Advice

A 35 kilometer bike tour through Flanders Fields was appealing to me for 3 reasons: I am a history geek, I love a physical challenge, and I love traveling to obscure destinations. A ride around Flanders Fields offers all three, plus chocolate and pommes frites to reward my efforts. How could anything go wrong?

FLANDERS FIELDS

We decided to visit Ypres as a day trip from Brussels. The Belgian rail system is convenient and affordable, so we opted for a scenic train ride instead of renting a car. As soon as we stepped onto the train, we realized our plan to kick back and enjoy the scenery wasn’t going to happen. None of the guidebooks had warned us that Belgian trains haven’t been updated since the 1970′s, and as soon as we sat down we knew it was going to be a long and uncomfortable ride. Upholstered in hideous, sticky pleather (reminiscent of the wood paneling in a 1970′s station wagon), the seats felt like church pews that had been carved from steel rods. Worse still, they face the seat across from them, so we spent most of the time pretending not to notice the teenagers across from us, sharing ipod ear buds and singing out of tune.

After 3 long hours, we arrived in Ypres. We had booked rental bikes prior to our arrival, now all we had to do was find the Hotel Ambrosia (they offer bike rental for 12 euros a day), and we’d be on our way. The town of Ypres is hardly more than a village. The streets are lined with charming two story townhouses that look like they were built as a backdrop for a WWII film. Eager to stretch our legs, we took our time and wandered the streets, feeling that we had time traveled into pre-war Belgium.

The fiercest fighting of the First World War occurred in the Ypres Salient, a hilly area just north of Ypres. Trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas all but decimated the town and the hilly areas that surround it. Wooded areas and farmland were turned into muddy swampland, and craters from artillery fire became large, deep puddles (now used as watering holes for grazing cattle). Nearly a million soldiers were killed in the Ypres Salient during a war of attrition that lasted for three and a half years.

Despite Winston Churchill’s wish to keep the town in ruins as a reminder of the travesty that occurred there, the locals rebuilt everything to look exactly as it did before the war. The main market square has an old world ambiance, with cobblestone streets and quaint shops lining the streets. The old cloth hall, now the In Flanders Fields Museum, marks the center of town.

After stopping for lunch (and a chocolate snack for the ride), we stopped into the museum gift store to purchase a trail map. It was the first of several mistakes we made that day. The map showed the bike trails as yellow squiggles, with no road names or landmarks to demonstrate exactly where they were, only a random assortment of numbers. The numbers mark battlefields and cemeteries, which match descriptions in an accompanying pamphlet. The map also offered convoluted directions, written in a strange first person narrative, We cycle from Bellewaerde Ridge to Meenseweg. From Meenseweg, you can take a left and cycle to ‘t Hoe to visit a well-tended war museum with a tavern and lovely British cemetery. 

Thanks to our flawed map and my hesitant riding style (it was my first time on a bike in over 10 years), we took a few wrong turns and wasted nearly an hour trying to find our way out of Ypres. Finally, we began to see signs of the Western Front, now pocked with craters and gravestones.

Reminders of the war are around every corner in Ypres. Poppies were the first flower to grow in the fields after the devastation of the war, and now they are a symbol of the region, symbolizing hope and rebirth. We were in Belgium a week before Armistice Day, and there were fresh poppies scattered along all of the memorials, cemeteries, and trenches.

The first battlefield we encountered was the John McCrae site, named after the famous Canadian poet and medic. Belgium is so flat that any small increase in elevation was considered a major tactical advantage.  The allies used the little hill as an artillery position, and later on in the war as a second line behind the front. It is a surreal experience to stand on the embankment, with the canal on one side and farmland on the other, and imagine what this area looked like during the war.

In spite of our map, we managed to find the Yorkshire Trenches hidden in the center of what is now an industrial park (amateur archaeologists found the park in 1992). The original Yorkshire Trench was dug in 1915, and concrete walkways mark all of the underground tunnels and shelters (most of which are accessible to tourists). Seeing the trenches in person brings the war back to life, and the devastation is almost palpable. It wasn’t long before we were ready to move on.

Most of the sites in the area are former battlefields and cemeteries, tucked away into what are now potato fields and dairy farms. Every monument told a unique tale of bravery and horror, and we kept stopping to stare at the scenery. It is nearly impossible to imagine such a bucolic setting as a backdrop for some of the deadliest and cruelest battles Europe has ever seen.

