Swiss Slopes Welcome Journalists

blog.ledeThey came, they skied, they raced, they partied – 210 journalists from 31 countries on the Swiss slopes above the charming town of Champéry. The ski terrain is part of the incredible Portes du Soleil ski region with interconnecting slopes in both Switzerland and France.blog.8

The 61st meeting of the Ski Club of International Journalists (SCIJ) had a serious side, too. Jean Claude Biver, president of the upscale Swiss watch manufacturer, Hublot, gave a fascinating presentation on the “Swiss model” and the history of watch making in the country. A panel of experts discussed climate change and the threat to mountains. Another panel talked about “swissness.”blog.27

But, it’s skiing that is foremost during these meetings, once each year in a different country. I’ve been a member for many years and, in addition to joining meets on European slopes, I’ve had the fortune to ski in Japan, the U.S., Argentina, Turkey and Morocco.

Races are de rigueur, both giant slalom and cross country. This was my first time back in the starting gates with my new knee. My times were slow, but I

American teammate Risa Wyatt et moi.

American teammate Risa Wyatt et moi.

competed. This was also my first time skiing in about four years. The bionic knee is a wonder, performing well beyond my expectations.

Even though SCIJ races are for fun, many take them seriously. It’s hard not to get pre-race jitters before the competitions. Races aside, skiing at Portes du Soleil, which claims to be the largest ski area in the world, is fabulous with slopes for all levels.blog.15

I joined friends for a trek over the mountains to Avoriaz and beyond in France. We had snow the first few days of our stay, so the off-piste skiers were in heaven, most skiing on freeride skis.   The more adventurous, equipped with  avalanche beacons and shovel, followed a guide to ski back country.

British table at Nations Night

British table at Nations Night

Nations Night is a favorite on the après-ski agenda. Members bring delicacies (food and beverages, usually alcoholic) from their countries to share with others. There were just three Americans this time, myself, Risa Wyatt and Peter Schroeder, both from N. California. We had a Kentucky table. (Peter hails from Louisville and I got my journalism start at the Louisville Courier-Journal many, many years ago.)  We offered mint juleps, ham and corn bread. There was no blog.1reasonable way to get Kentucky ham to Switzerland, so we settled on a Swiss smoked variety which was delicious. I baked and lugged five heavy batches of corn bread in a backpack, in addition to a weighty suitcase, on the train from France. A major mistake!  Corn bread, I learned, is best eaten the day it is baked, not three days later. Although it had been enveloped in plastic wrap and then foil, it was hard, dry, dreadful. It all ended up in the garbage. (But — it was yummy the day it was baked, warm from the oven smeared with butter. See recipe in column at right.)

The week ended with a “White Party,” when all were asked to wear white. Bulgarian doctors and nurses joined sheiks and others clad in snow white for a fun and festive evening. blog.12

I went on to join a small group for a post trip to slopes in Crans Montana, another top Swiss ski resort. In addition to skiing in the sunshine, we enjoyed a tasting of wines from the Valais, Switzerland’s largest wine producing area. We also had the opportunity to savor diffferent Swiss wines at Champéry. Excellent, but unfortunately since limited quantites are produced, the thirsty Swiss drink most and little is exported.

Thank you, SCIJ Switzerland, for a super meeting!blog.26 SCIJ USA is looking for new members. If you know an American journalist who skis, tell him/her to check out the web site, www.scij.info , and/or contact me.

More about Champéry at www.champery.ch

More about Portes du Soleil, http://www.portesdusoleil.com

Share your thoughts…comments are welcome.  See “Leave a Reply” below. And, sign up, top right,  to see future posts.  More Myanmar coming soon, Blissful Days at Nagapali Beach.

 More SCIJ  photos follow:

Tatiana from Russia at a wine tasting in Crans Montana.

Tatiana from Russia at a wine tasting in Crans Montana.

 

Some toured the Morand Distillery where tasting was tops.

Some toured the Morand Distillery where tasting was tops.

 

Koos from Holland, the man behind the traditional pea soup served after cross country  race.

Koos from Holland, the man behind the traditional pea soup served after cross country race.

 

Czech beer after the cross country race was a hit.

Czech beer after the cross country race was a hit.

Peter from Denmark

Peter from Denmark

Me, Peter and Risa at Crans Montana,

Me, Peter and Risa at Crans Montana,

A cozy place for a warm up and rest.

A cozy place for a warm up and rest.

And the winners are...

And the winners are…

A hearty Swiss soup followed the GS race.

A hearty Swiss soup followed the GS race.

Uros from Slovenia and friend.

Uros from Slovenia and friend.

Some danced until the wee hours.

Some danced until the wee hours.

 

Cliona and Isabel from Ireland with Gill from Great Britain.

Cliona and Isabel from Ireland with Gill from Great Britain.

Myanmar’s Astonishing Sights

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Reclining Buddha

Know It is huge, bizarre, unreal.  We were flabbergasted.  “Incredible,” we uttered.  “You say ‘incredible’, but this is only the fifth largest Buddha in Myanmar,” our guide Min explained. This big Buddha in the city of Yangon was the first of blog3.25numerous touristic sites on our 13-day  tour of this fascinating country.  During that tour, we saw much more that can only be described as “incredible.”

The Reclining Buddha, 235 feet long,  was originally built in 1907,  but destroyed by the British and Japanese during World War II. It took five years (1952-1957) to make a new Buddha.  “It took two years just to make the glass eye,” Min said.    I was perplexed by Buddha’s face – eye make up, lipstick?  Isn’t Buddha a man?  “We want Buddha to look pretty like a woman,” Min explained.blog3.26

Buddha’s enormous feet were another mystery, each with 108 squares. Each square represents Buddha’s past life before he became Buddha.

