Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tour of Krakow and the High Tatras

We recently had an opportunity to travel to Krakow, the former imperial capital and Poland’s second city, for four days of exploring historic old towns, majestic mountains, and world-class museums.
 Wroclaw Old Town

Like Wroclaw, Krakow also has a lovely Old Town, but it is much bigger and busier than its little sister some 270 km due west. The UNESCO-listed market square, Rynek Glowny, is not only beautiful with the towering spires of the elegant St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall, a neo-gothic covered medieval market; it is also incredibly lively with numerous outdoor cafes, street entertainers, and art exhibitions. The compact pedestrianized streets, gorgeous architecture, and leafy park surrounding the city centre make for a delightful stroll around Krakow’s Old Town. 

After spending a few hours wandering around Old Town, we hiked up to Wawel Castle, perched on top of the hill of the same name. The royal complex is massive consisting of the impressive castle and cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Krakow and the traditional coronation site of Polish monarchs. Be sure to allot ample time to wander around the grounds and visit the State Rooms & Royal Apartments, Crown Treasury, and the various museums. 

Then we continued south to Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow. This gritty neighbourhood with peeling facades is full of charm and not to mention, steep in history. As an avid fan of history, a trip to Krakow was an opportunity to understand and pay respect to the millions of people who died in the horrific events of World War II, a topic we will write about in another post.

In addition to visiting several historic synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery, be sure to stop by 12 ulica Jozefa, the famous courtyard in which Steven Spielberg filmed his Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List. While you will instantly recognize the famous archway and stairwell, today the courtyard has been converted into a restaurant and pub. Kazimierz may appear sleepy by day, but by night, it come alive as a hipster/bohemian hangout with atmospheric bars and beer gardens.  If you need a break in between sightseeing, we highly recommend the Beer Gallery on ul. Warszauera, which serves over 100 beers including local beers on tap, La Trappe, and Kozel.

When we travel, we always make an effort to sample local cuisines. Polish food is homey, simple, and very hearty. The food scene varies from cheap milk bars (Bar Mleczny), a Polish institution dating back from the Communist government in efforts to encourage milk consumption, to high-end Michelin rated restaurants. We had an enjoyable dinner of traditional Polish food at Chlopskie Jadio, a village-themed restaurant on ul. Jana 3 in Old Town. They serve a complimentary lard with a basket of bread, which we tried but didn’t like, but the adjacent table filled with Polish businessmen devoured their little pots of lard. We ordered Polish classics: beetroot soup, pierogi (Polish dumplings) and Bigos (Polish stew), all washed down with local draft beer.  The pierogis were a bit on the doughy side for my liking, but nonetheless delicious, and the stew was hearty and packed with flavours of Eastern Europe’s favourite spice: paprika. 

On another evening in Krakow, we were on a mission to find the best kielbasa in town. A bit a research and a short walk from the Old Town later, we found ourselves queuing behind a line of loyal followers at the legendary blue van parked outside of Hala Targowa. This place is run by two elder gentlemen who make their own kielbasa and is open 6 days a week from 8pm to 3am. Grilled to perfection over a makeshift open flame pit, the footlong kielbasa is served with a crusty bun and a splash of mustard and ketchup. This is by far the best sausage we have ever tasted. It puts Top Dog in Berkeley to shame. And at £1.55 each, I almost ordered a second helping, but refrained in favour of another popular street food: zapiekanka (Polish pizzas), a toasted open-faced baguette sandwich topped with a variety of toppings. The best zapiekanka stands are located in Plac Nowy in Kazimierz.

With Slovakia just 106 km away and with an opportunity to put yet another country under our belt, we decided to take drive to the High Tatras mountains for the day. Straddled between Poland and Slovakia, the High Tatras offers some amazing mountain scenery -- protruding peaks, lakes, valleys and waterfalls.

At Stary Smokovec, a little resort town in Slovakia, we went for a short 2 hour hike to the Cold Stream Waterfall. I was a bit alarmed initially as I was hiking through huge patches of barren land, but I later discovered it was the result of a massive windstorm in 2004 that uprooted a significant portion of the forest. It will take years if not decades for full recovery. The High Tatras is every hiker’s dream – lovely pine-clad mountains, fresh air, and small crowds. 

