Diversions

More from Mar De Plata

Endless Ocean!Good morning again from beautiful Mar Del Plata, Argentina! We could rave at length about the endless amount of great features of this beautiful seaside city. But one thing particularly worth noting is just how relaxing it has been. Our time in this rented apartment has given us some of the best sleep we’ve gotten on this trip. Ranks way above the unbearable discomfort of the Reino Inn in Hiroshima and about on par with our time at the Hanoi Moment in Vietnam. All kinds of sleep from sun drenched naps on the couch with a subtle sea breeze or a long night in an oh-so-comfortable bed punctuated with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks fourteen stories below. Probably sounds odd that I’m boasting about how rested we are, but we’ve spent so much of our travels up early, running around all day and then worn out by nightfall, that this is a good way to wind down the trip.

Cuidado!All of this makes it even more striking that we were woken yesterday morning by the booming sound of shattering glass. A quick look out the window confirmed that a car had sped directly into the glass bus stop directly across the street. No one was hurt, but that’s a hell of a way to start your day. Later when walking along the main road, we observed that a highly suspicious number of bus stops no longer seemed to have their glass siding. Driving and, for that matter, riding in cars down here tends to be a guaranteed white knuckle adventure. Given the examples of bad driving we’ve seen again and again down here, I’m going to start referring to waking up in that manner as an Argentine Alarm Clock.

Lovely Seaside Brooke!

Reckless motoring aside, it’s not hard to see why Mar Del Plata is a booming vacation spot during the summer. Even though its early in the season, the main walkway along the beach is teeming with joggers, casual walkers, groups sipping maté, rollerbladers and more. I’ll make the bold leap and say that you could draw comparisons between this town and parts of Florida. Seaside walks, hundreds of hotels and compact blocks loaded with shops, storefronts and charming homes. We’ve had a couple of surprisingly windy days and nights, so the beaches are somewhat empty but there is a steady crowd of aspiring surfers just off the coast. As Brooke mentioned, the view from our window brings us the ocean falling over the horizon during the day, the unfamiliar stars of the southern window at night and everything ranging from large group of bicyclists to racing cars a la Fast and The Furious on the street below. It’s been fun just to watch out the window.

Brooke and I have also been using some of this time prepping for re-entry back into a day-to-day life in the states and, more importantly, taking some early steps to settle into our new city of Louisville, KY. There is much to be done and much of it is exciting. Its easy to frame our next steps as a completely new type of adventure. In upcoming weeks, we need to find a car, a place to live and, probably most importantly, jobs. Between a slew of e-mails to potential Jefferson County school employers and some buffering and polishing of LinkedIn profiles, we feel proud of the head start we’ve gotten. Never under estimate the power of a strong WiFi connection. We plan to hit the ground running when we get back, but a little work in advance goes a long way. Once again, having our ASUS Tablet and keyboard on this trip has been a lifesaver.

Or Lobo Del Marina is you so choseBut don’t be fooled. We’re spending a lot of time enjoying all the Mar Del Plata has to offer. This city and weather combine to provide the perfect atmosphere for long walks. We’ve headed north, south and west outside our front door and found worthwhile treks in each direction. Throughout this trip, I’ve always enjoyed venturing down a new street for the first time. I dig the initial voyage combined with the exciting philosophy of “who knows what we’ll see!” Occasionally, you discover zip but other times you see Sea Lions. As was the case yesterday when we walked down to the main port. Sure enough, at the edge of the docks mingling among fishing boats, was a large pack of Sea Lions. A few were somewhat active almost clamoring for attention from camera-toting human guests, while others were just lazy bastards. If I didn’t know better, I would presume I was looking at two dozen beached Sea Lions. It was quite cool to see and hear these giant creatures up close; when they “bark”, they actually sound a bit like lions. Fun fact: Argentines calls Sea Lions “Lobos Del Mar” which actually translates as “WOLVES of the sea.” Along with serving as a vacation sport, this city has a very active port including scores of small fishing boats. I don’t think Brooke ever has to worry about losing me to the sea; days on a fishing boat looks like a rough way to make a living.  After a long walk out, we ended with a small victory as a local bus and the equivalent of 75 cents gave us a ride back directly to the aforementioned smashed bus stop just outside our building.

