Friday, January 31, 2020

The idea of spending the night under soft reindeer skins in Northern Norway with the potential of seeing the Northern lights sounded like a good idea.

And waking up on a husky dog farm, playing with hundreds of cute huskies and doing a dog sledding tour through the fresh snow also sounded like a dream.

The reality, of course, turned out quite differently.

While hubby and I really enjoyed the dog sledding part of our recent trip, the rest of the experience at Tromsø Villmarksenter could be greatly improved.

Raining and a Big Bus – What Could Go Wrong?
I booked our tour through Much Better Adventures based in London because the tour was sold as being “no more than 20 persons.” Generally, we hate large group tours, so a small tour sounded perfect for us. But when we arrived at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tromsø to meet our tour, at least 40 people were on the bus. Little did we know that those of us overnighting were joining another large group who had booked just the evening tour at Tromsø Villmarksenter. Another large tour bus arrived on site about an hour later.

Upon arrival, staff showed us to our traditional, communal Sami tent – a peaked, wooden structure that’s heated by a wood-burning stove in the middle and furnished with warm sleeping bags and soft reindeer skins. The Lavvu-tent sleeps up to 10-12 people. We ended up having seven people in our tent, including one American lady who later snored like a freight train most of the night. The other Sami tent contained about 10 people. So I guess, technically, less than 20 people spent the night, but the fact that our group was mixed in with at least 50 other people was annoying.
After getting settled, we met back at the base to get fitted with warm thermal overalls and boots. Trust me, you want the boots especially when you’re walking around the dog yard and playing with the huskies. I’d also recommend wearing thick wool socks, a pair of thermal tights, snow pants and at least two warm, winter layers on top. We visited Tromsø at the end of December and temperatures ranged between 0-7C, meaning that the frequent rain and drizzle often turned into sleet and snow. 
Before dinner, we had the chance to meet the huskies – you’ll hear the dogs howling before you see them. Approximately 300 Alaskan huskies – ranging from young puppies to competition dogs – call Tromsø Villmarksenter home. The dogs are an excited, raucous bunch and love all the attention and cuddles that you give them. I highly recommend that you be a dog person before you do a tour like this. Luckily, we are.

We met some of the dogs like Sis, Snø, Termos, Avacado, Donald and Perro (who roomed together…lol), Kiwi, Tinder, Mango and more. Since it was lightly raining outside, many of the dogs didn’t want to leave the warmth of their dog houses to play with us.
Husky puppies that didn't want to pose for photos. lol
Dinner, Campfire and Bedtime with Strangers
After our guided tour of the dog yard, we met back at the large, wooden Gamme-hut for dinner. We ended up sitting with a friendly British couple and their two young kids.  We tried bacalao, a traditional Norwegian fish stew made from locally sourced cod, and local brown bread. While the stew was a great way to warm up, it was a bit too fishy for me. For dessert, we had a rich chocolate cake and tea.
Next, we moved on to a quieter part of the farm to have a bonfire and hear traditional Sami stories. The Sami people are regarded as the indigenous people of Norway with settlements in areas of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway. The Northern Lights are called “Guovssahasat” in the Sami language – try saying that three times fast.

One of the Sami folklores is that the bright Northern lights emanate from the souls of the dead and was therefore something to be feared. The Sami would stay indoors if the lights were outside so the “souls” didn’t carry them away or even cut off their heads. Other Samis believed that the lights are gas coming up from the seas or the lakes.

We warmed up around a bonfire and even roasted some marshmallows and drank some hot chocolate. At this point, we were hoping to see some Northern lights, but winds were up to 30kph and it kept raining off and on. We literally had a 1 percent chance of seeing the lights that night, and of course, we didn’t.  
Now, here’s the strange part, after the large tour groups left, those of us overnighting were just kind of left to our own devices. Staff didn’t say anything to us or really give us any directions about the fire, the tent or the bathrooms. (By the way, this camping experience was nothing like the glamping we did in Australia.) In a small outhouse building, there were two female toilets, two sinks and simply paper towels for washing your face before bed.

