Friday, April 27, 2007
Should you want to learn Mandarin Chinese before you go, visit chinesepod.com, which offers free lessons or you can sign up to receive more in-depth lesson plans for a small cost. I like their daily free lessons, which can be downloaded to your MP3 player for convenience.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Southwest of Chur, on the banks of the Rhine River, there is a charming village by the name of Tamins, home to the Schlosshotel Adler Hotel and Restaurant (+41 (0)81 641 10 44), hosted by Andreas and Monika Stump; and the Schloss Reichenau winery (+ 41 (81) 641-11-95).
A Brief Bit of Info About Swiss Wines
Every wine affiando dreams of the opportunity to sit down with a fine winemaker in their private cellar, enjoying a private degustation. It has certainly long been a daydream of mine – and I was about to have it fulfilled.
When asked to identify major wine regions around the world, it’s unlikely that many people would mention Switzerland. However, it should be known that Switzerland is rich with vineyards, especially in the southern Ticino canton, the southwestern Valais region, and in the eastern part of the country.
Wine production in some of these regions stretches back across 2,000 years of history - these areas, warmed by the föhn winds, are surprisingly suitable for wine growing, even at elevations of over 1,000 meters. The Bündner Herrschaft along the Rhine River, in the northeast area of Graubünden, is one such area, where some vineyards rise at 70º angles into the Swiss sunshine. In the Valais region alone, there are more than 65 varieties of grapes grown under the care of some 20,000 vintners. And in some areas, such as around the nearby town of Malans, small vineyards preserve antique varietals, such as completer.
The Castle and the Wine
Nearby Chur has its vineyards surrounding much of the old city. “Schloss” means “castle” in German, so I was expecting to see a large stone fortress. However, not all Swiss castles fufill the “castle” image that we tend to imagine, a la the Bellinzona castles. The Schloss Reichneau in Tamins, just a few minutes southwest of Chur, is a large white and red fortress of a building that is a couple hundred years old, with the winery operating out of the cellars. In late October, this area was very peaceful and quiet, the bright colors of autumn creating a brilliant backdrop to the white of the hotel and castle. Quiet country lanes wind through the valley, inviting you to stay and meander a while like the river below.
The robust owner of Schloss Reichenau, Gian Battista von Tscharner, met us at the door of his castle, and showed us down to the cellars. He explained that he produced 16 wines from 4 vineyards spread through the local region, with his vineyards only consisting of a handful of hectares. In a good year, he will produce 35,000-40,000 bottles of wine (approximately 3,400 cases or less) – quite modest, if compared to the likes of Napa Valley winemakers.
Like most Swiss winemakers, he stresses quality over quantity. When asked why it is unusual to find Swiss wines abroad, he explained that most Swiss winemakers are more concerned about meeting local demand, and producing the best wines they can, versus trying to build brand recognition overseas.
In one side hall of the cellar, there is a long, high set of shelves, filled with bottles of various ages. Here are samples of his own wines, stretching back over the past thirty years. His tasting room is to the side, cluttered with ancient barrels and what were clearly very old wine bottles. Those bottles included some from his father’s earliest years of production, he told us. After telling us to have a seat, he came back a few minutes later carrying a wide selection of whites and reds.
We began with the “Goldrush” sauvignon blanc ’04, a fresh, light, fruity young wine. From there we moved onto an ’03 pinot blanc/chardonnay blend. He explained to us that the first mutation of the pinot noir grape resulted in the pinot gris grape, and that the second mutation produced what we now call pinot blanc. Sampling the three wines in a row gave a sense of the difference in depth and maturity between the wines. Pinot gris, like its Australian cousin, Semillon, can be cellared for up to 20 years. To compare what a few years could do for a pinot gris, we sampled a ’89 pinot gris, which was a rich golden color and tasted like toasted marshmallows, pineapple and citrus.
