A Zamoran Surprise

Plaza Viriato

Pollarded trees on Plaza Viriato seem to hold hands to fashion a protected space

By Jean and Peter Richards

Spain has always been full of surprises for us.

Some of the best places are not in the top tier of tourist attractions, and we are now well past the main circuit in this country we have come to love. The people are almost always friendly, cheerful and helpful. The landscapes are varied and can be terrifyingly steep as well as mesmerizingly flat. The food – fresh fish, beautiful little chops, hearty soups and bountiful salads – tastes good, is served without pretension and seems incredibly reasonable to us.

Often it is the place that is barely mentioned by travelers or guides which turns out to be a treat. So it was at Zamora – a city of 63,000 people, 2,100 feet above sea level in Castile. We expected a commercial-industrial city of the plains but we did not know that the city has a splendid Medieval center, several Romanesque churches, an important and

Asador Casa Mariano

Asador Casa Mariano

beautifully preserved collection of Flemish tapestries and an old-fashioned, pleasant, white-tablecloth asador where the cooking was matched only by the service and price. It was actually exciting to enjoy the kind of simple eatery devoted to local traditions that was once found all over Europe. 


The Parador de Zamora, a palace on the site of an old Muslim citadel, is the place to stay or to start a visit to the old quarter. Stop at the desk for a map and advice, perhaps, from Senõr Zacarias Baz Antón, the head of reception and an enthusiast for his hotel and his city. 

Step out into Plaza Viriato where the sight of the leafless plane trees some call “Burgos trees” evoke Jean Dubuffet’s monumental “Group of Four Trees” in New York. The limbs of the white-barked trees in Castile are grafted together to provide a canopy in summer, but seem at their sculptural best in Spring.

It’s a short stroll along the hilltop from the Parador to the cathedral along beautifully tended streets of well-conserved buildings interspersed with Romanesque church facades most accurately described by Penelope Casas as so austere that they “spurn even the figurative carvings that are typical of the Romanesque, opting instead for an utterly minimalist approach.”

Romaneque façade La Magdelena

Romanesque facade of Santa Maria Magdalena exhibits typically Zamoran restraint


The late Mrs. Casas, a writer who introduced many Americans to the authentic tastes of the Iberian Peninsula, has accompanied us on every one of two dozen trips to Spain in her 1991 non-cookbook, Discovering Spain. Twenty seven years later, it is still relevant and some of the phone numbers are still good. Without her, we might have overlooked Zamora. 

Twelfth century Santa Maria Magdalena on Rua de los Francos is magnificent in the simplicity of its facade ornamented only by its pleasingly proportioned portal. The interior, as happened so often, was unfortunately embellished later. 

A very good coffee was had at Depico Teo on Calle rua los Notarios, 3, a bar that was just opening at 11.

We bid good day to Senior Herminio Ramos, a teacher and community activist remembered in bronze along the way to the Church of San Pedro and San Ildefonso, another fine example of the plain and simple Romanesque. 


Cathedra at Zamora

The 12th century cathedral with its commanding position, square tower, exuberant Byzantine style fish-scaled dome and Romanesque facade on the south has a large and impressively two-stage carved choir, many chapels and a museum with a collection of colorful and intense 15th century Flemish tapestries, four of which depict the Trojan War


An enormous silver processional monstrance is the “No. 1” item on the museum audio guide and there is a huge silver altar in a side chapel of the church which is completely Spanish in taste and smithery.


One of the spectacular Flemish tapestries at Zamora cathedral

It was very pleasant walking around the compact Medieval area, enjoying its patches of mid-April flowers and sitting on its plentiful wooden and stone benches. Only creeping graffiti cast a pall on an otherwise perfect day. Such destruction of what others find beautiful is unconscionable and apparently beyond the interest or abilities of authorities to curb. 

Finding a good restaurant is as much risk as reward in travel. In decades of travel in Spain, we have found that the asadors, restaurants specializing in open hearth grilling or roasting in beehive ovens, can be exceptional.

