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Just finished a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Travel, on December 4th, 2016.

bay_of_kotor_distance

Sorry it’s been so long since I wrote more about my Croatia trip. Holidays and family things just got in the way! This picture is one of my favorites from the entire trip. This was the scene as we ventured up over a rise and looked out over this protected, inland Bay.

Kotor (pronounced ko-tr) is a town unto itself (pictures below, not in the photo above) but the whole area is called the Bay of Kotor. I swear, this bay should be part of the seven wonders of the world, it’s that gorgeous. We were blessed with a beautiful day and lovely contrast with the cloud cover. I was in awe. I wanted to camp out right there for awhile before we ventured down to ocean/ground level.

In the bottom left you can see an angular line; that’s Kotor airport. Not a big airport for sure. Kotor is a big summer tourist destination – there were ample small hotels and apartments used for summer rentals. The town of Kotor, a walled city, is off to the right and in another deeper part of the Bay.

After taking jillions of pictures from that spot in the photo above, we drove down the hill (on a scary set of narrow switchbacks where some buses had to do 3-point turns to make each and every switchback) and went to a hotel on the bottom right side of the Bay (at about 4:00 on the bay’s edge in the photo at top). It was by far the most gorgeous hotel, the Regent Porto Montenegro, that we stayed in on the entire trip. We all were disappointed we had but one night there. We went to the city of Kotor for a tour and had dinner there also.

 kotor_city_with_bay

As you can see, there were two cruise ships in port – I know – they look like little yachts, right? No, cruise ships. The walled city of Kotor is at the bottom right nestled right up against the mountain. I don’t know the elevation of the steep cliff we were on – probably about 1500 to 1800 feet. But that’s just a guess.

The next day we took a very small motor craft out into the bay you see above to visit a tiny man-made island. Next is a photo I found at Wikipedia – probably a better one than I took, as it was raining all day. This islet is called Our Lady of the Rocks. It’s now a Catholic Church (tiny) and thousands visit it every year. It contains a variety of art, including a wall-hanging made by a woman who waited for 25 years for her sailor-captain-husband to return home safely. She wove some of her hair into it. It was dark in the room, so my photo didn’t come out well.

Nuestra_Señora_de_las_Rocas,_Perast,_Bahía_de_Kotor,_Montenegro,_2014-04-19,_DD_19

As we left the island, there is another island just next to it (to the left of this island above, that is private. It made such a pretty photo – I have a hankering to paint the picture below of St. George, Sveti Dorde Island. I should print it out large, so I can sketch it onto watercolor paper. The Bay was just gorgeous.

sveti_dorde_island_kotor_bay

It rather looks like a church – it’s actually a monastery, in existence since the 12th century. The scene was just beautiful.

coastline_by_our_lady_rocks_island

All my life I’ve enjoyed scenes such as this one – it could have been taken on hundreds of different coastlines or lakes throughout Europe. This one in the Bay of Kotor. So pretty.

ancient_church_kotor

old_street_kotor

Here are two scenes from the walled city of Kotor. At left is the ancient church, much celebrated since it’s been in existence since the 12th century. At right was just a photo I snapped of one of the streets inside Kotor. Everywhere it was walking streets, and the little shop at the end of this little piazza had its interior lights on. Very welcoming.

walking_street_kotor

me_window_regent_hotelHere are two more scenes. At left is another view of one of the walking streets. The stores were open and many in our group bought bags and bags of trinkets. I didn’t buy anything. At right is a view of me, standing in the window of the Regent Hotel, looking out at the docks.

I must tell you, as a widow of a man who sailed all of his life (from age 8) when I walked out to the back of the hotel (in the rain) I was overcome with a sense of grief as I looked at all those sailboats and yachts. My DH would have marched right out by all those boats and talked to anyone who might have been around, to find out about the draft, how many feet long the boat was, what kind of an engine, etc. Asking about the sails, about the sailing in those waters, etc.

If you’ve never known about Kotor, you do now, and you need to add it to your bucket list. You won’t be sorry!

Posted in Travel, on November 7th, 2016.

mt_durmitor_lakes

I don’t remember what these lakes were called – I believe they’re part of a dam (in Montenegro). We drove along the edge of several of these lakes, then began a very steep ascent – in serpentines they called it – before we actually arrived in Mt. Durmitor National Park.

