The Food of Poland, Pt 2 – Polish Restaurants

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Lest you think we only ate pierogis and galumpki in Poland, we did eat at several fine restaurants…or as they say, restauracja!

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Polish service is paced differently from US service.  In the US, almost as soon as you are seated the waiter gets drinks to the table and plenty of ice-water.  In Poland, they let you sit a while, and when you place a drink order, you sit a while longer.  We experienced this in every restaurant, in every town.

Further, ice is not something you can get in quantity in Europe.  Occasionally we would get a waiter that would say, “Oh, you’re Americans?  I got you.” and he would bring a wine bucket filled with ice.  This was, however, rare.  If you ordered a cocktail the three ice cubes in it might not make it to the table before they melted.

That said, once your experience had begun, the service and the food were always fantastic.

When we stayed in Czestochowa we were at an old Palace that had gorgeous grounds and a very nice restaurant.  One day we had lunch, complete with a couple of nap-inducing bottles of wine and everyone’s meal was superb!

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The Hotel Palac Czarny Las (Palace of the Black Forest) was our lodging in Czestochowa and the site of a fabulous lunch!

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Seared duck breast on a ginger lentil sauce with small mushroom dumplings and baby beets at the Palac Czarny Las.

When we left Czestochowa, we stopped in a small town called Wadowice (vahd-0-veechay) and ate at a small cafe.  Sitting outdoors on the main square we were pleasantly surprised that this humble cafe with record slow service turned out to be some of the best food of the week!

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Lamb sausage with aioli on house made sauerkraut in Wadowice

One of the things the Poles do really well is mushrooms.  Wild mushrooms of all kinds, porcini, chanterelles, boletus, they were everywhere and always good.

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Veal scallopini with chanterelle mushrooms at Pad Aniolami in Krakow. The Polish really know how to get the most flavor out of a mushroom!

This is not a knock on any other city in Poland but the best restaurants for us were in Krakow.  It’s a big international city and the quality of most restaurants seemed to be a notch above.  From the moment you enter places like Pod Aniolami (Under the Angel)–and even before entering–it was beautiful.  From the frescos on the outer wall, to the warm rich colors, this restaurant was a fantastic experience and one I would recommend to anyone!

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Restauracja Pod Aniolami in Krakow

We also ate one night in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow.  The place was the Restauracja Rubinstein, a 15th century building which had once been the home of Helena Rubinstein.  The Jewish quarter is one of the most charming night spots in Krakow with outdoor cafes and roving Klezmer bands serenading.  It didn’t hurt that we had perfect weather!  The restaurant featured a Jewish menu which included four courses.  Radek got that and we all got to sample it.

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The Jewish menu at Rubinstein’s in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow.

I had been craving duck since we arrived because it was on every menu but each restaurant had sold out for the night.  So I got a roasted half duck and it did not disappoint!

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The roasted duck at Restauracja Rubinstein in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow was perfectly cooked with a berry sauce that was exactly in between sweet and savory with an herb finish.

 

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A roving klezmer band entertaining us in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow

 

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Mushroom soup with toasted almonds at Rubenstein’s in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow

Perhaps the finest dining in Krakow was Ancora.  This restaurant had a high-end gourmet menu.

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Slices of wild boar with tagliatelle in a green peppercorn truffle sauce at Ancora in Krakow.

 

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Fried leeks with three dipping sauces at Ancora in Krakow.

While the food always looked good, at Ancora it was like a work of art on the plate.

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Spanish sardines with caramelized juniper berries and chanterelles with a dill omelette at Ancora in Krakow.

While Ancora was easily the finest menu we saw, the finest experience was, hands-down, Wierzynek (ver-shevik).  Dating back to 1364, it is the oldest restaurant in Poland.  I had braised goose!  It was smokey and slightly exotic tasting but cooked perfectly and as delicious as anything I had in Poland!

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My meal at Wierzynek was the traditional goose, braised in mead with butter noodles and red cabbage.

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Jane ordered the fish and was a little hesitant when it arrived the European way…completely intact!

 

 

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…but she handled it like a champ, delicately removing the top filet and pulling away the head, bones, and tail in one smooth motion!

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Another treat was traditional Sorrel Soup. Herbal and tangy, this soup was fantastic and I would order it every time!

We at at many other fine restaurants and Warsaw had plenty of them, but these were the stand-outs!

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Thoughts As We Leave Poland

 

 

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The King’s summer palace in the Warsaw Gardens.

As I write this I am sitting in the Lufthansa Lounge about to fly home.  I have enjoyed this trip on so many levels.  It was a great time to reconnect with my mom and two sisters, it was great to connect with my heritage, and it was a beautiful place to visit.

I have more posts–definitely a couple on the food of Poland–but they will come after I return home.  So for now, here are just a few parting thoughts.

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On Family

I will say this, at 53, I am getting too old for long car rides in the back seat with my sisters!  However, none of us is too old to ask questions like “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?”  We laughed hysterically at times–usually at the expense of one of us–and we had some great meaningful discussions, the kind that never seem to happen on a 2-day Thanksgiving holiday.

The four of us are spread across the east coast and all have families of our own.  Over the years we have naturally grown apart somewhat; and, this was a unique chance to reconnect.  We celebrated Linda’s birthday during our trip, we had FaceTime calls with our families back home, and we toasted our dad, who we lost 6 years ago.

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Linda and Radek

But the theme of family went beyond the four of us.  We were here in the first place because of our extended family.  My great grandparents were Polish immigrants.  My 10 great uncles and aunts all spoke Polish.  Polish food has always been part of our family; so, it was family that brought us here.

We also met Radek, not only the best guide in all of Poland, but a guy who turned out to be a great friend to all of us.  Meeting Radek’s family was a highlight of the trip!  Truly, the theme of family was woven throughout our trip.

 

On History

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The Wawel Castle in Krakow is old enough to reflect several different architectural periods!

Poland’s history is fascinating.  We saw buildings from the 10th century!  Much of Krakow is from the 13th and 14th century so when a structure was merely from the 1700’s, people just tossed it off like, “What, that old thing?  No big deal…18th century…”

Likewise, we saw the very dark history of WWII and the Holocaust, and then the dreadful era of Soviet Communism.  We’ve also seen a lot of recent history of the post-communist era.  The young people here are ready to just move on and live their lives.  I was very proud to see that “my people” are such a resilient bunch.

On Travel

My international travel experience is quite limited.  I have visited 43 of the 50 states, but internationally have only visited a few countries outside the US.

So I am no expert but I do think the act of traveling to different places and engaging in cultural exchanges, whether a guided tour of a museum or a night in a Krakow bar, is good for everyone.  I will now have a deep fondness for Poland for the rest of my life.

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Poland has a very deep pride in its sons who have contributed to the world.  People like Copernicus, Chopin, and Marie Curie are celebrated.  It was no surprise that Pope Jean-Paul II is a hero in Poland.  He is followed closely by Lech Walesa, but the Poles are also quite fond of Ronald Reagan and Charles De Gaulle.

On Food

Simple and humble ingredients, with deep honest flavors.  I loved the food there and for the most part ate Polish food at every meal.  Again, I will do a couple food specific posts.  The pictures alone are worth it!

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Wild mushroom soup with toasted almonds and basil oil.

