A Surprise Holiday to Quebec, Canada

They say, marry the one who sees your true potential and pushes you to achieve it.

I say, marry the one who surprises you – with holidays.

Anyone who knows me knows that it’s super hard to surprise me. I am the most curiousest cat ever. If I get the slightest wind of something, I will dig and dig until I know. The husband almost never comes home with flowers or chocolates or a bottle of wine, so when he springs a surprise, it’s really a surprise. Just when I am all set to hiss and spit at him for not having a single romantic bone in his body, he whisks me off on a long weekend trip to the Quebec Province of Canada.  Montreal and Quebec City.  It could very well be because he wants to ski and our slopes are not ready yet, but I’ll give him the benefit of doubt. He makes it so hard to stay mad at him.

I couldn’t believe this was happening even as I got ready to step out of the house. At 6:30 am I got out of the shower and confirmed,” Are we really going or should I wear my  night clothes get back into bed?” Long story short, we are on our way to Montreal.

after rolling in the chips at the casino

Quebec is a francophone province of Canada, with distinctive traditions, mannerisms and laws. It gets its name from a spot on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, that the Aboriginals called Kébec  The look and feel of this place is so different from the rest of North America and so similar to Europe that Hollywood regularly uses it as a pretend France. For almost 12,000 years this land was inhabited only by Native Americans, now known as the First Nations in Canada and the Inuit. Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534 and claimed the land in the name of the Francis I, King of France. The French lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and four years later, the King of France ceded to the British crown “Canada and all its dependencies.” Although Quebec has been a part of Anglophone Canada since Canada became Canada, it has had  French as its sole official language since 1969. Quebec sovereignty has been hotly debated over the years.   Parti Québécois governments has held referendums  in 1980 and 1995; both times majority voted no. Quebec has a kind of independence-lite, its own laws and  even controls its own immigration. In 2006, the House of Commons of Canada passed a symbolic motion recognizing the “Québécois” as a nation within a united Canada. I am not sure what that means, but make what you will of it.

trying to make sense of the menu at Les 3 Brasseurs

trying to make sense of the menu at Les 3 Brasseurs

We reached Montreal at around 5:30 in the evening. It was dark and freezing, but nothing could beat the warm fuzzy feeling inside me. We had learnt our lessons from our Toronto trip. The first thing we did once we checked in was change currency. We wanted to do it at the border, but that exchange was closed when we got there. We got a pretty good rate at a money changer on Rue St. Catherine. There are plenty of shops that facilitate currency exchange on this street. We were staying at Hotel Espresso which is walking distance from Rue St. Catherine. The hotel was clean and comfortable and the staff were courteous. They have free wifi, which helped us plan our days. Honestly, that’s all we needed. Maybe free breakfast would have been good. That and free parking.

We grabbed dinner at Les 3 Brasseurs (The 3 Brewers), a microbrewery on Rue St. Catherine. Decent food, decent beer, but the poutine simply does not match up to what we ate in Toronto.

growing icicles

Growing Icicles

It’s -9 degrees Celsius and we can feel icicles forming in our hearts. We decide the Casino would be a great place to stay warm. This is not Vegas, but it is to be seen.  Six floors; live music; restaurants; bars.  There are no skimpily clad waitresses bringing you drinks, but you can help yourself to free soft drinks, coffee and juices on every floor. Also, I think this is a non-smoking casino. This place is a slot machine mecca. They have  two entire floors dedicated to slot machines and more slot machines on every floor. This is where slot machine addicts go when they die. Since the blackjack tables were too expensive, I decided to play roulette. I love roulette. I can play roulette all night. I found a low minimum bet table. In what seemed like a very short while later, I had made 10 times what I put in. For the first time ever, the husband and I decided to cash out while we were still winning, and walk away.

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Greenwich Village Food Tour, NYC – An interview with our Guest Stars

You’ve heard what I’ve had to say about the Greenwich Village food tour. Here’s a bonus post on what our guest stars (Bijish Perumpully and Jisha Ramachandran) thought of it.

...because true love and fresh air don't fill stomachs

MT : You guys were on such a short trip to NYC, but you opted to do the Greenwich Village Food and Culture Tour as opposed to the more popular touristy activities. What did you think of it?

B : The walk itself was pleasant,at the most. The restaurants were great, but I liked the buildings more.  I liked the personal touch there. The passion,that they really cared about preserving some of the old buildings and culture. I think the biggest challenge that cities like NYC face is that they really need to upgrade, but without losing their character or culture.

J : It’s a decent outing. The walk was good. Walking through streets is one of the best ways to get to know a city.