Since we had zero chances of seeing the Northern Lights and were cold, hubby and I decided to hunker down back in our wooden Lavvu-tent. While the tent was fairly warm at first, it was quite chilly inside by the morning. Throughout the night, the strong winds pounded on the wooden door, which didn’t quite shut all the way, the dogs howled and the American snored. The delightful-sounding overnight Aurora Camping is not a good experience if you are a light sleeper like we are.

Husky Dog Sledding in Norway
After very little sleep, we woke up to have a filling hot breakfast at least. The cinnamon-sugared pancakes were the best! Then, we finally got prepared for our dog sledding adventure – clearly the best part of this whole trip!
Our new guide, Julien, divided our group up to those who had selected the self-driving option for the dog sled. Again, another large tour bus arrived at the farm, but at least these people were more separate from us – at least until lunch. Julien was the best guide we met on this tour and thoroughly explained how to mush with our dogs, how to control our sled and other safety precautions.

Hubby was my faithful driver while I sat in the sled with a rain poncho over my entire body. It had started raining again. Luckily, we also had our own head lamps so we could actually see the frozen tundra landscape surrounding us on Kvaløya.

We slid through the slushy snow and even went airborne a few times as we hit a few bumps with our five husky dogs. The dogs just know what to do and love running through the snow! Sometimes, hubby had to give the sled a running push from behind when we were going uphill or brake suddenly if the dogs started getting too close to the sled in front of us.
 Luckily, my only role on the sled was to take unforgettable photos of our experience. If you do ever go dog sledding, I’d highly recommend having a Go-pro type camera so you can take photos and videos as you glide through the snow.

After an hour of sledding, we returned to the base, played with the huskies again and took more photos. For lunch, we were served Bidos, a traditional Sami reindeer stew made vegetables. The hot soup was delicious – tasty like lamb – and helped restore our frozen bones.
At 12:30 p.m., we said goodbye to the dogs and boarded a big tour bus bound for Tromsø. I was ready for a hot shower and a long nap!

So was this 500 pound tour worth it?

For the dog sledding part – yes! For everything else – definitely not!

As I mentioned earlier, we prefer small tours, so I feel like we were sold a lie.

This Aurora Overnight trip was most certainly not a small group tour. If you ever visit the Tromsø area during winter, I would recommend looking at other dog sledding tours in the Lyngen Alps, Alta or even farther north. Even though this camp was highly rated, I felt like it’s basically just trying to make as much money as it can. But if you want to sleep with strangers and be surrounded by as many as 100 people, have fun!

Monday, January 27, 2020

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from 
various countries of Europe.”

Today, as the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I have to ask: are we still listening to this ‘warning to humanity’? I’ve often wondered about this as an American disappointed in her country’s politics since 2016, an expat living in London who’s dealing with British politics/Brexit and as a world traveler who has seen and heard racist comments over the years.

On January 27th, 1945, the 1st Ukrainian Front of the Red Army liberated the remaining prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland. Historians estimate that between 1940-1945, the Nazis sent at least 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, and only a couple hundred ended up surviving.
While we were living in Poland, we felt that it was important to visit Auschwitz and to see the atrocities that happened there. With a rise of antisemitism happening around the world, it’s more than important than ever to remember what happened at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II.

Looking back through my unpublished photos from our trip to Auschwitz in 2013, I felt like they were crucial to share especially since it is the 75th anniversary of the liberation. Seeing the remains of the camp, gas chambers, empty suitcases, leftover shoes – all left their mark on me, and it’s a day I’ll never forget.

The photos of Auschwitz speak for themselves.
Arbeit macht frei” is a German phrase meaning “work sets you free.” The slogan is known for appearing at the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
Female prisoners at Auschwitz
Male prisoners at Auschwitz

Gate leading into the courtyard of the execution wall between blocks 10 and 11 at Auschwitz.