 

Stay tuned for more from this fantastic trip!

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Jasna Gora – Poland’s Spiritual Capital

JasnaGora-16 Today was a profound experience.  We visited Jasna Gora (yaz-na-goor-ah), a monastery that is considered Poland’s spiritual capital.  The tour made such an impact that even though there were other great events today, I will save those for tomorrow.

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This is it, the Black Madonna. it is a black mahogany alter with details such as the belt worn by Pope Jean Paul II when he was shot. But to focus on only this, is like thinking of the Louvre as holding only the Mona Lisa. There is so much more.

One thing became clear from the outset of this tour.  Pope Jean Paul II is the man in Poland.  This monastery has been around since the 1400’s and has many tales including that of the Black Madonna; but, Pope Jean Paul II made several visits here during his papacy and left many of the gifts given to him here at Jasna Gora.  At the very least, he renewed the spiritual energy of this sacred place.

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This is the guy! This monastery has been around since the 15th century, but few individuals did more to elevate it than a pole named Karol Wojtyla, aka Pope Jean Paul II.

We entered the monastery with a connection of which we were completely unaware.  Our guide Radek who is traveling with us contacted the friend of the father-in-law of his brother!  That gentleman, Thomas arranged for us, a private tour in English with access to parts beyond that of the standard public tour.  We barely understood this when Friar Roman, our tour guide introduced himself and said, “You must know someone important because my Prior has given me permission to show you things we don’t normally show!”

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The monastery is actually a tight campus of buildings, including this one with Swedish cannonballs still wedged into the building from a battle centuries ago! (below left clock)

The detail on every surface is ornate and nearly overwhelming.  Just about every aspect of this tour was overwhelming.  It begins with the 100 meter tower, but every statue, corner, tower, and ceiling is a significant work of art. JasnaGora-237The first room we were taken to that was supposed to be off limits to non-monks was the Old Library.  There is no way I could be prepared for this room.  This is such a ridiculous comparison that I am embarrassed of but if you’ve ever seen the Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast, that is approaching what this room looked like.  I am afraid my iPhone 5 will not do it justice.

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The Old Library had four walls of in-laid wood shelves with custom-built wooden cases (2,405 of them) holding 13,000 books from the 15th – 18th centuries.

The Old Library is possibly the most beautiful room I have ever seen.  The shelves and door frames are all made of in-laid wood, and for six years a monk worked making 2,405 custom-built wooden cases for the books.  The books are written in Hebrew, Greek, Old Polish, and German and all come from the 15th -18th centuries. JasnaGora068 Roman took one down for us, a volume printed in Krakow (many were printed on the premises) on Geometry.  He donned white gloves and instructed no flash pictures.  The book was printed in 1683!  SIXTEEN-EIGHTY-THREE!!!  BTW, I had to figure this out by Roman numerals!

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“Polish Geometry”, or Geometra Polski. Note Roman numerals toward bottom. MDCLXXXIII = 1683

He just casually leafed through these ancient pages as I felt history go through me like a current.  Tables, drawings, formulas, suddenly Polish Geometry seemed like the most impressive thing ever. JasnaGora026 Each section of shelves had a title on an ornate plaque above the section.  There was a section on mathematics, one on holy scripture, etc.  One section, however, had no title.  Roman said that was the section of writings by heretics.  Heretics?  Yes, he explained, like Calvin, and Martin Luther! We signed the guest book while there and were shown earlier volumes that included signatures of Senator John F. Kennedy, brother Robert, Eunice, Jacqueline, and Ethel.  Another volume included Himmler, Hitler, and other notables.  The Nazi’s occupied this fortress for a period, and during that period the Madonna was hidden on the under-side of a table in the library.  The Germans did not bomb the monastery, and in fact did not destroy anything.  This is considered to be a miracle by the faithful.

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The ceiling frescoes alone could have taken a day!

I haven’t even mentioned the fresco paintings on the ceiling!  This alone made this an exquisite experience.  Each had a representation of a different value.  You could have spent a day in there just learning about the ceiling!

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We were hustled into a choir loft where below hundreds of people were crammed in like sardines for one of the two masses said each day in the main chapel.

We could have spent the rest of the day in that room, and Roman seemed to enjoy being in there as much as we did.  At 1:15 however, he snapped to attention and said, “We have to go!”  He hurried us out of the library, locked the doors and hustled us to what was like a choir loft over the main chapel.  Below were hundreds of people packed into the chapel like sardines.

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We would learn that this gentleman posing with Friar Roman was Thomas, our gracious host who we didn’t even know! This was a favor to our host, Radek.

We had no idea what was going on and Roman handled us on a need-to-know basis.  a few people gathered in the area where we were.  Roman instructed us to sit down and stand by.  He opened a cabinet and pulled out a trumpet!  The rest of them did too, except for the woman on the tympani drum!  They stood at the ready and at precisely 1:30 we heard church bells and the 6 of them began belting out the LOUDEST royal trumpet processional I have ever witnessed!  If you care to see it I have uploaded video on YouTube here

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This world class work of art was practically one more arched ceiling in a secondary chapel. When I say Jasna Gora is overwhelming, this is what I mean!

We were sort of stunned!  They just sort of shook hands, put their instruments back and he resumed the tour!  We were like, “What the hell was that?!?!”  He explained that the Madonna is considered the Queen of Poland and as such must receive visitors as a queen.  From there a full Catholic mass began below. Roman explained that we would go down and navigate through the crowds into the chapels.  Since we would have to go single file and not be able to talk, he told us in advance what we would see.  “Take pictures if you want, he said, but no flash”  This was a solemn service with the truly faithful and there was incredible pressure but at the same time, this was my one shot to capture some of this amazing experience.  So there are some that would object, and I might even see their point, but I took some pictures.  Americans with iPhones.

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…and suddenly there it was, the Madonna, the Queen of Poland, a mysterious painting that gets different “outfits” from time to time. It is a Byzantine work of art that has long been rumored to have been painted by St. Mark (although that is disputed).

I cannot possibly do the actual painting of the Madonna justice, so I encourage you to read a good link on the internet, or do some sort of research.  It is a truly mysterious painting and has weathered many attacks.  It is worth looking into a bit more deeply.  I just couldn’t focus on that one outsized legend along with everything else. The chapel has three main sections, one from the 18th century, one from the 17th century, and the main section from the 15th century.  FIFTEENTH CENTURY!!!  This means that while Columbus was out trying to raise venture capital for his trip to discover the new world, this chapel already existed!

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As we exited we saw the immense platform where they say a public mass each week. This is a site of pilgrimages, and in the distance people can be seen walking miles and miles to approach this holy site.

Roman told us many stories during the nearly three hours he spent with us.  The order of the fathers there is Pauline, after St. Paul.  They have several monasteries in the US, including one in Manhattan and one in my wife’s hometown of Buffalo.  He was humorous and smart; and, even political on occasion!  At one point he told us to feel comfortable in the monastery, that God loves all people, no matter whether they are Protestants, or Jews, or Muslims, and then he paused, and said, “God even loves the Communists!”  That is a heavily loaded statement even now in 2014 in Poland.

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Totus Tuus was Jean Paul II’s message to God, “I am all yours” (more of a paraphrasing actually).

