Tag Archives: travel


I was in Davos, Switzerland a few weeks back doing some work for the World Economic Forum, which explains my long absence from this blog. Between preparing for Davos, being there and recovering from a week of very long days, I’ve been fairly steeped in Forum stuff since just after Christmas. It costs an estimated $40 000 to be an official delegate, between travel, accommodations and accreditation (super famous people and heads of state get a discount on the latter) and once you’re there, and have run the gauntlet of the 4 000 Swiss troops guarding the place, you’re free to go hear the Prime Minister of Japan talk about economic reform, listen to Goldie Hawn wax lyrical on mindfulness or attend one of the many many cocktail parties taking place during the course of the four-day Forum.

Not so for the worker bees. I was staying in Klosters — two buses, a train ride and a 15 minute tramp on an icy road away — and when I wasn’t note-taking at meetings, I was either traveling back and forth to the guest house, trying to find something to eat or looking for Matt Damon (who isn’t as easy to find as some would have you believe).  I did manage to spot George Soros, Kofi Annan, Gordon Brown and Fareed Zakaria but that was small comfort.

On the train to Davos.

On the train to Davos.

I stayed in a nice little guest house in Klosters, which was festooned with snowmen for some reason. Not real ones, although there was certainly enough snow all over the place. Seriously bad art in the rooms. Ceramic clown levels of bad. The place is run by a trio of middle-aged ladies who looked enough alike to be sisters (but I don’t think they were). The head lady — Erika — had a great shock of  magenta-coloured hair. Now here’s a thing. When Italian women turn 40, they all rush out and henna their hair. But because their natural hair color is dark brown (at least in Central and Southern Italy), it goes a weird shade of maroon. I remember my friend Linda (who lives in Paris) telling me once that French women over 40 all dye their hair blonde, which probably looks a bit better than maroon.

A taste of the random snowmen around the Bargis Gasthaus.

A taste of the random snowmen around the Bargis Gasthaus.



It’s not melted cheese, but it’ll do.

Anyway, the Bargis Gasthaus has a restaurant, which seems to be quite popular among the local citizenry. It’s always full in the evenings and since the place only has a few rooms for rent, it’s got to be mostly locals eating there. The ladies do all the cooking and then sit at a table in the kitchen cracking jokes and drinking homemade schnapps.  They are hilarious. The food is very hearty and comes with great quantities of vegetables, boiled and unadorned. I had a very nice chunk of garlic-crusted lamb with rosti potatoes my last night there. I also ate lots of sausages. Never found any raclette, although I searched high and low. I bet Matt Damon found the raclette.

Anyway, if you ever go skiing in Klosters (which is apparently where the British royal family likes to conduct their winter sports), you could do worse than the Gasthaus Bargis. That’s Erika on the home page (minus the magenta hair).

Christmas markets and the Rheinhotel Dreesen/#Bonn

I was in Bonn last month visiting my friend Jane and we went to a whole load of Weihnachtsmarkts. Here’s what that’s all about: Weihnachtsmarkts or markets ushering in the Christmas season date back to the Middle Ages in German-speaking Europe; the first recorded ‘December Market’ took place in Vienna in 1294. These days, the markets are usually held during the four weeks of Advent. Popular attractions include gluwein (hot mulled wine with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, oranges, and sugar); hot chocolate; rahmfleckrl (a sort of rye flatbread with creme fraiche, cheese, scallions, potatoes, bacon or speck, etc.); brat- and other wursts in every size, shape and color, often served with sautéed greens; grilled steaks, chickens and mushrooms; Santa-shaped gingerbread cookies; and stollen (a buttery, orangey, fruit and nut-filled loaf).

Once you’ve finished eating (or, shall we say once you are on a break from eating), there are booths selling handmade knitted and felted slippers, hats and gloves, Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers and, of course, the ubiquitous Nigerian carvings. There are also myriad lights, nativity scenes and often singing and dancing. The German Christmas fairs are great fun and good for winter tourism — the multiple fairs in Cologne apparently bring in over four million visitors per year. By my count, Jane and I visited seven fairs in all — five in Cologne, one in Bonn and one in Bad Godesburg, the Bonn suburb where she lives. We enjoyed them all, although they do tend to run together after a while We did manage to find a gay Christmas fair in Cologne and had high hopes for a little something different but, with the exception of a disco motif and a single booth selling sexy underwear, it was pretty much the same as the rest of the fairs. Some photos of the German Christmas market experience follow.Rahmfleckrl, a sort of rye flatbread with creme fraiche, cheese, scallions, potatoes, bacon, etc.

Rahmfleckrl, German street food


A little nachtmusik.

A little nachtmusik.

Sausages and greens. So healthy!