On another walk, we discovered the closest thing to a diner that we’ve seen in a long time. Manolo restaurant is apparently a Mar Del Plata institution and was recommended highly by our Air BnB host. Complete with massive menu, indifferent waiters and reasonable prices, it was a place where the selection is endless want but it’s unlikely that any of it is going to be outstanding. Following the “When in Rome” ideology, I ordered the house chicken burger which came with a ham, cheese, egg, olives, tomatoes and lettuce. Oh my. On the taste scale, it fell somewhere between interesting and delicious. Also, since every single person in the joint had at least one churro on the plate in front of them, I ordered one as well. I’m sure its part of a relatively small universe, but that was hands down the best churro I’ve had in my life.

Brooke and I have also spent some time in front of the boob tube. The best part? The commercials. I leave you with this strange, gem that had us bewildered when we first saw it. I’ve watched it 15 times since but I’m still scratching my head. Trust us, this is worth clicking on link to see this strange mishmash:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_sfTz2BTfY

-Phil

Another car that ran off the road. Keep in mind this is different than the one that ran into the bus stop- same day, 2 KM down the road. Yikes.

Sea Lions hanging out under the pier. There were tons of them! They sometimes fought and they reeked.

We’ve seen tons of these “Living Statues” street performers all around the world. This Angel outside a church in Mar Del Plata was hands down the best. He went all out! Click to enlarge to see the detail.

Good living in Mar Del Plata

Good living in Mar Del Plata

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Categories: Argentina, Beach, Diversions, Driving Abroad, Eating, Mar Del Plata, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Delicious Wine with New Friends

After a day of laying around, reading, sleeping and being doubled over in pain, I awoke on Saturday feeling like an almost normal human being.  We were finally ready to have the day we had been envisioning upon planning our visit to Mendoza–a day entirely dedicated to visiting wineries and drinking different, delicious wines.

We laid out a plan to visit at least 4 different wineries and engage in both tours and tastings.  To our delight, our new friends from Tikay Killa, Lyn and Dan joined us for the entire day.  To begin, we had to find a way to the winery (or bodega as they are called here).  Obviously drinking and driving is a big concern here and police are on the lookout everywhere.  We don’t have a car anyway, so that wasn’t really an option.  For this reason, tourists are encouraged to either take taxis or ride bicycles from winery to winery.  Going for the more cost effective and fun method of transport, we chose bikes.  Luckily, our lodge has a few on hand making rental a breeze.  We set out for our first stop of the day–Mevi, a small winery with an amazing view.  None too keen on drinking red wine in the heat, instead we imbibed in the whites and roses as we lounged on their sunny terrace which overlooks the vineyards and has stunning views of the Andes Mountains in the distance.  We sipped Chardonnay, Torrontes, Malbec Rosado and various other wines.  After an eight kilometer bike ride in the Argentinian heat, these cool, refreshing varieties helped recharge our batteries so we could continue on our way.

Only three kilometers further, Familia Di Tommaso was the next vineyard on our list.  Rather than just drinking, we first took a tour of this small, family run bodega which is the oldest in Maipu.  They showed us the old cement tanks which were formally used to ferment and age the wine.  More modern systems have been put in place, so these are now used as wine cellars for the bottles they produce.  Like many of the wineries in this region, their gem can be found in their Malbec Reserva.  Aged in oak for 12 months, this wine has a robust flavor which impressed us all.  We immediately ordered a bottle to accompany lunch aside the vineyard.  Something which makes the wines here even more special is that they do not export or sell to grocery stores.  This family’s produce can only be bought here at the bodega.  Unfortunately, they don’t make ordering a case of wine very easy since they don’t take credit cards and don’t ship directly from the winery.  Dan was especially disappointed, but with the help of Elena at our lodge he was able to work it out.  At lunch, we were joined by a couple from Holland who we met on the tour.  I don’t know if it is the wine or just travelers to this region in general, but we have met such wonderful, like-minded people on this visit.  Everyone is traveling anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months and no one looks at us like we’re crazy when we tell them about our trip around the world.  Building friendships with people from around the world has been a major added benefit of this trip that I didn’t anticipate beforehand.