Schwedagon Pagoda

Another mind-boggling spectacle, this gilded temple complex in Yangon is the county’s most–visited sight, as well as a pilgrimage site.   Sixty-four lesser pagodas and numerous shrines are clustered around the golden dome (three tons of gold) which rises 322 feet above its base.    According to a legend, it is 2,500 years old. Archeologists, however, think it dates to sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, but was rebuilt numerous times in succeeding years.  At the top of the dome is a diamond orb, a golden sphere studded with 4,351 diamonds.  And, at the very top, a 76-carat diamond.blog3.3

Min told us that eight hairs of Buddha are enshrined in the dome.  During our trip, we visited many other temples which are also said to preserve sacred Buddha hairs.blog3.1

I found people watching at the pagoda as interesting as the mammoth religious monument. Some kneeling in prayer at different shrines.  Others pouring  water on many of the countless Buddha statues. Yet others offering flowers to Buddhas.  And, many just sauntering around the complex, taking photos, laughing, even sitting in groups on the floor while enjoying snacks.   Definitely not a holy place of silent meditation.

Golden Rock

This giant boulder at the edge of a cliff (Mt. Kyaiktiyo), part of its base extended over the chasm below, seems as if it could come crashing down the mountain at any minute. And, like most religious monuments in Myanmar, it is golden.  We visited in time to watch the sun sink on the horizon and bathe the rock and surroundings in a pale pink glow.  Just like saints, Buddha gets credit blog3.24for many miracles.  This one could make you a believer.  According to Min, there have been many earthquakes in the area, but the rock has never moved.

Golden Rock is an important pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists who burn incense, light candles, make offerings, and pray at the site. Men are permitted to approach the rock and affix gold leaf squares to its surface. Not unlike the scene at Schwedagon, the atmosphere on the surrounding terrace is more party than prayer.  Many of the pilgrims have traveled a  long way and come with mats to roll out for eating picnic style and sleeping at the site.

Getting to the rock on the mystical  mountain is an uncomfortable, yet griping blog3.4adventure.  Some pilgrims may hike the seven miles from the base camp to the top, but most, as well as tourists, climb in the back of huge open trucks which have hard wooden slats for benches.  Every inch of space must be filled before the trucks depart for the bumpy, bouncy ascent over a rutted dirt road at what seems are Formula I  speeds around hairpin turns through the jungle terrain.  Better than any roller coaster.

As mentioned in a previous post,  Myanmar is marching ahead on the path of progress. Work on paving the road to the top of the Rock was underway during our visit. It was dark when we left the site and walked down a path to a hotel where we spent the night.  The route is lined with souvenir stands, behind which the sellers and their families live in primitive shelters.  All had electricity and television —  new developments, Min said.

Baganblog3.5

It has been called the Angor Wat of Myanmar,  a wonder of some 3,000 temples scattered across the plains of Bagan.  In every direction domes of the ancient temples dot the skyline.  Most were built between the 11th and 13 centuries and have been reconstructed.  Therein lies a major problem.  UNESCO stepped in to assist with reconstruction after major damage during an earthquake in 1975.  blog3.15According to Sai, our guide in Bagan, Myanmar’s military government kicked UNESCO out in 1989 and took over temple reconstruction, using cheap material and not adhering to archeological guidelines.  UNESCO called the fruit of their efforts a “Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites.”  For this reason Bagan is not on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.blog3.8

But, it should be seen.  The temples are in various states of decay and reconstruction.  Many can be entered, Buddha statues admired, chambers explored.  Some even have traces of ancient wall paintings.  Sai took us to Schwezigon Pagoda, considered the most important of Bagan’s temples, in the early morning when the sun’s rays were still soft, workers were busy sweeping the grounds and monks arrived to worship.  Few tourists to tarnish the mystical ambience.blog3.9

Tourists, however,  are important to the economy, especially in Bagan which thrives on visitors. Ox cart drivers offer rides through the plains past dozens of temples.  Boat drivers take passengers on excursions on the Irrawaddy River.   Souvenir hawkers abound.blog3.22

Sai led us to a temple popular for Bagan sunset viewing, a tourist must.  We climbed and climbed steps in dark, narrow, crumbling  passageways to reach the crowded rooftop where all had cameras ready.  A bridal couple even managed the ascent to have a professional photographer capture them with the temples and sunset in the background.blog3.10

I asked Sai to take me to a temple I had read about in Lonely Planet, Dhammayangyi Pahto.  He was reluctant, but agreed.  The temple has mysterious, bricked up passages.  Hundreds of bats cling to its ceiling.  That, plus its brutal  history, make a visit an eerie experience.  King Narathu had the temple built in the 12th century to atone for smothering his brother and father to death and executing one of his wives.  He ordered the brickwork to fit so tightly that not even a pin could pass between two bricks.  Those who failed at the task had their arms chopped off. Thus, it is believed the temple has bad karma and is probably why it never underwent major restoration.  And, perhaps why some guides prefer not to visit?

Pindaya Cavesblog3.18

Thousands of golden Buddhas  hidden in the inner depths of a massive limestone cavern. Definitely incredible!   It was another long and arduous climb up steps  to the entrance of the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda which shelters  approximately 8,700 Buddhas, many left centuries ago by pilgrims. New statues continue to be added by worshippers.  We followed a narrow path into the 460 foot long cave where Buddhas sit in crevices and crannies in the rock walls.  Tiny Buddhas. Buddhas draped in cloth. Buddhas made of alabaster, teak, brick, cement. Buddhas off in dark corners.  Buddhas under spotlights.  We walked  on and on and on through the maze of Buddha-lined passageways. Our guide for this part of the trip, Hein,  showed us a hole where a monk was supposed to have entered but never returned.blog3.19

I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but it got to be too much.  I needed an escape to fresh air.  And, a chance to photograph the giant spider near the cave entrance.  According to a legend, seven princesses took refuge in the cave during a storm. An evil spirit, a “nat” in the form of a spider, imprisoned them. Along came a prince who heard their cries, killed the spider with an arrow, and freed the lovely princesses. “Myanmar is a golden land of legends,”  our guide said.  We heard many throughout the trip.