I asked Roman if he had ever met Pope Jean Paul II?  “Sure!” he said, “I knew Pope Jean Paul!”  He entered the monastery at 18 and now, at 63 he had a peace with life that many will seek but never find.  My personal religion could be at best described as “questioning” but there was no questioning the pious and profound nature of this sacred place.  I left with a feeling deep in my soul that this was a special place and I today I got a taste of how this place has sustained a nation for hundreds of years. JasnaGora158 π

Snapshots of Czestachowa, Poland

We are spending a couple days in the city of Czestachowa (pronounced chesta-ho-vah).  during that time we are visiting some significant sites, and I will submit a significant posting on them.  Here, however is a quick glimpse of today.

It was a fairly low-key day, spending three hours driving from Warsaw, and getting settled in a different hotel. It is a small city, and unlike Warsaw, the streets are not crowded with walkers, sight-seeing couples, diners, drinkers, and tours.  The on-and-off rain didn’t help but we arrived at a hotel I would describe as a “country estate”.  It is very beautiful, and the accommodations are luxurious; but it is a bit isolated.

Nevertheless, we did some sight-seeing and ate a couple excellent meals!

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This is the City Hall on the main town square in Czestochowa. It was beautiful, but as you can see in the picture, there were not too many people out sightseeing.

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The gorgeous dining room at our hotel made it feel like we were outside but protected us from the elements.

I spent a lot of time today learning how to pronounce Polish words.  Our guide Radek is exceedingly patient and complimentary!  One potential problem was that I was using the names of the beer we drank to practice and so the quality of the practice gradually declined

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OK, this beer was not terribly hard to pronounce once I learned that the L with the slash through it is pronounced like “W” (of course). So this one sounds like, “Mee-Woss-wahv”

 

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This one, however, was nearly impossible! The “KsiA” part of it is pronounced like “shone” and the rest of the word sounds like “jentzia” so to order the beer depicted–and it was excellent–you must day, “shone-jentzia”!

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Czestochowa has many beautiful churches and the area appears to be more uniformly catholic than the big city.

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My sister Jane accompanied me in a light rain up a large hill to visit some ancient ruins. They were very cool!

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Tomorrow we visit the Monastery, and home of the sacred “Black Madonna”

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Warsaw – First Glance

Today was the first day of our family trip to Poland.  The trip officially began at the Newark, NJ airport.  This was a central location to the four of us and has good flight options to Poland.  There’s something exciting about beginning an adventure with everyone converging on a single location.  I traveled from Virginia, one of my sisters from Philadelphia, another from Connecticut, and my mom from New Hampshire.

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Here with my sisters Linda and Jane, and my mom Carol.

Thanks to my mother’s generosity, we flew business class on Lufthansa.  This sinfully luxurious flight began in their well-appointed lounge with a help-yourself full bar and impressive cafe.  This is where the four of us met and toasted what we all knew would be the trip of a lifetime.

The plane was so spacious that we all got nearly a full night’s sleep on the red-eye flight.  We connected in Munich and went from there to Warsaw, landing at the Chopin Airport.

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Our guide, Radek was there to greet us and drive us to a quaint hotel called the Boutique Bed & Breakfast.  I would definitely recommend this quaint and charming spot.  While it is a modest hotel, it is very well-suited to the personality of Warsaw.

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We checked in, got settled and immediately hit the streets for a guided walking tour.  Our professional tour guide was Pawel “Paul” Szczerkowski and he had the knowledge of a college history professor.  The tour he gave us was the story of Warsaw with all of its historical underpinnings.

It began with a monument that is a palm tree sculpture in the middle of “Aleje Jerozolimskie”, or Jerusalem Avenue.  It is 50 feet tall and a surprising sight in this climate.  The intention was to place this element of the Israeli landscape in the center of what was once a thriving Jewish community.

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We saw many relics of Soviet/Communist rule, including a retro favorite that has lasted beyond the communists, the “Bar Mileczny”, or Milk Bar.  These were originally inexpensive self-serve cafeterias, known for the lack of customer service that comes from a guaranteed job.  Today, however, they are still inexpensive and widely popular.

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Cafe Blikle, where Charles de Gaulle dined daily in the 1920’s

We saw a 150 year old cafe called Cafe Blikle, where a young Charles De Gaulle ate every day when he lived upstairs for a year in the 1920’s as France and Poland worked together to fight the Bolshevik war.  He was said to favor Blikle’s Polish donut, but our tour guide told us he knew a place around the corner where we could get the best donut, the pączki (pronounced something like “ponch-key”).

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This little hole in the wall served a donut I shall never forget!

We went to a small window on the street called Cukiernia Pawlowicz, and I will tell you that this was one memorable donut!  Still warm, and just really perfect in every way!

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The paczki, or Polish donut.

 

From there we walked to Plac Kopernica.  This is the entrance to the Polish Academy of Sciences with an impressive sculpture of Copernicus.  In front of the statue, laid in stone is a scale model of the solar system he discovered, that is, as far as Saturn.

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Polish Academy of Sciences, with statue of Copernicus in front.

We walked a long time and worked up both an appetite and a thirst!  It was finally time to enjoy my first pirogue in Poland!

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These went down quite well with the help of some Polish beer!  I was so thirsty I drank half of it before i remembered to take a picture!

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As we walked and learned, we were reminded repeatedly that during World War II, Warsaw was completely destroyed.  This marvelous city has been restored, and many of these magnificent buildings are less than 75 years old.  Even the “Old Town” in Warsaw is new!

The history is multi-layered and we will return to Warsaw next week but for now, enjoy a few of the better pictures I got on this beautiful day!

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The restored Warsaw “Old Town”, a column with statue of a past Swedish king, and the Royal Castle.

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Night-time view of the Presidential Palace with legendary Solidarity poster featuring Gary Cooper from his movie “High Noon”, holding a ballot.

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This picture makes me so happy! This is why I came here!

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A church that was miraculously spared during WW II.

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Entry gate to the University of Warsaw.

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Walls to old city of Warsaw

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The incredibly charming main square of Warsaw’s Old Town.

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Poland – A Family Visit

This is my great grandmother.  She was born Karolina Musial and this picture is from about the time she emigrated from Poland to the United States, around the turn of the century.  She would eventually become Karolina Weglarz and the mother of 11 children.  The oldest girl was my grandmother.

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This is how I remember her.  This woman we called “Babka” lived on a small farm where she cooked the best tasting food, raised chickens and grew lots of vegetables.  She had worked in a New Hampshire textile mill and everywhere you looked were braided rugs made from fabric remnants.  Like Babka, the rugs were warm, colorful, durable, and welcoming.  (With thanks and photo credit to my cousin Carol Powell)

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My Great Grandmother, “Babka”

Babka made Polish food and with her children–my grandmother, great aunts and uncles–she spoke Polish. My ethnic background is French Canadian, Irish, and Polish but the Polish element was, by far, the strongest cultural influence.

I have long wanted to visit Poland and see where our family comes from; and now I will!

Tomorrow I leave for Poland with my mother and my two sisters.  We will visit the major sites, Czestochowa, home of one of the most significant religious icons in the country, the Black Madonna, Krakow and Auschwitz, etc.  But we will also be visiting Polish culture and its people.

