Glasgow – not so great – but I’m glad I visited


In thinking back on it – There was no way that Glasgow was going to compete with Edinburgh. Our new friends from last night had told us that we were going from ‘culture’ to ‘clutter’ – and they were of course correct.

Our Glasgow Air BnB is at best adaquate – and totally loses when compared to the palace that is Isaac’s and Derek’s pad in Edinburgh. It’s a tiny 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom flat in a forgetable building above a store that sells wall paper in an industrial part of Glasgow. The living/dining/kitchen space is tiny, and the only table is hogged by our host Neil’s computer. To add insult to injury, he’s ironing when we arrive – so there’s his laundry everywhere. I’ll give him credit for asking what food to buy for our breakfast, but he’s also clear that we are on our own. He works evenings into the night, and won’t be up in the morning. He also has no maps to give us, and can’t even make suggestions on places to visit. Still, he welcomes us warmly, and that’s a good start.

Our room is basic – a bed, a window, a tiny desk, and the best part – an en-suite bathroom. That and the location near the city center are the best parts of Neil’s place. Oh well – this is our 6th Air BnB in 30 days – I guess one had to be 4 star. And after Isaac and Derek’s place – I’m not sure what would be needed to be 5 star.

Surprisingly – Neil tells us that he’s fully booked – and the income from Air BnB pays his rent. Hmm.

Anyway – we make our selves comfy. After he leaves for work, we move the computer off the dining table, fold away the ironing board, and basically create a space we can at least enjoy dinner in! We walk up to a nearby grocery store, get the makings of a nice dinner – and decide to tour Glasgow in the morning. We’re done for today.

The next morning – our one and only day in Glasgow – we opt to start by finding me a place for coffee – and then decide to check out the Cathedral. After that – well – we’ll go from there.

Unlike all of our other locations, this one is mostly industrial and shopping – so no upscale coffee shop to be seen. We hike up hill towards the Cathedral, going thru the ‘university’ section – I’m thinking there is bound to be coffee for the students. And I’m right – there it is! A cute coffee shop, with take-away latte. Color me happy.

The tour of the Cathedral is wonderful. The guide (where do they find these people) is super knowledgable, and very easy to listen to, and the history is very neat. Our fellow tourists are a german choir – and at one point they ask to test the acoustics. Lovely – totally lovely.

We then walk across to the St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. Seriously – St. Mungo’s of Harry Potter Fame. St. Mungo was a real guy – and he’s the patron saint of Glasgow. The Museum is well worth a visit. There’s a fairly large section devoted to different religions, comparing how various religions treat the same ‘life’ events – birth, death, marriage, coming of age, etc. It’s fascinating. They do lump some religions into big groups – Jewish and Christian are just two groups, there’s no effort to distinquish between variances in these groups, and probably justifably. There is a lot more difference between Christian and Sikh say.

We then stroll thru the University Campus, and wend our way towards downtown Glasgow. We check out the bronze of the Young Queen Victoria in George’s Square, admire some of the truly incredible building designs – and we grind to a total stop to admire one building that features an absolutely huge abstract metal peacock running the entire city block. Naturally, we also visit the Lighthouse – Glasgow’s center for Architecture.

Soon enough, we’re back at our overly cozy pad for dinner, relaxing, and bed. Tomorrow we begin the long – and since I’m writing this after the fact – thankfully uneventful trip back home.

So ends our 31 days in the UK.

We visited at least 28 museums, stayed in 6 Air BnB’s, visited 7 cities (London, Oxford, Birmingham, Morecambe, York, Edinburgh, and Glasgow), met some amazingly interesting people, ate glorious meals, learned a lot of history, rode the tube, took the train, traveled on buses and even managed one uber taxi.

And we did it all UNDER our $3000 Canadian per person including all travel budget.

The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady rock another trip!

Signing off until the next time there’s something to report – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – The Intrepid Traveler.

12 Best Free Stuff at Deer Valley Ski Resort


Yes – It’s hard to imagine that a Ski Resort would offer free stuff – but trust me – Deer Valley definitely does – and it’s pretty good free stuff too!

1. Newspapers in the restaurants. Hard to imagine with the incredible skiing going on – but sure enough – you can get your daily dose of the news – while everyone else is blasting thru the snow piles.

2. Condiments – Ok – I know – everyone offers stuff like ketscup and mustard – but Deer Valley Dining has bowl of cut up oranges, lemons and limes – free for adding to your water, your meal, whatever you want to do with them!

3. Hot and Cold Water – and not just at water fountains either. You can fill up with plain water at the soda machines (Snow Park even offers a choice between plain and seltzer water). And they provide real cups, not just paper cups. And that hot water is super handy – because you can bring a package of oatmeal, hot chocolate, or even Rama Soup.

4. Mango Chutney – This stuff is addictive – I should know – I never eat lunch at Deer Valley without a cup of this stuff to add to my flat breads.

5. Flat Bread! – Yup – you read that right – they give out free bread and free flat bread. The bread is just slices of Baguette – but the toasted flat bread is the truly yummy free stuff. Grab a stack – add mango chutney – you’ve eating the Deer Valley way – and it’s free. Also free – butter and jam in case Mango Chutney isn’t quite your thing.

6. Cell Phone Charging – This isn’t that unique – after all Park City Ski resort has do it yourself charging stations for sure at the Cloud Nine Restaurant and at the Miner’s Camp. But at Deer Valley – if you want your cell phone charged – you go to Guest Services – where they not only charge your cell phone – they smile!

7. Free Ski Storage – both during lunch – and over night. Why is that important – because you can leave your skis right at the lift – protected by locked doors – and all ready to grab when you need them. And you don’t have to worry about something taking your skis. And even better – you can keep two pairs! So I have both my ice skates and my powder skis easily available. It’s the best. And it’s free.

8. Free Overnight Boot Storage – during the day they charge $5 for a basket – but at night the basket room becomes Free Overnight Boot Storage. It’s warm, it’s dry – and so handy.

9. Boot heaters – Why haven’t other resorts figured out that people love to warm up their boots before putting them on in the morning. This is so user friendly – I love it. You put your boots on the heater – push a button – hot air blows into your boot for about a minute – and then – voila – warm boots. Wow. You can also use these to warm your gloves, or to dry your boots before putting them in overnight storage.

10. Greeting from every employee – and not just hello either – conversations – jokes – Questions – They enjoy working for Deer Valley – and their joy in doing their jobs – even if it is just holding a chair lift seat for you – is contagious. You have more fun skiing when the folks there to help you are having fun too. My favorite employee story – I skied down to a lift – and the lift operator was on one knee in the loading area. As I skied by – I said – sorry – I’m married. It took him a moment – then he called out with his arms open wide – If you ever change your mind – Call me! I laughed all the way up the ride on that lift.

11. Loaner stuff – Yes there are stores where you can buy high priced gear of the best quality – but Deer Valley goes a step beyond that. If you’ve lost a pole – there’s a collection of single ‘lost’ poles at the Empire lodge ski check – just ask and they will hand you one for the day. Lost or forgotten gloves or a face mask? Check lost and found. If you claim it – it’s yours for the day. And when you are done – you can just return it. No questions asked. But the best free loaner stuff? The Rosignol Yurt! They will fit you to the newest Rosignol skis – adjust the binding – and send you off to test the gear. You can try various sizes, different shapes, and then put your own skis back on to compare. It’s awesome.