Inle Lakesights.2a

This is another tourist favorite in Myanmar.  We stayed at a hotel whose many buildings were all on stilts in the lake which is 13.5 miles long, seven miles wide and three meters deep.  Our tourist boat, a type of motorized canoe, took us to lakeside towns where we visited a market, monastery, and — more temples of sights.1acourse.   We saw floating gardens and stilt house villages. Hein told us that one third of the lake is comprised of these gardens, and that 80 percent of the tomatoes sold in Myanmar come from the floating gardens where rice, other vegetables and flowers thrive.  Incredible gardening!

blog3.20We visited the Inn Thein Pagoda complex where some 1,054 small stupas are overgrown with moss and greens.  Most date from the 16th to 18th centuries and have decayed with age and encroaching vegetation.  Theft has been another problem. Gold and other precious valuables are often sealed inside Buddha statues.  Thieves destroy the Buddhas to recover the goods

More Myanmar to come. Don’t miss the next post, 10 blissful days at Ngapali Beach.  Add your email address at top right to receive future posts. And, please add a comment.  I love to learn what readers think about my posts.blog3.21

Military gov't built ugly tower in Bagan, closed temples with rooftop views and charged admission to the tower.Temples have been reopened

Military gov’t built ugly tower in Bagan, closed temples with rooftop views and charged admission to the tower. Temples have been reopened


Burma Background

Is it Burma or Myanmar?  You will hear both.  Since 2011 the official name has been the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The military junta changed the name from Burma, the name used since the mid 19th century, to Myanmar in 1989.  Rangoon became Yangon, and several other place names were also changed  — all in an effort to rid the country of British era colonial names.

U Bein teak bridge, 200 yrs. old, Mandalay.

U Bein teak bridge, 200 yrs. old, Mandalay.

During our travels, we inquired.  Which name did citizens prefer?  The answer we always got was “Myanmar.”

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

Following is a brief history lesson – important to understanding Myanmar today.

Burma was a British protectorate from 1885 until 1948 when it gained independence.  Civil war among minority groups followed until 1962 when General Ne Win took control and set up the world’s longest running military dictatorship. Industries were nationalized. Tourist visas were limited to one week.  Foreign books and magazines were not permitted in the country.  Burma was isolated.  The economy was in shambles.2blog.14

In 1988 peaceful protesters took to the streets.  Their leader was Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD).   Military violence quashed the protests,  and in 1989 Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. (She was released in 1995, but put under house arrest twice again.)  An election was held in 1990 with the NLD as the winner.  However, the military would not relinquish power and many politicians were jailed.2blog.8

The US and Canada imposed an investment ban on Myanmar in 1997, and in 2000, the EU intensified economic sanctions citing human rights abuses.

Protests broke out again in 2007, with monks taking a leading role. Thousands were arrested, 31 killed including a monk who was beaten to death.  In 2008, 2blog.7the country was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis which left 138,000 dead.  Shortly thereafter, in wake of criticism following botched up relief efforts, a long promised referendum on constitutional reform was held with the goal of creating  a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

Inn Thein pagoda complex where hundreds of stupas are overgrown with vegetation and crumbling.

Inn Thein pagoda complex where hundreds of stupas are overgrown with vegetation and crumbling.

Elections took place in 2010, boycotted by the NLD, with the military-backed party the winner.  In 2011 a former general, Thein Sein, takes the helm as president and embarks on a series of reforms to direct the country toward democracy.  Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. A human rights commission was established.  Press censorship was relaxed. Political prisoners were released.  And, the door was open to tourists, as well as western companies for investment opportunities.

Those, and other changes that we witnessed, are encouraging. The real proof of democratic progress will come with elections in 2015.  According to the current constitution Suu Kyi, the national heroine,  is prohibited from running in the presidential contest because her late husband was British.  However, the constitution is supposed to be amended to permit her to run.

Dress restrictions for entering religious sites.

Dress restrictions for entering religious sites.

Since her party won in bi-elections in 2012, Suu Kyi is a member of parliament.  She is adored, revered by the people of Myanmar.  Those we spoke to said she could easily win the presidential contest.  Their hopes and aspirations lie with her.   Will the constitution be amended?  If so, will there be a fair election?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

According to political commentary, Myanmar has gone too far to turn back the clock. Even without a constitutional amendment and Suu Kyi at the helm, economic progress marches on at a rapid pace. There are no Starbucks and Golden Arches yet in Yangon, but they are sure to come.  In this frenzied metropolis, there are clean, modern restaurants serving western food, a few fancy five-star hotels and more to come, multi-lane highways.   We found Wi-Fi everywhere we went in Myanmar– usually in the hotel rooms.  Construction sites abound.  Roads, even in remote areas, are undergoing improvement.  More and more tourist sites are installing modern, much appreciated, toilet facilities.

Women often work at construction sites.

Women often work at construction sites.

Of course, all is far from golden like the country’s thousands of Buddhas.  Ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists plagues the western part of the country. According to a United Nations investigation, at least 40 Rohingya Muslims, the persecuted minority group, were massacred in January.  The government continues to deny the killings.   Guides talked of corruption, a lack of education and opportunities for the poor.2blog.5

“Before 2010, a Toyota (the car of choice in Myanmar) cost $22,000.  Now it costs $10,000.  But for the majority, $10,000 is still too much,” said one guide. (Guides did not want their names mentioned in conjunction with quotes. There is still a lingering fear of Big Brother.)2blog.1

The influx of tourists is helping with more jobs — working in hotels, on construction of tourist facilities, as guides, drivers.  That can only get better.

“Before 2011, there were between 700,000 and 800,000 visitors per year to Myanmar,” another guide said.  “In 2011 there were 1.05 million tourists, and in 2012, 1.5 million.  We expect 3.5 million this year.”

