Photography by Emma Krasov

Close to midnight, I walked through etched glass French doors into a hallway lit by flower-shaped chandeliers. High ceiling with gilded moldings, framed oil paintings on the walls, and little bronze statuettes positioned throughout on small marble tables greeted me in silence. Open rooms on both sides of the hallway invited to peek in, and freely displayed their treasures. A blue salon furnished with armchairs and sofas of silk upholstery, an Asian-style room with potted palms, red accents and a Buddha statue, a formal dining room with parchment wallpaper and a fully set table amid carved mahogany china stands and family crests on painted window panes…

An invisible source produced quiet, barely perceptible music. Eerily, there were no other people there. All alone, I sat down on a silk ottoman in enchanted reverie, and stared at a half-draped window enlivened by a starry night sky.

The Lost Estate [by Alain-Fournier] came to mind. Only this estate, not far from the city center of Lisbon, where I was having a moment of pure bliss, was not lost.

It was founded by Marquis de Valle Flor, born in 1855, who in his teen years moved to the islands of Sao Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa, and became one of the largest producers of cocoa, and one of the richest men in Portugal. With the construction of this palace, the prosperous marquis established his family’s place in the country’s history – and created one of the most luxurious and significant dwellings in the capital city.

And then it was found by Pestana Collection Hotels – Portugal’s largest international tourism and leisure hotel group, and one of the largest in Europe – whose motto is, “The Time of Your Life.”

I knew I was about to have the time of my life here (however briefly) when I’ve learned that the enchanted Pestana Palace Lisboa Hotel where I’ve settled for a couple of nights was classified as a National Monument due to its 1904 Nicola Bigaglia architecture, turn-of-the-century Carlos Reis ceiling paintings, and exquisite frescos, stuccos, stained glass designs and other decorative features, all lovingly restored at the magnificent Belle Époque building in a splendid location on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River.

 

From here, I explored the eclectic beauty of Lisbon – the bustling metropolis with its medieval castle of St. George and carved stone monastery of St. Jerome, the Renaissance tower of St. Vincent and the Baroque Estrela Basilica. Every time, tired after enduring the winding narrow streets of Bairro Alto in the summer heat, I returned to my cool hotel room with a view of the lush gardens studded with bronze statues and gazebos, and hurried to one of the swimming pools – indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather whimsy of the moment.

When in Lisbon, I discovered the singing soul of Portugal – the music of Fado – an original style and genre, approximately 200 years old, named after “fate” or “destiny” that is the major theme of fado lyrics.

At Adega Machado in Bairro Alto I was treated to an amazing talent of Isabel Noronha. A singer of an incredible range and very distinct, passionate yet reserved style, Ms. Noronha captivated the audience with a heart-wrenching sincerity of her poignant expression of the tragic longing and unrequited love – obviously the themes of the songs she delivered.

Fado songs are usually performed by strong-voiced solo singers, both male and female, with highly emotional expressiveness, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and other instruments. The musicians also perform no-singing pieces with great panache and mastery. Fado performances, even though most often happening in restaurants, constitute a high art form, and require subdued lighting (candlelight), revered silence and undivided attention of their listeners.

The overall ambiance at Adega Machado is very welcoming and accommodating for the international gusts. The original tavern has been founded 75 years ago by a fado singer Maria de Lurdes Machado and her husband, composer and guitarist Armando Machado. At the recently renovated and reopened upscale restaurant, the legendary fado singers Amalia Rodrigues and Alfredo Marceneiro are honored in multiple images decorating the walls of the establishment.

Besides nightly fado music (on the night of my visit there were four singers and three musicians performing) Adega Machado offers an extensive list of excellent Portuguese wines, and a comprehensive menu of local and international dishes, with a la cart and tasting menu options.

In Porto, I had a chance to experience yet another Pestana hotel – the newest, opened mere months ago A Brasileira – a gorgeous 5-star property in a posh historic downtown building with Art Nouveau décor. Minutes from the central Avenida dos Aliados and the 1916 Sao Bento train station (still lavishly decorated with murals and blue-and-white tiles of amazing craftsmanship) the hotel is a walking distance from the iconic Ribeira district with its boat rides, port cellars, and multiple little restaurants featuring Douro valley wines and live music.

Historically, this luxury hotel was built around the famous A Brasileira Café, opened in 1903 by a Porto man who made a fortune buying coffee beans in Brazil, and married a Brazilian woman. He was the first coffee entrepreneur to serve espresso in Portugal in the early 20th century. His motto, “The best coffee comes from A Brasileira” still rings true today, in the cozy café, popular with the hotel guests and the locals alike.

For many years after the proprietor’s death the building stayed abandoned, until it was acquired and renovated under the new ownership and Pestana management.

Now, with a highly desirable location in the city center, A Brasileira offers 89 rooms and suites, a restaurant serving Portuguese cuisine, two meeting rooms, a well-equipped gym, a French patio with a vertical garden and elegant outdoor furniture, and the namesake café of 115-year history.

Each hotel floor that has a comfortable seating area of its own with a large horseshoe leather sofa, is thematically tied to one of the products imported from faraway lands during the Portuguese maritime expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries: coffee, tea, chocolate, pink pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

I was genuinely pleased with my pristine room, with a double balcony offering views over the picturesque rooftops of Porto historical center, with the snow-white bed topped with a fluffy comforter and pillows of three different sizes, with a decorative photo display of colorful teas in bowls above the bedhead, and with a sparkling clean spacious bathroom – rain shower and all!

The room amenity that impressed me the most was perched on a desk, plugged in a charger, under a large-screen interactive TV that was greeting me by name and offering an array of services. That room amenity was a smart phone with a remarkable GuestU software featuring a comprehensive interface with free internet, a list of local attractions, Google maps, an individualized concierge service, constant connection to the hotel, and even free international phone calls daily! With GuestU phone in my hand a city I’ve never been to before all of sudden became familiar, recognizable, easily navigable, and pedestrian-friendly at any hour of day or night.

I couldn’t get enough of the Porto walks, leading up to the closely clustered Trinity Church, a magnificent City Hall building, and the Liberty Square with the stunning Carmelite Church and the Clerics Tower nearby, or down to the Douro River, with a lively waterfront, studded with historical monuments.

One of them, the Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa) is definitely worth a visit, and provides guided tours in several languages every half an hour. With its spectacular glass dome decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century, and wonderfully appointed Tribunal Room, Assembly Room, and Golden Room with allegoric paintings and sculptures the building offers quite a few discoveries. The Arab Room, built at the end of the 19th century by Gonçalves e Sousa is echoing Alhambra in Spain with its Moorish Revival style, with intricate detailing constructed by Portuguese craftsmen honoring “the Educator, the Good Mother” queen of Portugal, Maria II.

Close to the lower part of the city center, mere steps from Palacio da Bolsa, on a winding side street I settled for a very pleasant evening at the O Fado restaurant that served great wines and fresh seafood, and indulged its guests with the wonderful performances by the three singers – Antonio Laranjeira, Patricia Costa, and Sandra Cristina Amaral.

Looking back at my first ever visit to Portugal, and to the country’s two major cities I became enamored with so easily, I must admit that Pestana hotels and Fado music played a decisive role – each in its own way – in making my journey unforgettable and making me crave more encounters with the westernmost country of Europe.

Additional information at: www.visitportugal.com, www.pestanacollection.com, www.adegamachado.pt.

 

0 355

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Looking back at Riches of the Mekong cruise (Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City) with AmaWaterways I can’t help but marvel at the incredible amount of amazing places I’ve visited in a course of just one week. I vividly remember the lush jungle greenery, the grayish opaque body of water studded with boats in various degrees of picturesqueness, and countless encounters with people – working on their crafts, selling fruit, riding family motorcycles, praying in Buddhist temples, or lounging in hammocks in their front yards and backyards – often smiling, but mostly going about their daily lives, and rarely paying attention to a crowd of tourists equipped with cameras, water bottles, fans, hats, umbrellas, and assisted listening devices for guided tours. It was hot; it was humid and sweaty most of the time, and yet – it was wonderful!

