Incredible Iceland

blog.sceneRain gushed from the heavens. Ferocious winds ripped the car door from my hand. It was frigid. The only sight was a wall of gray/white. Welcome to Iceland. I was devastated. We left warm and sunny Provence for this? The warning of a friend haunted me. “Why would you want to go to Iceland? They trained for the moon landing in Iceland. It rains all the time.”blog.ringrdThere was no turning back. Husband Vino Roberto (VR) and I set off in our rental car for a seven day venture, driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a 1,600 kilometer (992 miles)  circuit around the island. When the fog began to lift, depression intensified. Flat, brown, barren landscape. No trees. No buildings. Ugly!blog.0Fortunately things did improve, but Iceland is not for sissies. The country has some breathtaking scenery, but much of Iceland is desolate, vast tracts of varying shades of brown and black.   No vegetation. Sparse civilization. The weather…not much sun, at least in September. Of the country’s 320,000 citizens, more than half live in Reykjavik, the capital.blogglacier.2“Iceland weather is very unpredictable,” a local said. Another quipped, “We don’t have bad weather. You just have to dress for it. In one day, we have four seasons in Iceland. ”blogglacier.7That proved to be true. Often the sun would sneak through the dense cloud cover, usually only briefly, casting its intense rays on all below for what seemed a miraculous transformation. Mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, lakes, mud pots —we marveled at all. Iceland is overloaded with amazing natural wonders.blog.phone“Most travelers come to Iceland for nature, for the landscape,” we were told. And, adventure. In Iceland, you can hike across glaciers or to the top of a volcano, descend into a volcano, explore caves, drive All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs)  and snowmobiles, snorkel, scuba dive, surf, ski, ride horses… Our adventure was limited to horseback riding, an ATV tour, whale watching, fishing, and soaking in the legendary Blue Lagoon.blog.lagoon2The most spectacular sight during our tour was the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We were lucky. The luminous blue waters with their great chunks of ice glistened in sunshine. It was beyond beautiful. We walked around the shores, awe struck by the scene, as were many film makers. The lagoon has been a set in many movies. From the lagoon we followed a stream where all sizes of iceberg bits floated on to the sea, many then tossed back onto the black sand beach by the waves.blog.phone3The sun stayed away during most of our visit to the Skatafell National Park, a wilderness area of flora and fauna at the base of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles. Numerous glaciers flow from the ice hulk and there are active volcanoes underneath. Most visitors opt for a trip to glacial heights where they blogglacier.1can drive snowmobiles or hike across the glacier with a guide. Instead we hiked to Sksftafellsjokull as suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book, a one-hour trek to the dirty, gritty glacier face. Even though it was hardly a thing of beauty, its monstrous size was an overwhelming sight. A flash downpour drenched us as we hiked, but within a few minutes, the sun popped out.blogglacier.3Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an 18,000 kilometer long rift between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates.   It is the youngest country in Europe, formed 17 to 20 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates. Molten rock continues to rise from within blogpark.2forcing the plates apart. We saw the result at Thingvellir National Park, walking along the path through Almannagja near where the plates tear farther away from each other at the rate of 1 to 18 mm per year. The path between two great walls of rock is dramatic, however it is not actually between the two continental plates.geyserGeysers and waterfalls abound in Iceland. The country’s most famous geyser is Geysir which gave its name to geysers throughout the world. Unfortunately it became clogged when tourists threw rocks into it back in the 1950s so it remains quiet. But just next door is Stokkur, a most reliable geyser that delights the camera crowd with eruptions every five to 10 minutes. The bizarre landscape around the geyser is fun to explore: pools of bubbling mud, steam surging from the earth.falls.1Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goöafoss — three major waterfalls we visited along our journey. I failed to get a good photo. These are powerful falls producing powerful sprays. The skies were dark when we visited. At mighty Dettifoss which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe, a dangerous gale-like wind added challenge. VR had to hold on to me lest the wicked wind blow me into the furious water as I tried to take a picture.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

Visiting these falls is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails, no secure viewing platforms at most. Hike to the site, usually down slippery steps, across rocky terrain.   At Goöafoss you have to jump from rock to rock to cross a pool before reaching the edge of the falls. It was too much for one woman who froze in the middle, afraid to move in any direction. Her husband finally coaxed her back to solid ground.blogfalls.6Volcanoes – active, extinct, dormant.   Iceland has all. Several active volcanoes are beneath glaciers causing dramatic eruptions when molten lava and ice interact. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull caused serious flooding, as well as world disruption thanks to its ash that grounded Europe’s airplanes. During our September visit Bardarbunga was erupting, but in a remote, uninhabited area. For $1,500 you could take an airplane ride above the fiery cauldron.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

The volcano continues to erupt, but Icelanders seem to take it all in stride.  However John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek last week (Oct.15) that the lava and sulfur fumeshave been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country. The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors.” Glad we visited in September.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

