Tag Archives: Food
10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!

While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.

We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road.  It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.

Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass in the Sierra de la Demanda.

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.

Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.

Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.

Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.

Our appetizer contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

The appetizer course of a meal at Aura Tachibana in Hakone, Japan.

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.

Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.

6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?

Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.

Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state, our fourth night out.

7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?

We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

8: What place do you hope to never return to again?

Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!

Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).

The hills of the plains aren't big, but they're never-ending. As are the headwinds.

The hills of North Dakota’s central plains aren’t big, but they’re never-ending. As are the headwinds.

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.

Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.

We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.

Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.

Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.

19 March, 2015

Our Grand Hakone Loop

Some days need to be recorded for posterity. Our second full day in Japan, chronicled in this post, was one of those days.

It began, like so many mornings on the other side of the world do, wide awake at 4 a.m.  Jet lagged and excited I quietly slipped out from under the duvet, padded across the tatami  mats, and set the kettle on for tea. We were in a ryokan — the highly recommended Aura Tachibana to be exact — for two nights of traditional Japanese luxury set in the hot spring resort region of Hakone in the mountains southeast of Mt. Fuji. It was supposed to be our treat after five nights of hosteling in Tokyo. Instead it ended up being a comforting retreat following the memorial service for Kristin’s father, Eric. The stress of the prior weeks had taken their toll; my saddened bride slept for ten hours, her body clock immune to the 14 time zones we crossed.

Clad in our yukatas and split-toed socks and corresponding sandals, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of seven courses, one of which contained nine separate seasonal side dishes. The centerpiece was dried horse mackerel. A bowl of miso soup with crab claws flanked a dish of sesame tofu and couscous salad. Any taste buds that weren’t completely shocked from this bevy of tasty, yet unusual breakfast offerings were soon reeling in puckered discomfort from the record-levels of sourness packed into the pickled plums.  But enough about the food… for now.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana... we came straight from the hot spring baths.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana… we came straight from the hot spring baths to an incredible feast containing everything from dried fish to raw octopus to dumplings and soup and white bait.

We were blessed with a clearing sky and a plan: we would spend the day circling the Hakone National Park by rail, cable car, ropeway, boat, and by foot. By piecing together the info from several tourist maps of the area, I was able to convince myself — and Kristin — that this loop was feasible. Not only was it doable, but it should be considered mandatory. Here’s how to have one of the best days of your traveling life while in Japan.

It begins at Hakone-Yumoto station, a short walk down the hill from our ryokan. There we boarded the narrow gauge Hakone Tozan train to Gora. The two-car train climbed steadily into the mountains, stopping three times to switchback up the Haya River valley. At each switchback the two train conductors would alight from their respective ends of the train, meet on the side of the tracks in the middle, exchange pleasantries, then reboard the train. Off we’d go in the opposite direction we were just traveling, continuing along for a lovely, scenic 40-minute journey that ascends over 400 meters in elevation!

HakoneMap

The train, cable car and ropeway even appear on Google Maps. The Old Tokaido Road roughly parallels the unlabeled secondary road returning back from the south end of the lake to Hakone-Yumoto.

Once at Gora Station we exited the turnstiles from the train tracks, walked a few yards, and quickly and painlessly bought our tickets for the Hakone Tozan Cable Car, or what I think a lot of westerners would refer to as a funicular. Two two-car trains glide back and forth up the steep mountainside, ascending over 200 meters in just over 1 kilometer. The ten minute ride, like the switchbacking train, isn’t just transportation, but novelty entertainment! Unfortunately for us, being there in March, the hydrangeas that line the tracks of both the train and cable car were still several months from blooming. If you come in June for the flowers, expect long lines.

The cable car took us to Sounzan Station at an elevation of 768 meters. There the transit prices rose steeply, but so did the wow factor! We bought a one-way ticket on the Hakone Ropeway, all the way to Lake Ashi at Togendai. The four kilometer aerial gondola ride took us up and over the sulphur-spewing vents of Owakudani (where you can buy blackened geothermal vent-cooked eggs said to add 7 years to your life) high in the mountains. Keep your eyes peeled to the right hand side of the gondola as you crest the ridge as the sudden appearance of Mt. Fuji is not to be missed. Chances are, the collective gasping of the other people aboard your gondola will draw your attention.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji was partially covered in clouds at first, but the sky was clearing by the minute. What a view to see Fuji from above the treetops and ridgelines of the other mountains to the south. I couldn’t stop taking photos, even as we transitioned from one gondola to another at Owakudani. So excited were we to see Mt. Fuji that we completely forgot to visit the tourist center at the top of the mountain (1044 meters above sea level) and buy our sulphur-blackened eggs.