AmaWaterways’ motto is, Leading the Way in River Cruising, and that’s exactly what the company does on all its routes known for enticing itineraries and outstanding service.

After my last year’s Danube adventure aboard AmaStella, I couldn’t wait to embark on a Saigon-built AmaDara (“Dara” means “star,” same as “Stella”). I knew that a few star-studded happenings were guaranteed on an AmaWaterways cruise – exemplary sightseeing excursions geared toward different types of travelers with various activity levels; quiet starry nights on Mekong River, mostly spent in a swanky lounge with friendly chats, cocktails, and live entertainment; and stellar international cuisine by the local chefs.

What I didn’t know was the extent of all the countless comforts and conveniences provided by the cruise company. Air-conditioned staterooms with double balconies, mini-fridges, snow-white bedding, and spacious shower cabins; icy water bottles in small shoulder bags for excursion groups, cold towels and drinks upon return; a swimming pool on Sun Deck, constantly cool despite the relentless heat outside; fresh tropical fruit displays at every meal, and the meals themselves, always with a choice of amazingly well-prepared Western and Asian dishes, iced coffees and ice cream – everything doubly precious in the tropical climate and trying sanitary circumstances of faraway lands.

Now I can assuredly say that I would’ve never ever been able to endure my chosen vacation destination I was so eager to explore if it weren’t for the cruise. Just a thought of leaving a hotel room in the morning and returning late at night as I usually do when traveling abroad, makes me shudder. I wouldn’t last a day in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia, fascinating as it was with all its floating villages, wet fish markets, palm and mango groves, pink lotus ponds, and entire families clinging to each other for dear life, zooming past me on nimble motor scooters.

With the wisely scheduled excursion times – early after breakfast, and later in the day before dinner – with lunch and some down time for a nap or a glass of cold beer in the pool in-between, the onshore trips became much more pleasant.

Walking through Koh Chen village where silversmiths create their delicately engraved wares by the roadside, watching silk weavers at work by the ancient looms in Oknha Tey, and visiting a local school, greeted by the children singing, “You are my sunshine,” became much easier to enjoy in small increments, with plenty of cool sheltering aboard AmaDara.

When I’m trying to name the most memorable moments of the enchanting cruise, many wonderful adventures come to mind. An ox cart ride in the countryside in Kampong Tralach, followed by a visit to a majestic Oudong Monastery in Cambodia’s ancient capital, currently a place of pilgrimage. A Buddhist blessing ceremony was performed for the guests by the ochre robes-clad monks who scattered jasmine flowers over the crowd attuned to their melodic chanting.

A bicycle-driven tuk-tuk taking us through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh to the wide tree-lined boulevards and giant lotus-shaped Independence Monument erected in 1958 to signify the end of the French rule. A tour of the opulent Royal Palace built in 1866 by the great-grandfather of the current Cambodian king on a site chosen by royal astrologists. Silver-floored Prasat Prak temple with a mind-bogglingly shiny solid gold standing Buddha statue with diamond eyes and more than 2000 diamonds in adornments.

And last, but not least of the Cambodian part of the cruise, a visit to the Phnom Penh Central Market, overflowing with shiny things, lavish tropical fruit and flowers, and lots and lots of… elephant pants.

I’ve seen these comfy flowing thin cotton pants, painted with elephants in different colors, worn by many of my fellow cruisers as well as by practically every single non-Asian person I’ve met on the streets approaching any tourist attraction; the ubiquitous fashionable item easily explained by the temple/palace rule: visitors’ knees must be covered, or there’s no access to a site.

Sold everywhere by countless vendors at a miniscule price, the long and wide elephant pants can be worn over short shorts, sundresses, and mini-skirts, and thanks to their airy lightness they don’t seem to increase the body’s heat index in the slightest.

At the Central Market, my one glance in the direction of those pants was enough. An energetic duo of fast-moving women created a makeshift dressing room around me in the middle of a busy market aisle, and quickly found a pair of pants wide enough for my waistline, ever so slightly expanded now, after quite a few delicious dishes prepared by the cruise chefs I wasn’t able to resist.

Finally, I rightfully joined the sisterhood of elephant pants, and signed up for a Chef’s Table dinner with my new friends that night.

Chef’s Table Restaurant on AmaDara is an upscale addition to the Mekong Restaurant where the guests are fed three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Saigon Lounge, where coffee, tea, snacks and fruit are available at any time, with fresh pastries as early as 6:30 a.m.; and Sun Deck bar that serves drinks and snacks.

Since Chef’s Table requires reservations and serves a set 5-course tasting menu with wine pairing every night of the cruise, all passengers are encouraged to pick one night for a dinner there. Dining at the Chef’s Table is like going out on your birthday or anniversary – it feels very special, and many people do indeed make reservations for their birthdays or anniversaries. After all, a cruise with AmaWaterways is a festive affair suitable for a special occasion, so there are always some folks on any cruise celebrating their big dates.

Not just food and wine, but first of all the service at the Chef’s Table is nothing short of amazing, even though it is hard to imagine when experiencing excellency day in and day out in every aspect of the cruise life. Treated like kings and queens, we rejoiced in consuming the wonderfully prepared dinner that consisted of a delicate seared scallop amuse bouche, salmon salad, sea bass with Asian turnips and quail eggs, sirloin steak with celery root puree, and a trio of desserts with chocolate ganache, caramel ice cream, and lemon tart.

Was I glad that I was wearing my new beautiful and very forgiving elephant pants!

That night, we had the most entertaining evening show of all. Every night, Saigon Lounge turned into a performance venue. We’ve seen Khmer and Vietnamese dancers and musicians, took part in karaoke nights, dancing rounds, and music sessions with the onboard pianist Vy. But the crew’s talent show contest, “AmaDara Has Got Talent” was an undisputable winner!

Chefs’ team, servers’ team, housekeeping team, and the entire crew demonstrated their singing, dancing, and comical talents to the utmost delight of the cruise guests, late into the night.

That night, we were entering the waters of Vietnam. In two unforgettable days we visited a village of Tan Chau surrounded by emerald rice paddies and shallow lotus ponds, a city of Sa Dec with an enormous and enormously busy wet market, teeming with fresh fish, shrimp, clams, and piles upon piles of fresh fruit; observed rattan, silk, rice paper, and coconut candy making at local open-air factories; rode local boats past floating markets, and walked to the tourist attraction that was my primary draw on this cruise – “The Lover’s” house.

How could I imagine years ago, while reading “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, winner of Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose,” so poignantly constructed upon her own wild teenage love affair, and then watching the namesake film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, that one day I’ll be entering the elaborately decorated Sino-French design house described in the novel!

An intricate woodwork and tiles inside, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and portraits of the book author, her paramour, Huynh Thuy Le, and stills from the film round up the encounter with the real-life literary masterpiece.

A farewell cocktail reception with all the crew members introduced to the guests, and met with non-stop ovation, had a bitter-sweet feel. It seemed this one-week cruise on AmaDara left an indelible mark in everyone’s heart.

With disembarkation at Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived on Vietnam Independence Day, preceded by the May Day, well reflected in the city’s street décor.

Find more information at: www.AmaWaterways.com.

0 1503

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Fresh green grass after the rain, pine trees with lacy moss hanging from their branches, a stretch of the road with hardly any vehicle passing by, a veil of fog over Smuggles Cove’s splashing waves, and a few lawn chairs made of silvery drift wood placed on a hill to face the ocean… That was the view from our room at the Brewery Gulch Inn near Chapman Point in Mendocino – a magical place to which my thoughts travel back again and again, unable to break the spell.