After visiting these very small wineries, we were in for a huge difference with Trapiche, easily the largest vineyard in Maipu and also a part of the largest winery in Argentina.  Here we met up with Sophie, our other new friend who was also staying at Tikay Killa.  We toured this monstrous winery, learning about its long history.  The building we were in has been dedicated as historically significant, therefore retains its original characteristics.  Though it has been refurbished and modernized, the original structure still stands including the huge tanks which are still used to ferment the wine.  This winery originally belonged to a different family who built in this location due to its proximity to the railroad.  In fact, they even have a “pool” where they could ferment 5 million liters of wine at one time! Considering some small wineries we visited only produce about 19,000 liters a year, this number had our jaws on the ground.  The idea was that all the wine from this one pool could be the entire stock loaded onto one train.  This pool is no longer used because, as you might imagine, it is difficult to control the quality and consistency of the wine when creating it on that scale.   The tour ended with a taste of 3 different wines and although they were delicious, we all agreed the smaller Di Tommassi family winery we visited earlier was superior.

Working our way back toward our lodge, we made our final visit to Finca Vina Maria, a tiny winery situated conveniently at the end of our street.  We barely arrived before their 5:30 pm closing time, but the woman was more than happy to share with us the history of the winery and a description of the wines they produce.  Rather than have a tasting, we decided to share a bottle of the Malbec while sitting outside under the shade of the huge sycamore tree.  Chatting about all things wine turned into chatting about all things life.  We learned more about each others jobs, families and travels.  Phil and I were surprised to find out a “jumper” means a “sweater” when spoken by a Brit, but be careful–a sweater is  not the same thing as a cardigan!  Dan conceded that Americans are probably more correct with some of our pronunciations of words, while Sophie staunchly believes since the Brits invented the language, they must be the ones who are right.  She does have a point!

After all this cycling, drinking and friendship, we knew we would be hungry later.  And, since we have all discovered how incredibly difficult it can be to find dinner after 5pm in Maipu (or at least nearby to our lodge), we decided to head to the grocery store and fend for ourselves.  It turned into a feast of tapas, perfect to go with the wine we had bought throughout the day.  Delicious cheese, ham, salami and bread filled our plates and the wine flowed freely.  Knowing we were all getting up to go horseback riding the next morning helped quell any desire to drink too much, and instead we spent the evening continuing to get to know one another, sharing stories and becoming friends.  Reflecting back on it all, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day!

–Brooke

Three of the many wines produced by Trapiche.

Dan, Lyn and Brooke riding bikes between winery visits.

Just place your glass on the wine you want and it appears as if by magic!

Vineyards as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty much like this everywhere in Maipu.

Categories: Argentina, Bars, Destinations, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Olives, Wine, Steak and an ill travel partner

So, it happened to me in New Zealand. And now it’s happened to Brooke in Argentina. We knew the odds were slim that we both would make it through a four month trip without getting ill. Yet, after a combination of some lousy empanadas served at a local back patio beer garden and probably a bit too much wine the night before, Brooke was struck down by some sort of stomach bug. Fret not: she made an inspiring recovery by the time dinner rolled around. Besides, there are certainly worse places to feel under the weather than Argentine wine country among the comfy confines of the Tikay Killa hotel. The scenic view from the foothills of the Andes certainly may have some healing powers as well.

With Brooke sitting out this round, I decided to take a solo trip and visit two of the locations that were close by: Entre Olivos and La Rual. Each one was just a short trot down the same street our hotel was on. Entre Olivos quickly won me over. Five dollars paid for a small tour that gave a background on olive production and tasting of everything including olives, olive oils, spreads, marmalades, chocolates, custom liquers and more. Did you know that the only differences between black and green olives is that green olives are picked from the trees sooner? Or that olive trees can produce olives for up to 400 years? Or that olives are only tasty once they undergo a process and are always terrible if eaten right from the tree? I learned so much! After tasting just about everything I could, I had to restrain myself from buying out the store.