12. But the very very best free stuff at Deer Valley are the Host guided tours. Offered twice a day – at Expert and Intermediate levels – these are beyond compare. The absolute best way to ski. The Intermediate level tours are generally (but not always) restricted to groomed blue runs. These are incredibly informative – the hosts that lead them love telling tales about Deer Valley – and it’s hard not to pick up something new every time you take a tour. The Expert tours are a completely different thing. These are high speed Bumps, Chutes, Powder and Trees experiences. You race down behind the host – exploring territority you might never ski on your own. Sometimes it’s more challenging that you might like, and for some experts – it’s way too easy – but it’s a lot more fun then skiing alone – and a whole lot safer. Every other ski hill I’ve visited will offer tours – but they are always restricted to groomed runs and a scheduled circuit – no where I’ve ever been takes the wild and wooly approach like they do at Deer Valley – and that makes all the difference. It’s the best.

Signing off to go on a Ski Tour! The skiing Soup Lady

A Traditional British Christmas


My daughter married a Brit – one whose family traces their lineage back several hundred years – so when they invited me to come and spend Christmas with them – I of course said Yes.

My daughter’s inlaws live in the tiny village of Sutton Courtenay. It’s is an hours fast train ride from Paddington station – but a universe away from the hustle bustle of London.

The village is very famous – Hubert Asquith, First Earl of Oxford, and one of the British Prime Ministers from before World War I was born and is buried here – as is George Orwell – who I must say I know better! But I’m not really here to see the sights – I’m here to eat – and eat extremely well I must say.

My Daughter’s In-Laws – who to save on typing we say call Jan and Craig – (which are their names…) do not live on an estate – and there’s nary a servant to be seen in the house – but never-the-less – they have gone all out to make sure that we have an amazing Christmas.

They picked us up at the Train Station – all smiles and Christmas cheer – and we drive thru the village admiring the lovely homes, stone fences, and what I’m now realizing are traditionally tiny roads. Their lovely home has at least 5 bedrooms up stairs – and 3 bathrooms. Downstairs there’s a kitchen, a lovely dining room with wood side-boards, a prep-kitchen with the dishwasher, a sun room that is serving as a 6th bedroom – and a living room/den with the TV – Wii machine – several sofas, and a warming gas fire. The garden is truly lovely – which despite the weather is so so pretty. It’s large enough to be divided into sections – a pool/meadow area, a graveled sitting area – and for my taste – an extremely large area of raised garden for growing vegetables.

From the front – you wouldn’t expect them to have such a spacious backyard – because their neighbors are very close – but the lots must be angled – because the backyard is quite a bit wider in the back than it is nearer the house. Behind the stone wall that marks the end of their garden is a public walking path – but because it is sunk about 2′ below the level of their garden – you don’t even see the tops of people’s heads.

I’m shown to my room – not fancy by any standard – but very comfortable. I’m sharing the bathroom with Thomas – the adorable 4 year old son of my daughter’s husband’s brother. We will be 9 this Christmas – 2 under the age of 4 (both the children of Jamin’s brother), Jamin’s brother and his wife, Jan and Craig, Adrienne and Jamin – and of course me. An odd woman at the table – but fortunately they don’t feel the need to bring in an additional male to balance!

Christmas Eve begins with a fabulous Norweign Christmas Dinner. Jamin’s brother married Charlotte, a gal from Norway – and they are doing all the cooking tonight. The table is lovely – a christmas centerpiece with candles and the placemats also have a Christmas Theme. They have 2 large warming boards – so the food is carefully being kept hot while drinks and seats are organized.

The meal is stellar. I love, love, love the very traditional preperation of Pork Belly. Charlotte went to the butcher to explain the unique cut required – and the effort definitely paid off. Tons of meat – and the fat has been crisped. The dish is called “Ribbe” – and trust me – it’s yummy.

There are an assortment of other dishes as well – Broccoli, fat fresh sausages that were brought here from Norway in Charolette’s suitcase, meat pies that were similarly imported, and a divine take on cranberry jelly called “Tyttebaer”. Yummy.

After dinner, we put on our winter jackets and grab long traditional torches. There’s a torch light parade tonight – starting at the school and gathering walkers as it goes to the church. We join about 1/3 of the way – lighting our torches from the torches of other marchers. At the church, they have built a bonfire, and they are handing out sheets of Carols. We join in with the several hundred other celebrants – sing heartily – and enjoy listening to the very ampped piano player! Of course the church choir is there – and often they can be heard over the crowd doing the descants.

Lovely.

We walk back home – tired, full – and ready for bed. Unfortunately – it’s only 7:30! There are no street lights in Sutton Courteney – and the sun sets early so it feels quite late. We sip tea, chat, and wait for the kids to call it a night. Then the serious work of present wrapping and placing under the tree begins. There are a zillion gifts! Thomas and Craig both have late December birthdays – so this is a combination party – and the number of gifts reflects that double holiday.

Besides – 9 people, if each person bought one gift for the other 8, that’s 72 gifts.

The tree is placed strategically about 2 feet off the ground (Thomas’s younger brother is 10 months old – and he is definitely in the pulling things off if he can stage). The presents form a mound under the tree – every 4 year old’s idea of the perfect Christmas.

In preperation for the arrival of Santa – tradition says that a glass of sherry and a mince pie should be placed by the fireplace. We forego that tradition – but it might be the only one that gets skipped!

We head off for bed – little kids get up early – and Christmas Day promises to start early and last late!

I’m woken up at 7:02 AM by squeals of delight – Thomas has seen the tree and gifts – and there’s no point trying to pretend to sleep in! I hustle downstairs – but things are well in hand. He’s allowed to pick one gift – the rest must wait until everyone else is up and about.

But first he wants to examine his Christmas Stocking. Like all the other members of the family – hanging at the end of his bed this morning was a huge Christmas Stocking. And this is not a tiny thing – nor a store bought packaged delight – nope – this is a huge sock carefully decorated, and lovingly stored year after year. The contents vary – Thomas gets some toys to play with, his younger brother gets two ‘duplo’ trucks, my daughter gets the calming tea she craves. And everyone gets a clemintine and a walnut!

Breakfast isn’t fancy – the big meal will be Christmas lunch. Eventually everyone has gotten up, had coffee or orange juice as best appeals to them – and we’re ready to open the gifts. Thomas takes a great delight in picking out the order in which gifts are to be opened – a bit heavy handedly picking ones with his name of course. But soon the pile of gifts has been descimated – and we are left with gifts galore for everyone. Thomas plays with his favorites – toys featuring the Octonauts. Daniel (10 months old remember) – is thrilled with the boxes – and anything his big brother is playing with!

I’m pleased with my gifts – a book I’ve never read called ‘Magician’, a box of bath salts – and best of all – a box of Rasberry Preserves from England Perserves. They have an Arch behind my daughters – and they make the best Rasberry Preserves I’ve ever enjoyed.

Lunch is eventually annouced – and what a lovely lunch it is.

Prize of place is a roast Goose – and it is awesome. The skin wonderfully crispy, the meat juicy and rich. There’s several popper’s at each place setting – plus a large Christmas Cracker. We begin by pulling our poppers and Crackers – sending jets of bright ribbon everywhere. Food is again kept warm on the side boards – there are carrots and brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, peas, pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon), two different kinds of stuffing, and a fab gravy for the goose. Plates are heaped up for serious feasting – and the conversation is lively and laugh filled as we read the silly jokes in the crackers to each other.

