Sunday, September 4, 2016

A PHOTO FEAST IN NORWAY'S LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN

If you ask a traveler to name a favorite place to visit,  the Norwegian fjords are often mentioned because of their dramatic and extraordinary beauty.  Once Bruce knew that a hip replacement was in his near future, we decided to see the fjords in Norway, and traveling by small cruise ship seemed like the ideal way to do it.  After researching the internet and talking to friends, we chose a two-week itinerary on the Seabourn line, embarking and disembarking in Copenhagen, Denmark, and traveling through the Fjords as far north as the North Cape, which is above the Arctic Circle.  We stopped at different ports in both directions and had four scenic and reading days at sea, which we enjoyed. Thanks to the ship's small size, we were able to get deep into many fjords, even managing a 360 degree turnaround at the head of the very narrow Trollfjord. 

The following are photographs and commentary from our trip, including a series of images of the Norwegian section of the EuroVelo, a network of popular bicycling routes throughout Europe.




ONE OF MANY BEAUTIFUL FJORDS


A day in Sognefjorden and the fishing village of Flam

"Do you live in Flam?" I asked the woman sitting next to me on the train, as we started our ascent to Myrdal.   I figured she must be  local since she carried a lunch sack, and while the rest of us stared in awe at the amazing scenery around us,  she seemed rather bored. She said she lived in Flam but worked on top at Myrdal, where she rented bicycles to tourists, who preferred descending by bike rather than the train.  That's when I wished I'd researched more extensively on the train ride before buying our tickets in advance because biking down a mountain road surrounded by gorgeous alpine scenery seemed more appealing to me than returning by train.  The Flamsbana Railway, an engineering wonder, is one of the steepest train lines in the world, where almost 80% of the journey is at a gradient of 5.5%, taking you from ocean level at the end of Sognefjord in Flam to the scenic mountain top called Myrdal.  The train travels through twenty tunnels, and there are stunning waterfalls and multiple viewpoints. 






FLAMSBANA RAILWAY, A 20KM LONG ENGINEERING WONDER, STOPS IN MYRDAL





A VIEW OF THE TRAIN FROM THE TRAIN








SOGNEFJORDEN FROM STEGASTEIN VIEWPOINT, FLAM 

Bergen

Surrounded by seven hills and seven fjords, Bergen is a charming city, well known as a major northern outpost of the Hanseatic League, a 13th century trading group based in the city states of Germany.  At its height the League had over 150 member cities and was northern Europe's most powerful economic entity.  Bergen's oldest quarter runs along the eastern shore of the harbor with rows of colorful gabled buildings dating from the Hanseatic era.  Most of the day we explored the inner city, visited one of several museums and walked the wharf where we took photos in the fish market and watched performers doing their thing on city streets.


COLORFUL RESTORED HANSEATIC TRADING BUILDINGS ON BERGEN'S WATERFRONT




THIS STREET PERFORMER ATTRACTED MANY TOURISTS
COOKING UP SOME VEGETABLES AT ONE OF THE OPEN FISH MARKET RESTAURANTS



Alesund

In 1904, a massive fire burned the fishing village of Alesund. When the city was rebuilt, the Art Nouveau style of architecture was flourishing in Europe, and today's visitors to Alesund enjoy a city of concentrated Art Nouveau beauty. Spread over seven different islands and connected by bridges and undersea tunnels, Alesund relies on its fishing industry and provides cod and cod liver oil to Europe and the rest of the world.  It is also a favorite stop for tourists who either visit by car or by cruise ship, like we did.    We spent most of the day on foot exploring the picturesque town,
marveling at the elegant designs and geometric forms, but we opted to take the Hop-on Hop-off bus to the Aksla Viewpoint rather than walking the 418 steps.


BEAUTIFUL ALESUND FROM AKSLA VIEWPOINT (if you look to the left you will see the Seabourn Quest)




Lofoten Islands

Draped across the turbulent waters of the Norwegian Sea, an archipelago called the Lofoten Islands sits far above the Arctic Circle, which this time of year means 24/7 sunshine.  Arriving at the port of Solver, we rented a car and explored some of the bridge-connected islands, indented by numerous inlets and fjords.  With blue skies and a few puffy clouds, we were offered an unobstructed view of a beautiful landscape with majestic mountains, and small fishing villages where you could stay in old fishermen's cabins and eat stockfish, made from spawning cod.  


