Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Wine Tasting Outside Vienna

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Hugh Agnew is a Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. He has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history.

This fall Hugh led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Old World Europe.


A classic traveler’s dilemma: here you are in a lovely, historic, culture-filled place and you have only a limited amount of time to devote to activities. Do you try to devour as many galleries, museums, and historic buildings as you possibly can, or do you take a little time to step off the treadmill and relax, perhaps in some way capturing an echo of how the locals relax when they are off the treadmill themselves? Of course, in any major tourist center there are practically no places “untouched by tourism” because tourism is an essential part of the economies of such places. Yet even now it is possible to experience moments where the impact of tourism is lightly-felt, if at all noticed. That’s one of the things I like about Vienna.

Vienna is a major tourism hub, and it is also a very international city with institutions such as OPEC, the United Nations, and the European Union (among others) housing many offices and headquarters here. But it is also home to thousands of Austrians, and in their own ways they continue to live as Austrians and relax as Austrians.

The green lungs of the city, the famous Vienna Woods (Wienerwald), are one place where everyday Austrians like to go to relax. And thanks to Vienna’s world-class transportation system, park-goers simply hop on one of the several tram lines that run from the center of the city, ride it to the edge of town, and begin walking.

And once you’ve started walking, typically it isn’t long before you find yourself among vineyards – and if among vineyards, then how much farther is it to one of the informal Austrian wine garden restaurants? In the villages that used to be outside the city, and which are now being swallowed up as its extended suburbs, the local winegrowers have had the right, since Emperor Joseph II confirmed it in 1784, to offer this year’s vintage for sale in their own establishments. In the southern German dialects, of which Austrian German is a standardized version, the term heuer means “this year’s” – and so these institutions have come to be called “Heurige.” When the year’s vintage is ready to be released, the vintner typically hangs a bunch of pine twigs over the entrance to the courtyard or house to let everyone know that he is open (“hat ausg’steckt,” as the Viennese would say).

The Viennese microclimate seems to me (not an expert) to be kinder to white wine varieties. Rieslings and Austrian varietals, such as Grüner Veltliner and Müller Thurgauare, are becoming better known abroad. Reds are typically the central European varieties such as Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger), St. Laurent, or a successful cross between the two: Zweigelt.

Austrians share the famous Heuriger locations with tourists by the busload, especially in centers like Grinzing, perhaps the best known of the winemaking former villages, or Beethoven’s summer retreat in Heiligenstadt. Slightly further away, and therefore less crowded but still easily accessible from the city center, is Nussdorf. This is where I, and a few other travelers, went on this journey. Even though it was not the best weather for sitting in a Heuriger garden, we still enjoyed this year’s Gemischter Satz “gespritzt” with carbonated water. Typically the new wines are also accompanied by a buffet of light dishes, with some institutions offering hot meals (including gluten free and vegan!). We stayed with the classic snacks: a few spreads (Aufstriche) including the famous Liptauer cheese, a salad of salsify in a creamy sauce (Schwartzwurzel Salat), Austrian-style potato salad, and a wonderfully sour Viennese rye bread. We ended the afternoon fortified for the evening’s cultural activities and in an overall mood that could only be described as “gemütlich.”


Classic Viennese Snacks- Smithsonian Journeys. Photo courtesy of Hugh Agnew


Read more about our small group journey to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic here.

The Vibrant Markets of Turkey

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Jane C. Waldbaum, a classical archaeologist, is professor emerita of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jane is also a former president (2003-2007) of the Archaeological Institute of America, the oldest and largest archaeological organization in North America.

This September Jane led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a tour of Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast.


Spices Turkey

Members of our group enjoying the Spice Market, Istanbul. (Photo by S. Morse.)

I love markets. Souks, Bazaars, Markets, I love them all. You never know what you’re going to find, and Turkey is particularly rich in markets of all kinds. From the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul to the village market in Sirince, and everything in between, I am fascinated by the luscious displays of late summer fresh fruits and vegetables, by bins filled with colorful spices, and by arrays of unusual foodstuffs whose original form I can only guess at — to say nothing of the carpets, child-size harem outfits, and silly wooden animals that presented buying opportunities to members of our group everywhere we went. And who doesn’t want to bring home an unusual souvenir or two? Or some mouthwatering Turkish Delight in delicate fruit flavors, studded with chunks of pistachio or hazelnut and rolled in a dusting of ground nuts?

Turkey Market

Woman rolling pancakes, Dalyan Saturday market. (Photo by J. Waldbaum.)