After dinner there’s the traditional lounging time – which we spend playing board games, watching Thomas enjoy his toys, and racing Mario Kart on the Wii. The fire is lit – our tummys are full. It’s lovely.

There’s still another meal to go – after the kids are asleep – there are cold treats to enjoy – mince pies, fresh veggies of various kinds, nuts to crack – and some glorious cheese brought from London by my daughter. My contribution was to pay for the cheese – and to buy a loaf of fresh bread from the Little Bread Peddler who shares one of the Arches near Adriennes. There are 3 different desserts – all traditional Christmas treats. There’s a light and fluffy home-made Pavlova, a home-made Triffle, and two kinds of Mince pies. The Triffle is actually made with fruit grown in their garden last summer. My personal favorite has to be the Pavlova – but of course I had to try all three.

More conversation, more laughter – and time for bed.

Wonderful Christmas!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Winners and Losers in the Czech Republic


Two Hotels, Two nights each – a world apart.

Hotel #1 – the Belcardi. Located in Brno, Czech Republic – this should have been a contender. It’s located in a Chateau that dates from 1631 – Napoleon’s sister stayed here for 2 years with her daughter, and it features – according to the guide book – fabulous gardens.

Officially – it’s completely renovated and restored – unfortunately in a graceless style that speecks to the Communist side of the Czech mentality. It more resembles an updated monestary than a fancy hotel. Its not that the place in unkempt – in fact it’s quite clean, and obviously cared for. The issue goes deeper than physical plant – it’s staff, it’s a lack of understanding the difference between clean and neat, and bare and boring. At the Belcardi – they are erring on the side of boring.

Our deluxe double room with balcony did indeed have an ensuite bathroom, a comfortable king bed, and a balcony. Albeit that the balcony was only the width of the door that open out onto it – and about 2 feet deep – still, I’ll agree, there was a balcony. And they carefully provided a desk. No electrical outlits, no lamp, no phone – but there was a desk. To plug in our cell phones we had to crawl under said desk and use a plug there.

The bathroom was remarkable for the lack of place to put anything – including towels! There was a European style heated towel rack – on the far side of the room from the shower, so if you wanted a towel for your shower – you had no choice but to hang the towel off the shower door. The shower itself was one of those stick in a corner, already built items – Basic shower facility in other words. On the good news side – it did offer seriously hot water – scaulding in fact.

The sink was one of the porcelin stand ones – no place to put your toothbrush unless you removed their soap tray – and where to put that then? Annoyingly, the toilet required 2 pushes to operate – one to get the water started, and one to stop the water.

Breakfast was easily the highlight of the place. It was free, it was ample, and there was a machine for making Latte and Expresso. If you wanted plain coffee – there was a nice thermos full on a different table. There was an assortment of pastry, cereals, yougurts, fruit, seriously delicous scrambled eggs (that’s actually hard to do in a serve-yourself orientation), a variety of different types of bread, sausages, and some cut up veggies – tomatoes, onions and red, yellow and green peppers. It was a great breakfast.

I just wish the staff I ran into were as welcoming. I saw a maid just once, she ducked her head as if embarassed and hustled on her way. The only staff I saw consistently were hidden behind the large, tall, and extremely forbidding front desk. In the 2 days we stayed – going in and out at least a dozen times all told – here’s what they never did:

Offer to help us with our luggage.
Smile
Say more than ‘hi’
Respond to questions with more than a single word.
Offer any information – in any language – or even on a piece of paper. They did hand me a wonderful history of the Castle, in English – but only after I asked mutliple questions – the place is famous after all.

In summary – a Loser. Cold, forbidding, unwelcoming, unpleasant, basic needs meet – but nothing beyond. For a place this famous – some art on the walls, some signs of humanity, even an occasional throw rug would have gone a long way towards making the Hotel Belcardi a place I’d suggest to a friend.

But there was a Winner too! Dvur Hoffmeister is located about 10 minutes from the Prague Airport – and we only stayed there because we wanted to be able to sleep after travelling for 10 hours from Montreal, and didn’t want to be disturbed by the noise of the airport.

What a wonderful surprise. The Dvur Offmeister is a tiny – 7 room – Pensionne with a bar and restaurant, attached to a huge Horse training center. Huge not only in size – but in size of the horses. This Center is the one of the homes of the Czech National Jumping School – and it had 4 huge arenas, stable space for 42 horses and ponies, a Horse Washing Station – and a Horse Gym. There were outdoor fenced off paddock areas for summer use, but in winter there are 4 Stable areas for Horses and Ponies. Like all stables I’ve ever seen – there is a center hall with stalls on either side. The stalls have gates into the center for moving the horses in and out – but in the case of the Hoffmeister Stables – they have been one huge improvement. Each stall also has a window to the outside! When the weather was sunny – or there was action on the courtyard – the horses would all poke their heads out to get a peak.

What really makes the Dvur Hoffmeister a Winner though is the warmth and good feeling that radiates from the front desk, thru the halls into the rooms. There is art everywhere – apparently the Grand-father of the current owners was a Surrealistic painter – and he collected work from all his friends. There is a completely amazing amount of top drawer art work on display. The ‘surreastic’ motif extends into the lovely dinning area – a brick walled, arch coved space with wide spread tables – and almost comfortable chairs!

Our first night there we did run into a problem – and how the staff handled the problem would make a great episode on “Hotel Impossible”. First off – I arrived feeling really terrible. I hate those long flights – and for some reason the flight from Frankfurt to Prague just wiped me out. I could barely stand up.

We found the place – and the staff member on duty took one look at me and said – I’ll get you a room right now – we’ll discuss where you’ll stay later. They brought me into a gloriously huge suite – 4 poster king bed, glorious art, huge bathroom – and let me sleep. Victor – despite his protests to the contrary – also fell asleep. Several hours later – much recovered – we arose to discuss options with the host.

The problem – a fairly large – 30 person – company party was scheduled in the restuarant and the bar that night – including a DJ scheduled to play until 2:00 AM. Our glorious suite was right over the bar, and they were pretty sure we didn’t want to try to sleep there. We agreed – and chaned rooms.

They moved us into a room over one of the 3 stable areas. It too had lovely art, a huge bathroom (with a whirlpool tub), but no 4 poster bed. That said – it was quiet, and there was plenty of room for our stuff – and when re-enacting – you have stuff. So we dragged out suitcases out of the lovely suite, and up a metal staircase to our room in the stable. We were so happy.

The tiny village hosts another restuarant – but we were so impressed with how we’d been treated – we wanted to give the Dvur Hoffmeister our business – so we asked – what do we do for dinner. They offered us two choices. We could get dinner served in our room – or we could eat in the bar area – while the DJ was doing his set-up. We opted for the bar – and we had a fab meal – pleasant company – and got to see a bit of the party as it warmed up in the main dining room.

Then to bed – the next day we were travelling on to the site of the re-enactment. But breakfast first of course.

