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It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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What it means to me to be back in Southern Africa

These last nine days, Nina and I traveled around 3,600 kilometers (a bit over 2,300 miles) throughout Southern Africa. We started our journey by arriving in Johannesburg, moved on to Gaborone (Botswana’s capital, where we met), then an 11 hour drive to Windhoek (Namibia’s capital, beating Google Maps’ 14 hour forecast). From there we moved on to Swakopmund at the coast, and then down to Stellenbosch where we currently are for the next couple of days. We’ll be enjoying wines and meetings with winemakers, what promises to be excellent food (we haven’t had a chance to try any of it), all with the generous support of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, who are hosting us for the next few days.

Credit: Google Maps

Credit: Google Maps

Southern Africa has played a major part in our lives and in our life together. It was in Botswana that Nina and I first met, at a sports bar called Linga Longa (yes, it was really called that!). We were both watching the Euro (Europe’s equivalent to the World Cup) in 2008, and during one of the matches I had the audacity to sit down right in Nina’s view of the screen. Lucky for me, I realized it and apologized. That seems to have been enough to get her to talk to me…during the Germany – Portugal game was when we had our first real conversation….Shortly after my return to Germany we decided to give us a chance, and we haven’t regretted it since.

Back at Linga Longa, Botswana

Back at Linga Longa, Botswana

We decided to go back this summer. I liked to point out before the trip that this must be a sure way to ruin your relationship: Returning to the place you met, when everything was still up in the air, and our love was only barely unfolding. When everything was just AWESOME. Now, we have all that “relationship baggage”, you get what I mean. I said it in jest, and nothing could be clearer now: It has not harmed us a bit. We had a blast in Gabs, going back to Linga Longa where we watched Germany play Portugal (just like in 2008, and Germany won again!). We went to the Beef Baron, easily Botswana’s most reputable steak house which serves insanely delicious steak. We revisited places of our past, and while it seemed strange at times, it always was strange in a good way.

Being sandblasted in the Namib Desert

Being sandblasted in the Namib Desert

We have done our fair share of traveling in Southern and Eastern Africa, and I think it is fair to say that we feel most at home in Southern Africa. The people are so friendly, and once you get used to Africa Time (which I HIGHLY recommend: Don’t stress out about delays or waiting periods, it’s a way of life, and there is no real harm in it) and accept that Southern Africa is a talking culture in which it matters that you greet each other, exchange pleasantries and don’t immediately demand things, there will be no better place on earth to help you relax. The light in the morning and evening is just stunning, the wide African sky spans its wings above you, in desolate areas you actually SEE the Milky Way, the wildlife. Just stunning.

On the Trans Kalahari Highway, somewhere in the Kalahari, early in the morning.

On the Trans Kalahari Highway, somewhere in the Kalahari, early in the morning.

Southern Africa offers us a feeling of home, be it in Botswana or Namibia or now in South Africa. We have met great people along the way, everyone is ready to help, assist, move us along. We are actively contemplating spending a half year or so in the region, to work, but to also live here. It’s been a great homecoming for us, and having been able to add Namibia to our ever expanding list of countries we have to revisit has been an added bonus. You won’t believe the diversity in these virtually empty stretches of land (Namibia is the size of Alaska with 2.2 million inhabitants, and Botswana is the size of France but has only about 2 million inhabitants). While the distances may sound intimidating, the roads are in great condition. If you ever consider traveling the region I highly recommend you drive as much as you can so that you can see more of the countryside.  No need for a guide or driver or a 4×4. We have been driving a Hyundai i10 (a teeny tiny car) without a problem at all. Feel free to contact me whenever you contemplate a trip, we have a ton of tips and advice!

We are now facing four days in the good hands of Stellenbosch Wine Routes. We are super excited the time has come for this part of the trip, and we’ll share about it as much as we can! Our first stop is Majeka House, a wonderful boutique hotel just a bit South of Stellenbosch. We’ll write more about it in a bit, but suffice it to say, it feels great to be here.

Oh, and it turns out there is already a town named after Nina in Namibia….one less thing to worry about.

Nina at the place that is surely named after her.

Nina at the place that is surely named after her.

 

 

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Repost: Savanna Dry – my not so secret cider love

We are currently in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and just returned from Swakopmund on the Atlantic. Tomorrow we are headed as far south as possible before it gets dark on our way to Stellenbosch. Being back in Southern Africa, an area of the world that I love dearly, I am also drinking a bunch of Savanna Dry again, a cider made in South Africa. It’s one of my favorite ciders, and I wrote a paean to it in October 2012, and have decided to repost it here:

South African Savanna Dry Premium Cider

South African Savanna Dry Premium Cider

 

I like to think that I discovered Savanna Dry ciders during my time in Botswana, because it would be nice to connect this discovery with my other two discoveries there (the other two being Pinotage and Nina). But that is not true. I actually first got exposed to it in 2005, when my ex brought some from a three month stint during her legal training in Stellenbosch…but I digress.

After my return from Botswana, I began looking for sources for it in Germany, and I was lucky. There was a guy who selling it (Germans, you can find his website here)! I admit, it is not cheap, but there hardly is anything like it to get that Southern Africa feeling back into my daily life. So, while Nina and I were living in Germany, we would usually have a box in our house, rationing ourselves in order not to overspend. But for our wedding celebration, we actually bought a couple of boxes to serve while people arrived at the venue…in the spirit of our relationship’s roots.

Here in the US, I have not seen it in stores, and online sellers here seem to be happy to completely overcharge their customers on shipping, so I give that a pass (the insanely high shipping and handling prices here will have to wait for a rant in a seperate post). So, when a friend of mine came to visit us from London this spring and asked what he could bring, I told him Savanna Dry. And he did bring two bottles, big bottles even (500 ml instead of the usual 330 ml)! We had one in the summer, and it was time to have this one the other night…leave aside all the emotional connections with it for me personally, and the first thing you notice is the awesome branding. I LOVE the label and the fact that they bottle it in clear glass, so the cider gives the label its appropriate background.

Savanna Dry is, as the name indicates, a dry cider (the company’s slogan is: “It’s dry but you can drink it.”). The color reminds me of the soft, warm sunlight of an afternoon in southern Africa. Its bubbles are never offensive, and it has this strong and great taste of yellow apples with a bit of tartness, sometimes it even reminds me of biting a bit too deep into the apple and getting the coarser inner bits that surround the kernels, which in this case is not offensive. The company website says it is made from apples in Elgin region in Western Cape province of South Africa. At 5.5% to 6% ABV it is just right for warm summer nights, but also when it gets colder. I like to throw in a slice of lemon for just the right punch of acidity and, I swear, I feel like I am back in Bots … where life is so much more pleasantly slow.

If you get a chance to try it, please do so! You can check out their website here.

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