Chuletillas lechales a la brasa

Succulent milk-fed baby lamb chops

The 2018 Michelin website recommendation of Asados Casa Mariano in downtown Zamora was a great choice. We were the first at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Within a half hour, Mariano was running at a pace that would be frantic were it no so professionally controlled. No one missed a beat as the grillman stoked the roasting fire, filled its clay covered cavities with lamb leg quarters and handled the adjacent steak and chop grill symphonically. Waiters rarely had to wait more than a few seconds for their plates to come up in this quietly efficient dining room. The round-faced captain in his black tuxedo never lost his smile and completely professional attitude, quietly admonishing a waiter for having his apron askew, leading clients up a ramp to a room by walking backwards and just being helpful and pleasant as every table was filled.

Espárragos gratinados con panceta Iberica

Espáragos gratinados con pancetta

White asparagus with pancetta came lightly gratinéed. Baby lamb chops, six in all, chuletillas lechales as la brasa, were sweet and perfectly a point as was the chuleta de ternera, a veal steak. The fries were crisp and fresh. With wine, water, cañas Zamoranas (the light, local cannoli) and coffee, the bill for two came to 68,50€ or $84.62. Our only regret was that we can’t be regulars at Mariano.

We would have stayed at the Zamora Parador had there been room but then would have missed the 70 kilometer drive across the legendary Castillian plains from Benavente where the town is forgettable and the Parador, though faded, is a comfortable hostelry with a fine view. The tower remaining from the original castle has an outstanding Mudéjar coffered ceiling worth a stop on its own. Follow it with a drink on the grassy terrace below taking in the snail-like designs on the ends of the turrets which inspire the name Caricol.

Mudejar dome in tower at Benavente parador

Mudéjar mosca ceiling at Benavente paradorn

We wished that we had followed Mrs. Casas’ other recommendation in “Discovering Spain” and driven the 24 kilometers see the 7th century Visigothic Church rescued from flooding for a reservoir and rebuilt stone by stone at El Campillo in 1930. It is said to be so beautiful that it alone might justify a return to Zamora.

Cañas Zamoranas con helado

Cañas Zamoranos — a fitting end to an interesitng and enlightening day in Zamora

© 2018 by Jean & Peter Richards

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#10 to Shek Tong Tsui

#10 bus

by Peter S. Richards

I had just hopped down from the #10 bus at the Shek Tong Tsui community complex on Queen’s Road West, a hundred meters or so from our hotel in Hong Kong.

There are days when I just love being in Hong Kong. I feel comfortable, safe, and well-fed. I know my way around after spending almost a year and a half in the city on ten trips over the past dozen years.

Beef boat noodles

Bangkok boat noodles with beef

This sense of almost cosmic well-being was evoked this afternoon when we returned home from a wonderful lunch at Samsen, a favorite restaurant specializing in Bangkok street food on the evocatively named Stone Nullah Lane in the Wan Chai district. We had chewy marinated pieces of pork collar covered in fried chopped garlic, with brittle fried pieces of holy basil, accompanied by a spicy sauce; a copious bowl of boat noodles full of beef in chunks, slices and meatballs, garnished with small pieces of fried pork rind, and a plate of Wagyu beef wok-fried with small, cheerful pieces of hot red pepper, garnished with a crispy fried egg and served with rice. Sweet lime tea was served with it, and, for desert we had spongy pandanus dumplings swimming in salted coconut cream. Even though it was the seventh time we had lunched at the restaurant, we still marveled at how satisfying it was. Added to the comforting food was the extraordinarily friendly and welcoming staff.

All over Hong Kong we find people friendly, courteous and kind. We are elderly, not exactly fleet of foot. Almost every time we board a bus, tram or subway train, people pop up to offer seats if none is readily available,

Honestly is prevalent. Taxi drivers always give the full amount of change due, never attempting to garner a tip. In fact, there is virtually no tipping. Better restaurants impose a modest 10% service charge; more is not expected and almost never proffered.


