Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Guide Through the District of the Lakes


This past Bank Holiday weekend Keenan and I had to the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful corners of England – the Lake District. Located in the modern county of Cumbria in Northwest England, the Lake District is a haven for hikers thanks to the fantastic scenery of fells and lakes.
We left Saturday morning from London Euston to Windermere via Lancaster for a weekend of hiking and fresh mountain air. The train ride was a long one (4 hours with several changes) but it was comfortable and definitely more relaxing than flying. We based ourselves in Windermere, a small town a mile uphill from Lake Windermere, and had a lovely stay at the Laurel Cottage. Proprietors Wayne and Alison are excellent hosts and always eager to share their knowledge of the Lake District.
 After the rain died down, we made our way to Bowness-on-Windermere, the sister city located on the shore of Lake Windermere. Instead of taking the main road 1.5 mile down to Bowness, Wayne suggested we take the scenic route via Brant Fell to take advantage of views and partially sunny afternoon. A relatively easy hike, Brant Fell affords you with amazing panoramic views of Bowness, Lake Windermere, and the Langdale Pikes in the distance. Scenic, mountainous, and amazingly green, this is exactly how I imagined the Lake District. 
View from Brant Fell:
Bowness is a quaint little village lined with numerous teashops and bakeries, mountaineering stores, and little shops selling all things Peter Rabbit as author Beatrix Potter drew inspiration for her famous children’s book from her summer holidays in the Lake District. Bustling Bowness is perfect for a leisurely stroll along the Promenade of picturesque Lake Windermere or a picnic on its numerous open space. You can also visit nearby Victorian estates, many of which are converted to hotels, take afternoon tea, or have lunch at a historic pub. With numerous end-of-season sales, we spent the afternoon hopping between outdoor stores in search for a new men’s rucksack for our upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. Happy with our purchase from the Mountain Warehouse, we were then off to sample local ale at The Albert whilst soaking up the last ray of sunshine before walking back to Windermere.

That Saturday evening, we were caught in the rain and without advanced dinner reservations. We wandered around town looking for a decent place to eat and ended up at Mojo’s Bistro, a modern British restaurant, for a nice meal. We hit the sack early, excited for another day of exploring the Lake District. 
The next morning, after a hearty English breakfast, we set out to conquer our next destination: Ambleside via Orrest Head and Wanfell Pike. Armed with Wayne’s trusty directions and map, we were well on our way, first to Orrest Head, which had another amazing viewpoint of the entire 10.5 mile length of Lake Windermere.  We made good progress, enjoying the pastoral landscape dotted with countless numbers of white sheep (and an occasional black sheep too!) and snapping some scenic photos until we got off-track and ended up on the main road.
 View from Orrest Head:
We got confused somewhere from “climb over the stone wall to the left next to the big tree, then go through the gate and go through field to another gate, then climb over the stone wall where there will be yellow sign, cross the farm and to the rear of the farm, climb over the stone wall.” By that time, we were so lost that none of the directions made sense to us. Not to worry though, we eventually found our way back on the trail once we got to Troutbeck and from here, we made our ascend to Wansfell Pike. Up until this point, we didn’t see a single person on the trail, but here loads of people, young and old, joined us on the path to Ambleside. It was getting windier by the minute, making the hike a bit more challenging. But the view alone from Wansfell Pike was worth the hike – see for yourself.
 

Ambleside is also a nice village with the same mix of commercial retail shops, but much larger and busier than Windermere. There is even a 70 foot waterfall (Stock Ghyll Force) nearby, but we couldn’t muster enough energy to walk to the waterfalls after our long and steep 8 mile hike.  The architecture is primarily Victorian with nice church adjacent to an old cemetry. After meandering around Ambleside for a few hours, we hopped on the bus back to Windermere and rewarded ourselves with a meaty pizza at Giottos.
The next day, with sore thighs and calves, we originally wanted to spend the afternoon kayaking on the lake, but alas, the high winds spoiled our plans. Instead we had a light lunch and afternoon tea in Bowness, which is my favourite of the three towns we visited, and then did one last short hike to Queen Adelaide’s Hill, which was named after King William IV’s widow after a royal visit in 1840, for another scenic viewpoint. Had we plan our day better and checked the forecast beforehead, we would have taken the bus up to Grasmere, then onwards to the Castlerigg Stone Circles, just outside of Keswick. Next time, I hope. Maybe next time, we’ll visit in March and witness “a host of golden daffodils; beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze” and “my heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils” like William Wandsworth famously wrote in his poem about the Lake District, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

by William Wandsworth

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Richard III: The Old Vic Theatre

Every once in a while, but not often, you have the opportunity and distinct pleasure of viewing a truly epic performance. Although there are a number of great shows out there which, when the curtains go down, you stand and applaud, there are only a few that receive such an ovation from the audience that it can only be described as a grand masterpiece. Despite having seen a number of very high quality shows since moving to London, I can say with a degree of confidence that on Saturday we witnessed the best of them yet.