We stayed one night in Sarajevo. It was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip. After reading the heart-wrenching book, The Cellist of Sarajevo some years ago, I longed to make a kind of pilgrimage to the small square in the city where the cellist played during the seige. I thought I’d written up a post on my blog here about that book, but I guess I just put it on my sidebar, which I update ever few weeks. The book is a novel, but based on the history of the siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s. The filament that holds the various stories together is the life of a professional cellist (supposedly based on Vedran Smailovic) who is an observer, from his apartment window, of a massacre that happened in his square – the sniper on the hills gunned down 22 people standing in line at a bakery. The book is about how the people of Sarajevo were totally at God’s mercy during the many, many months of the siege. They had little food, had to walk great distances to get water, and took their lives in their hands when they did, as the snipers were vigilant in the nearby hills. Awhile after that particular massacre, the cellist (this part is fiction, according to some accounts) decides he’s going to play a specific piece of music (the composer Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor – which has a very interesting history all on its own – look it up if you’re interested) every day for 22 days; he went down into that square, right where the people were massacred, and in line where a sniper could have killed him too. He plays the piece of hauntingly beautiful music, a classical piece for cello, and hundreds of people come to the square to hear him play. And for whatever reason, the snipers don’t shoot.

So, I’d hoped to see that square, but our guide misunderstood me I guess – Smailovic did do a concert in the ruins of the National Library (it’s been rebuilt), and well after the seige he did play a concert on the square. On our walking tour – and she pointed out the rebuilt Library to me. Sarajevo is a city, big enough that I suppose she couldn’t very well take me to that place. Sarajevo still has many disfiguring marks from mortar fire and other damage to municipal buildings and apartment buildings. They’re still working on fixing it up. We did visit the tunnel that was built from one end of Sarajevo under the airport and out the other side, 266which was used (all secretly) to ferry medicines and much needed supplies, ammunition too. We walked through about 15 feet of the tunnel – cramped, low, and has a steel track on the ground for pushing or pulling a cart. There at left is a display, showing the tunnel (the white line near the top, that traverses underneath the runway).

We stayed in a Muslim-owned hotel in Sarajevo. I think it was called the Bristol. Very nice. Some in our group grumbled because the hotel didn’t serve alcohol. Really? Fortunately the complainers only talked to our tour leader about it, not the hotel. I’d have been embarrassed if they had. Bosnia is a mostly Muslim country, so when you are in such a place, we should respect their customs.

Once we left Sarajevo we headed further south and to the border of Montenegro. The photo at top was the northern edge of Mt. Durmitor National Park. After crossing the Bosnian and Montenegro borders (which sometimes took 20-30 minutes to wait in line, then for all of our passports to be examined, cross-checked and stamped, then we’d go another 200 yards and do the process all over again to enter the new country), we were off into the mountains. At one point we had to pull off the road for awhile because a film crew was shooting a motion picture somewhere on up in the mountains, and all traffic on this very arterial 2-lane highway came to a complete stop for 4-5 hours. We were lucky to be stalled for only about 30 minutes.

4_wheel_drive_mt_durmitorEventually we got up into the highlands and our group got into 4-wheel drive SUVs and off we went on a mountain adventure. We went on, up and up and up (to about 6,000 feet that day) and above the timberline.  Part of the roads were paved, but mostly they were dirt and gravel and usually only one lane.

It was a gorgeous day and it was very fun to be in something other than a bus.

The photo below was one I snapped as we went through a particularly beautiful valley.mt_durmitor_4

We had lunch at a kind of a summer camp up there – a delicious meal – and as always, way too much food. We had lamb, potatoes, home made cheese, tomatoes, wine and beer if we wanted it, and some delicious strudel like savory pastries. We had those (kind of in a burrito-shape but smaller) with a flaky pastry and a meat and cabbage filling. Really tasty. Then we were off again in the SUVs to get down Mt Durmitor on the other side and into a town called Kolacin. It was up at a fairly high altitude. We stayed in a rustic kind of chalet hotel that was full of high school kids on a field trip of some kind, plus some kids competing in some sports games there.

The next day we were picked up by similar SUVs and off we went to another 8,000 foot high mountain aerie in a different direction. That day we encountered a small pack of horses. We thought they were wild, but found out later they spend every summer up there fending for themselves and the owners retrieve them in the Fall and take them down to his ranch at a lower altitude for the winter. They came8000feet_montenegro_horses roaring down the nearby hills and approached us. We wished we’d had some apples or something to feed them. There were some young colts in the bunch (see the one colt’s head in the middle?). That day we stopped at a different high mountain camp and sat out in the relative open camp (covered, but open and windy, and it rained too) for another big lunch. Similar food – maybe it was beef or veal that time, more home made cheese (that was SO good – it was a free-form kind of stretchy cheese – you’d tear off a portion and eat it with the delicious home made bread), salads, wash_up_station_montenegrocabbage salads, wedges of tomatoes, beer, wine and some sweet for dessert. There was a toilet in an out building there, and a primitive sink for washing your hands.

