Saturday, September 20, 2008

Europe - Summer of 2008

Hola everyone from Al and Nora in El Yaque! I hope you've all had a great summer. Big Al and I surely did, as we travelled Europe, partly on business, and partly for fun. The idea was work in various cities in Europe for 2 weeks, and then relax in Italy for 6 days, where we had planned to meet up with a bunch of friends to windsurf on Lago di Garda, and to celebrate my 40th birthday.
So, the trip started off in Munich, where our friends Karin and Thomas picked us up and drove us to their country place in Chiemsee - a lake near Munich that is known for the windsurfing.
Our friend Roman, had prepared a fabulous meal of sausages as a starter, and then grilled steak! Delicious!
Al and Roman relaxing after the meal. (Please note the was cold...!)

Jet-lagged and exhausted, I was awoken at 6:00 am by the sounds of a marching band. What? I poked Al and asked him, "Do you hear what I hear?" He mumbled, 'Yeah, a marching band is playing Val d'Isere.' I tip toe to the window, and sure enough, down in the street, a marching band decked out in their lederhosen and dirndls are playing their hearts out. Hhhhmm

Unable to sleep, Karin and I went for a run in the countryside. And I was astounded by the cleanliness, the orderliness, the care with which the residents maintained their village. All of the Bavarian style houses had perfect, blooming flowers in flower boxes on their balconies, the cars in the driveways were spotlessly gleaming in the morning sun, and the cows in the pastures - had not a speck of dirt on them. As my friend Maryluz says, 'I think this is the kind of place where the leaves have to ask permission to fall from the trees....'.

After a lovely breakfast of fruit, and sausages (breakfast sausages, I believe), our German friends wanted to take us mountain biking and hiking in the German Alps. Excellent! Sounds like fun. The guys took their bikes, and Karin and I planned to hike. Al and I thought - no problem - some switchback trails winding up the mountain - piece of cake. Not the case. This was two hours - straight up the mountain - at a vicious incline.

Roman, Nora, Al, Karin and Thomas
Suddenly the trail opened up into a breath-takingly beautiful alpine meadow - complete with sheep grazing in the distance. It was all I could do to refrain from breaking into the song "The hills are alive..... with the sound of music."

Roman and Nora, and Thomas' boots

After clomping up the mountain wearing Thomas' hiking boots (Thomas is the dark haired, 7 foot tall guy), after being passed on the trail by a) little children swinging baskets in their hands, b) elderly couples taking in the mountain air.... I was feeling dispirited, and opted to take the cable car down the mountain, while the guys rode down.

Back in the car, and off to Munich. Our friends took us to a Bavarian style restaurant for dinner. After a lovely meal of pork knuckles and cloven hooves, we ended the meal with dessert - dessert sausages, if I recall correctly.

Al, Nora, Karin and Thomas
And retired to our hotel.
The next day was spent checking out Munich, which is a lovely city. Big Al's favourite moment - standing in the main city square, waiting for the glockenspiel to rotate in the clock tower! Dinner that night was at a typical Bavarian beer hall, complete with steins of beer, enormous plates of schnitzel, with a side of ....... sausages.

After a series of planes, trains and taxis, we now found ourselves in the charming town of Bruges, Belgium, where Al switched his diet from red meat, to Belgian chocolate and Belgian beer. This town is so beautiful and charming, it reminds me of the illustrations in a Hans Christian Anderson children's book.

Nora, Lieven, Wim and his girl.
One evening we met up with Lieven, Wim and his girl, and Tom. (Please note the was cold!)

Nora, Evelyne, Danny and Al.
The next evening we met up with our pals Evelyne and Danny in Antwerp.

Evelyne and Danny

For sushi. Yum!

And then it was off to Brussels, for a little business, and to see our pals Tom and Francisco.

Al, Nora, Tom and Francisco
We began the evening at a very charming wine bar, enjoyed a wine tasting session, complete with fabulous appetizers.

Francisco and Al

And had dinner in a restaurant that focused only on mushrooms. The chef kept sending out dish after dish, each tastier than the one before. Fantastic!

Nora and Tom.

Our thanks to Tom and Francisco for a great evening!

And then we were off to Riga, Latvia for business, and some exploration of the countryside.

We spent a weekend taking our time driving from Riga to a seaside town called 'Pavilosta', and stopped in each little town along the way. Beautiful.

We were accompanied by our pals Agita, Mareks and their daughter, Megija.

At the seaside in Pavilosta.

Please note the was a little chilly....

Along the way, we stopped at a historically significant site called 'Jurkalne'. It was from this point along the coast, that thousands of Latvians fled the country during the second World War.

Hard to visualize what I imagine must have been a chaotic scene - thousands of people, entire families - with infants crying, desperately trying to board the Red Cross boats for passage to safety.

Our road trip included a stop at my father's ancestral farmlands.

The property is beautiful, with the stone remains of the farmhouse and some outbuildings.

As well as many fruit and nut trees, and wild berries of all sorts.

Near the property, we found some vestiges of the Soviet occupation of Latvia. A field of abandoned concrete hangers used to house and conceal Soviet fighter jets.

These structures are enormous. And are covered by a layer of sod, to prevent them from being spotted by air.

Al on the runway. The actual tarmac has been pilfered long ago.

The front doors are made of 2 metre thick concrete, with a steel frame, painted in camouflage green.

This place is cavernous. Al was thinking that this was a good location for a nightclub - possibly named 'The Hanger' or 'The Bunker'.

Later that night, we had a head-banging good time at the Metallica concert in Riga......

...with our pals Valter and Oksana. Thanks for the tickets, Valter!

Next - Italy.

We began our Italian vacation in the Chianti region of Tuscany.....

....... at a wine and olive oil producing farm called 'Castello di Meleto'.