 We are glad we got in before the rush.  Our trip was booked with Asian Trails (www.asiantrails.info) During our 13-day sightseeing tour we had four different

Guide and Bob at Golden Rock.

Guide Min and Bob at Golden Rock.

guides and drivers, different ones for different regions. We flew from Yangon to Bagan, from Mandaly to Inle Lake, then to Ngapali Beach and back to Yangon. After the tour, we spent 10 blissful days at Ngapali, Myanmar’s unspoiled beach resort.  Cost per person: $3,335, which included all transportation, ground and air,  within Myanmar, all hotels, two meals per day (except at the beach where only breakfast was included), guide services and admission charges. 

The guides all spoke English and were extremely knowledgeable. They pointed out the best places for photos and made sure we got sunset shots. Both guides and drivers were polite, courteous and obliging – often taking us to places that were not on the pre set itinerary.

Bagan, amazing site of thousands of temples

Bagan, amazing site of thousands of temples

The cars were comfortable and air-conditioned, with bottles of water and handi-wipes provided.  The latter were indeed handy to clean dirty feet after barefoot treks through temples. We were delighted with our visit and Asian Trails.

Guide Hain

Guide Hein

Next Myanmar installment:   Myanmar’s Super Sights.  Don’t miss it.  If you are not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up by entering your email address at top right. WordPress will email you the link to new posts. Comments welcome.  See below, “Leave a Reply.”

Tales and Travel has a new look thanks to the creative talents of friend David Regan.  We like it — hope you do, too. 2blog.10

 

Off to Myanmar

We took off our shoes at least 565 times.  We climbed 6,899 steps.  We admired 22,576 Buddhas.

I made up the numbers, but they may not be far off.  A trip to Myanmar, a fascinating land in the throes of long overdue changes, is much about about temples (you cannot enter wearing shoes), all adorned with countless statues of Buddha.    And, many of those temples are accessed only by long climbs up steep steps.blog.lede

“This is Burma.  It is quite unlike any place you know about,” wrote poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling after a visit to the county more than a century ago. Today the country is known as Myanmar, but his words still echo true.blog.3

During our travels we were overwhelmed with mind boggling sights: a cave with 8,700 Buddha statues, a giant golden rock miraculously clinging to the edge of a chasm . . .

blog.2. . . parades of monks draped in burgundy colored robes lined up to receive food offerings, women whose faces appeared to be smeared with mud….  We visited big, chaotic cities (Yangon and Mandalay).Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs.  It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs. It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

During drives through the countryside we witnessed the simple, primitive way of life of farmers, and often suffered bouncing over rutted roads.   We chilled out at a perfect beach resort, not yet spoiled by hordes of tourists.  I loved the colorful markets, the tasty food, and learning about the people and their staunch devotion to Buddha.  More about all will follow in several blogs.

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First, a word about the shaky start of this incredible voyage.  Facebook Friends have seen posts on what follows, but many Tales and Travel readers are not on FB.

Crisis Number One: Before landing in Frankfurt where we boarded the plane for the long flight to Singapore, I asked BB (husband Bicycle Bob and long suffering travel companion) if he had the credit card.  We had agreed that only one of us needed to take a card.  “No, you have it,” he said. “No, you are supposed to have it,” I answered.  Major misunderstanding. Bottom line:  No credit card and not an auspicious beginning to a five-week long trip.  Panic.  Stress.  Anger. We only had a brief layover in Frankfurt, but we had plenty of time between planes in Singapore before flying on to Yangon.  We made numerous calls back to our friends and house sitters, Dee and Allan, in France.  They researched methods of getting a credit card to us.  French Chronopost came to the rescue.  Other services, such as DHL, would not deliver to Myanmar.   That was on Friday.  Monday afternoon in Yangon we had the card. A miracle!  Cost for this amazing service, just 58 euros.blog.7

We were fine at the onset of the trip without the card.  Cash, new US dollars (issued after 2006) and not folded, is currently the recommended currency for travelers in Myanmar.  Some places do take credit cards, but charge a hefty fee.  We had an ample supply of dollars ordered from our bank, so even without the plastic, we could enjoy meals without washing dishes.  But, we would need the card before the end of the trip. We were saved by Dee and Allan and Chronopost.

Crisis Number Two:  My tooth.  The day the credit card arrived, I woke up with a toothache.  Surely it will go away, I thought.  No such luck. It only got worse, and worse, and my cheek began to look as if I had a tennis ball in my mouth.  Our guide took me to a dentist recommended by our first rate tour blog.5company, Asian Trails.   He spoke some English, and his office appeared clean.  He wore gloves, a mask, and had many pretty and very young assistants. He said it was a wisdom tooth, gave me pain pills and antibiotics, and cautioned me to avoid the “odors of hot oils” ??  If it did not get better, I could come back and he would extract the tooth.

The medication helped for one day only. However, I had fears of letting this dentist pull my tooth, especially when the guide told me the dentist had told him it would be better to wait and have the tooth extracted when I got back to France as complications could arise.  He obviously did not want the job.  Our return to France  was five weeks down the road.  I could not live with this pain for five weeks.

As mentioned, I had posted our troubles on Facebook.  One friend wrote that the trip was “doomed.”  World travelers Dee and Allan advised not to have a tooth extracted in Myanmar where hygiene and sanitary conditions are dicey.  A young woman I met, a 21-year-old pediatric dental assistant in Connecticut traveling with a group of Jehovah Witnesses for a conference,  said I definitely needed to get rid of the tooth.  It is probably infected, she said, and the infection would only spread… and could even lead to death.  Sacre Bleu!  If a Jehovah Witness advises a medical procedure, you know action is required.

Now what?  Perhaps the trip was doomed. I was a wreck and could not enjoy the sights.   Fortunately in the middle of the night I had a bright idea:  Call the

BB waits in dentist office number 2.  Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his.  Fear of stinky feet?