One of the womens' barracks houses. 3-4 people would sleep next to each other on the hay.
Crematorium at Auschwitz
The photo above shows the gate house, which is the main entrance into Birkenau, also known as the Auschwitz II concentration camp. In May 1944, freight trains that were 40 to 50 cars long rolled through this gate, day and night, bringing thousands of Hungarian Jews to be gassed at the four Birkenau gas chambers. The prisoners called it the "Gate of Death."

According to the Auschwitz Museum, 434,351 of these Hungarian Jews were not registered at the Birkenau camp; instead, they were gassed immediately upon arrival.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

For some reason, I don’t feel like we had many memorable meals in 2019.

But after spending some time looking through my photos, I remembered several meals that did stand out at the time. Perhaps, it was a particular place or trip. Perhaps, a special dish really made an impression.

Anyways, here’s my annual round up of my Best Meals in 2019. And true to form, it’s a bit late, but at least it’s still January.

Asian Flavors in the Middle East in Dubai
At the end of January 2019, we visited good friends who were planning to leave Dubai soon. My Aussie girlfriend, who also made my list of Best Meals in 2017, and I planned a girlie day of lunch and sightseeing. She wanted to check out a fairly new place called 3FILS, a modern Asian restaurant located at the Fishing Harbour Jumeirah.
The restaurant was founded by Singaporean Chef Akmal Anuar and two Emiratis. The name 3FILS relates “to the ‘2 cents worth’ opinion about dining in Dubai,” according to the restaurant’s website.  

The highlights of our casual lunch while sitting outside in the warm sunshine were the spicy tuna sushi roll and crispy eel with a yellow pepper mayo.
After two main dishes, the stars of the meal were the desserts. My friend had the “Toothfairy” – a vibrant combination of crispy, saffron meringue and blackberry cream. I enjoyed the interactive making of my “Karak” – an ice cream cone filled with Karak Chai ice cream made from black tea leaves, cardamom and sugar – and smashed onto my plate. The ice cream tasted similar to an Indian chai tea. Yum!
Another bonus is that 3FILS is actually reasonably priced, for Dubai.

Pre-Valentine’s Day Menu Deal
Since I’ve worked so many years in the restaurant business, I have no desire to ever dine out on the 14th of February. Instead, we booked a menu deal – 6 courses and a glass of wine for £50 - a few days before the 14th at Ametsa withArzak at the COMO Hotel in London. I was curious to dine here because the restaurant is the first venture outside of San Sebastian for the legendary three-Michelin starred chef, Juan Mari Arzak, and his daughter, Elena. I’ve read about their chef tales several times over the years, and since their place in San Sebastian is out of reach, we tried the London version.

After an interesting course of several aperitivos, the “Egg on the Moon” course featured an egg yolk wrapped in chorizo and paprika paper with a jamon broth. Delicious! And the fish course was Hake “Cleopatra” with Egyptian hieroglyphics written in a vegetable puree. Very curious!
Ending on a sweet note, we had pretty star anise doughnuts with a creamy filling and a lovely array of chocolate bon bons.
While we had good food and attentive service at Ametsa, I doubt we would return if we had to pay full price for the same meal.

Easter Surprise in Italy
Sometimes the best meals are the ones you never planned.

In April, we visited our young cousin who was studying for a semester in Sorrento, Italy. On Easter Sunday, we took a road trip to trace their Italian roots to the small village of Cassano Irpino, two hours east of Sorrento. On the way back, we stopped at another small village, Cesinali, for a late lunch and found the only restaurant, Taberna De Gustibus, open. With our limited Italian, we said si to the set Easter menu and the staff squeezed us into a corner table. The place was filled with locals. Nonnas kissing their grandchildren and passing them around the table. Classic Italian grandfathers were wearing their Sunday best. It was a fabulous, rustic place!  

