Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Eating My Way Through Austria, Part II

Someone told me the other day that Austrians are famous for their desserts and after a few days in Salzburg I can see why. Apple strudel, Mozart kugelen (and also Doppler kugelen and Bach kugelen and anybody-else-famous-from-these-parts kugelen), anything with marzipan, and pretzels bigger than an adult head and smothered in chocolate or cream are available at pretty much every third establishment in this city.

still more giant pretzels inc mozart

See what I mean? Does Mozart really need a pretzel named for him?

giant pretzels

These are just ordinary pretzels: the one on top is cheese and olive. On bottom: chocolate. (Duh.)

On Thursday at lunch I kind of went overboard on the desserts. There were three at the buffet table. They were all so pretty – and small. So I figured, I’d just try one of each.


True confession: this was Wednesday’s dessert selection. I forgot to photograph Thursday’s. So you will have to use your imagination.

The first one was a kind of vanilla mousse topped with strawberries. It was smooth and creamy and extremely tasty.

The second one looked like the same thing, but in a smaller container and topped with raspberries instead of strawberries. But it was not creamy at all. I couldn’t figure out if the lumps were rice or some other starchy material, but long story short, I couldn’t finish it.

I consulted the menu card on the table. Apparently I’d just eaten semolina flummery with raspberries. I have no idea what flummery is but it sounds about as appetizing as it tasted (i.e., not so much).

I tried the third dessert, a chocolate-mousse-looking confection. Again, a failure. The chocolate was overpowered by a nasty, watered-down rum taste, and the texture was even more noxious than the flummery. Which, when I consulted the menu again, made sense: I had just consumed “schomlauer dumpings with schlagobers.”

At the risk of sounding ignorant about and ungrateful for all the other delicious confections I have encountered in my brief stay in this European dessert capital, Schlagobers sounds like what comes out of your nose when you sneeze. It does not sound like dessert.

My lunch partner, Connie, concluded that maybe the Austrians give their desserts awful names to encourage people to cut back on sweets. Works for me. I vowed right then and there never to eat a schlagober again.

Then I looked more closely at the menu and discovered that I’ve been eating schlagobers my entire life: in English, the word means “whipped cream.”

dessert menu

Google Translate could not tell me what a schomlauer dumpling is, but I think I’ve had my fill of them.




Seen in Salzburg

This is an advertisement for a Dr. Oetker Pizza, the likes of which I have never seen in North America:


And so I ask, Why, Save-On Foods? And also, Why, Real Canadian Superstore and Sobeys and No-Frills and Safeway? Why are you not stocking chocolate pizza? And also, why does my hotel room not have a microwave oven? Or a refrigerator? Maybe I will just buy the pizza and let it defrost and eat it cold…

Here’s what else I saw this morning while wandering around Salzburg, where Dave is attending a conference called MSCAL (Mass Spectrometry: Applications in the Clinical Lab):

mozart peeing?

I think it was Mozart — or, more accurately, a Mozart impersonator. (If I were in Las Vegas I’d probably be seeing Elvis impersonators (peeing?) in the bushes, but this being Salzburg, Mozart impersonators are more common.) Anyway, he was talking (either to himself or on a cell phone. Owing to his positioning in the bushes, I could not see). I will be keeping my eyes open for more Mozart impersonators.

And now, I shall continue with the food details, since I know that’s what you’re all here for…

Last night for dinner, Dave, a friend, and I went to restaurant called Barenwirt. Dave ordered meat on a skewer. This is what it looked like:

edited meat on a skewer pic

The melange d’meat (beef, turkey, and pork) made the meat-on-a-stick we have back in North America look positively anemic. It was a veritable weapon of mass destruction for the arteries.

Connie ordered weinerschnitzel that was so big it didn’t fit on her plate:

better weinerschnitzel

My order won the award for ugliest dinner:


I chose chanterelles in cream sauce with a napkin dumpling, and it looked nothing like what I expected. For one thing, I was expecting a dumpling. Something that looked like a tennis ball or, at the very least, a tennis ball folded to look like a napkin.

But the napkin dumpling looked more like slices of albino meat loaf floating in the cream sauce (which also looked nothing like what I expected). I think the sauce was made with red wine, which would explain the darkish color. I don’t think the color came from meat. I hope it didn’t; the dish was supposedly vegetarian, though that didn’t matter to me. I ordered it because I love me a good mushroom, and those chanterelles were very tasty, even if they didn’t look it.

This morning, while exploring, I got very distracted at a chocolate store, Zotter (, where everything is made with organic, fair trade chocolate. The variety of chocolate bars is beyond inventive: Scotch whiskey and chocolate, lemon and blueberry, beer and bacon, cheese and grapes and wine, hemp and brandy, peanuts and nettle.

That last one, the “Fake Chocolate” bar, is a new product. The woman who worked at the the shop made a special point of showing it to me. Check out the label:



In which I discover that I have something in common with Sarah Jessica Parker

I didn’t know anything about County Donegal when I signed up for a four-day, three-night bike trip in northwest Ireland with my family. I just wanted to go on a cycling trip with my husband and our two college-aged children, and the Ireland by Bike people, who had the best reviews of any of the cycling companies I contacted, only run trips in County Donegal.


I am now a County Donegal convert. I will happily return, even to cycle in the rain, because the people are so friendly and hospitable, the scenery (when you can see it through the rain and fog)  is beautiful, it’s heaven for a knitter (I’m a knitter) and, apparently, if my timing is right, I may well run into Sarah Jessica Parker.