BB waits in dentist office number 2. Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his. Fear of stinky feet?

American Embassy.  They recommended Dr. Aung Myint who saved the trip, and, who knows,  maybe my life. I was relieved just entering his classy office with certificates from Denmark and  Paris posted on the walls of the waiting room where  copies of Fortune, Newsweek and Reader’s Digest were offered as reading material.  His equipment was  state of the art  –far more up to date than many dentist offices I have seen in southern France.

We had been to our dentist before departing as a security check.  No problems.   Why did this tooth suddenly go bad?  Could be stress, the super dentist replied.  Aha — blame it all on the forgotten credit card.    He pulled the tooth and all was well.  X-ray, tooth extraction and stitches:  $70. We found many more bargains during our travels, but that was the winner.

As mentioned,  food in Myanmar is  good and different.  We had many versions of a delicious avocado salad. See recipe column on right for the versison made at the cooking school we attended while at the beach. 

The Cordon Bleu is was not -- our "cooking school" kitchen.  Don't be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.

The Cordon Bleu it was not — our “cooking school” kitchen.
Don’t be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.

Following,  a photo gallery of Myanmar as a preview of coming blog posts.

Comments are appreciated.  So are new subscribers.  Don’t miss coming Myanmar blogs. Click on Email Subscription, top right or the “Follow” button at the bottom of the screen.

Souvenir sellers on the beach where  mother of pearl items are popular.

Souvenir sellers on the beach where mother of pearl items are popular.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake

Ngapali Beach

Ngapali Beach

gallery.21

At work in the fields.

At work in the fields.

Poinsettia blooming along the road.

Poinsettia blooming along the road.

gallery.18

Shoes -- and socks-- must come off before entering temples.

Shoes — and socks– must come off before entering temples.

Buddha statues are often golden.

Buddha statues are often golden.

Sunset on Irrawaddy River.

Sunset on Irrawaddy River.

Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.

Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.

Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.

Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.

Temple decor

Temple decor

Too many homeless dogs in  Myanmar.  Most all look like this fellow.

Too many homeless dogs in Myanmar. Most all look like this fellow.

Cleaning a train car at Yangon station.

Cleaning the “ordinary class”  train car at Yangon station.

Monks and Buddha.

Monks and Buddha.

Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.

Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.

Reclining Buddha.  235feet long.

Reclining Buddha. 235 feet long.

 

Réveillon 2013

My German Christmas treasures.

My German Christmas treasures.

Joyeux Noel!  In France, the main holiday event is the Réveillon, “un grand festin,” the big feast on Christmas Eve.

I invited British friends Mollie and David with their daughter Jenny and her partner Chris who had arrived from England at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve after a long and harrowing drive.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The house is appropriately festive, decorated with some of my favorite treasures.  David and Chris took these outstanding photos.  I had to concentrate on cooking.

Food – a bit of a challenge as David and Jenny are vegetarians and Mollie, recovering from recent surgery, has certain dietary restrictions.  I scoured the Web for some new recipes, and also relied on some old favorites.

Our meal, with a few exceptions, was more like an American Thanksgiving, BB’s favorite. Since I was in the hospital this Thanksgiving (nothing serious), he missed out.  So, turkey it was with plenty of trimmings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In France oysters and shell fish are the standard first course of this repast.  Instead, we had smoked salmon and smoked eel, both ordered from a fishery in Denmark.  The eel (cute fellow) had to be skinned and sliced.  I delegated that task to BB.  According to the instructions that came with the Scandinavian delicacy it is best  consumed with a shot of icy akavavit.  None in our liquor supply, so we drank champagne supplied by our guests.   The vegetarians had baked camembert with pears.  All were happy.???????????????????????????????

The next course would most likely be foie gras in France.  I love it and usually prepare my own rather than buying the ready- to- eat version.  It can be a culinary challenge.  I took the easy road and served Harvest Bisque, a Christmassy butternut squash soup served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It is usually a hit.  The recipe is listed under recipes in column on right.

Harvest Bisque and family heirloom:  Great grandmother's Haviland (Limoges) china.

Harvest Bisque and family heirloom: Great grandmother’s Haviland (Limoges) china.

Next the bird.  No Butterballs in France. My friend Lynne, cook extraordinaire, xmas2013.8turned me on to brining the turkey several years ago.   The result: a moist turkey.

We had numerous (perhaps too many) side dishes:

Creamed  Spinach and Parsnips (recipe from Food & Wine web site)

Broccoli and Cheddar Casserole with Leeks (another Food & Wine recipe)

Red Cabbage with Ginger (combination of a German recipe and the recipe of my friend food writer Sharon Hudgins, www.sharonhudgins.com).  Germans serve this with Christmas goose.  David  tells me the British also serve it with goose. ???????????????????????????????It’s not found on the French table, but  I like it and it goes well with turkey, too.

Mashed Potatoes with Horseradish (an old Bon Appetit recipe – but his time the potatoes came out too runny)

Helen’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes (my mother’s recipe – a family tradition).  This is also listed under Recipes in the column on right.

Classic Sage and Onion Stuffing (Web recipe from The Kitchen).  I usually make stuffing with dried fruit and/or sausage. Those would not do this year.  This concoction did not send me.xmas2013.9

Gravy

Preiselbeeren (German/Austrian berry, like a tiny cranberry). Austrians Klaus and Eva who rent our guest apartment for a month every summer, always bring us a jar of this treat.  They gather the berries in the forest and then preserve them.

David and Mollie brought a magnum of an excellent red wine, Gigondas 2011, La Font Boissière, and a white, Laure, Côtes du Rhône 2012, Domaine Rabasse Charavin.   BB added an American vintage, Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2006.bb_wine-001

Desserts:  Tiramisu au Pain D’Epices (spice bread).  I frequently watch a French morning show, Télé Matin.  The recipe was given during a food segment last week.  Tiramisu is always a winner. With the spice bread, I thought it would be perfect for Noel.   A disaster.  It was tiramisu soup. The taste was not bad, but texture, a miserable failure.   I should have relied on Sharon Hudgins’ excellent recipe, my tiramisu favorite.

