Friday, May 1, 2015

Three Great Days in Normandy


The weeping angel in Amiens cathedral was an iconic image
 for homesick soldiers in World War I.
With the dollar buying more in Europe these days, you can expect a rush of visitors from the US this summer. Visiting Normandy in April allowed our family of three to enjoy the attractions without the crowds. Here's our three-day itinerary. Click on the links to see my Trip Advisor reviews and more information on the places mentioned.
As a college student I traveled through this area on public transportation. And while it can be done, it's not easy. You'll be much better off with a car. I found the best deal through Auto Europe, booked in advance. Most people will drive from Paris, but our trip originated in Amsterdam (see previous post). After an overnight in Antwerp, we had an enjoyable day's drive, with a midway stop to admire the Unesco World Heritage cathedral at Amiens.
Notice the historic D-Day paddles hanging from the ancient beam
 in the reception area of the converted barn at Les Oiseaux de Passage.
Home Base: Your dreams of country French living will come true at Les Oiseaux de Passage, a B & B outside the town of Isigny. It's away from the more crowded resort areas near Deauville, a frequent getaway for Parisians. It's easy access to the main highway and all the historic sites, but just isolated enough to feel like a countryside retreat.
Your hosts, Gerard and Helene, are retired designers from Paris who have refitted an historic barn with delightful attention to detail. They scour the local flea markets for treasures such as boat paddles used only once -- in the D-Day invasion -- and retrieved decades later. Breakfast is a hearty mix of local cheeses, breads and pastries, with eggs if you want them.
The French country breakfast you've dreamed about.
 We followed their helpful recommendations for restaurants and sightseeing, including a secret spot where a ruined castle is populated by storks. There are only three rooms, including a disability accessible room on the ground floor. The Curlew room on the first floor was perfect for our family, with two large, comfy beds and a modern, functional bath and WC. We borrowed "The Longest Day" and other DVD's from their in-house library to watch at night on the DVD player in our room.
The large Curlew room was perfect for our family.
We arrived hungry and were directed to Le Central, the kind of local eatery that seems to know the regular customers'  names and also welcomes visitors. We strolled around town waiting for it to open at 6pm. As you plan your sightseeing, be aware that the French lunch hour is over at about 3pm and most dinner places don't open until 7 pm or later. In between, your choices are limited. Isigny, by the way, is the ancestral home of the name Disney: over time, "D'Isigny" became "Disney." It was one of the first towns to be liberated in World War II, as memorial plaques explain. There are a couple of markets where you can pick up snack provisions, as well as an outlet store for the famed Isigny carmel factory, great for souvenir gifts. You can't miss the huge dairy factory, a Chinese investment turning out baby formula for export and providing hundreds of local jobs.

