Monday, November 15, 2010

Discover the Toum of the Pharaohs on the Red Sea Coast

Intrepid reporters Gary and Lorraine take No Crowds to new heights - this time adding a great recipe to their travel advice.

Most of us have heard of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by now—home of exquisite diving and less than successful Middle East peace talks.  Less well known is a former fishing village that sits just across the Red Sea from Sharm, known as Hurghada.  A charmingly run down quasi resort, Hurghada has clearly spent much of the last 30 years catering to those from the northern climes.  From the Air Berlin plane on the runway of the local airport, to the Finnish newlyweds who just got off the charter from Helsinki, to the billboards and shop ads in Russian, German and Arabic—the signs are everywhere.

At a fraction of the cost of Sharm, Hurghada also has some of the most spectacular diving and snorkelling in the world.  The Red Sea is as deep as the Atlantic, and as crystal clear as the Caribbean on a fine day.  The fish that inhabit the plentiful coral reefs are not to be believed.  Simple snorkelers, we saw butterflyfish, trumpetfish, Napoleon fish, tigerfish and others we couldn’t hope to identify, all in riotous colours.  Frankly, our heretofore favourite spot, the reef wall in Providenciales, (in the Turks & Caicos Islands) paled by comparison.  Hurghada is also the center of a growing region that includes el Gouna (20 km to the north), a made-for-tourists town including several resorts built across multiple islands with gorgeous lagoons in place  of swimming pools.  And 20 km south is Sharm el Naga, a bend in the road that has no infrastructure but a glorious beach with arguably the best snorkelling directly off the beach of any place in the world.

But what we want to talk about is a restaurant.  It’s called the Nubian Egyptian, a simple open air collection of tables in the midst of Hurghada’s New Marina, and it’s quite an experience.  Most main dishes are grilled, but that means something different here.  Order the red snapper, for example, and it arrives still cooking on a small charcoal grill the size of a shoebox, carefully placed on your table so you can help yourself as the spirit moves you.  Likewise the lamb kofta and most of the other mains.  Each piece was superbly done—best snapper I have ever eaten anywhere, (including rougets done in butter at our favourite Parisian cafe).  And the piece de resistance was the garlic sauce (toum, in Arabic).  It was close enough to a good garlic aioli to convince you that traders must have taken these recipes on all their Mediterranean trade routes for many years...but oh, the garlic!  

We asked the proprietor for his recipe and he feigned shock—“you ask me for my secrets?”  In the end, he gave us enough clues about garlic, lemons, sea salt and a good mortar and pestle that Lorraine immediately set to work to reverse engineer the sauce when we returned home, with excellent results.  The recipe, my friends, follows below.  I recommend it to you with two warnings:  First, make sure you will be spending the rest of the evening with people who also like garlic and have sampled the sauce, otherwise the outcomes could be unpredictable.  Second, should you make your way to Hurghada, keep in mind that a strange bureaucratic glitch in Egyptian law makes it nearly impossible to import wine, and the local red or white wine (with colourful names like Scheherazade, or Omar Khayyam) is generally undrinkable.  Happily, the rosé is not at all bad, and makes a perfect accompaniment for everything you can find at the Nubian. 


Lorraine’s Knock-Your-Keffiyah-Off Egyptian Toum

Garlic, lemon and olive oil whipped into a pungent creamy sauce and slathered on fish, meat and vegetables is a revered and ancient Mediterranean treat.  France, Spain, Italy, and Greece have all claimed to be the originators of this savoury concoction, calling it aioli, alioli, and ali-oli. I, on the other hand, am sure that along with all that gold, King Tut was smart enough to pack away several man sized jars of toum to ease the transition to the afterlife.  So I’m betting that Egypt can safely claim to be the originator of this sublime sauce.
My attempts at reverse engineering always have two objectives: (1) How can I make this quicker and easier and useful for a week night meal, and (2) How is this dish like something I’ve cooked before, so I can beg, borrow and outright steal from the best with pride?  Therefore thanks for this recipes go to, in no particular order: Julia Child (because before cooking any recipe I check to see what Julia says about it); Cooks Illustrated without whom I would have no idea of why mustard makes it easier to emulsify sauces; and finally, the unnamed chef at the Nubian Egyptian Restaurant on the edge of the Red Sea, because great recipes always conjure up great memories.

Juice from two lemons
3 – 8 medium size garlic cloves (3 cloves = mild, 8 cloves insures your safety from even Twilight vampires for at least 24 hours)
Coarse sea salt
2 eggs yolks plus 1 whole egg  (leave out for an hour to get to room temp)
1 Tbl Dijon or other French style mustard (leave out for a while so it’s at room temp)
2 cups olive oil (vegetable or peanut oil will also work, though olive oil is traditional)

Equipment (here’s how I’ve adapted to make this quick and easy)

1.     Food Processor with steel blade
2.     Garlic press
3.     Mortar and Pestle (some traditions must be maintained)

Pr  Press peeled garlic cloves (3 – 8) through garlic press and add to mortar with 1 tsp coarse sea salt.  Grind until smooth paste.

2.     Add juice of one lemon to garlic paste mixture,  stir and set aside

3.     For the mayonnaise base:
·      Into Food Processor bowl fitted with steel blade: Toss 2 egg yolks plus 1 whole egg, 1 Tbs Dijon mustard, grind of black pepper, and juice of the second lemon.
·      Turn on processor and let run for 15 seconds, then add oil drop by drop for first ¼ cup or so, a thin drizzle for remainder.  (at this point you have a nice home made mayonnaise) – Julia says to be sure and not turn off machine till done.

