Saturday, March 31, 2012

I want to Go with Oh to Prague

Everyone has their list of dream destinations and Ursa and I are no exception. Near the very top of our "to visit" list is the capitol of the Czech Republic, Prague. "The most precious stone in the crown of the world" according to Goethe. A city whose culture and beauty rivals Paris, Rome or any of the other great cities of Europe, or the world. I would like to Go With Oh! to be their guest blogger. (Check out their site, and the very cool Facebook competition where you could win 4 fantastic prizes). Should I get the privilage of being Go With Oh's guest blogger here are my top five things that I want to see while in Prague.

#5 Prague Castle

The first stones were laid in 880 AD and more than 1100 years later it continues to function as the seat of power for the Czech Republic; serving now as the home of its President, as well as being a national heritage site, storing priceless relics, historical documents, and the Czech Crown Jewels. Prague Castle is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest castle in the world and represents virtually every architectural style of the last millennium. In the 1300's it began serving its first of two stints as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Charles IV. Though as the seat of power moved between Prague and Vienna the castle has gone through periods of disrepair, today it has been restored and once again acting in its intended role.

#4  Beer

Would you even believe me if I told you that I planned to go to one of the beer capitols of Europe intent on sipping nothing but Dr Pepper? If so, I've got a "can't miss" investment opportunity for you. Look, I'm not a college student looking to get twisted and hit on "hotties" anymore, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to pass up on some indulgences while at the home of Pilsner Urquell!
The Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other country in the world, swilling down a remarkable 158.6 litres per person, annually. The Irish are a distant second with 131.1, followed by the Germans, Austrians, and Australians to round out the top 5.
So, we've established that beer is taken very seriously around Prague and I'm sure that even my beer-snob buddies would be interested to hear the opinions of the locals when it comes to brew.

#3 Architecture

Fantastic examples of architecture are to be found throughout Prague, especially in the historic city center. Another great place for beautiful buildings is the residential district known as the Vinohrady or "vinyards" is renowned to be an elegant blend of architectural styles including: Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic, and Pseudo Baroque; most coming from the late 1800's through the turn of the 20th century. The area also features a number of parks and gardens.
The Frank Gehry designed EMP in Seattle (Photo by Ursa Davis)
To tell the truth though, one piece of architecture that I'm really excited to see is from my favorite architect Frank Gehry, a dancing building known as "Fred and Ginger". I've been fascinated by Gehry's work ever since the first time I saw the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and again by the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  His expressionist post modern style is at first shocking, gaudy, and bombastic but the more you look at them the more complex and beautiful they become. Gehry's work is an elegant break from the expected and visually intoxicating. I cannot wait to see Fred and Ginger in the context of their natural settings, as photography rarely does justice to architecture.

#2 Catching a Show

Flying Lotus at the Melkweg in Amsterdam
Culture is more than museums and folk dancing. It's as much modern as traditional, and is often found in the minutiae of everyday life. How do people dress, how do they interact, how lively or reserved are they? I like getting a sense of this by making a point to do something abroad that I would do at home. My favorite way is to go to a rock show at a local concert house. Not a big name stadium show but a mid level touring act at a 1000 seat or so venue. One memorable show was seeing the emerging electronic sensation Flying Lotus play at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. It was great not just because of the show or the music, but because of the people. Amsterdam's love affair with electronic music is well known and it was cool to see their enthusiasm for that style of music first-hand, unencumbered by other tourists.
Anne Ducros at La Cigal in Paris
In Paris we got tickets to see the lovely and talented Anne Ducros perform at La Cigale. It was a beautiful, big band homage to Ella Fitzgerald full of all the ball gowns and black ties of a bygone era. Ursa and I had a wonderful date night, and the evening was without a doubt the most Parisian thing that we did during our time in Paris. Jazz clubs are another favorite place of mine to mingle with the locals. Finding these shows can take a little research but it's well worth the extra effort. For rock shows I would recommend searching the website Jambase. Good jazz clubs on the other hand are as relative as good jazz, so that can be a little trickier, and may require more legwork.