Sign showing which buses stop here

Besides the extraordinary abundance of excellent restaurants at all levels which makes it easy to find a good meal whatever your mood, the transportation system is probably what makes me feel most comfortable. It is the best of any city I know and very reasonably priced. The city seems to have the notion that public transport is for the public. On top of this, we benefit from a scheme which allows senior citizens to take virtually any ride on a bus or subway for 2HK$, the equivalent of 26 cents in U.S. dollars. The glorious trams, which traverse the busiest parts of Hong Kong island, charge a mere 2.30HK$ (33 cents US) while seniors ride them for 1.10HK$ (14 cents U.S.).

The geniuses who created the system must have had us in mind, because almost everywhere we go is serviced conveniently by a conveyance which passes within less than two or three hundred meters of our hotel. The tram, just down on the next street, crosses the northern side of the island, serving the central business district and throbbing neighborhoods from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, with a side loop to Happy Valley with its famed racetrack. We can ride buses to Wan Chai, Mong Kok on the Kowloon side, or to The Peak or Stanley Market. The #54 minibus takes us to the Star Ferry while the #12 minibus wafts us up the steep slope to gentrifying Sai Ying Pun where we can buy what some experts consider the best chili sauce in Hong Kong or enjoy a rotisserie chicken made from a bird flown in from France or even a filling Michelin-rated bowl of soup noodles with meat for 48HK$ ($6.14 U.S).


Aboard the Star Ferry

And I have not yet mentioned our very favorite ride of all — the iconic Star Ferry which plows Victoria Harbor from Central to Kowloon. As seniors, we ride it free! It takes five minutes on a calm day (six or seven if it is very windy) to cross the magnificent harbor, showcasing panoramic views of one of the greatest skylines in the world, nestled in front of Victoria Peak, the 552-meter mountain which is the highest point on Hong Kong island and a major tourist destination.

#10 bus

Sign in the #10 shows upcoming stops

But it is the #10 bus, a sturdy double decker that courses every 8 minutes or so along the 11.9 kilometers between Kennedy Town on the northwest of Hong Kong island and North Point, a dense residential and commercial area, which we find ourselves boarding most often. It takes us to and from the restaurant which serves Bangkok street food in Wan Chai, to stores and art galleries in Central, to the North Point ferry terminal, and brings us conveniently and swiftly back to our hotel after sipping coffee in a quiet plaza tucked away in the enormous Pacific Place complex in Admiralty. Just the other day it took us back to our hotel from the Gagosian art gallery in Central where we went to see Damien Hirst’s famous pickled sharks and calves.

The Bangkok street food was a better deal.

Pickled shark

This shark was already spoken for, but you might get another one for a few million

© 2018 by Jean & Peter Richards

Posted in Asia, Food, Hong Kong, Notes, Tips & Prejudices, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Five Enchanted Days in Hangzhou


Pagoda across West Lake on a foggy morning

by Jean and Peter Richards

Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, is the most beautiful place we have seen in China.

Guides often give the area a half day; we spent five and could have filled more enjoying its magnificent lake, tasty cuisine, abundant museums and friendly people.

West Lake defines the city and sets apart from it, a six and a half square kilometer site comfortably absorbing thousands of people strolling its willow-lined paths in a flow as continuous as water. No photograph, poem or drawing can do justice to its gently interwoven shores, causeways, walkways, islands, pagodas, pavilions and gardens formed over 2,000 years.IMG_9449

When UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) selected the “Ancient Chinese cultural landscape” of the lake and three surrounding hills for Heritage status in 2011, it said it “bears an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of vistas reflecting an idealised fusion between humans and nature.”

IMG_9367That fusion is evident everywhere. Visitors transition from water to land aboard traditional  wooden boats. Water lilies drift against sloping shores graced by weeping willows. Autumn is golden with soap berry and red with maple leaves. Peaceful little gardens with classical stone sculpture are secreted off main walking paths. Pretty pavilions lie ahead of stepping stone crossings with beautiful bridges linking the lake’s many parts. Tourist tat and refreshment is confined inoffensively to compact areas.