Pumpkin Pie. I know.  It’s usually a Thanksgiving dessert, but BB craves it.  It was interesting to see the British reaction to this all American favorite.  Irish friend Martine once said she “just did not get it.’  Chris said it was not sweet enough.  David liked it. Jenny – not sure.

Cookies – Five different kinds I baked the week before Christmas.

The finale:  Christmas crackers and hats

The finale: Christmas crackers and hats

Not only did they bring the champagne and wine, but our guests came with Christmas crackers (not edible).  For the British, a Christmas meal is not Christmas without the crackers, paper gizmos with two ends.  You pull one end and the person next to you pulls the other.  Pop!  It explodes and a small Christmas present falls out.???????????????????????????????

For those of you who still have a holiday meal to savor, Bon Appetit. And, Happy New Year to all.  Tales and Travel will take a break until February.  We’re off on an exciting adventure to Myanmar soon, followed by a return to the paradise we discovered in Bali two years ago.  See previous post, A Dentist and his Jungle

My childhood Christmas stocking and  a prized gift from my mother, a Santa trimmed with mink.

My childhood Christmas stocking and a prized gift from my mother, a Santa trimmed with mink.

Haven, Feb. 14, 2012.

Comments are always welcome.  Tell us about your holiday meal. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome. Don’t miss future posts. Click on Email Subscription at top right.

Paris in December

Place des Vosges, Marais

Place des Vosges, Marais

We went to Paris to visit the dentist, but not just any dentist. An American dentist, fabulous Dr. Jane. Sure, there are plenty of dentists in Provence. But, the profession of dental hygienist does not exist in France.  Here cleaning is merely detartrage, scrapping the tartar off the teeth, a procedure carried out by the dentist which takes all of 10 minutes or less.paris.14b

Not good enough for Americans who have been brainwashed about the importance of a thorough cleaning by a hygienist every six months.  In Germany where we previously lived most dentists have hygienists. After moving here, we’d trek back to Germany once a year for a proper cleaning. (Since it was such a long journey, we made due with one cleaning per year.)  Fellow American and friend Lynne came to the rescue. She found Dr. Jane in Paris.  Our teeth have never been so clean.

Dr. Jane Matkoski, who hails from New York State, does high tech teeth cleaning, first with ultra sound followed by a special process called Air Flow.  She covers your eyes with a cloth, then puts goggles on top of the cloth and air polishes the teeth. “Today’s flavor is cassis,” she told me.  I like cassis, but this was salty and none too pleasant. BB likened the procedure to sand blasting.  Whatever, it does the job par excellence.

One fourth of Dr. Jane’s  patients are Americans.  She also has many international patients who are used to a real teeth cleaning.  “The French just don’t get it,” she said.

While teeth were the main reason for the trip, it was a good excuse to visit my favorite city. We had time to see friends, to visit Le Café des Chats, to tour the Marais district with a Paris Greeter, to apply for visas for our upcoming trip to Myanmar – and to check out the Christmas lights in the City of Light.Paris16b

On a previous trip to Paris in December, I found the holiday illumination on the Champs Elysees  spectacular.  This time I was underwhelmed.  Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but lots of colors and flashing lights are not my cup of tea. This year giant hula hoops that change from blue to red encircle the bare trees lining the legendary boulevard.  Tacky – in my opinion.paris.4

There’s nothing tacky, however, about the wondrous windows at Galeries Lafayette.  Amazing, moveable scenes, five from the tale Beauty and the Beast. Mesmerizing for both children and their parents.  The classy windows at Au Printemps, this year sponsored by Prada, are also dazzling.Paris.15b

Thanks to Satié, the cousin of my Japanese sister-in-law Yoshie, we did not miss these Parisian holiday highlights.  Satié lives in Paris. After dinner together, she suggested we stroll by the windows.

BB and Satie

BB and Satie

As a cat lover, I had to visit Le Café des Chats which opened in September, modeled after a cat café in Tokyo. Cats, 12 of them, all colors and sizes, lounging in windows, on chairs, benches, and in kitty beds.  Some are sociable, but many were soundly sleeping, the favorite pastime of felines.paris.2b

Upon entering rules are recited by the café host: Don’t feed the cats.  Don’t let the cats drink from your cup or glass.  Don’t disturb the cats if they are sleeping. Photos allowed, but no flash.  Before entering the rooms with the cats, you must disinfect your hands – a dispenser is on the counter.paris.1

The two-level cozy café in Paris’ third district was packed during our visit.  The café has generated a lot of publicity and is popular with locals as well as tourists. Reservations are a must.  Coffee, teas, wine, desserts, salads and tartes can be savored while watching cats. It was fun but frustrating. My pathetic photo skills required flash in the poor light. So, no super kitty pictures.  The food was good –a seafood salad for BB and a tarte with caramelized onions, blue cheese, cranberries and pecans for me.

A blog (http://aixcentric.wordpress.com)  led me to Paris Greeters, an organization of volunteers who give guided tours of their neighborhoods.  There is no charge but you are requested to give a donation. Sign up on line before visiting Paris, specifying your interests, and you are matched with a greeter.

Claudine in front of her favoirte tea shop, Mariage Freres, a must for tea aficionadas.

Claudine in front of her favoirte tea shop, Mariage Freres, a must for tea aficionadas.

Claudine Chevrel, who has lived in the Marais since 1972, led us through this beautiful district.  Historic buildings, her favorite shops, churches and monuments were on the tour.