Sausages and greens. So healthy!

A Christmas fair in Cologne.

A Christmas fair in Cologne.

Waiting for the entertainment.

Waiting for the entertainment.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Here’s some things about Cologne (Köln to its German friends) that you might not know. Beginning in 1940, Köln was bombed 262 times during the course of World War II. The city was the target of the first thousand plane raid on a German city by the RAF: in 1942, ‘Operation Millennium’ saw 1500 metric tons of bombs fall on Köln during a period of an hour and a half, the goal being to knock Germany out of the war. Although it didn’t work, the raid did flatten 90% of the city centre, killing 500 people and leaving another 45 000 homeless. Interestingly, Köln was not the original target of Operation Millennium. Hamburg was but that idea was abandoned due to poor weather. By the end of the war, the population of Köln had been reduced by 95%. The great cathedral was bombed 14 times but amazingly never flattened. Rudolph Schwarz, a German architect who played a decisive role in the post-war reconstruction of the city, called Köln “the world’s greatest heap of rubble.”

The cathedral the morning after the bombing, 1942.

The Köln Cathedral on the morning after the RAF bombing, 1942.

Bombed out ruins of Cologne.

The bombed out ruins of the city.

On Sunday, having pretty much exhausted the local Christmas markets, Jane and I turned up at the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesburg for brunch. We were taking a risk here: Jane had called to reserve a table and had received a snort of derision in return for her trouble. Apparently the Dreesen merits far more than a week’s advance booking. We decided to check it out anyway but, by the time we got to the hotel after a goodly walk in the rain, we were looking a great deal more bedraggled than the average denizens of the swanky joint. And then, there was the Dreesen’s history to consider.

The Rheinhotel Dreesen opened in 1894 on the banks of the Rhine in the swishy spa town of Bad Godesburg. From the first it was a big hit with European aristocrats, world leaders and Hollywood types. Greta Garbo, D.D. Eisenhower, Danny Kaye and Charlie Chaplin were just a few of the hotel’s honoured guests. Oh, and it was Hitler’s favorite hotel. He first came here in 1926, probably at the suggestion of his pal Rudolph Hess who went to boarding school nearby, and he returned for over 70 visits thereafter. It was here that Hitler came up with the plan to eliminate the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (better known as the SA or the Brownshirts) and its leader Ernst Röhm in what would be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Anywhere from 85 to 400 people were killed in the 4-day purge in 1934, which consolidated Hitler’s power by eliminating his real and potential enemies and conciliating the Reichswehr,  the official German military, which feared and despised the SA.

Hitler also met the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Rheinhotel Dreesen between 21 and 23 September, 1938 regarding his proposed annexation of the Sudetenland. Determined to avoid war at any cost, the leaders of Great Britain, France and Italy signed an agreement on 30 September that allowed the Nazis to annex this region of Czechoslovakia, which was home to many ethnic Germans. On Chamberlain’s return to England, Winston Churchill declared, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” By the way, it probably isn’t significant, but it is interesting that the Dreesen has the whole Hitler story available on its German website but not on its English site.

During the war, the Dreesen served as an internment camp for 100 diplomats. It was handed over to the Americans in March 1945 without a fight. Later, the hotel was requisitioned to become the seat of the French High Commissioner, in which capacity it served until it was ‘released from occupation’ in 1952. History does not record the hotelier’s view on that particular development.

Hotel Dreesen on the Rhine.

Hotel Dreesen on the Rhine.

Amazingly, Jane and I got into brunch despite not having reservations and the whole aforementioned snootiness and bedragglement issues and it was quite a spread. There were pates, cheeses and herring, salmon and shrimp, eggs and bacon, venison and beef roasts and stews, sausages galore, braised red cabbage, potatoes au gratin and lovely little fruit mousses. We ate, dare I say it, unto torpor.


Later, we visited the German National Museum of Contemporary History (Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in Bonn, a fascinating exploration of the history of Germany from World War II to the present. The museum uses video and sound recordings, cultural and everyday artifacts to help visitors — Germans and foreigners alike — come to grips with the country’s complex past. It is well worth a visit. The information displayed in English is limited but helpful. Admission is free. There is also a nice cafe.

Elvis served in Germany in the 1950s. This is supposedly his uniform.

Elvis served in Germany from 1958-1960. This was supposedly his uniform.

German shout out to my home town of Philly. I have no idea why.

Random German shout out to my hometown of Philly. I have no idea why.

One last thing. In the museum’s bookstore I bought a ‘Pocket Guide to Germany,’ written for US soldiers occupying Germany after the war. It is super fascinating. Here are some excerpts, presented without irony or comment:

“The occupation of Germany will give you your guarantee that as soon as you turn your back to go home the German will not pick up his shooting irons and start throwing lead and lies at an unsuspecting world once more.”