Just a bit down the street, I made a visit to La Rural winery (makers of Rutini wine) and El Museo – an excellent wine museum. The tour provided an interesting history and the museum was jam packed with historical wine making elements. Some of which, like the giant ceramic vases that were buried under ground to store wine, dated back several hundred years. Saw the vineyards, saw the vats, saw the giant historic oak barrels. And, of course, I enjoyed the requisite tasting although they only offered some lesser brands. But the best part? My 50 peso admission went to the cost of any bottle of wine I might choose to purchase at the end of the tour. THAT was a nice surprise. I managed to grab a nice bottle that only cost a buck or two beyond my admission. After an afternoon of lounging around the hotel and sampling some more wine, the five of us staying at Tikay Killa all went to dinner at the lone restaurant in town. Even though we were one of the only tables being served, we ended up with delectable dishes of steak, chicken and even grilled veggies. If there is one thing that Argentines know how to do, its grill meat.

Most people we’ve met are making Mendoza a three to four day stop as part of a larger visit. Given how much there is to see in Argentina and combined with how long it takes to get from region to region, it’s not surprising that visits to Argentina are often three weeks or longer. Geographically, this may be the largest country we’ve visited outside of China. Since the amazing glacier you may want to see is incredibly far from that sensational Andes peak you may also want to see, bus rides on luxury coaches that are 14, 18, 22 or even 27 hours in length are common and truly the only practical way to get around.

Costs here in Maipu, and largely across Argentina, have been remarkably reasonable. We’ve found that a vineyard tour in Mendoza would regularly run less than $8 a person and that includes some generous pours during the tasting. Buenos Aires is also unique to any place we’ve visited in the way they handle exchanging currency. First, it’s important to note that Argentina is dealing with crazy inflation to the point that prices on menus are often written in pencil (to allow for easy changing) and some travel brochures don’t even bother to include costs at all. The official government line is that inflation is hovering around 10%, but apparently inflation is topping out more at about 25%. Among other factors, this had led to the rise of the unofficial, illegal “blue market” of exchanging dollars for pesos. This market is comprised primarily of somewhat shady people strolling down busy tourist areas muttering “Cambio, Cambio, Cambio” as you walk by. I may be bold and adventurous, but I still prefer making change at a bank rather than in a dark, back alley. Besides, I couldn’t recognize a counterfeit bill from Monopoly money if needed. Pretty sure the word “sucker” would be tattooed across my forehead in a lovely helvetica font.

Apparently, visitors who are in the country for a while arrange a trade with one of these blue market agents through their hotel. They show up in your room, pulling money from a sock or pouch strapped to a leg in exchange for your dollars. What’s the advantage to such a complicated doings? Apparently, there are TWO exchange rates in Argentina. Banks will offer you about 4.7 persos to the dollar while blue market traders will give you closer to 6.0 persos to the dollar. I’m still wrapping my head around that but I’m relatively sure that it means if we could have negotiated with one of these dealers and gotten all the money up front, Argentina would have been on sale at a rate of about 30% off the official rate. Baffling!

Our fun continues tomorrow in Maipu as we plan to hit no less than four wineries on our bikes.  Hopefully we make it back safe and sound after all that wine!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Mendoza, Reflections, Transportation, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Goodbye Highlands

Sadly, today was our third and final day in the Highlands of Scotland with Rabbie’s Tour.  It seems like twice an hour we turn to each other and say, “I’m so glad we decided to do this tour!”  We have learned so much and had an overall more rich experience because we did this with an expert.  Rabbie’s (or another tour of its kind) is definitely the way to go for anyone out there thinking of taking trip to the Highlands.

Our guide, Doug, telling us the legend of how the Cuillin Hills were formed.

