Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Escape to Zanzibar

During January and February, given our northern longitude we are fearfully starved for sunlight and warmth. So each year I (Brent) plan a trip to the sun as somewhat of a surprise destination. Ruth is generally the travel planner for the family so this is my chance to treat her by doing the bulk of the work. And since my idea of vacation is to lay on perfect white, soft-sand beach hearing nothing but crashing turquoise waves-it's a treat for me too. But this year it was time to go a bit off the beaten path, with Zanzibar being the choice.

For all who suffer from a compulsion to travel, there is a thrill from a name that seems as far-fetched and faraway as Zanzibar. Known as the Spice Islands, it gained this name during the rule of the Sultan of Oman in the 1700's when traders would come for gold, silk, spices, and slaves. The Swahili people of Zanzibar have been ruled through the years by Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Indians, and Chinese; American and British ships have anchored offshore in the centuries since. It still has the remnants of an old slave market and underground chambers in which slaves were kept and forced to crouch on stone shelves less than two feet high. Zanzibar has this mix of African-Indian-Muslim influence that seems uniquely diverse. Nowhere is this diversity more evident than the food where traditional Indian dishes are served with a side of African red beans, with fresh-caught fish as only a tropical island can deliver.

Stone Town is the main hub of Zanzibar and we spent some time wandering it aimlessly. It’s beautiful in its decay; picturesque ruins now crumbling and winding alleys- similar to what I imagine Venice to be like. Lots of arched windows with shutters to capture the breeze. Stone Town is a famous for their old wooden doors which are often older than the building around it. Many of them date back to the 17th Century.

So far they seem to have been able to maintain the country’s natural beauty and their local culture. We didn’t see any women without headscarves anywhere on the island. It’s 98% Muslim, but we dressed modestly while in town and didn’t have any problems.

There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to how the city is laid out so you get lost almost immediately. I think that’s part of the charm though. It was incredibly hot while we were there, so we took refuge in a hotel with a fabulous outdoor patio on the third story to just sit at sunset and watch the world go by below. I felt like the character of a Graham Green novel.

One of our favorite activities was taking tour of a private spice plantation. It was a great way for us to see the countryside and rural communities. Our guide took us to a plantation where he would pick bunches of leaves, fruit and twigs from bushes then invite us to smell or taste them to guess what they are. Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilies, black pepper, nutmeg, mase and vanilla: the list goes on and on. I was fascinated to learn how they harvest all of them. I guess I should have known this, but I had no idea that nutmeg was the dried pit of a fruit –similar to a plum. I always thought that is was just a nut! A local teenager seemed to be one of the “caretakers” for the farm and he followed us around, making us hats and a purse for me out of palm leaves. His friend then shimmed up a 7 story coconut tree with only a rope tied around this feet and brought us fresh coconut to drink. The watery coconut milk is very sweet and they call it Zanzibar-cola. We purchased some spices from them and one I'm curious to try is a mixture of coffee & cinnamon, sounds great!

Our next favorite memory was hiring some locals to take us out in a traditional Arab dhow –it’s a type of sail boat that traditionally is made without nails. With a sail in the shape of a crescent moon they are very picturesque and ingeniously crafted. We went out a sunset and it was incredible peaceful - except for the end when 8 foot swells battered us as we tried to get out of the boat at high tide...definitely a comical sight!

Despite its beauty, Zanzibar is still off the beaten track, I think in part because it is really remote. No matter where you come from, it’s not easy to get there. We flew from Amsterdam to London to Addis Ababa to Dar el Salem to Zanzibar. Phew! On the way back I think we realized our limit of how far are we are willing to go to feel the sun. In times like that I'm tempted to agree with the saying "Travel is a form of punishment".

Our hotel was fantastic, but as they say, this is Africa. The power was out in Zanzibar from early December until March 9 while the islands’ undersea power cable connecting to the Tanzanian mainland was repaired. Residents were without electricity and running water for more than 90 days. Even though most hotels had generators, the impact to the local economy and residential life was severe and may not be completely known for some time. Despite the smell of diesel throughout our time in Stone Town and a few other minor things, it was the African adventure we knew it would be. Almost nothing can dampen the beautiful sun and immaculate beaches. Residents here were among the friendliest and most welcoming we've ever met. There is a reason that the Swahili say "Hakuna Matata", 'No Worries'...they mean it. After returning home to Amsterdam from a holiday in the sun, our memories were singing the same refrain.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Christmas 2009

Our Christmas Update!