We thought we were sharing an antipasti platter with charcuterie and cheeses, but no, we EACH received our own antipasti plate! Then, in true Italian style, the food just kept coming. We didn’t really know what we were eating, but it was simply good, local food. Breads stuffed with herbs and local greens or ham, fried arancini, stewed spring greens, roasted stuffed red peppers, ravioli and finally a custard torta for dessert.
When we finally couldn’t eat anymore, we paid our bill – 40 euros for each of us.

Sky High Views in London
When my brother-in-law came to visit us in London, we wanted to dine somewhere special where we hadn’t been yet. Luckily, we scored an early dinner reservation at Duck & Waffle, London’s highest 24/7 restaurant located on the 40th floor of 110 Bishopsgate. The building at 230 meters tall is the fifth tallest building in the city.
We ordered four starters to share: n’duja bread (containing a delicious, spicy, spreadable Italian pork salume), smoked eel, octopus, and a very decadent foie gras brulee served with a brioche roll. Wow!
Of course, we all ordered the restaurant’s signature waffle served with a duck confit leg and a fried egg for our mains.
The views are definitely worth the hefty price tag for a special occasion. 

Birthday Treat in London
For my birthday in May, we dined at Lyle’s, a Michelin-star restaurant and number 33 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list for 2019. This was my third time dining at Lyle’s, a place I like because it serves outstanding food using local ingredients.

We had booked a set menu served by Chef Dave Verheul of Embla, an award-winning wine bar in Melbourne, Australia. About once a quarter, Lyle’s welcomes guest chefs to its restaurant so they can showcase what’s happening around the world. Since we had lived in Melbourne for over a year, I was curious to try Verheul’s food.

To start with, we had fermented potato flatbread served with a shitake dip – lots of unami flavors here. I asked about the bread and was told that the potatoes are roasted, mashed and then left to ferment similar to making a starter for sourdough bread. At least, that’s the simplistic explanation.
As you can from my photos, the set menu’s dishes look rather simplistic, but the flavors are concentrated and simply focus on the ingredients. I was a happy birthday girl.
Of course, you add two set menus at £73 each, a bottle of wine and 2 glasses of pink bubbles, and the next thing, the bill is over £200. Well, it was my birthday, afterall.

Pasta and More in Puglia, Italy
I’ve been wanting to do a foodie trip to the Puglia region of Italy for a couple years now, and 2019 was the year we finally made it happen. Also, I had bought a new cookbook, “Food of the Italian South,” by American food writer Katie Parla, in preparation for our summer trip. Puglia – the spur and heel of the Italian boot – hasn’t been considered as foodie rich as say Tuscany or Napoli, but the region is becoming more popular. In fact, Puglia is a rich agricultural area with immense plains and rolling hills covered in olive trees, vineyards and wheat, plus it has 500 miles (800km) of coastline, which means heaps of fresh seafood.

During our week in Puglia, we based ourselves in Alberobello and then Polignano a Mare and ate an abundance of Italian charcuterie, cheeses, ripe tomatoes, homemade pastas, pizza and seafood.
I won’t pinpoint just one restaurant except to recommend that you should dine at least one masseria when you go to Puglia. Traditionally, a masseria was a large farm inhabited by the landowners and included lodging for the laborers working the land plus storage buildings for crops and wine. Today, many masseria have been converted into agriturismo lodgings, and many still function as small farms as well. On our e-bike ride in the Puglian countryside, we stopped at Masseria Madonna dell’Arco and had an impressive lunch and everything was homemade at the masseria. We couldn’t even eat everything because we had been cycling in the hot Puglian sun.
This spread was just the first course at the masseria where we had lunch.

Looking ahead in 2020, so far, we have trips planned to Barcelona, Milan and a big trip to Asia for our 10th wedding anniversary. I can’t wait to try some new restaurants and new dishes!

Happy eating in 2020 – a new decade of good eats!