We will visit a small village where Babka’s family was from.  We do not have contacts or known living relatives there, so it’s not an effort to reconnect with distant family.  Rather, it’s a trip to reconnect with distant past.  I have an expectation that I will meet people and sense that I’ve known them before.

It will be a reconnecting trip in more ways than one.  My sisters and I all have families of our own and are spread up and down the east coast.  My mom splits her time between New England and Arizona.  The last time we went on a family vacation together was 25 years ago!

One exciting aspect is that we will have a guide throughout!  Radek is a young school teacher in Poland, off for the summer.  He is a friend of the family and has already been doing a lot of advance work making reservations and checking places out.  I have warned him that we will wear him out with questions, requests for translations, and introductions!

I am hoping to blog during the trip and at the very least will send pictures and follow them up with blog posts.

I have to offer my profound gratitude to my mother.  A year ago she heard that I wanted to visit Poland and mentioned that she did too.  She enlisted my sisters and has organized the countless details that go into such a trip, and very generously funded the trip thus far.  At a time when my sisters and I were too busy to plan more than a week ahead, Mom was sifting through guides, web pages, and corresponding with Radek to plan what appears to be the trip of a lifetime!

Thank you Mom!

So stay tuned, and prepare for a tour of Poland with the ToneMan!

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Germany – The First of Three Posts: Oktoberfest!!

A year ago three buddies and I planned a trip to Germany primarily to experience Oktoberfest.  At the beginning of this month, as the Federal government was shutting down, we arrived in Munich for a week-long trip.  It was a complete success!  We saw a lot of Munich and spent two days in the medieval village of Fuessen, 2 hours to the south.  I will write posts about all of it, but here is the first installment, Oktoberfest.

THE FESTIVAL

For two weeks each year there are two main activities, amusement park rides, and drinking beer.

The amusement park is huge, the size of an American theme park.  There were roller coasters and gut-wrenching rides everywhere you could see and it was packed with families and teens day and night.

All of the Germans I spoke with said they typically spend a couple days at the festival each year.  It was different from visiting an American theme park for a number of reasons.  For one thing, there was always this backdrop of a magnificent city.  Formed in the 1100’s, and nearly completely destroyed in World War II, Munich is amazing to see and visit and every corner we turned prompted involuntary “Wows”!

At the festival and ready to hit the beer tents!

What was it like?  We had heard that it was crowded and difficult to get into the tents and find a seat, but we had no idea how lucky we were when we walked into the first tent we saw and immediately found four seats.

Once we got to our table we met what would essentially be our family for the night.  two young British doctors, a couple German women our age, two Swiss brothers, a British father and his 23-year-old daughter, and assorted Germans.  They were the friendliest group of people you could meet!  We learned the words to German drinking songs, learned the subtle rules for toasting–be sure and make eye contact–and sang backup for a number of songs in English including the odd Oktoberfest favorite of “Take me Home Country Roads”!

There’s something about the spirit of thousands of people sharing a common euphoria, all in a happy party.  While we saw the occasional “beer corpse”, and a few folks being escorted out, it appeared to be because they had simply stayed a liter too long.  We never saw any fights, nobody threw up, and in general people were just happy to be there.

It was indeed crowded.  Everywhere, the amusement rides, the beer tents, even the outdoor beer gardens in what was chilly weather were packed from morning till night!

THE BEER TENTS

There are 14 major tents.  There are some smaller ones too.  There is, for example, a wine tent. a family tent, etc.  The big names are Lowenbrau, Hoffbrau, Spaten, and Augustiner.  Each appears on the surface to be more or less the same, but as you walk through them, and certainly when you sit down and spend some time at them, subtle differences emerge.

This is a beer tent! More like a field house or airplane hangar! This one is the Spaten Ochsenbraterai Tent

They call them beer tents, but “tent” does not exactly translate!  Yes, light shines through the roof during the day but they were buildings the size of airplane hangars and held  thousands of people!

The Lowenbrau Tent with the symbol of Bavaria, the lion.

We had heard, for example, that the tent called the Hippodrom was the trendy spot where one was most likely to spot celebrities, and was, in general, the place to be.

What we found at the Hippodrom was a staid, snobby atmosphere where handlers in suits and wearing ear pieces sized you up when you entered and shepherded you away from the “preferred” areas!  Not our favorite tent!

The trendy and exclusive Hippodrom, like each of the tents had its own unique look and feel.

The tent that ended up being our favorite happened to be the one we walked into first.  It was run by Spaten and is called the Ochsenbraterai, which is German for “Ox on a Spit”.  They actually had a steer on a spit!

 

We would eventually at least walk in and check out each of the tents, and I think we drank beer in 5 of them.  Many Germans told us to be sure and check out the Augustiner tent which seemed to be the universal favorite of the Germans and all claimed it serves the best beer.

The Augustiner is a favorite among the Germans who claim it serves the best beer.

Hoffbrau is perhaps the most famous, and thus often where you encounter the most tourists.  We spent an evening in the Hoffbrau tent and found it to be wild and rowdy and crowded almost to the point of feeling claustrophobic.  It was, however, very fun!  Fischer was all modeled on the sea and on fishing.  The bandstand was shaped like the prow of a ship and they served a smoked barbecued fish.  The problem I had was that the entire place smelled like fish and I’m not sure how long you’d have to sit there to get used to it but I was not there that long.

All of the tents were packed to capacity at all hours. If you don’t like crowds, this is not the place to be; but, if you like to be in the center of the action, here it was!

THE BEER

According to the Germans, the best beer at Oktoberfest is the Augustiner. We had lunch one day at the Augustiner tent and found it filled mostly with Germans and the beer was indeed very good!

Each tent offered a menu of beers but practically speaking, the wilder and more raucous tents (i.e., the ones we sought out) served only the standard Oktoberfest beer.  This was a crisp delicious golden lager with subtle flavor differences from tent to tent.

The first round!

It is served in 1-liter mugs!  Throughout the festival you had to remind yourself that this was a marathon, not a sprint!  A liter of beer tended to last a long time which was fine since we spent hours at this table!

One of the more iconic images of Oktoberfest is the waitress who can carry 4 or more liters of beer in each hand!  At one point I went and got two beers for our group and promptly lost my group.  Walking around looking for them with one liter of beer in each hand I had to stop and put them down for a minute because they are really heavy!  I have a very healthy respect for the arm and shoulder muscles of these servers.

THE FOOD

We had been prepared for the food to be exclusively heavy, fatty, and more or less unhealthy.  There was indeed plenty of that, but in an environment where one drinks beer all day, a large delicious pretzel every few hours turned out to be a vital element!  Besides, concern about carbs went out the window with the first liter mug of beer!

That’s right, rotisserie steer! Ochsenbraterai is german for “Ox on a spit”.

The Ochsenbraterai tent traditionally features an ox on a spit and it is possible to go up and order different cuts off it.  We tried one of the classic beef dishes and it was fine but a tip we all read before going turned out the be the most useful.

Oktoberfest featured some of the best rotisserie chicken I have ever had. (and I live in Arlington VA, walking distance from the legendary Pollo Rico!)

