The food in Vietnam is fantastic. There’s lots of delicious street foods like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), bun bo (rice noodles with sprouts), banh cuon (steamed rice crepes) selling from anywhere from $1 to $2. There’s no need to cook yourself, and it seems like a lot of Vietnamese just eat in the street. Last night I went to a place called chicken street, where the Vietnamese come on a saturday night to grab some beers and grilled chicken parts on a stick. They also were grilling honey-glazed-bread-on-a-stick, and sweet-potato-on-a-stick….delicious!
Being a bit of a cook myself, I wanted to learn how to make some of these wonderful dishes. After a little googling, I found a suitable cooking class and got signed up. I ended up taking the class with two Americans, Mike and Dan, and we a great time touring a market first, and then getting our hands dirty with yummy food.
Way back in Brazil I had been invited to come stay with my friend Anna in Vejer de la Frontera in Andalucía. She mentioned her family’s place was close to Tarifa — another one of those kite/windsurf meccas, so after much contemplation I decided to go. This would be my first time ever visiting Spain.
Andalucía was fantastic (as was the rest of Spain). The place has oodles of fresh seafood, lots of sunshine and great wind. My only regret is I didn’t spend more time. I took a day trip to Cádiz with my buddy Christiane, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset with amazing colors — I tweaked the exposure on the harbor photos, but the rest is as shot.
The kiting was fun, and not to be ruined by a few equipment setbacks. My favorite beaches were definitely Zahora and Los Caños de Meca near Trafalgar (where Nelson was killed) with beautiful water, lots of wind, and the Maroccan coast in the background.
“I’ll meet you in Pisa”, I said to Chris, and 24 hrs later there I stood by the famous leaning tower. Chris actually met me at the aiport — having someone wait me up by the customs exit for once felt like a homecoming. After a quick game of backgammon in the lawn by the tower, and enjoying our first of a long series of Italian ice creams (Chunky Nutella flavor, anyone?), we jumped on a train to Lucca, one of the important city states of Italy (Machiavelli wrote a whole book on its politics back in the day — I didn’t read it but I heard they were messy). Lucca is about as Tuscany as you can picture — an ancient walled city with little towers and quaint marble adorned squares surrounded by rolling hills with cypresses and fields. We rented some bikes and rode them in the little streets and on the city wall where the whole town seemed to be hanging out and exercising in the warm fall weather.
We didn’t stick around Lucca for nightfall, and continued on by train to La Spezia, as we were bound for Cinque Terre, another Unesco World Heritage site. On the way, we discovered where Michelangelo got his marble. In Massa-Carrara big blocks of white marble line the railroad tracks, and in the distance we could see a mountain made entirely of white marble. It looked snow-covered, but we put two and two together.
The next day we started our exploration of Cinque Terre — a string of five villages along the northwest coast of Italy nestled evenly between terraces filled with olive trees, and vineyards and little rocky coves. There is a train line that connects them all, and many hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty. We picked one of the more difficult ones and worked up a sweat that we later washed off in the Mediterranean followed by a fresh water rinse from adjacent waterfall. During our 2 days in Cinque Terre, we held a backgammon tournament (48 hours long — player with most games won wins). Chris put a huge score on the board the first day, but his “luck” faded the second day, allowing me to nearly tie. When the clock drew our tournament to a close, Chris had won back the lead, and I stood defeated (don’t remember the actual score). If you don’t know how to beaver someone, you oughta find out.
We continued our journey on to Verona, a gem of an Italian city with Roman amphitheater, an entire street made of marble (slick when wet), a beautiful river winding through town, and more romanesque architecture than you can shake a stick at. From Verona, Chris and I parted ways. I continued on to Venice, and he made his way to Milano to start his trip back to the States. Venice was fantastic as well, though I spent too little time. It is overrun by tourists as you might imagine, but after nightfall you can find the Venetians out and about, as I did at a little jazz bar where no-one spoke English, half the bar was filled by the six-man band, and the wine flowed freely.
“And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually ” — Jimi Hendrix
Even the Phoenicians thought this was a pretty neat place back around 600 BC with its natural harbor and strategic advantages. Essaouira (Eh-sue-wee-raa) has been occupied by pretty much any seafaring people of Western civilization: Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch — they all tried to lay claim as accounted for by the extensive antique canon collection on the city walls.
In the sixties, there was a hippie invasion (lead by the likes of Hendrix) of sorts here from what I read, and that is still evident somewhat by musicians hanging out and people selling “space-cake”.
We only spent one night in this walled marvel, but had a good time scampering across the ramparts, kiting, riding camels, and trying to abscond with a medieval canon. Even though Essaouira is a Unesco world heritage site, a considerable portion of the city is literally in ruins. (I didn’t end up bringing home the medieval canon — the Ryanair luggage surcharges would have been somewhere around 2000 euro I believe, even if I had checked it in as “sports equipment”).
Belgium’s central location is a great jump-off point for short trips inside Europe and even North Africa. About a four-hour flight away lies Marrakech, the ancient trade town in the heart of Marocco, where caravans used to arrive from the Sahara, and the famous Souk craftsmen would sell their wares. Today, the Souk are still there dying their yarn, banging out copper plates, and whittling wood, and the hustle and bustle probably hasn’t changed too much in the last 1000 years or so. It’s pretty fun to try and buy something from the Souk, but be forewarned: if you offer half the asking price, you’re still a sucker…
While searching for the cheapest cross-atlantic one way flight from Boston to Brussels (on my new favorite flight search engine skyscanner.com), I stumbled upon an Icelandair flight with a nine-hour layover in Reykjavik. Score! I thought… That’s enough time for a quick city visit. For some reason some Americans I know have gotten an infatuation with Iceland, and, having never been attracted to the place myself, I now would have an opportunity to check it out.
The busride from the airport to downtown showed at once the volcanic nature of the island-nation. I think the expression earth’s “crust” was born here in Iceland — the lava fields outside of Reykjavik look just like the top of a fresh-baked cookie. When my bus made it to town at about 8 am I went walkabout looking for some coffee — I had enjoyed all of three hours of sleep on the flight so in order to properly make out the details in the statue of Leifr Eiricsson I was in need of some caffeine.
The town is hilly with nice views on the surrounding bays, but I was surprised to find how small it was. Even though the weather wasn’t particularly cold that day, the predominant building material choice of corrugated steel panels reminded me of arctic exploration stations. It was neat to get a feel for the place, hear the language, and check out the local menu options, but my schedule forced me to move along.
Close to the airport of Keflavik (Reykjavik’s international airport) there is a place called the Blue Lagoon, not the tropical one where Brooke Shields discovered love, but rather a steamy opal-blue thermal bath with healing powers. I couldn’t resist the idea of floating around in that soup with some clay on my face right before getting on the second leg of my transat flight, so off I went. The experience was great and not to be missed if visiting Iceland. The lagoon is large, and thanks to the steam clouds you forget about the other people around you and can float around in peace. Pretty sure I would be psoriasis free for life, I toweled off and headed for the airport. All in all Iceland was interesting, but I think the really neat stuff is to be found in the hinterland. (By the way, what is psoriasis?)