#1 The Municipal House

To say that Ursa is a fan of Art Nouveau would be a monumental understatement. A mere fan wouldn't have a full sleeve tattoo of Alphonse Mucha art on her arm! I am a fan, but Ursa is a true devotee. We both look forward to seeing the myriad of examples of Art Nouveau found throughout Prague. Be it art in its museums, or the facades of its buildings, or the seamlessly flowing decor for which the movement was also known. But the crown jewel of the Art Nouveau movement in Prague is the legendary Municipal House.
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the civic landmark, concert hall and art nouveau masterpiece, which opened it's doors in November of 1912. The exterior was designed by architects Osvald Polivka and Antonin Balsanek while the various halls and concert area inside were decorated by a variety of famous artists of the day including the Mayor Hall which was designed by Alphonse Mucha himself and contains several of his greatest works, as well as furnishings and objets d'art by the artist.
Listening to the philharmonic play the music of a composer from Prague, (Antonin Dvorak would be appropriate) played at one of Europe's finest symphony halls/architectural masterpieces on the building's centennial celebration would indeed be worth flying half way around the world to see.

But, let's face it, all of those reasons are really just window dressing. None of that is the driving force that inspires me to see what Prague has to offer. The REAL reason that I want to go to Prague is the same reason that I want to go anywhere and that is that there, ultimately, will always be something unforeseen and unexpected that is gained through the act of travelling. Something that latches onto you like a barnacle to be carried with you to every subsequent port of call. Sometimes it is profound, sometimes mundane; it could be palpable, tangible or emotional; an unforgettable smell or the stirring memory of a sunset. You could learn something new about the world, you could learn something new about yourself. Whatever IT is, that discovery is the very essence of why we travel. It is that mysterious, unknowable something that compels us to venture to the places that we have never before explored. A friend told me recently, "The hardest thing to learn, is how little you actually know." I don't know what fresh nugget I might uncover in Prague, all I know is that I don't know enough. All I know is that there's something there to be found, and I think it's time that I find it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Anchorage, Alaska

Ice sculptures at the Crystal Gallery of Ice
Well, having been living in Anchorage for a year now, I'm finally feeling familiar enough with the town to drop a post about it. So far I've enjoyed my time in Alaska, though I have to admit that I was really unprepared for the isolation of the winter months up here. I obviously knew that I would be considerably less active and more prone to staying indoors but I wasn't ready for just HOW inactive I'd be, and just how acutely the cabin fever can set in on a person.
So the transition from Boise, Idaho, to Anchorage was a rather rocky one from that regard, but the up side was the undeniable splendor of Alaska during the summer months. Alaska's natural beauty has been everything that was advertised! There is a wonderful little fitness trail that winds through a small thicket of woods just down the road from our condo and a cow moose with her two calves is a regular there. You never really get used to seeing that kind of wildlife right in the middle of a city like that.
"Good Friday" Quake, March 28, 1964
Also, Ursa and I felt our first couple of earthquakes last time home. They weren't much (a 1.3 and a 2.1 respectively, on the Richter Scale) but they were just startling enough to make us remember that we had moved to one of the most seismically active areas in the world, and by far the most earthquake prone state. Alaska averages a magnitude 7 earthquake almost every year, and a magnitude 8 or greater about every 14 years. The most famous of these was the Good Friday Quake, which struck on March 28, 1964, and registered a devastating 9.2 on the Richter Scale. The ground shook for a terrifying 4 minutes straight, and left 131 people dead. So by that standard, what we experienced was nothing; most locals would not have even noticed, but as small as they were, Ursa and I will remember them for some time.