The tip we read said that while there are extensive menus at each tent, the size of the crowd makes it difficult to place different orders and the recommendation was, “Just order the damn chicken”!  That turned out to be some of the most delicious rotisserie chicken I have ever had.  That, by the way, is a big statement because I live within walking distance to a legendary Peruvian chicken place called El Pollo Rico in Arlington, VA.  The German chicken was crispy and seasoned on the outside and tender and moist on the inside.  An order was a half chicken which again, was useful to counter all the beer.

Most dishes also came with sauerkraut and this was something of an epiphany for me.  I had no idea how delicious sauerkraut could be because the canned product we get in the US on Rubens and hot dogs has a sharp acidic bite and bears little resemblance to the Germans’ fresh cabbage with a well-developed sour flavor.  I have already begun what is a six-week process of making a batch of sauerkraut from scratch and will post that in the future!

THE PEOPLE

What a fun bunch of people!  It was a very international crowd.  At points we sat with people from England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, and many other countries.  We also were surprised to meet very few Americans there.

Standing on the table at Oktoberfest is strictly verboten. Standing on the bench, however, is almost required!

The crowd was, however, overwhelmingly German and what a fun bunch of people they are!  In the recent decade the trend of wearing traditional dress had grown and most of the men wore lederhosen and the women wore traditional dirndls.  If you’re not familiar with the dirndl, think sexy Snow White!

The traditional dress made it seem like we were in a Disney movie!

Everyone in Germany speaks English.  The one person I met who did not speak English spoke Italian, French, and German!  When I commented that in America everyone studies a foreign language but nobody can speak it they said, “Well you don’t have to!”  In Germany one has to speak English to get jobs like waiter, store clerk, etc.  It’s simply required.

Michael’s hat was a favorite target of our new friends!

At every tent and every table they were engaging and interested in the United States.  They all knew about the shutdown of the federal government and many seemed to know more about the Affordable Healthcare Act than most Americans!

I really expected people we met to identify with a wide diversity of personalities when we told them we were from the US.  I thought sure we’d hear, “Oh, Michael Jordan!” or “Oh, Miley Cyrus”, but nearly every German who heard that we were Americans would point at us and say, “Obama!”

Most had very strong and well-informed opinions about American government and politics.

Did we have a good time? Indeed we did!

THE NEXT POST

After a couple days at Oktoberfest we spent a day getting a walking tour of Munich, then headed a couple hours south to a medieval walled city called Fuessen.  Those parts of the trip were equally amazing including a German monastery that made its own beer.  Coming soon I will post about those and share some incredible pictures!

Ein prosit,

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Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 3 of 3

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The Remainder of the Trip

Day 5 of 6 saw the absolute highlight of the trip, and was leading up to our last night in the woods. We got up and struck camp as quickly as possible.  We had both developed an unconscious twitching and moving around as a way to ward off the mosquitoes.  We had once again recovered more than expected from a rather poor night’s sleep on the ground.  Our first three miles went by in an hour and 45 minutes which was pretty good time considering that included a mountain.

By 11:00 we had hiked 6 miles and hit Falls Village, a quaint little hamlet on the Housatonic.  We decided to stop and eat lunch at a cafe.  The Toymaker Cafe is a rather charming little cafe that is very popular with motorcyclists.  Because it’s on the trail they also get a lot of hikers, so when we walked in smelling like hoboes they didn’t even flinch.  It was air-conditioned and so comfortable, but it was also nice outside so we opted for the front porch so as not to offend other diners.  A hamburger and an ice cold coke later we felt pretty refreshed, but the best was yet to come!

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The Toymaker Cafe, Falls Village, CT

We left the cafe and hiked through this small village.  Everyone we passed stopped to talk to us.  By now we looked dirty and tired enough that a few even asked us if we were through-hikers!

Along the banks of the river was a power plant and part of that campus was a small brick building covered in ivy.  We saw a few hikers resting in the shade of a tree and they yelled out to us that on the side of this ivy-covered building was an outdoor shower!!!  I cannot think of anything that would have been a more welcome sight!  There was a spigot below the shower and two outdoor outlets around the corner.  It was all on a beautiful, bug-free lawn that went from the road all the way down to the river.

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If you look closely at the ivy-covered building on the left you can see the shower head sticking out. It was on a beautiful lawn that went down to the river.

We were overjoyed.  We had plenty of time and only 4 more miles to go for the day.  We stopped and spread out our tarps and proceeded to wash our clothes and our bodies, fill up our water bottles, charge our phones and relax in the shade, listening to music.  It was heaven!

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We dried our clothes, rested in the shade, and enjoyed a mosquito-free grassy spot for a couple hours. Someone at this power company or in this town is a friend to hikers and I hope they know what an idyllic oasis they created!

A couple hours later we were back on the trail and had only four miles to go.  Once again we climbed up a mountain but we were now fortified with a big hamburger and a couple really enjoyable hours, and clean clothes!

There was, however, one last unpleasant surprise and that was our final campsite.  At 10 miles for the day, right where we expected the campsite, there was a sign that said the campsite was a half mile off the trail.  OK, not the best news but not the worst.  We were in a dry pine forest, high on the mountain and relatively free from bugs.

Then we hiked down.  We went down and down and down into a ravine.  It was a cliff-like set of rock steps requiring slow careful going as a steep mountain brook poured down the mountain beside us.  As we descended we could feel the air getting moister and cooler and we could hear the mosquitoes buzzing around our ears.

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The beginning of the path down to the campsite should have been all the warning we needed…

We couldn’t believe we had to not only spend another night with blood-thirsty territorial mosquitoes but that in the morning we would have to climb out of this malarial ravine!

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…but we forged on and had to descend a half mile of this!

Needless to say, we did not become fans of the Limestone Spring Shelter!  We were the only two campers dumb enough to go all the way down there that day but as we read the log book in the shelter, everyone who previously stayed there was bitter about the climb down and the mud and some got stranded an extra day when it started to rain and became too difficult to climb out!

We set up camp and got dinner started.  I was now wearing a fleece and my buff over my head and neck to ward off mosquitoes.  The fleece had me sweating inside it but my choices were sweaty or eaten.

Our final night’s dinner was a good one.  Brown rice with Pad Thai sauce topped with tuna and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.  We were so hungry that we quickly put away enough food to feed a family of four!  We had packed enough for 6 nights and now realized this 5th night would be our last.  There were a couple important implications to this.  The first was that there would be one extra homemade granola bar tomorrow for each of us.  These were not only delicious but offered a lot of energy.

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It may not look appetizing but our “last supper” of Brown Rice Pad Thai with Tuna and Fresh Lime was a delicious way to end our penultimate day on the trail!

The second and more immediate implication was that we had two night’s worth of bourbon to finish off!  This night we each had two drams of the fine Woodford Reserve that Brendan had lugged  across the state of Connecticut!

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This malarial hell-hole, the Limestone Spring Shelter would be the site of our last night on the trail.

For the last time we got the food put away, and settled in to rest for what would be our last day on the trail.

Both of us slept the best we had all week and we would learn that it was more a factor of cumulative fatigue rather than becoming accustomed to sleeping in the woods.  The dreaded climb out of the ravine was not so bad because we had a full night’s rest; and, for me, short and steep beats long and gradual.  At the top we filled our water bottles (an additional 5 pounds each) and got on our way.  We would have to do 12 miles to make it to the Massachusetts state line.

