Thursday, 21 June 2012

Escargot -Backyard variety

The great snail escape -one day we awoke
to find runaway snails!

In preparation for the arrival of my family (the Hightowers) Dakota and I decided to take on a momentous project: escargot made from garden snails.  We began by collecting 24 of the larger snails that roam our backyard weed jungle.  England has plenty of snails to spare so it didn't take us more than 10 minutes to find enough. 

We deposited a few snails in old ice cream containers and buckets and started them on a strict vegetable regimen, cleansing the snails of any toxins that might be in their system.  We fed them new veggies and cleaned out their poop filled containers every day for 10 days to get them clean and healthy and as big as possible. 
Snail butter 

Snails without the shells
Right before death... sorry snails
Washing and feeding the snails
Finally the day my family was coming arrived and we prepared them for eating.  First we had to rinse off the snails and dunk them in boiling water for a few seconds to kill them.  Next we peeled each snail out of its shell with a fork.  It's incredible how their bodies are molded into a shell shape even when you pry them out.  Then we had to boil the shells several times and dry them.  At the same time we boiled the snails and a gross slimy film came up to the top of the water and we had to scrape it off.  The water turned bright green really fast and we had to change it a couple of times.  We then stuffed the shells with a little garlic herb butter and then the snail and some more butter and cooked them in the oven for a few minutes and served them. 
The taste test
They turned out pretty delicious... well everyone else thought so... I liked them except for the texture, but the herb butter part was delectable!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Hallo Deutschland

Our trek to the continent started off perfectly! We arrived at Bristol Temple Meads Train Station with plenty of time to spare, enough time we were even able to sit on a bench for the train to arrive (very unusual!). We got on and sat in our seats only to realize that our tickets were from the Bristol Parkway station NOT Temple Meads! The two trains were for exactly 1 minute apart but were definitely separate trains. After a brief panic hoping that we wouldn't have to pay extra we realized it was no big deal, the conductor didn't even notice the tickets were for a different train. They both said Bristol I suppose. We arrived at London Stansted Airport once again with plenty of time to spare, so we explored the airport and eventually waited for half an hour or so at the Boarding gate for our flight to the Frankfurt-Hahn airport in Germany. Our flight went well and we even arrived in Germany ahead of schedule. So we went out to catch our bus, only to realize that there was no bus for another 2 hours. So we went to the bus stop and sat out in the warm sun enjoying the fresh Deutsch air. Our bus came and we ended up getting a free ride to Koblenz (70 kilometers away)! We thought that our reserved train ticket included the bus fare so we showed our train reservation to the bus driver who stared at it for a while and nodded to us, so we got on the bus. Later we read our instructions and realized that it said the bus was suggested information for reaching the train in Koblenz, not a reserved ticket! Well it was written in German so it was an honest mistake; I guess the bus driver liked us...

Dakota's customary calf flex
The bus ride was spectacular, the air and the atmosphere was so much like home. We drove through wheat fields and forests and small towns as we rode towards Koblenz. The windows were open on the bus, but even though it was a little chilly we didn't mind because it smelled so pleasant. We arrived at Koblenz and walked across the street to the train station where we waited about half an hour for our train to Rüdesheim. While we were waiting a giant beetle flew past us, I chased after the enormous clumsy insect trying to see what it was, and to my surprise it was a Stag Beetle, very cool. So we rode the train from Koblenz to Rüdesheim in the dark along the river Rhine, as we rode we could see castles lit up by spotlights all along the river, it was quite a site. We arrived in Rüdesheim in the pitch black (11:15 pm) and wandered around the small town in the dark searching for our hotel. Upon arrival we went to bed immediately so that we could wake up by 7:30 the next day to look around the town and catch the gondola up to the Rheinsteig Trail.