The day greeted us with clear blue skies and loads of sunshine, something we aren’t terribly used to here in Scotland.  We began with a drive down from Portree into the heart of the Cuillin Hills.  There are two major parts of these, one is called the Red Cuillins and the other is the Black Cuillins.  Like everything in Scotland, there is a legend about why these hills look the way they do presently.  It is a bit too long and involved to share here, and I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to write it out anyway.  Suffice it to say, it had everything to do with a battle between an arrogant giant and an Amazonian woman, both too prideful to admit defeat to one another.  Of course they ultimately fell in love, but that is neither here nor there.  The rigidity of the top of the hills is said to be made from their hacking away at one another in battle.

The history of Scotland is steeped in legends of this kind, but occasionally there are true stories to go along with them.  In this case, Doug told us of a young gurkha from Nepal who visited the Highlands.  When he stopped in for an orange juice at a local pub he was ridiculed for not drinking whiskey.  He explained to the man that he was not in Scotland to drink, he was there to visit their beautiful hills.  The man replied with disbelief, “Hills?  Those are no hills, those are mountains.  It would take me all day to climb to the top and back down again.”  The man from India was amused and replied, “That is no mountain.  I could make it to the top and back in less than an hour.”  The Highlander believed this man to be a liar, trying to make a fool out of him, so the gurkha decided to show him.  He took off his shoes and socks and began running up the hill.  He made it up and back in 59 minutes.  Amazed the Highlander insisted they share a whiskey together.  As they sipped, a man from another clan walked in and when he was told about this amazing feat, he didn’t believe it for a minute.  The two Scots began to argue and it looked as though a fight was going to break out.  The gurkha, wanting to avoid a fight, jumped between them and said he would prove it.  Again, he took off his socks and shoes and ran up the hill and back down.  This time, it only took him 58 minutes!  This all took place in 1902, but years later the story inspired the locals to begin a race up this same hill.  The Glamaig Hill Race draws hundreds of runners each summer.  Of course, they run with shoes and socks, but the record time for this 4.5 mile, 2500 foot run is 44 minutes and 27 seconds.  We failed to get a picture of the hill.  To see what it looks like, click here. Pretty impressive!

There are tons of stories centered upon the Highlands, both truth and legend.  We were also told the story of the Sisters of Kintail.  To make a very long story short, these 5 sisters were waiting for 5 brothers who were supposed to come for them from Ireland.  They waited so long, their father was worried they would lose their beauty.  He enlisted the help of a seer, who turned them into mountains so they would be beautiful for all eternity.  And they really are spectacular.  In fact, this may be the most beautiful part we saw in the Highlands.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that the fall colors are in full effect, the sun was shining bright and the weather was wonderfully mild.  We have taken some amazing photos here in Scotland, but the ones looking out on the 5 Sisters of Kintail are my favorite.

The 5 Sisters of Kintail showing their eternal beauty.

We continued to wind our way down toward Edinburgh.  We made a quick stop to see some “Hairy Coos”.  These long-haired cows are everywhere, and they look so much different from the ones most of us are used to seeing at home that we decided it was worth a short photo stop.  We then made the obligatory stop in Loch Ness, where we were told of some strange and unusual happenings, but none of us was inspired enough to swim in the loch or even go on a boat ride trying to find Nessie.  Instead, we had a leisurely lunch with some new friends.  As I have already said, one of the best parts of Rabbie’s tours is the small group size.  We only had 14 people in our group, plus our guide, Doug.  This allowed for some great time with everyone and we met some really great people.  We found ourselves spending much of our time with Melissa and Crystal, two women from Minneapolis (though Crystal now lives in London).  We had tons in common and are all excited to have made new friends.  We are already toying with the idea of another trip together, or at least a meet-up in our respective home cities.

Melissa, Crystal, Phil and Brooke after dipping our heads under Bride’s Veil falls.

Alas, we had to say goodbye to the Highlands, goodbye to Crystal and Melissa, and goodbye to Doug and his myriad stories which lasted to the moment we arrived in Edinburgh.  We absolutely loved this tour and we are now considering finding something similar on our next stop in Argentina.  We have one more day in Scotland and we will be sad to leave it.  This 10 day country stop has certainly met and even exceeded our expectations.   We can certainly see ourselves coming back here someday.  Until then, slàinte mhath!

