Friday, June 28, 2019

In a "dog eat dog" world the "wurst" is yet to come in Iceland

Who would have ever believed that the most popular food in Iceland is a good old fashioned hot dog  (Photo: Pixabay) 

ICELAND — Every country has its cultural quirks that are often surprising to visitors. In Europe, for example, especially France and Belgium, the preferred sauce for French fries is mayonnaise as opposed to ketchup.

While most Americans may turn up their noses at first, it's actually quite tasty as well as a great ice-breaker and source of conversation when you return home. 
Finns love to tango
Zabara Alexander --
 licensed under the
 Attribution 2.0
Generic license) 

Argentina is famous for the Tango, but, did you know that it is also the most popular dance in Finland? And it only takes "two" to do it.

When it comes to odd food choices, Scandinavia is not a place for sissies. "Lutefisk" is a traditional dish in both Norway and Sweden, but you really have to wonder who dreamed up the idea in the first place.

Lutefisk is made from aged stockfish (air-dried whitefish) or dried/salted whitefish (that's the polite description). The dish has a gelatinous texture and the translated name literally means "lye fish," with lye being the key ingredient. 

Fermented shark with rye bread is a favorite dish
Nordic countries also enjoy reindeer as a dietary staple while moose is another favorite´

Which bring us to Iceland, where natives celebrate a mid-winter festival known as porablót from mid-January to mid-February each year. According to legend, the  historical context is from the Orkneyinga saga, where porri ("Frost") is an early Finnish king, the son of Snaer ("Snow") who offered an annual sacrifice to porri at mid-winter.

(Photo: Schneelocke --
 licensed under the

So far, so good, but the tests for outsiders are the traditional food options during the Porrablót festival which include; Dried Fish Jerky, Fermented Rotten Shark, Sheep Head and Rams testicles.

Now you know why the festival only occurs once each year.

In a recent story in the online version of Conde Nast Traveler, fermented shark, otherwise known as  hákarl, was described by the famous international "foodie", Anthony Bourdain as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he's ever eaten.

According to Conde Nast, "most locals don't eat much of the pungent delicacy anymore. They also no longer eat many sheep’s heads (except on traditional holidays). What they do eat are dishes like grilled lamb, lobster (and) fresh (emphasis added) fish."

Ahhh, but here's the kicker. What they really love most are hot dogs. Yep, Icelanders love hot dogs so much that today they are practically the national cuisine. 
Iceland has been a hot destination for several years
(Photo: Pixabay)
In recent years, Iceland has become one of the darling destinations of the fickle travel and tourism industry, so the hot dog connection is certainly a plus for attracting less-than-adventurous American culinarians.

Just as full-bodied fried clams can be found in virtually every nook and cranny of New England, hot dogs have attained the same reverence in Iceland.

Conde Nast Traveler adds  that "The most popular place to get one is in Reykjavik at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (which translates to “best hot dogs in town”).

Icelander's tastes have changed over the years
(Photo: guide to Iceland)
Note that, as with many dishes in other lands, the flavor of an Icelandic frank has a different taste than its American counterpart. That doesn't mean it's bad. It just means there's a difference and, like those French fries with mayonnaise, the taste is something to be considered. As is the preparation and accoutrements.

First, the dogs  are made primarily from Icelandic lamb, along with a bit of pork and beef. Since sheep outnumber humans in Iceland nearly two to one, they’re a plentiful food source.

One thing many hot dog connoisseurs enjoy most is the little pop that occurs when they bite into a wurst. There's something magical in that momentary snap that says the anticipation has been worth the wait. Since Iceland's "red hots" have a natural casing, the joy of that pop is automatic.

An Icelandic hot dog looks much like its American
counterpart, but there are still some differences

(Photo: Owlsmcgee --licensed under the Creative Commons
Unlike the US where traditional toppings may include mustard (spicy or yellow according to taste), ketchup, cheese, slaw, chili, onions and relish, as you might expect "all the way" in Iceland is different. Toppings feature raw white onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs.

Of course individual preferences are always honored, but to eat like a local order “one with everything.” Just ask for “ein með öllu.”

Scandinavia has always been pricey, and with Iceland's recently "discovered" popularity everything is expensive...except, of course, those delightful dogs. They could save you a lot of money and keep your appetite in check since they are the least expensive food in the country.