4.    Remove mayonnaise to a bowl, stir in garlic/lemon paste using wooden spoon; adjust S+P to taste.
     Can be eaten immediately, but sitting in the fridge for 4 hours enhances flavour.  
     Keeps for about 5 days. 
     Photo of Toum from Wikimedia

Friday, November 12, 2010

Some Motherly Advice for the Perfect (Global) Thanksgiving

Dear Sons,

In 1990, when we were living in Frankfurt, I received the phone call that changed our Thanksgiving celebration forever. The call was from my friend, Pat, who had just won a turkey, which was the prize for a 5K road race. What am I going to do with this turkey, she asked? It’s enormous!

We quickly decided that the only thing to do with an enormous turkey was to cook it and invite everyone we knew to a real American Thanksgiving. As we had the much larger apartment, we held the event at our place. I should add that Pat and I knew a heck of a lot of people.

That first Thanksgiving was a “succes fou”. The food may have been traditional but the guests definitely were not. Instead of the Norman Rockwell family pictured above, we had an exotic assortment of international mutts: homesick Americans, international Germans and lots of other nationalities drawn to Frankfurt during that ‘moment’ in the 1990s when the city was vying to become the financial capital of Europe and the American military had an enormous presence. The meal was big fun and completely chaotic. We had invited so many people that we ran out of everything, chairs, knives, plates but no one seemed to mind. That enormous turkey was the talk of the town.

The next year, we did it again. We invited more people. We gave people assignments and extended the menu. We developed traditions. Your father started reading Art Buchwald’s ‘Explaining Thanksgiving to the French’. For some reason that I can’t remember anymore, I started to wear an Austrian dirndl. Our Thanksgiving became like the baseball field in the movie  ‘Field of Dreams’.  We built it and they came. And then we moved to London – and still they came. And they keep coming. But of course, you know all of this. You were there.

This year, you will be holding your own Thanksgiving celebration in California. Of course, I will miss you, but that is not my point. I was going to write-up some recipes for you to use, but I realized - you don’t need them. You are sons of a grand Thanksgiving tradition. You already carry in your heads and your hearts everything you need to know about America’s best holiday. But I’m still your mother and I like to dispense advice so here it is.  For the perfect Thanksgiving, what you need to do is:

Buy a big turkey. Invite everyone you know. Cook. Eat. Next year – repeat!

Good luck,

Monday, November 08, 2010

So Who Has Sisterly Chats Anymore?

Back in October, the New York Times published the article Why Sisterly Chats Make People Happier. It stayed at the top of their ‘most emailed’ list for weeks. I kept meaning to read it. You’ve got to admit. It’s a catchy title.

Today, I read it. If you want to read it too, click here. If you don’t want to take the time, the money shot can be found in the second to last paragraph:

So maybe it’s true that talk is the reason having a sister makes you happier, but it needn’t be talk about emotions. When women told me they talk to their sisters more often, at greater length and about more personal topics, I suspect it’s that first element – more often – that is crucial rather than the last.

But here’s the thing. With the arrival of email, voicemail, SMS, Facebook and Twitter, I communicate a lot but I don’t actually talk to anyone anymore. I know lots of details about their lives but I haven’t actually talked to any of my friends in months, some of them in years. If I am honest with myself, I have lost the habit of calling and being called. Way back when, I thought telephone calls were an intrusion. Now I get kind of excited when the phone rings or conversely, if I call someone and they actually answer.

Which brings me back to the New York Times. If having a sister makes you happier because sisters talk more and more talk makes you happier, then I need to stop writing this post and call my sister. But first I need to check what time it is in Australia.

Friday, November 05, 2010

See America Profonde - Just Like Hannah Montana

I was comparing a trip to North Carolina with an English friend recently. She has a son attending Duke University and is a frequent visitor to the Tarheel State. We were both there during the UK October school break. And what did she describe as the highlight of her visit, besides seeing her son? Going to the North Carolina State Fair. The state fair is an annual exposition that has been running in Raleigh, North Carolina since 1853, with only a few time-outs for the Civil and Second World Wars

Wow, I exclaimed. We were there too. Didn’t you just love it! Such crazy food - deep fat fried ice cream. Weren’t the animals beautiful? I loved the goats, and the cows. Did you go to the pig race? And for the next 20 minutes, we recounted more highlights: the Demolition Derby, the Grand Champion turkey and the record-breaking pumpkins. We agreed. It was extraordinary. We loved it.

In listening to my English friend, I realized that the state fair had given her a real glimpse into ‘America Profonde’ – a view that few foreign visitors get to see. Without irony, she embraced the spirit that enjoys crashing cars, eating ridiculous food and racing pigs. But she also appreciated the young farmers who know a lot about farming and take excellent care of their animals, the bee keepers working hard to maintain healthy hives, the church groups serving up ham biscuits in support of good causes and the local dairies making cheeses the old fashioned way. In short, she found going to a state fair to be a great way to experience what makes America, well, America.

And I like the reaction of one of my daughter’s friends from Singapore when Eloise told her she was going to the North Carolina State Fair.

Oh my God, Eloise, you are just like Hannah Montana!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Secrets of the Panda

On the day after the election-to-end-all-elections, I invite you to forget Washington politics for a moment and contemplate the panda.

The giant pandas are Washington DC’s greatest celebrities. Everyone loves them. On loan from the Chinese government, they feature on the city’s Metro tickets. There are special Panda Hotel Packages. Fedex created a special plane, the fuel efficient Panda Express, to ship their baby back to China in a record 14.5 hours. They are a phenomenon. But that’s the problem. How can you visit the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo without having the experience ruined by the crowds?

