20 December 2013

CRF: The Best of Croatia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been almost a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Croatia.
More than any other country, we associate Croatia with hedonism, sun and the scent of saltwater.  Our trip never felt like a vacation, but Croatia is a vacation by definition.  Everyone there was on holiday in one way or another - it was the same for the naked Germans and drunk Russians and sunburned Brits that joined us on those rocky shores.  It was July.  The sun never seemed to go down.
For a few happy days, we stayed at a huge campsite on Cres Island.  There was squid to eat in town and beer to sip on the long oceanside promenade.  When we swam, we were stung by tiny jellyfish.  When we walked in the balmy evenings, we listened to cicadas and waves.  Nearby, in a pine forest, a rusty amusement park spun its blinking, neon magic.
At home in the US, not long after the trip, someone told us that Croatia sounded "scary and Russian."  It's true that in some places, like Zadar, one can find bomb-scarred buildings from the Balkan wars - but you have to look hard.  The scariest thing about Croatia today? Probably the spiny sea-urchins that lurk in the shallow water.
The Dalmatian coast is mostly rock, and some salt-scoured islands feel almost entirely dead.  Real, comfortable, sandy beaches are rare.  Most people sunbathe on concrete slabs.
In Opatija, a city where seafood approaches perfection, we had a barbecue of squid and blitva.  The market where we shopped for our supper was made of Tito-era cement and seemed like the only cool place in the sun-baked city.
The heart of the summer - no rain, mild air, a sense that nothing bad can possibly happen - is best spent in a tent.  We soaked up the sun and got into our sleeping bag coated with salt.  We never went inside.  We ate by the ocean, we napped in the shade, we swam and walked and came home to a crowded camping city that smelled always of grilling sausage and suntan oil.
This was the semi-permanent home of one of our neighbors there at Camping Kovačine - grandparents, small children and at least two couples used this one camper as a base.  Did they all sleep inside?  Hard to tell.
Late one night - well past midnight - we were returning to our campsite in Ičići and came across this streetlight game of volleyball.
These scales always remind us of communism.  Every market from Minsk to Budapest to Sarajevo is full of them.
We spent a lot of time near the Mediterranean on the trip, but almost always during the colder months.  The summer seashores are too crowded in Malta or Greece or Provence.  At least, they're too crowded for serious travel.
But there we were, in Croatia during the high season.  We succumbed because there was no other choice.  It's Croatia that we think of first when our minds turn to sunny saltwater.  It was unavoidably perfect.  It was a vacation.
To see all our posts from Croatia, just click here.
To see all the Cutting Room Floor posts, with great pictures from the other 49 countries, just click here.