Reindeer is still a favorite food
in Scandinavia  (Photo: Pixabay)
The usual serving style is a small cardboard boat or waxed paper. With all the extras, a bib and additional napkins are a good idea to preserve your clothing.

Conde Nast recommends paying with cash and ordering quickly since there are always lines. If you hesitate too long, the "wiener Nazi" is going to give you the full Monty. After all, this is not Burger King.

Lines are a relative length since they are always there. At Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, evenings and weekends have the longest queues.

Two other Conde Nast suggestions are do not tip. Tipping at a hot dog stand is unnecessary, and order two hot dogs because you will want another and, what the heck, they're cheap.

The Northern Lights are a highlight of a trip to Iceland
 (Photo: Cameron Pickett -- licensed under the Creative Commons 
Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

If you would like to experience Iceland for yourself, the Magellan Travel Club is offering a tour in March of 2020 that includes the Northern Lights. Considering Iceland's expensive reputation, it's a price that is hard to beat.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, throw in a few Icelandic hot dogs and it will be "the best of times, and the 'wurst' of times." 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Visiting the five oldest cities in the world

Greece is said to be the birthplace of democracy  (Photo: Taylor)
CHARLOTTE, NC  — Travel marketers know all too well that there's a universal quest to seek out "Est" destinations; the biggest or smallest, the tallest or shortest or even the first or last, most or least and so on.

For many modern travelers ancient civilizations have much appeal as we attempt to learn how man evolved in centuries past where massive architectural achievements were made without access to today's technology.

It's difficult to imagine daily routines dating back 5,000 and 10,000 years or more, but as researchers uncover relics from the past, we gradually obtain clearer pictures of what life was like centuries ago.

Better yet, taking the opportunity to visit some of these sites is truly eye-opening for even the most skeptical among us. Here are five of the oldest places that remain alive and active today.

Greece was the epicenter of art and culture nearly 4,000 years ago
(Photo: Pixabay)
Athens, Greece: With a recorded history of more than 3,400 years, Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world. Thanks in large part to the development of its port of Piraeus, which still thrives today, Athens was once a powerful city-state where human presence began somewhere between the 11th and 7th millennium BC.

Home to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, Athens claims the honor of being the birthplace of democracy. Clearly, at the height of its power, it was the epicenter of art and philosophy.

Greece also gave us the
Olympics  (Photo: Pixabay)
Time has not been kind to Athens, however. While the ruins of the Parthenon and other structures remain, including the marketplace known as the Agora, where travelers can still stroll through the same streets as Socrates and Plato, the city is largely a polluted, congested metropolis that is but a shell of its former greatness.

Nevertheless, as home to several prominent UNESCO sites, the historical significance of Athens should not be overlooked.

Saint George Armenian Church in Aleppo
(Photo -- Kevorkmail -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Aleppo, Syria: Stability in the Middle East is a relative term, meaning that travel to the region at any given time can be potentially dangerous. Sadly, had it not been for recent hostilities in Syria, Aleppo would likely be considered a place to explore one of the oldest cities in the world.

There are signs of civilization in Aleppo as far back as 8,000 years while just 15 miles away it is possible to increase that number by 5,000.
The Great Mosque is one reason
Aleppo is a UNESCO
World Heritage Site
(Photo: Pixabay)

The Citadel of Aleppo, the Great Mosque, and countless other medieval buildings and antiquities have justifiably made the city a UNESCO World Heritage title.

Geographically, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Euphrates River to the east, Aleppo was ideally situated to become wealthy as a prominent trading port.

Despite the recent turmoil, Aleppo remains unique in its own way, and one day will resume its place in history on traveler's bucket lists.

Massive crowds come to the Ganges each night in Varansi, the
spiritual capital of India  (Photo: Taylor)
Varanasi, India: With its location in northeast India on the shores of the Ganges River, Varanasi is not only one of the oldest cities in the world, it is also regarded as the spiritual capital of the country.

According to legend, Lord Shiva founded the city 5,000 years ago, and with its location on the Holy Ganges River, it remains a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Hindus who "cleanse" themselves in its water each day at sunrise and sunset.
Watching the nightly ritual from
boats on the Ganges
(Photo: Taylor)
"Cleanse" is a matter for interpretation however, since the Ganges itself is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Many believe Buddha founded Buddhism in Varanasi around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma" in nearby Samath.