–Brooke

The “hairy coos” of the Highlands.

New friends enjoying drinks together in Portree.

These gorgeous views are everywhere across the Highlands.

Brooke tries Irn Bru, Scotland’s most popular soft drink. Tastes like cream soda with a splash of bubble gum. Very sugary!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Friends, Landmarks, Reflections, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Glasgow, Scotland

GlasgowWhen we told people we would be heading to Glasgow, almost all of them asked, “Will you got to Edinburgh?”  Time after time people told us there isn’t much to do in Glasgow and we shouldn’t spend too much time here.  After spending the day exploring this city, we are so chock-full of things we want to do that we are considering extending our stay one more day.  Filled with great food and culture, Glasgow appears to be a wonderful city with tons for us to see and do.

We began our day the way anyone should while in Scotland–with a traditional breakfast. Pulled in by the sign that said “Scottish Breakfast £2.99”, we sat down in Wetherspoons.  I went for the breakfast wrap, but Phil is in full Scottish mode and ordered the Traditional Breakfast.  When his plate came, it was a feast of all things protein:  fried egg, fried sausage, bacon, and beans on toast.  Figuring this to be the perfect way to start our day in Scotland, we cleared our plates and then headed into the city.

As you have seen if you’ve read other blog posts, we really enjoy the Hop-on/Hop-off City Sightseeing bus tours.  Doing this upon arrival to a new city really helps to understand the layout and what it has to offer.  In the past, we have always had the pre-recorded tours.  This allows for greater flexibility as the tours can be given in several different languages.  This company also has that option, but the bus we got on had a live tour guide.  It didn’t take us long to realize how much better a live tour is than a pre-recorded one.  Having grown up in Glasgow, this gentleman could speak to the way things were when he was a boy compared to today.  He kept us updated on current events regarding construction projects and city news.  Most importantly, he was much more entertaining than a recording.  His dry sense of humor had us questioning a few times whether he was joking or not.  On the tour, we explored the city’s centre, west end and river front.  We were unaware of Glasgow’s rich ship building history and learned that the town still engages in this trade today.

After the tour, we stopped for a warm bowl of soup to warm us up because let me tell you–it is cold here.  Maybe 45 degrees today, everyone seemed cheered that at least the sun was shining.  Our tour guide joked that we were all baking in the hot sun at the top of the bus and added that maybe the sun would come out again in another 3 years.  In fact, all day we heard joke after joke about the gray, rainy, cold weather which is commonplace here.  We realize we might be very lucky to be graced by sunshine today and we should enjoy it while we can. (The weather for the rest of the week looks like a lot of rain.)  Once sufficiently warmed by some sweet corn chowder, we ventured back into the cold only briefly to head to the City Chambers, the headquarters of Glasgow’s City Council.  This beautiful old building is situated in the center of the city, just off George Square.  When we heard they offered free tours of the interior, we figured it would be a great way to learn a little bit more about the city’s history.  The building was completed in 1888 and is a display of decadence and wealth.  It has two staircases, the white and the black, so named for the material which was used in building them.  In days of old, only the wealthy nobility and royals were allowed to use the white marble staircase.  The other was reserved for servants and working class visitors. On our tour we visited the banquet hall, the council chamber and the art gallery, where each Lord Provost throughout history has a portrait hanging.  All in all, our tour was really interesting and a good start in helping us to understand the Scottish brogue (I swear, sometimes it sounds like a totally foreign language).

