Techno Babble and Cicchetti

For the techno-geeks out there, I'm using an a Nikon S620 digital camera, occasionally the iPhone camera, an iPad, and the Blogsy app to make these posts. I'm using direct USB from the Nikon to the iPad to transfer photos, and a nifty feature in iPhoto to “beam” photos from the iPhone to the iPad. I use an iPad carrying case (Kensington KeyFolio Pro2) which includes a nice, BlueTooth keyboard and props the iPad up like a laptop screen, which I highly recommend.

Given that the iPad is the perfect portable blogging device, it's disappointing that the process is not easier. The official WordPress iPad app doesn't work well. Blogsy, with its own flaws, is the best of several stinky alternatives I've tried. Inserting pictures, aligining them within the text, and controlling text flow are not as seamless as they should be, this many years into the web. I happen to know HTML (the underlying language used for these pages) by heart and am able to tweak things behind the scenes, but it must be awful for those who don't know it to try to get some control over their posts.

Tap or click for larger image Tap or click for larger image

Whining over, last night was the “Cicchetti Crawl”, wherein I sampled the tapas-like Happy Hour offerings of several Venetian watering holes. It's a fun business, having a small glass of wine and one or two delicasies while standing at the bar, chatting with others, and then moving on, and it makes for an entertaining sit-down dinner alternative. Here are two pictures of the offerings at Bacaro Risorto, one of my favorite places to hang. My favorite cicchetti? The tempura'd zucchini flower, stuffed with an anchovy.

Bacaro Risorto is conveniently right next door to my hotel, Casa Fontana. I've stayed here for my last several visits to Venice and it's a nice hotel, run by a friendly and helpful family. It's located just south of San Marco Piazza so it's both easy to get to, and get away from, the touristy sites and hordes. I'm in Room 11 this trip, which is on the back and has its own balcony with chairs. It's a very nice treat to sit out there after a day of walking and relax with the view and a book.

Today, we have a bit of an overcast and I'm exploring a new place for lunch which is difficult to get to but reportedly worth the effort. Ciao for now!

Over the Alps To Venice

Just a short post about yesterday, most of which was spent on the EuroCity 87 train, crossing from Germany into Austria and then down into Italy. The views were quite spectacular, and I've posted two pictures, but they do little justice to the reality. This has something to do with the sense of scale you get when you're standing, for instance, at the edge of the Grand Canyon, which is totally lost in a flat image. But at least you get the idea.

Nonetheless, the trip was a congenial, if long, six hours and two different sets of fellow passengers joined me in our comfortable, six-person, 1st class compartment

We arrived right on time at 6:10 pm at St. Lucia station in Venice, and I was lucky to exit the stazione ferroviaria (rail station), get a vaporetto (water bus) ticket, and then step right onto the #2, which swept around the west of Venice and down the Giudecca Canal. Dusk fell, the lights sparkled across the water, and the wind freshened up before a cold front. I love this part of arriving in Venice – riding the waves, the pas de deux of the pilot and conductor at each stop, the promise of exploring the island – and it always makes me smile. I disembarked at San Zaccaria and was soon checking in at my favorite Venetian hotel, Casa Fontana. And what a nice room Diego had waiting for me: double bed, beautiful tile flooring, private bath with shower, and best of all, a balcony with two chairs and a table, overlooking the piazza of the San Zaccaria church. Today: fine Italian food and wine!


It Was BMW Heavenly To Me

With Oktoberfest in its last super-crowded days, I decided to see other parts of Munich. The popular Marienplatz is a central downtown area, lined with lots of shops and sights. The photo at left, below, is the “new” Town Hall, with the famous glockenspiel clock tower, where mechanical figures dance and whirl when the bells chime.

The equally famous and seemingly more popular Hofbrauhaus, at right, above, was swarmed with folks. The atmopshere inside was not unlike the Oktoberfest beer tents but, without the high ceiling and openness, it was infinitely louder inside and not as welcoming. But, I had to do my duty, so I had my necessary litre of Oktoberfest Marzen there. Tasty, yes, but not as fun as the tents.

The picture at the left shows a portion of a room off to the side of the main dining area where racks of padlocked mugs, belonging to Hofbrauhaus regulars, are stored. I wonder how many liters you have to down to earn this privilege?! Only about 1/3 of the total number of mugs is shown. There are also tables there that are designated for regulars, so you have to be mindful where you sit.