Starring Kevin Spacey and directed by Sam Mendes, this class A duo teamed up once again for what will certainly become known as the legendary production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It is no accident that the team responsible for American Beauty would pen such a dark depiction in this famous Machiavellian tale of murderous despotism and twisted manipulation, but it worked so well that it now seems it cannot be done any other way. The costumes were what could be best described as modern formal, but with a slightly medieval undercurrent, blending concepts of time and continuity, but remaining relevant enough to our own modern senses. The set was surprisingly basic, but effective in that it did not distract from the amazing performances of the actors who commanded the stage, serving its purpose for a multiple of settings between the two acts and doing so with the perfectly balanced combination of subtlety and authenticity.


Kevin Spacey may have achieved one of the highest points of his career and was on point as the central performance during the entire evening. Convincingly and unapologetically evil, his portrayal as the conniving and cruel royal was successful in engendering feelings of both humor and disgust simultaneously. Excellent performances from Chuk Iwuji as Buckingham and Hayden Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth rounded out the primary cast of characters, contributing to what will be an exceptional standard for generations of thespians wishing to play these roles. The overall direction was inventive, incorporating the use of modern technology embedded within the story to maximize themes of political duplicity, demonstrating the power that words and images have on the masses in cultivating an image and achieving popular support. Sam Mendes was risky, but truly brilliant in his execution.

Marking the third and final season of the Bridge Project, an enormously successful initiative which brings together British and American actors in classic theatre productions, Richard III is the bar for which future productions of Shakespeare should aspire to. Sitting through a performance of any of the Great Bard’s works is an exercise in patience and attention on the part of the audience. To mesmerize and captivate an audience and to make the 3 hour 15 minute running time pass by within the blink of an eye is the work of true dramatic genius, most deserving of the standing ovations it received.

-K.V.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Weekend Wedding in the Bordeaux Wine Region

Last weekend Keenan and I attended our second summer wedding of the year, this time in a small village in the Bordeaux wine region.  We met this wonderful couple through the groom’s brother Rod after they relocated from Sao Paulo to her native London. The wedding took place at an amazing chateau, which is a special place for the happy couple as not only did the bride spent her childhood summers here, but the couple also got engaged here last summer in front of a group of close friends. 
Arriving early on Friday morning, we drove straight from the Bordeaux airport to our B&B in St. Gemme. The drive through the French countryside was simply gorgeous – rolling hills, miles of vineyards, cornfields, sunflowers, and picturesque little villages. Keenan and I, along with a newly-engaged couple friend, settled into the La Cigogne B&B, and then went to check out the farmer’s market in Monsegur based the B&B’s recommendation. The town itself was small with several restaurants on the main square and a medieval church. There’s not much in terms of sightseeing here, however, there are several famous wineries in the region such as Chateau Lavison and Chateau Yquem in Sauterne, home of the famous sweet French wine. Having visited Bordeaux and St. Emilion last May, we were quite content just relaxing and spending time with friends.
 
Friday evening, the bride and groom hosted a fun casual dinner in the main garden of chateau. We spent the evening under the stars chatting with their family and friends, many whom flew in from Brazil or from different parts of Europe, drinking wine, and drinking more wine, including several nice vintages pulled from the wine cellar.
Saturday was the big day! But before the wedding, we enjoyed some pool time, volleyball, and badminton with the bride and groom back at chateau before the evening ceremony. We also had an impromptu BBQ, lied in hammocks under the trees, and enjoyed the beautiful property.

The wedding ceremony was held in the main garden overlooking the French countryside. It was a beautiful ceremony. The bride looked stunning! With her father escorting her down the aisle, the bride wore a gorgeous strapless mermaid gown with lace appliqué and layers of organza. It was very fitting for the bride and her warm personality and sophisticated style, yet also very feminine. She looked beautiful opting for natural hair and make-up for her big day.
The groom wasn’t so shabby either. He and his groomsmen wore matching grey waistcoats and black suits, while the bridesmaids donned colourful maxi dresses for the joyous occasion. The bride’s father picked up the newlywed couple in his vintage tractor decorated with a sign “Just Married” and whisked the couple away for a photo session on another part of the property. 
The champagne and hors d’oeuvres reception was held under the trees, followed by dinner in the main marquee, and dancing in the piano room where the DJ and bartender kept the party going until 3am with music through the decades and delicious watermelon and lycee martinis. Congratulations, and thank you for inviting us to share your special day! Enjoy your sweet honeymoon in the Seychelles!
 