Thus, the streets of Varanasi teem with literally thousands of visitors each night who make their way to the banks of the river for religious renewal.

Hindus believe that death in the city brings salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimage. As such, the shoreline is dotted nightly with the funeral pyres of those who have departed the world within the past 24-hours.

Perhaps the best way to describe Varanasi is "a metaphor for India."

Jericho is the oldest continuously occupied city in the world
(Photo: Public Domain)
Jericho, Palestinian Territories: Not only is Jericho one of the oldest civilizations in the world with archaeological remains as far back as 9000 BC, it is also the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. Thus far, 20 different settlements have been unearthed by archaeologists in Jericho, the earliest of which goes back 11,000 years.

Located 845 feet below sea level in the Jordan Valley, Jericho also has the distinction of being the lowest ancient city in the world.

Though Jericho sits in the midst of a scorching desert climate, is has numerous natural springs surrounding the city which have allowed it to endure.

Lithograpg depicting the ancient city of Jericho
(Photo: Public Domain)
Given its longevity, Jericho's history is deep and rich. It was here at Jericho Tell, also called the Settlement Mound, where archaeologists found many early remains, including the Biblical Mount of Temptation and the cliff-side Saint George Monastery – founded in 480 AD.

The world famous Dead Sea Scrolls were also uncovered between 1946 and 1956 in the nearby Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert on the northern shore of the Dead Sea.

Tiny alleyway between buildings in the Lebanonese village of Byblos  (Photo: Pixabay)
Byblos, Lebanon:  Though Byblos may not appear to be a household destination for many, the English word “Bible” is derived from this city’s name.

As with Jericho, this once quiet fishing village is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Famous for its ship building, Byblos became a bustling port  with the city’s name coming from its most sought-after export, the papyrus tree.

In fact, Byblos' paper contained some of the first passages of the Bible.

The Byblos Obelisk Temple
(released into the public domain 
by its author, Abraham 
The origin of our present-day alphabet was also founded in the city, carved into the stone coffin of King Ahiram around 1200 BC. It later became known as the Phoenician Tablet.

Needless to say, Byblos has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So you see, when it comes to travel, never under-EST-imate its value.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Famous art to skip on your next trip to Europe

The Scream by Edvard Munch is displayed in Oslo, Norway
(Photo: Munch Museum -- Public Domain)

EUROPE — Evaluating art in the modern world is frequently a challenging process. how is the average person supposed to know that he or she isn't being duped purely because a particular painting or sculpture is famous?

Strength and power in Moses by Michelangelo
(Courtesy: -- Public Domain)
Art is, and always will be, subjective at best. Down through the ages artistic movements have chronicled man's evolution from simple cave drawings to religious art that influenced illiterate masses, to humanistic representations to Impressionism, Expressionism and contemporary works where virtually anything goes.

Certain technological and cultural advances have played a major role in the artistic evolutionary artistic process such as the printing press, photography and computers to mention a few.

Jackson Pollock became famous by splashing liquid household paint on a canvas 
(Photo: National Gallery of Australia -- Public Domain)
Take the works of Jackson Pollack, for example, who was became famous for his technique of  splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface.  Also called ‘action painting’ because he used the force of his entire body to paint, critics were divided by Pollack's abstract style. Some applauded the immediacy and fluidity of his work, while others criticized its randomness.

Regardless of whether the bright splashes of color on Pollock's canvasses were appealing to viewers or not, perhaps the bigger, and more subtle, question would be "Is it really art?"

Cynical observers might simply view a Pollack piece and ask "where was the talent, skill or creativity to 'paint' such a work?"

It's a fair question since most people believe that anyone could throw paint on a white surface and achieve the same result.

Thus, in 2016, when Pollock's painting titled Number 17A reportedly fetched $200 million in a private purchase, one has to wonder about the validity of art and how to interpret its value. Consider that the work was so abstract in nature that Pollack had to give it a number rather than a name.

The David by Michelangelo in Florence does not disappoint and demonstrates the true genius of the artist  (Photo: Public Domain)

As a curator at an exhibition in Switzerland once pointed out, "the artist doesn't really care whether you like his work or not, or even understand it. What he desires most is that patrons respond to it in one way or another. That is the key."

With that background in mind, which famous works of art are worth the trouble for travelers to actually witness for themselves when they are traveling? Are these well-known artistic endeavors really worth the time and effort to stand in long lines or deal with hordes of other tourists to see them?

