Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Afternoon in SW19: Wimbledon

In need of a break from all the World Cup madness, Keenan and I thought it would be a great idea to spend the day on the grounds of the All England Lawn for the Wimbledon Championships. I went last year with Keenan's Dad on the last Friday of the tournament and really enjoyed the atmosphere. There was no line and we even got tickets to Court No. 1 for the Ladies Double Semi-Finals. Little did I know that the first Saturday of the tournament turned out to be the busiest day with some 9,000 people already in the queue at 8 a.m. for 6,000 ground tickets. Yikes! Needless to say, we didn't get tickets into the All England Lawn; maybe we'll have better luck next year?

Our back-up plan was then to spend the morning/afternoon exploring Wimbledon Village before returning to Clapham to meet up with our Oxford-based friend for the USA vs. Ghana game. With the exception of the immediate area around the train station, Wimbledon Village is quite lovely; beautiful mansions, cute boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and very leafy. Bright pink Evian flags, one of the official sponsors of Wimbledon, dotted the streets of Wimbledon Village, as did the ubiquitous green tennis balls that made this neighbourhood so famous. 

If you want to sample the country lifestyle of Wimbledon, take a walk along the Southside of the Common to Rushmere Pond. Here you will find beautiful country cottages and gorgeous mansions. Continuing on Westside Common, you'll run into the Cannizaro Gardens and House, an old historic mansion converted into a boutique hotel with a nice champagne terrace overlooking the garden. Along Crooked Billet Road, there are several atmospheric 'villagey' pubs such as 'Hand in Hand' which came highly recommended by my Wimbledon/Oxford-based friend. We opted for a picnic instead on Wimbledon Common as it was a sweltering 29C and wonderfully sunny last Saturday. Our summer has finally arrived and lucky for us, it came on a weekend – a good summer according to the English!

The walk through the labyrinths of leafy glades, golden meadows, and honeysuckle of Wimbledon Common was an enjoyable one. We followed the main pathway to the the famous Windmill and found ourselves a wide clearing of grass for a leisurely picnic under the sun. It was a lovely afternoon in picturesque Wimbledon. I'm sure we'll be back soon enough as the train journey is just 13 minutes from Clapham Junction.

Our "little" break from the World Cup ended at exactly 7:30PM Saturday evening; that was the kick off between USA and Ghana in the second round of the World Cup. I was hoping that the game would end in penalties with a win of course, but our USA team lost  to Ghana 2-1. The World Cup madness didn't just end on Saturday night, it continued well into Sunday starting with a delicious Bavarian breakfast at our friend's flat in Embankment, followed by the England vs. Germany game at Ziegiest, a popular German pub. England was thrashed by Germany 4-1 and out of the World Cup. Unfortunately, a bad weekend for us Yanks and the English, however, it was a great weekend of sun and catching up with wonderful friends!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Greatest Game on Earth and What It Represents: World Cup 2010

It is very easy these days to read the news and feel pretty glum about the state of the world. There are growing tensions on the Korean peninsula with no clearly favorable solution and the diplomatic stalemate that is the Israeli blockade on Gaza has created rifts between traditional allies. Ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan has erupted after long simmering tensions and the Taliban continue to strike violent and painful blows throughout non-tribal areas of Pakistan. Not to mention anything of the numerous episodes of civil discord in places like Thailand, the ongoing war in Iraq, the insecurity and human suffering caused by failed or failing states, and the more familiar turmoil caused by natural and manmade disasters in almost every corner of the planet. Couple all of this with the ongoing sluggish “recovery” of the global economy and the fear of a potential “double dip” recession, the increasing debt crises across Europe and the rich world, discouraging employment numbers across the world, and toxic partisan political rhetoric in the United States and it would be justifiable for someone to question where we all are headed.

Several weeks ago I got into a discussion with some friends about whether or not the world, society in particular, becomes more or less progressive as time goes on. I took the position that, despite frequent periods where humanity has regressed, and in spite of contemporary places, people, and situations that hark back to more primitive and prosaic eras in history, that yes, indeed society is moving forward for the better. Obviously a debatable topic, one of my friends took the opposing viewpoint, and with only the short list of the aforementioned problems of the world listed above, who could blame someone for making the argument?

We have always battled threats and challenges that sound very similar, if not entirely worse, to the contemporary ones above. It was only a couple of generations ago that the there was a horrific global war being fought in every corner of the world, a colossal battle to defeat one of the most dangerous political ideologies to threaten the modern world, and I am confident that this is a prime example of when humanity took a massive backwards step away from progress. At this war’s close it was only to be followed by a half century of ideological and militaristic bipolarism which created strife or conflict zones of varying scales on every inhabited continent. Again, as the world was tearing itself apart, not an example of human progressivism.