Upon arrival at this country inn, rather new, and tastefully decorated with handcrafted wooden furniture in honey colors; leather sofas; bird-patterned throw pillows, and contemporary art pieces awashed in light streaming from the tall windows, my husband and I felt immediately at home, greeted by a smiling concierge Sarah Rowe with long mermaid hair, and a scattering of shiny AAA Diamond award plaques on the wall behind her back.

A word “Brewery” was placed in big vertical letters between the double clear-glass French doors leading to the outdoor terrace overlooking the misty ocean. When I asked Guy Pacurar, the Brewery Gulch Inn hospitable proprietor, if there’s indeed a brewery located anywhere on the property, he smiled and said that that was just the name of some former land owner. A detailed map of the area mentioned Breurry Gulch (which probably evolved colloquially into “Brewery” over time) but the historical spelling of the gulch’s name was the least of our concerns. We were mostly preoccupied by the immense beauty of the place; by our conflicting desires to sit by the fireplace, to linger on our balcony, to rush for the cameras and photograph a flock of wild turkeys parading by the Inn’s small parking lot – and a nagging realization that our stay here was too short – even before it really started!

Our room, “Osprey,” with a warm rustic feel, nautical/Native-American décor, and luxurious Sferra linens over a featherbed, was equipped with leather armchairs by the gas fireplace, a desk, a flat screen TV, a spacious wardrobe, and a full bathroom with high class Asprey amenities, Himalayan bath salts and thick Abyss towels.

Since Ms. Rowe reminded us about the nightly served dinner at 5:30 p.m. (included in the room rate, same as breakfast) prepared by the Inn’s private chef, and paired with the famed local wines and artisanal beers, we decided not to venture too far from the Inn, especially that our drive from the San Francisco Bay Area took quite a few hours with frequent photo stops along the breathtakingly beautiful Mendocino coast.

What was called “light dinner” on the Inn’s website turned out to be a rather substantial meal with freshly-prepared salad; crab cakes made with locally-caught seasonal Dungeness crab, accompanied by two dipping sauces; a grilled vegetable medley; a main course chicken and vegetable casserole, and a couple of house-made cakes for dessert!

The buffet-style meal was served at the Great Room, where Inn guests were seated in comfortable big chairs by the large tables around the four-sided fireplace of swanky contemporary design.

The next morning, a lavish breakfast was served in the same Great Room, prepared by the same excellent chef from premium organic products, and served by the friendly staff, including Mr. Pacurar himself. After we indulged in an array of fresh-squeezed juices, eggs Benedict, cooked-to-order omelet, the Inn’s special Millionaire’s bacon, and more home-made cakes, all served on artful china, he handed us a thoughtfully prepared list of places to visit around the Inn, with detailed directions, and notes like “tasting fee waived for Brewery Gulch Inn guests” across from the names of spectacular wineries with highest-rated pinot noirs and chardonnays and great ocean views.

We spent the day exploring the many parks and beaches of stunning beauty – marveling at the crashing waves next to a truckful of curious dogs, tasting wines at the Pacific Star winery with a row of red Adirondack chairs placed movie-theater style over the majestic Pacific; visited a poignantly lonesome lighthouse at Point Cabrillo, gilded by the setting sun, and return back to the fireplace warmth, and delicious aromas coming from the kitchen of our home away from home. Before we checked in, we were asked by the Guest Services to please warn the staff if we had dinner plans elsewhere. With the preparation of all meals right at the Inn using locally sourced fresh ingredients it was critical for the staff to calculate the right amount of produce needed for each meal, plan accordingly and avoid food waste.

Knowing from experience that the “light dinner” will not only be varied and delicious, but will satisfy the heartiest appetite, we surely didn’t have any plans to go out. That night, a succulent steak and roasted potatoes were accompanied by a fresh salad with sweet corn, mushroom ragout, a cheese plate, and those tempting sweets – too good to skip.

We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean, and slept soundly through the night like never before!

On our way back home, we stopped at the artist’s studio of Rebecca Johnson – a Brewery Gulch Inn featured artist. Her striking paintings of lonely barns (made of real barn wood collected at demolition sites) against green fields and blue skies, placed on the walls of the Inn impressed us so much that we decided to visit her studio, and meet with the artist of a great poetic vision.

Apparently, we weren’t alone in our desire to see more of Ms. Johnson’s work. On our list of places to visit shared by Mr. Pacurar, her studio was mentioned at the very top, and clearly marked by the amount of miles to drive from the Inn.

To help guests prepare for their stay, the Brewery Gulch Inn website has a What To Do section with suggested itineraries and an annual calendar of events as well as a link to Mendocino’s official website with plentiful information on local sites, area restaurants, and festivals. The Pre-Arrival Concierge section lists a variety of services and activities, including massages, wine tours, chocolate tastings, restaurant reservations, and horseback rides that can be arranged prior to arrival.

To book your stay at the Brewery Gulch Inn, go to: http://www.brewerygulchinn.com/.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Traveling to Ashland, Oregon, is enticing and rewarding all year round. For a relatively small urban area (population below 22,000) it has an enormous amount of festive public events to enjoy, excellent wineries, breweries, and restaurants, and – tax free shopping to cherry-top your cake! In winter, there’s Festival of Light, Victorian Christmas Celebration, Rogue Winter Fest, and Festival of Trees. In spring, Ashland Independent Film Festival, Pear Blossom Festival, Oregon Cheese Festival, and Oregon Chocolate Festival. In summer, 4th of July Celebrations, Medford Beer Week, Britt Music and Art Festival, and Oregon Wine Experience. Finally, in the fall, there’s Ashland Culinary Festival, Southern Oregon Music Festival, and Harvest Festival. Not to mention the most famous of them all, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1935, that goes on every year from early spring to late fall, and produces eleven plays on three stages every season.

The culinary festival became a reason forme and my husband to drive up north from our California home at the very beginning of November, when San Francisco’s East Bay inland temperatures refused to go down, and the sweltering summery heat infused with post-fires’ residual smoke was becoming a nuisance.

We were hoping for the healing powers of Ashland that manifest themselves not only in the mineral springs that bubble to the surface from the Earth’s crust, but also in the serenity of the surrounding nature and in the unhurried balanced lifestyle of its residents.

Passing the snow-capped Mount Shasta on our way, we were pulling out our winter coats faced with the freshness of Oregon air; reminded once again of the Russian origins of the word Shasta (which means “happiness”).

A short drive and walk around the city yielded plenty of poetic views of leafy trees changing color, Ashland Creek running among the old grows of Lithia Park, and even a couple of deer grazing peacefully in someone’s front yard one block off the main drag.

We were taken by the quiet beauty of red, orange, and yellow leaves shining line precious jewels against the cloudy sky. I was thinking of how important it was to see this tempest of colors, to feel the autumnal air, to walk in silence, and – to sip from a public drinking fountain some Lithia water, so called because of natural lithium oxide deposits that presumably produce a healing tonic effect…

 

Upon checking in at the Lithia Springs Resort, we were greeted by the friendly staff, and immediately invited to the afternoon tea that is taking place daily in the beautifully decorated Tea Room, Library and lobby with a fireplace, designed by the owner/creative director, Becky Neuman.

High-quality tea, home-made scones with lemon curd and jam, and fresh berries were surely rejuvenating after a long drive, and made us feel welcome, however, the best was yet to come.

What a wonderful surprise was awaiting in our Hillside King Suite, overlooking a wooded hill in fall colors, and with a large tub to enjoy a hot mineral bath right in our bedroom!