ONE OF MANY ROCKY INLETS AMONG THE LOFOTEN ISLANDS



A REAR VIEW


With our ship's onboard credit, Bruce and I decided to sign up for one of the pricey excursions.  Although this meant setting our alarm for 4:30 a.m, the opportunity to photograph puffins and other seabirds was too tempting to pass up just so we could sleep in.



A CLOSE-UP VIEW



THE NORTH CAPE (NORDKAPP)

Barren and rocky with not a tree in sight, the North Cape (or Nordkapp as it is called by Norwegians)  is a destination that many travelers brag about so they can say they traveled to the furthest northern point in continental Europe.  Although 200,000 visitors come to Nordkapp every summer, very few Norwegians actually live there year round, except for those people involved in a very robust fishing industry about which I will write a separate post.   Despite its remote location and small year-round population, the government has constructed the most amazing highway system with not a single pothole or frost heave.  From our car we could see miles and miles of empty paved roads that stretched out way beyond us.  We often saw more bicycles on those roads than cars.


DRIVING THE NORTH CAPE LANDSCAPE




TOURISTS GATHER AT THIS MONUMENT AT NORTH CAPE, WHERE THE SUN NEVER SETS FROM MID-MAY TO LATE JULY


When exploring by car,  it seemed we were always buckling and unbuckling our seat belts so we could get out and take photos.  Often we talked to the locals who lived in fishing villages, and we enjoyed chatting up self-supported cyclists, when they stopped by the side of the road to take a break.  All of the cyclists  with whom we spoke were Europeans from cities like Amsterdam, Munich and Vienna.  We never met any American cyclists, although I'm sure they were there.   These cycling athletes were touring Scandinavia and riding the EuroVelo I circuit for 30 to 60 days, all the way from their home in Europe to the North Cape.   In Norway this demanding endeavor is at least a 2500 kilometer  bicycle adventure that only the most physically and mentally fit cyclists can undertake.  It requires biking long distances daily and carrying heavy gear in panniers and packs attached to their bicycles.  This is known as self-contained cycling.   One man we talked to said he was carrying 65 pounds.  Another cyclist we saw taking a break and puffing on a Lucky Strike admitted she didn't smoke very often.  How anyone doing a ride like that could even think of smoking--even infrequently--just amazes me.


The following five images are two cyclists we saw riding above the Arctic Circle near Nordkapp.  I wish I could tell you that these photos were me biking with a friend, but you would know it wasn't true because I'm not blond nor could I pass for 50.  But truth be known, self-supported bike touring has never been something I've wanted to do, especially at this stage of my life.  Instead  I would prefer that someone transport my gear, and serve me delicious meals.  Taking a hot shower at the end of a long day in the saddle would also be required, and I've never been comfortable on the ground in a sleeping bag unless I had a blow up mattress which would be another heavy item to carry on a bike.   No one would call me high maintenance, but the moniker of princess might be appropriate when it comes to self-contained, multi-day bike tours.  



CYCLING THE EUROVELO 1 -- 2500 KILOMETERS IN NORWAY





IF THIS WERE ME I WOULDN'T BE SMILING




THIS IS WHAT IS MEANT BY SELF-CONTAINED




CYCLNG ON TOP OF THE WORLD AT NORDKAPP


THE END OF A LONG DAY IN THE SADDLE



And so I say so long to the beautiful land of the Midnight Sun.





The adventure continues..........












Sunday, July 17, 2016

THE CONFESSIONS OF A CHOCOHOLIC

I confess I'm addicted to certain foods and one of them is chocolate.   I've called myself a binge eater for years, but primarily with foods that have sugar or salt.   