We rode around Ypres and the surrounding areas for nearly 4 hours and finally gave in as the sun started to set. We covered far less ground than we’d planned (only 15 of the planned 35 kilometers) mostly because we spent a lot of the time completely lost, but we also lingered much longer than we expected to at many of  the sites. Almost as soon as we had decided to turn back to Ypres, we were already upon the town itself.  This was another reminder of just how close all of these battles were to the tiny town.  Just under a million men had died over this stretch of little more than a few kilometers.  The emotional, and, let’s face it, physical toll (cobblestones are not kind) of the ride was surprising.

We stopped for a pint on the way back to the train station, enjoying the cozy atmosphere of a small town pub, and watched as the town faded into darkness. We sat there for a long time, feeling a long way from anywhere, and very close to history.

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1. Visit the Citadel and Roman Amphitheater

4 THINGS TO DO IN AMMAN
4 THINGS TO DO IN AMMAN

The Citadel has been occupied for at least 9,000 years by a series of different civilizations, and the site is covered in ancient artifacts from Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic settlements. For a small fee of 15JD (roughly equal to 15GBP or 24US Dollars), you can hire a guide at the entrance. Don’t be afraid to haggle about price or refuse service from guides who seem questionable. Ask a lot of questions, and choose a guide who is experienced and willing to give you at least a full hour.

Just down the road from the Citadel is the Roman Amphitheater. You can enter the site for 2JD, and you don’t need a guide. The theater has amazing acoustics. Press your ear to one end of the wall at the base of the theater, and have a friend press theirs to the other end. Your voices will carry through the wall in a strange echo effect, sort of like an ancient game of telephone. Make the effort to climb to the top row of seats in the theatre and you’ll discover one of the best views in town.

Getting to the Citadel: Take a taxi. Your driver will offer to wait (for a fee), but it really isn’t necessary. Taxis regularly cruise through the parking lot looking for fares, and it’s a lot more fun to explore the site if you aren’t on a schedule.

Getting to the Roman Theater: We walked from the Citadel to the theater, but you will definitely need a good map (or GPS) to help you find your way through the winding streets of Amman. The easier (and less interesting) option is a taxi.

2. Eat at Falafel Al-Quds

This Rainbow Street falafel stand has been frying up delicious sandwiches for 40 years. For 2JD, you get a falafel sandwich with spicy sauce and vegetables. They’re small but tasty. If you ask nicely (and they aren’t busy), you can forgo the bread and buy a serving of plain falafel balls to snack on. It’s a takeaway place, but there are benches outside where you can enjoy your sandwich and some great people watching.

Getting to Falafel Al-Quds: Rainbow Street is about a 20 minute walk from downtown Amman, but you’ll definitely need a map or GPS and a good sense of direction to find your way. Taxis are cheap and easy, and drivers will all understand if you ask for Rainbow Street.

Falafel Al Quds-Jabbal Amman, First Circle, Rainbow Street

3. Drink Arak in a Rainbow Street Cafe

Arak is a colorless, unsweetened, anise-flavored Arabic liquor that really packs a punch at 50% alcohol by volume. It is served in a shot glass with a glass of ice and a bottle of water. When the ingredients are mixed together (ice first, then 1/3 Arak to 2/3 water) they react to form a cloudy white beverage best consumed with a mezze plate or garlicky snack. While alcohol isn’t forbidden in Jordan, few places have it on the menu. Luckily, the youthful and westernized Rainbow Street neighborhood has a few cafes that serve alcohol.

Getting there: As listed above, Rainbow Street is a 20 minute walk from downtown Amman or an easy taxi ride.

Where to drink Arak: Books@Cafe has a friendly, western style cafe upstairs, and an English bookstore downstairs. The cafe has outdoor seating with spectacular views of the city.

Omar Al Khattab Street #12 First Circle, Jabal Amman

4. Wander through the covered market in Downtown Amman

The traditional fruit market in Downtown Amman is a treat for the senses. Fresh, colorful produce is piled on tables at eye level; each mountain of fruit is topped with a freshly sliced piece to tempt potential customers. Baskets full of exotic spices line the streets, and the scents fill the air and make your mouth water. Vendors literally sing for their customers, listing off the best deals of the day in melodious chants that echo through the market. Don’t be afraid to chat up the vendors, who are more than happy to practice their English.