By accident, we have the answer. Go during the week (and not during the summer) in really, really bad weather. Watch the sky and if the heavens open like Monsoon Mumbai, my advice is to rush to the Panda House at the National Zoo. We were there recently with Eloise in heavy rain and there was no one there. No one! We did see one other hapless British family wandering around but that was it. When the pandas were brought inside at around 2:30 for some biscuits and bamboo, we (and the keepers) were the only humans in sight. And to think that not so long ago, when the pair’s only baby was in residence, you had to reserve a time slot to see them. I’ve been to the National Zoo many times. I’ve seen the pandas many times but never have I come away so delighted and thrilled by the experience.

And for that matter, the rest of the Zoo was great too. The reptiles were repulsive, the birds pretty and the orangutans convivial. It’s not every day that a soaking wet thirteen-year-old and her parents can have a fine time together in a deserted national institution.

Admission to the National Zoo is free but the parking is expensive. If you want to save money, you can travel by either bus or metro but whatever you do, go in terrible weather.

The photo was taken by Eloise Hedges.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How the Stories End

For regular No Crowds readers, here's how the Eurostar and Write a Novel in a Month stories turned out:

Eurostar came through quickly with a commitment for full refund and we are back to being happy Eurostar customers.
Moral of the story: use social media early and often to resolve customer service problems.

No Plot No Problem. Yes, I did write a novel in 30 days.
Verdict: It's crap but it's done
Prognosis: It could become something
Next step: Rewrite it

Monday, October 11, 2010

Customer Service, An Eurostar Refund and Mom's New iPhone

"Mom, there is no more customer service. Now it's all about what you do when they say no." Middle Son

"Mom, you of all people with an iPhone 4. What a waste." Youngest daughter

The younger generation has a different and adversarial view of customer service as witnessed by the above comment from my middle son.  But they use all these cool tools when companies don't perform and then supposedly things start to happen. So I went out and got an iPhone, right after my customer service problem with Eurostar. Inspired by my new status as part of the digital elite, I used state-of-the-art digital tools to advise Eurostar of my dissatisfaction.

And guess what? Last Friday, we connected. Eurostar customer service read my blog. They sent me an email. They responded to my tweets. I was so excited. They promised to look into why I hadn't been contacted. That is fine but let's not forget, what I want is a refund. Do you now understand why I was upset, why I deserve a refund and how to send the money to my bank account? I sent you those details as you requested and those are the questions to which I would like answers.

So what happens next Eurostar? Is my son right and we are going to have to go many more nasty rounds before this is settled or has social media (enhanced by smart phones) delivered a wonderful new world of customer service in which we understand each other better?

You can answer anytime. I now have an iPhone and despite what my daughter thinks, I'm digitally armed and ready for a great battle or great customer service. Now its up to you.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Eurostar Fail

Cows or Eurostar passengers?
The editor and I took a trip to Paris recently to check on our apartment.

On the way back to London we had an incident with the folks at Eurostar. The background to the incident can be summarized as follows: 1) the editor loses wallet 2) goes to Gare du Nord with receipt for ticket plus passport but no ticket which he must collect from machine with the now lost credit card 3) we explain that credit card has been lost and show proof of purchase + passport. 4) too bad for you, says Eurostar. If you want to go home you must buy a new ticket for EUR245) We have no choice. We buy ticket.

When we get home, we write Eurostar a nice email asking for our EUR245 back. To date, no response.

Which brings me to the point of my story. Why maintain a blog, plus a Facebook and a Twitter account, if you don't use these tools to encourage companies to respond when you are dissatisfied? So I am deploying my social media tools in an attempt to recover what I believe I am due. I've written this post, I've started a Facebook page called Eurostar Fail. I'm tweeting about it. Eurostar are you listening? We'll find out ...

And if you are interested, here is a copy of the email you neglected to answer:

Dear Sir or Madam,

On September 30, 2010, I received very poor customer service from Eurostar.

Earlier in the day, I lost my wallet. This is, of course, not Eurostar's fault but you can imagine that it was a distressing experience. When I arrived at Gare du Nord with a print out of my reservation including my booking number and payment information, and with my passport, I was told that without the credit card that I had used to book the ticket, my ticket could not be issued and that to travel to London on the same train, I would have to purchase a new ticket for EUR 245. I explained that I could not produce the card because it had been lost. Of course I expected a sympathetic response from Eurostar. Eurostar employees said there was nothing they could do except sell me another ticket.  They sent me to the SNCF as that was the issuing agency.  SNCF sent me back to Eurostar stating that Eurostar could issue a replacement boarding pass.

As I could prove that I had purchased a ticket, as I had the booking reference and as I had identification to prove who I was, I found this policy on the part of Eurostar not to issue a replacement boarding pass to be bureaucratic and unresponsive to my already distressing situation. I am a frequent Eurostar traveller and did not expect to be treated this way by your company.

Therefore, I ask that you refund the ticket which I was forced to purchase to get home when it was clear to everyone that I had already purchased a ticket. The booking reference for the ticket I was forced to buy to get home was QHKGHJ.  
I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

If You Promise to Empty your Sandals

Contemplating the world from America's industrial heartland, Penny, last heard from in Morocco, has much to think about amidst the dunes of Gary, Indiana.

I opened the sliding screen and walked out onto the deck – the breeze from the north was fresh, the Chicago skyline across the lake lit softly from the east.  I had surprised the doe nuzzling the beach grass below.  She hurried her two fauns along, as the monarchs searched for the milkweed.  Over the ridge, down by the shore, a pair of heron landed.   The sharp sound of a humming bird quarrel below interrupted the rhythm of the waves, then was superseded by the whistling of a freight train.  Nestled improbably between the old multiplex of U.S. Steel and the new multiplex of Arcelor Mittal, I was watching the sunrise in Gary, Indiana. 