On our way back to Krakow, we stopped off in Zakopane, a busy resort town on the Polish border, for a very late alfresco lunch. The drive back to Krakow was pleasant – the sun was starting to set behind the High Tatras. It was the perfect way to end our time in Poland. 

Next: Day Trip to Auschwitz

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Historic York

Continuing on our series of day trips from London, last Saturday Keenan and I went up to the historic city of York compliments of our friend Reed. Last year, on the last leg of his eight-week post-bar European trip, Reed's 4.5 hr train ride from London to Edinburgh turned into a 10 hr nightmare. To compensate for the inconvenience, East Coast Rails offered him a refund voucher, but since he is San Francisco eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child in December, he generously gave the vouchers to us. Thanks Reed!

York is an easy 2 hour train ride from London on the super fast train, although train fares can be quite expensive so do keep an eye out for special discounts on East Coast Rails. It is a charming walled city filled with history dating back to the Roman period. Originally founded in 71 AD as a Roman fort called Eboracum, it then became Saxon Eofowic, the capital of Northumbria, and later a thriving Viking settlement known as Jorvik before the Norman Conquest when the town became known by its present name, York. 

We instantly fell in love with York and highly recommend this historic town as a day trip or better yet, an overnight trip combined with a visit to Harrogate. We started the day walking along the 800 year old preserved medieval walls which led us to the bank of River Ouse, Skeldergate Bridge, and Clifford's Tower, the proud symbol of power of England's medieval kings. A short climb to Clifford's Tower affords you with amazing panoramic views of York and the surrounding areas. Nearby is the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre for those seeking a dose of Victorian history and Viking history, respectively.


By mid-afternoon, it started pouring and the smell emanating from the annual York Food and Drink Festival was making us hungry -  it was time to eat. We had an excellent lunch at J. Baker Bistro Moderne on Fossgate Street; the food focused on modern British cooking using fresh local ingredients in a stylish setting. We ordered the three-course Grazing Menu for £12. The first course was a puree white bean and mushroom soup with a dash of Spanish olive oil, followed by the fish and chip on a bed of mint mushy peas, and for the last dish, a savory miniature Cornish pastry garnished with beetroot, pickled onion, and mushroom. Not only was each dish delicious and beautifully presented, but I also was very impressed by the attentive staff who took care in explaining each dish to us. Very well deserving of its accolade as one of 2010 UK Top 50 restaurants outside London.

The rain finally subsided, leaving us with perfect blue skies for the rest of the afternoon. We then strolled around the narrow alleyways called snickelways filled with small sweet shops and "haunted" pubs. You can easily pass the time window-shopping in York as the main drag, Swinegate, has a nice commercial mix of high street brands, boutiques, bookstores, tea rooms.

Next we visited the impressive York Minister. Instead of paying the £9 admission fee (a bargain compared to Westminster Abbey's fee of £16), we attended the 45 minute Evensong service at 5:15 PM. York Minister is largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, much larger and grander than its southern cousin in Canterbury. Be sure to walk around the exterior structure of the church to appreciate just how massive York Minister is. In front of the cathedral is a statue of Constantine the Great, who was hailed as the first Christian Emperor in York in AD 306. 

We couldn't leave York without a visit to Betty's Tea Room, a Yorkshire institution dating back to 1919, to indulge in sugary sweetness. Set in a beautiful old-fashioned Art Nouveau building on St. Helen Square, Betty's makes for a lovely break in between sightseeing and shopping in historic York. We ordered a light meal and huge brown bread sundae before taking the evening train back to London.

Another lovely day trip from London; more of these day trips to come in the next few weeks.  My only regret was not being able to sample some tasty Yorkshire pudding, the famous savory flour-based bread served with the quintessential British beef roast. Next time...

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stratford upon Avon: Birthplace of Shakespeare

