Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dec 31 2011 - New Year is Happier in Sydney

Hipsters will be prosecuted!!
Sydney takes its New Years celebrations seriously - and unlike a destination such as New York City - it seems to tell visitors "bring it on". NYC tries its best to discourage New Years Eve revelers: you have to get there mid-afternoon and stand in the sobering freezing cold for hours just to watch a ball move a meter in 10 seconds.

The "kids" 9:00 fireworks
Sydney has 9 choreographed fireworks displays lasting about 7 minutes, which are physically close enough together that you can see several of them simultaneously. It's like 3-D with Surround Sound. Even the skyscrapers get in on the action, adding the icing to the cake - and the cherry too.

Drinking Nelsons Blood and sending New Years greetings
In fact, Sydney is getting in the mood all evening leading up to the big event. At 9pm there is the "children's fireworks" which is supposed to be for kids, but from what we have seen, seems to be more for parents (kids would love to stay up to midnight). It's close in scale to the later fireworks, except they don't close and launch from the Harbour Bridge. Then at 10, 11, and 11:30pm there are little teaser fireworks so you can keep your excitement level up, synchronize your watches, and make sure your location is calibrated for optimal pyrotechnic enjoyment :)

The whole gang
Meanwhile we're staking out our home base. Location: Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. This is where we came after dinner and between/after each fireworks sortie. This is where we met up with Danny, our diving buddy from the reef. We also made new friends Adam (celebrating his 30th birthday) and Rachel - locals who didn't care to actually see the fireworks, Lev visiting from L.A., and the swinging Swedish couple. Lord Nelson's is the spot.

One of nine simultaneous wraparound fireworks displays
Our research concluded the best viewing location to be Observatory Hill, standing with thousands of our closest friends. It's a bit more sane (sober) than the madness down in the streets of The Rocks. Australians are so good-natured and well-organized that there was no trouble squeezing into a great spot at the last possible minute.

Danny, Olga, Rachel: happy new year!!
Back home at 4am, I went to sleep with the comfort of knowing we could sleep in, have a slow breakfast, and still be able to call folks back in the states before their own (quaint) new years.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Dec 30 2011 - Sydney - I come from a land down under

Twitch has been fed!
This being our second visit to Sydney (after 4 days up in Cairns), we feel like locals and spent the day accordingly.

  • We're staying in our friend John's house in the suburb of Marrickville. Slept in until 10am (average wake-up time on this trip has been about 8am due to heavily packed plans). We're also feeding his cat. That's so local. Tourists don't feed cats.

Set of Nothing Personal
  • Shopped at Banana Joe's grocery store and made a healthy brunch of local mango, cherries, cucumber, hummus, cheese, multi-grain bread, and Greek pastries.

  • Visited the post office for stamps, but it's closed for the holiday. Picked up a tasty cappuccino instead at the Marrickville Post Cafe.

After an afternoon looking at world maps,
now that's all I can see.
  • Checked out the New South Wales Library to check out the wonderful exhibit for the 100th anniversary of the exploration of Antarctica. Probably the best part is the collection of Italian, Dutch, British, French, and even ancient Greek world maps in chronological order so you can watch the results of various nautical expeditions to the Southern hemisphere.

  • Patronized a local pub. The Harts Pub near Circular Quay serves only craft beer - we tried their own Rocks Brewing Co Cider and one outside beer: Murray's Dark Knight Porter from a nearby town called Bobs Farm. I enjoyed my Porter and Olga preferred her Cider :) We've now been to several pubs and I have never seen Foster's - not even once. Maybe it isn't Australian for beer.

Sydney Opera building from the ferry
  • After a small bite at Harts, we caught the comedic play Nothing Personal at the local Ensemble theatre in Kirribilli. The play was funny, barring a few local and Cricket-related references, and the cast was great!

  • Masterfully navigated our way through the ferry and train system back to our friend's house. It's like we've been living here for years!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dec 29 2011 - Transitional day in Cairns Australia

Cafe at the Cairns Botanical Gardens
There's a lot of pressure to keep one's travel blog interesting for faithful readers. Day one: arrive in an exciting town in an exotic locale, for example Sydney Australia. Day two: meet friends and have local dining experience, such as trying kangaroo sausage. Day three: try a new and exhilarating activity, perhaps scuba diving on a reef. Day four: try an unusual mode of transportation, let's say you ride a scenic railroad up to and a gondola above and down from a mountaintop rainforest. Day five is always going to be a letdown to travel blog followers - there's no way to keep up that level of activity.

Blue Sky Brewery in Cairns domestic airport
This morning we ran into another couple from the dive trip and walked to/through the botanical gardens and nature walk in Cairns. The nature walk was nice - a self-guided boardwalk tour through a few distinct rainforest and swamp ecosystems. It was nice to see our dive buddies - hopefully we'll run into each other in Sydney.

Tropical storm blew in as we were blowing out
The Cairns airport is really cute. The first thing we noticed is that they don't ask for IDs anywhere: at check-in, security, boarding, or when ordering beer at the local Cairns Blue Sky Brewery in the domestic terminal. They also don't check for liquids or carefully inspect shoes in the domestic terminal. It brings up an array of thoughts on the state of airport security, but my takeaway was how enjoyable the stout was at the airport brewery :)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dec 28 2011 - Cairns Australia - so many characters!

