents you should have known to bring. If any of them is missing you are on your way out. If you do have them, then their authenticity is in question. They should be notarized, verified, properly copied, digitized!

Interesting discussion developed over the so called “birth number” (a sort of social security number) document issued by local authorities to my spouse of 35 years, when we tried to inform them of the change of our home address. She received this number fancily laminated from the very same office after a three-year trench war filled with frequent mistakes and delays by authorities. To our surprise the officer requested 3-weeks to verify the validity of this document. Wow!

“What could you possibly have to verify on the document you issued yourselves?” I dared to peep.

“Well, it does not make any sense to me either,” the official whispered. “Let me ask my supervisor, if she is not lunching right now!” And he disappeared for 15-20 minutes. I thought she must have invited him to join her for lunch, but when he finally returned, he informed us,

“Well, she does not know either. Let us reduce the verification time to ten days, but not a day less!”

If this experience did not invoke pleasant memories of your own local Motor Vehicle Department or Passport Office, I can assure you that the political climate will make you feel quite at home. American visitors in particular would be flabbergasted to find that Czech presidential election brought surprisingly familiar results. And it did not happen just once in a very short time, but twice. The 50-50 split citizenry of Chechia are either disgusted or entranced by the Czech President and his staff who frequently disparage journalists for fake news and their limited IQ (not always on Twitter, though). The political swamp here is getting swampier by the day, too.

In conclusion, let me remind you that there are more great countries of the world aspiring to become Great Country again. If you want to see on your own please do not be afraid of coming. It is not just milk and honey you find here. There is much more: beer, pork roast, sauerkraut, apple strudel, art, music, and beautiful women (for bachelors only). And of course a couple of old travelers happy to welcome you!

See you then!

Golden Prague For All Seasons

I must admit I was not too keen to move on to Europe after our great Australasian adventure. I felt I was kinda done with Europe. Over the many years of travel and many family summers we have been to most European countries and seen most iconic sights. Besides, after the sweet solitude of endless deserted beaches who wants to battle the European summer crowds?

And yet, thanks in large part to friends and family, I managed to rekindle the old flame. Being visited by and visiting friends in Europe made me again see and appreciate the good old civilization.

Of course, seeing that we have two cute grandchildren in Prague, it only made sense to now make our summer travel base in the Czech capital. Did you know Czech Republic has been shortened to Czechia? A terrible mistake, if you ask me. Obviously nobody did. And I refuse to call it thus, even if Google maps does.

Taking visitors around Prague, especially those coming for the first time, is a very slow process, as every few steps people tend to stop abruptly and crane their necks looking at the magnificent views or intricate small details. Beautiful women surround you every step of the way, not only on the streets, but peering down from the many stone portals and graceful windows. Crane your neck further and far up you will see the silent silhouettes of the rooftop decorations. Stand on tiptoes to peek over the walls or through the intricate iron fences. As our Australian relatives on their first ever trip to Europe said, “I am just overwhelmed, every step I take, everywhere I look there is a new, more beautiful sight. I don’t even know what to photograph first.” Indeed, all you need to do, is look through the viewfinder framing fantastic shots where ever you point: the river with the rainbow arch of bridges, the sleek red rooftops, the patinated green domes, the slender black spires, the long white flights of stairs, the balustrades and the lamps, the old gnarled trees shading the flowering blooms, the changing leaves slithering down impossibly tall white walls. No need for a fancy camera, or thinking about composition, the pictures are there, postcard perfect, ready for the taking.

There are never ending delights of ancient stone arches covered in ivy or laundry,heavy wooden doors with intricate bras knockers, secret passageways and cobblestone courtyards, magical views of castle, churches, bridges, river. Since the first time I set foot in Prague as a young student I fell for Charles Bridge. In those days it was much quieter and much less crowded, of course. When I got married in Prague I dropped my modest wedding bouquet from the bridge into the river. From then on, on every visit, no matter how short, I make it a point to walk across the Charles bridge, stopping to listen to a dixie band or watch an artist paint.

coming to the other side on Mala strana (Lesser Town) you can continue your stroll through many old parks and gardens or by the banks of Vltava river, humming Czech composer Smetana’s most well know melody Vltava. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=exz6zD056zk

You can stop for a live concert in one of the magnificent churches or synagogues. You can walk in the old Jewish cemeteries and ponder about (in)humanity and the transience of life amongst the old moss covered tombstones. It takes stamina and good shoes to walk the cobblestone streets of Prague. When our feet and/or our necks hurt, we would stop at a coffee shop, a bakery, a beer garden, or a restaurant. Those got more ohs and ahs for the ornate golden chandeliers and decorations or art nouveaux paintings or vaulted ceilings or dark wooden paneling, tables and benches. We ate the goulash and the many kinds of dumplings, tried cheese and sausage at a local farmer’s market and of course tasted the old and new varieties of famous Czech beer.

Refreshed, we climbed many more stairs and took many more iphone pictures, even some silly selfies with cardboard knights and the stone faced castle guards. Along the way I forgot about the steady stream of tourists and the summer crowds. Indeed, all you need to do is step a few steps, or a few streets away from the major thoroughfares and the city is quiet and yours in its golden glory. Any time of the year.