What are these people doing? This lady is rolling out enormous pancakes which she will spread with all kinds of fillings—not at all the crepes you are used to. That boy is extracting hazelnuts from the tangle of foliage that grows around them—who knew they grew that way? And where is our group?  In Istanbul, oohing and ahhing at the fabulous Spice Market; or, after a delicious home-made lunch in the house of Demetrios at Sirince, outside of Ephesus, they visit his shop, or is it his cousin’s? They move on, to examine the local felt and lace handicrafts.  And where’s my husband Steve? Looking at one last kilim in Kaymakli, Cappadocia, near the end of our trip, of course. I love markets!

Lace Market

Handmade lace, Sirince market. (Photo by J. Waldbaum.)


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour here.

A Visit to a Norwegian Summer Farm

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Terje Leiren is Professor of Scandinavian Studies and History at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the current holder of the Sverre Arestad Endowed Chair in Norwegian Studies.

This summer Terje led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a Scandinavian Sojourn.


Amid the spectacular west Norwegian fjord landscape of two UNESCO world heritage sites (Geiranger and Naeroy fjords) lies the Herdal Mountain Summer Farm (Saeter). Here farming follows a tradition that dates back to the Vikings. The farm itself, run by Jostein Sande and Ashild Dale, has been in the Dale family for 300 years.

Herdal Mountain Summer Farm

The picturesque Herdal Mountain Summer farm. (Photo courtesy of author.)

The mountain summer farm consists of 30 small buildings with several hundred goats, scores of sheep, some cows and a dozen or so majestic Norwegian fjord horses. The animals graze freely in the open landscape of the mountain meadow from June through September. Goats are milked regularly for the rich milk that is used to produce brown and white goat cheese as well as goat’s milk caramels. Agricultural traditions going back countless generations thrive here, protected by international cultural agreements and the dedication of the Sande-Dale family.

Goat Cheese

Jostein Sande holding a large brown goat cheese produced on the farm. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

As visitors to the farm, we felt as though we had stepped back in time; a time before the industrial revolution changed the world, and Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe. We marveled at the smell and the taste of the dairy products, especially the pure brown goat cheese that has become the very symbol of Norway’s traditional culinary culture. Enjoyed with “rømmegrøt,” a sour-cream porridge, cured ham and lamb, and some traditional flatbread, the Norwegian mountain farm food experience was unique.

Norwegian fjord horse

Norwegian fjord horse searching for a treat. (Photo courtesy of author.)

The Summer Farm culture broadly represents a living tradition of small-scale dairy farming that still survives throughout Norway. However, because they are most often found away from the tourists’ mainstream and visited only by the most determined of travelers, our visit to the summer farm left us feeling quite privileged that we could enjoy such a unique historical and cultural experience as part of the Smithsonian Scandinavian Sojourn tour. A true surprise in the land of the midnight sun.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Scandinavian Sojourn trip here.

Exploring Scotland’s Treasures

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Charles MacQuarrie holds an M.Litt in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in Medieval English and Celtic Language and Literature from the University of Washington.

This summer, Charles led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Scotland’s Treasures.


During our boat trip on Loch Lomand, amid the beautiful views and smooth sailing, we approached an inlet with a famous cave. The cave of Rob Roy MacGregor, where after having been made an outlaw and forbidden from wearing his clan tartan or speaking Gaelic or even using the name MacGregor, Rob Roy held up for some 10 years. As the guide on the boat noted, next to the cave mouth someone had painted in white paint “cave.” The guide quipped that it was a wonder that the English didn’t find Rob Roy with the label right next to his hiding place. Dorinda, who had studied Latin, turned to me and the four or five of us who were outside on the top deck of the boat and said, “Maybe it is from Latin “cave” beware. That would make more sense.” She had a point; I told the guide about Dorinda’s joke, and he told me he was going to add it to his repetoire.

Loch Lomand

Loch Lomand in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of flickr user k4dordy.)

A few days later we were at the battlefield of Culloden, and it began to rain as we approached the gravestones that marked the place where so many MacGregors had died in the battle. Killed by vollies from English rifles as they charged over the marshy plain under orders from Bonnie Prince Charlie, who stayed safely behind the lines. The guide took us to the point where the English line had been, and told us about the artillary that the Highlanders would have been facing that day, and the rain started to pour down as if on cue. We hustled back into the exhibit building for tea, and explored the museum, listening to first person accounts of the Highland rising of 1745 read by actors from letters that have survived from the time.