Regulations decree that vineyards should produce no more than 900 g/m². For some regions of the world, vineyards are allowed to produce up to 1.1 kg/m² - you can certainly taste the difference in the grape that a mere 200 g difference can make, because a smaller yield will produce more concentrated, more intense flavors. Due to the topography of Swiss vineyards, they are generally hand-harvested and controlled.
Next, we had the Gewürztraminer ’04, another young wine with flavors of peach and pear, before sampling the Jeninser completer ’99, which had nice undertones of walnut. I love white wines, and I was already very impressed with his vintages, but he had more to share!
Gian started us off on his reds with his Felsberger Blaubrugunder “Hoharai” ’03, a red rich with flavors of dark chocolate and walnuts. Next we tried his lucious “Z’blau Wunder” ’03 – “The Blue Wonder.” This dry, peppery red consists of 55% pinor noir and 45% dioli noir; the bottle even looks blue.
Next was his Jeninser Blauburgunder “Mariafeld” ’02 pinot noir, a smoky, dark berry red that exploded with taste on the tongue. Next-to-last was his Jean-Baptiste pinot noir, an award-winning wonderful rich red that had spent 24 months in small barrels; it had a smoky flavor reminiscent of mushrooms, berries and currant.
Last, but certainly far from least, he brought out a special late-harvest pinot gris which had been harvested on December 17, 1999 – the hand-produced leather label on the bottle even noted the date of harvest. This delightful white varietal was the color of pale honey, with flavors of pineapple, plum and honey on the tongue – mmm! This was my favorite wine of the evening, and one I was very fortunate to gifted with a bottle from this wonderful winemaker.
When I set down the bottle of wine on the table at dinner at the hotel next door, the restaurant's owner eyed my bottle with surprise. "Where did you get that?" he exclaimed. When I explained it had been a gift, he pouted slightly. "I've been trying to get another bottle of that wine out of him for two years but he told me he was all out!"
Needless to say, I carried that bottle home to the States with great care, and shared it with my mother at Christmas, to remember this wonderful experience again.
Gian Battista von Tscharner was absolutely wonderful to share time with, and learn more about Swiss wines. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a tour with him, it makes a highly memorable experience. Alternatively, you can enjoy his wines with your meal next door at the Schlosshotel Adler Hotel.
I think I’m a bit spoiled for my next trip to California wine country now.
Route 13 south/west to exit “Reichenau”; you will pass under the roadway and the hotel/winery is just ahead, with an ample parking lot. Alternatively, trains run approximately every 20 minutes from Chur; get off at the “Reichenau-Tamins” station and follow the path 200m to the Adler. Chur is about 90 minutes southeast of Zurich by train.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Cloud Gate (aka. "The Bean"), Millennium Park, Chicago.
Did a lot of photography this weekend, especially at night. Working hard for my Looptopia material! Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, I spent a lot of after-dark time down in the Loop and River North; Sunday at Millennium Park; Saturday in the cemetaries. I would love to get a chance to do photography in either Graceland or Rosehill cemetary at dusk, but the grounds are only open util around 4-4:30ish.
Saturday, I first went in St. Boniface's (N. Clark & W. Lawrence) for the first time; that one is small, but with a lot of good funerary art. It is also apparently the resting place for a lot of Chicago clergy; so there are some very interesting grave clusters to be seen.
After that, I spent some 3-4 hours in Rosehill (entrances on N. Ravenswood and N. Western), Chicago's oldest (est. 1859) and largest non-sectarian cemetary. Rosehill, like Graceland, is home to a large number of famous Chicagoans; among them: Oscar Mayer, Aaron Montgomery Ward, Richard Warren Sears, Charles J. Hull, George S. Bangs, and John G. Shedd. Many politicians are buried here - various Chicago Mayors, Senators, a Governor, even a Vice President (Charles Gates Dawes). And, like many Chicago cemetaries, it is reportedly haunted.