Sunday was a rainy day in Munich which made it perfect for going to BMW Welt, which means “BMW World”. To me, it was BMW Heaven. If you don't know it, I was the proud owner of a 1995 BMW 525i Sedan for a few years and miss it often. The area is home to BMW HQ and includes the BMW factory (sadly, no tours were on offer during my visit), the Welt (a sort of giant showroom), and the BMW Museum. The company also owns Mini Cooper and Rolls Royce, so they were represented in the cars on display in the Welt, too. This is also where those who elect to pick up their newly purchased BMW at the factory come to collect it (and get the VIP treatment) before driving off into the sunset.

The museum was filled with dozens of gorgeous BMW cars and motorcycles from throughout the company's nearly 100 year history. Race cars, vintage and new motorycles, beautiful coupes, convertibles, and sedans – all were on immaculate display. I have to say that my favorite was the Isetta (shown below) which BMW came to own when it bought an Italian automaker in 1955. It was the top-selling 1-cylinder car ever (yes, one cylinder). If you look closely, you'll see that the only “door” is the entire front of the car. Sadly, it's no longer made (because I know you want one).

I rode the U-Bahn train back to town and whiled away the rest of the afternoon, dodging the rain, at the Augustiner restaurant on the main drag near the Karlsplatz. I've had a great time here in Munich but look forward to my scenic train ride tomorrow over the Alps to one of Italy's best cities, Venice. See you there!


Fabulous Okoberfest 2012

It's hard to convey just how glad I am that I have been to the mother of all beer festivals, Oktoberfest in Munich. I had a terrific time. Here's an analogy for my U.S. readers: imagine the Texas State Fair combined with Mardi Gras. Live in or around Washington, D.C.? Imagine a carnival, with rides, plus 100,000 seats for beer drinking, covering half the National Mall. Now there's a Folklife Festival for you!

It's all in the timing, apparently. I arrived at 10:30 am on the last Friday of the festival, and found a light crowd strolling the main drag. There were 14 major beer “tents” and maybe 25 smaller ones. The major tents are multi-story temporary structures which have canvas roofs but little else to distinguish themselves as tents (see the photo gallery I posted earlier). The biggest tents seat 9,000 people! And it's all taken down and then put back up next year. Covering 103 acres, in addition to the beer tents, the festival has a Ferris Wheel, several huge roller coasters, and every carnival ride, game, and food stand you can imagine (I never did figure out how to say “Funnel Cake” in German).

I've read some other blogs about Ocktoberfest, filled with complaints about things like not being able to find a WC (restroom). Just a touch of preparation might have prevented many of those problems. For example, the Tourist Info office right at the central Munich train station hands out free, detailed maps of the Oktoberfest grounds, with WCs, ATMs, amenties for the handicapped, etc. all clearly marked. Showing up at 5pm on the last Saturday of the festival is also a formula for a) being overwhelmed by the crowd and b) not getting into a beer tent. Because you have to get into a tent or its outside beer garden to drink.

And so, at 10:30 am I went into the Augustiner Festhalle tent. Basically, the big tents are run by major breweries and I wanted to try Augustiner because their Oktoberfest brew is still stored in 200-year old wooden kegs and is highly-rated. I had no problem getting a seat. Tables can be reserved for parties of 10 or more, but most reservations don't kick-in until 4:00 pm. This seems to be little known secret, as many people bypassed tables with reserved signs on them that they could easily have sat down at. Some tents, like Augustiner, actually have areas of tables that are marked “Here is Open Seating”, which is where I sat.

Some basic Oktoberfest economics: when you reserve a table you guarantee to pay for at least two beers and a half-chicken for each reserved seat. If some of your party doesn't show up, you're still on the hook for the total amount and you'll haul in anyone who looks tolerable to fill the vacant seats. The servers actually buy the food and drink for each order (at wholesale, I'm sure) from the tent owner and then sell it to you at the posted prices. So they have a vested interest in getting as many butts into seats as possible, and will often help you find a seat if you ask.

I sat down at a table with three young Germans who waved me in. Tables have benches on either side, with no backs, so you're rubbing spines with the person at the table behind you. In no time at all, I was drinking my first “mass” or 1-litre (33 oz.) beer. That was the one and only size I saw, and it was tasty. To be designated an Oktoberfest beer, the brew must comform to the Rheinheitsgebot or “purity law” (brewed using only water, barley, and hops) and be about 6% ABV. It also has to be brewed within the Munich city limits.

My initial cold, heady stein of Augustiner was golden amber, with a light, slightly malty taste and a very light hoppy finish. It was smooth, very satisfying, and possibly fatally easy to drink. I took my time with it.