Better late than never, right?!?
One of our annual Christmas traditions since living in Europe is going to a Christmas Market. Starting on the first day of Advent, wooden stalls are installed around cities to selling traditional hand crafted items and sell hot and warm drinks. It's a tradition through Europe, but was started in Germany and that is where the most famous ones are. After going to Cologne's last year where 2 million people visit in a 4 week period- we thought it might be nice to try a smaller town. So we chose Aachen, Germany.

At Aachen's center is Charlemagne's palace and his church.

This town has tons of historical significance as it is where Charlemagne ruled his empire in the late 700's. Aachen was the center of an Empire that stretched from the North Sea to Central Italy. To be honest, I really didn't remember much about Charlemagne from school, but the has become a legend in his former town, even thousands of years later. He united the different people living under his empire by introducing Christianity as the common faith, standardizing a written script and a common currency. The interconnection of science with art and culture was a fundamental principle of his rule. He documented the traditions of the enemies he conquered and called scholars from all over Europe to teach at the schools he founded here- astronomers, theologians, mathematicians, and architects. Charlemagne has been glorified as the epitome of an ideal ruler. After his death, Charlemagne became a legend and this legend has remained an integral part of the city's history to this very day.

It was extremely cold that weekend, but it still fun to browse all the stalls, stopping periodically for a mug of warm, spiced wine or a grilled bratwurst. After much debating, we bought a beautiful wooden nutcracker.


Spending Christmas skiing in the Swiss Alps has always been an exotic dream for us. But now it is an hour long plane trip followed by a 2 hour train ride. We rented an apartment with friends in the little town of Engelberg. It was so quaint and such a hidden gem! Mount Titlis is the highest peak in Central Switzerland and Engelberg is nestled at it's base. The Swiss Alps truly have that WOW factor as evidenced from our apartment.

Brent had his skies tuned while he was there and boy was he fast! The conditions were a little unpredictable, but he really enjoyed himself. The Engelberg area is known as some of the best off-run (or off-piste in ski lingo) in Europe, and the reputation is well-deserved. I preferred to watch the snow from the warmth of the couch, where I made myself very comfortable with Swiss hot chocolate and several good books.

The views from the top of Titlis were even more incredible!
10,623 feet (and windy at the top)

We spent Christmas day snowshoeing on Titlis. I love when the snow falls gently and you feel like you are in a snow globe. Afterwards we warmed up in an igloo on Mt. Titlis that had taken 2,700 hours to build. Everything was made from ice except the wooden tables. We had cheese fondue and warm drinks. It was my favorite memory from the trip.

at night was also a highlight. We had a young Swiss guy lead us snowshoeing around the mountain at dusk. He shared a lot about the area and we gleaned a little more insight into Swiss culture. He was excited to come study as a student in California! :) When it finally got too dark we made our way to a small mountain lodge for the most amazing cheese fondue. (
Are you sensing a theme here with the fondue??) We used fire torches for our long trek back down. Skiing and spending the holiday with our friends Rob & Erika, and their visiting friend
Don, also made the holiday really memorable!

I had read that Engelberg is where they shoot all the Himalayan scenes for Bollywood movies (because it's easier to get permits here than in the actual Himalayas). I kept hoping that dancing and singing would spontaneously burst on the mountainside, but no such luck.
We did get to see part of the World Cup for ski jumping. The event was being held in Engelberg so we got to watch a few of the jumps and it's incredible how they fly. A new world record was set while we were there. Later we went snowshoeing up by the actual ramp/jump. Just looking at it made my stomach lurch!

We also toured the towns of Lucerne (or Luzerne to the German-speaking) & Basel- towns that have amazingly managed to retain many of their medieval buildings. The most famous landmark in Lucerne is the wooden bridge called "Chapel Bridge" that is still standing from the 14th century (1330's). Inside the bridge are a series of paintings from the 17th century depicting events from Lucerne's history. Unfortunately, a lot of the bridge and these paintings, were destroyed in a 1993 fire, though it was quickly rebuilt.

