Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Beautiful Dubrovnik

So another half a year has gone by without a blog entry.  I really have to force myself to sit down and write something worth reading.  It isn't easy at times, but I left off my last entry with a promise to say something about my visit to Dubrovnik, so here goes...

I was delighted to have the opportunity to join friends for a four-night stay in this beautiful city on the Adriatic, close to the southernmost tip of Croatia.  It was August 2013, and the weather was HOT and sunny.  I suppose there are really two Dubrovniks; the proper city that I saw nothing of, and the UNESCO World Heritage branded Old Town that is surrounded by walls that date back well over five hundred years. 

The word on Dubrovnik was that it was crowded, the locals didn't like the tourists, and I would surely depart the place in misery.  Well, you can expect any seaside spot in Europe to be crowded in August, and as for the people of Dubrovnik I was happy to arrive to a very welcoming atmosphere.  Everywhere I went, from pubs to restaurants to my hotel, the people were great.  I stayed at the Villa Sigurata on Cubranoviceva, and if I ever visit Dubrovnik again, I would absolutely return here.

My advice to any first-time visitor to the city is to visit the Dubrovnik cable car, located just outside the walled portion of the Old Town.  It takes the visitor up to a mountain range where one is greeted with a superb view of the historic center, the coastline, and the neighbouring Lokrum Island (more on that later).  Try to do it before mid-morning to beat the lineups.  Here's my ride to the top!
The Dubrovnik Cable Car, going up!

And, with a slightly different view, the ride back to the city!
The Dubrovnik Cable Car, going down!

The main street within the walled Old Town (happily, all pretty much pedestrian and car-free) is the Stradun.  Two of the main gates to town are at either end, and a host of narrow alleyway-like streets head off in either direction.  They'll lead you to restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, and at least two highly desirable ice cream stands!

Rare view of Mooncattie at Buza II
There are two can't-miss cafes in town - Buza I and Buza II.  The word "Buza" means "hole", and indeed in both cases you enter a hole through the wall on the seaside to access each spot.  The reward is a fantastic view of the Adriatic and piped in music to go with your bottle of Croatian beer.  Don't forget the sunglasses, and if you feel like a swim, feel free to follow the locals and dive in.

I saved my swimming experience for the visit to Lokrum Island, just a short ferry ride from the harbour.  There are several spots (including a clothing-optional beach) to choose from for your dip in the sea, and you are pretty much guaranteed a soundtrack of cicadas for your walk in the woods.  The greenery and shade is a complete change from the stones and steps of the Old Town.

All in all, it was an amazing visit.  I hope to go back someday.  Dubrovnik is beautiful!

NEXT:  Stunning Stockholm!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fish and Chips and Fish and Chips

So another year has passed! No entries, no exciting stories - what a change from normal! So after years of promises, I'll at least post some pleasant memories about my favourite experiences with one of my favourite meals - good ol' Fish and Chips. This tale goes back to 2011, and a lovely spring visit to England. The weather was better than usual, warm and sunny and perfect for walks and simply relaxing outdoors. I'm fortunate to have friends and family in England, so I was able to use a railpass and enjoy some pleasant jaunts here and there while catching up with visits. The best fish and chips I've ever had? Well, right here in Broughton, just outside Milton Keynes. They were winners in an annual chippy competition a few years back, and the food was just brilliant.
Yay, I got to pose for a pic with the staff! But the star of the show was definitely the order I got to takeaway. As great as they were, however, I found myself a few days later facing an order of chips that were simply the best I had ever tasted. A long way from anywhere, the Black Eagle Pub on Factory Road in Birmingham offered a specialty to patrons dropping in for a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord or Bathams Bitter: a superb Hot Pork Sandwich. But the Chips....Yikes! Every bite an explosion of potatoey perfection!
So that brings us to the Fish.  The single best, tastiest fish I've ever encountered!  It came from the Black Country Museum near Birmingham, a brilliant recreation of an old-style chip shop.  There it is below!  I hope this link to YouTube brings up a proper video clip! 

NEXT:  The Delights of Dubrovnik!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gdansk - August 2012

The historic port of Gdansk, Poland has known its share of important events.  As Danzig, it was part of Germany, and after World War II it was dominated by the Soviet Union.  The first shots of the war were fired near here as Hitler's army poured into Poland in September 1939.  In the 1980's, Gdansk witnessed the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement, a vital step on the road to the nation's freedom from Communist occupation.