The crowd to me appeared to be 80% under 30 and easily 50% wore the traditional checked-shirt and lederhosen (men) or dirndl dress (women), and the occasional short-shorts lederhosen (hotties). In many cases “dirndl” seemed to be translated as “cleavage”. There were a lot of good-looking women, to be sure. Traditional and goofy hats abounded.

By 11:30 am the place was filling up and so were the festival goers. Occassionally someone would stand up on their bench (benches are OK, but not on table tops) and chug a stein, accompanied quickly by cheering, clapping, and pounding on tables for all corners, followed by a huge cheer when the empty stein was brandished above. Occasionally a competition between two chuggers would break out. Then again, when one fellow got the crowd going but failed to finish his stein off, oh, the booing and hissing were huge!! It's not smart to taunt the crowd!

Reasons for taking a drink were many and varied. Recognizing an old friend? Drink! Finding countrymen at the adjacent table? Drink! Someone from your table coming back from the WC? Drink! And this was BEFORE noon, when the band started playing, pouring forth endless German songs that demanded that you stand, cheer, and drink, drink, drink at the end! Who knew these Bavarians could be so much fun?

I finally finished my first stein and ordered half a roasted chicken with my second one. Must get that protein in (as if beer doesn't contain any). In typical European fashion, when you order chicken, you get chicken. And nothing else: no sides, no condiments, nothing. Still, it was seasoned nicely and hit the spot.

Speaking of countrymen, at my table we wound up with two Japanese students, five young Germans, and me. The next table over was an entire group of American guys and girls studying in Rome. In front of us, a full troupe of hilarious young German men (students, I would guess) dressed in matching shirts and lederhosen and having a ball – they were really entertaining.

At 1:00 with what I thought was my full day's quota of beer under my belt (it's good to have a plan… and not to worry too much if things don't go to plan) I spent an hour strolling around the festival grounds, buying a souvenir or two and sampling some small foods and sweets. The grounds were a lot more crowded but still easily navigable; lots of families with small children, strollers, etc. in the mix now.

At 2:00 I strolled into the Paulaner Festhalle tent and now, as a seasoned seat-finding pro, sat right down with a group of Italian and German youngsters. My third litre of beer of the day was a revelation: lightly sweet, with a citrus, malt and faintly raisin taste. Wow – it was really good! Again, an extremely smooth finish in the mouth and fatally drinkable.

The Paulaner tent was jammed and the 12-piece band, on a raised dias in the center of the room, complete with a rocking horn section (and sax-playing fraulein), cranked through endless German tunes and lots of American frat-party classics. I'm talking about the Rhino records stuff, like Shout!, Wooly Bully, and Gimme Some Lovin' (gad – will that Spencer Davis hit never die?!). The crowd loved it. The folks at my table left and their places were soon taken by the arrival, along with my fourth litre, of a group of middle-aged Italian men, who I quickly figured out were from Venice. One is a gondalier and, as I headed there Monday, it was fun talking with some of the Venetian locals. When they were trying to guess my nationality, they tossed out “Harley-Davidson” and were soon on to me. We sang, we drank, we stood, we cheered.

It's always interesting to observe the group dynamics in these situations. There's always one “class clown” who, if not in command, is at least intent on creating fun. This person will be loud, may be rude, will take risks, and gets everyone laughing. I saw this in many groups of men and certainly in the Venetians. I guess it takes one to recognize one.

At 4:00 we were kicked out of our table so it could be available for those who reserved it and we said our goodbyes. The place was really packed and getting to the tent's huge WC through the crowd took a lot of work. I finally escaped outside to the midway where I discovered the crowd had grown to almost gridlock, too. I parked myself in a good location and people-watched for a while and noticed other odd bits. Did you know they sell bratwurst by the meter? Yes, apparently you can buy .25, .5 and 1-meter of it, on a bun, ready to eat.

Well, I was feeling pretty lively then but was saved by the fact that I was broke (1 beer = 9.6 euros, chicken = 9.7 euros, souvenirs, postcards, stamps, etc. cash only, please) and probably couldn't have gotten into any tents, all of which had now sprouted long entry lines, anyway. So at 5:00 pm I headed back to my hotel. I was clearly intoxicated (let's see: 4 x 33 = 132 oz. / 16 oz. = 8.25 Mad Fox pints at 6%) but having spread them out throughout the day, I was in good shape and slept well without any serious after effects. Let's not talk about gross calorie intake, please.

I went back to the festgrounds this morning to mail some postcards there so they'd get the official Oktoberfest stamp cancellation. Today is the next to last day of the festival and, at 10:30 am, the crowd was as big as it was at 5:00 yesterday. Good golly, I can't image what it will be like tonight. The tents are open until around midnight and I'm sure they'll be rockin'. My visit was a great experience and I recommend it to you!