However, it was during these same periods that European imperial powers cast away their colonial possessions and independent nations were born, civil rights were fought for and won by minorities and women all over the developed world, and innovation in information technology brought the world closer together through improved speed and ease of communication. Right now across Europe equal rights continue to be secured for couples regardless of sexual orientation with Portugal the most recent country to recognize same-sex marriage, a country that just over thirty years ago was still ruled by the fascist Estado Novo (“New State”), a regime in which civil liberties of any kind were repressed.

We are now one week into the biggest sporting event in the world. The World Cup, hosted for the first time on African soil in a country that was ravaged by the worst form of institutionalized racism only less than two decades ago, is bigger than the Olympics and is a time for people to come together to enjoy the only truly global sport. It is a time when nationalism is not anything to be ashamed of and people have an opportunity to cheer for their home country as they take on a country they may have known very little about.

Yes, we have our struggles ahead of us and no one should be as naïve as to believe that a game will solve the woes of the world. However, who could be a cynic when you find yourself cheering for an underdog team in which you have no affiliation simply because of the contagious energy of the fans and the inspiring fortitude of the players? Who isn’t encouraged by watching the proud and emotional faces of the teams as their national anthem is played prior to the game? The sport itself is one of focus, endurance, and cooperation, even when your back is against the wall. The ideals of playing by the rules of engagement with the opposition, teamwork and collaboration, healthy competition, and balanced patriotism that embody the World Cup are principles that we should all reflect on in the coming weeks as we watch the games unfold and continue to read about the ongoing troubles that we collectively face.

In 1939 when Winston Churchill realized that the “world had truly gone mad” and “Britain seemed truly alone”, an unknown British civil servant coined a phrase that helped to get the British through the ugliest days of the war and to this day still symbolizes and embodies the spirit of determinism and optimism in the face of terrifying threat, disaster and failure; “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Appropriately enough, this phrase is making a resurgence as the unofficial slogan for Team England this year. As we gather around the pubs and the televisions over the next few weeks to cheer our nations on in the spirit of global sportsmanship and to watch the best football played in the world to the backdrop of the drowning sound of the vuvuzelas, let’s remember that no matter what challenges we face, if we maintain composure and carry on against all odds, anything, especially progress, is possible.

Enjoy the spirit of the games of 2010 South Africa!


Friday, June 11, 2010

A Quick Trip to Lyon, France

 I recently had the opportunity to visit Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes region of France for work last week. It was a busy trip, but I was able to squeeze in some sights along the way. This trip also required several hours of driving through the winding, forested hills, and antiquated hilltop villages between Saint Etienne, Clermont-Ferrand, along my way to the mountain town of Massiac. Although we have been to France several times, I have never been to this corner, so it was great to see yet another beautiful part of the country.

 Lyon is the second largest city in France and is also the notorious gastronomic capital, the birthplace and home to nouvelle cuisine, set at the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers and dominated by the Renaissance and Roman sights of the Fourvière hill. While in Lyon I stayed on the Place Bellecour, just within walking distance to the Vieux Lyon (old city), and perched beneath the imposing features of Fourvière hill.

 Lyon is more or less halfway between Paris and Marseilles, and could probably be easily seen inside of one day if your time is a bit stretched. Most of what you would like to see or do is located within the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 9th arrondissements, located on the western side of the Rhône. It is here that you can roam around the retail areas of Place Bellecour, one of the largest squares in Europe, take in the historic sites of Saint-Jean Cathedrale, the Roman ruins of the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and the small, medieval lanes of Vieux Lyon.

During your stay in Lyon, be sure to try the local Beaujolais wine and treat yourself to one of the best meals you can find in Europe. Although short and busy, Lyon was a nice little mid-week excursion to a rich and beautiful corner of France.  -- K.V.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Boa Viagem: Porto