Having recently attended the critically acclaimed show of Richard III at the Old Vic Theatre featuring Kevin Spacey, we thought it would be most appropriate to pay homage to the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Just over 2 hours on the train from Marylebone station, Stratford-upon-Avon makes for an excellent day trip from London. Quaint little Stratford boasts some elegant Tudor and Elizabethan
buildings along the High Street and a picturesque riverside filled with local pubs and restaurants. A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon affords you the opportunity not only to visit Shakespeare's childhood home and his final resting place, but also the historic homes of most, if not all of his family members.
Start your walking tour at Shakespeare's Birthplace on Henley Street, where the Great Bard was born on 23 April 1564. You can purchase a special combination ticket for £12 which gives you access to all three Shakepeare sites in Stratford, but not Anne Hathaway Cottage or Mary Arden's House. The original half-timbered house was divided into two parts, allowing Shakespeare's father, a successful glover, to operate his business from the family home. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26 year old Anne Hathaway when she was 3 months pregnant and together, they had a daughter, Susanna, and twin son and daughter, Hamnet and Judith. For an extra fee, you can also visit Anne's childhood thatched cottage about a mile away.
Continuing on the walking tour, next visit New Place on Chaple Street, the final residence of the Great Bard until this death. Whilst the house no later exist, you can visit the garden of New Place and the Nash House owned by his granddaughter's husband. Next stop by the Hall's Croft, a lovely Tudor home once occupied by his daughter, Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall, before visiting Shakespeare's resting place at the nearby Holy Trinity Church where he died on his birthday in 1616.
 Shakespeare's literary work requires no introduction as most of us read the brilliant work of the Great Bard in high school English or saw one of his famous plays. A trip to Stratford-upon-Avon would not be complete without watching a theatrical show at the famous Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which reopened in November 2010 after three years of renovation. Since we have tickets to see The Tempest starring Ralph Fiennes next month, we were in the mood for something besides Shakespeare. Luckily for us Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was being performed by the RSC during our visit so we made sure to book ourselves in for a matinee show.
Unsettling and tense, the storyline is meant to conjure negative emotions from within, and for this reason the execution by the cast was impeccable and the audience was left feeling confused, awkward, and disturbed exactly as they were meant to. Typical of a play in the tradition of the “theatre of the absurd”, the storyline explored through intense symbolism and subtle artistic expression, elements of sexism, class divide, alienation, and the thin line between stagnation and impermanence.
The use of the color red in both stage design and in lighting throughout was effective in driving home overarching themes of anger, jealousy, shame, and hatred acted out by the characters on stage. Well worth the two hour and twenty minute running time, The Homecoming is Samuel Becket meets Mad Men meets David Lynch and is, much like many of its contemporary existentialist dramas, a literary work to be appreciated for its critique on gender, family and class issues.

Another fantastic day trip from London for the opportunity to pay homage to the most prolific and famous playwright in literary history and a nod to the Nobel Prize Winner, the late Harold Pinter.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hong Kong - Live in London!

Hong Kong offers visitors the opportunity to experience a unique fusion of cultures where east meets west; a vibrant place where the modern blends seamlessly with tradition, therein creating a global city which is dynamic and cosmopolitan. Sublime aromas emanate from the streets, thousands hailing from all corners of the globe whirl around you, gleaming modern skyscrapers are juxtaposed against traditional, cramped Chinese alleyways and designer retail shops selling haute couture are setting the trends while a vast variety of restaurants are busy vying for prestigious Michelin stars.  These rewards and thrills await you in Asia’s World City.