SJP’s husband, actor Matthew Broderick, has been spending time in County Donegal since he was a child, and the couple own a house in Kilcar. Kilcar is the home of Studio Donegal, where Dave and Elizabeth and Noah and I spent about an hour and a half on Friday afternoon, admiring the beautiful woven fabrics, and learning about looms and yarn while waiting out a fierce downpour.


The wool I bought at Studio Donegal. All but the mohair is produced by and for the business.

We did not discover the SJP-Donegal connection until after our visit to Ardara (pronounced “r-DRAH”) the following evening. Ardara is a charming little town where every other store sells knitwear (sweaters, scarves, hats, socks), tweed (jackets, scarves, dresses, coats, blankets), and/or yarn.

day 3 town of ardara

The walk to Ardara from our B&B took about 10 minutes and involved a nice downhill stroll (not so nice cycling up, however).

Our favorite shop was Eddie Doherty’s, two doors down from Doherty’s Pub (also owned by Eddie, and managed by his son).

Noah and I visited Eddie’s shop in the afternoon, after we’d dried and thawed out from our 30-km cycle in the rain from Sliabh Liag. (Elizabeth and Dave stayed behind at the B&B: they were still drying and thawing.)

The sign on Eddie’s door said “Ring the bell and wait one minute.” So we rang the bell and as we waited I peeked through the front window, taking note of the wool jackets, caps, and scarves, and waiting for someone to appear on the other side of the door to let us in.

You can imagine my surprise (or perhaps you can’t – but I encourage you to try) when a woman appeared next to me on the sidewalk, brandishing a key. She had come from up the street to let us in.

“Eddie will be right here,” she promised, unlocking the door and ushering us through.

Sure enough, Eddie appeared shortly thereafter. A charming septuagenarian (he will be 78 in November), he has been weaving in Ardara for more than 60 years. His tweeds, in every color of the rainbow, and every combination, are sold all over the world.


day 3 eddie at loom

Eddie didn’t mention SJP, but he did tell us about a customer who once watched him weaving and bought the fabric right off the loom. I understood the temptation: I wanted to buy his fabric right off the loom, too.

Noah and I fell for Eddie’s beautiful blankets. Each was about 4 x 6 feet, and cost €125. Given that only minutes earlier, in another shop, we had seen a tweed coat on sale for €250, that seemed like something more than a bargain. However, at the time we were on a recon mission, not an actual shopping trip. We agreed to come back later – but not until after 9, because Eddie was going to watch the Donegal football match and we didn’t want to interrupt.

Later that evening, Dave, Elizabeth, Noah and I walked back into town, looking for a place to eat dinner.

We wound up at Nancy’s, the strangest dining establishment I have ever visited. It’s in what clearly used to be a house, albeit one that hasn’t been renovated all that extensively since it was built – probably sometime in the late 1800s.

IMG_4533 (1)

Nancy’s is up the road, the white building on the right. 

When we first walked in and saw that the tiny dining rooms to our right and left were full, we figured there were no tables.

We kept walking anyway, hoping to find a hostess of some sort. When we reached the end of the entryway, we found ourselves in a bar/dining room, which was attached to two more dining rooms. Every seat was taken.

day 3 bartender at nancy

“Are there any tables?” I asked a server.

“Just hold on a minute,” she said, disappearing.

She returned shortly, with a smile, and said, “Follow me.”

I could not believe there was more space – but she led us through a back room, and then up some stairs, into a space with four tables — and two shelves overflowing with books.

day 3 view to downstairs at nancy

day 3 upstairs room at nancy's

The food was as eclectic as the place: Elizabeth had a “Louis Armstrong Sandwich,” which was basically the world’s cheesiest tuna melt, but made with smoked salmon and smothered with some kind of astonishingly delicious perfectly melted cheese. I intend to spend the rest of my time in Ireland trying to find a restaurant that makes the Louis Armstrong Sandwich.

Noah had salmon and corn mixed together with cheese melted on top. Dave and I had smoked mackerel. For dessert, we ordered Guinness beer cake, and then, because it was so good, and we’d cycled a lot that day, and it was 9 pm and all we’d eaten since breakfast was a scone, we ordered another piece.

day 3 devouring guinness cake

That cake tasted even BETTER than it looks.

After dinner we went back to Eddie’s, where we watched him weave, learned a bit about his family, bought a blanket and a scarf and some socks (the latter of which Eddie doesn’t make), and noticed an article on the wall with a picture of SJP wearing tweed.

day 3 eddie at till

Eddie rings up Noah’s blanket and a pair of socks.

I didn’t read the article: the print was tiny and the light was dim and the headline – “Weavers Prosper as tweed sales get set to rise and rise” — suggested that it was about economics (zzzzzzz) and the picture a mere tease.

When I sat down to write this article, however, I got curious. Why was there a picture of SJP on Eddie Doherty’s wall? So I googled “Eddie Doherty” and “Sarah Jessica Parker” and lo and behold, I discovered that the article was hanging on the wall because Eddie was quoted in it.

Apparently SJP has bought some of Eddie Doherty’s tweed, proving, yet again, that she has excellent fashion sense. (I, on the other hand, have very little fashion sense, but I know what I like, and boy, I liked Eddie and his tweed.)


My beautiful scarf. A reason to look forward to winter! Thanks, Eddie. 

To be a Sheep in Ireland


Saturday morning we cycled in the mist to Slieve League, cliffs that rise more than 1900 feet over the coast in County Donegal. It was a 5.5km ride down and mostly up the road from Carrick, where we spent Friday night.

day 3 slieve league

Dave, Elizabeth, and I left our bikes at the first parking lot. Noah (surprise!) cycled to the top parking lot, and then we all hiked a bit further up. Had it been sunny, I think we might have attempted to go to the top, but the view was going to be obscured no matter where we were, and we had a long cycle ahead of us (30 km) to Ardara.

day 3 fog at slieve league
There were loads of sheep grazing in the fields atop the cliffs.

day 3 sheep life

They looked quite at home. In fact, some of them looked downright smug, if one can attribute such an expression to livestock.

day 3 why is this sheep smiling

Elizabeth said, “I think it’s so funny that these sheep live by the ocean. They have prime real estate.”

day 3 more sheep by sea
I think that’s why they look so smug.