 We arrived to Porto around noon following a three-hour train ride from Lisboa's Santa Apolonia station to Porto-Campanha. Most visitors bypass Porto, Portugal's second city, in favour of Lisbon and the sun-drenched beaches of the Algarve, but it is really their loss as there is much to enjoy in Porto. For one, it is a lot smaller than Lisbon and has a slower and relaxed pace of life; but equally as charming as Lisbon if slightly gritty. Of course, you cannot miss the famous wines of the Douro Valley, particularly its famous Port wines.
We enjoyed our stroll through the hilly streets of Porto whilst admiring the various azulejo-clad and Baroque churches on our way down to Ribiera, Porto's UNESCO-designated historic centre. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, which my friend later told me that it is rare for Porto as it is usually overcast and gray. We spent the rest of day along the riverfront of Ribiera and Vila Nova de Gaia. There were loads of people, tourists like ourselves and locals, enjoying drinks alfresco, or sunbathing along the Rio Douro. Like Lisbon's Alfama district, Ribeira is full of narrow, steep cobbled-stone streets with beautiful balconied houses and interesting architecture. I highly recommend wandering around this fascinating little neighbourhood.
The next day, after a quick detour to the Mercado de Bolhao for fresh strawberries and a caffeine fix, we made the trek back to Gaia to visit Taylor's. It is all uphill from the river but well worth it. The estate and the manicured garden are beautiful; they even have peacocks on the property. We could have spent a few hours in the garden and terrace which also has an amazing view, but we had a lunch date with my Ph.D. friend who moved back to Porto after spending five years at Berkeley. We had complimentary tastings of a semi-dry white Port and a LBV Port; the former an apéritif, best served with berries and pineapples; and the ladder, a digestif is best with strong cheeses like Stilton. The guide took us on a 30 minute tour of the cellar and gave us a history of the region and its famous wine, Port. 
Taylor is not a Portuguese surname; it is English as you might guess. In fact, many Port houses are owned by English and Germans, including Graham and Dow. In a nutshell, in the 17th century, due to frequent wars with neighboring France, the British traders were cut off from their supplies of Bordeaux wine. Looking to new supply of claret (red wine), the British took a liking to the Portuguese-style wine and under the Methen Treaty of 1703, a commercial treaty between the two nations which stipulated that no tax could be charged for exports of Portuguese wines to England, or English textiles to Portugal regardless of the geopolitical situation between France and England. However, the wines did not travel well across the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, so the traders added Brandy to fortify the wines for their lengthy travel to England. What we know as Port today was the created in the 17th century.
In order to bear the label Port, the grapes must be grown and processed in the Douro Valley region, which also produces some excellent red wines as well. In the old days, the barrels were transported down the river by Rabelos, old wooden sail boats, to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging and storage, which you will still  find these historic boats moored in the Rio Douro.

There are various styles of Port wine: white, ranging from dry to very sweet best served chilled; Ruby-style, the most extensively produced style which is often blended with other vintages; and the tawny style. Most of the Port wines I've tasted in the past are disgustingly sweet, however, the Taylor ports are quite nice. 

The highlight of our trip to Porto was seeing an old colleague from Berkeley and his wife, both native Lisboetas who decided to settle in Porto for the time being. He literally just landed in Lisbon and took the three hour train ride up to Porto so many thanks for making the extra effort to see us! We had a late lunch at Cafe Guarany, a quick walking tour of his city, and again stopping at San Bento station to admire the striking Azulejos tiles that gives Porto its distinctive character.  Boa Viagem!
Here are some restaurant recommendations in Porto from my friend - enjoy!:

Aleixo, in Rua de Campanhã, close to the Campanhã train station (excellent octopus fillets; it's away from the most interesting neighborhoods, but it's well worth the trip);

Tasca do Godinho, in Rua do Godinho, in Matosinhos (very good seafood rice);

Sunday Brunch at the Serralves Museum cafeteria (pleasant for a meal while visiting the museum if you happen to be there late on Sunday morning, I think you may have to make a reservation);

Café Majestic, at the beginning of Rua de Santa Catarina (probably the most beautiful café in Portugal, great for breakfast, for coffee, or for an afternoon tea).

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

From Rio Tejo to Rio Duoro: Bank Holiday Weekend in Portugal

Did we make a trip back to San Francisco, CA and not tell anyone? Nope, look again. It's not the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, it's Pont 25 de Abril (celebrating the 1974 Revolution) in Lisbon, Portugal, which was built by the same company as the famous Golden Gate Bridge in 1966. Looks similar, eh?

For the second May bank holiday, Keenan and I took a long weekend to Lisbon and Porto for sun, culture, and patel de nata (Portuguese custard tart). My Berkeleyan-turned-Oxford-based Ph.D. friend kindly offered her beautiful Lisbon flat for us to stay (obrigada!) and it was so lovely! We loved our time in Portugal! It may be a small country by European standards, but it is lively and full of charm.

My friend left us with her keys, a lengthy list of things to do, along with several restaurant recommendations, which I will list at the end of this post. We started off Friday morning with a long walking tour from her flat through the neighbourhood of Graca and Alfama district. From the church, there are beautiful miraduoros (viewpoints) of the red rooftops of Lisbon and Rio Tejo. If you have a leisurely afternoon, take a book with you and enjoy the stunning view of the city  and Castelo de Sao Jorge high above the city (see the above photo). 