CRF: The Best Of Slovakia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been almost a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Slovakia.
There are lots of Slovak trucks on the roads of Europe, and it's well known as the "other half" of Czechoslovakia, but it's still a little-known, hidden away country.  Crossing from the Czech Republic, we descended into a rougher land, spiked with tall pines and criss-crossed with big rivers - Slovakia smells first of wet woods and coarse paprika.
But there are also elegant promenades and beautiful towns, great museums and copper steeples.  One of our favorite towns was our last, the charming Banská Štiavnica in the south-west of the country.  This intriguing "plague tower" shone brightly in the middle of Trojičné námestie square.
At the technical museum, in Košice, we got lost in the dark, wonderful rooms.  Outside, the city was full of music and weddings, but the world contained in those dusty hallways was a silent one.  Displays of prickling antennae, bare wires, worn typewriter keys, dull lenses, remote controls - and what seemed like a hundred gramophone speakers.
Slovakia was a prickle of peaks and forests in the western part of the country.  At first, as we climbed in from the Czech Republic, the whole landscape was made of wood and stone.  It was wild.  We passed a shepherd once, standing in the mist by his flock, who wore brown robes of sheepskin that reached all the way to the ground.  He stared at us in the alpine cloud, leaning on his crook.  At that moment, Slovakia felt like part of the untamed past.
On the other hand, the middle of the country is flat and hot.  The land there is a continuation of the great Hungarian puszta, and the roads stretch out simple, flat and dusty.  We ate oil-slicked, paprika chicken soup at this restaurant, in the heart of the plain.  A thin, aproned Roma woman served us.  Across the road, a shanty village glowered.  Kids kicked at trash, the streets were full of brown water.  We stopped for not much more than an hour. The food was delicious and hearty, as it tended to be in Slovakia.
At "Theatur" bar, in Košice (not the gambling den pictured here), we had a long discussion about martinis.  Mainly, we talked about how good Theatur's martinis were - the young, blond bartender shrugged when we complimented her work.  "I didn't even try," she said. We agreed, after much discussion, that they were the best drinks we'd had in months, and were probably the best to be found within two hundred miles.
Košice is full of good food and exciting things.  It's also has - like so many regional hubs in ex-communist backwaters - its share of red neon and bleak-faced vagrants.
When we stayed in the forested hamlet of Podlesok, there wasn't much light at night save for the moon and stars.   In Slovenský Raj Národný Park (home to the slippery, scary Suchá Belá waterfall course) we saw men logging with horses and clearing weeds with scythes.  This was the edge of modernity, where tradition and machinery were meeting each other in the forest.
Ovčí syr (Slovak sheep cheese) can be so dry and thready that it almost feels like fiber on the tongue.  The tendrils squeak in your teeth. The texture is both bouncy and melting. Forget bryndzové halušky, this is Slovakia's real national flavor.
(Actually, bryndzové halušky is just potato dumplings with bryndza - one type of ovčí syr.  So, really...)
It was June when we visited Slovakia, so our memories are of summer heat, the sound of bugs, the intense green of early wheat and the yellow of rapeseed.  The days were long.  We ate picnics beside country roads, smelling pollen on the wind.
We spent one hot afternoon walking around Levoča, a pretty village with an imposing town wall and almost no people in the streets.  Slovakia evokes as much central-European grandeur as any of its neighbors (see Bojnice castle, the incredible ceilings inside or the ancient edifice of Spišský Hrad), but has many fewer tourists than the Czech Republic or Hungary.
Levoča has medieval history, UNESCO listed carvings and dark little cafes set in crumbling stone buildings - but, at the time, it was all ours.
To see all of our posts from Slovakia, just click here.
To see other Cutting Room Floor posts, with lots of other great pictures, just click here.

09 May 2013

British Food: Neeps, Squeak, Chips and Guts

When the fish hit the fat, it made a racket.  Sputtering, splattering, bubbling and squealing, it cooked fast and hot.  Within a bare few minutes, we were handed our lunch.  It was still hot after we'd walked from chippy ("fish and chip stand" is too long a name for something so simple) to beach, sat down, taken this picture and tasted the fries.  Or, "chips," as we all know they're called. On the Welsh island of Anglesey, in the middle of November, this felt like our most British of meals, and it came so close to the end of our time there.  The haddock was juicy, the crust was crisp, the whole thing tasted of salt and empire.
Beside the fish is a little dish of "mushy peas," which is exactly what it sounds like.
America and Britain are not culturally similar.  Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't been to both places.  We may speak the same language, but would a typical, small-town American restaurant serve haggis with neeps-n-tatties?  Is blood sausage a normal part of American breakfasts?  Can you imagine supermarket freezers displaying pre-made kidney pie?
Brits love their offal, especially certain pieces in certain places.  Haggis might seem like a joke to us Americans, a weird food that couldn't possibly be common, but it's truly a staple in Scotland.  This plate of haggis (the "neeps-n-tatties" beside it are simply mashed turnips and potatoes) was served to me in a raucous pub in Elgin, which is about as blue-collar a place as there is.  I ate the dish a few other times while in the north, and grew to really like it.  And I really liked it; not as in "it's weird, but I can tolerate it."  As in "I hope they have haggis on the menu!"
It's made from ground sheep's heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal and traditionally cooked in a sheep's stomach.  Nowadays, a plastic casing is often substituted for the stomach.  The flavor is richened with mace, nutmeg, allspice, marjoram, thyme and plenty of ground pepper.  It is so aromatic, so uniquely spiced, that vegetarian versions (using grain instead of organ) tasted undeniably haggis-like.  It really is delicious, and definitely isn't a joke.
Scotland isn't the only country within Great Britain with a signature dish that gets the imagination going.  Welsh rabbit is neither originally Welsh nor made of rabbit.  You'll find it referred to as "rarebit" in Wales, a word invented for the purpose of saying something other than "rabbit" for this meatless dish.  Welsh rabbit originated in England and is, essentially, fondue.  Cheese, usually cheddar, is melted and mixed with ale, mustard, cayenne, wine, what have you.  Then, it's either poured over bread or served with "soldiers" (finger sized slices of toast) for dipping.  So how did this cheesy food, which tastes exactly as you'd expect it would, get named after Bugs Bunny?  The two theories I've read point to the English insulting the Welsh - either that they were so poor, cheese was their rabbit (an animal the English already considered 'the poor man's meat') or that they were so bad at hunting, cheese on bread would be a Welsh rabbit hunter's dinner.
In Criccieth, while walking beneath a seaside castle, we stopped into a bakery.  It was early morning. The sun was coming up over the Snowdon mountains. The town smelled of baking.  We asked the girl behind the counter what these little rectangles were - she'd just pulled them from the oven and they were puffed up and emitting visible plumes of steam.  "These?" she said, giving us a suspicious look. "These are pie."  Pie?
"Yeah," she said. "Cheese pie."  She gave us another funny look.  How could we not identify pie?
In the UK, pie can be fruity, meaty, cheesy, round, square, deep, flat or otherwise.  It seems that if it's wrapped in pastry, it can be called a pie.  This one was mildly cheesy, with a small dose of grassy herbs and sweetish potato inside. It tasted a bit like a knish.