Scenic railroad from Cairns to Kuranda rainforest.
It speaks for itself!
Wednesday we took a packaged excursion: 2 hour scenic railroad up a mountain, 3 hours to walk around the town and rainforest of Kuranda, and an hour gondola ride back down. Reading the history of the railroad was probably more interesting than the ride itself. The line was planned and mostly built between 1882-1893 by 700+ men hand-carving 15 tunnels from sea level up to an elevation of 1000 feet. By the time they finished the line, the gold rush had ended and interest in the rail line was gone. Flash forward to 1978, some hippies opened a market at the top of the rail line in the town of Kuranda. They ran the rail line for a couple of seasons, then it was clear there was a lot of demand for the rail line and it was formally reopened. The view from the train was majestic, complete with a waterfall, view of the valley and sea, and a 180 degree hairpin turn where the front and back of the train have a direct view of each other.

A plane seems to have crashed in the koala
garden. Who's their decorator, JJ Abrams?
After some browsing in the market, we ended up at the Kuranda Coffee shop, which is split into two sides: members only (locals) and tourists. The members look like a cross between bikers and hippies. Very tan, long flowing clothes, leather jackets, long hair, big white beards. I tried to peek inside the members area, it looked like bikers sipping coffee and doing crossword puzzles, but apart from the tourists. The barista was a crazy character. We were asking about where the locals go to hang out. Half his teeth missing, he was teasing us mercilessly: 'Why aren't you staying in Kuranda for several days? Why haven't you hired a car? You need to cancel our arrangements and road trip around Australia! NOW!' He did make a mean macchiato though.

So many kangaroos to feed, so little time!
We ended up at the Kuranda Koala Gardens, where Olga fed a kangaroo and I cuddled with a koala bear. Here's how it works. Australia has laws limiting how much cuddling each koala bear may be subject to on a daily basis.

One minute of koala cuddling...
starts in... 3...2...1... ACTION!
To make sure everyone can (pay to) cuddle a koala, they have a huge stock of koala bears on hand. To feed sufficient koalas for cuddling, the park owns enough acreage to house many thousands of eucalyptus trees. So according to the park, our purchase of a koala cuddling photo directly resuscitates the koala bear species and habitat. Somehow it seems fishy, but he was fun to hold and the photo is super cute!

So much action in the rainforest!
Once you start cuddling, it's hard to stop!
After you have visited one of the parks (koala, bird, or butterfly), you have enough time to so souvenir shopping or perhaps take a rainforest walk, which is what we did. It's a neat 1.5 Km (paved) walk through a rainforest rich with the sounds of cicadas, crickets, and tropical birds; views of tall trees and ferns; the feeling of a continual mist, and the smells of green freshness after a summer rain. There's also a spot where you can see both the Scenic Railway and the Skyrail gondola, so railroad geeks won't feel left out. The Skyrail gondola ride down is scenic and a fast 45 mins back down to Cairns where you will potentially share a gondola with a family from Texas who didn't have enough time shopping for souvenirs in Kuranda so they came back for a second 3-hour visit.

Skyrail gondola ride over the rainforest canopy...
it's not scary (you keep telling yourself)
We spent the late afternoon and early evening at Hides Coffee Cafe in Cairns catching up on downtime and online activities. Torsten, the manager/barista was a charismatic eclectic fellow from Hamburg Germany who travels the world seeking to simplify the complicated and complicate the simple. Next he's off to India to study computers and design (and give away) a new level for a for a 1st person shooter video game.

We see bugs on the menu everywhere
in Cairns, and they are one of the most
expensive things... doesn't sound very
appetizing to me!
We were sitting here and chatting with Torsten when I spotted Erika from our dive boat. Cairns - the gateway to the reef - is the kind of small town where you'll keep running into people you know. Olga and I had left the boat yesterday while most of the group stayed until today. She invited us to join the majority of the group for dinner and we had a great time chatting about dives and seafood and travels and smartphone apps and gelato :)

Dive group "reunion"

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dec 27 2011 - Australia - Scuba diving liveaboard at the Great Barrier Reef

Olga and I just spent the past two days on a liveaboard trip with the wonderful Deep Sea Divers Den - I was scuba diving and she was snorkeling. The first two dives were on a small boat that took us out to the Great Barrier Reef, the other five were on a ship permanently out on the reef that moves from site to site along the reef. It was really neat having our own room on the larger ship where we could keep our stuff or rest if we wanted privacy - but of course we spent most of our free time in the various common areas hanging out with the different crowds.  Below is a stream of consciousness I logged after each dive.

1st day, 1st dive:
Guide put a metal wand up to an anemone and it opened up like a blooming flower. Napoleon fish came and brushed up against us when we were just barely underwater. Held an elephant trunk fish that was lying on the bottom of the water. Ran out of air a little early, went back to the boat a few mins before the rest of the group. While I was waiting at the surface, a turtle swam right by! Sometimes snorkelers have the best perspective. Olga reports having a penthouse view of the reef, fish, and divers.