A two-sided fireplace, open to the bedroom and to the spacious living room, a cozy kitchenette with a breakfast nook, and a plush sofa with a coffee table and armchairs – the suite was luxurious, and oh so welcoming!

It seemed there was no necessity to go outside, if it weren’t for the 11th Annual Ashland Culinary Festival Kickoff Event that was happening at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites and included Celebrity Quick-Fire Cooking Challenge, the 2nd annual Mixology competition where local bartenders competed for the title of Top Mixologist, wine tastings by the Bear Creek Wine Trail, and small bites from the best Ashland restaurants.

The Cooking Challenge Teams were studded with celebrities: Judge and Emcee Cory Schreiber & Rolar Yondorf, a former Festival Judge, from Porters Restaurant; Judge Fabiola Donnelly & Chef Kate Cyr, the Festival Committee Member, from the Neuman Hotel Group; Judge John Ash & Dennis Slattery, a former Festival Emcee, Ashland City Councilor and SOU Professor; Top Chef 2007 & 2008, Neil Clooney of Smithfields & Trish Glose from KTVL Channel 10.

Bartenders from eight distinctive restaurants took part in the 2017 Mixology Competition: Arturo Almazan – Smithfields Pub & Pies; Freddie Herrera – Hearsay Restaurant, Lounge and Garden; .Jess Jeffery – Alchemy Restaurant & Bar; Ross Jones – Larks Restaurant; Sondra Mayer – Brickroom; Blake Satre – Ostras Tapas and Bottle Shop; Saphire Stevens – Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar, and Greg Waites – Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant.

The next day, hands-on culinary workshops were held at different locations, spreading throughout the city, and the 2017 Junior Chef Competition showcased Junior Chef Teams of Ashland High School – China Larsen & Quinn Vogel; North Medford High School – Coy Wimberly & Dezmond Barros; South Medford High School – Chase Tonini & Kyle Smith; Grants Pass High School – Kassidy Kipert & Cecil Dowdy.

Junior Chef Competition was followed by a daily festival program, Sip, Sample, and Taste with a long list of vendors, and Chefs Competition of 12 local chefs competing while using ingredients from local farms and artisans. This competition went on for two days, and involved the following chefs and restaurants: Josh Dorcak – MÄS; Brent Herud – Larks Restaurant; Melissa McMillan – Sammich; William Shine – Hearsay Restaurant; Shawn Alamo – The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant; Javier Cruz – Simple Café; Skye Elder – Brickroom; Alfredo Nava – Omar’s Fresh Seafood and Steaks; Stefano Cipollone – Standing Stone Brewing Co.; James “Cyrus” Gray – Southern Oregon University (The Hawk Dining); Tony Efstratiadis – Plancha; and Jackson Kelsay – Amuse Restaurant.

We were pleased to check out Luna Café & Mercantile, located right there, where the Festival headquarters were, in the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites – very modern, with astronomy-themed decor. By using products grown and raised in Oregon, namely in the Rogue and Applegate valleys, the restaurant supports local farmers and artisans, and serves the freshest, healthiest food as well as local wines and cheeses, specialty coffee and handmade chocolate treats.

Free range rotisserie chicken with herb relish, and burgers with Tillamook cheddar and Luna sauce on a house bun are some of the delicious hits of the menu!

For a formal dinner with great cocktails and wine, we headed to Larks restaurant in the iconic Ashland Springs Hotel – the most prominent and famous landmark of the city.

White wine and garlic steamed mussels, pork osso bucco with celeriac potato puree and wilted spinach, and local rabbit cacciatore with house-made pappardelle, bacon, and manchego black pepper sour cream were surely memorable creations of the “home kitchen cuisine” by the Executive Chef Franco Console, followed by the flourless chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert.

Our short “long weekend” in Ashland proved to be relaxing, healing, and energizing. To learn more, visit: www.travelashland.com, www.ashlandchamber.com, and www.neumanhotelgroup.com.

 

Photography by Emma Krasov

Taiwan’s growing prosperity, its high tech developing alongside upscale retail and hospitality, the freedom-loving stance and the innate friendliness of Taiwanese people, many of whom speak good English, make this East Asian country an attractive vacation spot for American tourists.

I was fortunate to visit the tropical island before and during one of the major annual events – 2017 Taiwan LGBT Pride Parade – the largest in Asia, attended by more than a 100 000 people, that was taking place in the capital city of Taipei. The 15th Taiwan LGBT Pride started on a warm October Saturday morning on Ketagalan Boulevard, between the Presidential Office building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and proceeded in three directions, looping back to the thoroughfare, where the main stage was set for the community activists, famous musicians, and representatives of LGBT organizations from Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

This year advocacy theme was “Make Love, Not War – Sex Ed is the Way to Go” stressing the importance of gender equality, sex education and a humanistic approach to sex and gender issues without discrimination and stigma.

The message of acceptance sounded loud and clear in the Pride chanting, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, stand proud!” Topical activities of the event included Gender Equality Education, Social Movement Stand Together, and Marriage Equality – the latter expected to be finally legalized in Taiwan in two years term.

A giant rainbow flag, almost the length of a city block, carried by dozens of college students and members of non-governmental organizations; elaborate costumes, music, laughter, and a generous scattering of rainbow crowns, ribbons, fans, and plumes turned the always busy, congested with traffic capital of Taiwan into a festive flowerbed, studded with happy smiling faces.

What an amazing show of unity and joy! This reporter was especially impressed with the seemingly self-regulated crowd. Not a single episode of rudeness, impatience, or any kind of conflict. A lone protester with a sign invoking religious prohibitions on homosexuality was guarded by two police officers, but the biggest harm done to him or any of the parade participants was the incessant flashing of photo cameras.

By the time evening traffic started to accumulate, rainbow-marked guys and girls dispersed into buses, subway trains, and to the surrounding streets on foot, mixing with the daily crowd, entering it as a part and parcel of the big city.

Our group of American travel journalists, in Taipei primarily for the Pride, had nevertheless a full tourist program, exploring the gorgeous island with its natural wonders, historical monuments, and superb culinary scene.

From the windows of AMBA Taipei Songshan, a new boutique design hotel – a playful brand, originated in Hong Kong – near Xinyi shopping and business district, we took our first glance at the Keelung River, circling the city in the north, and at the bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 Observatory, not long ago the tallest building in the world.

A tour of the 101-story tower included and exhilarating elevator ride that took us from the 5th to 89th floor in 37 seconds; breathtaking panoramic views of the city and its environs, and a gourmet lunch at the world-famous Din Tai Fung on the ground floor of the observation tower.

Here, in the spacious dining room, separated by a glass wall from a pristine kitchen, where all workers were clad in white sanitary suits and masks, our group was greeted by my Taiwanese namesake, Emma, a deputy supervisor of catering department.

The young woman with an infectious smile, dressed for business, and speaking effortless English, she conveyed to us the history of the notorious dumpling restaurant, awarded multiple stars, medals, and mentions by the international foodie authorities. According to the legend of Din Tai Fung, it all started in a cooking oil retail shop back in 1958 that gradually turned into a “fast food” restaurant specializing in xiao long bao, or “soup dumplings” made with pork meat and pork fat jelly that turns into aromatic liquid during steaming.

The original process of kneading, rolling, filling, folding (18 folds, no less no more) and steaming the dumplings is still meticulously followed in all the kitchens of Din Tai Fung in more than 100 locations all over the world, and of course in its flagship restaurant in Taipei. Only now more than 50 kinds of dumplings, wontons, buns, noodles, and rice dishes grace the menu, appreciated by the tourists as well as regulars who dine here a few times a week.

That is not to say that other restaurants lack fans among the local and international visitors. Some of the highlights of Taiwanese cuisine, like steamed fish, crab with bamboo shoots, thousand year egg, black chicken soup, and countless others can be enjoyed in practically every small or large eatery throughout the country.