In Hawes, in one of the small stone pubs that dot the Yorkshire Dales, we tried steak, kidney and "Old Peculier" pie.  The beer, which really is spelled that way, made the dish an English take on an Irish classic "steak and Guinness pie."  Fish pies were about the same, with cream replacing gravy and large, pillowy chunks of fish.   It became clear that 'pie' could mean a stew with a puff pastry hat sitting on top or a broiled topper of mashed potatoes.

That's not to say that sometimes a pie is a pie just as you'd want it to be.  The United Kingdom kept our  excellent baked goods streak going.  Through Scandinavia, over to Ireland and now here, it's been three months of excellent whole grains, seasonal fruit and powdered sugar.  It was the stuff of dreams, of magazine pictorials.  And 'stuff' couldn't be a more appropriate word, because there was never a case in which we needed dessert.  We were often full on ale before a meal even began.  And yet...  who can resists?
Once we had 'pies' sort of figured out, there was the whole issue of 'puddings.'

Now, to address the elephant in the kitchen.  Is British food bland?  We can't deny the fact that salt shakers were employed at almost every meal and that things like "mushroom stroganoff" (a vegetarian pub staple) had a dizzying array of ingredients while still managing to taste like nothing at all except for a hard to describe, oxymoronic mix of 'rich' and 'watery.'  But we can't say that this, umm, subtlety of flavor was necessarily the mark of bad food or unskilled chefs.  It's just a style, one that favors the heartier, homier flavors of cinnamon, clove, cream and thyme rather than the punch of salt and spice.  One that prefers you tailor your own dish to your taste with the always readily available supply of condiments.  Above, a selection of packets in a Scottish pub.  Traditional British food may have a reputation for being bland, but does it really get much more British than worcester sauce, HP, English mustard and malt vinegar?

There's all that Indian food if you're looking for something punchier.  Some of the best Indian food of our lives.  It's what Brits eat out, if they're not having stew in a pub.  Like red-sauce Italian food in America, it's not seen as "ethnic" anymore.  We never had a true, traditional afternoon tea - towers of sandwiches, scones, china pots, clotted cream.  Nor did we stop for a "sunday carvery" - a man with a saber, thick cuts of meat, plentiful sides.  But we did eat plenty of curry, saag and daal.  Indian food is popular from London to Inverness, an omnipresent second flavor.  It is also not particularly photogenic, especially in dimmed restaurant lighting on reflective copper dishes.  Instead, we leave you with this picture of a ram.  Lamb or "mutton" is very common in the UK, and at Indian restaurants it is simply referred to as "meat."  Sorry, big guy.

