Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Minus 15 Celsius is cold, whether in Europe or in Texas

Siberian cold in Prague in early 2017
When thinking of cold temperatures, Europe appears to be a much more certain shoe-in than Lubbock, but when I left home three weeks ago it was bloody cold in Texas--almost as cold, by just a few degrees, as what Sabine and I experienced in Prague last week when the thermometer hit minus 15 Celsius, or something like 5 degrees Fahrenheit. What a difference from the DR, which by now is just a faint memory for me.
After one pretty day and a bike ride ...
... winter arrived in pre-Christmas Freising
I spent Christmas and New Year's and the first ten days of 2017 in Europe, never in one place for much longer than three or four days. The Friday after my arrival we drove to Dortmund to celebrate Christmas with Sabine's mom and brother, who live together in the family's old home outside of the city. It was a green Christmas, with much wind and drizzling rain and live candles on the tree and a very happy Oma. In between opulent meals we went for occasional walks (weather permitting), but in general it was all laziness. One evening we visited an old friend of Sabine's, a successful photographer with whom she had spent time on the south Pacific island of Tonga.
Only the candles burned, thank goodness
To break up our time in Dortmund, we went for a 36-hour field trip to Cologne and Schleiden, my old hometown. In Cologne we spent a few hours with my cousin, Paddy, and his family, and then we drove the remaining 50 kilometers to visit my old friends Tom and Regine and their extended family in Schleiden. I hadn't seen them since my summer trip in 2014 when Angela and I had stopped through, so there was much catching up to do. For Sabine it was the first time back to Schleiden since her first and only visit sometime in the late seventies. We had a great time!
Our old house in Schleiden, sporting a T-Mobile racing stripe
Raclette for New Year's Eve
For the turn of the year we were back in Bavaria. We had been invited by a befriended couple, Gerhard and Corinna, and together with them and other friends we celebrated the evening in their stylish home close to the Starnberger See. So far we hadn't seen much snow except a sprinkling right after I had arrived, but that night it was cold enough for ambient moisture in the air to freeze and look like spindrift. On New Year's Day, after sleeping in at our friends', the sun was out and we decided on a detour to the lake. With the Alps rising in the near distance we found a comfortable spot in a busy restaurant and basked in the afternoon sun. What a great way to start 2017! And on the way home, we took pictures of the icy landscape around Freising.
Starnberger See, with Alps in the background

We spent several hours in this nice cafe on the lake

Is this really the SUN????

Still Life with Latte Macchiato and Beer (appr. 2017, digital camera)

On the way back to Freising the icy fog once again started to move in

Not snow, ice from the fog

That's how ice grows
After New Year's, it finally started to snow, and the weather forecast painted a dire picture of the next few days as a low pressure system by the name of Axel was bearing down on central Europe. We had first thought about driving Sabine's Skoda to Prague but thought better of it--good decision as on our travel days conditions were especially dicey. We took advantage of the railroad's Prague Special and spent about 60 euros each for the four-and-a-half-hour trip--stress free in a compartment of our own, and almost on time. (OK, so what if the toilet was frozen on the way back and ice formed inside of the corridors?) To make things even easier, the train station is only a few minutes' walk from the Hilton Old Town Prague, where we had booked a room for three nights, right in the heart of the city. Nice.
Not another colon photo or some cranial exhibit--just the frozen toilet on the train

The joys of riding the train in winter
This was my fourth visit to Prague, and just like the first time with Judy sometime in the '90s it was bitterly cold. Add some wind to this Siberian cold, and the best course of action is to spend as much time inside as possible. That's really not difficult in Prague as there are exhibitions, museums, shops, coffee houses, and jazz clubs galore. Since we had visited the "must see" sights before we were free to simply drift and duck into whatever establishment looked right. In a tiny antiques store the elderly store owner invited us to sit down with him for a coffee and a brandy and a chat. Quite civilized! We went to various coffee houses, art deco affairs with waiters who look as if they have worked here forever. The Dali and Warhol exhibitions were quite interesting, as was the visit to the Sex Machines Museum--yes, we stooped that low and came away with more knowledge than anticipated! Jazz at night rounded off our four days in this fascinating and superbly picturesque city.
Enjoying the budding craftbrew scene as Pivovar Narodni

At Reduta Jazz Club we sat in the very same seats as these folks

The interiror (nope, the extrerior, too) of Kavarna Obecni Dum is as art deco as it gets

I clocked the cake cart at exactly 13 minutes per circuit through the entire coffee house

It wasn't quite cold enough (or not long enpugh cold) to freeze the Vltava; Pragues castle district, the Hradcany, is in the back left

Sabine enjoying the cold and ample birdlife in view of the Charles Bridge
Jazz Republic, where there's never a cover charge, where you can reserve
 seats, and where a decent beer costs $3. Now, how smart is that?