Even in December’s chill, the human flow was continuous. We’ve been the only Caucasians in sight many times in China and are accustomed to being a curiosity, but never have we had so many people stare at us, motion to us or photograph us as in Hangzhou. Once, as we sat down for a rest at the end of a walk by the lake, two middle-aged women asked to take a photo then very politely approached, took our hands and kissed each of us on the forehead. We’re so old, we’ve become talismans.

Old age has its advantages in a country which honors it and where people believe that tea drinking helps to ensure it. The National Museum of Tea at Longjing (Dragon) Village is a temple to  the leaf. We spent a half day in the complex set amidst a plantation not far out of town. Not a word of English was spoken, but the explanatory signs were good and the exhibitions on the history, production, preparation and ritual were informative. One hall displays 100 examples of leaf tea, including the green for which Longjing is most famous. When it came to choosing gifts at the shop, we were lost and picked by package appeal. It was unlikely that anything in the national museum would be a poor choice and we were pleased when a knowledgeable recipient approved the selection.

Gong Chen Qiao (Bridge)

Gong Chen Qiao (Bridge) at terminus of Grand Canal

Hangzhou is the terminus of the ancient 1,100 mile Grand Canal which was hand dug and has been critical to trade and contact with Beijing for 1,500 years. We rode this historic waterway one morning from Wulinmen Dock to Gong Chen Qiao Bridge for 45 cents each traveling alongside barges still plying their trade as they did in Marco Polo’s day. The museum in the nearby plaza celebrates the history.

We didn’t expect to be spoilt for choice with other museums.  After all, how interesting could fans, umbrellas or scissors be? Very, it turned out. Each has its own building in an old industrial complex on the west bank of the Grand Canal re-developed as the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum.

4 Tang Dynasty silk (618-907)

Tang dynasty (618-907) silk fragment

Hangzhou also hosts the National Silk Museum near the southern bank of West Lake. It offers a comprehensive view from worm to wardrobe with stunning examples of weaving and needlework  going back 5,000 years.

The focus is on food at the Museum of Hangzhou Cuisine. We spent the better part of a Sunday on the bucolic hillside site in the suburbs where historian Zhao Rongguang has turned his passion into an informative feast. The museum exhibit of a legendary Qing banquet meticulously recreated has become famous. The dishes were faithfully prepared then replicated in plastic by

Most famous banquet

Famous Qing banquet replica

Japanese experts in that particular craft.  At the adjacent restaurant capable of hosting a thousand people we lunched very well as guests of a young Chinese couple we met on the queue. They ordered steamed chicken, West Lake vinegar fish marked on menu as having been served at a recent G20 summit banquet, steamed chicken, Dungpo pork with eggs, stir-fried cabbage with pork and tofu with chicken and pork. That fine lunch came to 256RMB or US $38.40.

Fuchsia Dunlop, an English woman who has become an authority on food in China, actually lured us to Hangzhou with her descriptions of meals at the Dragon Well Manor where Dai Jianjun religiously records the origin of every morsel and where the diner may never know what is on the menu. In the end, we decided not to go to the restaurant because it all seemed a bit much and an expensive experience best had with a group of people fluent in the language and history who could identify the more exotic ingredients.

3 West Lake vinegar fish

West Lake vinegar-glazed fish

We were more than satisfied to experience the lovely, comfortable and very good Lou Wai Lou, a 150-year-old restaurant on the banks of West Lake to have some of the most traditional local dishes – Dongpo pork, West Lake style vinegar glazed fish, shrimp with Longjing tea leaves and the famous Longjing tea. We were reassured that one of our favorite places in Hong Kong, Zhejiang Heen, is even more authentic than we thought.

The Hangzhou specialty of lotus leaf wrapped Beggars Chicken from Shang Palace Restaurant was beautifully prepared but more interesting to try than to savor.

Shrimp with tea leaves

Shrimp with Longjing tea leaves

Some of the best dim sum we had were breakfast specialties in the Horizon Lounge of the sprawling  Shangri-la Hotel by the Lake. The East Wing, where the Russian delegation stayed for the G20, is traditionally and appealingly styled. The rooms are large, the location is superb and Mr. Jan Fan, a floor manager, was extremely helpful in the planning of our days.