While much of our drive was through bleak, bare terrain, even it had its charms – a strange, mysterious, eerie beauty. In the mountainous interior region of the north where there are no towns, no farms, no houses, suddenly we’d spot a lonely sheep.   We drove through many a fishing village, but there were no weather beaten boats tended by wrinkled fishermen. The boats appeared freshly painted, often in vivid colors. The villages are pristine.blog.boats3aYes, parts of Iceland do seem lunar like. And, rain is frequent. Nonetheless the Land of Fire and Ice is incredibly intriguing — and well worth a visit.blog.04More on Iceland coming in Incredible Iceland Part II – horses, fish, food, adventure. Don’t miss it.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. And, try Today’s Taste recipe, Almond Pear Clafouti, also upper right. You won’t be disappointed..blog.mudpot.3Travel Tips: Iceland is expensive, very expensive. A simple meal in an average restaurant can easily cost $35 and up. A beer: $8. A glass of wine: $11 (This put a crimp on VR’s drinking habit.)    I had hoped to buy an Icelandic sweater, but prices start at about $150. A nice one: $200. No sweater for me.   I complained about the high prices to a shop owner. “When we go to the states, we shop like mad. Everything is so cheap.”blog.misc2A 7-night, 8-day Ring Road Highlights self-drive trip from Iceland Travel costs from €868 (about $1041) which includes the rental car, accommodations and breakfasts. http://www.icelandtravel.com Gasoline is expensive,$7.74 per gallon. Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel  And me on Twitter: @larkleah

Meet Les Rosiers Renters 2014

blog.lede.2Luberon weather during summer 2014 was not the stuff those vacationers from the north expect. The glorious sun that normally blazes every day in July and August, and most days in June, was too often on holiday, taking a rest behind massive clouds. Nonetheless those who rented the apartment at Les Rosiers, our home, did not complain.   When the sun appeared, they were happy to plunge into the pool. They also hiked, biked, explored the region and discovered interesting sights. The season got off to an early start with our first renters who arrived in late April for a week, a young French family: Anne, Armand and precious Clement, a blog.guests.1veritable model baby. We never heard a whimper. We rarely saw them as they set off early each morning and returned in the evening after a full day of sightseeing. Clement was no problem, his mother told me, as he was accustomed to being in the car for long periods. Amazing! Back for the fifth season, Austrians Klaus and Eva again spent four weeks with us, from early June to early July. Eva is a legal secretary, so Klaus, who is retired, arrives for the first week with his car and roof rack packed to the brim with beer and Austrian blog.guests7delicacies. He always presents us with  generous gifts of the latter. Eva flies in for the middle two weeks. They lounge poolside, read, walk in the countryside, revisit favorite places and friends.blog.guest.7a Klaus also likes to do battle with those nasty wasps that like to drink from the pool and zap you with a painful sting if you are in the way. While in the water, he often walks around, fly swatter in hand, striking the enemies with vengeance.  And, he loves to grill. He treated us to a fabulous meal of his specials one evening. Before leaving, he gave me a list of items needed in the apartment, something he has done in the past. This time he said we needed a fire extinguisher, salad spinner, blog.guests.7band quality clothes hangers. He showed me one of the metal hangers from the apartment closet. “These are Alcatraz hangers,” he announced, and then explained that at home they use wooden hangers. Rest assured Klaus, all have been purchased. No more Alcatraz hangers. Machteld and John from the Netherlands arrived for three weeks in July. They were content to rest and relax poolside. Machteld came with 20 books. She read 16. blog.guests4John was often on his computer, or photographing butterflies. They raved about Bacchus, a restaurant in nearby Pierrevert that John had found on Trip Advisor. It was so good, they went three times. And, they shopped. Machteld loves to cook. She went home with a car full of French goodies, including plenty of wine. “We love France, the food, the wine, blog.guest4athe people,” she said. They spend a summer holiday in a different part of France each summer. This was their first time in the Luberon. Fortunately, they and the other summer renters like cats. We have three, as well as many feline visitors. Machteld showed me photos of her two, one a Maine Coon, and we shared cat stories.blog.guest.3 Marco and Mireille from Alsace joined us for two August weeks. Marco was smitten with Filippo, a feisty feline who amuses with his antics, often chasing blog.guest.3aimaginary butterflies. A DJ  in the evening, by day Marco manages his clothing stores. In his younger days he was a ski instructor at Val d’Isere. We had some serious ski talk. Mireille works with the elderly in a hospital.   Their passion: hiking. They drove to different areas each day from where they set off on long, long treks. Wynand and Evelyn, another Dutch couple, began everyday with a poolside breakfast and swim. They were lucky — there was morning sun. Then, on to the bikes, which they had brought with them, for cycle excursions.  ”We enjoyed having a coffee everyday at the Reillanne (our village) cafes,” Evelyn said.blog.guests.6 They also vacation in France every year, but usually camp near Mont Ventoux, the legendary mountain Wynand has conquered on his bicycle five times. Stef, Ninon and adorable Lise, 1 1/2 years old, came from Lyon where Ninon works as a “chef de cuisine” in a restaurant and Stef is in the communications industry. They did not venture too far, but did walk into Reillanne almost every day, about a 25-minute jaunt, at first up a very steep hill on a bumpy road.   Stef pushed Lise in her baby carriage. She was another model infant — always smiling or laughing, a joy to admire.blog.guests.5 “Thank you for the welcome, the cats for their company, the flowers for their colors, the pool for its freshness and the road for its sweat, “ Ninon wrote in our guest book.

If you’d like more information about the rental apartment, see http://www.les-rosiers.com

Like my blog?  Please let me know.  Feedback is most welcome.  Leave a Reply below. Coming soon:  Incredible Iceland.  Don’t miss it.  Sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower, upper right.  And, see Today’s Taste for the latest recipe.   

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Souvenirs of Summer 2014

fleurs.2It’s officially over. It makes me sad, even though summer 2014 was not a normal Provence summer. Thanks to climate change, we had thunderstorms and cool, cloudy days. Too much wind and rain. The latter had a plus. July and August days are usually hot and sunny with almost no rain. This year we saved both money and time on watering all our flowers and trees. Still, I would have preferred a real summer.