Portage Glacier
The most rewarding part about living in Alaska is the ability to step out your door and go exploring some of the most amazing natural wonders in the world. There are many day trips to take from Anchorage to fascinating and beautiful sights like Portage Glacier, a recent trek that Ursa and I were able to make.
Ursa and I at Portage Glacier
The US Forest Service built the Begich Boggs Visitors Center at Portage Lake in 1986, but unfortunately the glacier can no longer be seen from there and a boat ride is required to make your way back to see it. The boat brought us right up to the ice flow as it calved off into the lake. The stunning blue color of the ice was in wonderful contrast to the eerie matt-grey water of the lake that was heavy with glacial silt. I thought it was interesting to see geology at work, with the ice bearing dark lines of eroded rock across it's face.
Parasailing off of Mount Alyeska
On that same day trip we stopped at Alyeska Ski Resort and rode the tram to the lodge, which has wonderful views during the summer months as well as the winter. We had a nice lunch and got to watch the parasailers taking off. The mountain also has lovely hiking trails up and down it. From the observation deck at the top of the mountain we could see the bore tide ripping inland up Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. A tidal bore is a relatively rare phenomena which incoming tides are funneled into a shallow, narrowing river which causes a wave to rush upstream. The bore creates a wave large enough that you can occasionally see people surfing up the river. This area is one of the only places in the United States that this curious effect can be seen.
On a different occasion Ursa and I took a really nice little hike up to Thunderbird Falls. It was the fall and the mushrooms were huge and they were everywhere! We had a great time investigating the fungi cropping up all around the trail. Although the falls themselves were actually a bit disappointing; nice, but just kind of unimpressive, though the hike itself was well worth the effort.

Anthony Romero, Executive Director of ACLU
Anchorage is a wonderful place for those who love to learn. Oil companies make for a great sugar daddy, and they support all forms of cultural activities for the community. The climate also promotes indoor, hobbies and activities; consequently the local music and art scenes both punch heavier than their weight.
I've always been interested in the work of the Alaska World Affairs Council, which puts on a number of speaking engagements throughout the year whose purpose is to "stimulate interest in world affairs and to inspire the public to be involved in world issues, through a program of lectures, discussion forums, media events and other educational activities." I'm looking forward to an upcoming event on April 20, titled "The Coming Renaissance in North American Oil and Gas" from the President of Energy Policy Research Foundation (EPRINC), Lou Pugliaresi.
Ursa and I got a chance this summer to go see the Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero in a speaking engagement at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who gave an intriguing perspective about their work protecting the civil liberties of America.

The starting line of the 2012 Iditarod
I was excited to get to attend the start of the 2012 Iditarod in downtown Anchorage. This year marked the fortieth running of the "last great race" and saw 66 mushers and their teams of sled dogs begin their 1,049 mile journey to the city of Nome. The race has become a symbolic link to Alaska's history and culture, but the most famous event in the history of mushing was the 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome. The nearest antitoxin for the disease was found in Anchorage, but it was too cold for the planes to fly the serum to Nome by plane, so it was entrusted to teams of sled dogs, who relayed the package 674 miles. The most treacherous stretch of the journey was the 91 mile portion covered by Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who became the hero's of the route.
Sled dogs rolling in the snow
This year will take the dogsled teams across the race's northern route which is used for even numbered years and was the original route used for the race for it's first 4 years until a southern route was developed for use during odd numbered years. The two routes share checkpoints until the ghost town of Ophir where their paths diverge. The trail is not only long, but the mushers will also have to contend with the jaws of the harsh Alaskan winter, where blizzards, whiteouts and gale force winds can drive the wind chill below -100 degrees F. The fastest time ever recorded on the Iditarod's northern route was set by Martin Buser in 2002, with a time of 8 days 22 hours and 46 minutes.
The race's start that I was able to attend, with my friends Marcus and his girlfriend Tabitha, was a ceremonial start. The actual race would begin the next day near the town of Willow. But the ceremonial start in Anchorage has become one of the iconic Alaskan events, where fans line the streets and stage themselves at different points around town to cheer the mushers on to Nome. We went to the starting line downtown which is the epicenter of Iditarod mania. Families and fans from all over descended upon the city's center and enjoyed hot dogs and hot cocoa, and listened to the countdown that marks each musher's departure. It's an infectious atmosphere.
I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate my coworker, Andrew Zwink who finished third in this year's Iron Dog, a 2,000 mile snow machine race from Big Lake (near Wasilla) to Nome. Great job Andy!