After switching our luggage from our previous night’s hotel to our new Air BnB stay, we went looking for our first pint of the day.  We discovered The Grove, an old man bar if ever there was one.  With horse racing on the TV screen and talk of the Scotland v. Belgium football game tomorrow, it was a great place for a drink.  Phil opted for a Guinness while I tried a Belhaven, all for a mere £5.  At this price, I imagine we’ll be back here again tomorrow! From here, we went to a place called Neighborhood Bar to take advantage of their 2-for-1 deal on dinner.  Then, we headed to the famed King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut for some live music.  We haven’t really caught too many live shows on the trip yet, and King Tut’s is known for having all kinds of different bands each night of the week. (Their claim to fame is being the bar where Oasis was discovered.)  The lineup tonight consisted of bands we have never heard of, but that is half the fun of going to a show like this anyway.  The first act, Jonny Jack, was a young rock band.  Well rehearsed, they played together tightly, but their music wasn’t terribly original.  The lead singer’s voice reminded us of Rob Thomas from his Matchbox 20 days.  Next was a solo artist named Luke Sital-Singh, who played slow, sad songs on his guitar that would have been perfect if we were terribly depressed.  His voice was great, but the songs started to all sound the same after a while.  The headlining act, Fossil Collective, seems to have been around a while since they definitely had some regular fans there to catch the show.  Following the footsteps of many other modern bands, they have a multi-vocal, full harmonic sound along with their many guitars.  They sound a bit similar to Grizzly Bear with a voice like My Morning Jacket.

But the gem of the night was Cherry Grove.  We knew we were in for a treat when they began setting up their stage.  Instruments include your basic keyboard and guitar, but then they also had a violin, harp and accordion.  These incredibly talented musicians played a great set.  Sometimes with vocals, sometimes only instruments, they modernized traditional music and instruments in a creative and innovative way.  They seemed to genuinely have fun on stage, and you got the sense that they probably all met at a music conservatory because they have mastered their instruments.  They were releasing their first EP tonight, and it was clear to see that much of the audience came to see them.  The show would have been worth it even if Cherry Grove was the only band we saw.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a midnight curfew to respect their neighbors, so once the bands were done we walked home, huddled together to keep warm.  We are so pleased with our first day in Glasgow and we can’t wait for all that we have in store for tomorrow.  We will do a nice variety of museums, exploration, and sport.  As long as we don’t freeze first!

–Brooke

Beautiful view of the Clyde River.

Phil in the City Chambers.

Brooke always wants to be in charge.

One Lord Provost chose to have his portrait done by an artist with a very unique style. It is very intriguing.

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eating, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Music, Scotland, Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Munich, we Bought a BMW…

We wish!…tour. A BMW tour.  You thought we bought a car?  Not even close, but more about that later!  For now, here we are in Munich, Germany and in some ways it is exactly what we expected–stores filled with lederhosen, BMWs cruising the streets, beer and sausages everywhere you turn.  We even met some really cool guys from a German TV show.  Weird, but cool.  Really, what more could a girl ask for?  Sure, we are in Munich one week after the end of its famous Oktoberfest, but it doesn’t matter.  This is still a great city with lots for first time visitors like us to see and do.

These asked us questionsWe got here before dawn yesterday, tired but ready to explore this new city.  After storing our luggage (thank goodness for these services at every train station we’ve been to), we decided to walk toward the Deutches Museum.  We’ve met several people who highly recommended this science and technology museum, so it seemed like a great way to spend our time while we waited to check into our room.  This giant museum spans five floors and covers everything from microelectronics to aeronautics and the history of sailing in Germany.  We especially loved seeing the cross section of an airplane which shows us just how little space is taken up by passengers and how much room there is for cargo.  We also found the ethical questions regarding genetic testing really interesting–this was partly due to the creepy yet intriguing faces speaking to us from the wall.  After pressing a button, they told of their dilemmas regarding genetic testing and then we voted if we agreed or disagreed with the choice.  It was interesting to see how our opinion compared to others who had taken the survey before.  While there were many exhibits that were interactive and innovative, the longer we were there, the sleepier I got.  I found my eyelids getting very heavy as I read the information below each exhibit.  While Phil wandered around in fascination, I kept looking for benches where I could rest my very weary body.  At this point I realized I didn’t get quite as much sleep on the train as I imagined, and I needed to rest.  At my request, we left the museum earlier than planned and checked into our room.

We didn’t order this monstrosity! It belonged to the man next to us and he actually ate the entire thing (plus a salad beforehand).

