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Travel Diaries: Beautiful Prague

May 15, 2017 7 comments

For the first time I visited Prague in 1990 (if memory serves me right, of course). I have some scarce memories of that trip – Charles Bridge, Clock Tower, Gothic architecture and a street the food in form of the waffle with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I always wanted to come back and experience Prague once again – and finally opportunity presented as one of my business meetings took me there.

You know how it can be dangerous to rely on the past experiences while setting the expectations? Everything changes – we change, everything around us changes as well – “you can’t enter the same river twice”. And the best moment in any experience is when you say – ahh, it is even better than I expected.

That is my feeling about the Prague. Beautiful city, all covered with the red roofs (somehow, red roofs have a magical effect on me), beautifully colorful buildings, castles and cathedrals everywhere – you derive the pleasure from anywhere you look (well, sadly, once you step a little away from the old town, you see lots of graffiti and simply start dreaming about all the pain which should be inflicted on the people who do that, but this is way outside of the subject of this post).

I’m not going to try to describe my impressions in words – instead, let me inundate you with pictures – lots and lots of pictures of the beautiful town of Prague. And when I say lots and lots, I actually mean it…

Prague Views

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Streets of Prague

Don’t think you will find vine grapes growing in New York’s Central Park, but you do in Prague!

Spring in Prague

Prague Vltava River

Prague Vltava River

Prague Views

 

Prague Views

Prague Views

Prague Views

Red Roofs of Prague

Prague Charles Bridge

Prague Charles Bridge

Prague Charles Bridge

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Streets of Prague - Trdelnik

These two peeing man (the parts of their bodies which attract the most attention are not only releasing the water, but also moving – heard quite a range of comments from the spectators:

Peeing man sculpture at Kafka Museum

Peeing man sculpture kafka Museum

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castles and Cathedrals

Prague Castle Cathedral Fragment

Prague Castles and Cathedrals (1)

The legend has it that St. John of Nepomuk was executed for refusing to give the details of queen’s confession to the king. The St. John is honored with his own statue on the Charles Bridge. The legend also has it that if you will touch two of the fragments on the bottom of the statue, you wish will b granted. However, it seems that the legend might not get it exactly right – take a look at this blog post to learn what exactly do you need to touch:

Let me leave you with the love locks at the Charles Bridge – Prague is a beautiful city which is easy to fall in love with. Cheers!

Love Locks near Charles Bridge in Prague

Pleasures of Drinking Local

May 8, 2017 2 comments

I love travel -seeing the world, different cultures, different people, different traditions, and, of course, different food and drinks. Food is given, as we all have to eat, so one way or the other we get to experience local cuisine. But then what I drink is also very important to me, with the same spirit of exploration.

I love drinking local. And, of course, when I say “drinking”, I primarily mean wine. When travel, I always make an effort to find and try local wines. Unknown and obscure? Perfect – the less I know about the wine, the more pleasure it brings. Drinking local wines doesn’t mean I have to visit the wineries. More often than not, my trips don’t include any spare time and any facilities to reach the wineries. But – in many places, and I would even say, in increasingly more places, you can still find local wine at local shops, as long as you willing to look for it.

Templarsky Sklepy St Laurent

It is, of course, the best when you are visiting places where the wine is part of the culture, like most countries in Europe (sorry, never been to Latin America or Australia, but somehow I think I would do fine there as well). If the wine is a part of the culture and tradition, it almost guarantees you authentic wine experiences – and what is very important – without breaking the bank. In the USA, for instance, the wine is still a part of the fashion and not part of the tradition, thus in USA, finding reasonably priced wines is extremely difficult, and finding locally produced and reasonably priced wines is simply a mission impossible. Wait, I didn’t mean for this post to be a rant, so let me get back on track.

This time around, my travel took me to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. I’m sure for many (most?) of people, as soon as they will hear “Czech Republic”, the very next image of the local drink is  – of course – a beer. This makes perfect sense, as Czechs are internationally known for their beer, same as Germany or Belgium, and rightfully so. But – what most of the people don’t know is that Czechs also had been making wines almost forever – okay, starting from approximately the 2nd century – long enough? Czech wine never made it to the levels of fame of French or Italian wines – but that doesn’t decrease the pleasure of drinking Czech wines in any way.

I discovered Czech wines for myself last year, when I had delicious Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris ( you can read about it here). Thus I had no doubts that Czech wine is something I’m going to look for upon arrival.

The hotel I’m staying at is adjacent to the shopping mall, which includes a supermarket, a wine store and some other food stores, all of them selling wines. And mind you – at the prices which make you smile from ear to ear. So far I got the wines from the supermarket, and you will see the prices I paid in the descriptions of the wines, as usual.

I had an easy criterion for selecting the wines. Price – of course, but there was another important requirement  – new grapes. As you can see the grape count in the right column of my blog page, I continue my grape journey, so I’m always on the lookout for the additions to the list. Of course, it is usually not that easy – the name of the grape in the local language might sound new and unique – but once you do the research, you can easily find out that there is nothing new about that grape. For instance, take a look at Rulandské modré – sounds unique, right? Meanwhile, it is only a local name for Pinot Noir. Or Rulandské šedé – must be something indigenous, right? Nope, it is simply the Pinot Gris.

Obviously, that didn’t stop me. I found two new white grapes, and for the red, the name looked so cool (Svatovavřinecké) that  I had to get it, despite the fact that this was the local name for the St. Laurent grape – well, how often do you drink St. Laurent wines anyway?

I started with the red wine, as whites needed some chilling – and 2015 Templářské Sklepy Svatovavřinecké Morava Czech Republic (11.5% ABV, 119 Kč ~ $5, 100% St. Laurent) didn’t disappoint – light garnet color. Pleasant nose with touch of spices, sage, lavender, tobacco, hint of blueberries. Fresh fruit on the palate, tobacco, pepper, medium body, mouth-watering acidity, light, pleasant. Drinkability: 8-/8, a proof that delicious wine doesn’t have to be a fruit or tannin bomb.