Japan’s most famous volcano gradually dropped out of view behind the neighboring ring of mountains as we descended to Lake Ashi at Togendai station. And the closer we got to the lake, so did the 308 ton Vasa touring ship, a gorgeous green and gold replica of a 17th century Swedish warship of the same name. We opted for 1st class tickets for a few extra bucks and recommend you do the same for a spot on the spacious, raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ship. While the rest of the ship was jam-packed with people, we were able to move around, take photos from both sides of the ship, and avoid being jostled. There was also a comfortable inside cabin, but it was too nice a day to need it. In total, our transit costs for all four modes of transit, including the 1st class tickets for the cruise, totaled 7400 yen ($61 USD at time of writing).

Once in Togendai, we boarded this pirate-styled tour ship for a 30-minut ride across the lake to Hakone-Mache.

Once in Togendai, we boarded this 17th century warship-styled tour ship for a 30-minute ride across the lake to Hakone-Machi.

We disembarked the Vasa after a thirty minute cruise to the south end of Lake Ashi, in Hakone-Machi. A quick lunch of curry chicken katsu and ramen (Japanese comfort food) and then we were off on foot along the Avenue of Cedars, a 17th century section of the Old Tokaido Road that was lined with cedar trees in order to protect travelers during the windy, frigid winters. The Avenue of Cedars took us halfway to Moto-hokone and, more importantly, to a magical spot on Lake Ashi’s coast where Mt. Fuji can be seen rising above the waters of the lake, fishermen in the foreground, and a bright orange Torii Gate on a distant shore. It’s a quintessential photo-op; there’s no reason to buy the postcard when you can take the shot yourself.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

Now, if the weather isn’t cooperating or you don’t feel up to a six mile hike in the hills, there’s a bus from Moto-Hokone that will take you all the way back to Hakone-Yumoto station. But, if you’re up for some adventure, spot the bus stop, cross the street, and head up the unmarked side road for several hundred meters. The trailhead for the Old Tokaido Road, an Edo-era stone-paved road, will be on your left. You can’t miss it.

It was brutal with 21st century hiking boots. I couldn't imagine walking it in 17th century sandals.

The Old Tokaido Road, originally built in the 17th century, leads from Lake Ashi past the Amazake teahouse.

The road is chock full of history and contains some historical signage along the way, translated into Korean and English. But it’s also extremely slippery after a rain and a very rugged surface. Hiking boots are highly recommended and trekking poles would really help for balance. The trail crosses route 732 multiple times and will periodically seem to disappear. Learn the style of signs that are used to mark the trail and stay on the lookout for them. The Old Tokaido Road is easy to follow for the first several kilometers, to the historical thatch-roofed Amazake Chaya teahouse (worth a stop, but its namesake rice-porridge tea is pricey), but it then turns to a narrow nature path that joins and leaves the roadway through a series of steep switchbacks and the signage becomes less frequent. We ended up walking the last two miles along route 732 which may or may not be the only way to complete the loop — we saw no signs. Don’t fret though, as the trail is never far from the road and there seemed to be a bus stop every 400 meters. We eventually made our way back to our ryokan, completely on foot from Hakone-Machi in roughly 3 hours, including a stop at the teahouse. We tend to hike very quickly though.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail but never gets too far from the road... and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail can get a little hard to follow, but you’ll never gets too far from the road… and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

Back at the ryokan, we wasted no time in changing into our yukata and heading down to the hot spring baths. In addition to terrific multi-course meals, ryokans are famous for their public hot baths. Attending one can be a bit intimidating at first, but we’re happy to report that there’s nothing to worry about. You’re naked with other naked people, but it’s Japan. Not only is nobody going to stare, but they’re going to try their hardest to be invisible and act as if you are too. Also, the vast majority of hot springs, onsen, are separated by gender. Just grab a locker for your room key, clothes, and any valuables you foolishly brought with you and grab a wash cloth. Your first stop is the showering area. Aura Tachibana has a spacious bathing area with a dozen or more stalls where you can sit on a wooden seat and use the shower hose and faucet to wash yourself good and clean. Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner was provided along with a small cedar bucket for you to finish rinsing off with. Once you’re good and clean, grab your (rinsed-out) washcloth and mosy over to the hot springs. Feel free to carry the washcloth in front of your privates if you’d like or just toss it on your head and strut your stuff. Whatever you do, don’t let the washcloth or any other towels or clothing enter the water. That’s a big no-no. Unlike a hot-tub, the water is minimally treated (if at all) so it’s important that no dirt, grime, or clothing go in the water. Japanese men place their washcloths atop their head.