Dorie, a fellow Ireland-by-bike(r), whom we ran into (not literally) on our way out of Carrick later on Saturday, said that when she dies, she wants to come back as a sheep in Ireland so she can lounge by the ocean for the rest of her life.

day 3 sheep by sea big view

We saw many less-smug-looking sheep on the rainy ride from Carrick to Ardara between noon and 2:30. These were the country cousins of the seaside sheep, and there was pretty near an endless line of them, as we were cycling through pastoral grazing lands.

I would like to report that the countryside was beautiful, but it was hard to see through the rain coating my glasses: it rained pretty much the entire trip, and when it wasn’t raining, it was misting.

On the plus side, the rain made it difficult to see when we were approaching a hill, which meant that I had no time to anticipate how much effort it would take to get up the hill, because I didn’t realize there was a hill until it was literally right in front of me. On the negative side, I still had to climb the hill. And there were a lot of hills.

The biggest challenge, though, was the downhill ride: once we reached the summit of whatever nightmarish pass it was that we had climbed, we were faced with a descent worthy of one of those Tour-de-France cycles through the Alps. It would have been great, were it not for the fact that it was pouring, my brakes were squeaking, and even though our Ireland-by-bike equipment has been nothing but dependable, squeaky brakes and a slick road do not scream “this is fun!” At least, not to me, the person who goes to DisneyLand not for the rides but to admire the flowers in hanging pots.

Speaking of the Tour-de-France, after two days of what a professional cyclist would consider less than a warm-up ride, I have newfound admiration for those riders. It’s one thing to get on a bike to travel a long distance for one day. To do it day in and out for weeks? That’s amazing. Or insane. Or both. At last, I understand why Lance Armstrong was so enamored of blood doping. I was ready for a little blood doping at around 1 pm yesterday. Or at the very least, a bike with an electric motor.

The Longest Ride (not really)

Today, Friday, we cycled (a mere) 20 km from Killybegs to Carrick, but we left at 10:45 and didn’t arrive until 3:30. Noah, who is in the best shape of the four of us, was mortified when he checked out the breakdown of our daily activities on the GPS (which our bike tour operators, Ireland by Bike, provided to us).

“We could have walked faster,” he said.

Not really – it took us such a long time because we kept stopping. (And, okay, I confess: it took us such a long time because there were a lot of hills on the shore route. And they were either long or steep or both. And not all of us can zip up hills like Lance Armstrong in the prime of his blood-doping years.)

steep hill no e

This is the flat part of the hill up from Fintra Beach.

dave, pre-bonking, on hill

Can you see how long and windy and hilly this road is?

But you’re not reading this to hear how out of shape I am. You’re not even reading it to hear about the trip. Admit it: you must want to see the scenery. And now you can understand why we took nearly five hours to go 20 km – we had to stop and gawp every 1500 meters or so (and also catch our breath and wipe sweat off our foreheads).

sheep and sea day 1

Some of my favorite things: the ocean, and sheep. In the same place! (Even Cape Cod doesn’t have that.)

Our first stop was at Fintra Beach, just outside of Killybegs. On the way to the beach we passed a new housing development that looked like something I saw the last time I was at Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, about 15 years ago: boxy little houses on a windswept plain by the sea.

plimouth like houses

I apologize for the less-than-impressive photo of the boxy houses. We passed them while going downhill, and I didn’t want to waste the momentum. So you’ll have to imagine them from this long shot.

Actually, a lot of what we saw today reminded me of Cape Cod. Also, a lot of what we smelled (mildew, seaweed, salt air). I feel very much at home here.

From Fintra Beach we rode along the coast to Kilcar, where we stopped at Studio Donegal, a woolen mill that’s been run by the same man, Kevin, since the 1970s. The weavers – today they were three men who appeared to be in their 50s or 60s — make beautiful wool that’s used for hats, coats, vests, jackets, scarves, and blankets.

weaver in studio 180 threads?

This weaver is making a lot of scarves at once. The person cutting can tell where to cut them, because the wool separating the scarves is a different color.


This is Kevin, who runs the mill. He was explaining to us how yarn is made from carded wool.

Kevin showed us around. Some of the equipment is nearly 100 years old. It’s maintained by a fellow from Britain who has lived in the area for many years.

wool on spindles

Wool on spindles.

Today’s big news is the Brexit vote: the Brits voted yesterday to leave the European Union. I was itching to know what people thought about it, but it seemed to me that most people we encountered, at least in our B&B at breakfast, weren’t interested in talking about it.

Dave and the kids and I talked about it – we were all shocked and upset (and for me, at least, worried about the implications for the US election) – but the other folks at our table didn’t join in our conversation. Maybe they were just as shocked, or maybe they hadn’t heard about it, or maybe they don’t talk politics with strangers on holiday.

However, Kevin’s son, Tristan, who was working the till, shared his opinion. He is convinced that Britain will keep holding referenda until they vote to rejoin the EU. He also said that he phoned their British employee this morning and joked (at least, I think it was a joke) that the immigration police were heading his way to kick him out of the country.