By binging I mean give me a potato chip, and I'll eat the entire bag.   One handful of nuts and one hour later the can is empty.  And, of course, there's chocolate. One square becomes two, then turns into three or four until the entire bar or package has been consumed.  Bruce hides his Milka bar because he knows I will eat all of it.   Chocolate chip cookies?  When my friend Jane brings her freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies on a bike ride, I manage to eat more than my share and hope no one else notices.  Her cookies are especially addictive because when they are warm, straight out of the oven, she sprinkles them lightly with salt. The best way to manage my binging problem is to keep half-opened food packages, like chocolate bars, chips and cookies, out of sight because for me there is no such thing as just one.

With this personal factoid in mind,  you can imagine how serendipidous it must be to have a good friend who owns a chocolate factory! Yes, really--and not just a Willy Wonka version, but a major worldwide supplier. Last week I finally made it to Germany to visit our good friend, Claus, and his family, and most happily, the amazing chocolate factory. 

The company, Rubezahl Schokoladen, was founded in 1949 by Joseph Cersovsky, the grandfather of Claus, who is now the company's CEO and the King of Chocolate.  The company, which has several plants in Germany, is headquartered near Stuttgart, and is still a family business, but a mighty big one, with more than 800 employees. We were excited to be able to don our sanitary coats and hats and tour the factory, from raw material to finished products ready for the retail shelves.  


PAM AND BRUCE WITH FRAU QUALITY CONTROL


Rubezahl makes several different chocolate products and until recently was best known for making seasonal products, like chocolate Santa Clauses,  Easter bunnies and advent calendars. In fact, in 2014 they sold 30 million advent calendars that year.  As the company grew, so did their product line, and now they make a variety of products using about 40,000 tons of chocolate each year, and exporting to over 50 countries worldwide.  One seasonal product that I think is unique is the chocolate advent calendar, but my sweet tooth ranked their Sun Rice crunchy as number one.

Chocolate consists of the basic ingredients: cacao mass, cacao butter, sugar and milk powder.  The milk powder comes in enormous bags weighing 750 kilos (2.2 pounds per kilogram) or 1,650 pounds, as much as the weight of one cow. 


THE KING OF CHOCOLATE POSING WITH  BAGS OF MILK POWDER


First the ingredients are weighed, and the milk powder is mixed in with the cacao mass, butter and sugar and ground together by big rollers and kneaded by a huge food processor.  The chocolate is stirred in a vessel that resembles a conch shell and is, therefore, conched for multiple hours at a very high temperature, and then stored in huge tanks.  Conching is considered to be a very important step in producing chocolate's complex flavor and smooth texture.


CHOCOLATE SLURRY DESTINED FOR GREAT THINGS


It was fascinating to watch the production of Sun Rice squares. This addictive little treat is a chocolate square filled with crunchy little morsels. Cereals, puffed rice and rice crackers are mixed and blended with the cacao creme.  The Sun Rice mass goes through big rollers until it is smooth and compressed to the right thickness.  



SUN RICE READY TO BE CUT INTO SQUARES


As the Sun Rice filling blend moves along the conveyer belt, grooves are pressed into the bottom of the dough, resulting in long Sun Rice strips, which eventually get cross-cut into squares.  When the morsels are almost done, it needs a chocolate coating, which happens when the morsels are pulled apart.  The Sun Rice morsel moves onto a grid through a curtain of whole milk chocolate which coats the pieces perfectly.  Afterwards the squares go through a cooling tunnel for about five minutes, which makes the chocolate solid.  



WOULDN'T YOU LOVE ONE RIGHT NOW?

I WANT ONE, TWO, THREE!




Finally, a robotic picker system recognizes each individual morsel and the robotic arms put the pieces into small compartmentalized thin plastic trays.

(See Youtube Videos at the end to watch the robotic arms at work)



Now the trays are wrapped with foil and packed into cardboard boxes ready for shipment.






Rubezahl is one of the largest buyers of UTZ certified cacao, the largest program for sustainable farming of coffee and cacoa in the world.   They buy different brands of cacoa from West Africa, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, and Madagascar.  

When we left Germany, the King of Chocolate made sure we brought home an ample supply of every product that Rubezahl produces.  Our refrigerator, the best place to store chocolate until it is ready to be eaten,  is full.  Rest assured.   I have made a pact with myself to only open the chocolate when I want to share with friends.   CHOCOHOLICS BEWARE.   