I had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the state line at 4pm and drive us to our car.  Before we got there however, we would have to climb Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest peak.

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With three miles down and 9 to go, we stopped at a beautiful spot called Billy’s View. In the distant left you can see Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest peak. Our endpoint was at the foot of that mountain…on the far side.

We hiked for what seemed an endless climb.  Again we went up for so long that we had to stop and let our heart rates recover.  We drank and refilled our water at every stream and did nothing all day but climb.  At one point we had sat down on the ground to rest and a couple of day hikers came along.  We must have looked pretty rough because they produced two Granny Smith apples from their pack and insisted we eat them.  For the rest of my life I will remember that apple.  It gave me just enough energy to push on when I thought I was done.

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Cumulative fatigue had caused us to be near the point of exhaustion. We looked so rough that day hikers took pity on us and gave us their fruit!

As we reached the base of Bear Mountain, the temperature had pushed past 90° and it turns out that Bear Mountain is a giant rock!  Now we had to watch out for snakes sunning themselves on the rock while heat radiated off the ground like a griddle.  In the distance, thunder rumbled threatening a storm that would make a difficult day into an impossible one.

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We were near the top but the temp was over 90 and thunder was rumbling in the distance.

I am pretty sure we were plodding at a pace that one might use to melodramatically imitate someone stranded in the desert without water.  I finally resorted to pouring some of my precious water on my buff and putting it around my neck to try and cool down.

We reached the top and there was a massive rock structure with a plaque denoting the highest point in the state.  We could barely be excited because we had nothing left.  Our energy, our hydration, and our love of adventure had deserted us.

I knew we were near exhaustion when two cute college-aged women in gym shorts and jogging bras hiked by and asked us how we were doing and all we could say was, “Do you have any fruit?”

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This rock structure at the top of Bear Mountain includes an engraved stone designating it the highest point in the state of Connecticut.

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And this is the view into Massachusetts from the highest point in CT.

Once again, day hikers saved us, this time with an apple and a peach!  We ate the fruit, took a couple pictures, and looked at each other and said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”

As anticipated, we had a precipitous descent.  What had taken the last 4 miles to get up would go all the way down in just a half mile.  It felt almost vertical as we slowly picked our way down the steep rocky backslope of the mountain.  My legs had nothing left and had it not been for my hiking poles I’m pretty sure I would have fallen and broken bones.

We reached the state line and there was our ride.  We were done; it was 4:15 and were were just a little late.  We had gone 60 miles in 6 days and hiked the entire Connecticut portion of the Appalachian Trail.  We were so happy to see the guy who was going to drive us to the lot where Brendan had left his car.

We got in and he said he had to make a pickup on the way about 8 miles up the road.  When we got to the spot, who was waiting for us, but Magua!  He was doing a third night with this guy and had hiked 35 miles in the last two days with no pack and a good night’s sleep and shower at the Bunk & Dine!

A few minutes later we were safely in Brendan’s car, AC on, boots off, and a large order of McDonald’s fries in my hand.  We were so tired we could barely even be excited about it but we were headed to Brendan’s place in Springfield, MA for a shower, a clean bed, and a cold beer.

And then the skies darkened and a sudden violent storm descended on us.  We probably got an inch of rain in the following 40 minutes and the thunder and lightning had a biblical feel to it.  Somehow we had enjoyed 6 straight days of no rain–not a single drop–and just missed what could have been a disastrous end to the trip.  Filthy and exhausted, we still had one more lesson to learn from the trail–things can always be worse!

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Moments after finishing the skies opened up and a sudden violent storm dumped an inch of rain on us! Talk about cutting it close!

Thoughts on The Trip

Since this post is so long I have decided to write a 4th post with my thoughts and lessons learned about section hiking the Appalachian Trail.  While it was very physically demanding and pretty far outside my comfort zone, I’m still glad I did it.

I learned a lot on the trail and met some great people.  So look for one last posting on this trip, perhaps I’ll call it “Part 4 of 3”, or “Epilogue” or something!

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Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 2 of 3

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The Hike

On the Appalachian Trail everyone takes a trail name. For the thru-hikers this becomes an identity that grows as they make their northward progress from Georgia to Maine. My trail name is “Dirty Rice” and Brendan went by the name “Wet Whistle”.

Day 2 was a long but good hike. We did 10 miles that day and it included a number of highlights such as the spot where the Ten Mile River meets the Housatonic. After crossing small streams all day to see an actual river with mad rushing currents was exciting!

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After crossing small creeks all day, this was a major river with swift angry currents!

Along the way we stopped at a shelter for a lunch break. Ten Mile Shelter was a pleasant spot in a small meadow and there we met Wolf Shadow and Crazy Legs. They had been hiking from Georgia since the end of January! They had seen a lot of winter hiking and were taking their time (most thru-hikers begin in late March) and were stopping in small towns and keeping reasonable mileage goals each day.

This was contrasted by Jericho who passed us on the trail like a sports car. He started on March 31st and was roaring past us in an effort to clear Connecticut in two days…a goal for which we set aside 6 days! All of the through-hikers had a certain profile. They travel extremely light, many wearing light footwear such as sandals, and they hike very fast. If you saw the picture in the previous post you know that Brendan and I could have stood to skip a meal here and there but these guys were lean and wiry, every last one of them. Consequently, nobody was asking us if we were up from Georgia!

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The CT portion of the AT has some unique features. For example we entered the only Indian Reservation through which the AT passes. The Schaghticoke Indian Reservation was a rugged mountain area that we entered right after crossing Ten Mile River. They own about 400 acres. It was a long steep climb that required frequent breaks for water and a bite of something. It seemed like it would never stop going up and just as you thought you were cresting the summit you would find that it was a “false summit” and there was plenty more beyond that!

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Long hard climbs were always rewarded with fantastic overlooks!

It turned out the climb was up the Schaghticoke Mountain and we made it to a locally famous spot called Indian Rock. Now we knew it was just a short trip down the hill a bit to our campsite. The Schaghticoke Mountain Campsite was a charming little spot in the woods with a loud babbling brook running by, no serious mosquitoes, and no other campers. We had the place to ourselves.

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This icy cold mountain spring was the best therapy my feet could have received!

The first thing we did was get our shoes and socks off and soak our aching feet in the icy cold stream! It was therapeutic and I think my foot size returned to the normal size!

We got dinner going. As we hiked that day, we began discussing dinner early on. The decision was curried lentils with chicken. This would turn out to be the best meal of the week in my opinion. I cut up a scallion, a chili pepper, and a clove of garlic and sautéed them in oil before adding the lentils and the sauce mix. To that I added water and simmered while we bathed in the stream and washed our clothes. The foil pouch of chicken was already cooked and got added at the very end.

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Madras curried lentils with chicken – our best meal of the week!

Refreshed, somewhat clean, and starving we feasted on those lentils like it was the first time we’d eaten in weeks! They were spicy and lively on the palate and made for such a bright spot in what had been a long day of hiking!

Brendan had brought along a small flask of Woodford Reserve Bourbon and that night we began the evening ritual of a “thimble” of bourbon while dinner was cooking. It seemed so civilized to be enjoying some semblance of cocktail hour out here in the woods!

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This noisy brook near our campsite would drown out all the other noises in the woods. Turns out white noise in the woods is good for a night’s sleep!