Kristin reported some light chatting among the other women in the hot springs but none of the other men in the hot springs were talkative beyond konichiwa. My formal reply of hajimemashite was greeted with a chuckle. Point taken: naked strangers can probably go with the informal greeting.

The onsen aren’t just about a relaxing soak, but are really for bathing. The drying room and locker area had a number of sinks stocked with razor blades, cotton swabs, shaving cream, lotions, and hair care products. It sure beats a truckstop shower stall.

Our second and final dinner at Aura Tachibana was one for the record books. They have three menus, one for each night of your stay (at nearly $300 USD per couple per night, including taxes/gratuity, they don’t get many people who stay more than 3 nights). I’d tell you all about it, but at nine courses and twenty-two dishes, I think it’s best to just let some of the pictures do the talking. Fortunately, each meal came with a printed menu (in English) that helped to identify the dishes.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, pufferfish (no poison, we were assured), green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a random slice of turkey pastrami which, after all of this raw fish, was much appreciated.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

If the last few paragraphs felt a bit rushed, they were. It’s almost dinner time here on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi and reliving those two days at the ryokan are making my mouth water. It was the type of experience I wish everyone could have… and savor. What a day! Four modes of transportation, incredible views of Mt. Fuji, a 10 kilometer hike on a 17th century road, a soak in a hot spring, and two world-class meals to bookend what, as of now, has to go down as one of my greatest days ever.

Ahhh… it’s great to be back on the road!

24 December, 2014

All Roads Lead to Rome

While the mental hassle and physical challenge of touring in Morocco managed to sap some of our enthusiasm for bicycle travel, it only took a few days in bella Italy to fully rejuvenate our spirits–and then some! For nowhere else does it feel perfectly normal to stop in the middle of a mountain climb, wet from the rain, and enjoy a four course gourmet lunch over a bottle of the house Chianti.  For few are the places where we can pedal out of a medieval town in the morning, turn the wheels through a landscape of olive groves and vineyards, and arrive in a town more stunning and historically important than the last–and know that the next day will bring one even more stupendous. Oh, wonderful Italy! How I am so happy to be here, with all the time in the world, making the most of every day we have by sometimes doing nothing at all. From the museums to the food to the lonely forest roads whose habit of suddenly turning to mud and gravel keeps the cars at bay; it has been everything we hoped it would, and so much more than others have suggested.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horserace on a tight, hilly course.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horse race on a tight, hilly course.

The topic of cycling in Italy is a strange thing. Throughout our travels in Europe we have spoken with numerous cyclists, roadies and tourers alike, and they all said the same thing: Italy is their favorite place to travel, but they would never want to cycle there. Perhaps it’s because they often come in the summer when the country swells with visitors and heat-stricken Italians take to the roads to vent their frustrations. Perhaps they think only of the congested roads of Rome where driving is known to be a contact sport. Or perhaps they think only of the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast. I don’t know. What I do know, first hand, is that Tuscany and Umbria are lovely places to bicycle in December. Yes, it can get a little rainy, but the temperature has seldom dipped below 40° F (5° C) except above 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) in the Apennine Mountains, and the roads have been wonderfully devoid of traffic. And the drivers we have faced, including within the city limits of Rome and Florence, have been no less courteous than anywhere else. And though we haven’t spotted many bicycle paths outside of Florence, we’re practically as big as most Italian cars, what with all of our bags and 29er tires. No, the only downside to bicycle touring in the winter in Italy is that the campgrounds are nearly all locked up tight for the season and the widespread agricultural, private, and steeply-sloping land makes stealth camping a challenge. That and having to dim the lights in hopes of remaining unseen through 14 hours of darkness.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Duomo in Florence.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Florence.