We were out in the elements for several hours and enjoyed the scenery so much. It was just breathtakingly beautiful up on those mountains. There were a few villages here and there, dotting the distant hills. Probably really cold in the winter.

at8000_feet_montenegro

The scenery was just so pretty. Kind of like Colorado, I suppose. We all remarked on the gorgeous clouds that day. 8000feet_montenegro

Once again, we were up above the timberline and nearly into the clouds. So beautiful.

Posted in Travel, on November 1st, 2016.

mostar_neretva_590

This small city, Mostar, is just so beautiful. The river, the Neretva, is probably the high point. The city was a crossroads for trade, way back in history.

On this recent trip to Croatia, I learned a lot about the geographic break-up of Yugoslavia in 1994-95. I mean, we all heard about it, right? There were years of fighting that went on for nearly a decade between the Serbs and others. Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and Mostar suffered greatly during those wars (all in Bosnia). They’re even now, just getting their feet on the ground and learning to be a democratic group of countries. And, as I mentioned earlier, each of the 5 countries is fiercely proud of their independence (for themselves, but also from each other). Unemployment is rampant, though it’s lower in the more tourist centric countries. They all are striving for more tourism – they need it until they can build up their economies with other products to export. Lots of investors from around the world are pouring money into hotels to help the tourism.

Mostar (Bosnia):  The old brigde (Stari most) over the Neretva river; Photo: Thomas AlbothMostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable landmarks, and is considered one of the most beautiful pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. I took a couple of photos of the bridge (and I managed to trip and fall while I was on the slippery bridge – it was raining). But I found a great photo on the web, above. I think it came from a tourism website.

There is still evidence of the wars – mortar damage to buildings. Much of the landmarks in Mostar were destroyed during the war (including the famous bridge) but they’ve all been rebuilt. Mostar and much of Bosnia is Muslim. Many women were in head coverings, though I don’t recall seeing a single woman in complete coverings (except in Sarajevo). It’s interesting how one Muslim country makes an issue over the women’s dress; others do not. When my DH and I visited Turkey in 1997, very few women were in full coverings, but now it’s a mandate of the country if you’re a Muslim woman.

mostar_bldg

What that building was, I’m not sure – it was next to one of the side rivers of the Neretva. It might have been a restaurant. hindin_han_lunch_mostarIt just was picturesque. While in Mostar, we had a fantastic lunch at a restaurant called the Hindin Han. There’s a photo of the huge plate of food – french fries on the bottom, a chicken breast across the middle, lamb kofta on the right, a pork sausage in the middle (really delicious) and beef kabob at the bottom. And a salad with nothing on it. That meal would have been enough for me for the entire day, but we had dinner at our hotel too. Way too much food. In general, we were served too much food. Mostly the Croatians eat their main meal at noontime, but for us they served us a dinner-sized meal (plus some) at both lunch and dinner. We had a local city guide there, a charming young man whose family owns a coffee shop there. It was after 3pm when we arrived, and he only had regular espresso – I knew it would keep me awake, so I didn’t have any. I was sorry not to enjoy some.

mostar_restaurants_on_river

In Mostar, restaurants line the riversides – what a beautiful sight it was. Wish we’d been able to enjoy more than one of them. We spent just a part of a day in Mostar.

Posted in Travel, on October 25th, 2016.

plitvice_lake_trees

Really? Who knew there were such gorgeous lakes and scenery in Croatia? People who have been there, yes! I certainly didn’t know. I didn’t read up on Croatia much before I went on this trip, knowing that we’d have a guide who would give us plenty of information.

Plitvice (plit-vee-cheh) Lakes is a National Park about 30 miles south of Zagreb (in central Croatia), and about 20-30 miles east of the Adriatic coast. To say it’s stunning is almost an understatement.

This photo at left is one of my other favorites from my whole trip. And yes, the water color is natural – I didn’t touch up that photo one little bit except to reduce its size to fit here on my blog. I was just amazed at the beautiful pictures I got from my iPhone.

plitvice_lake_2Plitvice Lakes National Park has a bunch of terraced lakes, all interconnected and separated by natural travertine dams. There is a long walking trail, a catwalk all along the lake edges, mostly over uneven wood slats elevated about a foot above the water. There are no hand rails, and people must pass one another along the narrow paths. A bit challenging.  Some in our group did the long walk – I did the short one which was mostly up high, above the lakes, on a very uneven dirt path with roots and rocks in lots of dangerous places. No safety features here. You’re on your own. All of us had to keep our eyes on the ground to not trip. But we paused numerous times to take pictures and to catch our breath. In the photo at right you can see the catwalk along one of the lakes.

plitvice_lake_1

There’s another view of the cascade of lakes with the catwalk path on the far side.