I have already had the pleasure of visiting Krakow and Warsaw, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to Gdansk when my German friends (known informally as "The N'Awlins Gang" for reasons I won't bother to explain in this post) decided to make it a long weekend destination in August of 2012.  The historic old town was cleaned up for the spring's Euro 2012 Football championships (co-hosted that year by Poland and Ukraine), the tourist infrastructure was ready for the influx of travelers like us, and I was assigned (er, by me) the vital task of researching the city's Beer possibilities.

Dzien dobry, Gdansk!
Tourist Galleon and The Crane (at right)
The weather was sunny to start, but with a forecast of clouds and rain in the near future, it seemed like a good idea to do the "outdoors stuff" first.  It appeared that the thing to do to orient oneself in the city was to take the cheesy Galleon tourboat out on the river, in our case up towards the shipyards and Westerplatte.
Looking back at the Old City from my Galleon Tourboat

The main route is known as the Royal Way, or the Long Market, or Ulica Dluga.  I followed it from the river past the Neptune Fountain, and made the essential visit to the Main Town Hall which contains a museum explaining some of the history of the city.  It's well worth making the slow climb to the top of the tower for the view! 
Greetings from atop the Town Hall!


Most of the historic city center was destroyed during the Second World War, and a collection of dramatic photographs in the Town Hall's museum illustrate the extent of the damage.  The Gdansk of today is very much rebuilt in the old style.

Of all the historic streets to stroll in the old town, perhaps the most delightful is Ulica Mariacka (St. Mary's Street), bookended by the Mariacka Gate by the river at one end and the enormous St. Mary's Church at the other.  Almost every address features display tables with items for sale, with special attention to amber jewellery.


Gdansk will be forever associated with Lech Welesa and the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement that took on the USSR-back Polish government and won.  The Lenin Shipyards where Welesa worked and where Solidarity first grabbed world headlines is closed and mostly quiet now.  A museum is under construction, a monument is in place, and a temporary exhibit of the movement's birth and the times that followed is just down the street.  It is a strange feeling to stand in an area that was once bursting with passion, anger, and danger.  I came here after visiting the Solidarity exhibit, and felt very moved to stand in the inevitable rainy weather among perhaps a couple of dozen others and meditate upon what took place here. 


Didn't I mention Beer at some point in this post?  Well, I was able to tackle several local establishments and get in on the examples of what is a slowly growing local craft brewing industry.

The best tasting beer I had in Gdansk was from Browar Piwna, along the appropriately-named Piwna street (that's Beer in Polish!) near St. Mary's Church.  It had only been around a year or so when I arrived, and I was very impressed with their Pils (pictured below in a 440ml glass from under $3 dollars).

The largest brewpub in Gdansk is Brovarnia Gdansk, located on the far side of the Motlawa River from the historic city center.  I came here twice, once for the solo beer experience and again for an evening dinner with the N'Awlins Gang.  My verdict on the beer is, well, Not Bad but by no means the best in town.  I enjoyed the photo loop on the room's video screen, featuring celebrities who had been here.  Hi, Chaka Khan!

Other excellent places to sample suds in Gdansk include Degustatornia, which rewards the effort of a lengthy stroll along the riverside with a huge selection of European bottled beers and a small menu of taps.  A big find for me was the Podry Bar, just a few doors along Piwna street from Browar Piwna.  They specialize in potatoes of all kinds, presented in just about every way you can imagine, but I was there for the lovely Kozlak draft and Zywe lager.  Goldwasser also offered local beers in addition to their iconic gold-speckled firewater (and one of the best steaks I've ever eaten).

Not bad for a three-night stay!  If you get a chance to visit Gdansk, do make the trip.  It was definitely one of my happy highlights in the often difficult year of 2012.

NEXT:  As promised, Fish and Chips, and Fish, and Chips!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Down And Out And Back

I've decided to return, after an unintended break of nearly two years. A death in the family, an extended sad patch, and with it the feeling that there was nothing really worth writing about, oh I had my excuses! I'm not out of the darkness yet, but I've had a few happy moments that I wanted to share. There are wonderful people out there, wonderful places, and fun things to experience. Here are a few highlights from my recent past:

The Station Inn, Cresson PA
A Bed and Breakfast in the hills above Altoona that caters to railfans.  You can sit on the porch and just watch trains (and other vehicles) go by, and fall asleep at night to the rumble of freights heading past your window.  It's become one of my favourite destinations.