MT : We agree with that. Walking around is the best way to experience any place. We have also found it is the best way to find your bearings in an unfamiliar place.

B : I want to add that I would have liked to cover a bit more area than what was covered. We only walked around two or three blocks.

MT : It’s a three hour long tour. How did you find the pace – the number of tastings and the way they were spaced?

B : Spacing was fine for me. Some tasting portions were a bit too big or a bit too sweet.

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MT : What did you think of Barri, our guide?

B : The guide, even though not highly charming, was knowledgeable. It was probably not one of her best days. She looked preoccupied. I’d say she was sweet.

J : She was good. She seemed to know the area and its cuisines well.

DSC_1351MT : What about the restaurants and the food?

J : There could have been more variety in the cuisines. I understand however that probably that location has only Italian restaurants.

B : There was way more Italian than any other food. Dutch, English, German and African were completely neglected. African being the elephant there. I can understand that they didn’t own many restaurants back in time, but I’m assuming they would have opened up a few by now.

MT : Which tasting was your favorite?

J : Joe’s Pizza

B : The pizza and the meatballs. I found the small hall where Barri said they had book launches and poetry readings pretty cool and unexpected. The place was in a basement.

(MT:  Cornelia Street Cafe.)

B : What surprised me was that nothing was exceptionally out of this world or over the top luxurious there, but it was functionally well defined. Just what you’d expect from a busy city like New York.

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MT : Do you think it was worth the time and money? How likely are you to recommend it to someone?

B : Hmmm it wasn’t so expensive.  Just to take a walk with some strangers, it wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t recommend it  to first time tourists (to the Big Apple). Actually it depends on who is travelling.

J : It’s worth the time if you in NYC for a few days and are interested in food. Value for money: 3/5. Likely to recommend: 3/5

 

Notes :

MT – My Travelogue

B – Bijish Perumpully

J – Jisha Ramachandran

Greenwich Village Food Tour, NYC

I am so excited. One of my dearest friends and his wife are visiting NYC over the holidays. We’ve set up a time for a skype call and I’m going to help him plan his trip.

<Bijish calling><Answer with video>

I have reviewed his itinerary and sent him my comments, and he has sent back his comments on mine. We are just going to fine tune the plan and should be done in 15 minutes tops, right? Wrong. We spend a good part of the morning re-figuring what we had already figured out. I have a three options, I could join them either for

  1. a standup comedy show
  2. the Greenwich Village food tour which they were so keen on doing
  3. Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera is something I want to take the husband to, and since he wouldn’t be able to make it that is out. The standup comedy sounds promising but that I could always go to, so that gets put on standby. The food tour however is something for which I might  be hard pressed to find company.

what do we live for, if not to eat?

what do we live for, if not to eat?

The day of the tour is finally here. In NYC’s sea of black coats it should have been easy to spot Bijish in his bright yellow jacket, but I admit it took me a few moments. We joke that he should give it to our guide Barri, and make it easy for the group to keep track of her.

The tour starts with a slice of Joe’s thin crust pizza. They call themselves a Greenwich village institution. While the dough was chewy and the sauce had just the right non-sugary sweetness to it, and is great for the New York roll/fold and eat style, I do wish the crust had been crisper though, so that it would be easier to fold. As it is, it lends itself more to rolling than to folding. The next tasting is at O&Co. Olive Oil shop. Believe me, they have some good stuff in here. Try their truffle oil on popcorn and you’ll never want butter on it again. Our hosts  predict a sharp rise in olive oil prices for the next 2 years owing to some worm/insect attack on the trees in Europe. They advise to stock up, you can do as you please. Moving on, a few doors down is Faicco’s Italian Specialties. We wait outside as Barri pops in and comes out with a box of humongous rice balls called Arancini.  I find the fried mix  of rice and cheese a little bland by itself, but I imagine it would get its flavour from the sauce. More on Italian sauce later.

We walk down the narrow street, and get a little perspective on life in the ‘hood in the old times, and walk back to our next stop, Pesce Pasta which is right next door to Faicco’s. Faicco’s, by the way is a great place to pick up pork, and is where Pesce Pasta gets their meat from. At Pesce Pasta, I content myself with steamed veggies, which felt like they were in the freezer moments before  they  were put in the steamer, while the others dig into their meatballs with gusto. Bijish and Jisha tell me that the meatballs are really good.  Pesce Pasta is the only non-vegetarian tasting on the tour. The tour is very vegetarian friendly.