CHOCOLATE SANTA AND HIS HELPERS

YouTube -- chocolates on a roll

YOUTUBE -- WATCH THE ROBOTS WORK





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Thursday, June 16, 2016

THE MAN I LOVE

His paychecks stopped long ago, but he still keeps an office, which I call his man cave.   The cramped room is filled with heavy, dark wood furniture he has had for years, back when he got a paycheck.  Loose papers cover his desk and legal-size manilla folders are stacked on the credenza behind him where he also keeps his printer, a copier machine, and an ancient IBM Selectric typewriter which he uses to type addresses on envelopes.  There are yellow post-it notes stuck to his computer that remind him of deadlines and other tasks to do.  The framed certificates on the wall bring back memories of a time when he had billable hours.  His office is lit by fluorescent ceiling bulbs and an old floor lamp with a shade that is slightly singed around the edges.  They don't make phones like the one he has anymore.  It isn't even retro like a Princess.  His desk faces the door so that the wires and cables from his computer are visible to people who happen to drop by.  These are occasional visitors, like me or sometimes other tenants from the building.  He says he's relieved that outside people don't visit; otherwise he would have to dust and use a vacuum cleaner, which he would bring from home.

He has a collection of empty Amazon boxes he saves for mailing presents to his kids who live in other cities.  The sagging bookcases, there are two of them, hold heavy textbooks containing out-of-date information that he used when he practiced tax law and got a paycheck, which he called bringing home the bacon.  He doesn't say that anymore -- only that he's semi-retired because a retired person must be boring since they are not doing interesting stuff that most working people want to talk about.

Although it takes a while, he eventually opens every piece of mail, including advertisements from carpet cleaners announcing a special deal, even though we have hardwood floors at our house.  Occasionally there is a check inside one of those envelopes, which he calls found money because it's not a paycheck.  He has no billable hours, but he's semi-retired.  This is the man I married. The man I love and adore.  

                              Happy Birthday, Bruce! 




Saturday, May 28, 2016

IRELAND: THE PEOPLE, THE LANDSCAPE, AND DRIVING ON THE LEFT



OUR FIRST GLIMPSE OF IRELAND


In his Ireland guidebook Rick Steves writes, If you really want to know the Irish, just ask for directions.  In her Biker Chick Gone Crazy blog Pam Perkins writes,  If you really want to know the Irish, hail a taxi.  And that's exactly what we did after exiting the Dublin airport to join our friends Lynne and Fred for a two week driving trip around Ireland beginning in Dublin and concluding in Belfast. 

"Take us to the Croke Park Hotel," we asked the cab driver who was first in line to take a fare, and he whisked us away, talking continuously about places we must go and things we should see during our two days in Dublin, like Trinity College to see the Book of Kells.   "Drink a pint or two at the Brazen Head Pub," he said,  "because this is the oldest pub in Dublin.  You'll hear great stories told through music, and maybe you'll meet a faerie folk or two."  







THE LIBRARY AT TRINITY COLLEGE


Even though we used the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus for transportation throughout Dublin, we took cabs as well.  Every cabbie, without exception,  took great personal interest in us, asking why we were in Ireland, and what we planned to do.  The cabbie who drove us to pick up our rental car told us about great places to eat along our driving route, but he endeared himself to us when he sang a song (with multiple verses) about a nostalgic time in 1962, and then gave us each a bear hug when we said goodbye.   Knowing the congeniality of the Irish, I bet if we'd stuck around another day, he would have invited us home for supper.  We were clutching our sides laughing when another cabbie bragged about his upcoming trip to Vegas while his wife travels to Hungary for a breast reduction procedure.  


ONE OF OUR CABBIES


In addition to cabs and busses, we walked many miles combing the city streets, seeing the sights and looking for unique places to eat and cozy pubs for drinking and listening to live traditional music.  Our favorite pub turned out to be the popular Brazen Head because the music was very authentic, but we also enjoyed lunches at The Bank and the Lion's Head Pub.  We also checked out the night life in the Temple Bar area (a bit like Bourbon Street in New Orleans), listening to music, drinking Guinness and Bruce's favorite, Franciscan Rebel Red.  I even met a faerie.