Meeting up with my friends Perry and Cindy in Chicago is always a highlight for me.  They know where the best pizza is, the best beer, and the best Mexican food.  Here's a scene from the wonderful Los Fernandez, a super eatery in the north-west suburbs.

My first trip to Asia was a two-week whirlwind visit to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.  It was an outstanding combination of walking, tasty food, train travel and tasty beer, all served up in a steamy hot October.  Here is the rainforest valley bridge at the MacRitchie Reservoir.

A brilliant experience in Singapore is riding the Singapore Flyer wheel and taking in the spectacular views of the harbour and skyline.

Singapore is a sparkling city.  Here I am by the city's Merlion, wondering what to do first!
And now it's winter.  We've just had our biggest snowfall in five years.  I'm looking ahead to a better year in 2013, and hope that I'll be getting stuffed once again with the good things that life has to offer!  I wish you all a very happy year.

NEXT:  A Weekend In Gdansk!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Walking in England, The Nickey Line

April 2011 was an especially fine month to visit England. The big story of the month there was the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but I was there to visit friends and family as well as to take on a series of rail trail walks. My third and final English walk was the 7-mile Nickey Line (map shown below). I began my walk by taking the train to the Harpenden end of the Line before heading south-west towards the town of Hemel Hempstead.

The Nickey Line follows the route of a railway spur that once ran off what is generally known as the East Coast mainline, shown below, that connects London and Edinburgh. Lots of trains to watch before starting off on my walk!

So it's down the stairs and onto the path, and away we go. Spring had arrived nice and early in England, and by mid-April everything seemed very lush and green. Warmer weather was to follow, but on the day of my walk the temperature was a very comfortable 17C.

The Nickey Line's former life as a proper railway line is evident here as the path follows the cutting below an old stone bridge. I saw lots of fellow walkers and the occasional cyclist along the route.

More railway history here, as we see the leftovers of a station platform.

It wasn't long before I left both the town of Harpenden and its adjacent woods behind, and reached some proper English farmland. This fellow was enjoying the day, and yes, pigs do snore!

Fortunately, our daydreaming hog had a buddy to keep watch just in case a truffle wagon happened along!

The farmland soon gave way to some open countryside views and a hydro right-of-way. It was a very pleasant walk.

Some more animals enjoying the outdoors. These horses seemed to be quite a distance from any barn that I could see.

At about the halfway point of the Line, the pathway plunges under a major motorway, providing a rare bit of man-made noise. Thousands of vehicles speed over this tunnel each day oblivious to the pleasures to be had in exploring this bit of countryside by foot or by bike.

More sleepyheads! They hardly gave me any notice as I wandered by.

Approaching the Hemel Hempstead end of The Nickey Line, the path returned briefly into some woods before ending at the sidewalk of a local road. There was a pub nearby to offer refreshments to happy travelers, but I opted to hop on the bus at the conveniently located stop and head directly onwards to catch a train.

What a great walk! Some lovely Herfordshire scenery bookended by a pair of easy to access railway lines. My English walks were a big success, and if I had known just how wonderful the weather was going to be throughout April, I would have perhaps planned for a couple of additional rambles.

Here's a final look back at The Nickey Line, from the northeast end of the trail at Harpenden.

NEXT: Fish and Chips...and Fish...and Chips!!!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Walking in England, The Centurion Way

What a wonderful place England is for walking, as long as the weather cooperates. I was lucky this past April to get in three superb walks without getting rained on at all! My second medium-distance walk was The Centurion Way, which follows a disused railway route north from the city of Chichester in West Sussex for a little over 6 miles to the hamlet of West Dean.

First things first: after leaving the Chichester railway station (after a scenic ride south-west from London's Victoria station), you have to follow the signed route towards the north.

Walking and cycling paths in Britain are very well-signed, so it was easy for me to find my way to the start of The Centurion Way.

Here's the map of the route I wanted to follow. No worries about getting lost here.

It's a bit of a low bridge here for trains nowadays, but it really was a railroad many years back!

The Centurion Way was named by a local student to reference the pathway's history as part of a route used by Roman soldiers some two thousand years ago. Now the line is marked with sculptures representing the history of the region - these chaps with spades, for instance.