Gone are those long summer nights when we could dine on the balcony by daylight up until 10 p.m. Soon many restaurants will close or drastically shorten geraniumstheir opening times. I am still swimming, but that too will come to an end before long. Tomatoes — those tasty gems I buy from farmers at the markets, will soon disappear and we will left with those tasteless Dutch hothouse tomatoes at supermarkets. Fall and winter are for cosying up with the cats by the fireplace — not as exciting as summer, but not so bad.

In spite of the less-than-perfect weather, we enjoyed some fun times and outings during summer 2014. The following photos are souvenirs of those good times.

Again I tried for the perfect lavender shot. Now that I have had photo lessons from friend and fab photographer George, there’s hope for improvement next year.lavender.blog2

We joined fellow Americans for a Fourth of July party sponsored by Democrats Abroad in Avignon.4th.1

Then we joined the French for a Bastille Day fete in neighboring Vacheres. The July 14th sardinade (grilled sardines) is an annual event with plenty of wine, music and song – in addition to those petite fish.vachere.2

On the cultural side, we joined a group from our town for a bus excursion to an outdoor piano concert in La Roque d’Antheron, also an annual event — preceded by a picnic in the park.piano.1

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And, we went to Avignon for a day at the Festival d’Avignon which features almost 1,000 theatrical performances. The festivities in the streets are more than jolly.fb.1

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And north to Sisteron for an outdoor concert under the Citadele.fb.5

I longed for the mountains, so we drove to a winter ski town that draws hikers and mountain bikers in summer. We rode a chair lift to the heights for an easy trek. Alas, riding a chair lift in summer minus snow and skis is not easy. Getting off I did not  jump aside fast enough and was whacked in the back with the chair and knocked to the ground. Painful. We canceled the hike, but enjoyed beautiful scenery on the way home.mts.2

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Another community meal – paella in our town, Reillanne. We love these events, good food and socializing.sisteron.paella.lac 021

Again this summer we tried our luck at a Vide Grenier (Empty Attic). It’s a flea market, but our hopes of making money on our no-longer-used possessions were dashed. We could not even give things away. There were still treasures in the box labeled “Gratuit” (Free) after the last customers had gone home.

vg.2Cannes on the Riviera was our destination for an event sponsored by the American Club of the Riviera – mind-boggling fireworks shot from boats in the harbor. We spent the night in Cannes and enjoyed a visit to the off shore island, Sainte Marquerite, the following day. Gorgeous.  On the way home, a quick dip in the Med at Theoule-sur-Merisle.1

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Friends Mollie and David put summer to bed with a fabulous garden party.

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Summertime is also for enjoying our pool and yard and flowers — and the SPPS (State Park Picnic Shelter). See previous post “Pergola — Or State Park Picnic Shelter?”  Aug. 22, 2013.  It’s looking better,  thanks to the decorative elements painstakingly installed by Bob, and Ben’s suggestion that we we lighten the posts and beams.  That made a huge difference.  Thank you, Ben.  You saved it– and our marriage.pool.2

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Don’t miss the next post featuring our summer renters. We meet fun and interesting people who rent the guest apartment at Les Rosiers for vacation. And then… a post on Incredible Iceland.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up now at top right so you don’t miss future tales. 

Please comment below.  Share your thoughts.

Summer may be over, but grilling is not. One of my favorites which is always a hit with guests is grilled lamb. See column at top right for recipe.

 

 

 

Highlights of the Midi-Pyrénées

Strains of “The House of the Rising Sun”   reverberated through the massive edifice. This was not a rock concert. No one was singing.

The sounds came from a powerful organ played by a monk in the abbey church of Ste. Foy. The Animals 1964 hit about a brothel in New Orleans seemed a strange choice of music in this religious shrine.

It was electrifying, and the perfect background for a nighttime tour of this Romanesque temple in Conques, a picture-perfect village in southwestern France.conques.blog

Every evening from May through September at 9:30 p.m., visitors are permitted to wander freely around the upper galleries of the church, normally off limits, to look down at the vast nave, to study the unique windows, to look up at the sculpted capitals of columns, each a magnificent work of antique art. Spot lights grow dim and then brighter, highlighting architectural details. Shadows move. The music entrances. Even for the non-religious, this is a spiritual experience, a sound and light show like no other.conques.blog3

Conques was my favorite of the many places visited on a recent tour of the Midi-Pyrénées region in this corner of France. It’s easy to understand why it was named one of the “plus beaux villages de France,” (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The tiny burg of Romanesque fountains and half-timbered houses is nestled in a valley surrounded by green.conques.4blog

The abbey church’s roots go back to the eighth century when a Benedictine monastery was established at the site in the wilderness. Relics were needed to give the new monastery clout. In the ninth century a monk set off to Agen and came back with part of the skull of Saint Foy, a Christian who had been martyred in the town in 303 AD. Miracles were soon attributed to the relic, and Conques became a pilgrimage site, a holy place to visit on the road to Santiago de Compostela, the well-known pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain.conques.blog2

Today about 13,000 pilgrims per year visit Conques, a town with just 90 year-round residents. Most visit the Treasury as well as the church. Lavish, bejeweled gold and silver reliquaries are displayed in glass enclosed cases. The most elaborate is said to contain the foreskin of Christ. “How do you know it’s the foreskin of Christ?” asked a doubting visitor. “I don’t know. I was not present at the Circumcision,” quipped the guide.

The Conques abbey Church has another attraction – windows designed by the French contemporary artist Pierre Soulages. These bear no resemblance to the usual church stained glass windows, but were designed to let light penetrate the grandiose yet somber structure. The Soulages windows, geometric shapes of glass of varying density, change color depending on the exterior light.

Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.

Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.

Soulages was born in 1919 in Rodez, a Midi- Pyrénées town now a must for contemporary art fans. In May, the Soulages Museum opened with some 500 works of the renowned abstract artist who is known for his devotion to the color black.albi.56blog

Another artist, born some 150 years ago, was the reason for a visit to Chateau du Bosc. As a young boy, the famous post-impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who hails from nearby Albi, spent summers in the chateau.   Today a distant relative gives fascinating tours of the grandiose medieval house which is her home. Nicole-Berangere Tapie de Celeyran, 89, tiny, frail, and slightly hunch backed, charges up the long staircases with the vitality of a teenager, visitors following behind. From the kitchen where she points out Lautrec’s sketches on the wall, she continues upstairs to a lavish salon and dining room, a bedroom, hallways, and then into the garden.albi.11

“I love to talk. I want to preserve this house, the spirit of the family,” she says. She also wants to show Lautrec mementoes and correct misconceptions about the legendary artist.

She embellishes the tour with stories passed on from her grandmother and other ancestors who knew the artist. Lautrec’s father and uncles often went hunting, I learned. They’d come back after an outing and relate tales of their adventures. Young Lautrec sat on the floor, using coal from the fireplace to make drawings of their exploits, she said. In his bedroom, the floor scattered with toys, she pointed out a boat Lautrec had made after his accident.

At ages 13 and 14, Lautrec had two bad falls resulting in broken legs which never healed properly. He stopped growing, reaching only 4 feet 9 inches. He developed an adult size torso, but child size legs and was unable to participate in sports. He immersed himself in art instead.

The chateau visit was ideal background for a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi.albi2.blog

Lautrec’s cabaret posters have become synonymous with Paris and Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers in the late 1800s. More than 1,000 of his works – paintings, lithographs, drawings, as well as the famous posters — are on display in the Albi museum which has the largest collection of his works in the world.

“What is important in a painting is the person. Landscape is secondary. That was his philosophy,” a museum guide said. He painted psychological portraits, and he understood advertising, hence the posters, she explained. Lautrec was an alcoholic and died at the age of 37 due to complications of alcoholism and syphilis.albi.blog

Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, hugs the banks of the Tarn River where it is spanned by an ancient bridge. The spires of the city’s mighty cathedral dominate the skyline for a scene almost too picture-perfect. The cathedral, Sainte Cecile, is the only cathedral in France that is still completely painted with the original 15th century paint still intact. During the Middle Ages, church interiors were painted although the paint on most has long since vanished. It survived here because the cathedral is very dark.

Albi’s museum of miniatures is curious if not incredible. It houses 55 miniature rooms all made by a 79-year-old woman who started the project 40 years ago. As a child she wanted a dollhouse, but she never got one. So, at the age of 39 albi.3blogshe set out to make her own, room by room. The museum curator told us that it takes her from six months to a year to make one room. She is now busy making a miniature church.

Toulouse, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and France’s fourth largest city, is also the European capital of aeronautics and the home of Airbus. The university city, often called the “ville rose” (pink city) due the bricks it produces which have been used in the construction of many of its buildings, is vibrant and attractive with magnificent churches, lively markets and excellent restaurants.toulouse4.blog

Saint Sernin Basilica, the largest complex of Romanesque buildings in the world, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it was a major stop en route to Santiago de Compostela.toulouse.2blog

The Jacobin Monastery, stark on the outside, is a marvel inside with famous and unique palm tree arches. toulouse.1blog

The heart of Toulouse is the Capitole, the city hall and its courtyard with a statue of Henry IV. The 18th century neo-classical façade of the elongated building dominates a large square that is always a hub of activity. Seats at one of its outdoor cafes are in demand.

The cuisine of southwestern France is legendary.  For more about it, as well as  well-known restaurants in the Midi-Pyrénées, see previous post, “Fabulous French Dining, a Post for Foodies.” I love to know what readers think about my posts, so please comment.  See Leave a Reply below.  And, don’t forget Today’s Taste, a recipe for Thai Green Beans, column at upper right.  toulouse.4blogIf you go…

Chateau du Bosc is located in Naucelle, 30 minutes by car from Albi. Madame Tapie de Celeyran gives guided tours only in French, but guided tours in English by other staff members who know all about Lautrec are offered year round from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.   If you visit, you are sure to meet Madame who loves to welcome visitors.   + 33 (0) 5 65 69 20 83

Museum Toulouse-Lautrec, Palais de la Berbie, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 49 48 70 www.musee-toulouse-lautrec.com

Museum of Miniatures, 16 Rue Rinaldi, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 79 00 98, www.academiedesminiatures.fr

Soulages Museum, Jardin du Foirail, Avenue Victor Hugo, Rodez, +33 (0)5 65 73 82 60, www.musee-soulages.grand-rodez.com

Recommended Hotels

The Hotel Mercure Albi Bastides on the banks of the Tarn has the perfect location for admiring – and photographing – Albi.   Moulins Albigeois, 41 rue Porta, 8100 Albi, + 33 (0) 5 63 47 66 66 www.mercure.com/Albi

The Hotel Restaurant Hervé Busset, in a wooded setting on the banks of the lively Dourdou River just outside Conques, is a true delight. An old mill was transformed into an inn with a lovely riverside terrace for relaxing and/or dining. And, the food – fabulous. Busset has earned one Michelin star with his cuisine which makes use of plants and flowers from his garden. Domaine de Cambelong, 12320 Conques, +33 (0)5 65 72 83 91 www.moulindecambelong.com

Location, Location, Location – Toulouse’s Grand Hotel de l’Opera can’t be beat. Facing the heart of  town, the Place du Capitole, the charming boutique hotel is located in a former convent of the 17th century. Place du Capitole, 31000 Toulouse, +33 (0) 61 21 82 66 www.grand-hotel-opera.com/uk

 

 

Back to Bali

Serene, beautiful, mysterious, soothing to the soul, nourishing to the spirit — I love Bali. I was enthralled with this special island during a visit in 2012 and thrilled to return this past winter following our adventures in Myanmar. (For Myanmar posts, scroll down column on right to list of Recent Posts.)