On the upper path we were about 300-400 feet up, I’d suppose. We’d get glimpses of the lakes down below every so often and eventually we met up with the lakes, since they were at a higher elevation the further we went.

I’d suppose this is similar to glacier water, with those colors in it, but no one ever mentioned that on our walks. We weren’t at a very high elevation. Maybe it’s just the mineral content of the water. It was crystal clear.

plitvice_lake_5

 

Here in this photo on the right you can see more of the cascading, but notice all the people on the catwalk. It was warm that day – I would think the folks down below would have been parched and hot. On the upper path we were in the shade mostly but we were hot too.

plitvice_lake_4

Here we were at the upper lake and on the “short” walk we went on part of the catwalk into/onto this lake. I found walking on the catwalk somewhat treacherous – I kept thinking I was going to trip . . . but these lakes were just gorgeous, don’t you agree?

Posted in Travel, on October 19th, 2016.

zagreb_sign

A street sign, nicely done with some English. I think this was in Zagreb. We actually took the funicular (3rd arrow down) from the lower town to the upper town. Took all of about a minute.

Zagreb was a very pretty city – they have a big public park right smack in the middle of town – I thought I’d taken some photos there, but I guess not. Over the 2 nights and a day we visited numerous places and I haven’t been able to exactly pinpoint which pictures goes with which town. There were so many. Notice on the sign above, there’s a museum of broken relationships. We didn’t visit, but our guide told us that people from all over the world sent little mementos of various types, some bizarre, some poignant, some funny, of the detritus that is left from a marriage or a relationship. It might have been interesting to see.

verazdin castle

This is the castle at Verazdin (this photo above shows it so much better than my own photo, with scaffolding stari_grad2all over – came from a Croatian travel website). We visited a museum there. Picture at left is the inner courtyard of the castle. Others below are from the museum, including the ornate dishes (I love transferware) from one of the stari_grad_dishesformer monarchs. Nothing was in English there, so we had to guess at some of the artifacts. Somebody needs to polish the silver in these glass display cases!

We walked the town with a guide. We had a Croatian guide who was with us from our arrival at the airport in Zagreb, until we went into the airport terminal at Dubrovnik 13 days later. He was charming, Danilo, a lovely man, who really knew his history. He would regale us with history lessons sometimes during our long bus journeys. But in each city we also hooked up with a city guide – most places do that – can’t let the country guide do all the guiding, must keep the city guides in business, so in most of the places we visited we had a city guide to tell us all about that place.stari_grad_fan

I thought this ornate fan was just stunning. Oyster shell struts (or abalone?) and very intricate lace and tatting. It was quite beautiful.

zagreb_gaslight

This might have been in Verazdin – it was unique because in the old town they still have gas lights, and they’re still lit by a real-live gas lighter fellow every evening, and snuffed out every morning. Kind of charming. We didn’t see it at night, but I can imagine it was very pretty.

hotel_imperial_zagreb

Our hotel, in Zagreb, the Imperial. It was a beautiful hotel, old world charm but with all the nice amenities of a first class hotel. We enjoyed our stay there.

Posted in Travel, on October 15th, 2016.

mostar_river_1

I’ve just returned from a 2-week trip to Croatia, Bosnia (and Herzegovina) and Montenegro. Wow. That’s it in a nutshell. If you haven’t been, you need to plan a trip there.

The picture above is one of the best photos I took on the trip, I think. There are a few more, but that one just takes me to that place in an instant, in my head. Since Yugoslavia was divided up, there are 5 different countries: Croatia (along the coast south of Venice, Italy and inland), Bosnia (further south on the coast and way inland too, past Sarajevo), Montenegro, which is a small pie wedge of a country along the most southern coast and some inland mountains; and Slovenia (eastern strip, didn’t go there) and Serbia (also didn’t go there). The division of the old Yugoslavia is quite complex, so don’t quote me on all the borders.

These countries are struggling a bit – Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia managed to get into the EU (probably because tourism is prospering) but the other countries are not. Their unemployment rate is extremely high, except Montenegro. All the countries are trying to find their niche (industry and corresponding infrastructures) and promote tourism because it may be their only future. That’s the sad part. The good part is that each of these countries does has a lot going for them in the tourism arena. All 3 countries I visited were very beautiful. Croatia and Montenegro have some gorgeous scenery. You’ll be seeing lots of pictures of these places in the next couple of weeks as I go through my photos and write up a few stories.

