Sunday, March 12, 2017

A beacon of hope and a source of comfort and solace (143Cong.Rec.H7367)

TJ generously decided to use his R&R to come visit me, so I decided maybe he should get to see some sights besides my London living room. As a result, we made good on an R&R plan we had dreamed up but never did while we were in Pakistan: a week in Wales. 

After a train ride into Cardiff (and a minor detour due to a non-dog-friendly car-rental company), we drove into our first base: Brecon, a town in the middle of the Brecon Beacons (top). We checked into our hotel, the Markets Tavern, then got the lay of the land, stopping by the actual Brecon Market right before closing time (bottom left). Then, after a long day of travel, we unwound with some Welsh lamb at The Bank (bottom right).
The national park is known for its waterfalls, and even in the middle of Brecon, the River Usk provided a few rapids (top). Overlooking the waterway is the remnants of Brecon Castle, a Norman structure whose adjoining house has been turned into a hotel (bottom left). In the 11th century, the Normans also built a house of worship on the foundations of a Celtic church; in the early 20th century, it became the Brecon Cathedral (bottom right). 
After a short loop in Brecon, we set out for a longer circular walk in the park. We thought we might have to turn around not far from the start when the route crossed some paddocks, which contained some intimidating long-horned cattle (top left) and some friendly donkeys (top right). After we managed to corral Sage past both (and over some turnstiles) without incident, we skirted a creek as we climbed up a wooded hillside (bottom).
Eventually, we steered away from the creek and through some (thankfully, empty) sheep pens until we spied our goal: Table Mountain hillfort (top left). As we scaled the last few meters, we were supposed to be able to see nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain, but unfortunately, the fog wasn't cooperating (top right). That didn't stop us from taking a break to survey the valley once we reached the footprints of the Iron Age fortress (bottom).
We descended beneath the clouds to return to Crickhowell, the Black Mountain town from which we had started. The seats by the actual fire in "The Snug" were full (left), so we found a spot by the fake woodstove in Britannia Inn. We feasted on a bit of Welsh rarebit -- and the best-tasting hot chocolate ever -- while Sage paused his paws (right).
With the dog passed out in the back seat of the car, TJ and I stopped for a small tour of Abergavenny. While watching a community rugby match, we shared some pastries we had bought in Crickhowell's market. Then we walked over to Abergavenny Market, which offered more crafts than croissants (left). On offer at Abergavenny Castle were views of the surrounding Monmouthshire countryside (right).
TJ and I each picked one last stop as we circled back to Brecon. I chose Hay-on-Wye, but sadly, the many bookstores of the literary town were shuttered for the night. TJ chose Ty Gwyn cidery, where he got to try a few samples and meet the owner before it closed (bottom). 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Having some fun on the Jersey Shore (DCPD-201300368)

I'm not going to lie, I don't believe I ever thought about the fact that because there is a state called "New Jersey," there must be an older place called "Jersey." As it turns out, that older place is Jersey Island, which couldn't be any more different than the U.S. state. I arrived in the middle of the night, but when I looked across the street from my accommodation at the Ommaroo Hotel the next morning, the situation was nothing like "The Situation." A few brave women, far from JWoww and Snooki, were taking an early-morning dip (left). Later in the day, when the tide went out, it was more obvious that they were actually swimming in the Havre des Pas Lido, not just English Channel surf (right). 
I didn't watch for long, though, because I came with the goal of biking the entire Route 1 Coastal Route, which I nearly did. When I set off from the Victorian and Regency rows of St. Helier to find a rental bike, the skies were overcast (left). Luckily, by the time I got around the harbor and on the road, the sun was making an appearance (right).
From the main city, I headed east to Le Hocq, a much less-populated stretch of beach that is dotted with defensive towers (left). Efforts are ongoing to preserve the round towers, which include ammunition magazines and gun decks, but some have already been protected by becoming part of residences (right). 
As I rounded the island's southeastern corner, I came upon Gorey, which I recognized from a distance due to Mont Orgueil Castle (left). The medieval fortress is perched over the harbor, where I nearly stopped for a cream tea (right). But knowing how far I had to travel and seeing the hill I would have to climb to get out of the town, I pressed on.
My next stop was Rozel, an off-the-beaten-path fishing town (top). This detour was planned so this hungry woman could eat at The Hungry Man, a harborside food shack (bottom left). I soaked in some sun and sipped in some tea while I ate a sandwich made from a well-known island delicacy, spider crab (bottom right).
On my way back to my hotel, I ran into some specimens of the island's other famous protein, Jersey cattle (left). I knew I wouldn't make it around the whole island in one go, so I used the scheme of Green Lanes, back roads whose speed limits are set at 15 mph to discourage cars (right), to cut back through the center of the island, so I could explore St. Helier before nightfall.
With my rental bike properly secured, I strolled through downtown. The main drag is King Street, whose French equivalent, just in case you can't see in the photo, is Rue de Derrière, which made me snigger (top left). The island is nearly as close to France (465 kilometers) as it is to England (356 kilometers), and it has long had French influence. Eventually, I stumbled upon the Central Market (top right), where inside it was easy to forget whether the flags represented the Union Jack or the Tricolour (bottom left). The same flags were flying above a giant crab in the Fishermongers' Market across the street (bottom right).
Downtown funnel into the harbor and Liberation Square, created in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the island's freedom from German occupation (top). The last British forces left Fort Regent, on Town Hill above the square, in 1940, and not long after, the Nazis moved their headquarters into the Pomme D'or Hotel. Across from the hotel, crews were setting up the finish line for the Jersey Marathon (bottom left). The next day, when I returned my rental bike a block away, I caught a few competitors heading into the chute (bottom right).
For dinner, forgoing French cuisine, I chose the Sri Lankan restaurant Unawatuna, right down the street from the hotel (top). But that was only after I stopped at a few pubs during my downtown wanderings. First, I watched some rugby at The Lamplighter (bottom left), and then at The Post Horn, I tried an IPA from the Channel Islands' only brewery, Liberation Brewery (bottom right). Jersey is so small that, after dinner that night, I stopped at The Cock and Bottle for one last drink, and I ran into and made friends with the guy in the background behind my beer in that last photo. One last drink turned into many with his group of friends -- as well as many hugs at the end of the night.
Somehow, I managed to make it up early enough the next day to cycle the other half of the island. I pedaled west to the second-largest city on the island, St. Aubin (top). Its waterfront is full of cute cafes, but it wasn't time for a break yet. I cut inland for a bit until I reached the southwest corner of the island, which is graced by La Corbiere lighthouse (middle left). After I rounded the point, I rested, allowing myself a coffee break as I watched hang-gliders drift over St. Ouen's Bay (middle right). As you can tell from the hills in the background, there were quite a few challenging climbs as I pressed on to The Priory Inn, where I followed the short path to take in Devil's Hole (bottom).
Luckily, the road back was mostly downhill. A few times, though, I did have to divert from my direct route in order to avoid the marathon. Once I got back to St. Aubin's Bay, I steered clear of the runners in the final stretch by roosting on a picnic table at the The Lookout Beach Cafe (left). The cafe's name refers to its view not of the race but of Elizabeth Castle, which is accessible by foot during low tide (right). With the tide high, it was high time I headed home.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The German festival that celebrates food, friendship, and the bounty of a good harvest (141Cong.Rec.E1789)