Getting to the market: The market is just around the corner from the Roman theater, so it’s easy to take a taxi to one or the other and walk.

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We’ve been away from California for over a year now, but I still get regular requests from friends and family asking for advice about wineries in Napa Valley. I’m always happy to share my thoughts and advice, so here they are, in blog format, for all to see.

WINE TASTING IN NAPA VALLEY

WINE TASTING IN NAPA VALLEY

First Things First: Transportation

Tourists who don’t want to run the risk of a pricey DUI ticket often decide to hire a limousine, ride the Napa Wine Train, or take a bus tour. The problem with all of these options is that they visit a set list of wineries (usually the big touristy ones), and you have little or no control over your experience.

For a more personalized tasting experience, Napa Bee Driven is a much better option. They’ll provide you with a knowledgeable chauffeur to drive you to the wineries of your choice (instead of the big wineries frequented by every tourism company in the valley), for $50 an hour. The drivers know their wine, and we’ve had great luck following their recommendations. Any research into pricing in Napa will confirm that they offer the best deal in town. So what’s the catch? They drive you in your car. Just tell them where to meet you and the driver will appear out of thin air. At the end of the day they’ll drop you back at your hotel or the restaurant of your choice. It’s not the lap of luxury, but for budget conscious travelers it is the way to go.

Next Up: Lunch

Most of the wineries open at 10 or 11am, but we never visited a winery before 1. Instead, we’d have lunch at Gott’s Roadside (Napa location). Kevin recommends the Texas burger and a side of onion rings; I like the veggie burger and sweet potato fries. If you’re a dessert person, the milkshakes are amazing. Everything is delicious and you really can’t go wrong.

Now The Important Stuff: Wineries

This list begins just outside of downtown Napa and winds its way up to St. Helena. I recommend starting with the winery farthest from your hotel and making your way back through the valley to get the most out of your time. This map is a handy reference.

JUDD’S HILL

We love this winery. It’s a tiny little family-run winery and microcrush operation just off the Silverado Trail. The staff is one of the friendliest in the valley, and the wine is always tasty. We had one of the best bottles of Syrah we’ve ever tasted at this winery. Just call first for an appointment (they are very flexible and accommodating, even at the last minute).

Tasting fee: Not listed, but definitely reasonable (around $10 or so), and they’ll waive the fee if you purchase a couple of bottles.

VAN DER HEYDEN

I have to include this winery on the list for entertainment value alone. It’s basically a tin shack in the middle of a vineyard, with a ramshackle outdoor seating area and friendly dogs roaming the property. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hosted by the grumpy patriarch of the family, who seems ambivalent about whether or not people like his wine (what matters is that he likes his wine). They also offer delicious homemade truffles for tasting. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the wine yet… that’s because it isn’t very memorable. You go to Van Der Heyden for the experience, not the wine. We usually make it our last stop, as they are open later than everyone else (6:00), and it’s a fun way to end an afternoon. They recommend making an appointment, but we’ve never had a problem walking in.

Tasting fee: Not listed, but I remember it being very affordable ($10 or so for a flight), and I believe they waive the fee if you purchase a bottle (don’t quote me on that).

CHIMNEY ROCK

This is not a winery for people on a budget. Bottles start at around $35, and prices top out around $100. The tasting room is stuffy, and you’ll definitely feel some pressure to buy a bottle (or 10). So why would anyone go here? For the wine. This place is the opposite of Van Der Heyden, lacking in fun and atmosphere, but the wine is oh-so-delicious. You’ll wish you had a few hundred dollars to blow on their delicious reds. Just don’t stay long. There is too much fun to be had elsewhere. No appointment necessary.

Tasting fee: $20-$35 per flight, not waived with bottle purchase

REGUSCI

This winery is on my top 3 list. It’s a family operation and it feels like it (they’ve been making wine since 1932). The wine is pure California, with big, fruity flavors. We always go for the Zinfandel. Along with great wine, they offer friendly staff and beautiful grounds. They even have a corgi who will follow you around and beg for a belly scratch. Bottles start at $35 and make their way to $86, but they are worth every penny. We always have fun here. It’s the kind of winery that makes you want to move to the valley, just so you can visit more often. No appointment necessary.