Before we left Taipei for further exploration, we visited a festive night market – one of several, each stall teeming with eager customers attracted by the delicate aromas of pork buns, green onion crepes, and other amazingly enticing local dishes.

We also spent a good chunk of time in two remarkable museums, representing the historical past and the assertive future of the country. The National Palace Museum contains immense treasures of the Chinese imperial court, transported to Taiwan for safekeeping after the fall of the last dynasty. Among the most popular exhibits at the museum is jadeite cabbage, carved from a single stone with auspicious color variations, presenting the humble vegetable in a noble form of an exquisite art piece. The never-yielding crowd around the display case wouldn’t let me take a good picture of the precious artifact, so I had to settle for a back view that still conveys the fragile elegance of the awesome work.

MOCA Taipei, Museum of Contemporary Art, brings to the public attention the bold and edgy art created here and now. During our visit, a major exhibition, called “Spectrosynthesis – Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now” created in collaboration with The Sunpride Foundation curated by Sean C. S. Hu was on display, showcasing 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On our way to the city of Taichung via HSR high speed rail, we spent a wonderful sunny day at the serene Sun Moon Lake, taking a boat tour and then cycling to Xian Shan visitor center, where we could see the open air exhibition of bonsai and decorative arts against a backdrop of the turquoise lake. At least four-five weddings were conducting their photoshoots along the shores.

At lunch at Lusihan – an aboriginal restaurant – we’ve not only tried the most exotic foods, like “wax apples” stuffed with dried shrimp and seaweed, and sticky rice baked and served in bamboo cups, but also learned about the tribal history of Taiwan – of 16 different tribes composing the island nation.

The Lin Hotel Taichung welcomed us into its luxurious fold offering boldly decorated rooms in red, gold, and black-and-white; supremely comfortable beds, and a breakfast hall filled with freshly made wonders of all imaginable cuisines.

The day program started with a visit to the historic 1927 Miyahara building – formerly a Japanese eye doctor’s hospital, currently the sought after Dawn Bakery, where dressed in Japanese military uniform sales clerks dish out samples of heavenly cheesecakes, and give cautionary warnings on expiration dates of pineapple cakes and mooncakes, packed in dainty boxes made of Japanese wrapping paper.

Then we headed to a fun and exciting Pearl Milk Tea Workshop with Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House. In a special classroom on the top floor of a popular restaurant we were educated on producing the real original bubble tea, invented here four decades ago by the founder Liu Han-Chien. We learned the difference between bubble tea (shaken into foam) and boba tea (with added tapioca pearls), and upon successful completion of our course each of us received a certificate of our iced tea mastery!

Traversing the entire country, next we landed in the Southern city of Tainan, a former capital, densely populated with historical monuments, like Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia) a former Dutch outpost on Formosa, built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan, and Anping Old Fort near a “tree house” – a skeleton of an ancient structure completely overwhelmed by an overgrown banyan tree.

We marveled at the enlightened austerity of Tainan Confucius Temple and at the lavish gilded décor of The Grand Matsu Temple, a.k.a. the Great Queen of Heaven Temple, where at the time of our visit middle-aged priestesses in bright-yellow silk robes performed a ceremony to the sound of drums.

At the Du Hsiao Yueh noodle house we all took the same picture of a beautiful blue and white plate of noodles with a bright orange shrimp on top – the same that serves as the restaurant’s logo and is served to every diner who ever ventures in.

At the designer boutique hotel, Jia-Jia at West Market, we slept in artfully decorated rooms, ate at a communal table in the cozy lobby filled with inventive artwork, and participated in one of the hotel’s cultural activities – a kind of a cosplay, when we all donned Taiwanese garb, offered by the staff, and walked around in it through the lively stalls of the historic West Market. Apparently, the hotel CEO, also an artist, creates these fashions from vintage fabrics, formerly found at the West Market. She offers her guests an opportunity to try them on and walk in them, reaching a double goal – to familiarize foreigners with the traditional Taiwanese attire, and to remind the locals of their national traditions.

Posing for a group photo in my gorgeous vintage dress (which I eventually bought from the hotel and brought home to wear on special occasions) I thought that traveling in a company of gay men – well-mannered, kind and with a great sense of humor – for moi had its undeniable advantage.

More information on Taiwan travel at: www.taiwan.net.tw.

Photography by Yuri Krasov 

In Prague, every traveler faces a challenge of finding a place to stay that would be close to the major historical sites. And major sites in Prague are plenty! From the Old Town to the New Town, and from the Castle District to Lesser Quarter, the finest examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau architectural styles are pulling all eyes upward, threatening cobblestone-related injuries to the viewfinder thrill-seekers.

Were we lucky to settle at Hotel Klarov when my husband and I arrived in the capital of Czech Republic onboard economically conscious RegioJet bus? You bet we were! From our third floor window at the 25-room boutique hotel in the 1889 Neo-Baroque building we were able to see the legendary 1357 Charles Bridge across the high-leveled Vltava River, the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral and the patinated domes of Prague Castle rising above the red roofs of Mala Strana.

Interestingly, the spacious rooms at Hotel Klarov are embellished with names and memorabilia of world-famous musicians who visited Prague and left their mark in the city. Ours was dedicated to Rolling Stones who on one of their visits provided illumination for the Prague Castle so it would be lit at night and visible from afar.

To get closer to all the treasures of one of the largest and best-preserved European cities, right after the hotel breakfast we embarked on a walking tour with Jitka Simkova of Prague Walks. Our guide took us across the Charles Bridge with its 30 statues, allegedly constructed in alignment with the tomb of St. Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox, and crowded with international visitors at any time of day and night; through narrow streets and wide-open squares to the lavishly decorated Belle Époque buildings, like the Grand Hotel Evropa; Baroque churches, and splendid old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter.

We watched changing of the guards at the Prague Castle, originally built as a walled fortress in about 970 – the largest ancient castle in the world, formerly home to Bohemia’s kings, now the official residence of the Czech Republic’s President, visited Café Louvre for a posh coffee break, and marveled at the curious monument to Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna. The bronze statue replicates a scene from Kafka’s first novel “Amerika” in which a political candidate at a campaign rally is carried to the people on the shoulders of a faceless giant.

Besides the world-famous sights, like the 11th century Gothic Powder Tower remaining from the original city gates, the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall, first installed in 1410, and the gorgeous epitome of Art Nouveau style – the Municipal House built in 1912 – we visited a few 20th century monuments, some of them grim reminders of the recent dark past overshadowed by Nazism and Communism.  

Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535 in Gothic and Renaissance styles near the Old Jewish Cemetery with the most ancient graves from the 1300s, is now the Memorial of Holocaust Victims of Bohemia and Moravia whose names are listed with each last name followed by the first names of family members, their dates of birth and dates of death. There are 77,297 names of Holocaust victims – countless Josephs, Alberts and Rudolfs, Hannas, Marias and Albinas, ranging from babies mere months old to 80-somethings, all killed in WWII years – covering the entire wall space of the synagogue, with the geographical locations of 24 death camps listed in the center of the main hall. Among the victims names’ on the walls are the grandparents of Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State.

The Memorial to the victims of Communism by Olbram Zoubek presents bronze figures of a man descending stairs while gradually deteriorating, losing limbs and breaking open. The numbers, etched on the monument commemorate 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 who died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, and 248 executed during the Communist rule in 1948-1989.

Two abstract steel sculptures by John Quentin Hejduk inspired by David Shapiro’s poem “The Funeral of Jan Palach” are dedicated to the memory of the Prague student and his 1969 self-immolation in protest of the 1968 Soviet invasion. Called The House of the Suicide and The House of the Mother of the Suicide the structures are accompanied by a plaque displaying the poem whose lines, “When I had a voice you could call a voice/My mother wept to me/My son, my beloved son/I never thought this possible” reflecting the ideological oppression of the regime and the desperate protest of the dissident.