“However friendly and repentant, however sick of the Nazi party, the Germans have sinned against the laws of humanity and cannot come back into the civilized fold by merely sticking out their hands and saying — ‘ I’m sorry.’

‘Most young Americans hate a bully, despise a snitch, and have nothing but contempt for a double crosser. In school, you learned from your teachers and from the other kids that it wasn’t smart to pick on a little guy, or tell tales…you learned not to cheat and that if you couldn’t win fairly, then you took your licking like a man and shook hands with the man who beat you…The young German, through his most impressionable years, has been taught that the strong are entitled to pick on and destroy the weak, that it is noble to squeal on a pal, or even snitch on a member of one’s own family, that if you can win by cheating it’s just as good as winning any other way, that a promise or word of honor given is to be kept only as long as it suits its purpose and can be broken at any time.”

‘The German isn’t sorry for the millions of dead, wounded, homeless and maimed in Europe, the result of his lust for loot and conquest. He is sorry for himself..He will try to make you sorry for him too. Don’t fall for it.”

Random Colombia

I spent last week in Cali, Colombia for work and here’s what I ate: fried stuff (mostly cassava, plantain and potatoes) and meat (mostly beef and chicken). I also drank a LOT of fruit juice.

Long-time readers may recall my obsession with Indonesian fruit juices. I now have to say that the Colombian offerings blow the doors off their Asian cousins, which celebrate delicious but fairly common fruits like pineapple, watermelon and mango. Colombian juices by contrast are based on indigenous fruits that you will be hard pressed to find outside of the region: guanabana (a flavour like strawberry plus pineapple with an underlying hint of coconut), lulo (a combination of rhubarb and lime), maracuya (aka passion fruit). So good.:ulo juice for breakfast -- and some fried stuff.

Lulo juice for breakfast — and some fried stuff. 

Our last night in Cali (I was there for a workshop), we went to Delirio, a circus/salsa show/spectacle. There were like 150 salsa dancers between the ages of 7 and 50. You can check it out here. Don’t operate any heavy equipment after watching the video. I enjoyed the show at first, although I found it a bit difficult to follow the plot. Apparently a native girl named Mary married a British lord who descended on her village with apparent colonial intent. I really don’t recall that part of Colombian history. There were lots of dancing animals.

Some random animals on their way to the wedding.

Some animals on their way to Mary’s wedding.

At a certain point a salsa homage to Michael Jackson was introduced into the story. Fine.

He lives!

He lives!

Certain aspects of the show reminded me of 1950s Havana complete with Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, cigars and chorus girls. I’ve been reading a lot about that era and it’s pretty fascinating. Round about hour 3 of the spectacle I started to fantasize about  going to Cuba

It's Carmen Miranda time!

It’s Carmen Miranda time!

That got me thinking about Cuban handsome man/cultural curator Andy Garcia, which started me wondering whether Kevin Costner has made any movie since The Untouchables that didn’t made me want to poke him in the eye. And that made me wonder if Susan Sarandan is still dating that young guy and playing table tennis. Is it true her kid was really conceived on the Spanish Steps? Spanish Steps. Keats. Shelley. Frankenstein. Why have I never read that book? Shelley drowned on his way way from Livorno, called Leghorn in English. Foghorn Leghorn. “Go away boy, you bother me.” You see how my mind works? Monkey, monkey, underpants.

Round about hour 4, the entire workshop was fast asleep, heads on the tablecloth strewn with bits of fried cassava and pork rinds. Meanwhile, the rest of the audience was taking advantage of one of the many intermissions to engage in a bit of salsa madness of their own. We finally prevailed on the evening’s organizer to let us go home at around 1:30 am. The spectacle was still going strong. I must say I did enjoy the show. But I would have enjoyed it much more if it had finished about two hours earlier, perhaps just after the MJ medley.

Now here’s a thing. I went to a bank machine at some point during the week, thinking I might need a few pesos just in case. The bank machine turned me down, as I find often happens when I try to get money outside of Italy. The alternative was filling out a lot of paperwork at the bank and waiting overnight — something about how it’s difficult to exchange euros. I had just resigned myself to doing just that when my phone rang. It was my bank back in Rome! “Are you in Colombia” the charming man said. “I am.” “Are you trying to get money from a bank machine?” “Yes.” “How many times will you need to do that?” “Just the once.” “OK. you should be able to get the money now.” And I could! Just like that! It may seem odd to be telling you this story. But believe me, as anyone who has ever done any business with an Italian bank will readily confirm, such a level of responsiveness and professionalism is downright unheard of. It was my own little Lenten miracle.