Tasting fee: $25 per flight. They’ve been known to pour a little extra if you make friends with the hosts, and they’ll waive the tasting fee with a bottle purchase.

JESSUP CELLARS

This winery is in Yountville (short detour from the Silverado Trail), and it is the perfect place to end your tasting adventure if you plan to eat at one of the restaurants in town (which we lovingly refer to as the “Keller Compound”, see restaurant recommendations for more information). The winery doubles as an art gallery, and seating is provided in a restaurant style layout. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and they offer a nice variety of wines to taste. There is literally something for everyone, and they might have the best rose in the Valley. Just don’t forget to make an appointment first, because they tend to get very busy.

Tasting fee: $20, waived with bottle purchase

SADDLEBACK CELLARS

We stumbled onto this winery entirely by accident one afternoon, and I’m so glad we did. The wine is good, and the atmosphere is great. The staff is friendly and accommodating, and once you sit down at one of their tables, you might not want to get up. The tasting room bumps right up against their vineyards, providing great scenery, and a perfect place for a tourist photo. We really like the viognier. They require an appointment, but like most other vineyards in the area, they are happy to make room for you if at all possible.

Tasting fee: $20 for a tasting of 7-10 varietals (most vineyards offer 4 varietals in a flight)

TURNBULL WINE CELLARS

We love this winery. They offer two tasting rooms; the main tasting room offers current releases, and the reserve tasting room offers reserve wines and a fantastic art gallery. There is something on offer here for all tastes and interests, and the staff is knowledgeable and accommodating. If you go for the reserve tasting, you won’t be sorry. We really like their cabs. No appointment necessary, and make sure to leave a little extra time in your itinerary to spend time browsing the art.

Tasting fee: $10 for standard flight, $20 for reserve tasting

FROG’S LEAP

Frog’s Leap is the one and only big producer on this list. You can find their wines at your local grocery, but it’s still worth a visit for the experience of sitting in their tasting room and wandering the grounds of the vineyard. The tasting room is really a wraparound deck on the side of a mansion, with views onto the gardens and vineyard. You get a little cheese snack with your wine, and visitors are encouraged to wander through the vineyards, gardens, barns, and barrel room. Nothing is rushed here, and you’ll definitely feel like you’re away from it all. We like the petite sirah, the rutherford and the pink, but you really can’t go wrong. They require an appointment for groups larger than six, but it is a popular winery so I recommend calling ahead for any size party.

Tasting fee: $20

Don’t Bother: Wineries that aren’t worth your time or money.

SILVERADO

Don’t let the grounds fool you, Silverado is an empty suit. And they’re owned by Disney. One of their wines is named “Fantasia”. ‘Nuff said.

PEJU

The wine is excellent. The presentation-not so much. First they make you wait with a group of strangers in a holding pen, then everyone is welcomed into the tasting room at once. Once you are completely trapped with a crowd of strangers, the host/community theatre reject does a cornball song and dance about each bottle, followed by a heavy handed sales pitch. Avoid this place at all costs.

GRGICH

I will never understand how this winery became the tourist trap that it is. The wine is nothing to write home about, and the tasting room is a crowded nightmare. Don’t bother.

Last Stop: Dinner

If you don’t have a few hundred dollars to spare at The French Laundry, I highly recommend making a reservation at one of the lesser Keller enterprises.Bouchon and Ad Hoc are affordable and offer some of the best food available in Napa Valley (all conveniently located in Yountville, aka, the Keller Compound). If you want to break free of all things Keller, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen offers farm fresh California cuisine to die for. To experience Michelin starred vegetarian fare, try Ubuntu in Napa. I can still taste the fried green tomatoes I had the last time we were there…

So there you have it. Happy drinking! Feel free to share your favorite wineries and Napa Valley experiences in the comment section below!

Links:

Transportation

Napa Valley Winery Map

Napa Bee Driven

Lunch

Gott’s Roadside

Wineries

Judd’s Hill

Van Der Heyden

Chimney Rock

Regusci

Jessup Cellars

Saddleback Cellars

Turnbull

Frog’s Leap

Dinner

French Laundry

Bouchon

Ad Hoc

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen

Ubuntu

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