Giant Cuckoo Clock -St. Gorr

On the Gondola
The next morning we wandered about Rüdesheim marveling at the wonderful little toy stores which had elaborate window displays and beautiful handcrafted trinkets and cuckoo clocks. We wandered about until about 10 and then we got on the chairlift up to the Rheinsteig Trail. At the top of the chairlift there was a large statue commemorating the Franco-German wars of the late 19th century. The statue would have been awe-inspiring if it hadn't been covered in scaffolding! Apparently it needed some restoration. Harper told me to take out my camera and carry it in my pocket so we could take pictures faster, so I did. Then Harper took the camera, took a picture, and then opened up the battery compartment and flung the batteries off the edge of a cliff! So much for fast pictures.

We found the trailhead and started hiking towards the next destination, Assmanhausen (great name). The trail wandered through mixed oak forests and wineries until we arrived, rather sweaty in Assmanhausen where we stopped to try and find lunch. After walking around the town several times we decided on one of the four restaurants. It was aptly named the Anchor, as it was filled with model ships and sailing equipment. We looked through the menu and decided to order a half a grilled chicken and French fries. Of course that seemed like a lot of food for lunch so asked to share it. The heavy-set waitress looked at us as if we were crazy and said in a tone suggesting that that was not enough food, 'so you only want a quarter of a chicken each?' We were glad we stuck to sharing; by the time we finished our quarter chicken and fries we were stuffed to the brim! We concluded that they must have larger appetites in Rhineland! 

Big Mushroom!
Bag of fragile souvenirs
We moved on from Assmanhausen and proceeded up the steep grade leaving the town, on towards Lorch. All along the entirety of our Rheinsteig hike, much to our surprise, there was abundant numbers of lizards (skinks). Germany is not really the environment I associate with reptiles, in my mind they are in hot desert places. But we were fooled, they were everywhere! Another critter that was abundant along our hike were mice and shrews, they were quite unabashed and would scamper around the undergrowth in plain daylight. We are much more accustomed to the timid characteristics of mice at home, which we don't see as often. So after hiking through thickets of wood and numerous wineries we arrived in Lorch where we stayed at a hotel/winery. We were met out front where we were given a key to our 'apartment' much to our surprise it was enormous! For the same price as most regular hotel rooms in the area we had an entire flat, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom and even a fireplace! Too bad it was so warm out or it would have been fun to have a little fire. We relaxed our sore feet for a while and after searching the town several times for a restaurant or other source of sustenance we gave up and resorted to eating Oreos and Haribo gummies for dinner.

Giant Yellow Jacket!
The next morning we found the bakery open and bought some pastries for breakfast and some sandwiches for lunch. We proceeded to hike up another steep grade out of Lorch and headed for Kaub. Along the way we spotted a deer in the forest and saw a few falcons flying above the forest canopy. They are such majestic fliers, very precise in their movements. We passed several grandiose castles which are every kilometer or so along the river and in no time at all (actually a few hours) we had arrived in Kaub where we stayed at the Hotel Deutsch. For dinner we ate really good food, once again in HUGE portions, Harper had a sirloin steak scattered with feta on top with a salad and fries, I had braised beef marinated in a red wine sauce with mushrooms, a salad and potato dumplings; boy was that filling! That night we watched UPPS! which was the German equivalent of America's Funniest Home Videos, it was hilarious regardless of the difference in language.

Tiny but oh so delicious!
Climbing the cherry tree
The next morning we got free breakfast at the hotel and they informed us we could make sandwiches for lunch out of rolls, meat and cheese they provided, they even supplied baggies to package them in -talk about great service! It was sprinkling so we dug out our rain gear, but after an hour the rain had quit and we had another pleasant day of hiking. This was the most beautiful of our days hiking, we went 15 miles which was mostly in the forest, and there were only a couple of winery crossings. The Wild Strawberries were ripe so we delighted in eating as many as possible. We even came across a cherry tree that was ripe so we picked as many as we could reach and stored them in our baggies to eat along the way and with our lunch, which was a much enjoyed treat. As far as fauna goes we spotted a fox in the path 20 yards ahead of us, we saw a deer, lots of birds, more lizards and mice and shrews. Our favorite beings of the animal kingdom we spotted that day were a large yellow and black salamander, another stag beetle (a female this time) and giant yellow jackets that were more of an orange color! These wasps were literally an inch and a half long!!! Good thing they weren't very pestiferous that would have been one heck of a sting! 