So we haven’t used our tent in Italy, but we probably wouldn’t have wanted to in summer either. With towns like Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Orvieto, to name a few, what draw would there be to a crowded commercial campground? No, we are plenty happy to visit these towns whose architecture, art, and food we’ve only ever read–and dreamed–about.

Continuing south out of Tuscany.

Continuing south out of Tuscany towards Umbria and the Medieval town of Orvieto.

Our first day out of Livorno, the port city where we arrived by ferry at close to midnight, took us right through Pisa. We didn’t have any desire to pedal out of our way to see the famed tilting tower, but we were riding right past it on our way to Lucca. The little boy that still lurks inside me shakes with joy and wonder over this last statement. Who among us wasn’t amazed by this mythical leaning tower as a child? Yet there we were, knowing our agenda was so filled with world renown attractions that Pisa was little more than a quick stop for lunch, warranting no more attention than Clark W. Griswold gave the Grand Canyon. So we took our photos, ate our pizza in Pisa, and moved on to Lucca, then into the mountains en route to Florence, former home of Dante, Michelangelo, and numerous other one-name superstars. I want to talk about David.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

You see, David and I go way back. To 1993 to be precise. I was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the high school newspaper and and we were spotlighting the International Travel Club’s recent trip to Italy on the front page. Above the fold in journo speak. The selection of photos we were provided with were, to use a scientific term, crap. No group photos. Nothing really showcasing Italy’s scenery or architecture. Except one photo: Michelangelo’s David. I had taken an art history class and had an appreciation for Renaissance art and knew there were few things more Italian than this statue. My co-editor agreed. And neither he, nor I, nor our teacher-advisor, considered the fact that the newspaper was distributed throughout the entire school district, not just the high school. That’s right ladies and gentleman: full-frontal male nudity sent straight to every eight year old little boy and girl in town. I was stripped of my editorship halfway through first period. But, look at me now! And look at David! Let’s see you shut down my blog, Principal Torre!

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

I kid. Principal Torre is no longer principal, but he still is the uncle of one of my great friends and I actually got to see him just two years ago at a wedding. The genitalia of biblical characters did not come up in conversation.

Florence was amazing, simply amazing. Paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and statues everywhere, and the cathedrals and Medici palaces, and the bridges, and the food. Yes, the food. But not the food in the cities. We ate fabulously well in Siena, splurging on our last night in Tuscany, and we ate similarly well at an apertivo in Florence called Soul Kitchen where, purchase of a cocktail gets you access to a delicious, never-ending buffet of really good, albeit basic, Italian dishes. No, the meal I wish to talk about was up in the mountains above Lucca, en route to San Momme. We were the only people there, it was the only source of food we had seen for over 20 miles. It was raining and cold.

Christmas in Florence!

Christmas in Florence!

I head inside while Kristin locks the bikes together and dilly-dallies with her helmet and gloves. Lei parla Inglese? The woman tells me to wait one minute and disappears into the kitchen. And then, moments later, out walks a stunningly beautiful twenty-something Italian woman, smiling wide, completely ignoring the fact that I’m dripping wet in cycling attire, and that my helmet is still on. She’s as charming and welcoming as can be. She shows me to a table near the window, presents the prix fixe menu, and walks to the bar to get the bottle of fizzy water I requested. I was sad to see her go, but I loved watching her walk away. That’s how the phrase goes, right? Just checking.

In need of a cold shower, err, to see what’s keeping Kristin, I went back out into the rain. “Listen, honey, I know you’re a bit self-conscious about how you look when we’re in the cities, and I know you’re feeling wet and schlubby and grubby right now, but I just have to warn you Miss Italia is our waitress.” Kristin rolls her eyes. “No, I’m serious, Miss Italia is our waitress, but she’s very nice. You look great in your raingear and I love you and I’m sure she couldn’t pedal up that mountain.”

We get to the table and, after placing our order, Kristin expresses her surprise at just how attractive the woman is. “You’re right, she’s unusually beautiful,” she said. I then directed Kristin’s attention to a bulletin board near the lobby that featured awards and news clippings from several years ago. The woman was quite literally Miss Teen Italia just a few years prior. And after our incredible meal, we then chatted with the beauty queen, her mother, and her grandmother for nearly fifteen minutes, telling our story and answering their questions, all the while receiving complements and detecting not a trace of conceit or pretension from our gorgeous, down-to-earth interpreter who, over the course of a lunch, shattered every stereotype we’ve heard about beauty queens and proved false everything the Lonely Planet guide had to say about Italian women.