The memorial cairn at the center of the battlefield of Culloden. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

When we arrived in Edinburgh, the weather was fine, and we were all delighted to move into our rooms at the George Hotel. Down the street was the tent for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and Michael Palin was reading from his new book the day after we arrived. The Fringe festival had taken over most of the rest of the city, and plays, musicians, and comics abounded. The biggest treat for most of the Smithsonian group, however, was the central event of the official Edinburgh Festival — the Edinburgh Tattoo, where drum groups from all over the world delighted us all. I heard the song:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)
And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye
Fir me an’ my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’

as I walked down the Playfair steps on my way back to George Street, and I couldn’t help but think of the beauty of Loch Lomond, Dorinda’s witty comment about “cave,” and the somber dreich day on the battlefield of Culloden.

The streets of Edinburgh. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Moyan_Brenn.)

Our trip had taken us, rather like the itinerary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” into the sublime natural beauty and Gaelic culture of the Highlands, up from Oban to Skye and Inverness, and then back to the lowlands and to the national capital. We had seen so much, and we had covered so much ground, but being back in Edinburgh, at the close of our journey, there was a sense that the strands were coming together, and we had made a kind of sense out of some of the most prevalent dualities that characterize this very civilized and wild country that is English and Gaelic, Lowland and Highland, Modern and Medieval, and at least until the referendum vote in 2014, British and Scottish.


Read more about Smithsonian Journey’s “Scotlands Treasures” tour.

Fire and Ice in Iceland

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Jim ZimbelmanDr. Jim Zimbelman is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where he has served as the chairman of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. 

This summer, Jim led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on an Adventure in Iceland.


Iceland has been called “the land of fire and ice,” a rather accurate short description of this unique country.  Iceland is only slightly smaller in surface area than the US state of Kentucky, yet it is one of the youngest (geologically speaking) nations in the world (the oldest exposed rocks are only about 16 million years old), and portions of the island are growing even as you read this. The historically significant Althing (the oldest and longest running parliament in the world) was first held at Thingvellir, within a linear depression that is the still-growing boundary between the North American (to the west) and Eurasian (to the east) plates. The two plates are separating at the stately pace of 2 to 3 centimeters (about an inch) per year, roughly the same rate as the growth of human fingernails; while not observable to the watching eye, evidence of the accumulated separation is apparent on a human timescale, where appropriately fixed markers were established on the two sides of a spreading rift.  It is this motion of the planetary plates, coupled with Iceland’s location above a deep-seated hot spot, that generates the “fire” component of the country.

The Snaefellsjökull volcano from Hellnar. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.)

We visited several locations throughout Iceland that typify the “born of fire” aspect of its natural history. One day we circumnavigated the huge Snaefellsjokull volcano, site of the beginning for Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” while learning what the rocks can teach us from world-renowned Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. No day passed without seeing countless moss-covered lava flows and massive cliff faces composed entirely of volcanic rocks. Near the Krafla volcano, we walked on a trail through the boiling pools and still-steaming rocks at the vent for the 1984 eruption, the last of a decade-long series of eruptions. Throughout the country, hot rocks at depth heat groundwater that boils up out of the ground, as in the sudden bursts of the geyser Strokkur (adjacent to “Geysir,” the namesake of all geysers); geothermally heated water supplies the hot water needs of virtually the entire nation. In southern Iceland we stopped at a farm next to the base of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which suddenly reawakened in 2010 (to the great consternation of air travelers throughout Europe); the farmer feared that a prolonged eruption would destroy his farm and livelihood, so with typical Icelandic foresight, he hired a videographer to document what was happening to the farm, resulting in one of the most personal and poignant  films I have seen (he is doing a reasonable business showing the film to tourists in a remodeled blacksmith shop next to the Ring Road highway). Icelanders have learned to live with nature’s uncertainties, roll with the punches, and turn what could have been a disaster into a useful (and even profitable) enterprise.

Looking down from Solheimajokull glacier. (Photo courtesy of flickr user ian mcbride.)

On top of the volcanic bedrock of Iceland are several large ice caps (including the largest ice cap in Europe), plus numerous smaller ice accumulations on individual mountains. These thick ice deposits feed dozens of glaciers that have carved the bedrock into U-shaped valleys. Our group walked up onto the very snout of the Solheimajokull glacier, where the ablating ice leaves a coating of dark rocks brought down the valley by the moving ice. The place where we reached the glacier terminus is easily a kilometer (more than half a mile) further up the valley than when I visited this same glacier in 2000; Icelanders have a ‘ring-side seat’ to the drastic reduction in glaciers currently underway across the planet. How many years will it be before Iceland no longer has a surface accumulation of ice, which is part of its very name? The remarkable sights and sounds of this beautiful but complex country tend to make one become reflective, and perhaps this may be a partial explanation for why the exploits of Vikings were recorded in the Icelandic sagas, among the oldest examples of European literature.  Come and find out for yourself what this country will teach you.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Adventure in Iceland trip here.