Prague's roofline is second to that of no other city that I have visited. None.

David Cerny's oevre d'art puts Manneken Pis in Brussels to shame. The penis moves up and down, side to side, activated by viewer's text messages.

Cerny is also reposible for this non-native species; no excretions here
Old coffee machine in another iconic coffee house, Kavarna Slavia

The National Theatre, in all of its late afternoon glory

Tantalizingly barbaric devices in the Sex Machines Museum. Do
not use this at home with your car battery attached.

And now I am sitting in the Munich airport waiting for my flight to London and then back to the US. In just a few hours, this entire trip will be history again. Sabine is back at work today after her vacation time, and my life will return to its normal routine (whatever that may be) as well. Happy New Year!
Hradcyn during the day
Hradcyn and Charles Bridge at night


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

R&R in the DR

Summer in December
Sun, warm breezes, humidity, crystal clear water, a white beach--how different than Lubbock in early December! But that's what I treated myself to last week when I used up one of my timeshare weeks to simply hang out and not worry about a thing in the world. It's not really that I needed  a vacation after just having returned from Europe a few days before my departure for the Dominican Republic, but thanks to the clavicle break (mostly mended by now) things have been a bit chaotic with the timing of trips. I could have cancelled this one, but then, why?
One of two large pools, with swim-up bars, of course.
H10 has a property in Punta Cana, on the east side of the island of Hispaniola, which the DR shares with Haiti. I cashed in about 100,000 miles for a first-class flight that took all day and arrived late on a Friday afternoon at PUJ. Forty-five minutes later my shuttle driver dropped me off in the resort, and by the time night fell I was sipping the first pina colada.
Beach butler service, please
Life in an all-inclusive is not for the faint of heart. You have to be able to stomach a veritable assault on your body in the form of too much food and too much booze. Sure, the days of buffet-style only resorts are pretty much passe, and all the better ones now offer "specialty restaurants" where one can eat a la carte. But while that does help limit the calorie intake somewhat, it's still not easy....
Tropical storms are a sight--and sound--to behold
Thanks to night-time rains some streets made for some interesting riding
To combat ballooning beyond the point of no return I had taken a bike along. The weather forecast had threatened much more rain than actually manifested itself, and therefore I had chosen to take the old Bike Friday along, which runs with a single chainring and about six or seven speeds in the back. It's seen its fair share of rough trips and shows the scars, so it's ideal for a trip that promises some equipment abuse. The fact that I didn't even take bike shoes or shorts along but rather rode just in Patagonia baggies and sneakers tells you how little I expected to ride. But I wanted to have a way to escape from the "compound," and overall I rode 83 miles while down there, some of it quite enjoyable as I found the old north/south highway that's now decommissioned but still is used by very light local traffic.
This big ol' crater could have swallowed the Bike Friday whole
Bike Friday and banana trees
Unfortunately it was not mango season
Litter is ubiquitous along the roads; dumping seems to be a national pastime
The old highway lies pretty much abandoned, with the jungle encroaching
Obviously, most of my time I spent on the beach or by the very nice pools. Morning reading sessions started just minutes after sunrise at 7 a.m., with a nice cup of joe and a prime spot overlooking the beautiful sea. I'd have a light, heavy-on-the-tropical-fruit breakfast in the H10 Privilege Lounge, to which I have access as a TS owner. Nice. Ownership also means a somewhat private beach area with waiter service and comfortable chaise lounges in a prime location to watch the beach walkers filter by. The H10's beach has suffered some pretty big hits from storms in recent years, and they have to struggle not to lose even more sand; the pictures show some of the stopgap measures management has taken to preserve what is left.
Massive reinforcements are supposed to keep the beach from total destruction
Continued erosion by the sea is going to take out these palm trees sooner or later
My rides usually took place before noon, for an hour-and-a-half or two. After returning, the routine consisted of cooling off in the wonderfully warm Caribbean, followed by a refreshing round in the pool and a nice drink to finish the morning. Then read, lounge, read more, maybe have some lunch, and watch the Eastern European babes that flood this part of the world, accompanied by Speedo-wearing beer-bellied dudes 20 years their age, with lots of gold chains. In all seriousness, I would guess that during the time of my stay at least half of the guests were from Russia, the Czech Republic, and some other Slavic countries. Quite a few Canadians and Italians were also noticeable, but relatively few visitors from the US, who generally are easy to spot because they can be almost as obnoxious as the Brits .... Anyhow, the sightseeing was quite delectable, but I didn't want to cause any international incidents, of course, and so I didn't try to speak Russian.