Czech White wines

The whites where new, unique and different. One was made out of the grape called Muškat moravsky, which is a cross between Muscat Ottonel and Prachtraube. The other grape was called Pálava, and it was a cross between Müller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer, first selected in 1953. I’m always a bit concerned with the new white wines (many things can go wrong), but this two were simply a stand out. I guess I was simply lucky. Or may be my palate is cursed. Of well. Here are the notes for the white wines:

2015 Chateau Bzenec Muškat moravsky Morava Czech Republic (11.5% ABV, 119 Kč ~ $5)
Straw pale color. Perfumy nose, reminiscent of Gewurtztraminer but of a lesser intensity, white peaches, lemon undertones, touch of minerality. Delicious on the palate – succulent fresh whitestone fruit with practically no sweetness, ripe green apple and touch of lemon. Clean, balanced, fresh, excellent acidity. Medium-short finish, pleasure to drink. Very impressive. Drinkability: 8/8+

2015 Vinium Velké Pavlovice Pálava Pozdní Sber Morava Czech Republic (12% ABV, 239 Kč ~ $10)
Light golden color. Very pleasant nose, perfumy, touch of honey, tropical fruit (guava, pineapple), medium intensity. Delicious lip smacking palate – crisp acidity, medium to full body, wine is nicely present, mouth coating, acidity keeps lingering with tart apples underpinning, then some ripe apples showing with addition of white plums. Another excellent wine. Unique and different, perfectly enjoyable on its own, but will play very nicely with the food. Drinkability: 8/8+, outstanding.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. When travel, take risk, drink local – your reward will be new experience and lots and lots of pleasure. And if you will not like it – the experience will still be with you. Cheers!

Hudson Valley Escapades

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Clermont WineryLast week I was talking about Fero Vineyards, which was a part of our traditional August getaway in 2015. As I don’t want to wait until 2017 to tell you about our adult’s getaway 2016, let’s talk about it now.

This year we happened to go back to the upstate New York, similar to the trip we took in 2013 when we had an amazing time at the Hudson Distillery. This year, we started our weekend with the lunch at Clermont Vineyards and Winery in Clermont (Germantown), New York.

Clermont Vineyards and Winery was started in 2014 by Tony Trigo, with the vineyards planted about 6 years prior. Before we talk about the wines, we need to talk about breathtaking views you get from the tasting room and surrounding decks. Better yet, let not talk – take a look at these pictures:

View from Clermont winery deck

Vineyards at Clermon winery

View from Clermont Vineyards deckThe winery primarily focuses on a traditional New York varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Seyval Blanc), but as Tony explained to us, last two winters were brutal, with temperatures dropping very low, so he lost about 3/4 of the Chardonnay vines. As the result, he is adding now hybrid varietals such as Aurore and Arandell, which were created specifically to withstand upstate New York winters – particularly Arandell, selected locally at Cornell University, can successfully survive temperatures of -19ºF, which definitely comes in handy. Having Portuguese roots, Claremont Vineyards also imports few of the Portuguese wines we had an opportunity to taste.

Unfortunately, a number of wines at Claremont Vineyards were sold out, so here are the notes for what we were able to try (just for your information, tasting of 5 wines costs $5 per person):

2015 Grambeira White Douro DOC Portugal (blend of Códega do Larinho; Rabigato and Viosinho) – nice, simple, clean, good body and good acidity
2015 Clermont Vineyards Chardonnay Columbia County New York – excellent, good fruit, bright, hint of sweetness
2014 Clermont Vineyards Aurore Columbia County New York – nice, clean, touch of sweetness – a new grape for me!
2014 Clermont Vineyards Arandell Columbia County New York  – Nice touch of sweetness, unusual, strong herbal component. This wine can be polarising, like Norton. The grape itself is selected to sustain cold winters and is also disease resistant – and this is another new grape for the collection
2011 Grambeira Red Douro DOC Portugal (blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, 11 months in oak, 8 months in the bottle) – outstanding, Great density, dark, brooding core of spices.

Grape Leaf with water drops

Grapes in progressAll in all, very nice place with priceless views, so it would worth even a special trip if you’d like. We also had a long and relaxing 2 hours lunch at a big communal table which Tony graciously set up for us (we brought food with us) – if you plan a group outing, Clermont Winery is a great place for it, but make sure to call ahead.

Our next stop was Tousey Winery, about two miles down the road from Clermont Vineyards. We visited the winery back in 2013 and liked many of their wines, so we were definitely excited at the opportunity to taste their new releases. This is where things took a bittersweet turn. We showed up as a large group (16 people), and 8 of us wanted to taste the wines. We were nicely accommodated on the outside porch and were told that the tasting would cost us $5 per person, and we are allowed to taste any 5 wines from the list. The owner was doing the tasting for us, and yes, we asked quite a few questions (which I truly hope should be expected – the conversation with the customers is an integral part of the wine tasting, don’t you think?); I had a feeling that our questions were perceived as annoying (as the owner was not a winemaker – her husband makes wines – some of the questions were probably a bit challenging). One person from our group wanted to taste a few more wines, for which she grudgingly agreed. When the time came to pay, all of a sudden we were told that the tasting was $15 and not $5 anymore, with the reason that we were a group and she had to pour us more than 5 wines (to one person, 3 extra tastings!!). This is not the issue with $15 versus $5, the problem is simply that you can’t treat people like that. When we tried to argue about it, the response was very irritated – as we were all in the vacation mood, nobody wanted to fight over an extra $10, it was easier to pay and just leave.

What the winery owner doesn’t understand that the winery’s tasting room is a hospitality business, and you have to respect your customers – or face the consequences. It is a pity – Tousey makes delicious Chardonnay, very clean, mineral and crisp, Chablis-style; their Pinot Noir is outstanding as well – restrained, smokey, well balanced – but no wines worth the abuse you have to subject yourself to for the pleasure of trying those wines. We will not be back…

Last stop before we went to our Inn was at Hudson Valley Distillers – and what a pleasure it is to talk to the nice and friendly people (see, we humans need so little to be happy). I like how this distillery is describing itself –  “formed by two families sharing a dream“. I like whiskey, thus first thing I wanted to try was their Chancellor’s Imperial Whiskey. I was a bit disappointed to learn that it was produced not from the crushed and fermented barley, but rather by distilling the beer. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Err, the glass, of course.