The next day, slightly hungover and completely exhausted, we went to our friend’s B&B, Chateau Le Bosquet des Fleurs, in Le Reole for their annual wine-tasting open house before our evening flight back to London. It was a wonderful weekend of celebrating the marriage of our friends, drinking Bordeaux wines, hanging out with friends – old and new, and soaking up the sunshine in the French countryside.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The London Riots

One week has passed since widespread rioting and indiscriminate looting swept through London and to other parts of England.  In neighborhoods across London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool damaged storefronts remain boarded and burnt out buildings in states of disrepair, reminders of the violence and chaos that people inflicted on their own communities for reasons that are still incomprehensible to most of us.  

 

In the days following the riots, important questions are being raised, ranging from the motivations and compulsions of the rioters to the inadequate response and lack of force from the police.  The unfortunate truth is that many of these questions will lead to difficult answers, bringing to the surface deeper structural issues that reveal the layered troubles that exist within Britain, as they do in other countries.  I would hope that this is an opportunity to finally discuss these issues on a national level in a spirit of honesty and collaboration to seek solutions to a wide array of complex societal, economic, and organizational challenges, which combined together, have brought us to this moment of uncertainty, but which could evolve into a national renewal if confronted productively. 
I speak for most Londoners when I say that it was truly disturbing and disappointing to watch a city you love be gripped by fear and sustain so much destruction, both physical and psychological.  However, I remind my fellow Londoners that what sets this thriving metropolis apart is its resilience and determination to always rise from the ashes.  


London is an ancient city with a dramatic history spanning over 2,000 years.  The city has survived invading armies, barbaric rampages, epic battles, devastating plagues, indiscriminate air raids, horrific acts of terror, and plenty of fires and civil unrest which fill volumes upon volumes of history books.  It is a city that always endures and comes out better than it was before, adapting and growing in spite of what fate sends its way.  


Today Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain is a “broken society”, placing this at the top of his agenda while in office.  I share in his disgust and disappointment at what occurred last week and I agree that it calls for an objective appraisal and immediate action, but I would remind him of the thousands of volunteers across Britain who took to the streets with brooms and shovels to repair those communities which were worst affected.  The riots reveal deep rooted problems that must be addressed, but Britain is not unique in this experience.  Before the conversation turns towards the negative, I would remind Mr. Cameron that not all of Britain is broken.  It is just time to finally repair those segments of British society that are damaged and this is where the real rebuilding process begins.   

-KV  

P.S.  After contributing to London Cosmopolitan for nearly three years, I have created a separate medium in order to discuss some of the most pressing issues of the day and to analyze a bit more deeply the historic, political, and cultural context impacting current events in many of the places we have traveled.  I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback at www.travelissubversive.com.   

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Gastronomic Tour of San Francisco

When asked what we missed most about San Francisco, our immediate response is generally the following: friends and family, sun and blue skies, and the food.  Oh, the food for sure. We miss Mexican, sushi, Vietnamese food, California wines, and the abundance of fresh fruit and veggies, which is second to none in California. In between visiting family in our respective hometowns, we also made it a priority to enjoy the culinary delights of Northern California and planned several day trips and dinner dates with our favourite S.F. based foodie friends.
 

On a ridiculously gorgeous day in San Francisco, we took a trip up to Tomales Bay with three friends for a picnic and oyster-feast at the Hogs Island Oyster Farm. Located an hour north of San Francisco on Highway 1, we took the scenic route along the windy road passing through the small towns of Stinson Beach, Bolinas, and Point Reyes Station and marveled at the view of the Pacific Ocean. 

 

We reserved a picnic table overlooking Tomales Bay and brought a large picnic spread of fresh veggies for grilling, chicken sausages, salads, beverages, and other snack items. The highlight, of course, was the oysters, which were as fresh as can be since it was just plucked from the estuary that morning. At a bargain price, we ordered 50 small sweet water oysters for $35, which we ate raw with a splash of lemon, and one dozen large sweet water oysters for $15 for BBQing, all washed down with no other than a California sparkling wine. It was a wonderful day of glorious sunshine, great company, and delicious food. 