Early in the afternoon we arrived in Sankt Goarhaussen where we took a ferry across the Rhine to Sankt Goar. The town was magnificent and had lots of little shops like we saw in Rüdesheim. It was tempting to buy everything but we restrained ourselves and settled for a few handmade toys and Christmas ornaments. Of course after fifteen miles our legs and feet were worked enough, but to our dismay we had to walk another mile out of Sankt Goar along the river to finally arrive at our hotel. At the hotel we ate very filling meat dishes that we can neither spell nor pronounce for dinner, but they were delicious. The best thing about the hotels in Rhineland was that they left candies on your pillow, what a pleasant surprise! They beds were awfully funny though, we would sleep in a queen size bed that was composed of two smaller mattresses. So we each had our own blanket and even mattress even though we were in the same bed frame.

The next morning we hiked the mile back in to Sankt Goar, bought some trinkets, took the ferry back to Sankt Goarhaussen and started hiking to Kestert.  We really can't pronounce that towns name but it is something like Ket-Zert, not custard (just kidding I never pronounced it custard!) We stopped quite a few times along the way and enjoyed our last day of hiking. We took lots of castle pictures and we stopped to get some pictures of bugs flying around flowers, and we even remembered the timer function on Harper's camera so we got a few pictures of both of us on our Trek through Rhineland. We stayed the night in Kestert and spent the next day in transit on train, bus, plane, underground and train (plus lots of ridiculously long layovers) again back to our home in Bristol. On our expedition through Germany we managed to travel many ways; by train, underground, plane, bus, boat, foot and even chairlift! Not to mention walking- we walked 50 miles in four days! That is quite a feat in our book!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Un Voyage en France

Well, we were planning to be on time but with Harper that's pretty much impossible. (Harper: Hey this time it wasn't my fault!!!!) We got to Temple Meads Train Station with only minutes until our train was supposed to leave. We ran to the Platform only to hear the whistle blow signaling no more passengers were to board. The next train to London wasn't for another hour but we asked the platform attendant the fastest way and he had us board a train that went a few miles to Bristol Parkway where we could board another train to London. So we ended up leaving in 30 minutes instead of an hour, which was good because we arrived at Victoria Coach Station and were the last people to be checked in for our bus to Paris that was already running late!

Our overnight bus ride proved to not be particularly restful. We ended up on a coach that was full of Russians (in there 20's) who were very loud, laughing their way to Dover. It was a relief to get onto the ferry from Dover to Calais because we got a brief break from the loud Russians. The ferry however rocked more than any seagoing vessel I have ever been on, which was surprising since it was so large and the water didn't look particularly choppy. So we had restless sleep on the Ferry until Calais where we got back on the bus, luckily most of the Russians had quieted down some and we did get some sleep between Calais and Paris.

Looking at part of the line from the top
 It took us a few minutes to get oriented upon our arrival at the coach station but we soon found a Metro and headed straight for Le Tour Eiffel. The Eiffel Tower isn't quite as tall as we imagined it but it was still incredible just to be there. We waited in line for about an hour and half -which was pretty good considering the tower hadn't even opened yet for the first half hour of our wait- and finally reached the ticket window. Much to our disappointment the top of the tower was closed! We were baffled; apparently due to some technical issues only a 
few people who had pre-purchased tickets were allowed to go to the top. So we bought tickets for the second floor of the tower, which saved us quite a bit of money, and we still got the feel of being at the Eiffel Tower (not to mention that we rode a double-decker elevator!) The best part of the Eiffel Tower was probably taking the stairs back down to the bottom though, you feel so vulnerable climbing down stairs from so high up in the open air. After that many steps you get a weird condition that we have now named TMSS (Too Many Stairs Syndrome) which gives you shaky legs for hours afterwards. We have definitely climbed enough stairs in the past few months to know for sure that this affliction is real!