Instead of politics, we talked about wool. Tristan gave me a lesson about what makes good yarn (it has to do with the number of twists per inch, among other things), and showed me a number of different kinds of yarn for sale.

beautiful yarn on machine

This yarn is in the back room — not for sale to the general public. But you get a picture (literally) of the beautiful colors.


bags of wool

After we saw this room, with the dyed wool ready for carding, the song Baa Baa Black Sheep ran through my head for the rest of the day. But there were way more than three bags full of wool in the back room of Studio Donegal.

There’s a commercial knitting mill in town that spins yarn for Studio Donegal. Studio Donegal gets its wool from local sources, and also from New Zealand and Australia. Tristan has also bought the remaining stock from a local farmer who decided to get out of the mohair business (maybe something happened to his goats?).

We wound up spending close to two hours in Kilcar, most of it in the mill, because while we were there the sky broke open and the rain came down in a big way.

studio donegal outside

There’s a saying in Cape Cod: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The same applies to Ireland. I took this picture about 20 minutes after an hour-long downpour!

We were definitely more prepared than we had been last evening, when we got caught in a downpour and only Dave had rain pants.

We were prepared because we stopped on our way out of Killybegs at McGinleys, a nice little shop that sells sporting equipment and clothes. Now Elizabeth, Noah, and I are the proud owners of rain pants. But just because we own them doesn’t mean we want to be out there, cycling in the rain…

modeling our rain pants

My children fail to share my enthusiasm about our new rain pants.

And we didn’t have to, because by the time we left Kilcar, the rain decided to take a nice, long break. It didn’t start up again until about 7:30, by which time we were eating dinner at the Cook’s Pantry in Carrick, a 10-minute walk from O’Neill’s B&B, where we are hunkered down for the evening.

Tomorrow we will head out to Sliabh Liag, also known as Slieve League, or Slieve Leag, or Slieve Lieg (it’s the Irish equivalent of Hannukah –nobody agrees on how to spell the transliteration). It’s a 600-meter-high mountain at the edge of the ocean, with some of the highest cliffs in the country.

Not surprisingly, Noah wants to cycle up. Equally not surprisingly, the rest of us are less than enthusiastic about that idea. Brid (pronounced “Breej”), who runs O’Neill’s B&B, suggested we consider a boat tour around the cliffs.

However, given my propensity for motion sickness (I can’t even sit on a playground swing without wanting to throw up), when faced with the choice between a boat tour and a bike ride up a mountain, I think I’ll opt for a walk.

Stay tuned!

Fifty Shades of Green (and also some footie news)

June 23, 2016

We’ve been in Ireland for just over 13 hours and we’ve taken a bus across the country, a car to our bed-and-breakfast, and a bike ride in the rain. Tomorrow, apparently, we will be taking more bike rides in the rain. I would complain, but I knew what I was getting into when I booked this bike tour: a country doesn’t earn the nickname Emerald Isle because of its dry, hot climate.

50 shades of green

Ireland earns its nickname because most of it is this color, and you don’t get all that green without a whole lot of rain.

On the plane from Vancouver to Dublin on Wednesday, I sat next to a lovely septuagenarian, Moira, who moved to Canada from Ireland nearly 50 years ago and was flying back with her daughter and granddaughter for a family visit. She described her homeland as having “40 shades of green.” I think there may be 50. Or more.

We are bedding down in Killybegs, 30 km from Donegal. As fitting for a town on a peninsula that sticks out into the North Atlantic, it’s a fishing village.


We did not buy our fish here. We bought our fish cooked (also fried, baked, grilled, steamed, smoked, and in a salad with crabmeat) at the Turntable Restaurant at the Tara Hotel. We are now officially addicted to smoked mackerel.

It’s also the home of Seamus Coleman, captain of the Irish national football (soccer) team that beat Italy Wednesday night to advance to the round of 16 in the Euro 2016 tournament in France. His father owns the hotel down the street from our B&B.

bay view hotel

Seamus Coleman’s father’s hotel, the Bay View. True to its name, it is directly across the street from the Bay (the watery one, not the famed Canadian department store).

There are signs in all of the windows saying, Good luck Seamie! There are signs everywhere, actually, cheering on Seamie (and the Irish team).

good luck seamie2

The front door of the Bay View Hotel. Good luck, Seamie! (and the Irish team.)

good luck seamie

A window at the Bay View Hotel. Good luck, Seamie! (and the Irish team).

Apparently, Seamus (Seamie to the locals) and his team will need the luck when they meet France on Sunday. Patricia, who runs our B&B, The Seawinds, with her husband, Gerry, told us that the last time Ireland played France, France got away with a handball and as a result, Ireland lost. The locals fear that history will repeat itself.

seawinds dining room with seamie pic

That’s me in the mirror, taking a picture of the cereal counter in the dining room at The Seawinds. Gerry and Patricia don’t have a Good luck, Seamie! (and the Irish team) sign, but they do have a signed photo of Seamie. His handwriting is illegible. When he wraps up the soccer career, he should work on his penmanship.

I thought Patricia was talking about a game that happened a couple of weeks ago. In fact, she was describing a 2009 game, leading up to the 2010 World Cup, when French forward Thierry Henry touched the ball with his hands. The ref didn’t make the call, and France scored, thwarting Ireland’s opportunity to short-cut its way into the World Cup (the team had to take the long, hard route).

This article — — provides background, including details of what is probably best described as a a don’t-sue-us-for-screwing-you-over payout to Ireland, courtesy of Sepp Blatter, underscoring yet again what a crooked knob he was, and why we should all be glad that he’s no longer running FIFA.

dave in front of mginleys

Dave poses in front of McGinleys, a wonderful little sporting goods and clothing shop across from the Bay View Hotel, where we purchased rain pants on Friday morning, partly to keep dry, and partly to ward off the rain. Stay tuned to find out if they worked. Note the 8.5 x 11-sheet of paper in the lower half of the front door. You guessed it: it’s another good-luck-Seamie sign.