Ganesh, god of wisdom and lord of good fortune.

Ganesh, god of wisdom and lord of good fortune.

We –Vino Roberto (VR) my husband no longer BB of bicycle fame — and I went back to the bit of paradise we discovered on that first Bali visit, the Tanah Merah resort just 20 minutes from Ubud, a funky, artsy town in the hills. (see previous posts ”High on Bali,” Jan. 28, 2012, and “A dentist and His Jungle Haven ,“ Feb. 14, 2012).    bblog.sub

Tanah Merah is the perfect place to chill out and soak in the seductive Bali ambience surrounded by a lush tropical landscape, statues of Hindu gods and spirits, exotic flora and fauna, a friendly and helpful staff, plus a spacious and bblog.2luxurious room furnished with island antiques.

During our 10-day stay we embarked on a few excursions – to temples, a nature hike, Balinese dance performances, and, for me a fabulous cooking course. We also witnessed an amazing cremation ceremony.

“I like the atmosphere in Bali,” Olga Jafai, a Dutch woman who has lived in Bali for 40 years, told me. “The people live very close to God… or several gods.” Religion, a form of Hinduism different than that practiced in India, is interwoven with bblog.36everyday life in Bali. In addition to the three main manifestations of God (Siwa, Wisnu and Brahma), there are other gods and spirits. Every house has shrines and/or a temple with statues of gods and spirits. The Balinese treat the many unseen spirits of the land as honored guests with daily offerings, usually small banana leaf baskets with flower petals, rice and other gifts, placed at the base of the statues, as well as at the base of trees which also have a spirit, every day. Sarongs are often wrapped around the statues and trees to protect the spirits. At Tanah Merah, the statues and trees are faithfully cared for with fresh offerings every morning.

Colorful flower petals for offering baskets at Ubud market.

Colorful flower petals for offering baskets at Ubud market.

Bali has numerous grand temples and holy places , fascinating places to visit. On our previous visit, we went to the Besakih temple in East Bali, a huge complex and the “mother” of all temples. This time we visited Tirta Empal with its holy bathing pools in Tampaksiring. Mind boggling: A pool crowded with clothed worshippers, all immersed in the waist deep water, dutifully following one bblog.28another around the pool to the side with spouts spewing water.  The object is to put your head under the spout, a purification ritual….never mind sanitation.

Some tourists even joined the pool procession. I no doubt needed purification, but felt the bacteria in the water may do more than purify me.  I took photos instead.bblog.25

The cremation ceremony we witnessed in Ubud was yet another intriguing ritual. The deceased, I learned, was someone important , hence a major ceremony. A procession through the town with the usual loud Balinese sounds, lots of drums and cymbals, preceded a huge fire.

The crowd of both tourists with cameras and locals decked out in their finest followed several men whose shoulders supported a pier on which a replica of a large black bull stood.  Inside the bull were the deceased’s possessions.  The burning of the body would take place at another time.

Lighting the cremation fire.

Lighting the cremation fire.

At the crowded cremation site, the bull was raised to a large flower-decorated platform. More music (sounds), louder and louder, until the beast was set afire and rapidly engulfed in flames.  Quite a spectacle to bid farewell to the dead man’s treasures!bblog.34

Unfortunately our early February visit to Bali coincided with the rainy season. We encountered some rainstorms, but mainly just cloudy, steamy days. Not great weather for a bike excursion, so instead we signed up for a nature hike (the hike from hell).bblog.9

Idewa Nyoman Gede Rai, our trusty guide, led us down paths bordered by dense tropical brush. “Don’t touch the green plants,” he warned. Later he told us the vegetation is home to green snakes, cobra and pythons. “But I don’t tell people that. They will be afraid.” He did show us an enormous spider, which, he said, is good to eat if you have a urinary infection. We saw green lizards which you should eat if you have cancer.bblog.10

The hike led through flooded rice paddies. We followed him, gingerly trying to keep our feet on the skinny wooden planks alongside rows of rice — very tricky. Most of the slippery planks were covered in growth and or water. I fell twice. The humidity was wretched. I was miserable. “How much longer?” I kept asking.

After the challenge of the rice paddy trek, we drove to a beach with black sand where surfers were chasing waves. He rewarded us with fresh coconut milk, and demonstrated how to drink the liquid from the coconuts. It must take practice. I got a face full of sticky coconut juice.bblog.13

My favorite part of this Bali visit was the half-day Paon Bali Cooking Class which was much more than chopping, dicing and stir frying. Along with these kitchen tasks and learning about tasty Balinese cuisine, the course is an enriching introduction to Balinese life and customs.bblog.3

The course begins at Ubud’s bustling market where everything from clothing to souvenir items to all manner of fruits and vegetables is for sale. Our class, five other women and I, zeroed in on the latter. Women sit on the ground with their produce spread out on blankets. Others have stands to display their merchandise. It is crowded, chaotic – and fascinating. Our guide made purchases and let us sample common Bali fruits, most unknown to us; mangosteen, durian, jackfruit, hairy fruit (rambutan).bblog.6

The course was held at the home of Ni Luh Made Puspawati, who asked to be called Puspa, and her husband, Wayan Subawa . Wayan explained the layout of a Balinese home (several structures) before ushering us to the outdoor kitchen overlooking the jungle where Puspa, our effervescent and ever smiling teacher, and several assistants took over. We would prepare food.10Balinese – not Indonesian – dishes, Puspa, explained. Bali is one of 13,466 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Its cuisine is influenced by both China and India. A typical meal consists of many different dishes, always accompanied by rice. The food is pungent and spicy enriched with the flavors of fresh ginger, raw chilies, shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind.