The last time I stepped foot in this bustling city was to visit my older sister in 2008. Since then I have always wanted to return to my favorite Asian destination, but between work commitments and a hectic travel schedule, I haven’t found the time to travel back to Hong Kong. Lucky for me, I don’t have to go very far to experience Hong Kong. Instead, I can experience the best of Hong Kong at my doorstep right here in London.
Last week the UK Hong Kong Tourism Board invited me to a treasure hunt to promote the upcoming street festival “Hong Kong – Live in London”, a celebration of Hong Kong’s vibrant culture.  Our objective was to use the clues provided to us to uncover Hong Kong’s intimate ties and long history with London.
The first clue took us to landmark hotels such as The Langham, where the hotel’s signature fragrance - a lovely fresh ginger flower scent – greeted us along with the concierge staff who presented us with pink roses, the signature colour of the luxury hospitality group who also maintain several properties in Hong Kong.  Continuing on to the iconic Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, we were escorted through the exquisite hotel lobby to the much applauded China Tang Restaurant.  Hong Kong-born Sir David Tang, the force behind China Club and lifestyle brand Shanghai Tang, designed this gorgeous restaurant with strong influences of 1930s Shanghai, serving up authentic Cantonese food, indeed the perfect blend and ultimate example of how east and west are combined to give birth to the epitome of Hong Kong style.
The next clue brought us to South Molton Street, which will stage  “Hong Kong – Live in London”, the week-long street festival running from the 12 - 18 September 2011.  To celebrate the upcoming Year of the Dragon in 2012, an auspicious year in the lunar calendar in which the dragon symbolizes prosperity and energy, itself encapsulating the spirit of Hong Kong, the UK Hong Kong Tourism Board will be displaying the Molton Street Dragons installation.  A collection of five interactive dragons aptly named Cosmopolitan, Fusion, Variety, Trends, and Vibrancy will give visitors a flavour of the different elements that make Hong Kong the most exciting and exotic metropolis in Asia. 
A center of excellence for style and gastronomy, eating and shopping are two major activities to keep visitors and locals alike entertained.  It is no surprise that Hong Kong is a culinary heaven for the food lover. Brimming with over 30,000 restaurants, ranging from small dumpling shops to Michelin-starred restaurants, Hong Kong offers every imaginable cuisine, from regional Chinese, Thai, and Brazilian to Japanese, Lebanese, French, and even Mexican.  A visit to Hong Kong will no doubt be a feast for the senses, and the ultimate gratification to satisfy any appetite.
As guests of the UK Hong Kong Tourism Board, we were in for a treat. Executive Chef Tsang Chiu King of the two-star Michelin restaurant Ming Court at Langham Place, Hong Kong flew in to promote the Best of Hong Kong through its culinary legacy.  We sampled several signature dishes of Ming Court, including the Deep-Fried Shrimp Toast, a Crispy Sole Filet with Yuzu Honey, and the award-winning Chicken Black Truffle with Pumpkin. These dishes truly embody the fusion cooking of east and west, combining traditional Cantonese cooking techniques with European ingredients.  The pan-fried minced chicken meat cooked on the traditional wok was perfectly seasoned and coated with a luscious layer of black truffle, then infused with the aroma of deep-fried shallots and accompanied by a slice of pan-fried pumpkin.  This is a well executed dish that pairs amazingly well with a crispy white wine.  Teaming up with Head Chef Alan Marchetti, you will have an opportunity to taste Chef Tsang’s culinary creation at the Mews of Mayfair on Lancashire Court from the 12 - 25 September through their special, jointly created Asian-influenced menu.
Hong Kong is world renowned for its trend-setting creative industry; from film-makers such as  Director Wong Kar Wai, actors Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung, and the haute couture through the creative work of fashion designers Vivienne Tam and Lu Lu Cheng. Much like the role of its cousin, London, it is no surprise that Hong Kong is a major fashion centre of Asia.  Visitors to Hong Kong can indulge in some serious retail therapy, another local favorite past time.  You will find a range of everything you can imagine, from international designer brands in upmarket Tsim Sha Tsui or in Central, to stylish boutiques and retail shops in Causeway Bay, to street markets in Yau Ma Tei such as the famous Ladies’ Market and the Temple Street Night Market for affordable fashion accessories, knock-off handbags, and everything in between including electronic goods, jewelry, and antiques.
Speaking of shopping, the treasure hunt then took us to Beatrix Ong’s flagship store on the Burlington Arcades in Mayfair.  Known for her “creative twist on the classic” shoes, Hong Kong-transplant Ong has earned her stripes as one of London’s rising fashion designers, receiving her MBE honor this year for her service to the fashion industry. 
The last clue took us to the beautiful rooftop bar Aqua Spirit on Arygll Street for evening cocktails. The design is modern sleek with a touch of Asian accents adorning the walls.  The connection?  It also has a sister branch in Hong Kong, which occupies the 30th floor of a high-rise office building in Tsim Sha Tsui.  With incredible views of the city, Aqua Spirit Hong Kong has all the “wow” factor and is the place to be seen with a killer cocktail. 
Between eating, shopping, and wandering among the alleys and streets beneath the towering buildings, be certain to immerse yourself in Hong Kong’s rich Chinese cultural heritage.  For the most amazing sights of the city’s iconic skyline, take the famous Star Ferry across the Victoria Harbour or ride the peak tram to Victoria Peak for fantastic views of Hong Kong Island. Make it a point to mingle with the locals and expats at the London-inspired pubs of Lan Kwai Fong, roam the escalators and browse the cafes that adorn SoHo, and of course visit the world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha on Lantau Island for a moment of calm and serenity before getting back to it all again.