Heading south, we meandered through the steep narrow alleyways of the Alfama district, the former Moorish neighbourhood during the 15th century, and finally to Praca do Comerico where we jumped on the light rail #15 to Belem. Lisbon itself was a lot more hilly than I anticipated; I found myself huffing and puffing as I made my way up the steep hills. It did make me a bit homesick, just a little. I can't believe it's been exactly one year since I officially moved to London. Where does time go?

After lunch of bacalhau, the Portuguese specialty of salted codfish, we made our way to Belem where we spent the rest of the sunny afternoon. Belem is a lovely neighbourhood just 30 minutes west of Lisbon via the quick tram #15. It is famous for two reasons: 1) it is home to Lisbon's finest monuments including the UNESCO heritage site Monsteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belem and 2) it is also home to the famous Pasteis de Belem, known for the best pastel de nata around town. You cannot miss this famous institution with the blue and white overhang and long queues out the door. Not to worry, the line moves very quickly, but I do recommend that you order a box of these delicious egg custard -- they are delicious!


There are also several nice museums in the area as well; check out Museu Coleccao Berardo, the new contemporary art museum (free admission). The ultra-modern exterior of the museum reminded me a lot of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but the exhibitions weren't as impressive as the Getty. We also visited Torre de Belem where we enjoyed great views of Pont 25 du April and the cool breeze from the river. Wow, I almost thought I was in San Francisco minus the 85F degree weather! The nearby gardens also offer a nice respite form the crowds and the heat.

The neighbourhood of Belem:

The next day, Keenan and I went to Sintra, a major tourist attraction some 40 minutes (3.40 Euros RT) northwest of Lisbon via the suburban train. It is home to some impressive palaces -- the exquisite Pena Palace, which was one of the highlights of our trip to Portugal; Castelo dos Mouros with some beauthiful panoramic view of Sintra-Cascais National Park; and Palacio Nacional de Sintra, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings when Lisbon is beyond sweltering. Perched high on rocky peaks of the Serra de Sintra, the architectural style of the Pena Palace is exemplifies the Portuguese style of the Romantic period. It is a gorgeous estate and the interior of the palace is equally unique as well; the setting surrounded by the lust forest is like a scene straight from a fairytale.


I should warn you that the Pena Palace is quite far from Sintra town so catch the tourist bus instead, and save your energy for a leisurely walk around the estate instead. However, the Castelo de Mouros is an easy walk --  just a few hundred metre from Pena Palace. The views are also amazing from this 10th century fortress.

Castelo de Mouros:

Back in town we spent the rest of the day in the neighourhoods of Baixa, Barrio Alto (bars galore), and Chiado (shopping galore) taking in the laid back city vibe of the Portuguese capital, sipping vinho verde (fizzy young Portuguese wine) and soaking up as much sun as possible. While we had nice summer weather last weekend, there is no guarantee if and when the sun will return; we had to soak it all in while we can! We were really sad to say goodbye to Lisbon as we could have stayed a few more days to enjoy the nearby beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, but I trust this won't be our only trip to Lisbon. From here, we made our journey north, to Porto, home of the famous Port wines.

As promised, here are some restaurant recommendations from my friends who grew up in Lisbon. We went to Ramiros for a seafood feast of shrimp, oysters, and crab...ummmm. It's a very locals-type place, but the seafood was fresh and delicious. I share my father's love for seafood; it was so good that even my father would approve. 

Bica do Sapato, next to the river by the Santa Apolónia metro station (beautiful space, excellent food - a kind of Portuguese "nouvelle cuisine," but the portions are satisfying; the restaurant has three different spaces, the cafeteria is the most affordable one);

Charcutaria, in the Rua da Misericórdia, close to the Bairro Alto neighborhood (food from the southern Alentejo region);

Travessa, in an old convent in the Madragoa neighborhood - the convent itself is in the Rua da Esperança, the entrance to the restaurant is at the back (excellent Portuguese and Belgian food);

Varina da Madragoa, at Rua das Madres, 34, also in the Madragoa neighborhood (very affordable and usually decent);

Ramiro, at the beginning of Avenida Almirante Reis (somewhat tacky atmosphere but the best place for seafood; it is advisable to go early, the wait can sometimes be long);

CAM cafeteria at the Gulbenkian Foundation (pleasant for an affordable lunch while visiting the museum across the garden; the line is usually long before 2 pm, but it moves quickly);

Pastelaria Versailles, in the Avenida da República, next to the corner with Av. Duque de Ávila (a nice place for an afternoon tea);

Café Nicola, at Rossio (a nice place for a coffee);

and a "tasca" in the Rua do Sacramento à Alcântara, the first restaurant on the left when coming from the Largo da Armada (excellent grilled fish, especially sardines).