The hike had been long but good. No blisters, no real problems other than sore feet, and we would be ready to do another 10 miles tomorrow.

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Food hung out of bears’ reach, laundry drying on the line, today had been a good day and we were waiting for the sun to go down so we could go to bed!

We awoke the next day having slept a little better than the night before. This would be the case each night. We were excited for the day because Connecticut hosts the longest level stretch of the entire 2100 miles of Appalachian Trail, 4 miles along the Housatonic River and our day would end in the middle of it. So the day would end with 2 level miles and the next day would begin with 2 level miles. Looking at the elevation on the map it looked so beautiful!

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We were excited that the day would end (and the next one begin) on this long level stretch of trail. Our campsite was the Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-To, roughly in the mid-point.

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But first we had to hike some mountains! We started at the Schaghticoke Mountain Campsite (mile marker 8.5 on this map) and had to go to Stewart Hollow Brook, mile marker 18.5.

We set out and immediately tackled Mt. Algo. I was again surprised at how well a night’s sleep can restore the body. We were nervous because we had greatly underestimated how much bug spray we would need and already we were out! We considered a trip into Kent to get more but it was .8 miles away for a round trip of 1.6 miles and we decided to forgo those extra miles.

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St. John’s Ledges offered the standard reward for hours of climbing, a gorgeous overlook…

In the afternoon we again hiked upward for what seemed an endless amount of time. Several times I had to stop and rest just to get my heart rate down. It’s easy to say just drink lots of water but I’m pretty sure I was sweating it out quicker than I could drink it in. The mountain portion of the day ended with a truly wicked descent. It was so steep and rocky that volunteers and some professional trail builders have built a series of 95 steps down this mountain. These are not steps in the sense of a stairway, they are rocks that allow the hiker to go from one to another. Brendan bounded down these like a big family dog just happy to have the challenge and once again I was quaking and fatigued as I carefully picked my way down this precipice.

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This was the sort of “steps” we had to descend…90 of them! This was a knee-jamming–and in my case–heart pounding half an hour!

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…but this was the alternative!

At last we reached the flat stretch of gentle path that went along the banks of the Housatonic. It was so pleasant that we felt we were practically sprinting! (We were not!)

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At the 8 mile mark for the day we finally got to enjoy a long gentle level path along the bank of the Housatonic River.

We got to the Stewart Hollow Lean-To and discovered that a group of locals had staked out the shelter and appeared to be settling in for a night of partying. They cannot have come from too far away because they had a case of beer and several large bottles of liquor. All I could think was how heavy that beer would be to carry!

We opted for tents in the campsite and probably would have done that anyway due to the bugs. We began our routine, set up tents, get dinner started, get water from the brook, clean up, get organized, enjoy a quick bourbon toast and eat.

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Barley Chili with beef jerky, Pecorino cheese, served over white rice.

Dinner that night was Barley Chili. We served it with some beef jerky, chili peppers, and Pecorino cheese over white rice and for the first and only time almost couldn’t finish all the food! By the way, here’s a tip. When you feast on Barley Chili for dinner, you want to be in the front on the next day’s hike!

Magua

As we were preparing dinner, another hiker joined us and asked if we minded him setting up in our campsite. He too recognized the makings of an all-nighter back at the shelter and needed a good night’s sleep. He introduced himself by his trail name “Magua”.

Magua is the villain in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. In books and movies he is portrayed as fierce, intimidating, and cold. This guy looked and sounded like a 6’6″ Ray Romano! We chatted a bit and traded tales of the day, discussed how far we would go the next day and talked about food. He was doing a much larger section hike than us, starting at the Delaware/New Jersey line and trying to make it to New Hampshire. He was a school teacher and school had just let out. He had one month and was making the most of it.

We had no idea that our path would cross Magua’s numerous times and we grew to love this guy, actually brightening when one of us would hear the other yell out, “Holy shit I think that’s Magua!”

The next day Magua was up and out earlier than us. We had a routine and we usually left camp around 8:00. The day began with a nice 2 miles of level hiking but that quickly ended. The climb was once again brutal. It was compounded by the fact that the 10 mile mark for the day was a shelter called “Pine Swamp Shelter” and surprise surprise, the mosquitoes were rumored to be legendary. Thus, we decided in the morning to hike 12 miles instead of 10 to get past that.

At Cornwall Bridge we decided to hike the half mile into town to a gas station and get some bug spray. As we approached the gas station, there was Magua! He asked if he could hike with us for the afternoon and we gladly accepted. The addition of a third person helped make the time go by as we asked questions and learned about each other.

My neighbor in Arlington, VA told me of his wife’s cousin who owned a liquor store in Cornwall Bridge and would give us a couple of free beers. I thought this was a privileged hook-up trading on a family connection but it turns out the Cornwall Package Store offers a free beer to all hikers!

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Magua and Wet Whistle. Although tall, I must point out that in this picture Magua is standing on a step, lest you think that Wet Whistle is 4’11”

It was 11:00 am and a beer was the last thing we needed so we decided on Gatorade instead of the beer and that remains one of the best decisions I have ever made. I wish I’d filled my water bottles with it because it really restored me (along with a Snickers Ice Cream bar!).

The gas station where we bought the Gatorade was out of bug spray; but, it was here that we experienced our first “trail magic”. A guy pulled up with a small fishing boat on a trailer and we asked him if there was anywhere we could walk to buy bug spray and he said no, the closest place was more than a couple miles away. Then he dug through his tackle box in the boat and threw us his bottle of bug spray! The kindness of strangers.

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Despite the physical challenges, the hike covered some really beautiful territory such as this old farm field and stone silo.

As we hiked, Magua told us that he was availing himself of a place known as a “Bunk & Dine”. The only one of its kind, this place would pick up hikers from the trail, and for $50, give them dinner, a shower, laundry, a bed, breakfast and then return them to the trail. I thought this sounded pretty good, but on a six day trip seemed a little unnecessary. Magua would, in fact, avail himself of three nights of their service, each day going out without his pack and hiking 17 miles!

Many of the through-hikers look down on that with the derisive name, “slack-packing” but we spent the night in a mosquito-infested camp and the next day Magua overtook us on the trail looking fresh and vigorous!

After bidding Magua farewell to be picked up for his luxurious evening, we hiked on, making it to the 10 mile mark, the Pine Swamp Shelter. This is a rare highland swamp, fed by the glacial waters of the Housatonic Highlands, hundreds of feet above see level. We stopped there for a break and met a volunteer with the Appalachian Mountain Club called a Ridge Runner.

Leanne Holland is a graduate student working on her PhD at Columbia but in the summer lives on the trail and swings an ax to clear away windblown trees. She was also an ambassador of the trail. We had hardly seen a female for four days and here was this capable, intelligent and adorable trail angel just chatting with hikers and making sure everyone was having a good time!

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Ridge Runner Leanne Holland with Brendan (“Wet Whistle”). She was out there clearing away blown down trees and making sure everyone was enjoying the trail. Leanne was an unexpected bright spot in a long difficult day!

She warned us of Timber Rattlers on an upcoming rocky outcrop and cautioned that the bugs at our site 2 miles up the trail would be no better for mosquitoes than the Pine Swamp. Nevertheless, we were committed to that 12 mile day.

