Friday, October 31, 2008

Riga, Latvia

The Baltic countries weren’t a high priority for personal travels so I was very excited to learn I’d get to visit both Latvia and Lithuania for work this winter. To get the planning underway I visited the city of Riga in Latvia. After adjusting to the much colder climate, I noticed how modern, clean, and overall really nice the city seemed. I got in early evening so the first night was just an early dinner, where I tried a local dish of potato pancake, with our partner Juris. We talked about Latvia’s proximity to Russia and the various influences it brings, as well as those of Germany and Poland who also occupied Latvia at different points throughout history – all of which could be detected in Juris’s very unique accent. He explained that Latvians were very proud of their independence and such symbols of that freedom like their currency, the Lat. He went on to tell me that while each Baltic country has it’s own language; to communicate between they will often speak Russian, which was a requirement of all school curriculums for many years. Today children are taught English, another sign of the fall of the iron curtain.
The next day after our morning meeting, I had some time to explore the Old Town and some of the sights. The first stop on this exploration was a ceremonial changing of the guard by the Freedom Monument, where during the Soviet years it was a crime, punishable with deportation to Siberia, for people to leave flowers at the base. Today it’s littered with offerings, another symbol of the Latvian people’s triumph over oppression.
Afterwards I strolled around the cobbled stone streets enjoying the medieval architecture, and stopped at one of the many pastry and coffee nooks throughout the city for a warm up. Once suitably refreshed with some honeyed pastry and cappuccino, I went by the street vendors selling amber jewelry, a gem the country has been well known for across Europe since the 12th century. I then ventured past the House of Black Magic, or House of Rigas Black Balsams, a potent local liquor, to my final destination, the shopping mall! Happy to report that during my retail therapy session, I acquired a pair of fur lined black leather boots that should keep my treasured feet nice and toasty all winter long. I contemplated crashing the fashion week party in my hotel’s bar as my last bit of fun in the Baltic's, but opted for an early bedtime instead due to lack of appropriate wardrobe…despite the brand new boots in my happy possession, that is!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brugge – a chocolate covered, medieval city

It wasn’t until I moved to Amsterdam and the Colin Farrell movie came out that I had heard of Brugge (in Belgium). From what I gathered it is a romantic, medieval gem so I was very eager to make a weekend trek to see it for myself. Happily my teacher friends, being of likeminded interests in travel and new experiences, were also just as excited to go so off we went at the first available opportunity.
Although the crowded, rush hour train out of Amsterdam made for a bit of a frazzled start, the rest of the weekend went beautifully. Arriving just before 9pm, we meandered through the cobbled stone streets, while taking in the impeccably preserved medieval buildings and salivating over the chocolate store window displays on the way to our hotel. After dropping our stuff we headed out to a local restaurant, picked for it’s late hours and lax reservation policy. It quickly became clear that we had stumbled into Brugge’s best kept dining secrets. The owners, Jeron and Jo couldn’t have been any friendlier or attentive to us, and the food was phenomenal! We ordered oysters for a starter, which came right out of the tank before our very eyes, and our new friends also gave us complimentary cold meats to begin our meal. After hearing about the house specialty -- pepper steak from the very finest Frisian cows, 90% of which would be prepared tableside -- we were all sold. To conclude our lovely meal we had a sampler platter of various super sweet and highly caffeinated chocolates and bite sized desserts. I didn’t get much sleep that first night but it was truly all worth it!
The next morning we made our way towards the main city centers, the Markt and Burg squares, stopping only to gawk at the endless chocolate displays and to feed ourselves some coffee & Belgian waffles!
We worked off our breakfast by climbing the 366 steps of the 289’ tall Belfort where we were rewarded with stunning city views and a front row seat to the inner workings of the regularly chiming carillon. Our next stop was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which gained its name from the relic it houses – a vial containing Christ’s blood that was brought to Belgium after the Crusades between 1150 and 1200. Unfortunately no photos were allowed, but I was able to lay my hands on the plexi-glass protective covering over the vial and say a little prayer for all my loved ones.
Having had our fill of the sites we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy some of Belgium’s other culinary triumphs – fries & beer! I ordered the Kwak Amber Ale that came served in a wooden frame while my friends went for some Belgium blondes and fruitier beers.
After lunch we continued our stroll by the very clean and wide canals, so much different than Amsterdam or Venice, and eventually made our way to Spegelaere Chocolaterie where we purchased lots of gifts and a nice sampling for ourselves. We enjoyed our snack at a very local bar/café with coffee and a strictly 50+ clientele. Off the main bar there was an open room where a room who very much resembled my mother stood ironing while just outside her window men relieved themselves in the urinals that were positioned just out front of the ladies room.
En route to dinner we stopped into a few pubs boasting menus of 400+ beers to sample more local brews, one named for the original “king of beer” – Cambrinus, a legendary king to whom people have accredited the invention of beer.
The highlights of Sunday included another amazing Belgian waffle for breakfast – chocolate & banana this time, mm mm good!, more chocolate shopping, and a giant vending machine in the Brussels train station where I bought a whole bottle of wine for 3 EUR!
Unfortunately our trip ended with the same annoying train frustrations as it began but Brugge being such an amazing, relaxing, and interesting place was definitely well worth the hassle!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Beatles and Beer Bike Birthday