I like the clever presentation of that malt whiskey, where you get an opportunity to taste the product before and after. To do that, you get a taste of both beer – which is locally produced nearby – and the final malt whiskey, which was excellent – nice touch of sweetness, herbs, soft and round. The Hudson Valley Distillers also produces gin (very tasty), vodka from apples, and plans to start producing their whiskey directly from the malted barley. We also tasted a few of the cocktails which were super delicious and refreshing on a hot summer day. Add here live music (which was, of course, playing right there), and you have a recipe for a perfect summer weekend.

Our next stop was the Inn, and then the dinner – another post is to follow. Cheers!

Wine On The Go: SF Uncork’d

May 15, 2016 2 comments

wine flight at SF Uncork'dMy main line of work (the one which pays the bills) includes good amount of travel, which I don’t mind, as I like traveling. Well, yes, four hours delay, and especially a night of sleep on the airport floor make me reconsider this statement, but still. Different people have different approach to the travel logistics, of course. One of the sales people I worked with before would always say – “ahh, we still have an hour and a half before the flight, let’s go have dinner, I know a great place” – granted, it was in pre-9/11 days, but I believe this “style” is still used by many. I, on another hand, prefer to wait at the airport for another hour as opposed to biting nails in the standstill traffic.

Last week, coming back from San Francisco, I did exactly that – arrived to the airport with solid few hours to spare. Which translates into an opportunity to have a glass of wine – assuming, you can a place for that. Wondering through United gates section of Terminal 3, I noticed the place called SF Uncork’d. I’ve been through the same section of the airport many times before but never saw the restaurant – I believe it was simply a store selling California wine – at the airport prices, so I was never a big fan. Now, this was a restaurant sporting wine everywhere, so I had to wander in.

First glance at the menu made me pretty happy – not only were many wines listed by the glass (reasonably priced), but SF Uncork’d also offered a good number of wine flights at very reasonable prices ($10-$12), each flight consisting of 3 wines. In my typical snobbish fashion, I’ve chosen most expensive ($25) flight called Fab Cabs and consisting of Stuhlmuller, Jordan and Nickel & Nickel Tench – well, I think $25 is a reasonable price for an opportunity to taste 3 of California classics.

Care to guess which one was my favorite? Let me give you my brief tasting notes, and you will figure it out.

Generally, Jordan is one of my favorite California Cabernets. This 2012 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley had nice aroma of the fresh blackberries and mint, however on the palate it was rather hot. It had some fruit, but nothing of the signature clean Jordan style. The wine was dispensed from the preservation system (you can see it below), so I can’t tell if the issue was simply the temperature or there was something wrong with the dispenser, but the wine was definitely not what I expected.

Wine Preservation system at SF Uncork'd

Next I had 2013 Stuhlmuller Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley, which had somewhat of a closed nose with a hint of red fruit, but on the palate this wine was singing – black currant, eucalyptus, good acidity – delicious Cabernet Sauvignon by all means. Last wine was 2013 Nickel & Nickel Tench Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley – and it was mostly closed both on the nose and the palate. I probably would be able to give you some nuances, but the big picture was simple – the wine was not ready to drink by all means – at least this is what I think, as I never had aged Nickel & Nickel. I don’t know if you guessed correctly, but as you can tell now, Stuhlmuller was my favorite wine. An interesting ‘sidebar” note – Stuhlmuller retails for about half of Jordan, and Nickel & Nickel is 1.5 to 2 times more expensive than Jordan. Yep, go figure…

Of course SF Uncork’d is not only about the wine – food menu looks good too. I settled on the salad and sandwich. For the salad I had Raspberry Walnut Salad (Spring Mix & Butter lettuce, fresh tomatoes, candied walnuts, crumbled Gorgonzola, fresh raspberries & a side of low fat raspberry vinaigrette) – served very nicely with fresh raspberries and raspberry vinaigrette on a side in a little jar – salad was fresh and tasty.

Yes, of course you will be paying airport prices, which means at least 30% higher than at the average retail store, but – everything has the silver lining – SF Uncork’d wine prices are still significantly less compare to Duty Free stores.

If travel will take you to the Terminal 3 in San Francisco, now you know where to get a good glass of wine, good food and good service, so Happy Travels. Cheers!

SF Uncork’d
San Francisco International Airport
Terminal 3 Next to Gate 83 (Post-Security)
San Francisco, CA 94128
Ph: (650) 821-8975
http://sfuncorkd.com/

SF Uncork'd Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

While The Snow Was Falling on East Coast…

January 24, 2016 25 comments

I heard about snow storm targeting East Coast of the USA on Wednesday. As I was at the meetings in San Diego, my first thought was “I have to make it back home to Connecticut”. Originally, I was supposed to take the red eye flight on Friday, come home for a day, and then leave for the conference in Florida on Sunday. I called travel agent right away, and moved my flight back to Newark to the middle of the day on Friday, and Florida flight to Monday morning – and felt pretty comfortable that I dealt well with upcoming storm.

Only on Friday, when I was practically ready to start moving to the airport, I got a message on my phone any air traveler is dreading the most: “your flight had been cancelled”… The thought of my family dealing with the snow on their own was practically unbearable. After talking to the travel agent, the truth settled in – I will not be able to make it home for the weekend, no matter how hard I will try. And yes, I will simply have to go directly to Florida without stopping in New York – no other options.

Coming out of the stupor, I realized – I have very close friends living close by in Irvine, which is about hour and half from San Diego – visiting them for the weekend would be a lot better than sitting by myself at the hotel – so Irvine it was.