We prepared – then savored – eight different dishes for which we were given the recipes. I have made several with success for guests.bfood.11

Balinese dance performances are popular for tourists with several venues in Ubud offering the shows. Most illustrate ancient stories often involving evil spirits played by dancers who wear frightful masks. Some feature graceful young women wearing beautiful costumes. We enjoyed two performances. The Fire Dance, with the lead performer dancing barefoot atop fire, was incredible.bblog.37

“If you live in Bali, you don’t want to live anyplace else,” said Jafai, the Dutch resident of the island. If you visit, you will want to return, again and again (For more on the cooking course, see my article on Travel Squire: http://travelsquire.com/balinese-cooking-class/

bblog.12See below for more Bali photosComments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste (top right) features a recipe for Lemony Lemon Brownies –different, delicious and perfect for a picnic dessert.  Don’t miss future posts and recipes. Sign up, top right,  to become a Tales and Travel follower.

Tanah Merah Resort and Gallery, www.tanahmerahbali.com

with "Balinese blender."

with “Balinese blender.”

Paon Bali Cooking Class, www.paon-bali.com

Ubud restaurants we can recommend:

Café des Artistes, www.cafedesartistesbali.com

Bridges, www.bridgesbali.com

Casa Luna, www.casalunabali.com

 

En route to cooking class, we visited a school where kids were happy to pose for photos., thol where

En route to cooking class, we visited a school where kids were happy to pose for photos.,

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During our hike we met a peanut farmer.

During our hike we met a peanut farmer.

Bali is famous for beaches -- but not this one with black sand.

Bali is famous for beaches — but not this one with black sand.

School kids we meant at a temple wanted to practice English.

School kids we met at a temple wanted to practice English.

Temple worship with incense.

Temple worship with incense.

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Sign at holy pools.

Sign at holy pools.

With photo of deceased at cremation ceremony.

With photo of deceased at cremation ceremony.

Large gold fish thrive in a holy pool.

Large gold fish thrive in a holy pool.

Cock fights, although illegal in Bali, flourish.  Man with his prize fighter offered to take me to one.

Cock fights, although illegal in Bali, flourish. Man with his prize fighter offered to take me to one.

With feathered friends.

With feathered friends.

Fabulous French Dining : A post for foodies

I recently had the good fortune to accompany other American journalists on a press trip to the Midi-Pyrénées region (southwestern France). Art and gastronomy were the focus of the voyage, and the gastronomy was extraordinaire with four and five course meals for both lunch and dinner on most days.blog.11
We savored cuisine at restaurants whose chefs are famous, restaurants with Michelin stars, as well as a few restaurants that were ordinary at best. We visited colorful markets and tasted the area’s wine. Following are highlights of our culinary experiences.
The week-long journey got off to a smashing start with dinner at Michel Sarran in Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city and the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées. The ambience in this two-Michelin star establishment named after its renowned chef is classy, elegant, modern. The food definitely wins stars for appearance and presentation. Each course (we had four) was a painstaking work of art with numerous bites of exotic creations, such as sea urchin mousse and hay ice cream.blog.lede

Petite marmite basque, sauce Ttoro in unique bowl

Petite marmite basque, sauce Ttoro in unique bowl

As in most fancy French restaurants, the food descriptions are daunting. First course: La volaille de Monsieur Duplantier en crème onctueuse aux écrevisses, suprême poché au citron confit et raz el hanout, peau croustillante. Basically tiny pieces of chicken in a crayfish sauce with a delicious citrus flavor surrounded by delicate tidbits of other edibles. The main course was the overall favorite: Pigeon du Mont Royal (pigeon filet). The succulent bird was served with a tiny nest-like creation: Suprêmes frits en kadaïf et jus à l’encre – (a middle eastern cheese pastry with octopus ink), plus other petit delicacies.

Markets offered a profusion of berries.

Markets offered a profusion of berries.

For dessert, a wild strawberry melange with a lemon basil sauce, lime crumble and the hay ice cream (lait glacé au foin).
All very, very good. But we wondered if all that labor intensive preparation of so many different tiny bites wasn’t a bit much. Was the chef trying too hard to win a third Michelin star? I would have preferred fewer items served in slightly larger portions. http://www.michel-sarran.com

Lunch the following day at the outdoor terrace of Emile, a Toulouse favorite in the bustling Place Saint George, was a winner. Chef Christophe Fazan is known for both creative cuisine and local favorites.

Hams and sausages are popular in southwestern France.

Hams and sausages are popular in southwestern France.