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

Oh, mi scusi, you thought I was going to talk about the food. Okay, for the foodies among you: fried polenta crostini with porcini sautee (appetizer); porcini risotto and spinach & ricotta ravioli in a walnut cream sauce (primi); mixed grill with potatoes (secondi); chocolate tort and espresso (desert). No, we don’t normally eat like this for lunch in the midst of a huge ride (PB&J is more our style), nor would we ever down a carafe of Chianti while doing so, but when in Rome…

And that’s where we are. We’re in Rome. We arrived in the Eternal City exactly 9 months and 9,524 miles after leaving Seattle. Just in time for Christmas which, even as a seldom-practicing Catholic, is pretty neat. And speaking of Christmas, the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve as I typed the words Eternal City in the previous sentence and fireworks and bells could be heard outside our hilltop hotel room. We stepped outside onto our balcony and listened to a chorus of church bells ringing throughout the city below us as we stared to the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! This has been an incredible year for us, one that was a long time coming, and every pair of eyes that falls upon these words plays a part in our success. Thank you.

Christmas market street vendor in Orvieto with some pretty good beer (Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!)

About to cheer on our Seahawks in Orvieto with some good craft beer, care of Kristin’s friend Megan back home in Seattle. Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!

Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to everyone who thought of us this holiday season! Tina and James Miller, Megan Knight, and Brittany Taylor all helped make a season bright and, for that, we thank you all a ton! We’d also like to thank our parents, siblings, and dear friends Alan & Katrina for remembering us while we’re away and for stuffing our Paypal stocking with plenty of yuletide cheer. We love you all!

And in Other News: I’m also very excited to announce that an essay I wrote this past October was accepted for publication in Adventure Cyclist magazine. I’m still awaiting the details, but I’m told it will likely appear in a 2016 issue. Adventure Cyclist is the only magazine in the United States devoted entirely to bicycle touring and is free with an annual membership to the Adventure Cycling Association of America, a group whose ranks have swelled to 47,000 dues-paying members. If you enjoy cycling in any form, do consider becoming a member.

Our Waldorf Astoria Stay: The desk I’m writing on is made of a gorgeous blue and gold-flaked marble. There was a bottle of champagne on ice when we arrived, chocolate covered strawberries on the coffee table between two luxurious armchairs, and we have a private balcony overlooking Rome and the Vatican City. For free. I’m using the last of my Hilton Honors points for five nights in one of the finest hotels in Europe, a hotel bedecked with 17th and 18th century art. I say this not to brag, but to underscore just how wonderful it can be to use hotel loyalty plans if you travel a lot for business. I had to travel a lot the past few years for work. But I knew it was all building towards this moment. Here’s a rundown of how I put my Hilton Honors points to use: 3 nights in Quebec City, 4 nights in Edinburgh, 4 nights in Amsterdam, 3 nights in Madrid, and 5 nights in Rome. Not only did using the points earn free hotel rooms, but free breakfasts, complementary wifi, access to Executive Lounges (i.e. free drinks and appetizer buffets), and room upgrades. I inquired about extending our stay here in Rome for one extra night. Our upgraded room is 390€ per night ($475 with a historically good exchange rate) , but they’d let me have it for the basic room rate of 280€. No thanks, we know when it’s time to move on. We might not be camping, but we still have our limits. Anyway, I know there are budget travel purists out there who would chafe at this frivolity, but using the hotel points proved extremely valuable this year, especially in Edinburgh during Fringe Fest and in Amsterdam on a weekend, where hotel rates are through the roof. And, besides, a little pampering does the body–and the marriage–good.

15 October, 2014

Three French Weeks

As Doug mentioned in his post about Quebec, we start nearly every interaction in France with the same two sentences: We don’t speak French. Do you speak English? We receive far more “no” responses than we expected. Everyone tries to help and fortunately we are usually able to communicate our basic needs like finding a grocery store, water, or a safe place to put our tent, but full conversations are very rare. This was a bit of a surprise, but not the only one that we have encountered during our three week tour of northern France (and counting).

Pedaling away from the magical, fairytale millenium-old Mont Saint Michel abbey.

