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.

Myanmar Portraits

This will be a photo blog.  I enjoy taking pictures, especially of people.  Following are photos of folks my camera found during our Myanmar adventure. Many have their faces smeared with a paste made from logs which acts as a sunblock and moisturizer.  It’s very popular  — and no doubt lots cheaper than Estee Lauder.people.3

Clever kids sell their art work to tourists.

Clever kids sell their art work to tourists.

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Young boy dressed up and made up for the ceremony before he goes off to become a monk.

Young boy dressed up and made up for the ceremony before he goes off to become a monk.

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Young monk digs into the many different dishes common to a Myanmar meal.

Young monk digs into the many different dishes common to a Myanmar meal.

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Selling caged birds is a way to make money.  The buyer then releases the bird which will bring good luck.

Selling caged birds is a way to make money. The buyer then releases the bird which will bring good luck.

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A new recipe and a post about travels in Switzerland and Sud Tyrol, Italy, coming soon.  Please comment — and sign up to be a Tales and Travel follower (upper right) if you are not already among the smart ones.    

Myanmar Beach Adventure

beach.9A long, broad strip of sand, a calm sea, a few lonely swimmers, a few more sunbathers lounging in beach chairs, tranquility: Myanmar’s Ngapali Beach is unspoiled splendor.

After our two-week sightseeing tour of this fascinating land (see previous posts: Burma Background and Myanmar’s Astonishing Sights), we sought seaside relaxation.

Our beach hotel, one of many luxury resorts here, offered a spacious sea-front room, pool, outdoor dining on a terrace above the beach – all in a perfectly manicured verdant setting.

luxury beach hotel--but not ours.

luxury beach hotel–but not ours.

This is Myanmar for tourists. Just outside the hotel grounds is reality: rutted, dusty roads, primitive shacks, broken down temples, wild tropical vegetation. Plus, lots of motorcycles, women walking with burdens balanced on their heads, noisy kids, homeless dogs, monks draped in burgundy, nuns in pink…beach.36

While the hotel world was paradise perfect, we left the sanctuary several times to explore the real world. First, a trip by “bus,” a rickety tuck-tuck type vehicle beach.5with two parallel hard wooden benches for seats, passengers crammed together. The “bus” sped over the ruts, passengers holding on to anything for support while bouncing up and down, jolting to and fro. There were many stops, and not just for passengers to get on and off.

We stopped to pick up a few huge sacks of ice at an ice factory where a vintage machine crushed big ice blocks. The sacks were piled in the middle of the two rows of bus passengers. Then a gas station for a wee bit of petrol. And, stops for giving donations. In Myanmar, a country of devout Buddhists, it’s common to see folks along the roads with large silver colored bowls. These are for offerings for monks. Passers-by often stop and throw in some money.  The bus stopped to oblige those wanting to contribute.

Nuns wear pink.

Nuns wear pink.

A woman with a bucket of live squid sat next to me. Another had a few eels on top of a pail of ice. Most had large parcels. Young men jumped on and off at random, hanging out the back of the vehicle. I was intrigued by the scene, but, BB (husband Bicycle Bob) seemed in agony and was all too happy to finally reach our destination, the inland town of Thandwe, after a 45-minute painful ride. I wanted to visit the town’s market in search of souvenir bargains. Alas, this was just a huge, chaotic, smelly market of produce, clothing, hardware. We did buy some fruit, a bathing suit for BB, some instant coffee, cookies, soft drinks and a couple of bottles of beer – all for less than $10.

Souvenirs for sale on the beach-- but not in town.

Souvenirs for sale on the beach– but not in town.

There are no taxis in these parts. BB was not up for a return bus ride. We walked all over town, looking for someone we could persuade to give us a ride for cash. Finally the driver of an old and dirty station wagon agreed after his friend, who understood our request, translated.