 

On our way back to San Francisco, we stopped by Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station to pick up some artisan cheeses. We were originally scheduled to take a tour but missed the 3PM appointment as we were having far too much fun at Hog Island. We did manage to continue our eating extravaganza by having our cheese and dessert course outside on the lawn at Cowgirl. Wonderful day out in beautiful Marin County, and thanks to Mona, JC, and Clare for organizing an amazing picnic spread.


We also spent one day up in Napa Valley for some wine-tasting with my college roommate and her husband. The four of us hung out regularly when we were living in Rockridge so we were happy that they were able to spend the day with us. I can’t tell you how much we miss having Napa and Sonoma in our backyards. I turn green with envy when I periodically see Facebook updates of so-and-so sipping wine in Napa/Sonoma/Russian River.
 

Betty planned the wine-tasting itinerary; the agenda included: Anderson Conn, Robert Sinskey, Cliff Lede, and Joseph Phelps. We enjoyed the personal cave tour and the wines at Anderson Conn, which turned out to be our favourite winery of the day. Joseph Phelps was overrated which was a disappointment since I have heard nothing but great reviews, although the property was stunning. We took a break from wine-tasting and had ourselves a lovely picnic at Cliff Lede. It was hot by the late afternoon and in need of a break from full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, we opted for some sparkling wines at Mumm’s instead as our final tasting of the day.  

 

For dinner, we ate at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega in Yountville, which is considered as one of the Bay Area’s Top 100 Restaurants.  The restaurant was tastefully decorated with a nice patio area for alfresco dining. As starters, we ordered the Monterey calamari, Truffle-parmigiano fries, and Pesce Crudo of the Day, all were delicious and portions were generous. For mains, Betty, being the meat lover that she is, ordered the Wood Grilled Chops of Grass-Fed Lamb, which according to her paired brilliantly well with the Cake Bread Syrah, while the rest of us opted for Chiarello’s signature pasta. I thought my Red Wheat Linguine Bolognese was excellent, however Keenan thought the spaghetti of his seafood pasta was far too thick for his liking as it overwhelmed the delicate flavours of the sauce, and David ordered vegetarian friendly Heirloom Tomato Pasta. To round out dinner, we shared the Zeppole al Lemoni (Italian donuts cooked to order) served with Meyer lemon curd and berry Earl Grey sauce. 

Ummmm…mouthwatering. We couldn’t ask for a more perfect day in Napa with great friends, great wine, great food, and perfect weather!


Continuing our culinary tour, we also hit up some of our several of our favourite places, including the hole-in-the-wall Pho Saigon for huge bowls of piping hot Vietnamese pho on Stockton Blvd; our favourite sushi restaurant in Sacramento, Mikuni’s, where my family and I have been going for the past 14 years; the quintessential Californian In-N-Out Burger; and the Berkeley institution, the Cheeseboard. We even got our Mexican fix (x3) at El Castillo in Tracy, Nick’s Crispy Tacos, and Tlaloc in San Francisco for oversized burritos and bottomless tortilla chips. Keenan is a happy camper.
 
We spent a lot of time at the Ferry Building, one of my favourite places in San Francisco, enjoying our beloved Peet’s Coffee, browsing through the Sur La Table store, and dining alfresco at Market Bar with Keenan’s former co-worker and friend, who now works at the Ferry Building. We tried two new restaurants in San Francisco: Little Star Chicago-style Pizza with our Chicagoan-turned San Franciscan friends who are expecting their first child in December (congrats!), and Prospect in SOMA with another couple friend, Brent and Lena. I didn’t think anything can rival Zachary’s Pizza, but Little Star Diversadero came pretty darn close. Even our Chicagoan friends concurred. 
 
Sister restaurant of Boulevard, Chef Ravi Kapur opened Prospect last summer in the Infinity Tower in SOMA. His menu is highly focused on seasonal Californian ingredients. The mains ranged anywhere from $25 to $36 per plate and the wine list was even steeper. The group shared the halibut tartare and grilled octopus as starters, both highly recommended. Missing a good quality steak in London, Keenan and I both ordered the ribeye, which was nicely marbled for full flavour, while our friends had the goat roast and roasted quail.
 
Dessert was a treat! The pastry cook at Prospect was a former colleague of my friend Brent during their PwC days and she sent out a dazzling array of desserts for us to devour, including her own creation, the Griddled Peach Crepe with sweet corn ice cream, which was inspired by her mid-western roots; Ice Cream Sandwiches; and the Prospect Sundaes. As usual with our friends, we were the last to leave the restaurant at 12:30 am, a sign that it was a fabulous meal!

So overall, how was our trip back to San Francisco? Two words: incredible and delicious!