No crowds here.   Coming down from the interstate, County Line Road is deserted – a hot dog stand (“Depot Dog” serving award-winning Vienna dogs from a pretty red caboose), some signs for the National Lakeshore Park, more deer and the occasional circling bird of prey aside.  There are some signs of human habitation at Wells Street beach – it has a pretty good refreshment stand – but the modest, well-tended houses of this beach community, Miller, are oriented to Lake Michigan and the dunes rather than the streets.

You needn’t come by country roads to avoid crowds in Gary.  In fact, if you choose to come to my lakeshore paradise through the erstwhile metropolis, the scenery is positively post-apocalyptic.  Much of the city has been razed.  There are some fortress-inspired government buildings and an unenticing concrete convention center, and of course the steel mills and oil refineries remain, smokestacks steaming and occasionally ablaze with methane.  Coming in on the Tri-state or Route 20, you would have to agree that Gary is a suitable backdrop for Transformers 3, which had in fact just finished shooting when we arrived.

Back in Miller, Lake Michigan and the dunes surrounding it, the ponds, the swamps and the trails through the woods, the uncountable species of butterflies, toads, frogs, grasshoppers, wildflowers, grasses…those are what have continued as the crowds receded.  Crowds don’t come here much, to take a little bit of dune back to Chicago in a sandal, trample the fragile beach grasses and leave plastic and aluminum in the wetlands.  How fortunate that most don’t find the juxtaposition of beauty and industry as poignant and thought-provoking as I do.  I’m thankful that the crowds stomp elsewhere, as nature makes a comeback in my home town. 

The Indiana Dunes Lakeshore Park (, existing in the interstices between residences, train tracks and industrial conglomerates, is the consolation prize given environmentalists after they lost the battle to stop the construction of the Port of Indiana to the west of Gary.  One might have thought that the “brownfield” site to the east, gradually being vacated as industry moved to more pliable labour markets, would have been more suitable than the close-to- pristine lakeshore duneland that was bulldozed to become the Port in the 1970s.  The bulldozers came, but the utter unfashionability of nearby Gary and Miller has allowed some of the displaced flora and fauna to find a new home, cheek by jowl with the remaining homo sapien population. 

We rented a lovingly –restored 1930s house right on the shores of Lake Michigan through VRBO (  The house sits back from the beach among mature cottonwoods.  My favorite feature was the cleverly placed fire pit, well-situated for roasting marshmallows while watching the sun set in a pollution-enhanced technicolor.  The water was perfect in late August – maybe 78 degrees, and changed character every day.  One day for floating on a mattress.  The next for riding waves.  And every day was for strolling down to the dunes at West Beach or down through the pine woodland to Long Lake about a mile or so south, to see who was migrating through – mallards and coots of course, the occasional Canada geese.   Of course, the migration doesn’t get seriously interesting until the autumn. 

I hadn’t been back in many years, and was told that I should be wary of Gary, and of Miller too, but we were very comfortable.   We certainly didn’t feel unsafe. (The neighbors left a good deal of equipment outside and lightly tethered, although they live in Chicago – there couldn’t be too big a crime problem in Miller.)   The peoples’ palaces of the 1930s, the Aquatorium and the Pavilion, have been restored, and indeed the planters surrounding the Pavilion are now brimming – as they certainly weren’t in the 1960s when I grew up here.  There is a reasonably good restaurant on Lake Street, the Miller Bakery Café (although the service could use some improvement), a very nice souvenir shop selling 1920’s posters about the trip to the dunes from Chicago (still less than an hour), and a Walgreens.  For groceries you now need to go a bit further afield –  Hobart or Portage have supermarkets, and there is a great farm market and bakery on Ridge Road, a mile or so east of Ripley Street. 

So do I recommend Miller?  If you promise to empty your sandals before leaving, I do.  If we travel, we need to confront the brutal reality of the mills and refineries that make transportation and much else that we take for granted possible.  And we need to also think about what it will take to keep the Karner blue butterflies, the red-shouldered hawk, and the tree toad healthy and happy as well.  We need to think about how to make sure that the people working in the factories and refineries can flourish alongside the world’s most impressive collection of wildflowers, and afford a holiday or two themselves – and about what happens to their lives if the factories and those jobs go.  Can’t think of a better place to contemplate all of the complexity of the modern world, and of the role of the great industrial powers, past, present and future, than there.

Photo Credit: Penny Pilzer

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Transforming Family and Friends into Effective Agents of Guilt and Terror

Dear Friends,

Thanks to Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, I have committed to writing a 50,000 word novel by September 30th. That's 1,667 words a day for the next 30 days.

I will be reporting my daily word quota on social media. Poke merciless fun at me any time I miss my deadline. And thanks.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Off-The-Grid Travel

Recently, the New York Times ran a story about five neuroscientists who took a  trip to the Glenn Canyon National Recreation area in Utah with the goal of studying how the heavy use of digital services and other technology changes how we think and behave. At the end of the trip, all five scientists were singing the praises of Off-the-Grid Travel.

Great premise, I thought. Off-the-Grid travel just might be the next big thing. It’s exotic, exclusive, difficult to achieve. It won’t be long before Abercrombie & Kent will be offering Off-the-Grid safaris. I should do something about this for No Crowds.