Among the contemporary architectural wonders visible from afar from the city hills and bridges are Frank Gehry’s The Dancing House completed in 1996 and Zizkov Television Tower by Vaclav Aulicky, built in 1992. In 2000, ten black fiberglass sculptures by David Cerny depicting giant babies were installed on the TV tower crawling up and down its pillars.

…In preparation to our trip to Prague, we planned on staying at the most luxurious and highly acclaimed Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa in the city center, next door to the American Embassy. The hotel availability, severely limited in the high season of autumn travel, yielded only one precious night in a royally decorated suite with plush rugs, gilded furniture, and a crystal chandelier in a 45-room dream palace comprised of four historical houses, half-millennium old.

Rich hues of red and gold in a vaulted-ceilinged lobby adorned with live orchids; murals on the walls of the Aquarius restaurant, depicting exotic scenes of faraway lands; the Renaissance courtyard with a cherub fountain, and the turquoise water of a swimming pool at the Ecsotica Spa were topped by the melt-in-your-mouth hand-made chocolate pralines prepared at the cozy and decidedly decadent Barocco Veneziano Café. Even this brief encounter with the Alchymist luxuries left an indelible mark on our entire Prague experience, making it a memorable highlight of this year’s travel adventures.

Of course no European travel is complete without some culinary exploration, and for that we turned to the tried and true Eating Europe – a great walking tour company that operates in several European capitals with a staff of professional guides, highly knowledgeable in history as well as in food scene of each city.

On an Eating Prague tour that was titled Prague Evening Food Tour, our excellent guide, Jan Macuch took us to family-owned bars and cafes so tiny they could’ve been easily missed in a maze of narrow streets and dark alleys surrounding the Castle hill. And that would be a pity!

From artisanal beer accompanied by locally produced cured meats and cheeses to amazing local wines, and from freshly prepared hearty soup to traditional goulash served with home brewed ale – our small group of culinary curious travelers consumed plenty of special treats along our leisure walk to the John Lennon Wall, Kampa island, and the famous Café Slavia – a historic hangout of Czech artistic intelligensia with live piano music and the notorious “green fairy” of Czech absinth.

It was time to say good-bye to the “Golden Prague” with its spires and bridges, white swans on Vltava, and its old-world elegance and hospitality.

Additional information at: www.czechtourism.com, www.hotelklarov.cz, www.alchymistgroup.com, www.praguewalks.com, www.eatingpraguetours.com.

 

 

Photography by Emma Krasov

When I told my friend that I wouldn’t be able to join her in Hawai’i because I couldn’t miss a culinary trip to Austria on the same dates we were planning, she smirked and said, “What culinary – sausage?”

Oh, if only she knew…

I want this story that I’ll unfold here like a picnic tablecloth for her and for you, to be an eye-opening testimonial to the true character of Austrian cuisine – bold and beautiful, yet modest and dignified – exquisitely artful, and filled with joy of life.

Arriving via always cordial Austrian Airlines on a warm September day, I checked into Altstadt Vienna in the city center, and immediately felt at home. The hotel was located in a repurposed apartment building from 1902, very similar to the one I used to live in in the Old Country… Guest rooms with high ceilings, double doors, and windows open to the fresh autumnal air, smiley polite service, and the contemporary art collection scattered throughout tiled hallways and wrought iron staircases – everything was welcoming, neat, and unmistakably European. Beautifully served breakfast with assorted fresh breads, cold cuts and made to order eggs (pouched in champagne sauce on my first morning!) in addition to homemade coffee cakes and high-quality teas set the mood for an exciting culinary exploration ahead.

Our group gathered and met with Bianca Gusenbauer of First Vienna Food Tour company by the Viennese most famous landmark, the Secession Building – a masterpiece of Art Nouveau nicknamed “The Golden Cabbage” by the sharp-tongued Viennese.

We’ve immediately learned a few things from our guide – that it’s mandatory to look in each other’s eyes while saying “Prost!” (yes, we started the tour with some Austrian sparkling); that on the map Austria looks like Wiener Schnitzel, its most famous dish, and that charcuterie is considered a good dinner in Austria while hot hearty meals are reserved for lunch.

On our walk through the Naschmarkt, the most important produce market in Vienna, we noshed on a variety of Austrian foodstuffs, from a golden-fried lake trout at Umar restaurant and cave-aged cheeses at Käsehütte to “blue poppy” Zotter chocolate and cloudy semi-fermented Sturm wine, only available for a couple weeks in season.

We concluded our exciting learning experience with Bianca at Café Sperl, in existence since 1880, where Imre Kálmán, Franz Lehár and a host of other composers, artists, writers, and high government officials indulged in the same atmosphere of marble tables, red velvet banquettes, and matt light fixtures as well as coffee and sweets we were enjoying on our tour – Mélange and Einspänner, Sachertorte, Apfelstrudel, Mohnzelten, and other purely Austrian delights.

Viennese culinary surprises continued to unfold in front of us. Tian, a Michelin-star vegetarian restaurant, led by Chef Paul Ivić, presented a five-course completely meatless tasting menu that sparkled with bright colors and imaginative ingredient combinations putting together pumpkin with apple and cardamom, celeriac with egg and edamame, and zucchini with mushrooms and capers to the most delightful effect. A desert course consisted of peach ice cream with dates and rose petal sauce.

Edible flowers made their appearance in a unique confectioner’s shop, Blühendes Konfekt, created by Michael Diewald. The “Blooming Confections” enthusiast picks most of his ingredients in his own garden and in the forests that surround the city. He dries petals, leaves, and whole inflorescences, and encases them in glittering sugar, creating one-of-a-kind fairy-tale stuffing and toppings for his pralines, marmalades and pastilles.

Thoroughly enchanted by Viennese cuisine, we headed south for Graz, the capital of Styria – one of Austria’s nine administrative regions, known for its forests and vineyards, mountainous lakes and apple orchards.

The most famous foodstuff in Styria is nicknamed “Austrian black gold,” but in reality its complex color palette differs from shades of emerald green to reddish-purple, colliding on the edges of a dense reflective black liquid. This is pumpkin seed oil, Kernöl, fragrant and delicious, rich and nutty, easily transforming any ordinary soup, salad, and even ice cream into a heavenly treat.

Our group was admitted to a special event – Styrian Pumpkin Seed Oil Tasting in a private room of Gasthaus Stainzerbauer – a restaurant in existence since the 19th century, located in one of the oldest houses of the inner city near Graz Cathedral.

A licensed nutritionist with a degree in science, Theresia Fastian, engaged us in a lively presentation on historical facts and cultivation of the pumpkin, traditional processing of oil, nutrients and tips on usage, and finally sensory experience and tasting. For comparison, we were offered five samples of pumpkin seed oil from different origins, and after her short lecture were able to easily identify the winners of real Styrian product annual competition vs. cheap knock-offs readily available on the world market, but not worth using for food.

For the occasion, the restaurant prepared a special menu of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, meat roast with red wine sauce, and everyone’s favorite vanilla ice cream with pumpkin seed oil and seeds.

After a good night sleep at the historic Wiesler Hotel (since 1909) overlooking Schlossberg – the castle hill in the heart of the city with an ancient fortress and the world-famous Uhrturm (a clock tower and a symbol of Graz) we embarked on a walking tour of the city and marveled at the tempestuous river Mur at the high level, with an artificial island Murinsel in the middle of it. The mussel-shaped swimming platform that lights alien-blue in the dark was designed by an American architect, Vito Acconci in 2003, when Graz was appointed the European Capital of Culture. The same year and for the same occasion an art museum, Kunsthaus Graz, was built, looking like a space ship from a faraway galaxy, and locally known as “Friendly Alien.”