Here's a list of art and architectural works you might want to skip on your next trip. Not necessarily because of their merit, but rather, whether they live up to expectations and "hype" enough to relinquish valuable time to see them when, for most travelers, time is of the essence.

In the case of these examples, it should be noted that "size" is a primary source of disappointment over the quality of the work.

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen lives up to its title because
it is definitely "little"  (Courtesy: Pixabay)
Edvard Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid: Perched on a waterside rock in Copenhagen Harbor is the city's tribute to native son Hans Christian Andersen. The bronze sculpture of The Little Mermaid attracts visitors from around the world each year despite being rated "the world's worst attraction."

As mentioned above, the operative word is "small." The "Little" Mermaid clearly lives up to its title with its Lilliputian size, making the effort to view it a major disappointment almost as quickly as it comes into view.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings
in the world, but it is about the size of a postage stamp
(Courtesy: Pixabay)
 Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa: This one is tough given the genius behind its creator, but again the problem has to do with scale more than the artistic accomplishment. Imagine placing a single postage stamp on a white 8" x 11" mailer and you begin to get the sense of frustration many visitors have when they witness da Vinci's masterpiece.

Combined with the protective barrier and the hordes of people pushing and shoving to get a glimpse, you have to wonder if the effort is really worth it, unless there is some major compelling reason to claim you have seen it.

Manneken Pis in Brussels is fun if you stumble upon it,
but it is hardly worth the time to seek it out
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

Jerôme Duquesnoy’s Manneken Pis: In the Belgian hamlet of Brussels, the question is "To pee or not to pee."

The city symbol of a small boy urinating into a pool of water is an amusing attention-getter and most certainly a photo op provided you accidentally stumble upon the fountain. Whether or not it's worth the effort to seek it out is another matter entirely.

As with the two works mentioned above, the statue is diminutive in size and shares a similar label with its cousin in Copenhagen as Europe's "most disappointing sight."

Picasso, himself, regarded Guernica as one of his most important works of art (Photo: Laura Estefania --licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
 International license)

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica: Another toughy thanks to its creator who was one of the most prolific artists in history. Size is not a factor with Picasso’s Guernica which is nearly 12 feet by 26 feet. Adding to the debate is that Picasso, himself, regarded this as one of his true masterpieces, particularly because he was so personally affected by the Spanish Civil War.

Here's where artistic subjectivity comes into play because many critics believe that Picasso created numerous other pieces that are more outstanding and worthy of attention. If that is your standard as well, there are plenty of other places in the world to see Picassos.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is over-run with tacky touristic souvenirs 
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

The Leaning Tower of Pisa: Certainly one of the best known architectural structures in the world, the 12th century Leaning Tower of Pisa began its famous tilt during construction due to soft ground on one side, which was unable to properly support the structure's weight.

At nearly 185-feet in height, the saddest aspect of this landmark is its Coney Island atmosphere. With so many junky souvenir stands and tacky shops in the area, seeing the tower is almost a sidebar event as you try to avoid the hawkers and scam artists.

Plymouth Rock is little more than a stepping stone in Massachusetts  
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

These are just five to skip if you're in Europe. The US has its share of disappointments as well. Again returning to the magnitude of their history compared with the actual size two that quickly come to mind are the Alamo and Plymouth Rock which are both tiny compared to their image.

As in so many aspects of life, tourism included, "size really does matter."




Friday, June 7, 2019

A link to the past and bridge to the future in Bruges, Belgium

Bruges is famous for its lace, architecture, beer and canals
(Photo: Pixabay)

BRUGES, BELGIUM -- What do Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Bruges all have in common? At one time or another they have all been referred to as the "Venice of the North."

It's not a fair comparison, really, because each of those cities, including Venice itself, is unique in its own way.

Bruges, for example, is Belgium's jewel box gem which has been a touristic favorite since the last half of the 19th century.

In English, Bruges means
Likely deriving its name from the Old Dutch word brugge, meaning "bridge" or the modern Dutch bruggehoofd ("bridgehead") and brug ("bridge"), Bruges thrived between the 12th and 15th centuries thanks to the "Golden Inlet", a tidal basin that was important for local commerce.