Le Marais, literally “the swamp,” was mostly farmland in the Middle Ages, producing vegetables for the city on the Seine.  By the 16th century, the nobility and upper middle class bought up the land and built great estates. For the next  couple of centuries,  family palaces and grand buildings found their home in the Marais.paris.9b

The arrondissement (administrative district), which is now very expensive and chic, was not that way when she moved there many years ago, Claudine said.  “I prefer the Maris 10 years ago. It used to be a real neighborhood.”   There were lots of local shops and groceries, she explained.  Many have been replaced by expensive boutiques and art galleries.  “Everyone knew everyone.  Now lots of foreigners who don’t live here year round have bought apartments.”

Hotel de Sens, Marais

Hotel de Sens, Marais

The Marais has both a large  Jewish community and one of the largest Gay communities in Europe.  We especially liked the Jewish area. Numerous shops tout that they offer the “best falafel.”   Claudine says the best is at the restaurant Chez Marianne  which also has a bakery where BB bought a thick slice of nut strudel – they offer 12 different kinds for 3 euros per slice.

St. Gervais and famous elm tree

St. Gervais and famous elm tree

“I always meet interesting people who want to see Paris in a different way,” says Claudine.  “Americans prefer this type of tour. They like to meet Parisians.  They ask lots of questions, about everyday life, taxes, schools.”

After the two-hour plus tour we set off to find her favorite restaurant, Le Louis Philippe,  which we had passed during our walk.  En route we came across Caruso.  As we have a weakness for all things Italian and there are few Italian restaurants in Provence, it was our lunch stop.  Buonissimo! Exquisite pasta,  and BB’s dessert, Cassata Siciliana, was deliciously decadent, cake smothered in a mascarpone-cream-candided fruit-alcoholic combination.  I found several recipes on line and will try to duplicate it soon.

Leonard, Claudine et moi

Leonard, Claudine et moi

Before boarding the TGV for a fast train ride back to Provence, we met friendsLeonard and Claudine for lunch at L’Epigramme, a restaurant in the 6th district which is included in “Best Restaurants Paris.” I had a very juicy and tender piece of beef.  The others went for dorade, a popular fish in France.  All were happy.

Next visit to Dr. Jane, we’ll go back there, and to Caruso, and tour another neighborhood with a Paris Greeter.

Happy Holidays to all Tales and Travel readers!Paris16.b

Dr. Jane Matkoski,  12 rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre (5ème), 01 46 34 56 44 drjane@orange.fr

Le Café des Chats, 16 rue Michel Le Comte (3ème).  Metro: Rambuteau or Arts et Metiers.  Make a reservation at reservation@lecafedeschats.fr

Paris Greeters, www.parisgreeters.fr

Caruso,  3 Rue de Turenne (4 ème). Metro : St. Paul, www.ristorantecaruso.fr

L’Epigramme, 9 rue de l’Eperon (6 ème).  Metro : Odeon,  01 44 41 00 09

When in Paris, we always stay at a charming chambre d’hôte (B&B) in our favorite neighborhood, Saint-Germain-des- Prés, (6ème).  90 euros per night, one room with a double bed, breakfast included. Geneviève Cuirot:        gcuirot@free.fr

Hotel de Ville

Hotel de Ville

I love to hear from readers.  Please post a comment. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

 If  you have suggestions for Paris restaurants, please pass them on.  I have not posted any recipes lately, but for your holiday cooking, check on Holiday Fruitcake and Holiday Pork Roast in the recipe column at right.

Wild and Wonderful Corsica

Bonifacio ,

Bonifacio
,

According to the sign posted at the beginning of the hiking trail in the Corsican mountains, it was a one-hour trek to Lac de Melu.  Piece of cake, I figured, and a good test for my new knee.corsica.55,

Two hours later we were still huffing and puffing, scrambling over rocks –   even a few times on all fours for me.  No lake in sight. We had conquered the challenging, extra steep sections of chains and ladders.  But, the trail of all rocks went on and on, up and up.  At times it was frustrating to figure out which way to proceed over this stony sea.  The trail was marked by yellow slashes on the rocks, but often they were hard to spot.

Find the yellow slash -- the trail marker.

Find the yellow slash — the trail marker.

I was about to give up when we encountered a group on their way down.  “How much farther?” I asked.  “It’s not that far.  Will you make it?  If you want I can accompany you,” answered the mountain guide who was leading the others.   I must have looked near death, which is about the way I felt, but there was no way I would ask for assistance.  Now I was more determined than ever to conquer this trail.

After two hours and 10 minutes we reached the lovely lake.  How could anyone make it here in one hour?   We are old, but not decrepit. That sign was meant for Himalayan sherpas.corsica.36b

Getting down was no easy task.  The rocks, all sizes, were demanding.  You had to keep your eyes on the trial below at all times to figure out where to put your foot next, on top of which boulder, into which crevice.  I was petrified of falling, of breaking a leg, screwing up my knee.  How would I be rescued?  No helicopters could land anywhere near this surface of rugged rocks. I did fall once, but fortunately I had given my camera to BB (husband Bicycle Bob) who was more steady a foot.  I ended up with a badly bruised leg, but nothing broken, including my precious camera.

Refilling the water bottles.

Refilling the water bottles.

In our younger days, BB and I did some long and tough mountain hikes in the Swiss Alps – several days on the trail with backpacks.  We loved it.  This was different.  “Most hikes are strenuous, but enjoyable,” he remarked. “This was work, labor intensive.”

What a relief to get the work over with, to reach the hut at the bottom – and to enjoy that satisfying sense of accomplishment after conquering a mountain.  O.K.  This was just a lake, not a mountain, and we were slow.  But, we did it.  My knee passed the test.corsica.14b

Rocks abound in Corsica—not just on mountain trails.  Along the coast.  On the beaches.  In the sea.  Rocks in the shape of animals, human faces, surrealistic

Natural rock.

Natural rock.

sculptures.