Unfortunately the bus ride did a number on his BB’s butt. He is skinny – no padding, and ended up with rear end welts. The salty sea water only enhanced the pain. Since he is not a swimmer, he did not seem to miss forays into the water.beach.30

I did myself in with a bargain priced all-body Myanmar massage. Huts whose proprietors offer all kinds of massages for less than $10 are profuse at one end of the beach. My masseur, a slight fellow with the power of an Olympic weight lifter, pounded, stretched and jerked my body for an hour.   Not pleasant, especially since I had sore ribs. On the last day of the sightseeing trip I fell, my ribs landing on my hard camera. The massage finished off the rib injury. Moving my arms was agony. I could no longer swim – my second favorite sport after skiing.beach.16

So, we walked along the beach, went to a “cooking school,” and rented bikes. BB, a bicycle aficionado, was not happy with the bikes, simple, ancient models, but there was no choice. The ride – even more ruts than on the bus ride. We pedaled to a nearby town, a wreck of a fishing village. We saw where much of the factory ice ended up. Trucks loaded down with the heavy bags pulled up to a wharf of sorts. Men loaded as many as five of the bags on their shoulders and headed down a jetty to the boats.beach.15

Along our bike route we passed areas blanketed with plastic sheets upon which fish baked in the sun. Dried fish are a staple in much of Myanmar cuisine. While we love fish — the fresh variety which was plentiful and delicious here — the stench of the dried fish was a bit much.beach.17

BB’s butt was still sore, so he passed on a snorkeling trip. I gave it a try since more leg than arm movement is involved in snorkeling. I was the only passenger in a simple motor boat driven by a man and his young son. The snorkeling was a disappointment – few fish. But, the ride was interesting, with a stop at a

Mini island

Mini island

miniscule island with a mini restaurant selling food and drinks at inflated prices.

The women who ply the beach selling fruit from the baskets on their heads have also learned to inflate prices. Why not? If the tourists are dumb enough to pay… But, when one wanted to charge me more than $2 for three small bananas and $3 for a mango, I refused.   Bananas are like peanuts in Myanmar – profuse, and I can buy a tropical mango in France for $3 or less.

Except for the soothing sounds of the sea slapping the shore, the only beach sound is these fruits sellers advertising their wares. They saunter up and down, past all the hotel lounge chairs, calling out in sing-song tone, “Ming guh la ba (hello), pineapple, banana, coconut.”   It was like a ritual chant.beach.13

On one of our walks we had seen a sign in front of a rundown restaurant advertising cooking lessons. We liked the food in Myanmar. Since I love to cook, why not sign up? The kitchen was a health inspector’s nightmare, but our two instructors, neither of whom spoke English, washed their hands frequently. They chopped, sliced and diced with professional skill. The resulting meal was excellent, especially the avocado salad (see recipe in column at right).blog.9

In addition to the beach massage “parlors,”   food shacks are lined up along one part of the beach with tables in the sand. We became regulars at one run by a couple and their niece, a friendly young girl who spoke a bit of English and helped me master a few words of Myanmar. I had befriended one of the numerous homeless dogs and wanted to buy some food for it. I tried several beach eateries. All refused to sell me chicken pieces for a dog, except this one, hence we gave them our regular business.beach.27

The man was the chef. I asked to watch him prepare fish over an open fire in his tiny, rustic kitchen and picked up a few tips. For a beach finale dinner, we splurged on lobster. Perfect, and my friendly dog even appeared to bid good-bye.beach.35

Myanmar is on the move, emerging from decades of isolation and repression. Tourism is booming. Roads, including the one to the Ngapali beach resorts from the nearest airport, are being improved. Soon there will be quality bikes to rent and Cordon-Bleu type cooking schools at the beach. Throughout the country, new hotels are under construction. People are learning new skills, including English, to qualify for jobs in the tourist industry. According to an official estimate, the hotel and catering industry could create over a half million jobs in Myanmar by 2020. Lives will improve. But, hopefully the rapid rise of tourism will not destroy the allure of Myanmar, a place Rudyard Kipling found “quite unlike any place you know about.”beach.2

See below for more photos. And, for a different take on ratatouille, try Lecso, a Hungarian version mentioned in my recent blog post, Swiss Slopes Welcome Journalists. Click on photo at right for the recipe. Comments and new subscribers welcome. Add your email address at top right to receive future posts.beach.19

Village school along our bike route

Village school along our bike route

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Visiting monk from Thailand where monks wear orange.

Visiting monk from Thailand where monks wear orange.

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Sand Art

Sand Art

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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

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