Evening comes early in the DR at this time of the year, and pina coladas were replaced with G&Ts while enjoying the last daylight at the Lounge before heading for the piano bar, dinner, maybe the entertainment in the theater, and then a final toddie in the main bar. You see, a week of this will destroy anybody.
This does beat the hell out of Lubbock--any time of year, not just in December
I had a really good time and enjoyed a few nice conversations with various tourists from different places, but mainly I was by myself, which suited me just fine. And after a week of all this I was ready to head back home, even if now I question whether I was out of my mind when considering that the low is supposed to hit 12 F in a few nights. Maybe a good time to test whether memories can keep one warm....


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Madeira, island of tunnels and levadas

Steep cliffs, beautiful coastline, rich fields

One thing is for sure: It is practically impossible to go on vacation and simultaneously update the blog, at least when one travels with someone else. Case in point: Sabine and my trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira last week. Here we are, four days after our return to Freising, and I still haven't written much--and it looks as if completion of this update will have to wait for a few more days since I am about to get on a plane to Berlin to see my brother.
View of Madeira's northern shoreline after crossing the island
Regardless, the memories of Madeira will stay with me for quite a while. What an amazing place! I had of course heard of the island before, but quite truthfully, until about a month-and-a-half ago I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint it with accuracy on a map of the world. When, thanks to my clavicle fracture, we had to scrub our planned trip to Croatia and had to make new plans, I looked at what direct flights we could find from Munich to interesting locales. My search produced Air Berlin's once-a-week non-stop to Funchal, Madeira's capital. Cashing in 40,000 British Airways Avios points and paying $116 in taxes and fees for our two round-trip tickets, we were on the way to the island that's somewhat northwest of the Canaries yet south-east of the Azores. Yep, smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic. Good thing that the pilot had the GPS on and landed us safely on Funchal's tricky airport after our 4-hour flight.
The tiny port of Paul do Mar, five minutes by car from our domicile, 2 1/2 hours on foot

It's possible to trek along the waterfall to the next village
Our rental car was already waiting, an 80-dollar gem from Bravacar that featured close-to-bald tires and wipers that hadn't been replaced since the car had been built, in addition to scratches all around--thus perfect for the narrow lanes that we'd encounter in villages. From the airport it was about an 80-minute drive to Jardim do Rio, the tiny hamlet where our vacation villa for the week was located. As usual, we had gone back and forth between various housing options, from AirBnB and HomeAway as well as other sites. Practically everything was located in the mountains or away from the coast, but somewhere I ran across the Casa Pontinha, which immediately caught my attention: a luxurious villa with private swimming pool, set among a beautiful garden, overlooking from a promontory the Atlantic 20 meters below. I had contacted the Welsh owners of the villa and had received a rate that was a little more than 100 euros a night--totally insane when similar places had been fetching three to five times as much during our search. Sabine had been a bit hesitant first, thinking there'd be a catch, but we now can both say: This was by far the best vacation home we have ever rented, and I doubt we will top what we had for a price that is comparable. I think the photos speak for themselves.
View from our terrace; the port of Paul do Mar is visible in the  background

Our private pool, between 71 and 72 degrees
The villa Casa Pontinha--all ours for a week