My wife kept me updated on the snow situation back at home – this is what they will have to deal with today, and even for a while:

snow storm 2016,

My day looked quite different – I discovered a Farmer’s Market in California. In the United States, there are two primary sources of fresh fruit and produce all year around – California and Florida, this was of course known to me. And farmer’s market is something which is not difficult to find in Connecticut, where I live – but only during the summer, mostly offering vegetables and a bit of fruit, and somehow always inciting me to challenge the authenticity of the actual “local farm” origin of that produce, seeing it sold from the pretty big trucks.

Thus farmer’s market we visited in Laguna Beach in California on Saturday in January was absolutely mind boggling experience for me as a foodie. All the citrus fruit you can imagine – grapefruit red and white, oranges, blood oranges, mandarins, Satsuma mandarins – to be honest, I don’t think I ever tasted a grapefruit which was as sweet and delicious as the one I tasted at this farmer’s market. Then you got strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, pears – lots of them. Everything tastes fresh, delicious and almost unreal for someone from the east coast. All sorts of vegetables, of course, almonds with lots of different preparations, walnuts, dried fruit – I can go on and on – I’m sure you can tell that I can hardly contain my excitement. So here is simply an extravaganza of colors for you, in the form of the pictures – unfortunately, blogs can’t convey taste and smell – not yet, at least:

Oranges

Oranges

Satsuma mandarins

Lots of beets of all colors

strawberries - I wish you could smell them

Beets

oranges

Radishes!

California Avocado

radishes?

Honey!

And then of course there were flowers:

Also, you never know then the Universe might strike back, so someone always have to be ready:

Galactic Patrol Car

Spotted on the street in Laguna Beach – couldn’t resist to include this

If you are on the East Coast, I hope your digging out was successful and not super-tiring, so you can now relax with the glass of wine or whatever your heart’s desires. I’m off to continue flying. Cheers!

China Travel Tidbits

November 23, 2015 7 comments

In the previous post, I shared my food and wine experiences in China. In this post, I want to inundate you with pictures, and also share a bit of the first-hand advice. I had certain level of expectations, but those were no match to the actual experiences, hence the post.

One important disclaimer is that while I was traveling on business, I was all on my own, without any arrangements made, outside of having a visa and having the hotel room reservation. I had company for most of the business activities, but overall coming in and out, and moving around for the sightseeing was all by myself. Another important “disclaimer” – I only visited Beijing – your experience in the other cities might be quite different, so keep that in mind.

While in the taxi on the way from airport, I took a pictures of my last “sun sighting” for the week in Beijing

I will not be trying to recount the daily activities, as this would be boring and long, but instead, here are my main takeaways regarding travel to China.

Language barrier: yes, I expected it, but it was much more than I expected. Absolute majority of the people don’t speak or understand English (duh). That includes taxi drivers. Yes, there are signs in English, but it doesn’t help you if your taxi driver doesn’t understand a word of what you are saying. Even in hotels, lots of service personnel don’t speak English. The places which offer welcome relief? Anywhere someone wants to sell you something – from Pearl Market to the little street shops by the Great Wall, all sellers are very proficient with “how much” and “tell me your price”.

What exacerbates the language problem is the sheer size (huge!) of the city and everything in it. Let me explain with the simplest, but probably the most critical for any visitor, example – hotels. New York City has around 470 hotels. Seoul has roughly 430 hotels. Beijing has more than 5,500 hotels. 5,500! Do you think any of the taxi drivers had any idea where Sheraton Great Wall is located? No, they didn’t! Even when you have a special card from the hotel where the address is written in Chinese, and the driver speaks decent English – all I got was a smile and “I don’t know where it is”. Keep that in mind. If you have to, have hotel’s number on a speed dial – the taxi driver at the airport called hotel to find out where to go (works at the airport, doesn’t work that well on the street).

Beijing Sheraton Great Wall (1)

Sheraton Great wall was built about 30 years ago and was one of the very first hotels where foreigners were allowed to stay

Beijing in the morning

A typical morning view from my hotel room

Subway is your friend. I can’t give enough praise to the Beijing subway. Not only it is clean, spacious and all the trains are brand spanking new, but all the signs are bi-lingual. As long as you know where do you need to go, you can buy a ticket from the machine, which can be easily switched into all English prompts with one button. All the fares are distance based, with I think 5 yuan been the most within most areas in Beijing, so it is very inexpensive. Not that the taxi cost a lot – the taxi fares in Beijing are only distance based, independent from the time – which is vital considering insurmountable traffic in Beijing at any time (for sure during the day). The starting fare in taxi is 13 yuan, and you can drive quite a distance before the meter will advance – but then you might be able to walk faster…

Pearl Market in Beijing

Pearl Market in Beijing

Bargaining. Just a little note here, as I really don’t enjoy the process, but bargaining is unavoidable if you want to buy anything on the street or at any of the tourist-focused shops (which are lots). Two small examples. When visiting pearl market (went there with friends), I didn’t need pearls, but wanted to buy two small key chains. I found some little wooden key chains, and lady asked me for 230 yuan (about $40 for two tiny pieces of wood!). I said “20”, and simply started to walk away. The lady screamed at me to come back, and with the face expression showing that I just offended her beyond belief, asked me to give her the money. So I bought 2 key chains for about $3 each, which I think is a fair price (instead of $20 as requested originally). Thus I recommend that 10% is what you need to start from if you want to buy something from the street vendors. One more example – I was looking at the small pendant with the one single pearl in it. The lady asked the same 230 yuan for it (must be the day, huh). Native speaking colleague standing next to me, quickly found exact same pendant for 19 yuan on Ali-Baba – it is all made in China after all, right?

One of the countless ultra modern shopping centers in Beijing

One of the countless ultra modern shopping centers in Beijing

I’m almost ready to talk about sightseeing I was able to do in Beijing, but before we get there, one more important note – a bit out of place, as it concerns my experience at the airport, but I want to mention it as it might save you some aggravation. It appears the Chinese security at the airport has particular admiration for the power charging sticks, a portable batteries in any forms. They request you to take it out of your carry on and put it through the X-ray machine. What they are actually looking for is the capacity (1 Ah, 2.8 Ah, 3.7 Ah, anything of this kind) written on the battery pack. My battery stick, which saved me countless number of times for the last year, didn’t have the capacity written on it, as I got it at one of the conferences as a present, and therefore, it was confiscated. I tried to argue, but you know how much you can argue with airport security, especially in China… Therefore, if you plan to travel to China, check that your power stick has the capacity written on it, to avoid any unpleasant experiences (those little things get you…).