Two days later, I am in Hertfordshire, what Wikipedia calls “a non-metropolitan county in the East region of England”. Hardly the wilds of Utah, but for a committed London girl, a great place to perform her first  experiment with Off-the-Grid Travel.

My ground rules were simple:

1)   Leave electronic devices at home
2)   Drop off daughter at Lacrosse Camp in Hertforshire at 9:00 to be picked up at 4:00
3)   Find something to do for 6 hours

And here’s the thing, without devices or any forward planning, I had an absolutely splendid time for the next 3 days.

On day one, I took a walk and stumbled on Rothamsted Research, a huge agricultural research center that is also the oldest agricultural research station in the world where scientists have been tracking environmental changes over the last 150 years. The center includes a beautiful 17th century manor house that is used to house the scientists and students.

On day two, I ended up at the home of the playwright George Bernard Shaw in the tiny village of Ayot St Lawrence. Run by the National Trust, Shaw’s Corner  (pictured above) is a great time warp. Much of his books and papers are there, including his Oscar for My Fair Lady. About that he had this to say. “I won’t say I’m insulted because no doubt they meant well, but I don’t work for competitions.” Who knew?

On day three, I pulled out all the stops and followed a sign to Hatfield House. For the last 400 years, the estate has been the home of the Cecils, one of England’s foremost political families. It’s a grand Jacobean place filled with inspiring stories and objects and one of the finest houses I have ever visited.

For three days, just like the neuroscientists in Utah, I wandered around and discovered things. It was fun. I paid attention to what I was doing. Twitter, Facebook and No Crowds did fine without me and I without them.

Off-the-Grid Travel. It really could be the next big thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Great Fakes?

We are off to Cadaques in Spain made famous by Salvador Dali. We’re going to the real one.  Not the official recreation that is being built in China for holidaymakers looking for a 'taste’ of Europe and not the unofficial real estate development, Cadaques Caribe, a reconstruction in the Dominican Republic.

“How surreal” I thought when I read about all those fake Cadaqueses in the Guardian newspaper but how fitting.  As one of the most forged artists in the world, aided by the habit of signing and selling off blank sheets of paper, Dali would most likely have enjoyed the whole thing. But it does raise an interesting question about authentic versus fake experiences, and whether we should or can embrace 'the real deal'.

On one end of the spectrum is Las Vegas. According to the website Without Baggage, it’s the fakest place on earth with a fake Rome, Venice, Paris and even a fake Treasure Island – a fake of a fake. OK, Las Vegas is an obvious and in some ways funny if not a bit ridiculous example but what about Colonial Williamsburg. I LOVE Williamsburg and it too is a complete reconstruction, perhaps a worthier reconstruction, but a fake just the same. 

So what makes a travel experience authentic? A trickier question than it first appears. Mark Jones a travel writer and frequent contributor on the BA Highlife website answers it this way:

“My definition is this: authentic places are those which are comfortable in their own skin. An authentic travel experience is when you get under the skin of that place. An authentic tourist is someone who is changed by a place and doesn’t seek to change it. Let’s celebrate them.”

A pretty good definition. You can read the entire article here and check out BA Highlife’s list of the 50 most authentic places on earth here.

The No Crowds definition, which borrows heavily from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding obscenity, is this:

Authentic? I know it when I see it, and the recreation of Cadaques on the coast of main land China is definitely not that.

So what’s your definition?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Will Travel Make You Happier?

The business section of the New York Times ran a major story on consumption and happiness this weekend.  To sum up the findings of a number of prominent psychologists quoted in the article, spending on an experience provides more lasting happiness than spending on stuff.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California, Riverside with a grant from the US National Institute of Mental Health to study the possibility of permanently increasing happiness, spending on travel experiences is a happiness ‘best buy’. She claims that travel provides longer-lasting happiness because unlike a new jacket or a TV, it cannot be consumed in one go. Travel enhances social relations.  It creates memories that can be savored. Most importantly, Lyubomirsky argues, we edit those memories to put a positive spin on the past. “That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera and argued with your spouse will typically be airbrushed with rosy recollection.”
I’m not so convinced about the ‘rosy recollection’ part, I remember a lot of terrible trips very vividly, but I am sold on the idea that travel experiences create the best emotional bang for your dollar – or pound, euro or whatever. I’m thinking, in fact, about this year’s summer trip to North Carolina. I’ve been back in London for almost a week, but I am still happier than when I left. Why? Because I am emotionally satisfied. It’s not so much what we did in North Carolina. In fact, we do the same things every year. We eat barbeque, go to the beach, play tennis and visit Chapel Hill. The reason I am emotionally satisfied is the simple but invaluable pleasure of doing those things with the same people every year, a collection of friends and relations with whom I hope to be forever connected. Whatever it cost to get to North Carolina this summer was money well spent and a much better buy than the new chairs I was considering. I think the New York Times is right. Spending on experiences, particularly travel experiences, does make you happier. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Take Me to the Kasbah - Exploring Morocco's Atlas Mountains

More from No Crowds reporter, Penny, on how to explore the Atlas mountains of  Morocco in grand style. 

From our balcony at the Kasbah du Toubkal, we looked across the valley to the summit of Mount Toubkal and spent our first evening just listening to the call to prayer echoing and repeating village to village.  By day, you can walk in the mountains – with or without a guide, with or without a mule to help you on the climb.  You can walk the 10-11 km to a “nearby” lodge above a traditional village inaccessible by car (and devoid of the sounds of cars) and come back the next day.  You can arrange to climb to the summit of Toubkal itself.  