LUNCH AT THE BANK IN DUBLIN




THE BRAZEN HEAD, THE OLDEST PUB IN DUBLIN


ONE FAERIE FOLK


How many Californians does it take to drive in Ireland?

The answer is four --Fred and Bruce in the front seat navigating and driving on the wrong side of the road (i.e. the left with the steering wheel on the right), and Lynne and Pam squeezed together in the back seat yelling  "Waaaatch out, you are toooooo close to the edge," or "Oh, my God, you almost hit that car."  Fred and Bruce got the hang of driving on the left fairly quickly, but we sucked a lot of air when meeting oncoming cars, trucks and buses hugging the center line of a narrow road.  Actually, we were hit twice when one crazy guy passed us going downhill on a narrow curvy road, and another time a young woman rear-ended us when we slowed down to follow a cyclist riding in the road.  We stopped both times but fortunately for all concerned, there was no damage to any of the cars. It seems our GPS lady found driving in Ireland a challenge too, but that didn't have anything to do with driving on the left.   Although we always plugged in the right information, she often had us going in the opposite direction or driving around in circles.  Often we'd shut her up, and use road signs, which weren't always helpful either, and our map didn't show the detail of the smaller roads, only the major highways.  

On Day One out of Dublin, we pulled into the small town of Kilkenny about 5 pm, but we didn't find our hotel (The Pembroke) until way past 6.   The GPS lady seemed to be in another country or on vacation so she made matters worse, but the sign for the Pembroke was also very small, making it almost impossible to notice.  In fact, we passed the hotel several times before we finally saw the sign, and that's only because the guys gave in to Lynne's and my pleading to ask someone for directions.  As it turned out that person happened to be an American who was trying to get his car out of a locked parking lot.  Fortunately,  a local fellow heard us and directed us to the hotel. 




THE COLORFUL BUILDINGS IN KINSALE


If you love castles, then Ireland should be on your bucket list because every city, town, and village seems to have a castle or at least a ruin that might qualify as a castle, like the Rock of Cashel.   Other famous castles are the Bunratty, Blarney, Dunguaire, Cahir,  Ross,  Dunluce, etc.   My favorite was the Rock of Cashel, which is not a castle per se, but it is definitely one of Ireland's most historic sights.  I especially loved photographing the cemetery there.  In fact I took pictures at many cemeteries during our trip.   What is it about cemeteries that speak to me visually?



THE ROCK OF CASHEL LOCATED IN THE COUNTY TIPPERARY

CEMETERY AT CASHEL


INSIDE ROCK OF CASHEL



THE BLARNEY CASTLE BUT WE DID NOT KISS THE STONE

OLD  CEMETERY AT GLENDALOUGH


CAHIR CASTLE, BUILT IN 1142


Although many kids in my hometown came from Irish descent, I really didn't know much about Ireland until I met my close friend, Helen Cassidy Page, whose mom and dad were born there.  In my youth no one seemed interested in their heritage, myself included.    After several trips with members from her family,  Helen published a beautiful historical novel entitled The Equal of God about Irish life in the 1800s before and during the potato famine.  (Click on title to find her book on Amazon).   Her evocative novel helped me appreciate Ireland's history in the context of my own trip, so when I stopped in Charlestown, the village where her father was born, I felt goosebumps, especially when I learned from a resident on the street that the Cassidy's lived just around the corner.

Wow!  Everything is so green.

In addition to the many kindnesses of the Irish people, what makes Ireland so special are the varied and beautiful landscapes.  My courses in landscape photography were not a waste of time.  I returned home with 1800 photos on my SD card, which are taking a long time to sort through.  I had many favorites viewpoints, but the Gap of Dunloe, where we took a horse and buggy ride with charming Kevin, had to be one of the most beautiful. Walking along the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is also high on the list.   I loved the historic monastic settlement of Glendalough, and the scenic Wicklow Mountains, where we photographed a wild mountain goat staring at us from the the peat bog on Military Road just over Sally Gap. 