Casa Pontinha was our private haven for one week. The pool was warm enough for daily swims, and when neighbors are not able to look over walls you know what that means: No wet bathing suits afterward. Imagine swimming in this pool, looking over the Atlantic, hearing the waves roll in, and seeing the verdant mountains rise immediately beyond the village limits. We had our breakfasts outside, enjoyed two "pool days" when we were too tired to go for long walking excursions, and were able to barbecue in the evening after enjoying toddies from the deck. Our bedroom's veranda door opened toward the sea, and we slept to the sound of the relentless waves below. OK, let's be frank: I am planning to go back to this heaven on earth. The Dolmans, who own this place, are truly fortunate people.
Hiking the levadas; I managed not to break anything
Steep in Madeira means really steep
Overlooking the Atlantic on one of our hikes
But we hadn't come to Madeira just to enjoy luxurious digs; that just set the baseline. No, we had also been attracted to Madeira because of its moniker, the "flower island," and its reputation--at least among Germans--as a hiker's paradise. Going to Madeira in early to mid-November put us right in the middle of the rainiest part of the rainy season, but we figured that rain gear and umbrellas would go a long way in keeping us comfortable. Maybe we were just damn lucky, but we had only one really rainy day when we got fairly inundated on our first walk. From then on, we were rather fortunate and enjoyed high temperatures around 72 F, low temperatures around 67 F, and lots of sunshine with just the occasional intermittent cloud in between. From what we understand, the temps go up somewhat in the summer but seldom exceed 80 F, thanks to the leveling effect of the big pond around the island. The overall climate is what is called "subtropical," as evidenced by the largest export crop, bananas. But it is cool enough to allow the cultivation of wine:


Maracuyas of all types and flavors

Weird exotic fruit in the market
Dinner in Old Funchal
Of course we had to sample and learn about this wine that we all know but maybe don't understand. During our day excursion to Funchal, we spent a delightful hour and a half at Blandy's Wine Estate, where we learned about how Madeira differs from other reds. Fascinating. If you want to know more, ask Google or Wikipedia or better yet, go to Madeira. Or come to my house for dinner once I am back home. The bottle of fine Blandy's that I bought should last until February, or so. Funchal has other attractions, such as a quaint market where you can buy exoctic fruit that look as foreign as anything you've seen at Marketstreet or other grocery stores. The weirdest was probably the thing that looked like a banana but tasted a bit like a passion fruit yet looked like a  green pine cone. The old town of Funchal has some narrow streets and tourist-oriented tiny restaurants  galore. Fun for an evening, but about as authentic as the restaus and their barkers in Paris' Quartier Latin.
Funchal's old harbor
Oak barrels that are holding decades' old madeira at Blandy's

The remnants of the tasting
As mentioned somewhere above, there was a lot of balance in our stay in Madeira--pool days, a look at the capital, and the hikes. About one hundred years ago, the first levadas popped up, irrigation canals that were to bring much-needed water from the mountains (the highest peak on this tiny island is around 4,500 feet tall) to the sugar-cane (now defunct) and banana fields. The project to expand these canals was accelerated in the early part of the past century, and today's tourists benefit from the engineering work that went into building the levadas: One can now hike for 10, 15, even 20 miles through the mountains along a 2-foot-wide concrete canal that loses all of maybe 100 feet in elevation along the way. One hikes along the hills' contours, not across the mountains! What a concept! All levadas are intimately paralleled by footpaths that used to allow (well, they still do) the caretaker of the levadas to open sluices or remove twigs or leaves and in general access this intricate irrigation system. Nowadays, with only limited banana production, the network has become an increasingly important part of the island's tourism infrastructure. No complaints from us!

If I bemoan anything about our stay in Madeira, it is the lack of more time to explore other parts of this microcosm. Such a small island, and so many things to see (and hundreds of miles to hike!). I am quite determined to go back, and I hope that will be sooner rather than later. I'm not crazy about staying in the same place twice, but here I'll make an exception (just like in our domicile in Tuscany in 2014 and 2015). Assuming that Air Berlin--taking honors as Worst Airline in the Known Universe, or WAKU--maintains its non-stop Saturday service from MUC to FCN and the Casa Potinha is available, Sabine and I will revisit Madeira before we turn 70, but quite likely much earlier. Hell, the levadas are navigable almost in a wheelchair!
Easy hiking

Bring your raincoat

Relaxing after another (albeit short) hike
Last evening before heading back to Munich and winter