Pedaling away from the magical millennium-old Mont Saint Michel abbey.

After experiencing the boulangeries (bakeries) in Paris, we can’t help but stop at one nearly every morning. We can fill up on fresh pastries for a few euros, instead of snacking on our usual processed granola bars. There is at least one and usually more boulangeries in every little town. It seems to be part of the local routine to stop for fresh pastries and baguettes every morning. We’ve also seen quite a few outdoor markets, even in October, where people seem to be doing their weekly shopping for fresh meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. It isn’t a local produce market like in the US, but rather a collection of local importers creating a fresh food market for the town. Grocery stores are much smaller than we are accustomed to in the US and only found in bigger towns. Processed food is much less common, artificial sweeteners are nowhere to be found, and fast food is not the bargain that we are used to. For example, McDonalds is at least twice as expensive in France as compared to the US. This emphasis on affordable fresh food within each town is quite a pleasant surprise and may help to explain the smaller waistlines around France despite all of the wonderfully rich and buttery food, which we will truly miss.

CAUTION: This bike brakes for boulangeries!

CAUTION: This bike brakes for boulangeries!

Doug mentioned in his last post that conversations about bicycle touring often degrade to bathroom stories. So in continuing the tradition, bathrooms in France are a bit different with some unexpected surprises that we will not miss. In people’s homes and hotels, the toilet, sink, and shower are often split between two rooms, but not as you might expect. The toilet is in a room by itself and the sink and shower are in a room right next door. Why? I have no idea. It doesn’t seem to make sense, nor does having a shower hose nozzle with no wall mount. Many showers simply have the shower hose nozzle connected to the tub faucet and you have to hold the nozzle to shower. This requires either turning off the water (perhaps part of the reasoning) or positioning the hose carefully pointed down so as to not spray water all over the bathroom while washing. This is especially important when staying with WarmShowers hosts. Campground bathrooms have their quirks too. Some seem to have a B.Y.O.T.P. policy. Fortunately, we always carry a small travel roll, but now we always look before we sit. None of these are a big deal, they just make life more interesting and are a little inconvenient compared to what we are used to. We’re sure it will get even more “interesting” as we head further east.

Pedaling south out of Trevieres in Normandy.

Pedaling south out of Trevieres in Normandy. Photo tip: Good things happen when you shoot in drive mode.

"Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit." - USA Military Cemetery, Normandy, France

“Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.” – USA Military Cemetery, Normandy, France

We are also not accustomed to being in a place with stores closed on Sundays and not opening on weekdays until at least 9:30 a.m., including cafes. We are easily able to work around this with a bit of planning. However, we still find it a bit odd that on the few occasions where we have been in a town, even Paris, before 9:00 a.m. that the streets are still quite deserted. This did work to our advantage when we rode out of Paris on a Friday morning. We rolled away from the hotel around 8:15 a.m., not too early, and the traffic didn’t seem to really pick up until 9:00 a.m. when we were nearly out of the city. Great!

We got to do a bit of wild-camping after leaving Paris. Doug cleared this spot up a logging road outside Caen that reminded him of his local mountain bike trails back home in WA.

We got to do a bit of wild-camping after leaving Paris. Doug found this spot up a logging road outside Caen that reminded him of his local mountain bike trails back home in WA. Hope the guys at Tokul are doing well!

We will be crossing into Spain in a few days after spending about three weeks cycling across northern and western France. While we have only seen a small portion of this large country, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to count our time in weeks, not days. We were able to experience the non-tourist aspects of a country in the way we hoped bicycling would provide, as well as making time to see a few of the major attractions, including a Champagne cellar (Taittinger), Versailles, Normandy, and Mont Saint-Michel. Au revoir France.

Visiting Claude Monet's famed water garden at his home in Giverny was a highlight of our time in France.

Visiting Claude Monet’s famed water garden at his home in Giverny was a highlight of our time in France and something Doug dreamed of doing since high school art history class.

Special Thanks: We want to extend a special thanks to Loic of La Maison Periot for incredible generosity making our first stay in a gite one we will always remember. We also want to especially thank our WarmShowers hosts, Francoise and Yves for taking a chance on hosting a non-French speaking couple. We had a wonderful evening, including dinner cooked nearly exclusively with vegetables grown in their garden.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Yves and Francoise at their home in the countryside.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Yves and Francoise at their home in the countryside.