And the next question is, from most people – is it a safe place to visit? Absolutely. I felt safe everywhere I went, even the few occasions when I was alone. The countries have very low crime, and there hasn’t been any terrorism activity there. The Croat people are fiercely proud of their respective countries. And because they represent a variety of cultural differences, religions and ethnic backgrounds, they tend to identify themselves as their country’s people, not prefacing it with a Muslim designation or Roman Catholic, for instance. All the people speak the same language (Croatian) which was impossible for us to understand, and I hardly tried!

I took all the photos with my cell phone (iPhone 6s), and I think they’re nearly as good as my really good Canon DSLR. Sure made it easy to carry around my cell phone everywhere we went.

We started in Zagreb (the capital of Croatia), then went down to the coast to Zadar, Split, back inland to Mostar and Sarajevo, then southeast to Mt. Durmitor (a Montenegran national park) and nearby Biogradsko Lake, then to the Bay of Kotor (absolutely breathtaking). And lastly to Dubrovnik. We flew to London after that and stayed overnight after a visit to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home during the latter part of his life, then home. I was gone for 2 weeks and a day. I’m very happy to be home, as I always am after a trip. This trip was rather rigorous, requiring the 14 of us to get up early nearly every morning by 6ish, and rarely got to our nightly destination until 6pm. Long days in the bus. Very few free hours. We were perpetually behind in our daily schedule and sometimes in the evenings, we couldn’t even finish our meals because our bus driver (a really nice guy) was required to finish his 12-hour shift and his pay would be dinged if he failed to meet the nighttime arrival. That happened at least twice on the trip. We didn’t think that was very nice, but, of course, the policy wasn’t ours to make!

The food across the board, was very good. We enjoyed LOTS of specialty cheeses, lots of organically raised beef, lots of fish and not much pork. Usually there was a vegetarian option too. One night lamb was offered, and we had it at an interesting mountain aerie one noontime too. Mostly we had a breakfast buffet with plenty of options for anything from cereal to eggs to breads (great breads of all variety), bacon and sausage and lots of lovely fruit. Hotel coffee wasn’t always great, but I had coffee in individual little coffee places several times and it was delicious. Mostly they don’t offer anything but partly skimmed milk to put in coffee. Yuk. So I didn’t drink a whole lot of it. I asked for cream many times, to be met with a blank face of non-understanding and someone pointing to the skimmed milk pitcher. Oh well, it was just 2 weeks! We stayed in one Muslim-owned hotel (Sarajevo) and some in our group grumbled because no alcohol was served. I think those folks went out after dinner to a nearby bar or club. We were served white wine, red wine, beer and soft drinks everywhere (except Sarajevo) and across the board, the wine was good. The Zinfandel grape originates from that part of the world.

So, bear with me as I sort and catalog my pictures.

Posted in Travel, on April 2nd, 2016.

biltmore_estateIf you haven’t ever been to The Biltmore Estate, you have truly missed out on out one of America’s treasures. It’s open to the public, and also has 2 hotels located right on the grounds of the estate itself.

My friend Darlene has been telling me for years about The Biltmore Estate, and it had been on the travel plan for my DH and me in the spring, but then my hubby died suddenly. We were planning a driving trip of the Blue Ridge Mountains and had known we’d stay there. Obviously, that trip didn’t happen, as I wasn’t going to do the trip by myself. So, when Sara invited me to go with her and granddaughter Sabrina to visit colleges in the south, I prevailed on them to add 2 nights (my treat) to visit and stay there.

After visiting 2 of the colleges on our plan, we arrived at the Biltmore late in the afternoon. Darlene had recommended we stay at the Inn on the Biltmore, and to get a room facing the back, the big meadow toward the winery, which we did. We had a lovely room with a gorgeous view.

inn_at_biltmore_estatesThis estate was built by George Vanderbilt at around the turn of the last century (1890-95 approx). The Vanderbilts made their money from the beginnings of railroads here in the U.S., and they were multi-millionaires. This Vanderbilt, married a society inn_biltmore_view1woman and they lived mostly at the Biltmore, although the family also had a huge family home in NYC. George vacationed in the Blue Ridge mountains when he was young, and always wanted to return and build a home there. Originally he bought up about biltmore_doorway125,000 acres and he and his friends hunted on the grounds in season. George and his wife had one daughter who eventually married into the Cecil family (connected to British royalty), and the estate is still owned by their progeny. Because of inheritance taxes (I’m supposing this as I’ve not read it) that the family decided to open the estate to the public – only that way could they keep the beautiful grounds (now only 8,000 acres). Over the years the land has yielded lots of crops and they raise livestock on it now. There is a winery too.

biltmore_doorThe Biltmore itself contains 40+ bedrooms and about 25 bathrooms – this back in the day when a complete bathroom housed within a home was almost a rarity. To say that the house is exquisite almost doesn’t do it justice. It’s sumptuous. It’s brilliant, glittery in places, tasteful throughout, housing thousands of art pieces that George collected and are worth millions all by themselves.