Day One: We are early risers who believe in beating the tour bus crowds to the main attractions. First stop, the Airborne Museum in the town of Sainte Mere Eglise. You'll recognize the church where paratrooper John Steele's parachute became stuck as the battle unfolded in the square below. Stained glass in the church shows paratroopers protecting the Virgin Mary.
The museum contains restored aircraft and tributes, not only to the brave sacrifice of Americans who fought and died here, but also to the ongoing friendship between people of the US and France. Stop and listen to the moving words of Ronald Reagan about the boys of the Greatest Generation. The films on offer are worth your time, including the very interesting contrast of newsreel reports that described the invasion as a smashing success or a total failure, depending on which side was talking. Most restaurants in the nearby town were closed on Sunday at lunchtime, but we enjoyed quiche and lasagna with salad from a limited menu at E. Castel on the town square. From here, we drove on to Utah Beach and explored a number of crumbling Nazi pillboxes in the dunes. Moving back toward Isigny, we ended our day at Point du Hoc, where US Rangers made their seemingly impossible assault on a Nazi gun emplacement.
Pondering the bravery of the US Army Rangers at Point du Hoc.
Day Two: Taking a break from World War II sites, we headed for Mont St. Michel, an easy drive of under two hours.  Be aware that this is the second biggest tourist attraction in France, after the Eiffel Tower. We heard some grousing about the new "visitor scheme" that requires you to take a shuttle bus from the carpark. Actually, I thought it was quite efficient and an improvement over the long walk over the causeway that I remember from my student days. The disappointment was the rather busy construction site at the foot of the Mont that marred what otherwise would have been a classic scenic view.
View from the shuttle drop-off of a busy construction site.
We sprinted through the touristy shops and restaurants at the bottom of the Mont to reach the entrance to the historic chapels at the top, stacked on top of each other in an astonishing feat of architecture. Realizing the lunch hour was almost over, we decided to eat in one of the places offering the famous Mont St. Michel puffy omelet. The restaurant was staffed by only two weary servers, scrambling to meet the demands of a large Asian group in the dining room. Later, we heard that many of these eateries are now owned by foreign interests and, in the opinion of the locals, skimp on both service and food quality. In hindsight, we might have been better off with a snack and waiting until the next stop to dine, except that put us in the middle of the hours when actual restaurants are closed.
Strolling the ramparts in St. Malo.
A short drive onward brought us to St. Malo, a walled city I was eager to visit after reading the award-winning novel "All the Light we Cannot See." Beaches and walkaway food stands were busy with French families enjoying their spring break. Hard to imagine that the beautiful church had been reduced to rubble before the town was liberated from the Nazis.
"Bloody Omaha" is peaceful today.
Day Three: Returning to the D-Day sites, we visited Omaha Beach and the nearby American Cemetery. The real estate has been donated to a US Commission that manages the war museums with thoughtful and interpretive films and displays, and admission is free.
An unknown "comrade in arms" in the American Cemetery.
As the lunch hour approached once again, we headed for the imposing cathedral in the town of Bayeux, admiring the unique Norman carvings in the stonework. Across the street is L'Assiette Normande, a restaurant recommended by our B & B hosts. First time visitors may also wish to visit the historic Bayeux tapestry, which I had seen on an earlier trip. After visiting so many war museums and watching their documentary films, we found we were seeing a lot of repeat footage, so we spent more time just soaking up the atmosphere of history. The remains of the artificial port at Arromanches convey just how massive the invasion effort was.
The remains of the massive artificial port at Arromanches.
 As the sun set on our final day in Normandy, we stopped at Longues Sur Mer, where the guns remain in the Nazi bunkers, much to the delight of French school groups. Finally, we made our way to what my son called "The Middle of Nowhere, France," to find the secret ruined castle, populated only by storks and a friendly farm horse. Normandy has been the scene of centuries of war, but it rewards the visitor with remarkable history, delicious food and a peaceful atmosphere today. We didn't want to leave.
A ruined castle populated by storks.
Questions about this itinerary? Let me know if there's something I missed. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Three Great Days in Amsterdam

Keukenhof tulips.
As a European travel destination, Amsterdam doesn't get the respect it deserves. You often hear the stereotypes: hookers on display in the red light district, or cannabis in the "coffeeshops." But there is so much more to experience in this livable and friendly city.
So here's my 2015 three-day itinerary for spring break in Amsterdam. Click on the links to learn more or see my Trip Advisor reviews of the places mentioned.
View from the bedroom window.

Your Home Base: I wanted to stay in the historic Jordaan area where hotel rooms are tiny and expensive. The website House Trip provided a more affordable option for my family of three: an apartment on the Bloemgracht. This charming "flower canal" street is residential and quiet, except for the booming bells from the nearby West Church. Everything we needed was close by: grocery store, specialty wine and cheese shops, fun bars and restaurants. All the major tourist attractions were within 20 minutes walking distance and the Anne Frank house was a block away. When searching online, be aware that these canal houses can be oddly laid out with steep, narrow staircases. This one involved only one flight of steps outside and a few more steps inside the front door. We picked up the keys from Vivian, an Amsterdam native who took time to share a list of favorite restaurants, like Cafe de Klepel. This wine bar with great food was fully booked with happy locals, but they welcomed us to sit at the bar. This meal was the perfect start to our trip.
Neighborhood cheese store.
Holland Pass: We saved time and money by purchasing the "large" version of the pass for 82 euros each. It includes three gold tickets, three silver tickets and a transportation ticket for either a canal cruise or the tacky "hop-on hop off" bus. Only one of the gold tickets can be used for the Rijksmuseum (17.50 admission) and it allows you to skip the ticket line. We used another gold ticket for the Van Gogh Museum (17.00 and a shorter line) and combined the third with a silver ticket for a 50-euro trip to the Keukenhof tulip gardens. At this point the pass had paid for itself, so in effect the canal cruise and silver-ticket admission to "Our Lord in the Attic" were free! Plus, we purchased online in advance to take advantage of free train tickets from Schiphol Airport to the city center, which we downloaded in advance. We had a silver ticket left over and never found a reason to use the included discount card. Technically, the pass is good for a month throughout Holland and there are lots of other options to explore in the handy guidebook. It takes some hunting in the vast airport arrivals area to find the pickup point for Holland Pass but it's worth it. Be aware that this does NOT include the Anne Frank house. More on that later. You are ready to hit the streets!
Explanatory cards make you an expert.