Switzerland is for vultures (and also bald eagles, peregrine falcons, snowy owls, and assorted other birds of prey)

Until a few weeks ago, what little I knew about hawks is that one of Robert F. Kennedy’s sons trained one when he was a teenager. Such are the sort of useless facts that one accumulates after spending too much time reading Kennedy family biographies.


vulture needs a pedi

Who do you think has nicer toenails? The Kennedys, or this vulture?

However, knowing that a Kennedy offspring had a hawk did nothing to inspire me to learn more about the animals (though at the time it did inspire me to learn more about the Kennedys). What did make me want to know more about birds of prey was Helen MacDonald’s richly descriptive memoir, “H is for Hawk.”

book cover

Read this book!

I first heard about the book when someone pointed out on Facebook that the review in the New York Times had referenced a college pal, the naturalist and writer Sy Montgomery. About a year after the book came out, another writer friend/nature lover, Elizabeth Graver, announced on Facebook that she’d read it. She praised it lavishly.

bird doing tricks part 2

I am sure that if Elizabeth Graver had seen this critter (I believe it is from the raven family), she would have praised it lavishly, as well. It sure did know how to do entertaining tricks.

I must read “H is for Hawk,” I thought to myself, but even though I’ve long since abandoned my obsession with Kennedy bios, I had too much else on my reading list and didn’t get around to it. Then, last month, my writer friend/massage therapist Laurel Deedrick Mayne loaned it to me. I was barely halfway through it when I realized I needed my own copy, so I could circle the beautiful parts, loan it to friends, and also read it to my neighbor, who shares my taste in literature and can no longer hold a book, as he has advanced ALS. But that’s another story.

vulture head

If you looked like this, you, too, might be reduced to eating dead animals off the road, because really, who would invite you to dinner?

I brought “H is for Hawk” with me to Ascona, Switzerland the last week in May. My husband had a conference there, and I was going to spend the week with a friend, Silvia Mari, who lives in the alpine lakefront town with her husband and two children. One day Silvia and I went into Milan (where she grew up, about two hours south of Ascona). On the way there and back, as she worked, I read.

more incoming

Incoming… I think this is a white-headed vulture

“We have a Falconeria in Locarno,” she said when she noticed my book. Locarno is the town next to Ascona. I thought she said “falcon area,” as in, a place where falcons congregate. By the time we pulled into the Falconeria parking lot on Saturday morning, I understood that it is a wildlife sanctuary for birds of prey and an education center for visitors.

silvia sets up dave

Silvia encourages a falconer to plant a caracara on Dave’s head. Dave thinks she is joking.

wearing a hat pays off for dave

Silvia was not joking.

Silvia had promised that there would be a show featuring the owls, hawks, falcons and eagles at the Falconeria, but she hadn’t said anything about falconers dressed in authentic 19th-century falconer garb, or that the birds would perform, as it were, to a background of classical and movie soundtrack music (Harry Potter figured prominently, especially during the snowy owl segment), or that at one point there would be more than a half dozen massive birds swooping past our heads, creating breezes that ruffled our hair. Sometimes their talons grazed the tops of our heads (as happened to Silvia). Sometimes they stood on our heads (see above).

incoming hawk

There was a beautiful choreography to the show: the birds sailed back and forth between the four handlers, gliding through the air from one corner of the open-air “theater” to the other. The lines of communication were plainly visible: you could see the human watching the animal and the animal watching the human, one giving the cue, the other receiving and reacting to it.

faclconer says oh no you don't

Watching the expressions on both sets of faces made me think differently about the sections of “H is for Hawk” where MacDonald writes about her goshawk, Mabel, as if Mabel were human (all the while making it very clear that Mabel is very much a wild animal). After  watching the show at the Falconeria, I felt I had a greater understanding of what she meant.

About fifteen years ago, Dave, my mom, Elizabeth, Noah, and I drove from Edmonton to Alaska. Somewhere in Alaska we were privileged to observe bald eagles in the wild. They were far enough away that we could not see their faces, nor did I wonder much about them as individuals at the time. But I know now that if I ever have that chance again, I won’t take it for granted.

me looking at owl

When I was a kid, I had an owl puppet that looked something like this. However, the puppet never flew off my hand (as this real one did, moments before this photo was taken. Also, it didn’t weigh nearly as much, and I was never worried that it might peck my face off. 

Dave and I spent a little more than an hour at the Falconeria with Silvia and her nine-year-old daughter, Emma, who is a big fan of the place. I could have stayed all day. I look forward to the next time I get to visit, either the Locarno location or another sanctuary for birds of prey

In the meantime, if you get a chance to go, don’t miss out on the opportunity; it’s unforgettable.

Here’s a link:

In Which Elizabeth and Debby Climb Up and Down An Alp

Elizabeth and I had an authentic Swiss experience on Monday, June 15: we climbed an Alp, ate amazing chocolate, and encountered free-range cows, although not necessarily in that order.

first view of cows

We started from Locarno, a town about a 15-minute bus ride from Ascona, where we are staying. In Locarno, we took a funicular up the mountain to Orselina, where we caught the gondola that carried us to Cardada, more than 1300 meters above sea level.

view from the gondola

The view from the Cardada gondola

In Cardada, we ate lunch at one of the half dozen restaurants dotting the top of the mountain.

restaurant where we had lunch

Ristorante Colmanicchio, gourmet food in a stunning setting

The gondola ticket seller recommended Ristorante Colmanicchio, part of the Gusta Cardada program. You pay a set fee (in our case, 42 Suisse Francs each), which includes your meal and the return trip up and down the mountain.