Haunted or not, Rosehill is a beautiful cemetary, with some 24 miles worth of roads winding through 350 acres on the northern side of the city. The grounds are well-cared for, and have plenty of trees; there is even a small lake or two on the grounds. Monuments of varying sizes and grandeur make it a fascinating place to wander around. The oldest graves are in the southeastern corner, near the main entrance (5800 N. Ravenswood); the newest are along the western and northern stretches. A handful of family tombs circle the lake near the memorial chapel, and another string of tombs are clustered near the mausoleum. It's really quite peaceful and beautiful there, and you could almost forget it's a cemetary.
I'm really, really pleased with the photos I took at St. Boniface and Rosehill; the lighting conditions were excellent and it was one of those few times I've gone home, downloaded my pictures off the camera drive, and just been really, really pleased with 98% of the shots I've taken. Either I'm really getting the hang of my camera (and I ought to by now, after 6K shots on it), or it was just a good, relaxed day of shooting.
It's hard to tell at this resolution, but the guy in the left window saw me shooting the picture and he gave a big grin, which makes me like this picture even more. Quincy Station in the Loop, Chicago. (Brown/Pink/Green/Orange/Purple lines).
It was kind of weird driving downtown on Saturday night, because the illumination at the top of the Sears Tower and the Hancock were both off, as were some other distinctive buildings around town. I'm sure that was done to do some nighttime shots for The Dark Knight, but it still seemed weird, because you get used to seeing the city one way, and when it's different, it really catches your eye.
It's been interesting doing photography this week. I'd have more posted on Flickr, but without internet at home, loading stuff to Flickr becomes a lengthy production. I've tried to capture more "crowd" shots, ones that show the energy of the city at night, but people start looking at you funny when you've obviously settled in for some heavy-duty photography, and are pointing the camera in their direction, even if you're not taking a picture of them. And if homeless people think you're taking a picture of them, some of them can get pretty nasty. (Generally, when I'm taking a picture where you'd clearly be able to recognize the person, I ask first. Good sense of any photographer/journalist.)
Despite the boom in housing options in the Loop, downtown Chicago is very quiet most nights of the week. The theatre district (Randolph Street between State and LaSalle) has a brief busy time when the shows let out, but the Loop in general is low-key after 8:30pm or so. The amazing thing about late-night Chicago to me is that it feels safe; at least, as relatively safe as a big-city can be. But it feels different from say, late-night New York. Admittedly, it's been many years since I've wandered around NYC after dark, but Chicago in general just feels more like a town with some really big buildings, than a big city. In the summer, you'll see people out with their kids in the parks long after dark; you see tourists walking around, enjoying the architecture and the restaurants and the River North nightlife. It's peaceful.
A few things I've learned about Chicago this week:
- There's a gate about half a block north of the Board of Trade building that, while it is locked and there is a red light there, if you stop your car by it, the policeman patrolling the area will tell you to move along. As in now.
- I have no idea what all the construction that has been going on around the Board of Trade building is, but it seems like it's been going on for years and the area doesn't look any different.
- The lakefront is closed at 11pm. I didn't know it was possible to close an entire lake, but since pretty much the entire lakefront of Chicago is composed of park property, and the parks close at 11pm, you will get pulled over by a police officer in the parks, even if the street you're driving on loops back to Lake Shore Drive/other streets and you were just driving through, not parking and using the parkland. They're not kidding when they say the parks close at 11. I didn't even realize a street I was on qualified as being in the parks, and I got pulled over and told I needed to drive in the other direction. On the other hand, I did get to do a highly illegal U-turn right in front of a police officer and not get bagged for it.
- In direct opposition to # 3, no matter what time of day it is, you will find people out on the lakefront bike path. I was driving home from the Loop at 3am on Saturday night, and there were people out on the path, walking, biking, jogging. I don't know what kind of crazy person thinks 3am is a swell time for a jog, but to each their own.
- This also makes it confusing as to why I get pulled over for being in a car on a street in what apparently qualifies as "being in the park" at 11:05pm, but the guy who just jogged by me doesn't even get a second glance from the police officer.
- If you're driving around at odd hours of the night, you can come to a total stop and take pictures in places you'd never be able to do it in the daytime, such as off/on ramps, bridges, and places clearly labelled No Parking. Of course, I'm not recommending this, nor am I admitting to doing such a naughty thing, I'm just saying it's, you know, possible.