Like the Belcardi – breakfast was included – and what a difference. No machine for making coffee – nope – our lovely hostess – who had gotten to bed at 3:00 after the party ended – was there to make us expresso or Lattes with a proper expresso machine – and cook us eggs or an omlet to order. There was a small – but yummy – selection of pastries, bread, jam, sliced peppers, cucumbers – and a bit of meat to enjoy as as well. Yummy. How did it differ from the much larger spread at the Belcardi? The hostess smiled at us – welcomed us to breakfast – made us feel at home. I’m certain she’d put in a lot more hours than our sullen friend at the Belcardi – but she didn’t let on how tired she was – just greeted us and made us feel so very very welcome!

2nd night – We loved the Dvur so much – we checked out of the horrid Hotel Belcardi and drove back to the Dvur after the Sunday formal celebrations at Austerlitz. Now that’s a winner of a hotel. We even opted to stay in our room over the stables. The thought of that lovely warm bathtub was simply too thrilling.

Another glorious dinner – this time in the dinning room – another great breakfast in the bar area – and then back to the airport.

So one winner – one loser – nice trip in total.

Signing off to go run a market stall in London (you’ll have to check the next blog to see how that goes) – The soup lady.

We sleep in the Stables –


I’m not joking – we are really staying in a Horse Barn very close to Prague in the Czech Republic.

We left Montreal for Prague what feels like months ago – but was only the day before Yesterday. Travel is tough on aging bodies – and long air flights in sub-economy is not the stuff of luxury and relaxation. But given my lowly status – I faired pretty well.

I went on line to check in – and decided to ‘change seats’ – just to see if magically a free upgrade to business or first class with better food, nicer service, and a bed would happen.

Nope. Lowly cheap economy is where I was doomed to be.

But – I did notice that the back 4 rows of the air craft – middle section – were empty. Humm. If I take one of those seats – maybe I’ll have the row to myself.

SCORE!

So I did, and I did. I watched a great movie – Mr. Holmes – you should see it – ate a lousy dinner – jokingly described as an elegant chicken dish with heritage rice and a rich hand picked tomato sauce, served with a fresh salad, hot roll with virgin butter, and a rich chocolate cake, layed with love and 4 different types of chocolate. Would you like water with that?

In reality – it was mystery chicken in a plastic dish with plastic cutlery, a square of semi-fresh chocolate cake (highlight of the meal), a salad that might have been fresh in January, and I’ll agree – a hot roll. And yes – I’ll have water with that.

But it’s not about the food – it’s about the 4 seats in a row that were mine, Mine, MINE!

I ate, watched my movie – and then laid down to sleep. I know I slept because my dinner dishes disappeared – and a ‘breakfast bread’ in plastic wrap appeared when I woke up. Easiest long flight ever.

Unfortunately – I didn’t fare as well on the next leg – from Franfurt to Prague. Either the time change got to me or that mystery meat was a deadly error – but my stomack was in serious knots by the time the plane had landed and we’d found the rental car place. We drove about 15 minutes to our hotel – and I was so seriously sick – the hotel owner took pity on me and put me in the only room that had been cleaned. What did I care – I sunk into bed – and tried hard to make myself feel better.

Several hours later – much restored – I arose – and swore off mystery chicken on airlines forever. And finaly – got to explore my location.

We’re at the Dvur Hoffmeister in Cicovice, Czech Republic – it’s a small Pensionne 10 minutes from the Prague airport  – just 7 rooms and a restaurant and a bar attached to the biggest horse training center I’ve ever seen. The training stable is amazing. It’s spotless clean – and filled with glorious horses. I feel in total love with a giant sweet heart of a horse – He’s what’s known here as a KWPN – Dutch Warmblooded Show Horse – and he’s huge! Seriously huge. My husband, Victor, stook next to him – and his head is probably 4 times larger than Victor’s head. And at 6′ – Victor could not see over his back. Huge.

According to Ria Hoffmeisterova – she’s the gal that runs the stable – and the sister of Ava Hoffmesiterova – the gal who runs the restaurant and Pennsione – and the daughters of the owner of the Dorf Hoffmeister – this horse is owned by an 18 year old gal who is on the Czech National Jumping team. No kidding.

Beautiful Horse.

Anyway – the stable has over 40 horses – ponies to huge jumpers like my friend, two indoor areans – one huge for jumping, one smaller Yurt shapped one for doing laps, at least 2 huge outdoor arenas, multiple outdoor pasture areas, at least 5 different stable areas for horss – we’re sleeping over one of these – a horse washing room that has a sunlamp section for ‘drying’ the hose – and a horse Gym!

I spotted the Ria leading a horse into what seemed to be a small – open at both ends – trailer. But it wasn’t a trailer – it was a treadmill for horses! No TV to watch – I guess it must get pretty boring, but the horse is lead inside, tied to the front bar, and the treadmill started. And the horse gets his exercise. Seriously. You ever heard of such a thing before?

Another odd thing – and maybe this is related to the fact that this is a super fancy horse stable – all the horses – every single one – had a blanket on. Big thick things, that fastened around the horse’s body – covering the butt as well as the entire body. And even when they were riding the horses in the arena area – they kept the blankets on the horses. just rolled a bit back to allow room for the tiny English saddles. Victor thinks it might be to keep them from growing winter coats.

Not that it is that cold here – maybe 45 degrees – warm by Montral Standards – but then the stables aren’t heated. In fact – they are interesting in themselves. I’ve seen lots of stables before – but these are the first I’ve seen with windows. And the horses seem to love standing with their heads out the windows – watching the action in the courtyards. To enter and leave their stalls – there are the traditional stall grates and fences – but every single stall had a window on the opposite wall – room with a view – for the horses!

We wandered freely around the space – watched the young ladies taking care of their ponies – exercising them, washing their feet, general stable stuff. There was no one working on jumping that we got to see – but it’s clear this is a serious place for training – and our host told us that this is the home to one of the National Level Training Schools for Jumpers in Czech.

Not surprised – it’s glorious.

Enough about the stable – on to the food and the rooms.

First – the food.

Victor booked us here because it was very close to the airport – and had good reviews. Well – the food totally justified the reviews. We ate dinner in the bar – the restaurant was reserved for a large party (more on that later) – but they offered us the full menu. I had octopus salad – made with spicy sausage – it was outstanding, and a su-vide preperation of pork belly that was also delicious. The pork meat was yummy- and the fat had been hard fried to a delightful crispness. Victor had a goat cheese appetizer that he thought excellent, and a deer filet dish that he also approved of. I thought my choices were better though. The only disappointment was dessert. I ordered a pear tart tatine – and I expected a tart – but it was deconstructed – so there was too much pear to pastry in my opinion. But I ate it all – so it couldn’t have been that bad.

Now the Lodging

There are just 7 rooms – and we were lucky enough to stay in 2 of them. The first was glorious. The walls leading up the winding stone staircase was filled with paintings and prints by surrealistic artisis – including Chagal, Dali, and others. Mostly sketches of course – but still. The room was ‘over the bar’ – and it was huge. Giant oversized bathroom with double sinks, and a deep European style tub, The room had a king sized 4 postered bed wtih draps tied back on all 4 sides, a giant sofa and arm chairs, and room to wander. The floor boards were at least 18″ wide – clearly old lumber, loving re-furbished to a high gloss.

The bed had those traditional European feather covers – two of them – once for each sleeper. Why they get folded sideways I don’t know – but opened up and turned 90 degress they are very comfortable. But who noticed – I was feeling so ill I just sank into the bed and pretended I wasn’t dead.