Here's Ruth overlooking the Rhine, the major river running through Basel.

We were hoping for a relaxing Christmas holiday and it was!

Stay tuned for our next update, from a decidedly sunnier locale!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Friesland & Naarden

Anywhere BUT Amsterdam!

While we love our apartment in the city, it is the most dense area in Europe. Like New Yorkers, Amsterdammers have a less than friendly reputation (totally warranted). Brent and I have been trying to make sure that we get out of the city and explore the Dutch countryside. This past summer we took two trips to completely unique parts of the Netherlands.

We borrowed a friend's car and went to Naarden on a quiet Saturday in between running errands. It's just 10 miles outside of Amsterdam, but not on the tourist circuit. It strategiclly situated between hills and marshlands it was the site of many battles between Hollanders and people from the east. Naarden has been a lookout post and fortification since 1350. It is still intact today and the walls date back from 1685. It is a lovely town with many historical buildings including its own town hall from 1601, a magnificent late-Gothic church started in 1380 and impressive ramparts.
Naarden is an example of a Spanish 'star fort' complete with fortified walls and a moat.

The next notable event in the town’s history was undoubtedly the 80-year Spanish Civil War (beginning 1350). Spain was one of the most powerful countries in Europe at this time with a fleet of ships (the Spanish Armada) and ammunition to aid them in their quest to conquer other European countries. Despite fighting bravely many Dutch nationals died at the hands of the Spanish and their city was burned to the ground. It was rebuilt in 1400, 20 kilometers further north and the emphasis was on defense. Naarden was subsequently captured twice, by the French and by the Prussians, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Today, Naarden is one of the remaining bastions in the Netherlands and is the only fortification in Europe that has unique double walls and moats. Built in a 5-star shape (which can be best observed from the air) it ceased to be used as a fort in 1926.

Narden's Town Hall or Oude Stadhuis has retained its Dutch Renaissance charm. We even saw a huge wedding during the day, causing quite a traffic jam at what seemed to be the narrowest part of the road. Oh, and did we mention there was a classic car show going through the town at the same moment? It was priceless to just pull up a chair at the cafe and watch it all unfold before us!

Friesland - Northern Netherlands

Another weekend last summer, we rented a car with our friends Jennifer and Jonathon and made our way to the North of Holland. Friesland is a province of the Netherlands and actually has its own flag, language (Frisian), many of its own local customs, and a simple way of life that has lasted through the centuries.

Our first stop was the famous Afsluitdijk or the Enclosure dike, which is one of the most important dikes in the Netherlands to keeping the lowlands from being overtaken by the Sea. The Afsluitdijk in the north of Holland has actually created a huge lake of fresh water where there used to be sea, unbelievable even in person!

We stopped for lunch in Makkum, another idyllic little town with a quiet square and casual cafe. From there we wound our way through a historic driving tour which covered several tiny towns which are on the "Elfstedentocht" or the eleven cities tour. It's a skating race that occurs only when the countries' network of rivers are completely frozen (so in other words, not that often anymore).

We visited several small museums covering the regions' historic tile and brick-making, various exhibits of farm-life (Friesland is known for its livestock), and even tried our hand at rowing up the canal. Note: its harder than it looks and the wind is NOT helpful.

We visited several other towns along the winding highway and spent the night in Harlingen. It is a port town which also offers connections to the Northern islands of the Netherlands by ferry. It wasn't as sleepy as the rest of the towns we'd seen, being more of a industrial city for the region.

Our favorite place was probably Elberg, pictured to the right. The city is situated around a quaint marina and just seemed to resonate with us for some reason. We stopped for lunch and a coffee before heading south back towards Amsterdam.

On our way home, we drove around the south-east side of the IJsselmeer lake and visited the Appledorn region. There is a huge public park known as 'de Hoge Veluwe' which is over 250 hectares of open space park and wildlife preserve. The picture below shows us on the "white bikes" which are available throughout the park to just grab and go. The long tall grass looks more like we're on the Serengeti then in central Europe, the landscape was so diverse (I guess the bikes are the giveaway). Inside is a great museum which we definitely have plans to go back to check out!

We'll be updating our trips from the fall and winter very shortly! Take care and talk to you soon!