- I have been pulled over after 11 on the street that runs between Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum, but I have not yet been pulled over after 11 on the street that circles Soldier Field. This area is kind of unclear about what qualifies as "the park" and the "after 11pm" ruling.
- There is a very pleasant walk along the west side of the Chicago River, from Adams up to Washington. Under the right circumstances, this walk can also be incredibly windy.
- The side of the Lyric Opera building that faces the river is quite impressive, not to mention that it looks like a giant chair. Let's hope Godzilla doesn't come to town and think, "My, that building looks comfortable, and it's been a really long walk from Tokyo."
- Grant Park has two parking garages. The one you enter from Michigan Avenue is much more expensive than the one you enter from Columbus Ave. How much more expensive? The west-side garage costs $8 for the first 30 minutes, $10 for an hour, $14 for 90 minutes, $18 for two hours; and then $22 for up to 12. The east-side garage is $12 for 12 hours.
- Parking in and around the Loop has no sense, rhyme, or reason - and this applies not only to street parking, but to garages as well. But that's fodder for a whole other post!
A kid dances in happiness on an early spring day in the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, Chicago.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
When Hollywood is looking to film a period piece set in the early 20th century, or if they want a very Art Deco look, they come to Chicago. Case in point: the recent film Batman Begins was filmed around the city, primarily in the Loop. Observant movie fans can recognize such landmarks as the Board of Trade, the bridges over the Chicago River, and the city itself - all transformed through the magic of CGI into the home of the Dark Knight.
It is generally accepted that Gotham is based on New York, but modern-day New York doesn't have quite the same look as Chicago does. The Windy City has preserved large amounts of its historic architecture. Modern architects sometimes raise controversy locally when they "skin" a historic building and graft the original facade onto the newer skyscraper that rises on the old building's footprint.
Currently, Christopher Nolan & crew are in town, doing some initial filming for The Dark Knight, the sequel to the hugely popular Batman Begins. The old Post Office at 433 West Van Buren is finding new life as the Gotham National Bank. Look for these neat archectural details when Dark Knight rolls out summer 2008.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
From their website:
About Working Bikes: Working Bikes is a not-for-profit cooperative which diverts bicycles from the waste stream in Chicago by repairing them for sale and charity.
Working Bikes is primarily volunteer-driven. Currently it receives no government or foundation money. All its operations are funded through the sale of bicycles at its storefront. Working Bikes uses that money to provide bicycles to charity organizations within Chicagoland and to ship bicycles to the Gulf Coast, Cuba, Guatemala, Ecuador, and many other places of need.
In the countries to which Working Bikes ships, a bicycle can often mean the difference between work and unemployment. The bicycle is the primary means of vehicular transportation for the majority of the population and is used both for personal transportation and for carrying cargo. Due to wage differences, a bicycle worth $20 in Chicago can be worth the equivalent of $1,000 in Africa.
Last year, Working Bikes gave away over 5,500 bicycles locally and internationally. This year it is on course to exceed that. In 2005 the Working Bikes Cooperative distributed about 500 bicycles and wheelchairs to City programs, refugees and day camps in the Chicago area.
Friday, April 13, 2007
Even my birth was fated to point to a love of travel: we were about to move from
The first vacation I really remember was
My dad had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, so we also went to the Iwa Jima monument, and we saw the Marine Corps Marching Band perform there at sunset. That was pretty impressive.
There’s other places etched on my brain from that trip –
This was at a time when WDW consisted of little more than the
Sensing a theme here yet? Traveling and flying - I'm all over it.
Airline deregulation came about in the early 1980s, and with it, a whole new world – literally – opened up to people. We began traveling somewhere every year. By the time I was off to college, I had already collected a number of stamps in my passport, and my own wanderlust was firmly established. So far it’s taken me to 36 states, 18 countries and 3 continents, and there’s a whole lot more map just waiting to be explored.