But we didn’t find it easy to leave the Kasbah – why not just sit in one of the towers (your choice again – windows or open air?  Wind or no wind?) and play chess, drink mint tea, watch the hawks and the mountain crows, listen.  By night, the candle-lit dinners, romantic or gregarious – choose the spot you prefer.  Figure out what you want once you get there – that’s what we did.  It would have spoiled the whole thing to have too many plans.

We booked through Kerrie at Discover Ltd, who was incredibly patient as our plans changed repeatedly due to work schedules, volcanic ash and whim.  And Lahcan, the ever-available concierge-and–everything-else at Toubkal made sure it all worked on the ground.  Mule?  No mule? Are you sure 20 kilometres up and down in one day with no mule?  Did you enjoy dinner?  Answer -- How could we not? (Lahcan had arranged last-minute accommodation, meals and lots besides in the village for a group of UK students trapped by Eyiafiallajokull – we eavesdropped as their teacher, finally departing, asked, all but in tears, “Is it all right if I hug you??”)

Are we allowed to say that one of the pleasures of the stay was the crowd we fell in with?  Met some interesting people from all over, great conversation, great company – Sometimes just a small crowd is a pleasure….

If you think you are going to need some liquid relaxant, you will need to bring it along to the Kasbah.  Set-up will be provided, but alcohol will not be sold or served.  We really like our wine, but we didn’t miss it at Toubkal.  There was plenty of intoxication on offer without …substances.

Also recommended:

In Marrakesh:

  • Small, romantic Riad Demueres D’Orient.   Despite our late arrival, dinner was ready – little Moroccan salads of aubergine, zucchini and chick peas followed by melt-in-your mouth pastille.  All in the candle-lit dining room, fire roaring, looking out onto the garden.  Our room was lovely and quirky, the staff welcoming and genuine.  Highly recommended.
  • Over –the-top luxury at Riad el Finn.  Can I just say that I am now a fan of leather floors?  This Vanessa Bronson-owned combination of three former houses was the venue of the birthday party that was the instigation of the trip.  Multiple garden areas, including a roof terrace for breakfast and sunbathing, a well-stocked library, hand-loomed carpets everywhere,  tea served at 4 under palms (and with terrapins), understanding bartender Abdul, two swimming pools.  Many of the  rooms are huge, with indoor and outdoor anterooms.  Ours featured 20 foot carved ceilings, a sunken marble bathtub and those  leather floors.  With all of this quiet beauty – the sounds of birds and fountains throughout – and the marvellous food, once again I was not as eager to explore Marrakesh itself as I should have been.  Just let me stay here!!

If you are going out towards Ouarzazate, we can recommend Ksar Ighnda, with the caveat that if there are any crowds there, you will be able to hear them.  If you go out the back way, you find yourself in an oasis garden.  It is less than 40 acres, but due to an ingenious and probably ancient irrigation system, you can find a typical morroccan meal growing – carrots, barley, maize, plums, apricots, irises, palms and then olives and  herbs, until it gives out onto the desert.   Overlooking all is Ait Benhaddou, a Kasbah seen most recently in “Gladiator”, and still partially inhabited.  As for the crowds, avoid room 303, which sits in an echo chamber above the bar – although once awakened, we looked up, out our door, to a deep blue sky and stars so close that it was hard to believe that we were on the ground at all. 

Recommended reading:

“In Arabian Nights” by Tahir Shah – Stories recently gathered in the medinas of Fez and Marrakech by the author of “The Caliph’s House”

“A year in Marrakesh” Peter Mayne – the year was 1952, but it’s fun to imagine the streets  as they were then, as you walk down them now.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Egyptian Museum - And a 3000 Year Old Scandal

In Part 2 of Cairo: Crowds and All, Lorraine provides a game plan for tackling the Egyptian Museum and reveals a 3000 year old scandal.

A highlight of our visit was a trip to the Egyptian Museum.  

Gird your courage to the sticking point and brave the scrum at the ticket window to gain entry.  You won’t regret the effort, and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you finally walk away with your tickets in hand. 

A word of advice, hide your camera in your pocket or underwear (and yes, the image does defy the imagination).  A young woman inside inspects your bag and sends you back out to check your camera if she finds one.  However, once inside, people were snapping pictures happily with no apparent repercussions.

The museum itself is a large, somewhat gritty warehouse,  albeit a warehouse filled with priceless artifacts – a rare opportunity to walk 5000 years into the past.  We walked down aisles past hundreds of sarchophagi, jewelry displays, and death masks; we admired a written tablet that we suspected was the  Rosetta Stone  till I recalled that the Rosetta Stone had been shipped to England and resided in a museum there. And therein lies the challenge of the Museum. Signs in English are rare, and we often found ourselves speculating about the meaning of the exhibits.  While there are numerous ‘guides’ offering services before you enter the Museum, I can’t vouch for how knowledgeable they really are and would recommend that true history buffs check with Viator to find a guide, or the hotel concierge (if he’s more helpful than the one at the Sheraton).

Moving upstairs, we reach the King Tutankhamun exhibit. [Note to English speakers with limited knowledge of Egyptian history: The name is pronounced Tut (rhymes with hut) + ankhamun (rhymes with uncommon). Apparently, calling him Two Tank Haymen is the kind of error that embarrasses your partner and amuses other more erudite tourists.]   King Tut (this is the safe pronunciation option) burial chambers reminded us  of those Russian figures, where  you opened one to find a smaller identical figure inside, and so on till you reached the final, tiny figure. King Tut was the littlest doll in the center.  He was buried inside three gold covered box tombs,  sized so that they fit inside each other. And inside the three layers of gilded tombs,  was a solid gold king shaped sarcophagus (not on display)  and inside of all of this was the mummified body of King Tut,  the boy king,  wearing the well publicized and exquisite golden death mask that is on display at the museum.