Day One: We are early risers who believe in beating the tour-bus and school-group crowds to the major attractions. After coffee and croissants in the apartment (we grocery shopped the night before), it was off to the Rijksmuseum, a brisk 20-minute hike along the Prinsengracht Canal. Not only did we skip the ticket line, we were able to get into the Hall of Fame to see Rembrandt's masterwork "The Night Watch" before it got too crowded with selfie-takers. Although this is one of Europe's great museums, it's delightfully accessible to the art novice and you don't need to do the audio tour. Pick up the explanatory cards that point out the features of most of the noteworthy  artworks. You'll feel like an expert. Allow a full morning.
Museum-going can tough on the mind and the feet, We were ready to sit down for savory crepes at the Pancake Bakery, followed by our canal cruise. The departure point was in the next block. We were blessed with warm, dry spring weather for the entire trip.
Later, after a brief rest stop at the apartment, we walked the red light district with our college-age son as the sun went down. My husband's appetite was definitely aroused, not by the women in the windows, but by the array of sweets on offer in countless storefronts. We had to stop for Nutella waffles! Although I'm troubled by the human-trafficking aspects of legal prostitution and don't do pot, the neighborhood had the energy of an adult theme park and didn't feel quite as sleazy as I had feared.  We also passed by the departure point for the Keukenhof tour and made a reservation for the following day -- essential.
Sunset in the Red Light District.
Day Two: Up early for apartment breakfast and the walk to the departure point for Keukenhof. We were a bit too early in April to see the gardens in full bloom, but greenhouses provided a wealth of photo opportunities. Again, taking the morning bus means you will be able to get better pictures before it gets too crowded. During the hourlong bus ride, the tour guide explained the historical data in English, German and Spanish, then left us on our own to wander the flower gardens for about three hours. Plenty of time. We were back in Amsterdam in time for a late lunch at the Central Library. The self-serve cafeteria on the 7th floor offers organic, fresh-made options for a reasonable price. Highlights: the french fries and the view from the terrace. Refueled, we made our way back toward the St. Nicholas Church, and on to "Our Lord in the Attic." This little gem of a museum on the edge of the red light district recalls the days when Catholics could not openly practice their religion in this Protestant city.
Hidden church in the attic.
Day Three: It's another early wake-up call for your date with Vincent Van Gogh. Plan to be in the shorter Holland Pass line when the museum opens at 9am, or you'll have to wait. In contrast to the broad sweep of the Rijksmuseum, this is a deep dive into the talented and troubled soul of one artist. On the ground floor, you meet his self-portraits at eye level. The no-photograph rule is strictly enforced, which is understandable given the crowds who would no doubt be jostling for selfies with the sunflowers if cameras were allowed. Familiar and less famous works are displayed alongside art that inspired Vincent and his colleagues in Holland and France. Outside on the Museumplein, don't miss the photo opportunity at the iconic iamsterdam sign.
Iconic photo op on the Museumplein.
Back to Jordaan for lunch. The Cafe de Oude Wester, across the canal from the church on a busy corner, is a casual stop for a pancake or a pizza, a cold beer and some people-watching. The line for the Anne Frank house winds around the church, and we're told the wait time can be two hours. Fortunately, we visited the web site TWO MONTHS before our visit and grabbed the last three tickets for the days we were in Amsterdam. With our printed online tickets in hand, we walked past the line and reported to a special door at our appointed time. While climbing up and down the stairs and shuffling through the dark rooms where the family was in hiding, you hear the voice of the girl who wrote the diary. Small wonder that Van Gogh and Anne Frank museums draw the biggest lines: each has a personal story that visitors want to experience up close.
At the end of this emotional one-two punch, you'll be ready for a relaxing beer! Head down the Prinsengracht to P 96, a friendly bar that has a canal barge tethered outside. They can't serve you on the barge, so walk inside the bar, order your drinks and bring them out. Watch the sun set behind West Church as you soak up the hip and festive atmosphere.
Beer on a Canal Boat!
Bye Amsterdam! On our way out of town, we discovered an awesome breakfast place, Broodje Mokum, just around the corner from our apartment. They open early for omelets and a "real Dutch breakfast," served with a smile at a bargain price. We never worked up the nerve to try Amerstdam by bicycle. Locals drive their bikes like people in my home town of Los Angeles drive cars. It's competitive and they probably can do without clueless tourists clogging the fast lane. The plus for visitors is that the air is clear of the diesel fumes you find in many European capitals. You share the streets with trams, bikes, other pedestrians and occasionally a car. English is widely spoken. And I'm glad they're into the whole sustainability thing because Amsterdam will be there for me when I am lucky enough to return.