...because true love and fresh air don't fill stomachs

…because true love and fresh air don’t fill stomachs

We’ve eaten quite a bit by now and it is only fair that we do some walking before we eat some more. We walk a couple of blocks to the lovely Rafele Ristorante. Here we are served Eggplant Rollatini. The eggplant slices are superbly thin and I really like the taste as well as the place. Barri tells us we could get a drink for $12 more and there are some specials for the tour. We get the Sangria and it’s good.

Now  we’ve tried four Italian dishes on  tour and common thread in three of those has been the tomato based sauce. When I make pasta at home, the husband says my sauce is not real sauce, it’s just tomatoes, but here’s the thing, if today’s tour is anything to go by,  that’s what Italian sauce is – tomatoes and basil. The secret is the tomatoes. They use San Marzono tomatoes. I can’t tell if these are available fresh in NYC but you get them in cans at Faicco’s, and perhaps at other delis/grocery stores as well.

For desserts, we pop over to Milk and Cookies down the street across the avenue. I love choco-chip cookies, but these just don’t cut it. We can taste the sugar crystals. We walk around the area a little and are pointed out the supposed inspiration for O’Henry’s Last Leaf, among other things.  We have learnt by now to distinguish between different styles of houses and the periods in which they were built.  We head over to Murray’s Cheese Shop to try out some of their gourmet cheese. Their cheese-straws are something I would definitely like to serve at my next wine and cheese soiree. Murray’s has a cheese bar to help you with pairings and offers cheese classes to make you the cheese authority of your circle.

hit me with your best

hit me with your best

Our last and final tasting is at Pasticceria Rocco – the place to go if you are craving cannolis in West Village. Most places pre-make their cannolis, causing them to become soggy by the time they get to you, but not Roccos. At Roccos, we are assured, cannolis are freshly stuffed – stuffed after you order them.  I can tell you the ones we got had crisp shells and were really fresh.

The tour was fun in all, but it would have been nicer if in addition to giving us insights to the restaurants and area, our guide had also provided some guidance on what to look for in each tasting -the smell, the texture, the broad flavours, the subtle hints,  the key ingredient of each dish. She did do this for the first tasting, so I was able to appreciate what I was eating better and will be able to discern a good New York style pizza from a horde of posers. If this could be done for each tasting, I would be more likely to recommend this tour.

The tour is 3 hours long, but all the stops were within a circle of 30m radius or maybe even less. It’s not hard walking, but please wear comfortable shoes and be weather appropriately dressed.

Luray Caverns, Virginia

“Let’s play a game. The one in which you name a place and the next person has to name a place starting with the letter the place you named ends with. For example, you say India, the next person has to name a place from A, and so on.” It sounds like the perfect game for 4  travelers, cooped up in a car for the next five and a half hours or so. By the time we stop for a bio-break, it has degenerated into a desperate guessing game ” Rampur..there has to be Rampur somewhere in India! If not – Ranipur?” ” C’mon..Neverland is a place! Finding Neverland!”

We are on our way to Luray Caverns, Virginia.

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After a lot of deliberation we had settled on Luray Caverns as our destination for the holiday weekend. The plan was to drive down to Luray, visit a Holiday Village/Winter Wonderland on the way, explore the caverns and go wine tasting. Almost all the cottage rentals I contacted had a strict minimum 2 days policy for weekends, so we had to abandon our idea of soaking in a hot tub on a cold night, and settle for a room in a hotel without a Jacuzzi.

A starry night; a cottage by the lake; a chill in the air; the clean scent of wood; a hot tub;  the very thought makes me sigh.

Somewhere on the way we see billboards for casinos offering free chips to new signups, in the Baltimore area. We know where to find our Wonderland!

A cavern is a large cave or a series of caves, naturally formed in soluble rock with the ability to grow speleothems. So, while all caverns are caves, all caves are not caverns.

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upside down? downside up? bends my mind everytime!!

Luray Caverns being commercial caves have constructed trails, guided tours, lighting, and regular open hours. There are guided tours of the caverns every 20 minutes. It is not as adventurous as spelunking/caving/potholing, but it is an extraordinary experience. You get the feel of being on an Indiana Jones set, but you don’t have to crawl through holding a torch in your mouth. It could be easily be an incomplete, abandoned palace city, built by industrious dwarves. Grand and imposing, yet so austere. The first thing that came to my mind though, were Arha, Ged, the Nameless Ones  and  the Tombs of Atuan.

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Darkness and silence, broken by the lighting of match. The sharp crack followed by bright yellow light. A torch casting shadows. The high humidity pressing on you like an unseen force. The constant coolness. The stately beauty all around you. Eerie. Magical. Cursed?