The bad news – this was supposed to be our room – but there was going to be a party that night in the bar – with a DJ going till 2:00 AM. And our host suggested that maybe – despite the beauty of the room – we’d be happier in a room that was smaller – but would be quiet.

Which is why we’re sleeping over the horse stable. There are 3 rooms loving rebuilt with lovely grohe faucets and comfy beds, huge sofas and TVs over the Stables. We walk past the horses – who lean out their windows to give us warm sniffs – up a metal staircase and into our hallway. Once in the hall – the space is modern and lovely and clean – and there’s no obvious evidence that you are in fact – above a stable. Our room – while not nearly as over the top as the first is quite comfortable – and our tub is a jetted double seating deep bather. It’s bath time tonight!

As for being over the stables – Except for the occasional horse moving around his paddock and the noise of the staff closing the big doors to the stables at around 6:00 PM – and I’m guessing we’ll hear them being opened tomorrow morning – but for now – all is dark, quiet, and peaceful.

Signing off to go snuggle back in bed.

The Soup Lady

It’s back to Civilization – or Brussels on the Cheap….


After our uneventful flight to Brussels – and equally uneventful train/metro to our hostel – we are delighted to be welcomed at the “Sleephere” Hostel!

Karl is an incredible host – and our palace on the 3rd floor (yes – it’s a walk up – again) – is glorious. We finally have our own bathroom – and it has marble everywhere! Shower, sink, floor, walls – it’s so beautiful – and just ours! No sharing. I hate sharing – there is something about dealing with other people’s mess that just doesn’t work for me. The Intrepid Traveler and I have our corners – we allocate our spaces and know automatically whose towel is whose. I suppose it’s a bit like an old married couple – but with none of the strains!

Our Palace – besides having it’s own bathroom – is lovely. It’s in the attic of a home built originally in the 1600’s – then renovated in the 1800’s – our room was one of the last added – and our ceiling height ranges from 10′ in the center to under 5′ on the sides. I know this for certain – I’m bumped my head twice already. But it’s clean, it’s got windows on 4 sides – and we’re very very happy to have a space that is ours alone.

The common area of the “SleepHere” is awesome. Leather furniture everywhere – and super comfortable. There’s a Piano (which our host plays occasionally), a large TV, a giant dinning room table where they serve a lovely breakfast (can you say – coffee please), and a huge kitchen with tons of working space, a nice fridge, lots of dishes ands of glasses.

Most importantly to me – and the reason I reserved here in the first place – a garden terrace. The Intrepid Traveler and I are so very pleased to have a terrace – and the roses and peony’s are in bloom.

I chat up Karl – and get a quick tour of the dorm rooms. We’re in the only double – but the house sleeps 20. The dorm bathrooms – like ours – are all done in marble – and equally glorious. Unlike Russia – where the name of the game was to cram as many beds into a sleeping space as possible – here there are no bunk beds, and everyone has a ‘dresser’ to call their own. It’s dorm living the upper class way! Karl proudly shows me the historic parts of the house – the current entrance was the original carriage way – and when they had to do some repairs to the ground floor – they dug up the original foundations – from the 1600’s. This place is amazing.

We dump our gear, relax with our bread and cheese in the garden for a late dinner and it’s relatively early to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day.

Some quick notes – Brussels, in comparison to St. Petersburg, is dirty! There’s dog poop everywhere, overflowing garbage cans, and homeless camped out here and there. This is when I realize what I didn’t see in St. Petersburg – homeless and garbage. Interesting, eh? I also realize that people smile and say hi a lot more here – and the kids are playing. All things we missed for 2 weeks.

Up early on Saturday, we relax over breakfast at the hostel – our host makes a point of joining everyone at breakfast – and it’s time to share information. Where are you from? Where are you going? What are your plans for the day? Did you see something cool? We relax – we chat – and then it’s on to our plans for the day – Laundry first!

That is when Sticker Shock really hits us – and it hits hard. In St. Petersburg – laundry was free. Here it’s 3.5 Euro a load to wash, and since the token machine was empty at the laundry mat – drying is going to be done the hard way – on a line, in our room. And it’s not just the laundry that pricy – fruit is twice the price, wine in the grocery store is double what it was in St. Petersburg – even the bread is more expensive.

Quick lunches – which we could find for $5 (4 Euro) in St. Petersburg are 22 Euro here. I’m sure they are worth the extra money – but how as budget travelers are we going to survive? It’s going to be take out and grocery stores for us here!

Laundry done – we walk the streets of Brussels. The area near the hostel is closely packed with restaurants and shops – and of course a Catholic Church – so services are on the menu for this afternoon. We also tour the Grand Place – the tourist heart beat of the city. 6:00 finds us at the Cathedral – listening to the organ play as services start. For dinner we opt for take-out – Peking Duck, Rice and a nice bottle of White Wine. Like St. Petersburg – it’s light out till almost 11:00 PM – so while it feels early, it’s actually quite late when we crawl up the 2 additional flights of stairs to our palace.

Sunday – up somewhat early – we head out to the Weekly Flea Market – and not surprisingly – anything nice is very expensive. The sellers (mostly professionals who do this for a living) are clearly very aware of the value of every single thing that they own – and price it accordingly. Silver – real silver – is extremely expensive – and while stuff from the 50’s and 60’s abound – anything that smacks of history or value is long gone. I struggle to find a set of silver spoons – and end up with 12 nice looking silver plated ones. Not as great as I’d hoped – but better than no spoons! Oh well.

For lunch we need to sit down – so we find a relatively inexpensive cafe – and share a bowl of onion soup and a Croque Monsieur. It adds up quickly – but we are so happy to have a toilet and a place to just sit – we just quietly camp out and let the world pass by for a while. This is why we can’t do organized tours anymore – when we crash and burn – we need to stop!

Vitals restored – we walk towards our next destination – the Royal Art Musuem. On the way – we pass a ‘Frite’ Stand – and I do a hard left! No way I’m not having French Fries here – they are so yummy with Mayonnaise. We share a big cone of awesome frits – and continue on our way.

At the museum – they are doing a major exhibit on Chagal, one of my favorite artists – but at 15.50 Euro – each – it’s well over our price range. We opt for the much less pricy permanent exhibits – and tour the ‘Margrite’ museum, and the old masters. Rubens, Rembrant, Bosch, and of course 6 paintings by the Bruggers – 3 younger, 3 older. All magnificant. Dinner is wine, bread, and brie. Yum.

Monday – all museums are closed in Brussels – at least all the major ones. So we do the public tram tour. You buy a one day ticket for just a few Euro, and ride from one end of the line, out all the way to the other end – and back! It’s really interesting to see what Brussels looks like when you aren’t in the heart of historic Brussels!

Back at the hostel we have a lovely easy dinner – bottle of wine, cheese, some of the lovely sausages that are literally everywhere – and conversations on topics ranging from life in the US, to finding and keeping a good boyfriend, to getting into a good university, to the challenges of deciding on your direction in life. All the things that young people worry about – and old people – like us – love to listen to! (and secretly sing – “I’m so glad I’m not young anymore”)

Tuesday – our last day together on this trip – and we decide to tour 2 different museums – the Military life museum and the Museum of Ethnology – I want to see the statue from Easter Island. We keep running into fellow re-enactors – the Battle of Waterloo 2015 (200th anniversary) is this weekend – and of course a tour of the Military museum in Brussels is a must. I will admit that the exhibit they had on World War II – from the Belgium perspective – was extremely well done, and very very interesting.