Foie Gras, the controversial fattened liver from force-fed geese and ducks, is a regional specialty. Several of my traveling companions ordered this served with mango chutney as their first course, while I chose ravioles de foie gras, crème aux cèpes. This was my all time favorite dish of the entire trip – ravioli filled with foie gras smothered in a cepe( bolet/porcini) sauce. Each bite was bursting with flavor. Elaine, our affable tour leader, went for Cassoulet, the signature Toulouse dish, a stew of meats, sausages and beans. Former French president Jacques Chirac is said to have especially enjoyed Emile’s Cassoulet. http://www.restaurant-emile.comblog.10
While Michel Sarran’s food was good, most of us preferred that of Christian Constant, another renowned French chef. His restaurant, Le Bibent, features glamorous baroque/art nouveau décor and great food.blog.22 My first course, a tartare of several kinds of fish and oysters with a hint of ginger served in oyster shells, was excellent, and better than my main course, a confit of lamb. Confit or preserved meat is yet another regional favorite with duck confit the most popular.
An incredible dessert followed: a gigantic mille feuille. This pasty whose name blog.1translates as “a thousand leaves” is layers of thin, flaky pastry with custard in between. Constant’s version is enormous, yet light and yummy.
I was tempted to buy Constant’s cookbook in English. But, my shelves are already overloaded with cookbooks and my suitcase was already too heavy. http://www.maisonconstant.com/bibent/
We were ready for a simple and light lunch the following day. Le Capucin, supposedly a gourmet fast-food eatery established by yet another famous chef, Michel Bras who has several restaurants which together have earned three blog.13Michelin stars, was the place. Sandwich type ingredients, albeit with some creative concoctions, fill edible cones which you eat like ice cream cones while sitting on high stools. A clever idea, but short on taste. A basic ham and cheese on rye would have been better. http://www.capucinbras.fr
We sampled more of Michel Bras’ cuisine and met the star chef at Café Bras, his newest restaurant in the new and stunning Soulages Museum, dedicated to the works of contemporary artist Pierrre Soulages, in the town of Rodez. Mixed reviews on the food here, although all were in awe of the first

Michel Bras

Michel Bras

course, a light and creamy type of cheese soufflé. We requested – and were given – the recipe. The main courses were standard fare — a choice of veal, fish or beef — none of which excited the palate. But, ah…the dessert. As a chocolate lover, this got my vote as best dessert of the trip: le petit pot de crème praliné/chocolat croquant sésame. (a decadent chocolate praline cream). http://www.cafebras.fr
Most of us were not overly impressed with yet another star diner just outside of Rodez at Chez Isabelle (one Michelin star), but by this time perhaps we had

Isabelle won high marks for originality with this "eggplant burger," but it was bland.

Isabelle won high marks for originality with this “eggplant burger,” but it was bland.

reached the saturation point with gourmet cuisine. I ordered Pressé de joues de boeuf et de foie gras au vin rouge, gratin de macaronis. (cheeks of beef with foie gras, red wine sauce and macaroni). Disappointing, and even without a star I can do a better job on macaroni. Chef Isabelle Auguy is one of the growing number of female chefs who have earned the coveted Michelin star. http://www.restaurantisabellesuguy.fr
There were a few other disappointments. The main course at a hotel meal sounded and looked exquisite: scallops (one of my favorites) atop a mound of risotto. Alas, the scallops were overcooked and the risotto was mushy. I am not

Scallops and risotto -- appearance isn't everything.

Scallops and risotto — appearance isn’t everything.

shy about trying unknown foods – all part of the taste experience. For lunch in the town of Conques, I bravely ordered the first course:  gateau aux oreilles et pieds de cochon, vinaigrette à la moutarde (cake of pig ears and feet). The French let no part of an animal go to waste, but in this case, they should have. The cake was tasteless.
Not so the boudin noir (blood sausage) served with apples, onions and potatoes and rich in flavor at Le Clos Sainte Cécile, a lovely restaurant in the town of Albi where we sat in the garden under plane trees.
Dinner at the Hervé Busset restaurant won hands down as the favorite meal of this epicurean voyage. This was the trip finale with both an overnight and dinner at the one star chef’s hotel and eatery in a renovated ancient mill in a wooded setting on the banks of the Dourdou River just outside of our favorite town, Conques.

Black and White, lucky pet geese at Herve Buset.  Their livers won't end up on someone's dinner plate.

Black and White, lucky pet geese at Herve Buset. Their livers won’t end up on someone’s dinner plate.

Busset has a passion for nature reflected in his cuisine. Wild edible plants are used in the preparation of his food which is innovative, unusual, delicious. http://www.moulindecambelong.com
After a week of extravagant eating, I was ready for a Big Mac, but the zipper on my jeans told me it was time for starvation.

Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Chilled Avocado Soup topped with Crab.  My guests loved it!.  See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While  you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.

Aligot, a puree of mashed potatoes and the local cheese, Laguiole.

Aligot, a puree of mashed potatoes and the local cheese, Laguiole.

Italy’s German Accent: Sud Tyrol

blog.st.10Signs advertising “Speck” everywhere we looked: along the roads, in shop windows, at street stands. ”Speck” is German for bacon, but we had just come down the mountains from Switzerland into Italy, not Germany.blog.st.6

This was northern Italy, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian. The majority of the population speaks German – and obviously eats plenty of Speck. Ordinary bacon this regional specialty is not, nor should it be confused with Italian prosciutto (ham). Speck is rubbed with herbs, spices and berries, smoked for different lengths of time with different hardwoods, and air dried in the area’s mountain climate.   This makes it distinct, unique – the echt expression of the region.

Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck -- yummy)

Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck — yummy)

I was on my annual trip to research articles for the magazine German Life, with BB as my chauffeur, Sherpa and trusty companion. After a few days in Leukerbad, a Swiss spa town in the Alps, followed by a visit to Davos, we proceeded to this intriguing part of Italy.