THE WILD GOAT ON MILITARY ROAD AT SALLY GAP





A HORSE AND BUGGY RIDE UP THE GAP OF DUNLOE

GAP OF DUNLOE

The prolific yellow bush called furze in Ireland but Scotch broom here at home, bloomed prolifically and the predominance of the bright yellow weed made for a stunning contrast to the green hills, the blue water, and the often white puffy clouds.  Yes, white puffy clouds because the weather in general was pretty nice, some cloudy but dry days and even days with sun. While the iconic Ring of Kerry was a lovely drive, we enjoyed the Dingle Peninsula more, most likely because the day was sunny.  We saw a gazillion sheep grazing on the verdant hillsides or free range along the road.  It is the color of paint on the fleece of the sheep that distinguishes one owner from another.   As a dog person, my thrill was watching well-trained border collies herd sheep scattered all over the hillside into a tight pack and drive them quickly into a pen below us.  The farmer told us that sheep respond to the dogs as if they were wolves, a basic instinct in sheep that forces them to pack together for protection.  There is something about watching dogs do what they were bred for that brings tears to my eyes.   Visiting a sheep farm was a touristy thing to do, as evidenced by the number of big tour buses parked at the farm we visited.  We were packed together with a hundred or more tourists who rode in those behemoths, but it didn't matter.  We still enjoyed the event. 

Beautiful Irish scenery








We were looking forward to exploring an unusual geological area called The Burren, but that's when our rental car, a Renault SUV, broke down.  Fortunately, we had arrived early at our B&B and unloaded our luggage before setting out on a drive in the boonies, where no one lives and there's no cell phone coverage either.  I'll leave out the details except to say that the car's gearbox died, and the only functioning gear was first and that didn't get us far very fast.  When we finally made it back to the B&B, a charming place called Fergus View, the owners, Mary and her husband Declan, helped us deal with the bureaucracies of a rental agency, and after much pleading, we found a new rental car in the driveway of our B&B when we awoke the next morning.   Just as they promised, the new car was delivered from Dublin in the middle of the night on a flat bed truck, but honestly, after all the different people we had to talk to, we had our doubts it would happen.  



LABRADOR RETRIEVERS PLAYING AT THE BURREN


Another favorite place was the lively town of Galway, probably because it was artsy and had youthful energy. The highlight was coming upon the Galway Street Band with its thirteen animated young members playing lively music on a variety of instruments, including a washboard, several guitars, a banjo, saxophone, accordion, trumpet, ukulele, and a box drum, also known as a cajon.  Their music wasn't really Irish, but rather a combination of jazz, rock, some blue grass, and maybe a little world music tossed in here and there. Whatever you call it, we loved it--as did the enthusiastic crowd that filled the pedestrian-only intersection.  



THE GALWAY STREET BAND

An amazing thing happened in downtown Galway when looking for a place to park.   Bruce saw a space and quickly paralleled parked into it, but then we all noticed that the curb was painted yellow. Surely this meant something, but we weren't quite sure what.  A man in one of the stores said that this was not a parking place, but at that exact moment, a woman, officially-dressed in a pressed white shirt and black pants, marched up to us with paper in hand as though she was planning  to write us a ticket.  Bruce quickly told her, the traffic warden, we were moving the car, but she surprised us and said it was O.K. to park there.  "Do you have one Euro 90?" she asked Bruce, and it just so happened that he had the exact change, which he handed to her.  She took the money and disappeared around the corner, while we waited wondering what was going on.  When she returned, she handed Bruce a paper receipt and said, "Put this on your dashboard, and stay as long as you want.  Just enjoy our town, and have a good time."  Yes, amazing!  She even let me photograph her with Bruce, but after the photo,  she began writing tickets on the other cars parked next to ours.  






Contrary to what some people told me, Ireland has really delicious food.  I couldn't resist the thick slices of home-made soda bread smeared with soft Irish butter, and the warm scones with a touch of berry jam and a dollop of whipped cream went perfectly with my afternoon cup of tea.  Since returning home, I've had to change my eating habits.  There's no soda bread with Irish butter, and I gave up drinking a pint of Guinness daily. 


THICK SLICES OF SODA BREAD AND IRISH BUTTER


TOUGH CHOICES TO MAKE 


Stay tuned. The adventure continues in Norway next month.