04 May 2013

A Riot Of Color On The Welsh Shore

Traeth Mawr means "Big Sands" in Welsh; it's the name given to the wide estuary between Portmadog and a blank hillside of trees and rock.  Or, a mostly blank hillside.
Portmeirion is a fabricated, storybook "village" that is unlike anything else we've seen.  It is literally a patch of Italian baroque set down in Wales, like a spill of paint on a concrete slab.  Nobody knew how to explain it to us, and I'm not sure I can explain it here.  Imagine two postcards set side by side; the first is of wintry Britain, the second is of summery Portofino.  Portmeirion is like two distant vacations, remembered in a dream, thrown together and piled atop itself on the rocks.  Some people actually live here.  The rest of us pay an entrance fee and walk around, bemused and surprised.
The emblem of Portmeirion is a naked woman, calf-deep in waves, a hint of mermaid tail rising behind her.  When we walked those rocky shores, it was hard to imagine swimming or sunbathing.  The beaches of North Wales are empty expanses of sand and rock; the sounds of gulls and waves only made the loneliness more vast.  November there is a time of frosted fields and rattling, leaf-bare forests.  The fish and chip shops are closed for the season, the ice-cream stands boarded up.  This isn't a season when the rough coast - barnacled rock, concrete wharf, frozen sand - could seem hospitable to bare flesh.
But the pale citizens of this grassy land do emerge in the summers to venture into cold waves and lie in tepid sunshine.  North Wales, like the whole of North Europe, is home to hardy people who tire of winter. People are always drawn to the sea, aren't they?
A man named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis built this place in the half century between 1925 and 1975, using Italian seaside villages as a model, and bits of other buildings as his material.  Many of the architectural pieces already existed, and were moved and reassembled at Portmeirion.  Ornate clock towers jostle against wrought-iron porticos. Hard angles take surprising turns, statues peer from unexpected windows. The whole thing has a postmodern, collage-like air of disorder and order.  It feels a little like a town made from children's toys, where disparate parts are thrown together in a pile and expected to play out a fantasy.
Though some of the buildings are semi-inhabited (there are "private" signs everywhere, so that we tramping tourists don't stumble into an actual Welsh living room), the majority of the structures really serve their own purpose.  William-Ellis was building a piece of art, not planned-housing in the mold of Le Corbusier.  Room is needed for a cafeteria, of course, and for souvenir shops and ice cream, a hotel and restaurant.  Tens of thousands of people visit Portmeirion every year.  It might as well be a called a museum.
The small touches are some of the most poignant.  Little copper fixtures, wooden statues of sea-captains, painted rocks, a sermonizing Jesus on a balcony.  The town isn't actually town-sized, but the few acres of buildings are so intricate that they feel like a much bigger place.
While William-Ellis used Italy as a rough template, the buildings and architectural features are from every corner of the globe. A colonnade from Bristol, England, is set against statues from Myanmar and Greek gods.  It's meant to be surprising and confusing, and some of it isn't even real - one whole facade is done completely in trompe-l'œil.  If there is one commonality, it's the influence of the sea on all these surfaces.  Everything is salt-touched and vaguely nautical.
I remember wondering, in the November darkness of two years ago, how the cold Lithuanian coast could ever attract hollidaymakers and sun seekers.  Cold light, beach-walkers in parkas, the threat of overnight snow.  We turn towards the sea for half the year, and away from it the rest of the time.
Something that remains is the smell of the ocean, especially in the still waters of the Big Sands.  That odor of kelp, salt and something indescribable emanating from the deep - it's the same all year.
Portmeirion was originally called "Aber Iâ," which Williams-Ellis took to mean "frozen mouth."  He changed the name to make it seem more pleasant, but he couldn't erase the actual image of a cold estuary.  As colorful and tropical as the village is, it will always look out over a big slick of Welsh, northern sand.  It's beautiful, but it could never be confused with Le Marche.
Near the estuary, on a rocky hillock, the Portmeirion "lighthouse" stands duty over nothingness.  The tiny, metal figure in the scrub is something like a playhouse feature - we ducked inside and peered out through the empty porthole. It's only about ten or twelve feet tall, and doesn't have a light (as far as we could tell).  The design suggests moorish rocketship more than naval signal.  The view from inside is empty except for glistening sand, reeds, wheeling birds.  Maybe it's the sea that projects to this lighthouse, not the other way around.
If I haven't really explained this place, forgive me.  Portmeirion isn't so much a defined space as it is a funny concept.  It isn't the right season, or the right texture, or the right temperature, color or height - not just for Wales, but for anywhere. In a children's book, the zaniness might make better sense.  In a architectural textbook, the ideas might be better ordered.  On a rock beside the water, it's just a pile of buildings.  Which is to say, it's fun.  It made us laugh, which is something a town usually doesn't.  It made us want to open every door we could find.