Now, it is the time for a barrage of pictures (almost). I was able to visit Great Wall and Forbidden City, which are probably what any tourist would want to see. There are few locations to get on top of the Great Wall – I chose the place called Mutianyu, which is about 1.5 hours away from Beijing, and it is less crowded than the others. Take a look at the pictures below – while it was extremely foggy, the experience was still magnificent. If you will go there, make sure you would wear something very comfortable, both shoes and clothes – going up and down on the little stairs is quite a strenuous workout.

The Forbidden City, which is located right in the center of Beijing and is the largest wooden structure of this kind in the world, is interesting to see, but I would honestly say that it is not a “must see” type. Colorful, yes, but in the end of the day, it is just a bunch of buildings… Anyway, the rest of my China travel expressions are below in the form of the pictures – I also will include comments where possible. By the way, there is a mini-quiz there – scroll through slowly, so you will see the quiz and the answer should be somewhere there as well. Cheers!

The entrance to the Mutianyu Great Wall complex

The entrance to the Mutianyu Great Wall complex

After you take a ride on the shuttle bus, this is your way up to the cable car

After you take a ride on the shuttle bus, this is your way up to the cable car

Up on the cable car

Up on the cable car

Yep, you are finally there

Yep, you are finally there

The actual entrance to the very top

The actual entrance to the very top

Up and down the Great wall - take a look at the tiny height of the steps - but make sure you pay attention while walking, or else

Up and down the Great wall – take a look at the tiny height of the steps – but make sure you pay attention while walking, or else

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Magnificent...

Magnificent…

more of the magnificent views, even in the fog...

more of the magnificent views, even in the fog…

Probably the best shot of the Great Wall I could take

Probably the best shot of the Great Wall I could take

One of the Guard towers

One of the Guard towers

Into the fog...

Into the fog…

The defence view

The defence view

Yep, still on the wall

Yep, still on the wall

Toboggan - the best way down

Toboggan – the best way down. You can also see the ski lift which you can take to get up instead of the Cable Car.

And now, The Forbidden City:

Walk towards the entrance to the Forbidden City

Walk towards the entrance to the Forbidden City

The side wall of the Forbidden City. Love the perspective...

The side wall of the Forbidden City. Love the perspective…

and one more view of the side wall - Forbidden City

and one more view of the side wall – Forbidden City

Forbidden City - just the beginning. I wish you could see how many people carry selfies sticks...

Forbidden City – just the beginning. I wish you could see how many people carry selfies sticks…

From here on - the fragments of beautiful timeless architecture.

From here on – the fragments of beautiful timeless architecture.

Beijing Forbidden City (12) Beijing Forbidden City (14) Beijing Forbidden City (17)

Here is your Quiz - what this urn is for?

Here is your Quiz – what this urn is for?

Beijing Forbidden City (4) Beijing Forbidden City (3) Beijing Forbidden City (2)

Beijing Forbidden City (6)

Beijing Forbidden City (13)

Beijing Forbidden City (11)

Beijing Forbidden City (10)

Beijing Forbidden City (9)

Beijing Forbidden City (8)

Beijing Forbidden City (7)

Beijing Forbidden City (5)

Beijing Forbidden City (1)

Here is your an answer - it is a fire extinguisher...

Here is the answer to the quiz – the urn was a fire extinguisher…

And the sun shined above Forbidden City by the time I was leaving

And the sun shined (okay, as much as it is possible in Beijing) above the Forbidden City by the time I was leaving

Not that this is anything special, but here is the China Airline birdy which took me to Seoul…

Bye bye China

Bye bye China

China Food and Wine Experiences

November 18, 2015 20 comments

For the first time ever, my business took me to China. Not only China, but it was also my first visit to Asia, so definitely a new experience. Of course I read and heard many China food-related stories from people, but as we all know, there is a big difference between the two – “virtual” and “real-life” experiences are vastly different, especially when it comes to something which you put into your mouth.

During the week in Beijing, I had an opportunity to try many different dishes and visit a number of restaurants. One challenge is that for the most of the restaurants I visited, I don’t have their English names or addresses, so what I will share with you will be mostly a collection of impressions, primarily in the pictures, without much useful references for you in case you will be visiting China any time soon. But I hope at least you will get an idea for what to expect, especially if you grew up on mostly European food. I also plan another post which will be just about the “tourist” experiences, for things outside of the food per se.

First restaurant I visited was a “Noodle House” type if I’m not mistaken, and it was located right around the corner from the Sheraton Great Wall hotel where I was staying.

The main dish at Noodle House was of course, the noodles, but before we got to them we also had lots of appetizers. Pork belly with roasted garlic and Quail eggs was particularly tasty, and it became only better with time, as it had its own heat and garlic continued cooking. Noodles were good, but hard to finish after all the food prior. Chicken with peanuts (as opposed to traditional cashew nuts in US) were also very tasty.

Now, I have to mention the first one experience (well, the actual “first” was undrinkable wine at the reception, but that we will skip). When I poured myself a glass of Chinese Chardonnay (at a happy hour), I had no expectations – just curiosity. First sip, and  – wow – not bad at all! 1421 Gold Chardonnay Xinjiang China had a characteristic nose of Chardonnay, with touch of vanilla. The palate had touch of golden apples, vanilla, good acidity – overall, very enjoyable. I like the brand’s description on the 1421 web site: “1421….the year Admiral Zheng He, leading one of the largest fleets ever seen, sailed to many, many parts of the world. Wine much like travel, has served as a link between different cultures, people and countries. Today at the beginning of the 21st century, 1421 follows the same mission as Admiral Zheng He, sharing his spirit for a better world.” – the Chardonnay I had was definitely the wine worth sharing.