This post is about my trip to Oktoberfest (top), which clearly shows how behind I am on writing my blog. But it's even worse than you think because Oktoberfest is actually in September -- and I went to Munich for the very first weekend of the festival. Here's something else you might not have known (I didn't, at least): Oktoberfest is basically a big state fair but with more beer and lederhosen. The festival takes places on the Theresienwiese, which becomes a fairground full of thrill rides and food vendors (bottom left) whose multiple midways are packed with partiers day and night (bottom right). 
But if you want to experience the full spectrum of fun, you need to show up early. We were in line by 9 a.m., so we could be one of the first through the door to the Augustiner-Festzelt. We snagged a bench shortly after 10 a.m., but no booze was on offer until after the Procession of Officials (top left), which preceded the ceremonial tapping of the first keg at noon (top right). After the brewer ensured the suitability of the suds, the bar staff started filling mugs as fast as humanly possible (bottom).
Eventually, a glass the size of my head appeared in front of me (top left). Luckily, I had padded my stomach with a pretzel the size of my head as well (top right), so I was fortified for the merriment ahead. The celebration mainly consists of overcoming language barriers with your tablemates. The conversation often is interrupted by the band playing the "Ein Prosit" song, which provokes a collective raising of glasses (bottom left). Occasionally, we climbed on the benches to sing and dance, and sometimes, a brave soul would stand astride a table in an attempt to chug his whole glass before bouncers escorted him (or her) out of the tent. But the best entertainment simply comes from people watching, especially their mating rituals. I found the skills of the group of Dutch gentlemen across the aisle to be particularly on point (bottom right); I mean, who can resist matching green-checkered shirts, right?
Each beer tent has its own reputation; ours was hailed as cozy and friendly. We also chose ours because it was promoted as a classic: Munich's oldest brewery pouring drinks out of traditional wooden kegs. But clearly, we wanted to do some comparison, so we stopped by some other tents. One that shall not be named struck me as the smelly and sullied remnants of a frat party. On our second day, we tried the Paulaner-Festzelt, which seemed to have a more local feel (left). A brass band from an earlier parade played impromptu versions of "Ein Prosit" when the main tent band was on break (right).
Even in a short weekend getaway, you can only do so much beer drinking -- at least at my age. So we did take a break for some sightseeing. During a stroll through downtown Munich, we peeked in St. Michael's Kirche (top left) on our way to the main square, Marienplatz. We arrived at the Neues Rathaus (top right) just in time to catch the Glockenspiel display one of its limited daily whirls (bottom).
Back on the bigger, more modern streets, we stopped to watch the Traditional Costume Parade pass by. Each Oktoberfest brewer submits an entry; most consisted of horse-drawn barrel wagons (top left), but some opted for hop-pole floats (top right). The clothing on display was a bit more diverse, ranging from hunting gear of the countryside (bottom left) to the fancier frocks of the more citified (bottom right).
We had a pretty good view of the parade, but some locals found a prime perch from which to observe the procession (left). Seeing these residents and a mobile maypole (right) -- from the further files of things I didn't know, May 1 is Maypole, or Maibaum, Day, and around that time Munich hosts Frühlingsfest, which is affectionately known as "Little Oktoberfest" -- were good reminders that, ultimately, this world-famous festival is really still a community celebration. 
To wit, held adjacent to the booze carnival is the Bayerisches Zentral-Landwirtschaftsfest, an agricultural exhibition nearly identical to a state fair. There, you can buy tractors and playgrounds for your goats (top left). You can also check out which livestock won awards (top right) and sample käsespaetzle made from the milk of said livestock (bottom left). We had the common decency, however, to eat the obligatory wiener schnitzel meal away from its maternal makers, at Wirsthaus im Braunauer-Hof (bottom right).