Visiting the Biltmore is not for the meek of pocketbook. We stayed on the grounds, at the hotel pictured above and I bought a package that included parking (yes, that’s extra even if you’re staying at the hotel) and the breakfast buffet. The grounds also contain numerous gardens which were nothing but brown twigs when we visited. The hilly landscape was beautiful, nonetheless, as we wove on the interior curvy roads. It’s 3 miles from the front gate to the Biltmore, and back in the day you went by carriage. There was a train aft_tea_sara_sabrinaterminus in the nearby town – Asheville. George died quite young of a burst appendix (the infection caused by the rupture). This was before penicillin. His widow continued to live at the Biltmore and she maintained the many educational programs she and her husband had started for the villagers (because the depression caused such hardship). About 30-35 servants worked in the home full time, year ‘round. We did the Upstairs/Downstairs tour, which was just fascinating. The architect and designers included many innovative things into the building of the French Renaissance “castle.” It isn’t a castle, but by my parlance it certainly qualifies.

Our second day there we did the tour in the morning and then had afternoon tea, which is served at the Inn on the Biltmore, in their beautiful library.

Our waiter (in tux attire) was very attentive and made us feel very content. The tea offered are their own varieties, 3 or 4 black tea combinations, and 4 herbal and floral combos. Because it was late afternoon I think we all had herbal teas, which were very, very nice and tasty. The tea was one of the bargains of the visit – I think it was $21.95/pp and included savories, sandwiches, pastries and tea.

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In nice weather the Biltmore offers carriage rides (yes, sign me up) and also an open jeep backcountry ride as well (ditto). In

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season, with the flowers and foliage, the estate must be absolutely gorgeous. Sara, Sabrina and I have promised ourselves we will go back to the Biltmore, stay at the Inn again, and be there when the flowers are in bloom – but in the spring before it’s too warm for bugs and humidity. It was bitterly cold while we were there – it got down into the low 20s both nights, but we were toasty inside and there was no snow or rain, really. A must see if you’re ever in the Asheville, NC area. My advice: you really cannot see the estate in a day; not even in 2 days. I highly recommend a 3-days visit, or do 2 nights, but arrive in the morning, many hours before you can check in and do a tour or two. There are several restaurants on site; all the food we had was exceptional.

Posted in Travel, on March 29th, 2016.

clemsonThat’s probably the most common photo taken at Clemson University (in South Carolina). It was just one of many campuses we visited.

In mid-February (sorry it’s taken me so long to share this post) my daughter Sara invited me to go along with her and granddaughter Sabrina to visit colleges in the south. Sabrina wants to be a veterinarian, and probably not to work in a dog/cat clinic. She thinks she wants to be a large animal vet and maybe in the South (not necessarily equine, but could be), though she’s also interested in exotic birds too. She’s been accepted at a bunch of colleges and as I write this, she hasn’t made up her mind which one, although Clemson, pictured above, is in sara_sabrina_clemson_shirtsthe top two for sure. University of Missouri is wooing her with lots of scholarship and grant money, which could sway her and her family. They will visit that school soon. It’s so darned expensive to go to college these days. Sabrina doesn’t want to attend a California college – not exactly sure why that is – as she could go to college for a lot less money (in-state tuition is cheaper). U.C. Davis is the #2 vet school in the country (Colorado State is #1 now); although Sabrina has very good grades, they’re not quite good enough for Davis, which pretty much requires a better than 4.0 GPA.

So, flying from different parts of the state, we flew to Charlotte, NC and met up there. Clemson was actually the last school we visited. We went to Appalachian State (NC), Univ. of Tennessee at Knoxville, Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA) and Clemson (SC). Wake Forest had been on the agenda, but we learned that seeing more than one school in a day was almost impossible, what with 2-5 hours of driving distances between the different schools. And Wake Forest doesn’t have a pre-vet major, so I think Sabrina has bumped them off the list altogether.