We had a choice of two dishes off the massive menu.

totally cool menu at restaurant where we had lunch

The menu really was massive

We took one of each dish and shared.

veal with tartar sauce

This is the veal, which I ordered. It is smoked in the ristorante smoker, sliced super thin, and served with homemade mayo flavored with what appeared to be chopped fresh spinach and tiny pieces of chopped orange. It was quite tasty.

the detail on my veal

The flower arrangement on top was a nice touch

Elizabeth ordered the fish (I think it was trout), which was caught in Lake Maggiore (at the bottom of the mountain), smoked in the restaurant smoker, pan fried with chopped almonds, and served beneath greens grown in the restaurant garden (which is next to the smoker).

e had fish salad e fish closeup

For dessert we ordered chocolate cake and linzer torte.

linzer torte

Traditional linzer torte is made with raspberries, but because apricots are in season, that’s what was in our torte.

e and chocolate cake

Typical Waldman-Wishart behavior: don’t eat your food; photograph it.

After lunch we hiked the remaining 340 meters to Cimetta, where the view of Switzerland and Italy down the lake becomes even more amazing.

nice view

North is to the left of the photograph. South is to the middle/right. Italy is at the top middle of the picture (in the far south).

smiling hike to cimetta

Shortly after finding the path to Cimetta, I heard the sound of metallic bells in the distance.

“I think we’re going to see some cows,” I said to Elizabeth.

Sure enough, as we rounded a bend, there they were: a quartet of cows with the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen on cows: long, red, and silky.

e captures cows

We stared at each other, the cows and Elizabeth and I, and then Elizabeth and I headed up the path, at which point one little cow came wandering, alone, right toward me.

killer cow

I have not encountered many free-range cows. For a second I wondered if I should be afraid. Perhaps this was a killer cow? But no, he looked at me for a second, and then, as if in a video for the hit Dionne Warwick song, just walked on by.

e and the killer cow

Clearly the cow was uninterested in us.

About 20 minutes later we encountered a second, much-bigger herd of cows. They were grazing near the pizza restaurant a little further along the path.

more cows

lucky cows

“I wonder if those cows realize how lucky they are,” Elizabeth said as we took in the near-panoramic view (and the smells wafting from the pizza oven which, mercifully, overpowered the smells emanating from the cows).

cow king

King of the pizza restaurant herd. Dig that cowbell.

The closer we got to Cimetta, the more I found myself about to burst into songs from “The Sound of Music.” But I refrained, and sang in my head instead.

too hot for pants

Climb every mountain

approaching a restaurant

With the sound of music

up and up and up

Ford every stream (yes, it’s a lake, but I didn’t take pictures of any streams on this hike).

All this could be yours

The hills are alive

When we reached Cimetta, we decided to take the chairlift back to Cardada.

much better chair lift down pic

I haven’t been on a chairlift in years, and as soon as we exited the lift garage (or whatever it’s called), I remembered why: I actively dislike being suspended hundreds of feet above ground.

Every part of me was having an anxiety attack (although the anxiety attack in my bum may actually have been the vibrations from the chair. I’m still not sure).

valley view

How deep is that valley? So deep I was having panic attacks imagining myself tumbling out of the chairlift and landing in the middle of it.

chair lift and swiss flag pic

The gondola ticket seller had told us that the walk from Cardada to Orselina was about two hours. Maybe it is, if you know where you’re going, your knees work, and you don’t encounter free-range, barking dogs.

Otherwise, you can count on a three-hour walk.

For us, the walk was made more complicated by the fact that we’d forgotten to bring water, and the path was lined with rocks ranging from about the size of a paperback book to the size of a small coffee table. Uneven pavement and weak, wobbly knees do not a good combination make. Every time I took a wrong step (which was often), I wrenched my poor knee, gasped in pain, and set Elizabeth to wondering if I’d died in the middle of the path.
After a while she stopped paying attention and raced ahead.

the walk down

Elizabeth in a typical position on the way down the mountain; as far from me as possible.

A few times we lost the path completely. Once, after not having seen signs for nearly an hour, we finally encountered one, but it said nothing about Orselina, only that we were heading to St. Bernard.

the scary bridge

At least it was shady most of the way down, a blessing given that we forgot to pack water…

This was rather disconcerting, as we were unaware of St. Bernard (the place, not the dog) and had no idea where it was. However, we did have a map, and upon consulting it we discovered that St. Bernard was one town north of Orselina. So at least we were headed in the right direction.

better scary bridge pic

Elizabeth on the unsteady, barely-held-together bridge, one of several that we had to cross.

Shortly after the St. Bernard scare, Elizabeth came upon an actual dog scare — a really loud, barky dog. The dog was blocking her access to the path. I was too far away to see that the dog’s tail was wagging excitedly, so when she called out to me that a vicious dog was blocking her way, I agreed that we should take a detour.

However, detours only work if you know where you’re going. We did not know where we were going, and there was no path except on the other side of the dog.

“We have to go past the dog,” I told Elizabeth.

“But it’s barking!” she said.

“It’s friendly,” I assured her. “Plus, we have big sticks.”

We did not need the sticks. This was definitely a case where the bark was worse than the bite, because (thank goodness) there was no bite.

Down we proceeded, Elizabeth still leaving me in the dust.

e descends scary bridge

At one point she stopped, put her hands on her head, and turned slowly toward me. She was too far for me to call out “what’s wrong?” but it was clear something awful had happened.

My first fear was that she had left her phone on top of the mountain, which by now was nearly two hours behind us. There was no way I was going back up there.

My second fear was that there was a dead person on the path in front of her.