My next experience was a first encounter with the traditional Peking Duck, a whole duck seasoned and roasted in the special oven, with its crispy skin been the most sought-after delicacy. The place we went to, Dadong Roasted Duck Restaurant, defines itself as an Artistic Concept Food, and it does it – “Artistic Concept” – very successfully – in ambiance, food presentation, service – all the elements are there, definitely a world-class restaurant.

Of course my encounter with the restaurant started from the wine list, which was something to look at. The list was very substantial, with the wide range of offerings, adequately priced for the “concept restaurant”. I don’t remember which exact Bordeaux wine was that, but it was priced at a measly ¥28,000 (the ¥ symbol depicts Chinese Yuan, often also called RMB), which would translate into roughly $4,800. You could also have Penfolds Grange for only ¥7,200, which would be roughly $1,200 – which is almost reasonable (hope it was not a young vintage).

So after hopelessly scanning the wine list for a few minutes, I finally discovered what I was looking for – a small section of Chinese wines. Luckily, I already was given the name of one of the best wines in China (according to the local sources, of course) – the wine called Changyu, and there it was on the list. There was no vintage listed, but there were three wines offered with different “age” – 1, 3 and 5 years. I’m not sure what it means, but one year old looked as good to me as all others, and at ¥196 ($33) I felt very comfortable with my choice, whether the wine would be good or bad.

Turns out that Changyu was the oldest commercial winery in China, started in 1892, then of course significantly destroyed in 1949 and now getting back to their roots. The only thing I was able to figure out from the label was that the wine was made out of the grape called Cabernet Gernischt, which, according to the article by Jancis Robinson, is actually a Carmenere. I couldn’t figure out the vintage or any other details, but I can tell you that this Changyu Red Wine Blend Ningxia, China was simply outstanding –  delicious nose of black currant with touch of mint, and perfectly balanced body of the classic Bordeaux blend which is ready to drink – nothing green, just cassis, eucalyptus, firm, good structure, welcoming pinch of tannins, good acidity and perfect balance. I got 2 bottles of Changyu at duty free, so probably there will be another post on the subject.

While I was working through the wine list, my host was navigating through much bigger book – here is the look of the menu at Dadong restaurant:

I can only say “kudos to my host” for been able to select anything from the book of that size – I would probably spend half a day flipping through the pages. Anyway, we started our dinner with a couple of exotic appetizers. Both were vegetables, one had sweet sauce and was crunchy, may be some sort of squash, but cooked very lightly? The second one was somewhat reminiscent of pickled mushrooms in texture, but didn’t have pickled taste. Both of course had a beautiful presentation. Then the duck arrived, was quickly presented to us (yes, I forgot to take a picture) and then it was sliced table-side. The only part which made it to the table was duck breast, with maximum skin exposure, as this is the most prized part. I was explained that proper way to eat duck is to take the top part which is mostly skin, dip in the sweet crunchy beans (more reminiscent of a sugar), then sweet soy-based sauce, and then put it in your mouth, where it literally melts – it seriously disappears without much chewing effort. The second way is to take a paper-thin pancake, and assemble a tiny taco if you will, by combining few slices of duck with thinly sliced vegetables and addition of the sauce – and this is how it is mostly consumed.

Once we were done with the main course, first the branch with tiny mandarins appeared, beautifully presented on top of a bowl with ice – when it showed up, it looked like the smoke was coming from the plate. For my dessert, I decided to try a pastry filled with cream made with the fruit called Durian. Durian is known to have the taste which is extremely polarizing to the people – only love/hate with nothing in between. Imagine the taste of raw onion, rather intense pungency of the shallot, mixed with strawberry cream – that would give you an approximation of the taste of that dessert. I personally liked it, but I can easily see how lots of people wouldn’t even touch it.

I’m not planning on give you the daily report on our eating, but I still want to include a a few pictures for probably the best lunch we had – two different dim sum and then a simple shrimp dish:

Next traditional cooking style we experienced was so called Hot Pot. The idea is that you have a special cooking vessel, which looks like a sombrero hat, if you will, with the channel filled with aromatic broth, and the middle section containing burning charcoal, which quickly brings broth to a boil. Technically, the channel is split into two parts, so you can have spicy and non-spicy broth separately – however, no matter what, by the end of the evening it becomes all the same.

You can order very thinly sliced meat (pork, beef, lamb), vegetables and noodles. You cook it all in the broth, and then you have a choice of dipping sauce. To be entirely honest, hot pot is not my thing – the meat, which is cooked for 10-15 seconds, has no flavor and simply becomes the vessel to eat the dipping sauce. Vegetables should be dumped in for the longer time, and then it is really hard to find them in the boiling murky liquid. This is not the worst food I ever had, but still – I had to have it twice, and only marginally enjoyed it both times.

I’m almost done with my China food stories. We experienced one more Roasted Duck restaurant, called Xile Village Roasted Duck Restaurant, located in the brand spanking new shopping mall.

Here the duck was sliced in 3 different ways  – just the skin, top of the breast with skin and meat, and mostly meat pieces. At this restaurant, mustard was also served as a condiment for the duck breast, which was quite tasty. There were lots of dishes before the roasted duck arrived, as it takes 50 minutes for it to cook. My highlights here were delicious shrimp and very very tasty eggplant (one of the best vegetable dishes I had in China). Also, once all the meat was carefully cut off the duck, the carcass was chopped up and deep fried – nothing goes to waste 🙂

Okay, I hope I didn’t bore you to death – but I’m finally done. There you have it, my friends – my Chinese food and wines escapades. I plan to share some traveling advice regarding China in the next post. If any of these pictures triggered any thoughts – you know where the comment section is. Cheers!

Reflecting on the Beautiful Fall Colors

October 31, 2015 21 comments

Fall is most beautiful time in New England – people often plan special trips from around the country to embrace that Fall beauty, when leaves take on unimaginable colors. This year, though, I was worrying that we will not get to experience that beauty fully. September was way warmer than usual, and by the end of the month most of the trees were as green as in June, so my fear was that the leaves will go from green to brown, depriving us of the breathtaking exuberance of colors.