We hardly saw the sprawling city on the other side of the lake. It, like so many in Asia, is a mass of grey metal and glass. The new buildings are not as towering as those in some other cities in China, the streets are wider and construction continues as Hangzhou prepares for its next big event, hosting the 2022 Asian games.

Marco Polo’s enthusiasm for this ancient Song Dynasty capital is well-remembered in China as is the traveler himself whose statue near West Lake appears to be surveying the “paradise” of his 13th century journey; a “heaven on earth” he might still recognize at least at the lake today.


Diorama of old-Time shop at fan museum


Display at umbrella museum

© 2018 by Jean & Peter Richards

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Vienna: a Surfeit of Satisfactions


6 Demel's in Vienna

A few calories of enjoyment at the iconic Demel’s

By Jean and Peter Richards

Vienna is what cities once aspired to be – an elegant center of sophistication, civilized living, comfort and taste.

It is also a bit of a stage set.

Three weeks in late winter wasn’t nearly enough for us to exhaust the richness of its architecture and art or the decadence of its desserts.


Ivory at Kunsthistoriches Museum

We loved the compact center, polite people, clean trams, quirky corners, walkability, lively cafés, traditional foods and conversations and laughter with friends.

Nowhere could we turn in Vienna without something to learn about its 19th century transition from the center of an empire to a city with a center.

A friend suggested that we read Carl E. Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna. It was important to our understanding and enjoyment of the city; the work of Gustav Klimt, the artist so associated with the Secessionist Movement and the transformative decision in the mid-19th century to allow grand buildings and an encircling boulevard to replace the fields and moats of historic  fortifications.

The Ringstrasse is a masterpiece of urban planning. Along this 5.3 kilometer circular showcase rise the fabled neo-Renaissance opera house, the Hofburg Palace, incomparable Kunsthistoriches Museum, Natural History Museum, Greek revival parliament, neo-gothic town hall, Burgtheater, Museum of Applied Arts and Otto Wagner’s stunningly modern Postal Savings Bank. A tram line  serves them all.

Café Hawelka

A spring afternoon at Café Hawelka

Vienna gives quintessential meaning to the word café. Centuries-old-coffee-houses are unique treasures often referenced as “Vienna’s living rooms” – a perfect analogy – places to sink into a cozy chair; have a good, modestly-priced bite to eat, read a newspaper, chat with a friend or just wile away the hours for the price of a single coffee. These very democratic places are frequented from early morning to late night by the well-groomed, the pleasantly scruffy, the doddering elderly and the engaging young.

Sachertorte at Hotel Sacher

Sachertorte at Hotel Sacher

Black-suited waiters preside with old-fashioned pride delivering “little sweets” big enough to serve two. In the evening, cafés like Central and Prückel may have pianists who play lively tunes though never loud or intrusive, as lights cast their warm glow. It is an exquisite experience. Landtmann, with its expansive terrace, also has an elegant dining room with good food and a terrace within view of Burgtheatre. The rich chocolate Sacher torte is a near-religious experience in Vienna, but we found it over-rated even at Sacher.

The breadth and depth of the collections of fine art and objects in Viennese museums is astonishing. Initially we sought to see, with perhaps a little prejudice, that about which we knew least – the avant garde works of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. Gustav Klimt and Égon Schiele became more interesting with every exposure; the former for his highly decorative sense and the latter for the ease of seduction by his dark and disturbing work. It was an opportune time to learn about Schiele. In anticipation of the centenary of his death at 28 in 1918, the stately Albertina mounted an extensive exhibition of the drawings and prints of this very strange man who had a conflicted view of women and a contorted image of human kind. It was a fitting complement to the collection of his paintings at the Leopold and his “Death and the Maiden” at the majestic Upper Belvedere.

Klimt is the main attraction at the sprawling former summer palace which has 24 of the artist’s works including Lake Attersee landscapes and the legendary “Kiss,” perhaps the most famous painting of the Viennese Jugendstil. A corner salon contains a maquette for the selfie-obsessed to pose.