Hat Tip: This article  on Trip Advisor helped me plan this itinerary.

Did you find this article helpful? Is there something I missed? Feedback welcome.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Travel and Safety in Pakistan

How to Visit Pakistan and Enjoy the Ride. (courtesy John Diaz)
Whenever I tell my fellow Americans I have been to Pakistan -- twice -- their reaction indicates that I must be crazy or clueless. Yes, it can be a dangerous place. Heed the warnings from the US State Department. But it's possible to visit Pakistan and enjoy the experience.

Friends in Secure Places
This is not a country where a Western visitor can stroll around and explore at will. On my first visit in 2012, I was with a group of American journalists escorted by the East-West Center and a Pakistani partner organization, PILDAT. In 2014, I was on a teaching grant from the US State Department, which took precautions for my safety whenever I was scheduled to leave the hotel. In order to get out of the security cocoon and see something, you need local friends who know the territory and are willing to spend time showing you around while looking out for your safety. Having friends on the inside will allow you to discover places like the Karachi Boat Club, a riverside escape from the craziness of the city, but for members only.
A warm welcome in Karachi at 3 am. Thanks Mushtaq!
Welcome to Karachi
If you are fortunate enough to experience Pakistani hospitality, it can be overwhelming. On my most recent arrival in Karachi, my Sindhi journalist colleague Mushtaq Sarki met me at the airport. With flowers. At 3.a.m. "This is our tradition," he explained. When we later realized my son had left his I-Pad on the Turkish Airlines plane, Mushtaq worked his contacts at the airport and the hotel dispatched a car to retrieve it. What are the chances of that happening in any other country? Another aspect of the hospitality tradition is showering the guest with gifts, so pack a generous number of gift items from your home country to reciprocate.
Awesome women journalists in Karachi.
(courtesy US Consulate)
Instant City
Before visiting Karachi, I highly recommend reading "Instant City," a book by NPR reporter Steve Inskeep that explains why the place is such a fascinating, hot mess. Even if all you see is the streetscape from a fast moving van, armored car or taxi it's a cultural overload of donkey carts and brightly painted buses and trucks. My first trip to Karachi included one day when the streets were eerily empty. The city was on lockdown due to the latest violent outbreak of a political feud. Our group ventured out anyway and our van was quickly followed by some menacing dudes on motorcycles, the kind who have a reputation for being possible assassins. Even on a "normal" day, traffic is always unpredictable as police shut down random streets for constantly shifting security reasons. Like people in my hometown of Los Angeles, folks here understand when you are late to an event because of traffic. Perhaps for this reason, people have a tendency not to plan ahead and do things on spur of the moment. Any invitation is likely to be followed by a hopeful "insha Allah," which means "God willing." Because of "load shedding" Karachi residents must endure hours of blackouts every day, and demonstrators frequently hit the streets to demand electricity, causing closures and traffic jams. My hotel had a generator that kicked in a couple of times a day.
With an adventurous American friend, I was fortunate to find a friendly hotel-approved cab driver who helped us escape the security cocoon long enough to have an elegant dinner at Okra and a night camel ride on the beach. He also alerted us when it was time to cut the camel ride short because "people are talking bad about you." Don't question these warnings and stay safe.
Shopping buddies helped me navigate the (now-closed) Sunday market in Defense.
Standing Out and Fitting In