In the first century BC, Julius Caesar conquered the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul, which occupied an area that roughly corresponds to the modern day Belgian coast.  Those earliest fortifications were built as protection against pirates.

By the ninth century, Viking invasions forced Count Baldwin I of Flanders to reinforce the old Roman fortifications allowing trade to quickly resume with England and Scandinavia.

In the early 13th century, thanks to Bruges' strategic location at the crossroads of the northern and southern Hanseatic League trade routes, the city, already part of the circuit for the Flemish and French cloth fairs, was flourishing economically.

The canals of Bruges are beguiling and everything else flows from
there  (Photo: Pixabay)
However, when the old system of fairs broke down, the innovative entrepreneurs of Bruges established bold new methods of commerce and revenue.

The "Golden Age" renaissance of Bruges revitalized town life in the 12th century with a prosperous wool weaving industry and cloth market that mushroomed thanks to the refurbished ancient city walls.

Before long, Bruges' merchants had established economic colonies of England's and Scotland's wool-producing areas.

With the development of trade from Genoa, Italy in 1277, Bruges gained access to the Mediterranean, resulting in a blossoming spice trade and advances in banking.

The Flemish School of
painting added to the city's
culture (Photo: Public Domain)
Later, when Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy set up court in Bruges in the 15th century, artists, bankers and other prominent personalities throughout Europe flocked to the city, including weavers and spinners who were considered  the best in the world.

Eventually, Bruges became an international center for the production of lace, which continues its reputation as the finest in the world and making it a favorite item for visiting  souvenir hunters.

Around 1500, the Zwin channel, (the Golden Inlet) which had given the city its early prosperity, began silting causing the once thriving city to lose most of its access routes for trade. 

Following nearly two centuries of economic struggles, the lace industry blossomed during the 17th century, resulting in significant efforts to return Bruges to its former glorious past.

Lace from Bruges is still regarded as some of the best in the world
(Photo: Public Domain -- Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Prior to the surge in the lace industry, the Flemish school of oil-painting techniques captured the imagination of the artistic world. Combined with Bruges' notable achievement by William Caxton of publishing the first book ever printed in English, the city was beginning to show signs of recovery.

Much of the charm of Bruges lies in its easy-going pace
(Photo: Pixabay)
The revival flourished to such an extent that by the end of the 19th century, Bruges became one of the world's first and most popular tourism destinations, attracting wealthy British and French visitors.

While not as prolific as Venice, or even Amsterdam for that matter, the old world charm of Bruges' canals meandering among its medieval architecture and billowing lace adorned buildings give it an ambiance that continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.

Though occupied by German troops in both world wars, Bruges was largely spared, suffering virtually no damage. As such, tourism continued to flourish at a time when much of Europe was rebuilding.

In 2002, Bruges was designated
The Belfry is
Bruges' most famous
(Photo: Pixabay)
attracting some eight million visitors each year.

Thanks to the German need for a port for their U-boats in World War I, Zeebrugge was greatly expanded, further adding to Bruges' good fortune by making it one of Europe's most important and modern ports.

Most of the medieval architecture of Bruges remains intact, making it one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Since 2002, the historic city center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Romantic stone bridge leading to the Church of Our Lady
(Photo: Wolfgang Staudt --licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Though many medieval buildings are notable, including the Church of Our Lady, whose brick spire reaches 380 feet making it the world's second highest brick tower/building, Bruges is a place where its beguiling canals beckon travelers to embrace its charms in a casual atmosphere rather than the typical frenzied pace of many other destinations.   

Madonna & Child
(Photo: Elke Wetzig --

GNU Free 
The sculpture of Madonna and Child, which can be viewed in the transept of the Church of Our Lady, is believed to be the only sculpture by Michelangelo that left Italy within his lifetime.

Bruges' most famous landmark, the  13th-century belfry, houses a municipal carillon comprising 47 bells. The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.

Belgium is a country of beer drinkers, and Bruges has wasted no time in embracing the international craft beer craze.

Belgians love their beer and Bruges is no exception
(Photo: Pixabay)
With picturesque medieval buildings nestled serenely among its lace-lined placid canals, Bruges is captivating. Little wonder its name derives from a word that means "bridge" for Bruges is, indeed, a bridge that links the past to the future.

Who knows, perhaps one day someone will reverse the old nickname and call Venice the "Bruges of the South."

Bruges beckons. Experience it to discover why.