The 3000 Year Old Just Revealed Scandal

We learned that King Tut was a rather unremarkable pharaoh, understandable since he ruled from the age of 9 till his death at 19.  His fame is all due to the grandeur of his tomb. In addition to youth, we’ve just learned that there was another good reason for little Tut’s less than distinguished rule. While we were there the Egyptians announced the results of DNA tests conducted on tissues from the Tut mummy (how wild is that – 3000 year old DNA?).  It seems he suffered from a number of nasty genetic diseases. This is not surprising since the DNA results revealed his parents were brother and sister. Compounding the problem, the boy was then married to his sister. A sad, but perhaps predictable discovery in his tomb were two of his progeny - mummified stillborn fetuses – products of that unfortunate union.  All that gold, and all that power, and no one seemed to have figured out the hazards of inbreeding. 

A final suggestion for those who like to read books about places they visit:  Egypt’s ancient and crumbling monuments are the tangible remnants of an ancient civilization; and modern Cairo, splendid, infuriating, and complex beyond all western understanding, is the proud  recipient of a 5000 year old legacy.  I often find that a good book can shine a light into the mysterious and exotic world of foreign travel.  My favorite fiction  books about Cairo are The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz.  In the period between WWI and II, we follow three generations of a family .  For those who would like to browse even further I recommend, a website that allows you to type in the name of your city or country of choice, and then displays a wide range of books about the area. 

Photo of King Tut and Queen (sister) from the Egyptian Museum

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cairo - Crowds and All

If you are crowd-phobic like me, you might think that Cairo's not for you. That's not the case and No Crowds reporter, Lorraine leads the way on surviving and thriving in one of the world's most crowded cities.

The best time to visit is between November and March when the average daily temperature is 25C/77F. Right now the average temperature is 38C/100F so plan now and go later.

Egypt in winter so inspired Gustave  Flaubert that he recalls it started his  ‘literary pot boiling’, and shortly after returning to France he began work on Madame Bovary.  Florence Nightingale, was sent to winter in Egypt by her desperate parents, who hoped  that, seduced by the magic of the Nile, she would abandon her perverse interest in hospitals and find a nice young man to marry.  The magic of Egypt did indeed inspire her, but not in the way that her parents hoped.  She departed for the Crimean War after her return, and into history books as the Lady with the Lamp. (See Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt. By Anthony Sattin.)

So it happened that last February, when Gary had work in Cairo, I happily made plans to accompany him, humming “see the pyramids along the Nile, dum de dum” while I hunted for bargain flights from Dubai to Cairo.  

Egypt Air did the trick and we found it to be an efficient if not luxurious airline option. We spent a long week end exploring the city, visiting the Giza pyramids (who knew they were just 45 minutes outside Cairo?), and eating our meals overlooking the Nile. While I didn’t return to Dubai and begin writing a masterpiece, or head off to war,  I do have some advice for anyone who would like to  enjoy this hyperkinetic city that teeters on the brink of chaos and somehow always manages to survive.

Cairo is the second largest city in the world and second in population only to Mexico City; according to the cab driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport and drove us to the Sheraton Hotel, Towers and Casino. As always, we found that cab drivers are the very best source of local mythology when visiting any city, except New York, where language barriers or attitude seems to prevent any communication.  With help from cab drivers, a group of enthusiastic school girls we met along the way, tour guides, and our own always fallible trial and error method, we learned a little about how to enjoy Cairo. 

#1: To reduce crowds in Cairo, get up early and visit sites in the morning.  You’ll never be alone in Cairo, but early mornings (from 9 a.m. – 11) are somewhat quieter, plus it’s cooler.  Alternatively, the guide books suggest that late afternoon is less crowded, but the infamous daily Cairo traffic build up may well cancel out that advantage.

#2:  Learn to say ‘Halass’ (emphasis on second syllable) which seems to translate as a combination of ‘enough’  and ‘ it’s finished’. This phrase is important, especially at the Giza Pyramids, where raucous vendors pitch camel, horse and buggy rides, and guided tours. If you don’t want to be besieged by would-be guides and other vendors, pretend you are deaf and dumb.  We learned that smiling and nodding ‘No’ just encouraged a renewed, more emphatic sales pitch.

The 4500 year old Sphinx guards the entrance to the Giza Pyramids, and is also known as ‘The Father of Terror’.  It may have been because we approached  the sphinx from behind and from the elevated level of the Great Pyramid, or because of  the oddly peaceful expression on its face, but we both found the sphinx less terrifying and somehow smaller than we had imagined.  However, a ‘sound and light’ show is conducted several evenings a week, and I’m told that the booming voice of the sphinx does the narration.  Though we didn’t make the show, it did occur to me that for those seeking true horror, the show might be just the ticket.
As an alternative, we suggest that if the sun is not too hot, and your shoes are comfortable;  take a walk a little ways into the desert, feel the dry desert wind on your face, and  sense the silence that dominated this Necropolis for the 3800 years during which the Great Pyramid was the tallest man made structure in the world.
#3: Hot, sun baked, hungry and thirsty, we adjourned for lunch at the 100 year old Mena House Hotel at the Giza pyramids. The food is good and the view over lawns and Palm trees to the Great Pyramid is spectacular.  Don’t miss it. 