Can’t get to Hong Kong in the near future?  Head over to South Molton Street for the "Hong Kong – Live in London" Festival from the 12 - 18 September 2011 to sample the Best of Hong Kong and enter for a chance to win a trip to Hong Kong, Asia’s World City.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Last week a friend of mine asked me to Proms. Prom? As in a high school prom? But didn’t you graduate from high school some ten years ago? Yes, I did and no, not that kind of prom. Unlike the North American tradition, where “prom” refers to the end-of-the-year formal dance of high school seniors, “Proms” here is best known as The BBC Proms, a eight-week summer classical music festival.

Each year the BBC Proms takes place at the beautiful Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. This iconic building was completed in 1871 in memory of Prince Albert, which drew much of its architectural inspiration from the ancient Roman amphitheatres. It is a stunning rotunda building complete with comfortable red velvet seats and lines of fiberglass acoustic discs lit blue hanging from the ceiling to diffuse the acoustical problems resulting from the glass dome. The term “prom” is short for promenade concerts, but today promming refers to the use of standing areas in the Royal Albert Hall where concert-goers (or prommers) can purchase discounted day of tickets for a mere £5. This is my third summer in London, and yet, I have never attended Proms until this past Tuesday evening. 
My German-born friend selected Tuesday night’s performance as nod to one of the most illustrious contemporary German composers, Gustav Mahler. Tuesday night featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Manfred Honeck as the Conductor and German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The concert started with Prelude to Wagner’s ethereal sixth opera, Lohengrin; followed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant, a rather difficult piece to listen to due to the long stretches on violin. Closing the evening was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony No. 5, a 73 minute piece of work in five movements. It started with high drama of a funeral march and ended with a beautiful piece Adagietto, written for his beloved wife Alma. The packed audience gave a rousing applause at the conclusion of the evening, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was more than delighted to play two encores for the audience. 

This annual summer concert series is not to be missed by any classical music lover. It was a lovely evening catching up with my friend and exchanging travel stories about our respective trips to San Francisco. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

International Friendly: Brazil vs. Ghana

Last night Keenan and I went to our very first football game in London (that would be soccer for all you Americans) with our group of Brazilian friends to watch an International Friendly between Brazil and Ghana. 

Donning the Brazilian colours of blue, green, and yellow, we made our way to Craven Cottage (home of Fulham F.C.) located on the banks of the River Thames in borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. The stadium was surprisingly simple with old wooden seats and very small with a capacity of just over 25,000. We didn’t mind as the intimate atmosphere gave the spectators good views of the pitch even from the “nose bleeder” seats.

Keenan and I arrived early to watch the Brazilian national team warm up. A stone’s throw away was Flamengo-star player Ronaldinho stretching his hamstrings, while Santos’ Neymar was passing the ball around to fellow countrymen Lucio, and Lucas was found dribbling the ball along the sidelines. On the other side of the pitch was Ghana, the team that knocked Team USA out of the World Cup last year and was later defeated by Uruguay in a thrilling quarter-final game which ended in missed penalty kick by Asamoah Gyan, who didn’t play in this Friendly due to injuries.
I’m no football expert but my overall impression of the game was it was a bit slow with a few glimpses of thrill including: the goal that was ruled as offside; double yellow card against Ghana’s Daniel Opare within 30 minutes of the game; Neymar’s missed header some 10 yards from the goal; Ronaldinho’s brilliant free kick which was tipped by the hardworking goalkeeper; and of course, the one and only goal scored for the evening by Brazil’s Leonardo Damiao at the 45th minute.   

Brazilians are huge football fanatics and the crowd did not disappoint with the Brazilian supporters chanting “Brasil, Brasil, Brasil!.” The atmosphere was fun and jovial – the audience doing the “wave” around the stadium, bantering with Ghanaian supporters, and samba dancers entertained the crowd at half-time. It was a lot of fun! A hilarious moment was at the conclusion of game when a fan made his way on to the pitch and managed to run the entire length of the field (and back!), dodging security guards along the way as if he was playing American football! Hilarious...


This was a much-needed win for Brazil after a disastrous quarter-final exit in this year’s Copa America, losing to Paraguay in penal shootouts (0-2) and then losing to Germany in another International Friendly in August 2011. We’re happy to share this sweet victory with our favorite Brazilians. Wish we had GuaranĂ¡ Antartica to celebrate…