It never occurred to me that she had just remembered that she had left the keys to her Leeds dorm room in the jacket of the coat she’d sent back to Edmonton with Dave.

But that was a problem we could do nothing about. The problem in front of us – the path – we had to deal with, so on we went, until we finally reached what could have been St. Bernard, but what we prayed was Orselina. However, it looked nothing like the Orselina we’d been in earlier in the day. There were no signs of the funicular, not even the cables.

We found the one human in the area. He assured us that indeed, we were in Orselina. However, when we said “Funicular?” he shrugged, looked confused, and told us he spoke no English.

A few hundred feet down the road, we encountered a staircase. “I’ll bet this is a shortcut so you don’t have to take the winding road,” I said to Elizabeth.

She zipped down the uneven stone steps. I hobbled and cursed. I’d figured there would be about two flights of stairs. Instead, we descended the equivalent of three Empire State Buildings.

e said this was a tub

Elizabeth thinks this is an ancient bathtub. I think it’s a coffin. By the time we stumbled past it, I was ready to crawl into it for eternity, just to relieve my aching knee. You will notice that there are no more pictures after this one. I had pretty much lost my enthusiasm for everything at this point, photography included.

When we reached the road at the bottom of the stairs, we still had no clue where we were.

We found another human, who spoke only “Deutsch.” Fortunately, my high school German was good enough for me to understand that we had to take one more set of stairs and, at the bottom of the next road, turn right.

Again, we figured we’d be going down a couple of flights. This time, though, we descended the equivalent of three Eiffel Towers. On the positive side, when we reached the bottom we recognized where we were.

It took another 40 minutes to get from Orsellina back to Locarno, during which time we drank a lot of water and rewarded ourselves with treats at Laderach, a fancy chocolate shop that Silvia had recommended.

By the time we returned to Giuseppe and Silvia’s, I could barely make it up the three flights (of normal, even, manufactured stairs!) to their apartment. I collapsed on a chair with an ice pack and an Advil. I think I can still walk today, but it ain’t gonna be up no mountain.

In which Debby contemplates buying a cow (or having one)

On Wednesday, Elizabeth and I went on an excursion to Caseificio Bertagni, a small, family-owned dairy near Castlenuevo Garfaganana, one of the gazillion towns dotting the Apuan alps around il Ciocco.

We went as part of the Gordon Conference, the conference that Dave was attending in Italy. Most of the people on the tour were Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) scientists who were also attending the conference.

scientists on a cheese tour

Something tells me these NMR folks don’t usually dress in paper lab coats, but that’s what we had to wear in order to maintain the “sterile” conditions in the cheese factory. That’s Elizabeth in the center of the pic. To her left is a lovely young woman from Estonia, who is studying in Brno, in the Czech republic. The woman behind her is from China, and is studying in Lille, France. The guy behind her is from Baltimore, and he’s at the U of Pennsylvania.

The folks at il Ciocco, our hotel, arranged the tour. They made bag lunches for everyone on the field trip, because the excursion began at 12:45 and lunch during the conference was always served from 12:30-1:30.

While waiting for the bus to show up, Elizabeth and I stopped by the dining room to see what we were missing that day. Turns out we were missing the best dessert of the week: authentic Italian tiramisu.


It looks like chocolate, but that’s just the top layer — delectable, rich, chocolate curls. Atop a stunning mass of mascarpone cheese, cream, egg yolks, espresso powder, and some kind of liquor.

It tasted as good as it looked. (We know, because we tried it.)

Our bag lunch dessert was much more modest: a mass-produced, pre-packaged apricot tart. I have no idea what it tasted like because I left it on the bus along with half of my sandwich and my banana. Sadly for me (and for everyone else who left their lunch bags on the bus), the driver went on a cleaning binge while we were learning about cheese. He threw away everything.

Elizabeth and I had signed up for the cheese tour under the mistaken impression that we would be making cheese, which turned out to not true. We got to watch the cheese-maker make cheese, which was more interesting than you might think.

smokin hot cheese guy

I call this the smokin’ hot cheese guy pic, because the cheese guy was smokin’ while the translator was telling us what we were going to see. Moments later we were ushered into a sweltering room to don paper lab coats, hats, and shoe covers, to preserve the “sterile” environment. Nobody seemed concerned about the cheese guy’s beard, however…

The cheese-maker spoke not a word of English, but the translator, a British woman whose parents were both Italian, was terrific, and the cheese-maker was clearly passionate about his work.

He made eye contact with each of us multiple times during his presentation. He talked about the testing process for the milk, the care that goes into ensuring that it is fresh and not contaminated.

in the cheese lab just cheesemaker

Who knew cheese-making required such technical-looking equipment? I think the scientists felt right at home. (Dontcha love those white boots, by the way?)

cheesemaker explains science of cheese

in the cheese lab

The cheese-maker showed us fresh milk in a 300-liter stainless steel tub, and milk that had been treated with rennet and something else (not, I hope, beard hair) to start turning it into curds and whey.

better pre cheese ie milk

Fresh milk

The curds and whey filled another 300-liter tub.

cheese with rennet and bacteria

The curds and whey tub

The cheese-maker showed us how he separates the curds and whey, first using a tool called a guitar (because it looks like a rectangular-shaped guitar) and then using something that looks like an oversized wire whisk crossed with a flattened bird cage.  He also showed us a three-pronged stick, but I don’t recall him using it. It could be he uses it to prod unruly guests at his dairy. I am glad to say he didn’t use it on any of us.

authentic cheesemaking equipment

Scary looking cheese-making implements, which probably double as torture tools.

more separatingAfter the cheese-maker separated the curds and whey, we watched as the whey was pumped into yet another stainless steel tub, where it was steamed to pasteurize it, as it was going to be turned into ricotta cheese.

closeup of moving the whey etc.The cheesemaker and his able assistant scooped the curds into plastic cheese molds, and then turned the cheese from one mold into another to hasten the draining process.

evening out molds

misto cheese in molds sheep and cowBy the next day, the cheese would have shrunk to half its size and begun to dry out, after which it would be placed in a refrigerator to continue aging.

cheese room light

The giant cheese-drying-out fridge

three month old pecorino

two week old funghi

pepper cheeseAfter the tour, we went into the shop, where we sampled three kinds of cheese, and some amazing strawberry jam and raw honey.