I don't know how much Alaska is on people's radar as a foodie destination, but it really should be. As a tourist destination, Anchorage is able to support some excellent, fine dining restaurants despite it's relatively small size. The prevalence of outstanding, fresh ingredients, especially seafood, also contributes to the high quality eats.
The biggest contributor to the local culinary culture is the influence of rural Alaska. It can be seen everywhere. Sourdough is one of the local favorites, as is reindeer sausage, or halibut; wild game meat is a staple of the locals especially moose roast. And lets not forget the crab, although the demand for king crab tends to leave it a little overpriced, I've found that the dungeness crab is a better value and a sweeter meat anyway.
But bar none, salmon is king. it seems like every Alaskan that I know has a special recipe for smoked salmon. Discussions on the topic can last for hours, from how to build the smoker to what wood to use and for how long, canning it or vacuum sealing, brining techniques, on and on. Silver salmon, red salmon, king salmon; baked or barbecued it is THE definitive food of Alaska. Personally I don't like barbecued fish as much because it so often gets overcooked and ends up dry. I typically bake salmon until it's about medium rare and without a lot of accouterments.

Home Cooking
Here's something simple, but unique to Alaska, Fireweed Jelly. I'd like to thank my friend Autumn for this one. Personally I haven't made it yet, but I fully plan to this summer.

Fireweed Jelly

2 1/2 Cups Fireweed juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 3/4 package dry pectin
3 Cups sugar

For Fireweed juice: Harvest about 8 packed cups of fireweed flowers. Rinse thoroughly and put in a 2 quart pot. Add just enough water to make water level just below the top of the packed flowers. (Juice should be deep purple in color when finished. If too much water is used in the boiling process the juice will be a brownish color. More water can always be added after the flowers are boiled to increase the amount of juice)  Boil flowers in water until color is boiled out and petals are a greyish color. Ladle juice into a jar through a cheesecloth to strain.

Warm fireweed juice, lemon and butter on stovetop.

Add Sure-Jell, bring to boil and boil hard for 1 minute

Add sugar and bring to full boil for 1 minute. Skim top of jelly.

Pour into pitcher and skim again.

Fill sterilized jars leaving 1/8 inch space at top. Process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.


Ghostland Observatory rockin' Beartooth Theatre Pub
Anymore, the music industry has drifted away from the influence of large scale productions and stadium shows and has become more reliant upon smaller venue shows. This is especially true for tertiary markets like Anchorage, who would have had a very hard time in the past drawing big name bands to play their city. Consequently, venues like the 6000 seat Sullivan Arena is sufficient to bring in some very decent, touring, acts.
Ghostland Observatory
But for a more intimate performance, I highly recommend catching a show at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub which brings through some pretty solid national acts and has a good selection of microbrews from Moose's Tooth Brewing Company. Ursa and I saw one of my favorite bands, Ghostland Observatory, there. It was a good setup; relatively easy to get around, adequately short lines for drinks, and we were right up front so I couldn't tell you about how the sound was because all I know is that it was LOUD!
Keep an ear to the ground and you may be lucky enough to catch a performance by local phenoms Portugal. The Man, who are from nearby Wasilla, Alaska. It's funny though that the only time I've managed to see their show has been when I was in New Orleans at Voodoo Fest. I still have my fingers crossed to see a performance on their home turf.
Another entertaining show we got to see was the legendary Bill Cosby, who performed at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Oh boy, does the old guy still have it. Listening to Bill Cosby rattle off stories that seem to flow so naturally sometimes makes me wonder if he actually plans his routine out or if he just sits down and just lets it fly. Mr Cosby is probably better compared, not to other comedians, but rather to the great storytellers of America, whose art has been lost; people like Garrison Keillor, or David Sedaris.

Thanks for reading everybody. Ursa and I will be in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for the next couple of weeks. And since I won't have phone service during the trip, I'll be keeping everyone posted with daily posts on this blog. . . well, maybe not DAILY, probably more like every other day or something, but the point is to watch on here for updates on how we're faring. So until then, bye!
Taking a hike