Despite the sticker shock – our economies have paid off – and we actually have enough Euro’s left to spluge on a nice dinner. Our decision – Waffles and Hot Chocolate at one of the top chocolate makers in Beligum! Oh my – it’s delicous. Awesome actually. Seriously finger licking good.

Wednesday – Victor – lovely Victor – picks us up at the hostel with his rental car and we battle our way out to the airport to send the Intrepid Traveler home. These 4 weeks have just flown by.

Then my husband and I head back to the area near my hostel to eat a seafood lunch of mussels (yum) and frits. I’m really getting addicted to those frits – and while mussels aren’t in season – (June has no “r” in it) – they still beat the pants off most of the mussels we get in Montreal. Then it’s on to our BnB and to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball.

So – having basically caught everyone one up to date – I’m signing off now.

Blog alert – the next blogs are going to be re-enacting based – Napoleon’s forces are massing on the borders of Belgium – the trumpets are sounding – and it’s off to war I must go.

The Soup Lady

Communal Living – Soviet Style – Still happening in St. Petersburg


During the Cold War days – finding housing in St. Petersburg was virtually impossible – so many families ended up in communal flats – one appartment shared by 2 or 3 or more families – one shared kitchen, one shared bathroom – but seperate bedrooms.

Why do I bring this up? It turns out that this life style still happens in St. Petersburg. Even though the housing crisis has long since eased up – owning your own flat is simply beyond the possible for many families – particularly if the parents are divoriced, or you are not sure you’ll be staying in the city, or you are a student. Our new friend proudly announced that she had just managed to get her own flat – and her son is 9.

We managed to experience Communal living – St. Petersburg style – personally – not by choice however.

When we arrived at the MIR hostel and discovered it was 5 very long, very hard flights up and had to change, we also knew that the Suricata couldn’t host us for the last night (the 11th) of our stay. They had previous bookings – and we were not willing to share a bunk room with strangers.

So the manager of the Suricata – Sergey – arranged for us to stay in another hostel for the last 2 nights of the stay. He even helped us move our luggage – and to give him full credit – called each night to be sure we were fine. Our new landlady spoke no English – and he was concerned.

He didn’t need to be – sometimes you can manage to communicate even if you actually have no words in common. I learned she had an altar to her dead husband, discovered she was from the Crimera and I found out that she’d only been managing this ‘hostel’ for 3 days.

She worked hard every night scrubing and cleaning, and supervised two ‘workers’ – who were being paid to do the painting and repair work. She was always up before we were – and went to bed much later.

The physical space definitely had it’s issues. The hostel is on 2 floors – each one has a kitchen and a bathroom. But since each floor sleeps 10 people at least – we’re talking 1 bathroom per 10 people. And unlike the Suricata – the shower is in the bathroom – so one person taking a shower – no one is going pee! I’m thinking that it’s a good thing that a) it’s still under construction, so the entire 2nd floor is off limits – and 2 of the 5 ‘bedrooms’ is unoccupied. We had no issues – but it did make me worried.

There was no WIFI, the kitchen was insanely small, the sink in the one bathroom was cracked, the shower on our floor had seen much, much better days, and the beds were so soft you couldn’t even sit on them without sinking down to the floor. The kitchen walls were badly in need of painting, which they were working on – so I feel a bit bad saying anything. The stairs in the hall leading up to the ‘hostel’ were cracked and sagging cement – a tad scary – but I figured they had held up this long – they should make it 2 more days!

Plus – there’s the communal living issue. One room of the flat was Tanya – the host’s – bedroom – another bedroom was occupied by a young girl attending school in St. Petersburg (clearly not a tourist), and the third room was ours. It was fairly obvious that having tourists was a completely unexpected surprise – and while they were very nice about making sure we were comfortable – some standard hostel attributes were missing. No common, no tea or coffee available, and limited cooking supplies. We all shared the one toilet – and tried politely to keep out of each other’s way. Tricky in a tiny kitchen with a table with only 2 chairs. The Intrepid Traveler is fairly sure that the other ‘guests’ didn’t have kitchen privileges – based simply on their never using them!

But we took it on the chin – the company was interesting, the location very good, and there was only 1 flight of stairs. Our kind of place!

After putting our stuff in the new hostel, we still had time for 2 museums – and a really good dinner for under $5 per person!

Our first stop was the Imperial House of Porcelain – where they have a simply amazing collection of Porcelain items – some made by the Imperial House – some coming from France, Germany, or even Great Britian. I particularly liked the ‘People’s of Russia’ series of huge ‘dolls’, carefully sculptured into dramatic poses – and wearing ‘clothes’ painted to resemble the traditional clothes from that region.

Our 2nd stop was the Andrew Nevsky Monestary – and while the church was very nice, we felt that visitng trhe graves of artists and composers like Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. was back to that Russian streak of Macabre.

As we were leaving the Monestary – we spotted their ‘tea-room’ – and decided to check out their dinner offerings. I had a wonderful Borscht – I’m definitely getting addicted to this typically Russian beet soup – or maybe it’s just the sour cream. The Intrepid Traveler opted for one of those mystery meat balls with rice – it was yummy as well.

Well fed, and suitably ‘cultured’ – we head for the Mariinsky. Tonight we have tickets to Carmina Burna – and I’m excited. As well I should be – it’s perfect. Double orchestra, double choir, kids choir on the side for balance, 3 soloists – the only thing missing is the ballet component – but even the Mariinsky must have to compromise somewhere.

The concert is completely, totally, absolutely outstanding. Perfect. There is round after round of curtain calls – and we love it. The conductor decides that the audience deserves an encore – and from the stage calls for the orchestra to play and the singers to sing. More perfection!

Moral – if you find yourself going to St. Petersburg – immediately get tickets to the theatre. It’s worth every single penny.

And the 2nd dress circle – aka Balcony – is perfect. First row – as centered as possible. Stay away from the 3rd circle – it’s the highest balcony – and I got scared going to my seat. I couldn’t stand facing outwards to slide into my row – and had to file in facing the back wall of the Theatre. That’s scary!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Ah plans – such great plans we had for St. Pete’s


When I was doing my research on St. Petes – the best hostel for our purposes seemed to be the MIR. It is extremely well located – 2 minutes to a metro station, 4 minutes to the Hermitage – and it offered private rooms. I carefully took 2 rooms – one for the Intrepid Traveler and I to share, and one for MP and her suitcase. And they were extremely helpful and efficient at getting us the papers needed for our Visas.

In Russia – in order to get a visa – which is required before you leave home – you must know where you will be staying, and of course you must have your tickets to leave. No problems if you are using a travel agency based in Russia – but if you are an independant traveler like MP, IT and myself – well – not that easy. So while in Canada, I had relied on the wonderfully efficient folks at MIR to get me the necessary paper work – and do it again when we realized I’d given them the wrong names.

So – we arrive at the airport and must admire the size of MP’s suitcase – it literally dwarfs both IT and my tiny carry ons (MP is travelling for 10 days, we’re travelling for 4 weeks – go figure). To get to St. Pete’s – you have several choices – Taxi for around 900 ruples and bus/metro for 68 ruples. We choose bus/metro! What we don’t know is that MP’s suitcase needs it’s own ticket. One for her – one for the suitcase – on the bus, and on the metro too! Hence the nickname!

We quickly realize that there is a HUGE difference between the metro’s in Berlin and those in St. Petes. In Berlin, every station has an elevator – plus escalators. And they are all well signed and easy to find. Not so in St. Pete’s. Ignoring the issue on Cyrillic – which since it’s their language, one expects them to use it – the Russian Metros just don’t have elevators. We did find some escalators in the biggest and deepest stations, but certainly not everywhere – and often they are connected by stairs.

Since both the Intrepid Traveller and I have issues lifting our suitcases – tiny as they are – and MP is dragging Mrs. P, well the lack of elevators is going to be a problem.

Only it turns out – it’s not!

MP tells IT to just wait at the bottom of the staircases until she carries Mrs. P up the steps – she’ll come back for her suitcase. But before she can get back down – and often even before she gets to the top – a young Russian gentleman has noticed IT’s issue – and has grabbed her bag and is carrying it up – or down the steps. Over and Over again! We’re impressed. Is it her white hair? IT says she thinks it’s her bewildered expression!

In any case – we navigate the Metro – figure out fairly quickly how to recognize the first few letters in Cyrillic for each station name – and get where we are going – the front door of the MIR hostel.

As advertised – it’s perfectly located – right on Nevsky Blvd.

Unadvertised – it’s also up 5 flights of stairs – with no elevator.

Ensuite bathrooms or not – this won’t work. The Intrepid Traveller and I stayed in a 5 floor walk-up in Sicily – it almost killed us. And we’re older now. We can’t stay here.

MP and I walk up and up and up, go thru security to enter the hostel (video ID required) – and I throw myself literally on the feet of the hosts. Fortunately the hosts speak excellent English – and they take pity on us. They will both cancel our reservation (no refund on the deposit however) – and find us somewhere else to stay. They call around while I search the internet. It’s a challenge. We can’t find any where that has space, 2 rooms, and ensuite bathrooms – and under 3 flights of stairs. It’s impossible in the hostel world of St. Petes.

Finally – the MIR folks find one that can give us the 2 rooms – but we will be sharing the bathrooms. And the reviews aren’t great – noisy, and small and not well located. But at least it’s a bed for the night. MP and I drag our suitcases and our tired bodies back down the 5 flights – and together the 3 of us head back towards the Metro.

My nose suddenly does a sharp left turn. What is that delightful smell? It’s a Pastry shop – and what a wonderful pastry shop it is too! Traditional Russian Pies – some with meat, salmon, onion and egg – and some with Strawberry, Cherry, Cranberry, and Apple. And coffee. Good coffee.

No lunch – little breakfast – and 5 flights up and down have me feeling completely drained – it’s time to stop. So we do. And it’s delicous. And the lovely young waitress speaks excellent English. Sigh – things are looking up in St. Petes.

The name of this haven – Stolle – and afterwards I look it up in Tripadvisor – it’s #88 of 8,034 restaurants in St. Pete’s. Pretty good nose, eh?

While MP and the Intrepid Traveller relax over their tea and crumpets – I search the net for another option – and I find one – the Suricata Hostel

It’s about 7 minutes walking from where we are – only one flight of stairs to navigate – the half-a-dozen reviews are all positive – and at this point. I’m ready to try anything that doesn’t have a description that includes noisy. But how to make sure they have room? And we have reservations elsewhere. It’s back up the 5 flights of stairs to the only people I know in St. Pete’s that a) speak English and b) have a phone that isn’t calling Canada first.

The folks at Mir come thru again – they reach the owner of the Suricata – and we’re booked into a 4 bed dorm – holding all 4 beds for just the 3 of us. Yes we’ll have to use a shared bathroom – but there’s only one short flight of stairs – and the reviews are good.

We’re off.

The Suricata is a brand new hostel – I think we are the 2nd guests – and everything still has it’s IKEA labels attached. We are the only guests – so it’s really a fairly large apartment for 3. The bathrooms aren’t en-suite – we have to walk past the extremely friendly security and front desk and consierge all rolled into one very pleasant young Russian man – to get to the bathroom or the showers – but the beds are nice, the room has a huge window, and there’s a washer! The kitchen is tiny by hostel standards – and if they ever get the dorm rooms (there’s one with 8 beds and another with 10) filled – there won’t be enough room or toilets for everyone – but for us – for now – it’s perfect.

We’re home.

For dinner we wander the streets, eventually finding what turns out to be the most standard of designs for ‘low-cost’ eating in St. Petes – a cafeteria. But it’s a nicer cafeteria – with friendly helpful ‘chef’s’ behind stations – and prices clearly posted. I have a chicken dish, The Intrepid Traveller feasts on a version of a sauage roll and MP enjoys veggies and chicken dish as well. We’ll actually probably coming back – the combination of easy to understand what you’ll be eating – even if the seasoning – while delicous – is surprising at times, and the low cost is hopelessly appealing!

Bed time for bunny rabbits – tomorrow will be a busy day

The Soup Lady and her traveling companions – the Intrepid Traveler and Mr. Piatgorsky signing off.

9 Lessons on Feeding the Body – on the Cheap!


Ah restaurants! One of the intense joys, and most frightening aspects of extended travel in an unknown city is deciding where to eat. I’ve picked winners so good I was blown away – and losers so bad, I feared for my digestive system. But along my culinary journey into the unknown – I have learned some important lessons – which I happily share.

Lesson 1: Believe in the Impossible – I’m a budget traveler – which means I travel on under $50 a day – a seemingly impossible task actually. I’m definitely getting tired of reading how travel under $100 a day is impossible. Not true! I’ve done 8 big trips in the past 10 years – and trust me – budget travel is possible. You can try almost everything a country has to offer – aside from the seriously touristy junk – just by living more like locals – and less like accidental tourists. Just have faith.

Lesson 2: Grocery stores can be your Friends – Seriously – that’s where locals shop, right? And many grocery stores these days cater to locals who have no time to cook at home. Often you can score entire meals that just require a bit of re-heating – but are properly prepared, and come with friendly advice. In a grocery store in Thailand we happened on a clerk with time to spare – and she gleefully gave us a full guided taste tour of all the offerings! When she finished – we stuffed! Best Dinner, ever! Another advantage of grocery stores – price tags! So you know what things cost without having to bargain. That’s a lot easier on a poor language frustrated budget oriented foreigner. Yes you might get a bit better deal at the markets – but the advantage of knowing before you hit the cash that you’ve stayed on budget is a huge plus – particularly the first few days.

Lesson 3: NEVER eat in a restaurant with only tourists as guests. Consider – if all the restaurant is catering to are tourists – what does it say about their repeat clientele? If the locals are there – there must be a reason. My favorite places are filled with happy locals – I fondly remember a breakfast in Puerto Rico where the local police force were enjoying the Puerto Rico version of donuts and coffee. Hot food, quickly served, Delicious.

Lesson 4: Avoid Buffets like the Plague – I’ve never really understood Buffet eating. First off – I have a fairly tiny appetite – so I’ll never eat enough to make it worth the price. Second – who ever saw locals in a buffet? Even here in Montreal – I’m very picky about going to a buffet – and if I do – you can be sure it’s going to be amazing. Third – Hygene issues abound. People put their hands on the food – and then decide not to take it. Yuk. And they cough and sneeze and blow their noses right over what may become my dinner. Yuk again. Ordering from the kitchen doesn’t guarentee that hygene rules will be respected – but at least my food is only exposed to the kitchen staff and servers – and I can hope they have been well trained. Exceptions to this rule – I do like buffet breakfasts – particularly the ones included in my room rate. Why – because I love eating fruit and drinking unlimited cups of coffee!

Lesson 5: Never eat in an empty Restaurant. I mean – why would you want to go where no one else has gone. What does that say about food turn-over? Unless the kitchen is making the food literally to order – an empty restuarant means that the food is sitting, cooling down, increasing in bateria count – waiting for someone to enter. Nope – not for me. I want a restaurant with a good crowd – at least partly locals – and a positive vibe. I’ve traveled with people who feel sorry for the hostess of an empty restaurant – but not my style – and hardly my recommendation.

Lesson 6: Avoid Hostess out on the street trolling for customers. Come on – be serious – why do you think they are out there? Because business is great? I don’t think so. They are out there because business is bad, and they think this will improve matters. But I don’t want to eat where business is bad – nor do you!

Lesson 7: Share the meal. In Europe, at lunch time, restuarants will often have a 3 course special. The Intrepid Traveller and I have discovered that there is enough food in one 3 course lunch to serve us both. Problem – not all restaurants are willing to serve one ‘lunch’ for two people. So – we ask. I’m actually amazed when the host says – “No Problem” – but it happens more often than not. Result – Delicious food and on budget!

Lesson 8: Don’t be afraid to ‘eat in’. A bottle of wine (2 Euros in most of Italy), Sausage, cheese, bread… You are feeding the soul when you eat like this – and it’s easy on both the budget and the feet.

Lesson 9: Walk Out if you must. Oh – this is so hard for us to do. We try not to be trapped in places we can’t afford – but it has happened. And the trick is to realize that you are in the wrong place, appologize and leave. Yes – it’s embarassing – but at least you are being honest. Be sure to look a bit ashamed – I always imagine the other diners are feeling a bit sorry for you.

So – enough advice about feeding the body – although I can’t resist just reminding my loyal readers that the best advice ever is just to be curious – be willing to take chances, and follow the locals. Budget travel doesn’t have to be cheap travel – and you can eat really well if you find the right places!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

The Basics on Getting Out and About – Pre-Planning matters!


How do you start planning a trip? Do you decide when, pick a place – and then find out what’s going on there? Or do you do the reverse – decide what you want to do – find out when it’s happening – and then move foward?

I take a combo approach.

First step – Pick some place interesting to visit. That’s the most random part for me – because basically anywhere I’ve never been – and sometimes places I have been – are on the hot list. Budget matters too of course – we’re very restricted – $3000 for 4 to 5 weeks of travel – including air fare – doesn’t leave a lot of room for places to sleep and food to eat. So Cheap places tend to perk up to the top of our list – seriously expensive to visit places – like London – tend to perk down. But there are other concerns besides value for our Canadian bucks.

We love interesting places – historical places – places off the more beaten paths. While that may explain China in 2007 and Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2005 – it doesn’t explain Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Brussels in 2015. Nope – this next trip is not off the beaten path – but it will deviate from the norm in terms of how long we’ll be staying in each city.

Unlike most of the folks I’ve chatted with – we’re spending 2 whole weeks in St. Petersburg. Our inital thought was to have enough time to do the Hermitage slowly – 4 days felt right to us based on our inital reading. This contrasts with the more normal visit of 1/2 day if you are off a cruise ship – or even 3 days as is described in many guide books – including Tripadvisor.com. Honestly – how can you possibly see anything in 3 days in a city as complex as St. Petersburg? On tripadvisor – the 3 day plan puts the Hermitage, the Faberge Museum, and the State Russian Museum – all in one day. Are you supposed to run thru the museums? Just find the greatest hits and go?

Not my style.

Berlin was a must do for the Intrepid Traveller – she’s never been – and historically it’s a really interesting place. Great museums too – so win win as far as we’re concerned. A week there is the minimum. But then – for us – a week in a city is pretty much a minimum regardless of the city!

And last but not least – Brussels. We’re cutting that one short – just 5 nights – but the Battle of Waterloo looms large – and I hear the trumpets calling me to battle! (More on Waterloo and fighting for the Emperor in another blog).

So on to inital planning.

Once The Intrepid Traveller and I had agreed on where – it was a question of when. I first check weather, and then check for when a place gets crowded. I want to avoid the worst weather, and I definitely want to avoid high season. Shoulder seasons work best for budget travellers – restaurants have better specials, theatre offerings are more geered towards locals, lower cost housing is easier to find.

High season is definitely to be avoided!

So – St. Petersburg in late spring sounded perfect. And we totally lucked out with that option – because low and behold – there’s the ‘White Night’ Festival. We here in Montreal know all about ‘Blanc Nuit’ – but for us – it’s held during our coldest month – an attempt to cheer us up during the doldrums of winter. In St. Petersburg – it’s about 24 hour long days! And even better – it’s all about theatre – the major ballet troops (at the Marlinsky and Mikhallovsky Theatres) are performing one outstanding ballet after another. By shopping early – I scored center seats in the 3rd tier – I could have paid a lot more and been on the partiere – but hey $20 to see ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – I’m so on it!

Even better – the opera troops are also performing almost nightly – for similar prices if you are willing to buy early and sit in the 3rd tier. Tickets to Aida and La Travaita – here I come.

So – take advantage of what’s happening when you are there – don’t berate yourself for not being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – plan ahead.

Planning to Feed the Mind. The Intrepid traveler and I adore going to Museums. 42 museums in 5 weeks in Italy is probably our record – spurred on by free museum week in Florence. So before a trip – I research. What is happening in all the major muesums. How do I get tickets? Are there senior prices? Are they closed on specific days – are they super busy on other days? Knowing this information helps prevents standing forelornly in front of locked doors. And more importantly – when you hit the ground in your city of choice – read the signs, get the newspapers – even the touristy ones, and chat up your host. What happening this week that’s special? How do we get to see it? You never know until you look around and ask.

For St. Petersburg – I’ve already bought my passes to the Hermitage – and for Berlin, I’m pricing out the Berlin Museum Card. The options can be overwhelming – which feels frustrating – but the results are generally worth it.

Some more ‘beaten path’ options I tend to avoid include tour buses. I’ve had great experiences on tour buses – the trip in South Korea to the temples springs to mind – but more often than not – bus tours are about the common denominator. You rush past stuff so fast, you can barely read the signs, let alone see things. And too often your fellow tourists are – well – tourists! So generally we avoid the bus tours – considering them expensive and too fast paced. Instead we opt for the slower, more patient route of simply walking a city – or riding public transit! Never underestimate the joys of public transit. Bus routes in most cities are clearly explained in pictorial fashion, so our lack of language skills doesn’t kill us. And they are cheap. You can spot stuff that looks fun – and hop off if you feel like a visit. With no time contraints – and no herding into pricy lousy restaurants for mandatory rest stops.

Ok – enough for this blog – Next up – feeding the Body – so do follow me – I love followers! Signing off to create a blog on eating in strange and wonderful places… The Soup Lady

Planning to feed the body

Ah restaurants! One of the intense joys, and most frightening aspects of extended travel in an unknown city is deciding where to eat. I’ve picked winners so good I was blown away – and losers so bad, I feared for my digestive system. But along my culinary journey into the unknown – I have learned some important lessons – which I happily share.