Oktoberfest 2012 in Pictures

Oktoberfest Main Entrance
Busy at 10:30 am
The tents do have canvas roofs
Famous roasted duck restaurant
The Augustiner tent - my first stop
Half occupied at 10:40 am
That first tasty Oktoberfest litre
Someone standing on their seat to chug a beer, with great crowd encouragement
Chugging seems to be catching...
Six, eight, ten at a time; there seems to be no limit
Augustiner beer is still brewed and delivered in 200-year old wooden barrels
And you though this nasty brand was long gone!
Cupid on a golden pot points the way to the WC
The beer is delivered in horse-drawn wagons
Oktoberfest also incudes an amusement park...
...complete with Ferris Wheel
Inside the Paulaner tent at 2 pm, getting more crowded
Very tasty Paulaner brew


The crowd gets jiggy with it!
Standing on benches is allowed, on tables is not


The band played traditional German songs and vintage US covers


Whole Lotta Flyin’ Goin’ On

I had another fine flight on Virgin-Atlantic to London – the airline just can't be beaten for comfort and service. As many of you already know, it's relatively easy to accumulate rewards points from various sources and apply them to Virgin's frequent flyer plan to get an upgrade to their Upper Class ticket. So, except for a bit of turbulence here and there, it was another great flight.

One of the other things I like about Virgin is the Revivals Lounge at Heathrow. It consists of 30 private bathrooms with showers, plus a breakfast cafe! So, at no extra charge, Upper Class passengers can shave, shower, and change clothes after a wrinkle-laden, Einstein hair inducing, fitfull night of semi-sleep on the red-eye flight and emerge looking reasonably human.

I spent two hours hanging at Heathrow, busying myself to avoid falling asleep, and then caught a Lufthansa flight to Munich. It's amusing to compare American and European flight expectations: my Lufthansa economy ticket included several inches of free space between my tall man's knees and the seat ahead of me, and free food and drink (even wine and beer). Fabulous. However, there were no food choices. Instead, the stewardess practically raced her cart down the aisle, tossing a one-flavor-fits-all French bread pizza to everyone, without a word. It was mushroom marinara pizza, which I find tasty but it might not have suited everyone. Yet I head no complaining, no demanding to know what other flavors there were, and saw no one acting as if they were entitled to mutliple choices. Kind of refreshing, actually.

Munich's airport is modern and well-laid out and sits atop two rail lines. It struck me as odd though that the trains are express trains. They're locals, making 12 stops over 40 minutes, before reaching the center of the city and adding more time and jammed-in comraderie with other humans to your trip. Hmm… sounds a bit like a rail project that's working its way out to Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C.

See the traditional lederhosen costume at left? As the train made its way into town, more and more people in this traditional dress for Oktoberfest got on board. Women in those dirndl dresses, too. In fact, I arrived into the Hauptbahnhof central train station in a veritable swarm of these outfits. Fighting down the urge to race out and plunk down $300 for a real one, I luckily realized it just wouldn't “go” with anything else I own. Considering that they're made out of rather heavy leather, I don't how I'd have gotten one in my suitcase anyway, without sacrificing the room I set aside the for endless souvenirs I rashly promised everyone I know.

I found my hotel without mishap, and managed to get out to an Italian restaurant for a simple meal, and my first Oktoberfest (only 20-oz.) beer. Yes, everyone in town is serving the seasonal brew. Tomorrow is forecast to be a nice, cool, sunny day and I will devote all of it to worshipping the golden grain product and making my dent in the millions of pints that will be served this year at Oktoberfest. Stay tuned!

On The Road Again

Welcome back. It's been a while since I've posted here and I'm very glad you're reading my blog. I hope you'll stay with me as I jet off to some interesting places in Europe once again and I look forward to adding regularly to this chronicle of my travels.

As you can tell by looking at the dates of the posts here, I managed to skip reporting on my 2011 trip entirely. No specific reason; just didn't do it. I did go to Amsterdam for the first time and it was wet but a lot of fun. The Dutch are a friendly people, to be sure.

If you tag along with me, this year we'll start off by spending some time enjoying the last few days of Oktoberfest in its home town, Munich. Then we'll take a scenic train ride over the Alps and down into my favorite island destination, Venice. The City of Light, Paris, will be our third stop, with some interesting events in store there for us. Then it will be back under the English Channel by train to London to revisit some familiar places and new pubs.

My trip doesn't start for a few more days, but do check back here after that for my daily photos and musings.