Cafe Sperl

Café Sperl

Self-reflection is a pre-occupation in the city. In 1906 Sigmund Freud convened the oldest psychoanalytic society in the world not far from the Academy of Fine Arts where in the 18th century Franz Xaver Messerschmidt began sorting out “confusion in his head” by sculpting it over and over. Many of his 64 original character studies in alabaster or metal became an attraction in carnival freak shows in the 19th century and valuable artistic rarities today. The twelve at the Belvedere should not be missed.

Something is lost simply by knowing that the originals of Durer’s “Young Hare” and other masterpieces of drawing are seldom on view at the Albertina anymore. Facsimiles are a concession to conservation being widely adopted. Still, there is always something to see. A major exhibit of the master’s drawings is scheduled for the fall of 2019.

The Habsburg State Rooms on two floors of the Albertina are amongst the most beautiful in Europe.

It’s a pleasant three minute walk from the Albertina to the Academy of Fine Art to contemplate the demons and tortures of a “Last Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch. The c.1500 triptych is more dour than its contemporary, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in Madrid’s Prado.


Sessession Bjuilding

The Secessionist building

Nowhere could we turn in Vienna without something to learn. The Secessionist movement may have been brief, but its architectural and design influences were broad and lasting.

Otto Wagner’s light, airy and air conditioned Postal Savings Bank building was far ahead of its time. Joseph Maria Olbrich’s leafy, white and almost windowless Secessionist building is worthy of Klimpt’s Beethoven frieze spanning three walls inside. A view of it graces the obverse of the Austrian 50 cent Euro coin. The Museum of Applied Arts, known as MAK, is a showcase of centuries of design and the widely reproduced glass and metal of Josef Hoffmann and the Weiner Werkstadt.

Tower of Babel, Breughel

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Nothing seems reduced to a smattering in Vienna. Where others might have one or two Breughels, the Kunsthistoriches has twelve out of 40 known including the “Tower of Babel.” Visitors sink onto its velvety sofas to view them and works of Vermeer, Reubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyke, de Hooch, the Cranachs, Canaletto and Carracci.

Days could be spent just wandering the long galleries of ivory, ancient stone, ceramic, wood, paper and metals. One of the most alluring works – the Cellini gold and enamel salt cellar (c.1540-43) – is at the far end of the Kunstkammer, but one is likely to be distracted along the way.

Cellini salt cellar

Cellini salt cellar

The collection is arrayed over 20 rooms and perhaps rivaled only by the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden for its quality and range.

The building with its grand neo-baroque entry, staircase and spandrels by Klimt also houses a pleasant café under the cupola.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s wildly imaginative portraits of human heads composed of vegetables, plant life and sea creatures might inspire a trip to the market. Vienna has a delightful 16th century one. Foods of the world spill out of the well-kempt sheds of the Naschmarkt, named for the ash wood of which its original milk cans were made. Gasthaus Zur Eisern Zeit opened to serve the milk market’s builders and is still turning out a fine goulash and dumplings. On a warm day, an outside table enhances the meal.

Slicing a pig at Naschmarkt

Slicing a pig at Naschmarkt

Across the way and behind the Gasthaus are Linke Wienzeile 38, 40, and 42 designed Otto Wagner. Number 40 is also known as the Painted Buildings or Majolica Wienzeile after the type of ceramic tile used on its facade. The effect is exuberant.

Our days, filled with leisurely walks in unusually spring-like temperatures, could be capped by a perfect afternoon sampling sweets alfresco at one of Demel’s streetside tables.

Evening often found us returning to Plachutta, the branch on Wollzeile, where we did our best to sample the variations on tafelspitz, a beloved boiled beef specialty which rivals pot au feu and  bollito misto. The heavenly aroma of Plachutta’s steaming stock arriving in its gleaming copper pot presages the marrow on warm toast and the plate of sliced beef served with chive sauce, horseradish, crunchy, golden rosti potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Tafelspitz at Plachutta


Tafelspitz is like Vienna: cultivated and comfortable with strains bubbling beneath the surface.