After a visit to the colorful Graz produce and flower market, overflowing with seasonal bounty of apples, mushrooms, pumpkins, asters, and dahlias, we sat down for lunch at a posh Restaurant Carl by Philipp Haiges near the Opera House.  A delicate filet of trout (Austria’s favorite fish) with roasted red beets and herbed sour cream was a great example of the elegant seasonal cuisine widely consumed in the country in midday.

We tried several other local favorites. At the Delikatessen Frankowitsch, a deli institution from 1932, where city dwellers are queuing up around the block for the picturesque open-face sandwiches, we had Campari cocktails at the pop-up Campari bar.

At Bar Albert on the pedestrian-friendly Herrengasse, we sampled the famous Styrian Vulcano ham, aged for six months and marinated in herbs, and aged sheep cheese from the volcanic region in the vicinity of Graz.

At Landhauskeller, inside the oldest Renaissance building in Styria, we indulged in the traditional Styrian fried chicken, and in Schlossberg Restaurant high above the city, near the iconic clock tower – in more pumpkin soup with Kernöl and house-made dumplings with seasonal mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, and mountainous cheese.

In search of more Austrian culinary discoveries our group also visited Salzburg and SalzburgerLand – one of the most beautiful places in the world – with green pastures and blue lakes, framed by snowy peaks of the majestic Alps, where farm-to-table cuisine is an inherent part of the lifestyle, and not a passing fad.

Our first stop in the area was at Wirtshaus Döllerer in a small village of Golling. Dirndl-clad waitresses promptly put on the table bottles of Stiegl beer from the oldest brewery in Austria, in operation since 1492, and slate boards with freshly baked bread, butter, volcano ham, and a Kernöl dip studded with dark-green pumpkin seeds.

Chef Andreas Döllerer, a winner of multiple awards, and a cookbook author of “Cuisine Alpine,” puts on the table authentic Austrian dishes from his native region, like seasonal young venison in red wine and mushroom gravy, and Bluntau Valley char with local vegetables and horseradish.

After a hearty lunch, we headed to Fürstenhof dairy in Kuchl, where a healthy herd of Jersey cows provides enough milk for a fully operational cheese factory and almost daily cheese-making classes that attract tourists and locals alike. At an impromptu cheese tasting we familiarized ourselves with a variety of Alpine cheeses – from mild and creamy to sharp and fragrant.

Upon reaching our beautiful Hotel Gmachl, the oldest family-run business in Austria, located in the town of Elixhausen, we had just enough time to swim a few laps in an infinity pool in the hotel spa with glass walls, overlooking the village and the Alps above it, before sitting down to a well-prepared and beautifully served dinner of beef consommé with semolina dumpling, meatball, and strudel, and other Austrian specialties.

Next day, Friday, on our visit to Salzburg, we appeared right in the middle of a festive weekend celebration dedicated to St. Rupert, the patron saint of the Austrian state of Salzburg. The entire city center turned into an old-fashioned fairgrounds with pretzel- and sausage stands, carousels, and a lively crowd dressed in dirndls and lederhosen.

On a food tour of Salzburg with our guide, Astrid Zehentmayer from Salzburg for You company, we visited Rigler’s oil, vinegar, and spice shop, and sampled some of its distinct blends; stopped by the oldest bakery in Salzburg that dates back to the 12th century – Stiftsbäckerei St. Peter on Kapitelplatz, and tried bland, flour-and-water bread, prepared by the same ancient recipe; and indulged in a real original Mozartkugel a.k.a. Mozart ball, produced by Fürst in 1890. The company shop on Brodgasse is still selling the same fine chocolates with marzipan center, wrapped in silver and blue foil with the genius composer’s silhouette.

A delicious break at the oldest continuously operating coffee house in Austria, Cafe Tomaselli, yielded lavish coffee drinks and pastries, delivered to our table on a heavy tray by a graceful waitress in black dress and white apron.

Lunch on an outside terrace of M32 on a hill by the Museum of Modern Art, with spectacular views of Salzburg, presented yet another version of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, giving us a great opportunity to compare different preparations of this popular seasonal dish, and pick the favorites. 

Finally, we made one more excursion in SalzburgLand – a visit to Schloss Fuschl – an upscale hotel on the shores of a pristine lake, where we had our farewell dinner at the hotel restaurant Jagdhof serving goulash, spätzle, and a cake, that according to the hotel manager, far exceeds even the most famous cake in Austria – the glorious Sachertorte! If you don’t believe it you can travel to Austria and check it for yourself. Additional information at: www.austria.info, www.vienna.info, www.graztourismus.at/en, www.salzburg.info, www.salzburgerland.com.

 

 

0 976

Photography by Emma Krasov

AmaStella was the name of a brand new AmaWaterways ship I happily boarded for a 7-night river cruise from Budapest to Vilshofen a few weeks ago. With “Stella” (star) in its name and a rich, saturated with historical and cultural treasures of Europe itinerary, offered on the Melodies of the Danube cruise, I knew I was up for a treat. It was my birthday after all, and throughout the entire journey I was treated like a birthday girl I was! And so were all the other passengers on the ship…

We made fast friends, enjoyed shore excursions and lavish meals in onboard restaurants together, and were laughing often and toasting each other around our dinner table. At night, we were counting our lucky stars from a sun deck while our ship smoothly and almost imperceptibly was making its way along the mighty Danube.

AmaStella built 2016

Built in 2016 in Netherlands, the snow-white elegant AmaStella, with its advanced river vessel design, clean modern décor, twin balconies in most of its 79 staterooms, and only adult passengers on board for the late April trip, looked positively heavenly to me, whose one and only cruise experience before AmaWaterways has been chalked off as two – the first one and the last one! That time, years ago, I embarked on a gigantic ocean cruise that proved to be overcrowded, impersonal, and hardly relaxing. I remember staying in long lines to get off the ocean liner and back on it for every shore excursion. I still shudder at the memories of the liner’s swimming pools day and night filled with cavorting children; of the captain’s dance party attended by properly dressed couples as well as by young parents in their pajamas who came out with baby strollers and milk bottles to partake in the festivities; of the 24/7 eateries with abundant but tasteless food, and the overall feeling of vast and unfriendly place like a county fair on a cold rainy day… I didn’t think I’d be tempted to go on a cruise ever again.

Budapest Heroes Square

A chance encounter with an enthusiastic advocate of AmaWaterways first piqued my curiosity, then exited me with a possibility to travel in luxury on an all-adults cruise, seeing the most enticing sites of several countries and never dragging my bags from one hotel to another, and finally made me fall in love with the company’s truly wonderful ways!

Champagne on AmaStella

Dessert on AmaStella

Launched in 2002 by the former Viking River Cruise President, Rudi Schreiner, high-level travel executive Kristin Karst, and Brendan Worldwide Vacations founder and owner Jimmy Murphy, AmaWaterways with its substantial fleet of upscale vessels, several levels of walking tours onshore for more and less athletic participants, guided bicycle touring, and award-winning culinary program is rightfully considered the best in providing river cruises, and is touted as “the best value for the quality” by the River Boat Ratings and Evaluations independent site. “One gets the sense that management is constantly thinking up ways to appeal to a younger and more sophisticated clientele,” notes riverboatratings.com.

Lifesaver on AmaStella

Warm, helpful, attentive, personable, smiling – those are just the first-come-to-mind adjectives to describe the service on all levels of dealings with AmaWaterways. As always, before my trip I was roaming multiple air travel sites in search of a shortest, most affordable, most comfortably timed flight. Eventually, an AmaWaterways agent recommended a perfect flight that arrived in Budapest in time for my transfer to the river port, and it was all smooth sailing from then on.