I have made fresh mozzarella cheese, but haven’t done so in ages. Watching the cheesemaker was very inspiring: part of me was ready to run out and stock up on rennet. But then I remembered: you need fresh milk to make fresh cheese.

Before I stock up on the rennet, I might have to buy a cow — which is better than having a cow — which is what I wanted to have when I realized that not only had the bus driver disposed of mine and everyone else’s half-eaten (or, in some cases, not-at-all-eaten) lunches, he had tossed the Swiss Army Knife that I’d used to open my salad dressing packet. I had left it in the bag because it was too difficult to get it back into my backpack while dining on the less-than-spacious bus.

Then Elizabeth reminded me, “Mom! We’re going to Switzerland! You can buy a new one.”

Perhaps I will. Stay tuned.

In which Debby pays her toll fine

If you are a “time is money” person, you will not be impressed that Elizabeth and I spent more than two hours driving to Lucca from il Ciocco and back on Monday (June 8) to deal with our €60 toll bill, which turned out to cost a mere €2.80.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that it was worth my while to spend the morning schlepping through Tuscany to save €57.20, but I wanted to take care of the fine and be done with it, and I did and I am. And of course, it was an adventure.

The paying-the-fine adventure started at the hotel desk, when the chief “navigator” (i.e., desk clerk) tried to help me find the Italian Highway authority office, the Punta Blu, on a map.

Eventually I decided I’d be safer finding it on Google Maps, but the computer in the hotel business office wouldn’t let me print out an enlarged map. So I decided to go upstairs and see if the conference organizers would let me use their office computer.

Ordinarily I take the stairs, but on this day I was frustrated and tired and in a hurry, so I opted for the elevator. A friendly Australian couple was standing by the elevator.

“How are you?” The woman asked.

“Frustrated,” I admitted.

“Italy?” she replied, knowingly.

“The driving,” I said, and began to explain.

“There’s a couple eating breakfast on the patio right now and they had the same problem!” the woman said. “They’re going to Punta Blu later today – go talk to them. Perry and Sue. He’s wearing blue shorts and sitting right outside the door to the dining room.”

Perry, an outgoing Aussie, told me that I didn’t even have to get onto the highway to access Punta Blu.

“You go to the entrance, and there’s a parking area off to the side before you go to the toll booths,” he promised.

He was very reassuring. I felt so confident – that is, I felt confident right up until the moment that Elizbeth and I arrived in Lucca to get to the highway entrance. The traffic was much heavier than it had been driving in from the rural countryside, and the signs pointing to the highway had pretty much disappeared.

That’s when I knew I’d been fooling myself. Things were not going to go smoothly.

And indeed, they did not. For starters, the parking area near the toll booths was blocked by a gate. Lucky for us, someone was exiting, so we drove through, me praying the whole time that the gate wouldn’t come down and crush the car.

It didn’t. And the parking lot was right in front of us, and it was covered. This was too good to be true. I knew something would go wrong soon.

And it did.

We headed for a pair of official looking buildings. One turned out to be a maintenance garage for the highway authority. The other was a garage with office space. Plenty of cars were parked outside, but both buildings were empty – even though one of the offices, complete with computer equipment, was wide open.

We walked back to the toll booths. Someone had to be in the toll booths, right? Never mind that accessing the tool booths required us to cross three lanes of traffic. I didn’t think I should have to put myself in such danger to pay a fine but what do I know? Italy’s reputation as a world leader and home of great thinkers ended what, 2000 years ago?

Elizabeth and I bypassed the toll booths, which would have required crossing more lanes of traffic. Instead, we climbed the stairs to a little office-like building, and rang the doorbell. When that generated no response, we knocked on the door. When that generated no response, we headed back down the stairs.

That’s when I opted for the last resort: I crossed more lanes of traffic and knocked on a toll booth door. The first toll booth guy, an Italian-only speaker, told me I had to go to Pisa Nord. I thought, there is no way in hell I am getting back on that blasted highway, especially when I have no idea where Pisa Nord is and this guy can’t tell me.

Toll Booth Man #1 directed me to knock on his neighbor’s toll booth door. Toll Booth Man #2 was more helpful. He actually looked at the ticket, told me that I owed €2.80, collected my money, gave me a receipt, and sent me on my way. I was so happy I hugged him.

But I was too hasty in my happiness, because when we went to exit the parking area, the gate wouldn’t go up. I thought about getting back into the line of traffic going through Toll Booth Man #2’s booth, but I was sure it would result in another €60 ticket.

Instead, I parked in full view of the toll booths. Then I went back, crossed six lanes of traffic, and explained my situation to Toll Booth Man #2. He let the next couple of cars through the booth, then shut it down. Armed with a gigantic, 1970s-era walkie-talkie, he walked alongside our car until we came to the gate, at which point he radioed someone and the gate lifted up, and we left.

That’s the most powerful I felt all day, almost as powerful as Chris Christie shutting down the George Washington Bridge. Admittedly, it was only one lane of traffic on the A11 in Lucca, but you have to start somewhere, right?