Plachutta publishes its recipe as follows:

1 onion with skin halved

2 kg Tafelspitz (cap of rump)

About 3.5 liter of water

10-15 black peppercorns

250 grams vegetables peeled (equal amounts of carrots, yellow carrots, celeriac and parsley root

½ leek (halved and washed)

granulated bouillon as needed


chives (chopped to garnish)


Brown the unskinned onion halves on their cut sides without oil in a pan lined with aluminium foil until very dark brown. Wash meat briefly with lukewarm water; drain. Bring water to the boil, add meat and cook at a simmer. Keep skimming off the foam that accumulates, and add peppercorns and onion. About 25 minutes before the meat is scheduled to be done, add vegetables, leek and, if desired, granulated bouillon.

Remove cooked meat from the broth, cut into finger-thick slices, place on patter and sprinkle with salt and chives. Strain broth and season to taste with salt.

Cooking time: about 3-3½ hours


Cafe Pruckel

We passed many pleasant hours at Café Prükel

© 2017 by Jean & Peter Richards

Posted in Art, Austria, Europe, Food, Travel, Vienna | Leave a comment

Bratislava: an easy day trip from Vienna

Michalska, Bratislava

Along historic Michalska in Bratislava

By Jean and Peter Richards

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is a popular day trip from Vienna.

The one hour 10 minute boat cruise was relaxing, comfortable and boring. The waters were calm, the sun shone and there was little to see but for the occasional fishing shack along the banks of the Danube and passing of a Viking cruise ship.

Within the confines of the tourist quarter of this longtime center of the Austro-Hungarian empire are a few sights, a wonderful chocolate shop, cobbled streets, an elegant memorial and St. Martin’s where 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned between 1536 and 1830. The cathedral has wonderful animalistic sculptures on the choir stalls, very nice gothic proportions, some beautiful stained glass and on the day of our visit, a line of people awaiting confession.

Nearby on the site of a demolished synagogue is a compelling black wall sculpture – a memorial to the more than 100,000 Slovakian victims of the Holocaust; 15,000 of them Bratislavan.

Holocuast memorial, Bratislava

Holocaust memorial

We walked the cobbled streets passing the various and often charmingly attractive small houses and embassies flying their national flags. It made us sad to see that our own was the only one  fenced off. It was made into a fortress breaking the streetscape.

“Cumil,” one of the Old Town’s biggest attractions, is a bronze sculpture of a man peeping out a manhole said either to be resting from work or peeping up a skirt. Visitors rub his shiny hat knop as we did for luck.


Cumil: you pat his helme for goof luck

The little Red Crayfish Farmacy Museum near Michael’s Gate is charming; the Café Mayer at the Stare Mesto is one of the prettiest in Europe. Luncheon salads on the terrace were fresh, tasty and reasonable; the pastries were worthy of the Vienna legacy. The real treat is across the way at Café Maxmillian where chocolate is the speciality and the chocolate ice cream is very special indeed.

The steep climb to the castle discouraged us, but there was enough architectural diversity to see in two or three hours to make for a pleasant, unhurried day in the old town. The tourist area is nicely tidied up; the rest of the town is less well looked after. Bratislava taxi drivers have such a reputation for cheating people that even the tourist office warned not to use them so we tapped into Uber and had a driver who works in IT at one of the big four accounting firms. The environs beyond the old town we saw on the way to catch the train back to Vienna were grim.

© 2017 by Jean & Peter Richards

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A Confusion of Fusion…

One lesson we have learned in many years of traveling in France is that the French seem baffled by and unable to reproduce any cuisine foreign to their land. They even have problems with French cuisine, but that is a story for another time.

Man Mo is an attractive modern restaurant in Hong Kong set amidst the clutter of Upper Lascar Row, a former area for antique shops now strewn with the worst kind of tourist detritus. The man behind it is from Lausanne, Switzerland, in the French-speaking part of the country just a few kilometers from the French border.

Styled as “contemporary dim sum,” its menu consists mainly of various dumplings with fillings clearly meant to be “creative,” drawn from various cuisines. You can order two or three dumplings of a kind; we ordered two of each.