After a lovely, and very much needed nap, we ventured out for a late dinner.  Excited that we are in Germany and it is finally acceptable to have a hamburger again, we chose Burger House based on the extremely positive reviews on TripAdvisor. This was our first foray onto the Munich public transportation system and after our ticket debacle in Budapest, we weren’t taking any chances.  Like good citizens, we bought out tickets and validated them.  We would not be burned again.  It is a good thing we did all this because as soon as we got on the train a group of ticket control agents boarded and started checking tickets.  Exhilaration rushed through us.  We were pretty sure we did all that we needed to do, but it was our first time and we couldn’t be positive.  When they checked our tickets, I wanted to shout, “Yeah, just try to say something to me!”  They nodded and moved on.  Never again will we be caught without the right ticket!

Our good mood continued when we finally found Burger House.  As soon as we walked in we were surrounded by the sights and sounds of an awesome restaurant.  Not too big, maybe 12 tables in all, people drank beer and ate their food looking truly happy to be there.  We were barely able to snag a seat at the bar, just eeking in before their 10pm closing time which seems early to us.  I’m so glad we made it because this was easily the best burger we’ve had since we left New York.  It is amazing what can happen when simple, fresh ingredients are prepared well.  The man next to us ordered the Triple Classic Burger and actually finished it.  Quite a feat.  The burger, coupled with our first taste of delicious German beer, made for the perfect first dinner in Munich.

Customers wait on the stairs to go down to their brand new BMW. What a thrill!

This morning we woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the city head on.  We tried to get tickets for a tour of the BMW plant, but they require 3 weeks notice.  We didn’t even know we would be in Munich as of 3 weeks ago, so we figured we would just check out the museum and the BMW Welt.  Phil has great nostalgia for BMW and today’s visit has only made it worse.  Now I’m worried he’s going to go back to the U.S. and buy and old 3-Series.  The BMW Welt is basically a giant showroom with current BMW and Rolls Royce (also part of BMW Motor Group) models.  Admittedly, it was fun walking around and dreaming about which car we would buy.  Even though they weren’t on display (and aren’t what most people think of when they think BMW), I think I’d go with a Mini-Cooper.  They are so cute.  I know I would look awesome cruising around in a red one.  Before heading to the museum, we checked to see if there were any last minute openings on the tour and lucky for us, there were!  We took a guided tour of the museum, the plant and the welt.  This tour is incredibly comprehensive and is something we would definitely recommend to anyone visiting Munich.  The museum is modern and shows the long history of BMW, from its days of making aircraft engines to making high performance cars and motorbikes.  It would have been a great visit all on its own, but in addition we visited the plant.  Here in Munich, they only make the 3-series and we got to see many steps of the process.  From welding the body parts together, placing the body on the drive shaft and the process of painting the body, we saw so much more than we did when we visited the Mazda plant in Japan.  In some ways, this was almost too much information and we were begging for a break or at least a stop at the restroom.  When we didn’t get that, we figured we’d hang in through the last part, which was the welt.  We weren’t expecting much, since we had already looked around earlier.  What we didn’t see before was the floor upstairs where customers come to pick up their brand new BMW.  Each day people come here and are greeted with the car they have been waiting for.  They come down a giant staircase and their car is spinning platform waiting for them.  After having their photo snapped by a professional, they jump inside and learn the ins and outs of their new vehicle.  It was really neat to watch.  One car was even waiting with a big red bow.  It took me a while to believe that this present wasn’t destined for me.  What a great surprise that would have been.

Upon leaving the BMW tour, the cold October rain began to settle in.  We decided to take a break from being tourists and head back to the apartment where we are staying.  We did manage to head back out for an awesome dinner at a local brewery, but we will tell you all about that tomorrow.  Until then, go out and have a delicious German beer and some knockwurst and think of us here in Munich.

–Brooke

A store selling primarily stylish lederhosen. Is this in fashion? We aren’t sure.

Excuse me, could we please have a bigger bottle of mayonnaise? This won’t be enough.

On the subway, the rider has to open the door using the handle or else it won’t open at all. Very old fashioned!

A clay model at the BMW museum. Designers still use this technique to create new cars.

Phil’s new best friend? A water spout statue at Marienplatz

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Driving, Europe, Trains, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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