This had been challenging year so far. While the work had been exciting and interesting, it required a lot bigger investment of time, as we are trying to get into the new areas – and time is not something which is easily scaling or expanding. The end result is a great reduction in time left to spend on this very blog. The year also happened to be extremely emotionally challenging, but of course this is simply part of life.

Beautiful, sparkling, unstoppable abundance of colors arrived in October, delivering endless “eye candies” with every look outside. I found time for a slow walk around the neighborhood with my daughter and my camera, trying to capture myriad little moments mother nature always ready to share with us. Now I want to share that beauty with you, just in case you need a little sparkle in your life. Cheers!

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

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New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

New England Fall Colors

Feel at Home in the Old Dominion: Luxury B&B’s in Virginia Wine Country

October 15, 2015 4 comments

Today I would like to offer to your attention yet another guest post written by Stef Schwalb, Director of PR and Marketing at BnBFinder.com. October is Virginia Wine Month, so just in case you are contemplating a last minute getaway to the “Napa of the South”, you might find information below quite helpful. Note – it is not only about places to stay – the innkeepers also share their favorite wine recommendations. Here we go…

The Old Dominion State is celebrating the 27th year of Virginia Wine Month this October, and the region is definitely on its way up as a desired destination for all wine lovers. With more than 250 wineries participating in the event in one way or another, and the media buzz surrounding the area due to its exquisite scenery and record-breaking sales of 2015, now is the ideal time to check out the Virginia wine. Of course in addition to sipping, you’ll need a place to stay – here is a handful of B&B’s that are great finds in Virginia wine country.

Iris Inn

Iris Inn Bed and Breakfast

Iris Inn Bed & Breakfast in Waynesboro, VA is located on 12 wooded acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, the inn was designed with comfort in mind. With beautiful mountain views and a woodsy feel, the modern facility features spacious accommodations with expansive outdoor decks; king beds; Wi-Fi; flat-screen HDTVs; DVD players; refrigerators; writing desks; private baths with hairdryers; and cozy sitting areas. A full gourmet breakfast is served in the great room each morning and includes an enticing entrée along with homemade breads, coffee, juice, and fruit. There is also a “bottomless” cookie jar situated on the sideboard and beverages are available at check-in time. Convenient to numerous local attractions, including the Shenandoah Valley, Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, Charlottesville, The University of Virginia, Monticello, and several local wineries, Iris Inn is an excellent home base for exploring the region. The inn also offers several wine packages, including Sip & Spa, Sip & Simmer (a cabin dinner), Sip & Slip on Your Boots (hiking), Sip & Saddle (horseback riding), and Sip & Scribble (for aspiring writers). Some wineries located near the inn include King Family Vineyards, Flying Fox Vineyard, and Afton Mountain Vineyard.

Innkeeper Heidi Lanford recommends King Family Vineyard’s blended medium-bodied red, Meritage 2007. “And any vineyard’s Viognier in central VA is excellent,” says Heidi, “as this perfumed white is gaining world acclaim as Virginia signature grape.” One must try a Cabernet Franc, since the grape grows so well in this area, she continues, “we like the Cabernet Franc Reserve from Afton Mountain Vineyard.”

Inn at Meander

The Inn at Meander Plantation

Situated near Orange, VA in Locust Dale, The Inn at Meander Plantation is a historic B&B located one hour from Washington DC, Fredericksburg, and Charlottesville. The elegantly furnished, pet-friendly accommodations offer triple-sheeted king or queen beds with luxury linens, down comforters, and pillows; large private bathrooms; lavish microfiber bath robes; bottled water; hairdryers; clock radios with CD players and an assorted selection of CDs; Keurig coffeemakers; gas or wood-burning fireplaces; and air conditioning. Each morning, the complimentary breakfast includes a daily entree choice between sweet and savory options, a fresh fruit plate, and muffin or sweet bread. The inn also has a popular restaurant onsite that features a delicious 4-course dinner made from local produce and served strictly with the best of Virginia wines. Since the innkeepers/owners Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas work so closely with local wineries, the expansive wine list is quite unique. Guests can also indulge in the Virginia Wine Country Special package as well as tasting coupons for select local wineries. This charming Madison County country inn is just a short drive to Monticello and Montpelier, the celebrated residences of presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (respectively).

Suzanne recommends Gray Ghost Vineyards and Winery in Amissville – “I love their Chardonnay Reserve, Ranger Reserve, and of course, their amazing, award-winning Adieu dessert wine”; Reynard Florence Vineyard in Barboursville – “I’m very fond of their Petit Manseng, an excellent example of this white varietal, which is my personal favorite white wine”; and Ducard Vineyards (in Etlan, located in the northern part of Madison County ) – “I like the Popham Run Red Blend and the C’est Trop, a unique red dessert wine.”

Oaks Victorian Inn

Oaks Victorian Inn Bed and Breakfast

Built in 1889 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Oaks Victorian Inn Bed and Breakfast is at home in the quaint historic town of Christiansburg, VA. This classic Queen Anne Victorian bed and breakfast inn seamlessly combines Victorian elegance with modern day amenities within the backdrop of its stunning surroundings. It features six spacious guestrooms, each comfortably appointed with antique furnishings, private baths, and personal refrigerators with complimentary beverages. Select accommodations feature claw-foot tubs, fireplaces, body showers, and jetted Jacuzzi tubs. There is also a separate facility, The Garden Cottage with gazebo, that has a bathroom complete with sauna and shower, a 400-gallon private hot tub, a microwave, and a refrigerator with complimentary beverages. Guests enjoy downtime in the parlor and library onsite, and they can also relax and take in the scenic landscape on the large wrap-around porch lined with rockers, comfy chairs, and small tables for wine, cheese, and other goodies. The property is highlighted by meticulous landscaping, a fish pond, gorgeous perennial gardens, and oak trees that are more than 300 years old. Just two miles off I-81 in the center of New River Valley near Roanoke, the inn is a quick ride to Blacksburg, Floyd, Roanoke, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and more. The gracious hospitality and unforgettable breakfasts are hallmarks of The Oaks Victorian. With the Virginia is for Wine Lovers Times 2 Package, wine lovers can stay two consecutive nights at the B&B and receive two pairs of tasting passes to the innkeepers’ favorite local wineries – Whitebarrel Winery in Christiansburg and Beliveau Estate Winery in Blacksburg.