The surrounding countryside is really beautiful.....

..... the food and wine - absolutely outstanding.

And the architecture speaks for itself.

Lago di Garda. This is our kind of place - a beautiful village, full of athletic folks from all over Europe. Some windsurfing, some mountain biking, some hiking.

John and Anne - from Norway
The plan was for a bunch of our pals to meet up in Lago di Garda - to a) conduct a windsurf slalom race to determine once and for all, who is the champion, and b) to celebrate my 40th birthday.

Sadly, we were skunked on the wind.

But, we managed the celebration part.

Anne, Roman, Karin, Thomas, Nora, Al and John

First with a spectacular dinner in an adjacent village organized by Thomas and Karin......

.... and then drinks at a bar in Lago di Garda.....

For me, this was the perfect way to celebrate my birthday. But now, that's it. No mas. Basta.

Some observations of our trip: too much red meat really does wreak havoc on a pseudo-vegetarian's system; summer no longer exists in Europe and parts of Canada; and finally, you can take the girl out of Scarborough, but you cannot take Scarborough out of the girl......
After a superb 3 week vacation in cottage country in Muskoka, we are now back home in El Yaque, getting Casa Nora ready for the season. Thanks to everyone who made our trip so eventful!
Next post: Upgrades at Casa Nora

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ricardo and Gollito - An Epic Battle in Spain

Hello everyone - past, present and future guests of Casa Nora. I hope you've all had a great summer. Big Al and I surely have, travelling Europe and Canada. But more about that in a future blog. Upon returning to El Yaque a few weeks ago, after being away from home for 7 weeks, I was astonished by how much I missed being home. The garden looks great, the pool is cool and refreshing, and the desert is lush and green. And the windsurfing has been pretty good, due to the stormy winds generated by the hurricanes. It felt so great to be back out on the water! While Al and I have the opportunity to grab our gear and head out to the water to get our windsurfing fix, many of you guys cannot, due to such annoying things as work........
To get your juices going, I present a pictoral collage of the "Battle Royale of Spain" between Ricardo and Gollito in the Canary Islands this summer. (For those of you new to the sport of windsurfing, these two - Ricardo Campello and Gollito Estredo - are natives of El Yaque beach and are currently battling to be Number 1 in Freestyle on the World Tour.)

Ricardo (left) and Gollito (right) take a moment to mentally prepare before competing.

Gollito performs for the crowds - beachside.........

.......while Ricardo executes a double front loop.

Gollito executes a jibe at top speed.......

...... while Ricardo prepares for his next manouevre.

Gollito executes an aerial trick.......

...... and so does Ricardo.

Some hang time by Gollito........

....... is matched by some serious air by Ricardo.

And then it happens. After a series of complicated, aerial free-style moves by Gollito......

....... in an unparelleled display of daring, panache and spectacular talent, Ricardo attempts the first ever TRIPLE FRONT LOOP in competition.

But, he had to bail.

After this unbelievable display of showmanship and talent, both Ricardo and Gollito earned spots on the podium. Currently, Gollito is Number One on the World Tour for Freestyle, while Ricardo is Number 3. Congratulations to both!

I hope you enjoyed the photos! They make me want to head to the water, to work on that pesky carve jibe........

Next blog: Our trip to Europe

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Guests Gone Wild at Casa Nora
It all started innocently enough. We had a house full of really fun guests, and one night during Happy Hour, our pals from Belgium (Tom and Joelle) suggested that we all organize a dinner one night at Casa Nora. Sounds great! Immediately, our friends from Norway, Anne and John, start suggesting tasty sounding recipes. We all chime in with ideas, and very quickly we had decided on a delicious menu. (The fact that we were all starving after a great day of sailing brought out some terrific recipe ideas!)
And so, on the day in question, the kitchen was full of very capable chefs, each preparing various dishes.

Tom and Joelle prepared bruschetta bread, as well as grilled shrimp appetizers.

John and Anne created a lovely salad, with sun-dried tomatoes – yum!

Mary prepped the meat, while I made a huge pot of mashed potatoes with butter, real bacon bits, and a little bacon fat!

While grilling the meat under Mary’s watchful eye, Big Al and Tom enjoyed a fine cigar.

And, listo! Dinner is ready. Everything was still fine up until this point. Just as we sat down to dinner, and after I had managed to scarf down maybe half of my plate, some El Yaque sailors, dissatisfied with their current accommodations, dropped by Casa Nora to check out our set-up. So, I had to leave the table, and show the new people around. No problem. I gave them refreshments, I showed them the rooms, and the garden, and we sat by the pool. It was lovely. However, I kept hearing the music being turned up, and up, and up. I take the newcomers back upstairs, and we all find ourselves in the midst of a raging party! My current guests had gone wild!

It was more than clear that dinner was over. My guests had cleaned up spotlessly, and were now dancing.

Some even on the kitchen counter top.

The newcomers asked if dinner was always like this at Casa Nora, but my answer, thankfully, was drowned out by the ever increasing volume of music. I saw the newcomers to the gate, and by the time I returned, all hell had broken loose.

There was dancing, Sambuca shots, and still more dancing!

Mary even absconded with Big Al’s cigar – which I must say, she regretted the next morning……

From left to right: Anne-a librarian, Maryluz-a Spanish teacher, Joelle – an account manager. Yeah right! Maybe by day! Definitely and obviously party animals at night!

Mmmmmmmm – Hagen Dazs ice-cream and fresh berries! Love it!

Clearly a lot of fun was had by all, but just to indicate the type of evening it was, I must show this photo.

What started out at a very normal evening, a nice dinner and some wine, somehow ended like this. The title of this photo simply is “Bloody Mary”.

With the party still raging, I secretly and quietly did a guest head count to make sure no one was missing.