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Dream Lake

Despite the lack of air conditioning and the high humidity, the caverns are not dank and musty and the roof does not drip.  The tour is  takes around 50 minutes. It is a 1.5 mile/2.4 km walk so wear appropriate footwear. The temperature inside is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit/ 6 degrees Celsius, but there is no wind and the humidity makes it feel warmer.

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The Caverns have other attractions as well, you can check them out here. In addition, the Shenandoah Valley is a beautiful place dotted with wineries. It would probably be better in summer, but we had a great time in winter as well.

We drove down to the Naked Mountain Winery in Markham on our way back. They were nice enough to let us in and give us a full tasting even though we reached just as they were closing for the day. They don’t serve food, but you are welcome to carry your own. While we are talking about food, try the Drunken Noodles at Faang. It’s not too far from the Naked Mountain Winery.

 

P.S – More pictures on our FB page.

Holiday Lights at Dyker Heights

You can fall in “love” with NYC anytime of the year, but during the holidays the city is particularly enchanting. You can simply walk around the streets admiring the painstakingly done holiday windows, or be dazzled by  the profligate holiday lights.

Dyker Heights is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that goes all out on the razzle-dazzle. The best way to enjoy this extravaganza is to walk around. You will need to park a few blocks away, as it is really difficult to find parking here. If you do find a tight little spot, you might kick yourself later for parking there  because there will be others trying to drive through and enjoy, making it a pain to get out. Driving through might be just as excruciating.  This is especially true around 83rd to 86th street between 11th and 13th avenues. The mansions here put on a spectacular show. Many of them employ professional decorators. One such house had a Toyland, complete with a carousal on each lawn. It’s like Christmas on steroids.

Do walk around the other blocks with smaller houses as well. The displays there may not be as lavish, but they are nevertheless fantastic.

dyker heights2

It’s unlikely that you will run out of things to do in NYC, especially around the holidays, but if you find yourself with an evening to spare, put Dyker lights on your list.

Photo Courtesy Supriya Malpani and Kind Stranger

Holiday Markets of New York City

I love holiday markets – the cheer, the colours, the crowds, the chatter, and most of all the cider. This season (2014-2015), it so happened that I visited four of NYC’s popular holiday markets. First I went to Columbus Circle to catch up with Eight Thousand  Miles. Another day, I went ice skating at Bryant park with visitors from Canada, and stayed back to explore the market. On my way back from the Gingerbread Lane exhibition I had to pass through Grand Central and couldn’t resist the urge to go around the Vanderbilt Hall holiday market. Later that same evening, while waiting for our friend *Mr.S.S  at Union Square we took to opportunity to take a peek into the Union Square market and came back with 3 new housemates –Tilottama, Urvashi and Rambha.

our new housemates

our new housemates – naughty is the new nice

I found that markets at Union Square and Columbus Circle being the oldest were also the most popular. Bryant Park is fast catching up though. The market at Bryant Park is a much longer market than the other three, starting at the end of October and running till around January 4th. The other markets open in December and end on Christmas eve. If you are willing to spend that **little bit extra, these markets are a great place to score unique gifts.

Union Square Holiday Market

Now, if you missed the markets this year, or didn’t to buy that lovely scarf you fell in love with don’t fret. Most of the pop-up stores at these markets are regulars. It is very likely that you will see them again next year, provided you are in NYC next December. I will be and I know exactly what I’m going to buy. Until then, return all those unopened impulse purchases and put the money aside. I’m doing just the same.

Pictures

*Mr.SS  – Sidharth Subramaniam

** a little more than little really

..and so another year begins

 

Health and Happiness to All!!

Health and Happiness to All!!

Hello Peeps!!

The last year went out in a flurry of activities. I checked out the 4 big holiday markets of NYC. We drove down to Luray Caverns,Virginia for a holiday weekend. Came back and met visiting friends; did a walking tour with them. Enjoyed 4 sets of New Year fireworks, all from the comfort of our (rented) apartment. No jostling crowd. No heels on slippery hardwood floors. No shivering in the cold. Good friends, good food, good music – that’s how we brought  2015 in. I was then whisked off for a surprise holiday in Quebec.

Here I am now, trying to settle into the new year. After 2 days of sub zero temperature in Canada, it feels like early fall in NYC today. When asked about my plans for the year, I realized that for maybe the first time I have concrete goals. There is so much I want to do, and a lot more that I have to do. Bear with me.

I just realized this is my 200th post. This blog has come a long long way, and it would not have been possible without all of you. Your love and support, your shares, likes, comments, just the fact that you read it – means a lot.

May the new year fulfill old dreams and set the stage for new ones!!

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