At Whitebarrel, the Chambourcin, which used to be called 325 AD, is a favorite of innkeeper Linda Wurtzburger. “And for a white, my favorite is Yesterday’s Song, which is a Chardonnay.”

Missing Vino Volo at Newark Airport – Oeno is Just Not It

September 11, 2015 7 comments

Don’t know if you can figure out from the title, but yes, this will be a rant. There were a few rants in this blog before (I even have a dedicated category for that) – and every time I contemplate the same question – “should I do it or not”. The problem with the rant is that while it is often a quick “feel good” solution for the “rantee”, it can theoretically have some consequences for the object of rant. But outside of the letting the steam to blow off from a bad experience, I see the rant as a criticism, and criticism is a good thing – it identifies problems which can be fixed (or not, of course). Okay, let me not making this post a rant about rant – let’s proceed to our subject.

I’m regularly traveling for business for the long time. As previously reported in this blog, the situation with food significantly improved at most of the US airports. And not only with food, but with wine as well – on a multiple occasions I wrote happy posts about Vino Volo stores available in many airports – including the one at Newark Airport in New Jersey (here is the link). At Vino Volo, you can always expect to find an interesting wine flight at a reasonable price, especially considering the airport location, and a tasty and thoughtful bite of food.

Now, as it happened last year, Vino Volo was kicked out of the Terminal C, and replaced by the restaurant called Oeno Wine Bar. Oeno tried to replicate Vino Volo’s model by offering wine flights as well as wine by the glass and by the bottle, and of course, food to go with it. So far so good, right?

First thing as you walk into Oeno is that nobody greets you. Okay, quite common at the airport. Next, you have to find the table, sit yourself, and start navigating the iPad on the stand which crowns every table at the restaurant. The iPad presents all the food and wine, grouped in the number of categories. top menu at Oeno

Now, as you try to dig into the wines, there are a few surprises which one runs into. First of all, the prices – there are 6 wine flights offered, priced either at $36 or $54 – most of the Vino Volo flights were priced under $25, so $54 for the tasting flight, seriously? The prices for the glass of wine range from $10 going into the $40s (not bad for the airport, right? – $40+ for a glass of wine on the go). But – for me, an oenophile who was served by Vino Volo very amicably, the biggest gripe is the full lack of information. Despite the fact that you have in front of you an iPad, an electronic device which allows to have pretty much an unlimited amount of information for each and every item offered, Oeno menu provides literally no relevant information. It seems that the only reason to offer the menus on the iPads is to make it easy to charge the customers in dollars or in frequent flyer currency – points/miles. Nobody cares also to provide a service with that, make sure people actually like what you are offering (yes, I mean “information” by the service).

Let me advance my gripe further. Considering complete lack of information, I decided to at least order something inexpensive, so I went with Jelu Pinot Noir, at $10.50 per glass. I couldn’t figure it out where the wine was from, as no information was available. After tasting something pretty much undrinakble – hot, unbalanced, biting wine – I had to look it up. It appears that this was a Pinot Noir from Argentina, and it also appears the the whole bottle cost as much in retail as I paid for the glass. Had I known that this was a Pinot Noir from Argentina, I would simply avoid ordering that – you can hardly go wrong with Malbec from Argentina at any price level, but when it comes to Pinot Noir, you better know the wine and/or producer.

Smoked salmon Panini

Leaving the wine aside (as I did with my glass), the food was also marginally successful. I ordered a Smoked Salmon Panini. While I understand that Panini is a pressed sandwich, I didn’t expect that smoked salmon panini would be put under a hot press. Ever had hot smoked salmon? This is not the most delicious food in the world, as the heat accentuates the saltiness of the salmon, and really makes it marginally enjoyable. Never mind the price of $14.25 – for that amount of money, you can have 2 or even 3 excellent sandwiches in most of the European airports…

The iPad system at Oeno is really focused on getting money or miles (the points) out of you, at the same time providing as little service as possible, as you  do everything on that iPad (you have to place an order and pay before anything gets to your table). To add insult to the injury, the tip of 20% is added to your payment at the time of the order (for some reason it is called “check-out”, even it is the first thing you have to do to get your food). The only service you get is your food placed in front of you, but nevertheless, you are paying as you are at a high end restaurant with great service.

And the last thing which I found extremely annoying: the push to get you to use your frequent flyer miles. If you travel enough, I’m sure you know that all those “rewards points” don’t come very easily, with the airlines constantly looking for the ways to reduce your frequent flyer benefits. Now, every item on the menu has price both in dollars and in miles. For the glass of Prosecco, you could elect to pay $14.10, or use 2,020 miles. As long as you don’t analyze the numbers, and have millions of frequent flyer miles in your account, you probably don’t care about “just 2000” miles. Now, think about this: if you have no status with United, to earn the same 2000 miles, you have to buy a $400+ ticket (it should be $400 before taxes and fees), as you are only getting 5 miles per dollar on United. If you are short 2,000 miles for your award ticket, you can buy them from United, at a measly price of $70 – but here you are, offered to spend that same 2,000 miles on a glass of bubbly instead of $14. And when you refuse to do so, you are asked to fill out a survey to explain why did you refuse the offer to pay with miles. Don’t know about you, but I find this preposterous.

Okay, let’s end this Friday rant. If you  travel through Newark airport, and especially if you are an oenophile, I have only one recommendation for you – avoid Oeno. Unless someone at Oeno wakes up and makes changes to transform it into really a desirable destination, as Vino Volo was. Until then, take your hard earned money elsewhere, and – Vino Volo, I miss you very much… Cheers!

Oeno Wine Bar
Newark Liberty International Airport
Terminal C
Gates 70-89

Oeno Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato