Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

Happy holidays, and a surprising kind of supermarket music

December 26, 2011

A belated merry Christmas to my Christian and Christmas-celebrating friends! Happy end of Chanukah to my Jewish friends!

We just returned from a week-long family vacation in Puerto Rico, where we rented a big house with my brother, sister and their families. This was a rare and wonderful way to bring everyone from two coasts together and build connections and memories among the young cousins. We swam in the ocean, hiked in the rain forest, bought Puerto Rican fried snacks and cooked our own fried latkes, and took an amazing nighttime kayak trip into a bioluminescent lagoon, where the plankton emit light when disturbed, creating comet-like trails as you move your hand in the dark water.

The trip began in the best of ways — with an email saying that Daughter had been accepted early-decision by N.Y.U.’s film school! This was wonderful news, since she really, really wanted to go there. It’s the perfect program for her, in a city where we have lots of family, and to top things off, it eliminates four months of worry and the need to slog through another three or four applications.

As a little holiday gift, I’d like to share this link to a video from our first day in Puerto Rico.

We had stopped to buy lunch and groceries in Ralph’s Food Warehouse, a U.S.-style supermarket in the town of Humacao. We were surprised to find a live band of drums, horns and a Christmas-clad stilt walker dancing through the aisles. They were sponsored by a local candy company and performing either bomba or plena, two Puerto Rican musical styles based in African drumming. Perhaps someone with more expertise can fill in the details….

A far cry from the Muzak version of Silent Night!

Happy holiday season, and may you and your loved ones have a 2012 filled with health, happiness, and unexpected music.

El Yunque rain forest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Pelican at Punta Santiago / Photo by Ilana DeBare

With the bomba/plena band / Property of Ilana DeBare

I did it!

July 19, 2010

So, dear readers, you graciously put up with my hand-wringing about whether I would make it through our six days of biking in the Czech countryside.

Guess what… I did it!

Me and my trusty steed

It was actually a piece of cake compared with riding Tunnel Road and the Three Bears in Orinda.  There were a handful of hills, but they were not too steep and not too long.

The countryside was gorgeous — poppy fields, woods and rivers, chateaux, small towns filled with 13th and 16th century buildings. Our guide was personable, warm, knowledgeable and a passionate explicator of Czech history and culture. The hotels and other logistics were great.

Sam on his rented Czech recumbent bike

Poppy field

Renaissance facades on the town square in Telc

And — get this — you get to drink beer while you ride!

Czech beer is terrific. It is cheap. At about a dollar, a huge stein of beer is cheaper than bottled water. The countryside is dotted with pubs, each one serving a different local beer on tap. And Czech beer apparently has a lower alcohol content than U.S. beer, so you can stop for a beer break without worrying about the consequences.

A pivo (beer) break -- our Czech guide, Hana, is second from left

(Disclaimer: Czech law says you are not allowed to drink and ride. But we passed enough “cyclo terrazas” filled with bicyclists stopping for lunch and a beer under a shady umbrella that it is clearly not enforced much.)

We’d typically do some sightseeing and then ride in the morning, stop for a huge, delicious lunch and a beer, ride some more, stop for a mid-afternoon beer, and then ride to our hotel in time for for a little more sightseeing and dinner.

And another beer. Or a glass of wine — we had some very good Moravian white wines.

The biggest challenge, physically, was the heat. It was unusually warm, over 90 degrees, and some of the other women on the trip faded and ended up taking the support van. Not me! For the first time in my entire life, I felt like a stud. On the last day, the four other women on the trip opted out of the final hilly 12 miles. But I did the whole thing, along with Sam, a fellow traveller named Jim, and our wonderful guide Hana. We crested the last hill to see the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov spread out before us. Call me Lance! (Well, Lance as he was in 2005.)

We arrive at our last stop, Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov chateau tower

The view of Cesky Krumlov as we arrived

Biking in Europe for the first time, I was struck by just how fitting bicycles are for seeing that part of the world.

Unlike the U.S., Europe exists on a bicycle scale. Its villages and towns were formed in an era when walking or horseback riding were the only forms of transportation. Many villages are spaced about a day’s walk apart. So the scenery is varied — you pass through a village, ride through some fields, come to the next village, cross a hill, come to another village.

And biking helps you transport yourself back into the pre-industrial past, imagining what it was like in the days when the chateaux were filled with nobles rather than historical exhibits, and when villagers relied on town church bells to mark the time of day. (Still today, one chime = 15 minutes after the hour, two chimes = 30 minutes, three chimes = 45.)

Sgraffito house with flower boxes in Slavonice

We stayed overnight in seven small Czech villages — Valtice, Mikulov, Vranov nad Dyji, Telc, Jindrichuv Hradec, and Trebon, and in one larger town, Cesky Krumlov. We could have visited them all by car or bus. But it wouldn’t have felt the same.

There were also some things we simply couldn’t have seen by car. The Valtice area used to be the domain of the aristocratic Lichtenstein family (who now have a state rather than an estate).  Throughout their hundreds of wooded acres, they erected about 13 “follies” — romantic stone structures such as miniature Arc de Triomphes, colonnades, minarets. These structures had no function. They were simply built out in random parts of the woods as a way to show off the family’s wealth and to have an entertaining destination for picnics or hunting trips. (Our guide said that some follies were built when the family ran out of money to contine construction work on their chateaux, but didn’t want to send the Italian architects home, so put them to work on folies until the bigger projects could recommence.)

So there we were, biking along a deserted dirt road in a wooded area, and we’d come upon a grassy clearing with… an Arc de Triomphe! It was surreal and amazing. And it was something that couldn’t have been done by car.

Finding a "folly" in the woods

Bike trail signs near Lednice

It also couldn’t have been done without the Czech Republic’s extraordinary network of bike paths, a 250-mile network of roads and trails between Vienna and Prague called the Greenways.  (Our tour company also goes by the name of Greenways Travel Club.)

Initially created by hiking enthusiasts in the late 1800s, the Greenways paths were revived as a non-profit project after the end of communism in 1989. There were mileage markers and directional signs for bicyclists everywhere we went.

It’s part of a culture that, at least in this southern part of the Czech Republic, is very bike-friendly. We passed tons of Czech families biking with their kids. We passed villagers biking to and from their homes. There were pubs and cafes with facilities for bikes, and hotels that are certified by the government as bike-friendly.

Even the automotive traffic seemed more deferential and friendly to bikes than most places in the U.S.

So… rolling hills that aren’t too steep or long. Constantly changing vistas. Bike-friendly drivers and trails. Minimal traffic. Beer breaks every ten miles or so.

Hey, if we had all that here, I’d be biking with Sam every weekend.

It’s something we should aspire to, here in the U.S. — the bike trail network, if not the beer.

What have I gotten myself into?

May 31, 2010

There are two-word phrases in both English and Yiddish that sum up what I’m thinking right now about our summer plans.

Oy vay.

And uh oh.

Sam and I are going to Europe for a vacation in July that includes a bike tour in the Czech Republic. We will spend six days riding, about 25-30 miles per day.

This is something Sam could do in his sleep — he rides up into the Oakland hills about three times a week, covering anywhere from 15-50 miles per ride, and does several century (100 km or 100 mile) rides each year.

Me? I take weekly spin classes at our gym, but I ride outdoors maybe once a year.

Of course, this whole thing was my idea. I was looking through guidebooks about Central Europe and reading about the food, which seemed like an awful lot of meat, potatoes, dumplings, more meat, and more dumplings. Washed down by the internationally-renowned beer!

I figured that if we didn’t do something drastically active, I would come back looking like a dumpling myself.

Plus biking is a great way to see the countryside in a more detailed and leisurely way than train or car. Sam had been fantasizing about doing a European bike tour for years. So, all in all, a great idea, right?

Then today I started training.

Sam led me on one of his basic bike routes, a 28-mile loop through the Oakland Hills. (For those of you who live in the area, it was up Tunnel Road to Skyline, then down Redwood Rd. into Contra Costa, then back up Pinehurst to Skyline and down Shepherd Canyon, through Montclair down to our house near Broadway. The local bikers all know this loop and just say “Redwood and Pinehurst.”)


I managed it, which is a plus. I didn’t have to walk the bike at all. I only had to make one little rest stop that Sam didn’t make, and that was near the end of the last, biggest hill.

But boy, am I thrashed.

I had done this route once before, a couple of years ago, so I knew when I signed us up for the bike tour that I could do a ride of 25-30 miles. But it was exhausting. And what worries me is the prospect of having to do this for six days in a row.

I have about a month to train, but a week of that will be spent back east visiting family. I think I’ll be able to improve my endurance a little bit (at least get my posterior used to extended periods on a bike seat) but three weeks is not enough time to work any miracles.

So even if I try to train, it will still be throw-the-kid-in-the-pool-and-see-if-she-swims.

Stepping back, the bright side of this is that I am in much better physical shape now, at age 52, than anyone might have predicted when I was a kid. I was on the chubby side and far from an athlete — the kind of kid who loved reading and  artsy stuff, and, when it came to team sports at camp, was always picked last and stuck in the outfield.

I’ve had bad knees since my late teens. I never did sports during college. My only high school sport experience was in freshman year, when a friend and I signed up for track & field because we had crushes on a couple of the the junior boys on the track team. (How would you describe that on the part of a college application that asks about sports involvement? “Running… after junior boys.”)

I’ve benefitted from my generation’s awareness of physical fitness. (Health clubs really became a mass phenomenon as baby boomers hit their 20s and 30s, didn’t they?) I’ve also benefitted from being married to someone who cares about his physical fitness, a nice little bit of low-key peer pressure.

In any event,  the mere fact that here I am — making it to the gym several times a week and now attempting a six-day bike ride — should be worth a few gold stars in my internal report card.

And yes, there will be a van on this bike tour to pick me up if I need to bail at any point.

So things will probably work out fine. And if they don’t, I will come home with some world-class stories of disaster and humiliation. Either way, a vacation to remember.

But right now, my legs are jelly.

And my butt hurts.