Sara had made appointments with most of the schools for a campus tour, and we learned that schools will often schedule a visit with a faculty adviser. That was really helpful, as we learned after the first one at the U of Tenn. From there on, Sara and Sabrina knew more about what to look for, and wanted to see the vet barns and classrooms. We had a vet-school tour with a pre-vet senior at Virginia Tech, which was so very interesting. Of course, the schools only ask students to do this if they’re very rah-rah for the school itself. All of us liked Virginia Tech a lot, and it’s still in the running, I believe.

Appalachian State, although pretty, is quite remote and small, so I think Sabrina has scratched that one off the list. And, although the Univ. of Tennessee/Knoxville is a big pond_sunset_clemsoncampus, and parts are very pretty, I don’t think Sabrina was that intrigued. I didn’t care for the city atmosphere – the campus is right in the heart of downtown, which makes parking a nightmare. As Sara said to me at the end of our trip, it was a good thing I went along, because there were times when I had to stay with the car. We made it in the nick of time for a couple of these tours as the driving took us longer than expected. So, sometimes they went off for a scheduled tour or faculty adviser visit without me as I could find no parking, or nothing near close enough. I frequented a Wal-Mart a couple of times because that was the only place to park. There are a lot of Wal-Marts in the South!

Sara didn’t want to drive in weather, so I did about half the driving, especially on the days it was snowing and icy roads prevailed. We saw so many accidents, and cars, trucks, and even a clemson_alumni_ringtumbled-over semi truck that had slid on ice into culverts. I drove slow and steady and we were fine. We, as Californians, and SoCal ones at that, don’t have many cold weather clothes. I bought a pair of boots for the trip (and then didn’t ever wear them because with my heavy socks on, I couldn’t get my foot into them!), and I wore a neck scarf every day, plus layers of things. We actually enjoyed the cold weather, though we were very lucky throughout the trip – relatively few hours driving in snow, rain or ice, just enough to make it pretty. We wore gloves only on the days it was in the 20s. Most of the days it was in the 30s and 40s. At right is the alumni center at Clemson – I thought it was such an oddity to see a class ring in taller than life-size sculpture. Sunset photo above was taken by daughter Sara with her cell phone.

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Sabrina has a friend who is a sophomore at Clemson, so they were able to walk the campus some after the tour (and we shared lunch at a little joint in the half-block long street of “downtown” Clemson). The school is in the middle of nowhere (so is Virginia Tech, for that matter). But it’s a beautiful campus and big. We saw lots of happy, laughing and smiling students there that day. The last morning we drove to the vet barns and arena. It’s several miles from the campus and might be a problem for Sabrina who won’t have a car there, or at any of the schools she’s considering. Her parents don’t want her to have a car (she has one, my DH’s pretty old BMW convertible, that lives at home). Sabrina has a part time job working at a dog/cat vet clinic near where they live. She’s just loving the experience she’s getting there.

One of the fun parts of the trip was sampling the food. Our first day there we stopped at a Cracker Barrel, in Boone, NC, near Appalachian State. We had the nicest waitress, a local, with a cracker_barrel_snowvery southern drawl, who helped us choose the best of the side dishes. Sara and I shared a chicken & dumpling meal, and we got cheesy grits, fried okra and broccoli. Sabrina had meatloaf with greens and we all had buttermilk biscuits that were every bit as good as I’ve ever made from scratch. It was such a good meal! See photo in the collage below. There is no way I could have eaten the entire meal – it’s a good thing Sara and I shared it and we couldn’t finish it even then!

We stopped our last day there in a small barbecue place in SC, called Southern Barbecue, (the link is to Yelp’s page about the restaurant which is in Spartanburg, SC) and got food to go – a pulled pork sandwich (that I thought was sensational, but I like Carolina Q – the kind that doesn’t use ketchup or a sweet red sauce). We also got a bag of hush puppies. Oh my gosh, were they ever the BEST! I don’t think we had any desserts to speak of – we were always too full of the regular food! Portions were large everywhere we went. Biscuits and gravy were an everyday item on the breakfast buffet. I’m not much for institutional style eggs (hard and rubbery) so I had the biscuits and gravy a couple of mornings.

food_collage

kingofQplate

We also stayed for 2 days and nights in Asheville, NC, to see the Biltmore Estate. I’m going to write up a separate post about that since it was so extra special. For me, that was the highlight of the trip. Stay tuned.

Posted in Travel, on November 19th, 2015.

termite_mound5

Termite Mounds. That above is a live one.