Welcome to the cruise

Reception on AmaStella

Captain on AmaStella

The arriving passengers were greeted by the AmaStella team with a champagne reception and individual chaperons to take us all to our respective staterooms. The cruise manager introduced the crew, and the captain briefly described safety features before everyone was invited to a beautifully served welcome dinner.

Budapest Parliament at night

After sunset, the ship sailed past Budapest’s gothic Parliament building – the largest in Europe – on a special Illuminations Cruise along the city’s glittering riverfront.

At the Budapest market

Budapest SynagogueMatthias Church in Budapest

Next morning, on a Budapest guided walking tour, my new friends and I marveled at the bounty of the Great Market Hall overflowing with flowers, foods, arts and crafts, and many-many kinds of paprika. We explored the iconic sites of Buda and Pest that merged into one glorious city in 1873 on both banks of the Danube – from the vast Heroes’ Square and Hungarian State Opera to the historical Great Synagogue and colorful St. Matthias Church. Some of us climbed the 160-feet Castle Hill in Buda, others took a bus ride, but a great and unforgettable time was had by all!

Street art in Bratislava

In Bratislava, after a guided excursion to the Old Town Hall, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and the historic Main Square, we were singing in the rain and photographing each other hugging street art sculptures. I picked a bronze Napoleonic soldier, leaning on a street bench, who according to the urban legend woke up one morning too drunk to follow his regiment.

Detail of Imperial Palace in Vienna

Ankeruhr clock in Vienna

St. Stephen Cathedral in Vienna

Then it was a fascinating tour of Vienna with a knowledgeable and artistic guide who entertained as much as she educated us on the history of the former ostentatious capital of the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire. I picked a Special Interest tour titled Hidden Vienna and offered on the cruise itinerary as an alternative to the regular walking tour. Back alleys and secret spaces in existence since the Middle Ages took us to the Anker Uhr clock, Mozarthaus, and the underground catacombs of the St. Stephan’s Cathedral with mummified remains of the royals and bishops, and morbid rooms constructed from the bones of black plague victims.

That night, the majority of AmaStella passengers were enjoying a concert of Mozart and Strauss music onshore, but I was listening to Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” at the famed Vienna State Opera. While I was on a city tour, our cruise manager booked it for me, even though it was a last minute request and a full house – and this is a great example of the ways AmaWaterways treats its guests. I still don’t know how he managed to secure an orchestra seat for me in one of the most popular theaters on the planet on the day of the performance!

Durnstein

At sunrise, approaching our next stop at Weissenkirchen, I stepped out to my balcony at the precise moment when we were passing by the porcelain-blue baroque Stiftskirche, a cloister tower in Durnstein, considered the most beautiful of its kind in Austria. A Durnstein excursion followed, with local specialty apricot liquor tasting, and a tour of the spectacular Benedictine Abbey in Melk with a floor to ceiling gilded church – one of Europe’s largest monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Grein castle

The afternoon walking tour to the Castle Greinburg in Grein presented us with an opportunity to see Austria’s oldest residential castle with an extensive collection of historical artefacts, and the mysterious Sala Terena – a 1625 cavernous room decorated in its entirety with myriads of pebbles. A local dance ensemble performed folk dances for us in the castle chapel.

More excellent entertainment followed after dinner, with an onboard visit of the virtuoso trio of female musicians, La Strada, who performed an array of “melodies of the Danube” originating from all the countries located along the river banks.

1st of May in Linz

In Linz, where we appeared on May 1, the national holiday, besides the fascinating walking tour with a highly-skilled guide, we were witnessing a Labor Day/May Day parade of the local trade unions, with abundant red flags and pro-labor slogans.

Cesky Krumlov

Gardens in Cesky Krumlov

Among a variety of enticing onshore excursions departing from Linz on buses, bicycles, and on foot, I picked a half-day trip to the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in Czech Republic, nestled in the hills over the Austrian-Czech border. After a guided tour of its imposing, wonderfully preserved castle grounds, we were given some free time which I spent at the baroque gardens with emerald green lawns and patterned flower beds of flaming-red tulips.

St. Stephen Cathedral in Passau, Germany

Arriving in Passau, Germany, we visited the most opulent St. Stephan’s Cathedral with baroque and rococo architectural elements, and mind-boggling mural work.

Octoberfest in Vilshofen

Finally, in Vilshofen, a charming Bavarian town, and the last stop of our cruise, a private Octoberfest was presented to the AmaStella passengers in a large white tent spread out right on the dock. Live music and folk dancing were emceed by the local “beer queen,” and everyone had a chance to indulge in endless amounts of fine Bavarian brew. As if on cue, two white swans appeared by our ship, and lingered nearby, obviously attracted to the boisterous gathering.

Happy Birthday on AmaStella

That night, my new friends and I were dining at the Chef’s table in a special small restaurant onboard, feasting on a 10-course tasting menu that ended with a sweet surprise – my birthday cake, made of chocolate, nuts, and berries.

Next morning, we were saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts, to the beautiful and lucky AmaStella, and to each other. This weeklong adventure changed my opinion of cruises in general, but in particular I’m talking about the wonderful AmaWaterways – the stellar cruise company, sky-high above the rest.

More information at: www.amawaterways.com.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Sweet dreams are made of this… How do you bring together the world’s most coveted travel destinations and attractions all in one place? Monaco Government Tourist Office presented the upcoming summer exhibition, “The Forbidden City in Monaco: Imperial Court Life in China” during its 2017 press preview in San Francisco at the Michelin-starred Hakkasan restaurant.

Present at the event and speaking to the press were Thomas E. Horn, the Honorary Consul of Monaco in San Francisco; Guillaume Rose, Director of Monaco Government Tourist Authority; special guest Mark Braude, author of “Making of Monte-Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle,” and Monaco Government Tourist Office representatives.

2. Cafe de Paris

3. Casino at night

As if traveling to Monaco – the playground of the rich and famous – wouldn’t be enticing enough, the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast tirelessly expands its tremendously significant cultural programs year after year, with grandiose art shows usually coming every summer to the spacious Grimaldi Forum in the heart of the city-state.

Flag_of_the_Qing_Dynasty_(1889-1912).svg

The Forbidden City exhibition, jointly curated by Jean-Paul Desroches, Honorary General Curator, and Wang Yuegong, Director of the Imperial Court Life Department at the Forbidden City in Beijing, focuses on the last imperial Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911), its pomp and circumstance, its tastes and grandeur. The Forbidden City, one of the most impressive palace complexes in the world, and the world’s most popular tourist venue, attracts around 10 million visitors annually.

In the exhibition, there will be two models of monumental temples from the China Red Sandalwood Museum in Beijing, archival audiovisual material made public for the first time, and 250 artefacts, including portraits, ceremonial costumes, furniture, precious art pieces, and scientific instruments, some of which are ranked as national treasures. The show will run from July 14 through September 10.

4. Grace cocktail

The press reception started with a glass of rose champagne with a single pink rose petal in the flute – a tender homage to Princess Grace who made America’s connection to Monaco the tie that binds.

Hakkasan restaurant menu, suitable for the occasion, included some of the famed restaurant’s signature dishes.

5. Shanghai

6. Dumplings

An array of traditional dumplings included Shanghai siew long bao, har gau, scallop shumai, and prawn and chive dumpling.

The main courses presented the usual richness and variety of classic Chinese seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes served over egg and scallion fried rice:

7. Shrimp

Spicy prawns with lily bulbs and almonds

8. Claypot

Sanpei chicken clay pot with Thai sweet basil

9. Beef

Stir-fry black pepper beef

10. Lotus

Lotus root and asparagus and lily bulb

11. Desert

A duo of desserts consisted of yuzu-mango lollipops and chocolate blood orange cups.

For more information, go to www.visitmonaco.com