#4: Stay at a hotel with a room overlooking the Nile – it’s an endless source of fascination though most of the river traffic appears to be recreational, with no sign of the original commercial importance of the river in evidence. We stayed at the Sheraton Cairo Hotel, Towers and Casino, where, despite their advertised 5 restaurants, had only one lobby restaurant open for lunch.  However, our room had a spacious balcony overlooking the Nile and we developed the habit of ordering  room service lunch, which we ate leisurely sitting on our balcony gazing out at the river and listening to the car horns of Cairo.  Our taxi driver described this sound as the ‘song of the city’, and after a while it became a rather pleasant backdrop to our activities.
#5: Unimpressed with the tours (or lack of same) suggested by our hotel concierge, we discovered a web site which offers all kinds of tours and events, world-wide, ideal for the independent traveler who prefers to design their own itinerary as they go, but might need some help.  We used them to book a Nile dinner cruise, which was touristy but fun.  Viator provided an English speaking guide who met us at our hotel, drove us to the cruise ship and escorted us to our table.  At the end of the evening, we were met and driven back to our hotel.  Given the exuberant anarchy of Cairo driving, we deeply appreciated this level of attention.  We’ll definitely consult with Viator again when we’re in an exotic location. 

Our  dinner show consisted of the usual belly dancer, which is not part of Arabic tradition but somehow has become associated with the middle east, and is therefore essential to every tourist floor show. We were pleased to note that Size Zero body type is not much sought after among Egyptian belly dancers; when these ladies twirled, the boat swayed.  We did find the whirling dervish dancer to be terrific, if a trifle dizzying to watch. 

At night the river filled with small brightly lit party boats, festooned with flashing colored lights, each capable of holding up to about twenty people.  On Valentine’s night the boats were gaily tricked out in red flashing neon hearts, each boat occupied  by a couple, who sat together while the boat pilot squired them along the dark river.  Gary and I imagined that it was a big night for proposals, or at least (my cynical nature intrudes here), propositions .

#6: A word about Egyptian wine.  Don’t drink it!  Insipid is the best we can say about it, and unfortunately, it was the only wine we could find on any menu.  While just about any kind of hard liquor can be found in any restaurant or bar, the only wine served was Egyptian, with quaint names like Scheherazade or Omar Khayyam.  If you’re a serious wine drinker, bring your own (I know from grim experience that this weighs down a suitcase and always requires checking it but sometimes it’s the only option). Alternatively, you could try duty free at the airport when you arrive – though we didn’t think to check it out, you might find some marginally better choices.
#7: Finally, get lots of Egyptian small bills, since baksheesh (Arabic for tip) is expected as part of all exchanges.  10% was the recommended amount, and if anyone argues and asks for more, just remember to say ‘Halass’.  A good quick estimate to help get a sense of the currency, is to ask how much a Big Mac, coke and fries cost in the local currency.  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  

Next installment: The Egyptian Museum + The Unfolding Two Tank Scandal

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Flame of French Resistance

March 2010, Paris

David Cameron: “Fancy a day out, Sarko? Call me Dave, by the way. Look, I need to beef up my European credentials. You need a break from pension reform so lets celebrate the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s radio broadcast on June 18th together here in London. Bring Carla.”

Nicolas Sarkozy: “ Dave. I can do better than that. I can cover a Eurostar with pictures of de Gaulle, fill it with 800 former servicemen AND bring Carla. The myth, oops, I mean the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished.  See you in June.”

While in Paris last week, No Crowds also took the chance to  ‘refresh’ the flame of French resistence by visiting the Memorial to Marshal Leclerc, dedicated to the Commander of the Free French Forces and the liberator of Paris, and the adjacent Museum of Jean Moulin, devoted to the leader of the French Resistance. Both of these museums can be found in the illusive Jardin Atlantique, located on top of the Montparnasse train station.

Now, you would think a roof garden on top of a train station would be easy to find. Not so. To begin with, there are two entrances with free-standing glass elevators that, in better days, would whisk visitors up to the garden in the sky but judging by the amount of rubbish in the empty and sinister relics, they haven’t worked in ages. Two other possibilities exist: a staircase in the far left corner of the Montparnasse train station and an entrance from Boulevard Pasteur.

Because it is hard to find, this 8.5 acre roof top garden in the middle of a densely populated part of the 15th Arrondisement is an uncrowded and rather magical place. Surrounded on all sides by modern high rise buildings, including the uniquely ugly Tour Montparnasse, the garden is filled with trees and plants from the Atlantic area of France. The space is a surprising urban oasis that is perfect for children who love the many hiding places and views down onto the train tracks and station through the ventilation shafts.

OK, the name is a mouthful, but this museum, which is actually two exhibitions in one building which tells the story of France’s experience in World War II through the eyes of two very different Frenchmen. Marshal Leclerc was the Commander who led the 2nd Armored division that liberated Paris from the Germans (‘aided’ by the Americans as they put it) while Jean Moulin was a French government official tortured and executed by the Germans who is considered the father of the Resistance. Both museums have large collections of photographs, documents and film from the period. Unlike most museums in France, many documents and explanations have been translated into several languages, including English. The museum is well-curated, empty and the permanent collection is free. During our visit, a French school group joined us briefly. Otherwise we had the building entirely to ourselves. Closed Mondays.

Now, at first I thought it was a weakness that this memorial/museum presents a view of the resistance and liberation not universally shared by all historians. But increasingly during my visit, I came to appreciate what Charles de Gaulle and his compatriots were able to pull off with little more than rousing oratory and good political instincts and after a visit to The Memorial of Marshal Leclerc Hautelocque and of the Liberation of Paris and the Museum Jean Moulin I know exactly why Dave and Sarko are so keen to share in the warm glow of de Gaulle’s inspiring London broadcast to the people of France.