Not all women in Pakistan cover their hair and, unless I've been invited to a mosque or other religious place, I don't either. But I carry a scarf just in case. My blonde locks are a sure attention-getter, and it's not always harmless curiosity. If your Pakistani host tells you it's time to move out of an area, don't question it. Many of your outings will be to places like the Port Grand mall, which requires passing through TSA-like security to enter the array of upscale shops and restaurants. In 2012 I was able to shop for bargains in the stalls of the Sunday market in the upper class neighborhood of Defense, with translation and price-haggling assistance from a helpful journalism student. But marketplaces are frequent targets and this type of shopping was discouraged in 2014. I've been told the Defense market is no longer operating. In any case, you'll want to visit a shop like Koel and buy a few shalwar kameez, the kaftan-like dresses (and shirts for the men) worn everywhere in Pakistan. You'll get lots of compliments from Pakistanis who appreciate your willingness to embrace their culture.
Shopping for Shalwar Kameez in Karachi.
Lahore
This garden city takes pride in being a center of higher education. It's greener and less dusty than Karachi, but security is still a concern. For a fun night out, friends led the way to the Food Street, a relic of times before the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India. The crumbling colonial-era buildings have been turned into food stalls serving local specialties, including every part of the animal. Pakistanis love meat and being a vegetarian here can be a challenge. Again, it helps to have friends looking out for you. My host made sure we were served the freshest food and not something that had been sitting around for a while.
You'll need friends to help you place an order on the Food Street in Lahore.
(courtesy Linda Roth)
My visit coincided with a planned political demonstration near the hotel where I was planning to stay, so I was moved to an extraordinary Heritage Hotel called The Moor. This place is so secure that you must be pre-cleared in order to stay here. The room service, delivered by a friendly butler, was fine for breakfast and a light dinner, and I was able to walk to a nearby restaurant with a colleague.
Lahore has a number of historic attractions that I couldn't fit in on this business trip and coming back to see the India border ceremony is definitely on my list for the future. (Update: the border crossing has also been a terrorist target. Use caution when visiting.)
Be careful at ATMS. A bank machine swallowed my friend's card and the local branch of the issuing bank was no help. To get a replacement she had to contact customer service in the US on Twitter. Even though the exchange rate wasn't very good, I opted for changing money at the airport or hotel.
At the Great Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

Islamabad
When staying at the Marriott, be aware that his hotel was the target of a suicide truck bomb in 2008, killing at least 54 people, injuring several hundred and leaving a large crater in the hotel. Security is a concern every time you enter or leave. On my first visit, I was welcomed to the home of a Pakistani journalist and his charming family. They managed to get the kids'  homework done and put dinner on the table just in time for the nightly "load shedding" blackout, and we ate by candlelight. The city is laid out in blocks with large undeveloped spaces and doesn't invite the visitor to take a stroll anywhere. Again, you'll rely on your local contacts to show you such highlights as the Great Faisal mosque, which is off limits to non-believers. All government buildings, and even NGOs, have dudes with automatic weapons to guard their gated compounds. Friends will guide you to places like Khaadi for upscale clothing, or outlets for more basic handicrafts with negotiable prices. Saidpur Village, while touristy, gives a glimpse of life outside the urban zones, where kids will eagerly jump in front of your camera and a nearby goat market shows off tonight's dinner still on the hoof. To escape the city, plan a trip up the Margalla Hills to the Monal restaurant.
Welcome to the goat market at Saidpur Village.
Peshawar
Some of the nicest and most welcoming Pakistanis I met in 2014 were journalists who had traveled from Peshawar to participate in our training in Islamabad. Peshawar is the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the tribal area in the northwest of Pakistan.  As of this writing, it is far too dangerous for an American traveler to take advantage of their warm invitation to visit their beautiful and often violent city in the foothills of the Himalayas. But someday...  insha Allah.
Meeting journalists from Peshawar in Islamabad. (courtesy Linda Roth)