Since German predominates here, I’ll call it Sud Tyrol. Our travels took us to Merano, Bolzano, Brixen, and lovely spots in between. We found it all enticing and enjoyed two fascinating museums, picturesque hikes, the charming towns, blogst.1some excellent meals and a wonderful hotel. BB, who sadly does not do much biking these days but is passionate about wine, was thrilled with the local vintages. I may have to change his name from Bicycle Bob (BB) to Vino Roberto (VR).   Which shall it be?

Merano (Meran) is a marvel, a beauty of a town on the banks of the frisky Passirio River with fanciful flower beds, an arcaded shopping street and a spa center, all surrounded by mountains. The riverside summer and winter blog.st.2promenades  (passeggiate d’Inverno and passeggiate d’Estate) – paths through woods, past flowers and tropical plants, with the sounds of the rambunctious river tumbling over rocks, are glorious. We stopped to watch a kayaker practice on surging rapids.blog.st.13

“North and south meet here. It’s the best of two worlds,” said our Bolzano city guide, Luciano Rech, who filled us in on the region’s history. Sud Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War I during which Italy initially remained neutral. In 1915, as an incentive to enter on their side, the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria and Hungary) offered Italy a chunk of land, all territories south of the Alpine water divide regardless of the ethnic makeup of the regions. At the time, 92.2 per cent of the population was said to be ethnic Germans. In 1919 the territory was annexed by Italy, and has been Italian ever since,  with the exception of the years 1943-1945 when it was de facto annexed to the German Reich until the fall of Germany. Both German and Italian are considered official languages.blog.st.18

It has not always been a peaceful co-existence, marred at times by repression and terrorism. During the 1930s and again in the 1950s Italians were forcibly resettled to the region. According to the 2011 census, German speakers make up 61.5 percent of the population, Italian speakers, 23.1 percent, and 4 percent  speak Ladin, an ancient language derived from Latin. All seems peaceful, and the region has a significant degree of autonomy. However, there are still some who resent being under the yoke of Rome and argue for independence.blog.st.15

“I’m Tyrolean” announces Rech. “I don’t feel we are the same as people from Naples, Rome.”   Many others I spoke too echoed his sentiments.Bolzano (Bozen), a bustling city and the capital of Sud Tyrol, is the home of Ötzi, the mummy of an Iceman discovered in

Recreation of Otzi

Recreation of Otzi

1991 in the mountains at the edge of a melting glacier. The museum where he is preserved behind glass is a must with enlightening exhibits of garb and objects that were found with him. And, extensive documentation, including videos, on the sensational find and what has been learned from and about Ötzi. He died 5,300 years ago after having been shot by an arrow, presumably murdered.

Famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner (first solo ascent of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen) has created the Messner Mountain Museum outside of town on the slopes of a mountain and in the ruins of a castle. It’s blog.st.20a genuine mountain experience, with lots of steps (I felt we were back in Myanmar), skinny walkways, metal ladders and fabulous views.   Follow the itinerary in and out of buildings, up slopes and towers, across bridges, past exhibits on his climbs, mountain terrain, Himalayan artifacts and more. Messner, who is a native of Brixen in Sud Tyrol, has established four other mountain museums in the province.blog.st.19

En route to Bolzano we stopped for an overnight so we could take a hike in the hills and soak in the scenery. We trekked amongst grape vines and apple blog.st.11orchards, and stumbled upon some sexy snakes. We had a wonderful lunch at an eatery under an arbor of grape vines with gorgeous views. The food, especially the apple strudel, was definitely more Germanic than Italian. The proprietors also sell wine, so of course we tasted and bought.blog.st.12

Unfortunately we did not make it to the mighty Dolomites which are part of the province for some real mountain hiking. After Bolzano we spent two nights at an inn, the Ansitz Zehentner, in the town of Lajen (Laion) where a rollicking fest was underway when we arrived. Women in dirndls. Men in trachten (traditional costume). Plenty of beer. And, blasen music (wind instruments). We could have been back in Germany.blog.st.22

Frau Schenk, proprietor of the inn which dates back to 1358, suggested a hike through fields and forests to a well-known hotel and restaurant , Gasthof Ansitz Fonteklaus. Sitting outside under mammoth trees amidst the mountain scenery was perfect — and so was the food.blog.st.21

Our travels ended in Brixen (Bressanone), another gem of a town, where we splurged and spent a night at the classy Elephant Hotel with an excellent dinner in the hotel’s noted restaurant. The 450-year old hotel has been run by the same family since 1773. It was named after the pachyderm which was sent by blog.st.24Suleiman I to Archduke Maximilan as a gift in 1551. The elephant had a long journey from India, to Portugal, then Genoa and onto the Alps where it rested at the inn in Brixen, causing a sensation among the locals who had never seen such a beast, en route to Vienna. The elephant fresco on the hotel’s façade was painted many, many years later by someone who had never seen an elephant but based his rendering on descriptions.   What happened to the well-traveled elephant?   I learned that after the epic journey it only survived another two years.blog.st.17

Before heading back to France I stopped at a butcher shop and loaded up on some very savory sausage — and Speck.

For more information:

Bolzano: www.bolzano-bozen.it

Ötzi : www.iceman.itblog.st.26

Messner Mountain Museum: www.messner-mountain-museum.it

Excellent central hotel in Bolzano (Stadt Hotel Citta): www.hotelcitta.info

Ansitz Zehentner: www.zehentnerhof.com

Hotel Elephant: www.hotelelephant.com

 

Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Rhubarb Streusel Pie.  If you like rhubarb, you’ll love this.  See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While  you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.

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Trip finale -- dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.

Trip finale — dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.