Not long after we disembarked from our all-night ferry ride to this island in the Med (Toulon to Ajaccio); we stopped to visit the archeological site, Filitosa, on our way south.  Incredible rocks there. We followed the path through the site where artifacts dating to as early as 3,300 have been found.  Ancient civilizations lived in caves here.  During the megalithic period they erected menhir statues, granite monoliths, carved to represent human faces or entire figures.  They are intriguing, as are the natural rock formations in the area.

Menhir

Menhir

Onward to the coast and the tiny town of Tizzano for five nights at the Hotel du Golfe, which advertises that it has its feet in the sea. The Mediterranean waters were right below the balcony of our room.  Awake to the soothing sounds of the sea gently slapping the rocks. The hotel beach is just a miniscule patch of sand surrounded by those rocks. Getting in and out of the sea was a bit tricky maneuvering over the hurdles, but the water was perfect. I swam and swam and swam with no one in sight.

Mini beach on a windy day --too dangerous to swim

Mini beach on a windy day –too dangerous to swim

During our October visit to this island utopia we enjoyed still warm weather and mostly blue skies – and tranquility.  The tourist season was over.  On the plus side, no crowds anywhere and the highways to ourselves.  On the down side, many shops, hotels and restaurants had already closed for the season.  All four of the restaurants in Tizzano were boarded shut.

There is just one winding road down the mountain from the inland town of Sartène leading to our mini burg and the sea. Winter Tizzano population:

Chopinette, my favorite Corsican,

Chopinette, my favorite Corsican,

30 humans and lots of felines.   In the summer:  3,000 tourists.  In October:  us, the locals, a few other tourists and the friendly cats.  I was in heaven.

Since BB is not a swimmer and we wanted to see more than Tizzano, we set out on excursions every day, to Ponte Vecchio on the eastern coast, to Bonifacio in the far southwestern corner of the island, and on foot one day for a hike along corsica.15bthe shore.  No leisurely stroll along a sandy beach was this, but a demanding trek through coastal bush –and yet more boulders.  The scenery was splendid with more fantastic rock formations to photograph.

Ponte Vecchio is basically a resort town with lots of sailboats in the harbor, narrow streets with cute boutiques (most closed) and restaurants (also most closed).  Not too exciting.  Bonifacio is different, a two-level, lively town.  The haute ville, an amazing sight, perches precariously atop a cliff on a thin peninsula.  Skinny streets twist past ancient buildings, including numerous churches.   We followed the advice of the woman in the tourist office and set off to the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon – 187 steps from a corner of the town’s citadel plunging to the sea.  Scary, steep steps. Descending them is an exhilarating adventure.  They plummet straight down and at times involve big jumps – one step where there should be two.corsica.20b

The winds were ferocious on the day of our Bonifacio visit. Mammoth waves roared and crashed into the rocks. We had been told the best view of the city is from the water, but due to the wind velocity, tourist boats were not running.

So, let’s splurge on lunch. Food is always a highlight of our travels.  Since so many restaurants were closed, our choices were limited.  We had few memorable meals in Corsica, including one we’d like to forget — the $98 (72 euro) fish at a harbor restaurant in Bonifacio.  We like fish and craved a fresh Mediterranean corsica.26catch.  The waiter brought out a tray of specimens and recommended a “Sar.”  We had never heard of this fish, but were game to try, not bothering to ask the price.  Bad move. The astronomical bill  –the fish had been priced at nine euros per 100 grams –was a  shock.   Our Sar was a big fellow, tasty, perhaps not that tasty, but it did come with some veggies and potatoes.

Corte's citadel

Corte’s citadel

Cap Corse, the island finger at the northern tip, was our destination for three days before boarding the ferry in Bastia for the trip back to Toulon.  En route we spent a night at the interior town of Corte so we could do the lake hike.  Hiking is just one of numerous outdoor activities offered in Corsica – all kinds of water sports plus mountain adventures:  canyoning, rock climbing, zip line etc.corsica.3

The drive through the interior is spectacular – miles and miles of rugged nature over excellent roads.   Although Corsica is a vacation paradise, it has not been scarred by mass tourism.  There are vast pristine sections in both the interior and along the coast — no towns, no hotels, no commerce.

Erbalunga

Erbalunga

Our hotel in the coastal town of Erbalunga was not on the beach, but it did have a large heated pool — my private pool – no other swimmers.

We drove along the Cap coast with many photo stops.  We drove through the middle of the peninsula over roads that averaged more than a dozen curves per kilometer.  Along the route:  stops for wine tasting and buying.  Wine is the island’s principal export.  According to my guidebook bible, Lonely Planet corsica.38bCorsica, the wines “are not necessarily the most distinguished of wines.”   Some of the grape varieties (Niellucciu for one) are unique to Corsica.  As BB seems to like wine more than bicycles these days, we bought a supply.

corsica.47Bastia, a town of crumbling splendor, is fun to explore: a busy harbor, imposing citadel, intriguing hillside park, ancient churches – and shops that were open.  Throughout the trip I had been searching for stores where I could purchase Corsican delicacies – cheese, sausage, honey, jams.  No luck. In Bastia’s thriving shopping district, I found my treasures at last.corsica.48b

I hope to return to Corsica, but in late September before so much shuts down for winter.  And, I’d go back to Tizzano and the Hotel du Golfe.  Gil Chopin, the hotel proprietor, told me he was born in the town but moved on to work in Paris and other cities.  “I missed nature, the sea.”  He came back.  “We live in harmony with nature here.  Each day is different.  Each day I am astonished.  For me, this is paradise.”  It was paradise for me, too.

Hotel du Golfe,Tizzano.  A perfect coastal retreat. The simple but comfortable rooms all have balconies above the Med.  Idyllic location. http://www.hoteldugolfetizzano.com

On the terrace at Hotel du Golfe

On the terrace at Hotel du Golfe

Hotel Castel Brando, Erbalunga, Cap Corse. Spacious accommodations including rooms with private terraces, lovely garden for breakfast  (ample, including do-it-yourself eggs and pancakes) and a super heated pool.  http://www.castelbrando.com

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