More artwork! Showing critters of the area, I guess!

It's mid-April, and spring had really sprung in England by this time. The path has turned from asphalt to grass, but the scenery has opened up to reveal some lovely West Sussex farmland.

From grass to gravel and dirt, Centurion Way continues north for several miles before making a sharp west towards a main road. A clue to the path's railway heritage is seen here with the remains of an old bridge over the original train route, now used as a bridle path for riders.

What a wonderful walk this is! It's easy to turn the walk into a stroll, and hang about here and there to admire the scenery, enjoy the stream and listen to the sheep.

The northern portion of The Centurion Way runs parallel to an "A" road.

It's the end of the pathway, but it's well worth continuing north for just a little bit further. Do you see that white building in the distance?

Here we are: my destination. Nothing like a nice pub at the end of a fine English walk, and this one is a gem. It's The Selsey Arms, they feature Real Ale and Real Thai Cuisine, and it just so happens to be five minutes past noon. Yippee!

The pub owner married a cook from Thailand, and the menu offers some wonderful authentic dishes. I love Thai food, and this plate of spicy rice noodles with chicken was a delight after nearly three hours of walking. The Tom Yam soup was excellent as well.

I didn't forget the Real Ale either. This is a pint of Wadworth's 6X, highly recommended by locals in the pub. Yes, it was delicious! I could quite happily have spent the afternoon sipping this and chatting with the friendly folks there about the area.

Here are the Real Ale taps. I could have slummed myself down to Stella or Carlsberg, but hey, I'm on holiday here. Goddard's is a brewery from the Isle of Wight. I tried a half-pint of Scrumdiggity, but the 6X was the winner for me. I would return to a Goddard's product later in my visit, and enjoy their Fuggle-Dee-Dum with cousins during a very nice evening in Lymington. If I recall correctly, the Wadworth 6X originates in nearby Wiltshire, or "just down the road" as a fellow imbiber told me.

I recommend doing some research before you set out on these wonderful walks. Such as, is there a pub I can visit afterwards. And is there a bus I can take after that? Happily, a double-decker stops right at The Selsey Arms every half-hour and makes the trip back towards the Chichester railway station an easy affair. All in all, a really super day out and I hope to come back here again one day!

Last but not least, for those out there with speakers and video access, here's a clip of the sights and sounds of West Sussex from The Centurion Way!

NEXT: Hertfordshire Hogs and Horses!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Walking in England, The Alban Way

I'm back from a wonderful April visit to England and France, and am still floating in happy memories of walks, pubs, fish and chips, and get-togethers with friends and family.

I thought I'd post a few photos from my overseas adventures, and begin by concentrating on the Rail Trail walks I accomplished in England. I managed three in total, and the first one took place in Hertfordshire, north of London. It's the Alban Way, which I visited from west to east, beginning in St. Alban's and heading six miles or so eastwards to Hatfield.

Here's the map showing the Way...

The Alban Way's western end starts quietly enough, as a sidewalk drifting to the right of a hedge around the corner and down the street from St. Alban's Abbey railway station.

You have to be careful at the railway pedestrian crossing. St. Alban's Abbey station is just up the tracks a bit to the left. This spur line connects to the main line at Watford Junction, where you can transfer to trains for London, Birmingham or elsewhere.

Way in the distance is a view of the Abbey at St. Alban's, with some garden allotments in the foreground.

You can see how this was once a railway line in its own right. Also note how GREEN it is! It seemed to me that the mid-April spring season in England was a good six weeks in advance of Toronto. It was a wonderful day for a walk.

Further evidence of the Alban Way's past life as a railway line appears with the remains of a station platform on the left.

Towards the Hatfield end of the path, the route curves slightly upwards and crosses yet another main line railway. It's an easy ramble down to the train station, where there are frequent trains back to London.

I happened to make a special trip back to St. Alban's later in the week, specifically to visit this highly-rated brewpub called The Farmer's Boy. If you were walking the Alban Way from east to west, this London Rd. pub would offer a tasty reward for your efforts!

The reward? Some outstanding chips and a tasty home-brew called Farmer's Joy.

It was a real pleasure to have added The Alban Way to my list of Rail Trails, and I highly recommend it as an excellent day trip out for anyone visiting London. I felt physically energized and mentally refreshed after my walk, and was looking forward to the next path, wherever it may be!

NEXT: The Centurion Way and another gem of a pub!