   From the Eiffel Tower we got on the Metro and made a quick trip to L'Arc Du Triumphe on Les Champs Elysèes. It was quite a regal monument but we decided to save our money and not climb it since we had just gone up the Eiffel Tower (and there was a very long line to climb it). So after claiming that we had 'Been There' we got back on the Metro and went to the Louvre.

            The Louvre was enormous! We had no idea where to start so we randomly progressed through hallway after hallway of famous artwork. Eventually we came upon the Mona Lisa, which we both agreed was not very impressive and should not be as famous as it is, there are hundreds and hundreds of better paintings from the same time period in the Louvre. We moved from Italian artists towards French painters and came across La Libertè guidant le peuple (Liberty guiding the people) which appears on the cover of Coldplay's Viva La Vida (and happens to be one of my [Dakota's] favorite paintings). After looking at room after room of paintings we progressed towards the Venus de Milo which like the Mona Lisa was no better than any other statue in our opinion. But now we can say we saw it! The Louvre was so enormous that there were thousands of people in it but it was easy to be the only person looking at a picture, often times there were no more than 15 people in a room. After seeing about as much artwork as we could handle we made our way to Napoleon III's Apartments, which were more lavish than anything we have ever seen. There were crystal chandeliers hanging in every room and numerous velvet lounges, we were quite impressed. After another hour or so wandering aimlessly about the Louvre admiring artwork we made our way back out and headed to Notre Dame.

The creepiest gargoyle
Coming out of the bellfry
After seeing as many churches as we have this semester, the inside of Notre Dame was not particularly special. The greatest things were probably that the ceiling was taller and the stained glass was very elaborate. Climbing the towers of Notre Dame was much more impressive than anything inside. After hundreds of steps we came up on a balcony and stood amongst the famous Gargoyles, many of which are very creepy looking while others aren't so much, such as an elephant and a stork. We moved on through a very short and narrow entrance in to the belfry and stood next to an absolutely enormous bell and then went back out and descended the tower, after which we got TMSS again. From Notre Dame we walked further down the island and made a special point to cross Pont Neuf since it is such a famous bridge (and was of extra interest to me since I just read The Three Musketeers in which it is a very important landmark).

Yummy sausages for lunch! 

Dakota by Pont Neuf
From there we took the Metro and found our way to our hotel. After checking in we went to a grocery store and bought some bread and cheese for dinner. The cheese was spectacular! It was called pié d'Angloy which was a soft cheese with a flavour best described as yum! We wrapped up the evening amusing ourselves watching an episode of Monk in French.

Our boom boom bracelets
The next morning we made our way to Sacre Cœur (yet another church) situated high on a hill. As we went to climb the steps to the church some street vendors took a liking to us. We tried our best to avoid them, repeating no thank you and trying to walk away but it was futile. They grabbed our hands and slipped a string over one of each of our fingers and proceeded to make bracelets, we tried to slip away but we were stuck, the only way out would have been to beat them off! So we gave in and the men were from Senegal and told us that hakuna mattata (which you may recognize from the lion king) was from their language and that we would have good Juju and that I would have 3 kids and the guy making Harper's bracelet said she would have 5! (a little concerned about this discrepancy!) However they proceeded to bless us and told us that we 'will have good boom boom, you know what I mean by boom boom?' Well after scraping by paying the Africans 5 Euros we hurried up the mount avoiding other vendors at all costs!