Who would have guessed that turning 30 would be so much FUN?? My actual bday was pretty low key, started out with a pedicure Liverpool, England (where the first ever boy—band, The Beatles got their start) and ended with a lovely Thai dinner with friends in Amsterdam.
The celebration, however, was held on Saturday, and party we did in true Amsterdam style…drinking beer and riding a giant 19-person bike all over the city. To my delight the weather turned out amazing, more than one person said it was the nicest day of the year – a sign that my 30s will be very kind to me, I hope!
My good friend and adopted brother, Steven, was rightly selected to play the role of bartender, which meant no pedaling for him (got to love that Armstrong luck) but lots of excellent “karaoke” entertainment and attentive beverage service for the rest of us.
Straight off the bat we had 2 random British tourists jump on board -- good thing too because moving that monster was no easy feat so we needed all the pedal power we could get. Twenty minutes in we requested our first break, which is when I realized there was absolutely no way I could survive the day in my very new, very cute, but very, very, very HOT sweater so Heather & I ran off to the closest tourist shop and bought the funniest t-shirt I could find --- “Amsterdam, a weed smoker’s paradise” (don’t worry Mom, it was just for laughs!!).
Also during this pit stop we encountered the other beer bike, a group of Brits on a bachelor party weekend that set off when we did. We very much enjoyed “racing” them throughout the day, especially during the multiple occasions when they had to get off and push their bike over the canals.
At our second break we lost my boss Gerry and his wife Christina who had another party to get to, but we gained 4 Swiss tourists who only spoke French. They were good fun despite the one guys refusal to pedal because of a bad knee (to which I had to explain there were no free rides & beer on this bike, buddy) and the other guy’s scary obsession with Michael Jackson or “ze King of POP,” has he enthusiastically shouted out mid-ride.
At our third and final stop Jim finally started pedaling, Steven finally succeeded in luring some fresh faced, innocent Aussie tourists on board, and the group finally started to sing along with the DJ Super Toto playlist. The most classic moment of the day was just after we got back into motion; Steven solicited a hippy lady riding behind us for a beer, which she accepted without so much as even a pause in riding during the hand off.
I really couldn’t have asked for a better day, the weather was fantastic, the company – both known and random -- a lot of good fun, and the incredulous stares/laughs of the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists, that had the bad fortune of being stuck in a traffic jam behind us, the biggest reward of all.
There is no doubt this was one of the most memorable and unique birthdays I have ever had – what on earth am I going to do for 31?
Please enjoy this short, but exceptionally entertaining video from inside the bike!