We had dumplings filled with mushrooms, “French Peking duck,” foie gras, and tom yum (a popular spicy Thai soup with prawns). Some were served with sauces, and we were instructed to put grains of salt and pepper on the foie gras offering.

Man Mo: duck dumpling

Duck dumpling.

The problems were varied: the skin on one was tough, as though it had dried out and been reheated; the pieces of foie gras were minuscule; the mushrooms, sautéed in a Western manner, were tasty but seemed inappropriate to their wonton-type skin.

Being inordinately fond of good French pot au feu, we could not resist ordering “Chinese pot au feu” with beef cheeks, which was noodles in the saltiest soup we have been served with several very tough slices of beef cheek. Having cooked beef cheeks, we knew that these needed far more cooking to become tender.

Man Mo:

“Chinese pot au feu” had salty broth, tough meat

With a small bottle of water and the typical 10% service charge our bill came to 477HK$ or 61.06US$

There is a French waitstaff that tries to be helpful, but they do not make up for the disappointing offerings and the poor ratio of value to price.

We were actually glad we tried Man Mo. We left so hungry that we stopped on the way home for a crunchy, warm barbeque pork bun dotted with sesame seed, four little Mandarin oranges available only for a short season and two steaming custard tarts, all of which cost 18HK$ or US $2.30. They were a treat.

Mandarin oranges

Fortunately mandarin oranges were in season

© 2017 by Jean & Peter Richards

Posted in Asia, Food, Hong Kong, Notes, Tips & Prejudices, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Photo Exhibit Exposes the Soul of Hong Kong

The pest exterminator lets his customers know his targets.

by Jean and Peter Richards

The soul of Hong Kong can still be found in the little shops wedged beneath and beside its soaring skyscrapers. Simon Go has captured that soul in a photographic exhibit titled “Gold Painted Signs – Hong Kong Old Shops.”

Sixty of his portraits of businesses, beloved and essential to daily life, are on view at the sleek, new f22 Gallery in Wan Chai until mid-January.

It is a touchingly important collection illustrating a sadly vanishing way of life. Some of the shops have already closed; others will inevitably follow as space becomes too expensive to rent and profits too meagre to attract new entrepreneurs.

They are extraordinary examples of the ordinary days of people who provide the services that keep Hong Kong humming: the bamboo steamer maker, umbrella mender, pot repairer, thermos flask restorer, slipper king, “seamster,” watchman, noodle makers, dried fish seller, snake specialist and pest control shop – all memorable in the great tradition of businesses shoe-horned into tiny spaces providing a service and making a living.

Go and Douglas So, the erudite founder of the gallery, chose carefully amongst hundreds of photos and grouped selectively and cleverly. In one example in Central, a series is hung as if ascending the actual street on which they were located.

Simon Go with his picture of four brothers who run a noodle restaurant.

The pictures were taken with great care over 13 years during which photojournalist Go got to know the people, bided his time until they were comfortable with him and then captured the essence of the owners in their places of work. One of the most memorable photos is a noodle shop with four bothers flexing their muscles and showing their rippling tattoos.

In each photo, the subjects face the camera and through use of a small aperture, the entire shop is shown in detail.

So says of Go, “His works are much more than a photo record. In Simon’s photography, we see strong humanism, warmth, empathy and great respect for his subjects.”

It is a matchless collection of the real Hong Kong that most people don’t know to seek out and that tourists may never notice in the rush and crush.

Bamboo steamers made by traditonal methods.

Nearly every year we visit Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Co at 12 Western Street in Sai Wan, one of the last shops where bamboo steamers are made and fastened with copper by hand. We no longer need anything, but we still go just to make sure it is still there and buy gifts one more time.

The exhibit is on until mid-January 2018 at f22, a two-storey gallery cum café at 70-74 Morrison Hill Road, the Amber Building, Wan Chai.

© 2017 by Jean & Peter Richards

Posted in Art, Asia, Hong Kong, Notes, Tips & Prejudices, Photography | Tagged , , | 1 Comment