We did a quick walk through of the church and then went to a separate entrance to view the crypt and climb the basilica. The crypt was rather dull so we didn't spend much time down there and progressed to the stairs up to the basilica. The climb to the Basilica was neat because it was a combination of indoor and outdoor stair climbing. We went up a spiral staircase inside, then went outside and climbed stairs that followed the roof of the church and then went back inside to another spiral staircase up to the cupola. It was neat climbing so many monuments because you can see all of the other places you have been or are going once you get up to the top.
 After descending the stairs back to the bottom (and another case of TMSS) we wandered down the surrounding streets looking in shops and then headed back down the mount. At the bottom of the stairs we were confronted once again by African street vendors but we came prepared and had our hands clenched. One man grabbed me and was trying to get me to buy a bracelet but I escaped by saying 'No, I already have one' and then he changed completely and thanked me and shook my hand instead. They are very persistent! From there we headed to the Moulin Rouge since it was so close. So we walked over in front of it and said 'saw it' and headed back to the Metro and took it to the Catacombes.

 The Catacombes were definitely a highlight of our adventure. We waited in line for about an hour before we got the entrance, but it was well worth the wait. We got in for half the price because we were between 14 and 26, which is always nice, and then we descended a long spiral staircase deep into the earth. When we reached the bottom (and recovered from TMSS again!) we reached a series of dark narrow passageways. We walked for quite a ways and were pretty edgy because there were dark side corridors with iron gates over them which were scary just because they were in the unknown. After nearly half a mile of walking down these old mine passages we came across a sign over a passage that said Arrête! C'est ici l'Empire de la Mort (Stop! This is the empire of the dead) which made it even creepier. We entered and saw the walls of the tunnels lined with femurs and skulls stacked up next to each other, the rest of the bones were piled in a heap behind them. We walked for about a mile through collection after collection of bones from throughout the city.

 If it wasn't enough walking through walls of dead people some of the skulls bore the marks of murder, execution and torture, some had obvious bullet holes in them, others had knife or sword cuts into the skull, and still others had holes that had been drilled into them. An interesting study in anatomy and crime and punishment, but certainly not a light hearted trek! There are supposed to be more than 6 million bodies that were removed from cemeteries around Paris because the bodies were piling up so much they were causing health problems. (Oops, got a strange disease from a dead body at church today!) Throughout the tunnels there were also quotes from poetry and books that referred to death, which were disturbing and certainly put one on edge (and made me feel that my courses in French had finally paid off). After about an hour and a half in dark tunnels deep under the city we climbed yet another spiral staircase to the exit, where our bags were searched to be sure we weren't stealing bones! EWW!

Upon exiting we realized we had just walked about two miles underground so we had no clue where we were! (And it wasn't even on our map!) So we wandered down some streets until we found a Metro, where we were able to navigate back to our hotel. Then we went out to eat at a restaurant we found just down the street. Our waiter thought it was quite amusing that we shared our meals and so he laughed and joked to us every time he passed by. We ordered l'escargots (just because we were in Paris) and a veal dish. It was by far some of the most savoury dishes I have ever had! The escargots were actually really good, they were broiled in garlic and tasted and had the same texture as mussels (meaning Harper didn't like them too much). For dessert we had some very delectable crème brûlée.  We spent more than an hour in the little French restaurant and enjoyed ourselves very much; the prices were great except for the bottle of water which cost us 6 Euro! We ran back to the hotel in pouring rain and watched the Simpsons in French, Marge sounds even worse in French than in English!
The next morning we took the metro to the bus station and boarded our bus, which only had about 15 people this time and was much quieter! We bussed to Calais where we got on a ferry to Dover. We were excited to see the white cliffs of Dover and were quite surprised to see them from Calais! Of course they got bigger as we sailed across the channel, but they are definitely visible from France, we had no idea! From there we bussed into London and took our train back to Bristol, where we made a delicious late dinner of burgers and French fries (I guess I should say chips) at 11:30 at night!