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ethiopia: Land of Coffee and Some Good Food

Even a news conference at a rural health center
included a coffee ceremony
Almost everywhere I went in Ethiopia, someone was handing me a tiny cup of high-intensity coffee. According to legend, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia when a herder near the town of Kafe noticed his goats got really excited from eating the berries of a certain plant. So he tried it and felt the caffeine buzz. Local monks condemned the coffee beans as "the Devil's Fruit," but after flinging them into the fire, the aroma of the roasting beans changed their minds. In the 15th century the beans were exported to Turkey, where the drink we know today was invented.
Oromo villagers prepare traditional food at a health post.
Our group of American journalists experienced several abbreviated versions of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, in which grass is spread on the ground to bring in the outdoors. The beans are roasted and then served along with popcorn or a giant loaf of bread that is traditionally cut up by a man.
Traditionally, a man cuts the bread.
A journalist from French-speaking West Africa does the honors.


















The coffee tent at the International Family Planning Conference
at the African Union in Addis Ababa.
Outside of the family planning conference in the African Union center was a "village" of exhibits, but we never got past the coffee tent, complete with a basket of coffee flavored condoms!

A barrista at Tamoca. Starbucks, watch out. 
Unlike most of Africa, Ethiopia was never colonized. Italy occupied Ethiopia for a while, and as a result the Ethiopians do a good job with macchiato and cappuccino. I can honestly say I had the best macchiato of my life at the 1920s vintage Tamoca coffee shop. Unfortunately they had run out of beans for sale to take home as gifts.
A tradition of great coffee at Tamoca but little of it was for sale to take home.
An excellent Italian restaurant, Avanti, was around the corner from our hotel. Caprese salad anyone?
A fresh and tasty Caprese salad at Avanti restaurant.
Visiting US journalists enjoy traditional food at the
"cultural" restaurant Yod Abyssinia.
Traditional Ethiopian food is served on a giant pancake of spongy sour bread called injera. It's used to scoop up a variety of tasty mixtures. Most are meat-based but there are good choices for vegetarians as well. Read my review of a cultural restaurant here. I skipped the raw meat dishes like kitfo, but judging from the open air butcher shops all over the city, it's the local treat.
Open-air butcher shops are everywhere in the capital city.
Vegetarians can ask for a meatless "fasting plate." Orthodox Christians have long lived side by side with Muslims in Ethiopia. Although the local wine did not impress, you've gotta love a beer named after a saint!
St. George beer was perfect with the spicy food.






Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting Around in Addis Ababa

Another endless traffic jam.

You think Los Angeles has traffic? A sigalert on the 405 is a first world problem. Here in the capital of Ethiopia, the sigalert on weekdays never ends. Getting anywhere involves inching through traffic in a wheezing Soviet-era Lada taxi. 

When old Ladas die, they become taxis in Ethiopia.
The congestion is widely blamed on construction of a light rail system that is supposed to be finished in less than two years. Watching workers chip away at the project with hand tools and the occasional earth mover, you get the feeling that 20 years would be more realistic. 
Construction here moves as slowly as the traffic. Except for the main arteries, few roads are paved. Cars and trucks compete for space with herds of sheep and goats, and donkeys hauling cement to endless blocks of half-fisnished apartment buildings. In the downtown area, the unfinished buildings are taller. People cram into buses or line up to fill private vans that ply the main routes. It's the commute from hell.
On one side of the car: aggressive young salesmen.
On the other side, a cop saying he'd give us a ticket if we bought anything.




Finally at my destination:
the African Union Conference Center, site of the International Family Planning Conference.