We pulled into the Sharon Mountain Campsite around 6:30. We were not rushed but we did have to get our routine going before the sun went down. The bugs were indeed so fierce I had to resort to wearing my buff over my head and neck to ward them off.

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On this night the bugs were so thick and aggressive that we had to eat dinner in Brendan’s tent, which accommodated two people.

Dinner that night was Red Quinoa cooked in Fajita seasoning and topped with Albacore tuna and lemon juice. Quinoa is a fantastic food and quite restorative. It is a great source of protein, long-term carbs, and it has a great texture.

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The bugs were so aggressive that protection from them trumped looking ridiculous!

We ate, prepared for the next day, and watched a beautiful sunset before diving into the safety of our bug-proof tents.

From our respective tents, we talked about our schedule and decided that we needed to reach the Massachusetts state line by Monday night because we could only take one more night of this malarial environment. It was easy enough to do, 10 miles Sunday and 12 miles Monday. That’s when it hit me, it was Saturday night, the second longest day of the year, and I was lying in a tomb-sized tent zipped off from the bugs waiting for the sun to go down so I could go to sleep, sore, and filthy. Yeah, two more days would be enough!

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Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 1 of 3

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Background

Last week I completed a 60 mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I hiked this year with my cousin Brendan who read of my adventure last year and said he’d love to do one with me.  Brendan lives in Springfield, MA and when we considered logistics of getting there, we decided we would hike the Connecticut portion of the AT.  The Appalachian Trail in Connecticut covers just over 50 miles and is surprisingly mountainous!  They may not go as high as the mountains in NH, or in VA, but you are constantly aware of either climbing or descending!


Brendan positioned his car in a trail parking lot in Massachusetts and got a ride (thank you Andie, his mom and my aunt) to Pawling, NY.  I took a train from Washington, DC to Pawling and met him.  We set out from there, doing about 7 miles in NY before hitting the CT state line.

Food

We had conferred in the days before the hike, using FaceTime to compare gear and food.  I loved the irony of using a leading edge technology like video conferencing to prepare for the ancient activity of walking in the woods!

The food we chose had to be lightweight, but nutritious and flavorful.  I went with grains, brown rice, quinoa, fortified pasta, lentils, and barley.  For flavorings I chose lightweight items that would have high flavor impact.  Powdered sauces, chili peppers, garlic, soy sauce, etc.  For protein I packed foil pouches of tuna, salmon, and chicken.  These would be our dinners.

Lunches and snacks would be quick and easy carb-driven items such as peanut butter and crackers, pretzels, trail mix, and sports bars.

For breakfast my neighbor and friend Miriam once again made her homemade granola bars.  These bars would sustain us for the first 1-2 hours in the morning.  They were hearty, easy to eat, and delicious!  We would begin each day with one of these bars and a cup of Starbuck’s instant coffee.  After sleeping on the ground and trying to recover from the previous day’s hike, that strong, hot cup of coffee had amazing powers!

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Dinner would be grains, fortified pasta (Barilla Plus), brown rice, quinoa, lentils, and barley.

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Powdered sauces would make the grains more interesting without adding weight. We would also carry small containers of salt and pepper, lemon juice, soy sauce, and olive oil.

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Additional protein would come from foil pouches of tuna, salmon, and chicken.

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A few non-perishable and lightweight items with high flavor impact would also make for more interesting meals.

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Lunches and snacks would be primarily carbohydrates!

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Just because we were living in the woods did not mean we had to live like barbarians! Each day began with a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

The Train

The day began on my front lawn in Arlington, VA in what for years has been the site of “first-day-of-school” pictures.  My son gave me a ride to Union Station where I got a train to New York.  In New York I had to get from Amtrak to Metro North, which meant getting from Penn Station to Grand Central Station.  It was a beautiful day, I had time, and it was only 10 blocks so I decided to walk.  I know that nothing in New York seems unusual, least of all a backpacker; but, I felt so out-of-place, waiting at an intersection to cross the street with 100 other people with everything I owned on my back!

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Day of departure, Arlington, VA.

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An urban hike in New York City to get from Penn Station to Grand Central Station.

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Grand Central Station, the iconic measure of a busy place,

Metro North Railroad runs right up Manhattan through Harlem and into the I-684 corridor of New York.  Stops like Brewster, Katonah, and Pawling were previously only exits on the highway to me.  Now I was seeing these cute New York suburbs and thinking another time I’d like to visit some of them.  Finally I arrived at Pawling and Brendan and Andie were there to meet me.

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Our departure point for the Appalachian Trail.

We filled up our water bottles at a local pizza shop, drove a short distance to the trail, took a few pictures and we were off.  My aunt watched us walk off into the woods to emerge six days later in Massachusetts.

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With the trail names “Dirty Rice” and “Wet Whistle”, we were off!

Day 1

The hike began pleasantly enough walking through open fields before entering the Pawling Nature Preserve, a 1,000 acre wooded mountainous area on the CT-NY border.  The trail was a bit washed out due to the previous week of rain.  When we hit particularly muddy spots we would do our best to walk around it but sometimes thick vegetation prevented that.  We had all the excitement of the first day and had not seen each other in a while so this first few miles were underscored with excitement and anticipation.

The Pawling Nature Preserve is a wonderful 1,000 acre wood that offered a cool and remote get-away with only occasional reminders of civilization such as the occasional train whistle in the distance.

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The beginning of the hike went through an open field headed for the Pawling nature Preserve in the background. Once in there we would only rarely leave the woods.

That day we only did about 6 miles, having started late in the day due to travel.  We made it to the first AT shelter, the Wiley Shelter.  The shelter is a 3 sided structure that offers good protection from rain but is otherwise exposed.  There was a nice big fireplace in front of it and a water source, picnic table, and privy nearby.  We set up camp, deciding to sleep in the shelter that night.  It would turn out that this would be our only night in a shelter because fierce mosquitoes made it impossible elsewhere.

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Wiley Shelter, site of our first night’s lodging.

We replenished our water and almost made a mistake that would have ruined the rest of the trip.  The nearby stream was fed by a mountain spring and to one side was a large pump like you might see over a well.  My first instinct was that this would be clean ground-water or well water and it would not require purification.  Fortunately Brendan spotted a sign that mentioned Coliform bacteria and the need to purify all water!

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Pump or stream, all water had to be purified!

Dinner that night was pasta in a Balsamic Red Wine Sauce with bits of dried sausage, and shreds of Pecorino Romano cheese.  As good as it sounds it was all made in a small pot on a camp stove but it was delicious!

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This pot and stove would be the kitchen set-up for the next week.

...and it would produce great meals like this on on our first night.  This was pasta in a red wine (powdered) sauce with dried sasuage, and Pecorino cheese.

…and it would produce great meals like this on on our first night. This was pasta in a red wine (powdered) sauce with dried sausage, and Pecorino cheese.

The first night was not a restful night of restorative sleep.  The shelter takes a little getting used to.  Spiders were unusually large, there is a lot of noise out there in the woods, and my sleep pad was not a great barrier between my hip bones and the hard floor of the shelter.  This would get better as we went on, partly due to getting used to it and partly due to cumulative fatigue.

The next day we would hike 10 miles including some fairly large mountains.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this great AT section hike!

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