Other than seeing termite mounds on TV, usually on National Geographic programs, I’d not paid much attention to them. They’re odd looking. Many are phallic-shaped, and some jesting was mentioned amongst our group about that. The one above is a fairly young mound, probably only about 4 feet tall. And when I tell you they “pepper” the African landscape is an understatement. They’re everywhere.

As days went by and we drove by hundreds of them (pictures below) I began to notice the differences between them, and could tell whether one was live or not. The answer to that has to do with the color and look of the stuff you see on the outside – this one is dark colored, meaning that the workers (the termites who take care of the mound, build it, clean it, excavate it) have been doing their jobs by removing detritus and dung, pushing it up and out, where it clings to the outside. There are vent holes in the mound, which are kept scrupulously clean by the workers.

The soldier termites defend the nest (mound) and have unique stuff they excrete onto attacking animals or insects that becomes a glue-like substance, in effect paralyzing the attacker.

termitemound1The surface of these things is hard. I never did go up to a fresh mound and push on the dark stuff (we were rarely out of the Land Rovers) – perhaps I could have budged it – but I wasn’t interested in touching termite dung. As the weather on the savanna changes the surface of the mound becomes hard, almost like rock.

Termite mounds have a king and queen (similar to a bee hive but without a king bee), worker termites and soldier termites, and believe it or not, a mound can live for about 20 years. Eventually the life span of the insects wane and the mound dies. When that happens other rodents move in – mostly mongoose. Or snakes (but not both).

At first, I thought the termites must choose a place near a tree (because so many of them were mounded next to one), but actually not. These termites aren’t exactly wood eating (like the type that live in the wood in my house) – they eat anything that contains cellulose, which they forage from the surrounding landscape. It’s in hay and other botanical stuff they find. The workers and soldier termites are both blind.

termite_mound_abandonedThere at left is an abandoned termite mound – note that there is no fresh (dark colored) stuff on or around the mound. And the mound has been cleaned out by rodents with plenty of escape holes.

As a termite mound rises in time, baboons use the tops of them as a sentry post, scanning the savanna for predators. And those baboons poop as they’re sitting there. Because baboons eat botanical stuff, their poop contains seeds, hence you can see behind this termite mound a tree that’s grown up beside it. So here I thought it was the egg and the chicken, but no it was the termite first, then the trees.

Utterly fascinating, this planet of ours and how it all works!

Posted in Travel, on November 15th, 2015.

coke_light_no_ice

coke_light_ice

I took a photo of this, just so I could show you the difference about 5 minutes can make in the life of one can of Coke Light in the summer African bush. First it was poured into the glass, with ice, and I’d sip it some, and within 5-7 minutes or so it would be like the left one, all the ice had melted and it was diluted and getting warm.

Those of us on this trip talked about our obsession with ice. Every one of us was asking for ice – ice in our water, ice in our cocktails, ice to take back to our cabin, and ice in our soft drinks. At one of the camps they ran out of ice. I’m tellin’ you, that was one very sad day. Of course, remember that it was hovering at about 100° every day, so except for lying on our beds under the light breeze from the A/C, we were in the heat elements. Our water bottles were at room temp. None of the tent cabins had a refrigerator. We did have one at our first camp, but it wasn’t a safari tent cabin – it was a tree house and a more permanent structure. We did keep water cold in that one.

bush_boutique_sign

At our last stop, Stanley’s Camp, we all did some shopping at their little boutique. They had a nice mixture of things and since I left behind most of my clothes, I was able to fit in a few trinkets. baskets_for_sale

bush_banner

At left is a banner – I’m not sure what it was made of. At right was a shelf full of baskets of all shapes and sizes. There was one I wanted, but it was a bit too big to get into my duffle.

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More baskets of all shapes and sizes. bead_figures_4saleI bought one of those bush figures – the one at left with green trim. I loved the orange one, but I have no place in my house where an orange figure would fit very well.

guide_stanleys_camp

morning_coffee_stanleys_campOne of our guides at Stanley’s Camp. He was a happy person and grinned all the time.

There at left is the lovely tray of coffee and cookies our room attendant brought to us both mornings. Very nice. We sat out on our spacious front deck, enjoying the view over the reed-filled savanna, listening to the morning birds. Did I mention that mostly we had French press coffee everywhere. They’d bring all the parts, with a thermos of hot water and we’d make it ourselves.

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After I got home, I did some research about the many birds in Botswana, and I identified this guy as two different ones, so am not sure what he was. Pretty, though – kind of like a sandpiper with a similar running gait.

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That’s our front porch. Too hot to sit there in the heat of the afternoon, but it was really nice in the early mornings. There were tarps on the sides, so we had some privacy, but the front just had screens, which was fine.

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