2nd dive:
Guide put his finger in a hole near a giant clam then waved his other hand near the clam and it slammed shut. There was a coral with 3 "eyes" and the eyes popped back inside when he put his hand near them. I later heard these are called Christmas Tree worms.

3rd dive:
First unguided dive. Paired up in a threesome with two buddies (Eugene and Robin). We followed a reef shark. Then we spotted that the bottom of the ocean - which is a white fine sand - had a spine and a gill that was breathing. Moments later it swam away - a stingray!

4th dive:
Night dive in a guided group. Guide kept shining a flashlight at spots and pointing at interesting things, but I couldn't see them. It was interesting just to be there diving in the dark, everything looks so different. Hung out by the boat mooring cable where they were shining a very bright light - about 10 reef sharks circled us. So exciting!!

The weather got nasty in the evening. When we were trying to re-enter the ship after the night dive, it was bouncing up and down about 1 meter - I'd be on the ladder one step above the water line and then all of a sudden I'd be 4 steps underwater. After everyone was back, they moved the boat, presumably to a quieter location or perhaps away from the reef for its safety. The boat kept rocking all night, it was tough to get a deep sleep. 

Sharks circling the stern of the ship as the sun sets
2nd day, 1st dive at 6am:
No guide, buddied up again with Eugene. We dove towards the left and ended up swimming around a circular reef formation a few times. Stopped for a bit to help out a lost diver. While we were stationary at about 5 meters, I suddenly became positively boyant and couldn't stay put. Let the water take me up, took a breath of air at the surface, used this as an opportunity to note the location of the boat, and rejoined my dive partner underwater.

Dave and Robin ready for the night dive

2nd dive:
Eugene and I crept up on a reef shark, we were probably about 8 meters away, snapped a bunch of photos with his camera. Best dive so far in diversity, time, and my comfort in the water. Two clownfish were playing in an anemone, running across its bristles, back and forth and back and forth - adorable.

Just about to head into the water for a night dive.
Did you see those sharks?
3rd dive:
First dive where I was the leader - my buddy Cheryl just got certified yesterday. Didn't see much new (3rd time diving in the same spot), but it was neat to show her some tricks I learned such as the Christmas Tree worm and to point out fish I liked.

For Olga's experiences snorkeling, check out her blogpost:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Dec 25 2011 - Christmas Day in Australia

Breakfast at the Sydney Hilton
This morning we wanted to leave for the airport at 9am, so we had to hustle a bit to get everything in order. Catch up on email? Check. Pack up? Done. Breakfast? Where were we going to find a nice breakfast on Christmas day with less than an hour to spare? We started walking towards Chinatown, which is about a mile away. We passed several possibilities - a cupcakery, Hungry Jack's (Australian Burger King), cafes - all closed! Almost completely out of time and starting to get on each other’s nerves, we stumbled into the Sydney Hilton for a tasty and healthy breakfast of Muesli yogurt parfait, sour cherry muffin, and cappuccinos. I've never been so happy to find a big American hotel. Relief!

The bats take over Cairns at sunset
At the airport, the super friendly Virgin Australia checkin counter lady greeted us with "I want to say...Happy Hanukkah?" I wasn't sure how to take it and what to say. I corrected her with a one word reply: Festivus. "What's this festivus everyone's talking about?" she wanted to know. "It's a very American holiday" "Oh is that a general holiday that covers all holidays? You Americans are always coming up with ways to include everybody."

XXXX - the most popular beer in the
Queensland region of Australia. My new
slogan for them:  "Four-ex. It's not bad."
When we landed in Cairns, the small airport is efficiently run. There are various shuttle bus companies that take people to their hotels. Actually they are more of a shuttle van than a shuttle bus - near-identical shuttle van with trailers. About 20 people piled into the bus - and 20 suitcases into the trailer. The van radio was playing a commercial for trailer companies - and I was thinking about why all the shuttles in this town use vans and trailers - is it because there is a low clearance tunnel? Or a tax on vehicle wheels? Anyhoo, the van driver was going about his business dropping people off, when all of a sudden he pulled off by a field. I thought "I wonder who's staying in a campground". Then the driver ran out and closed the trailer - it had popped open somehow. Meanwhile he wasn't communicating with any of us. Then he banged a u-turn and started driving back towards the airport. Guess whose luggage had skidded off the road? Olga's! It's a sturdy bugger with a nice road rash from Cairns.

I wanna give a shout out the Gelocchio - a shop on the Cairns esplanade that makes gelato and sorbet on a stick - optionally dipped in chocolate. It's all natural and a delight for the mouth!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dec 24 2011 - Sydney: throw a kangaroo on the barbie

you've got the cutest little pie face
 On Saturday, we awoke at 7:30am in order to go online and have breakfast before a 10:30 Sydney free walking tour.  Even that wasn't early enough because we misunderstood the starting location of the tour and ran to try to get there. Even though we were running about 15 minutes late, I figured we should just keep running because eventually we might catch up with them - and we sure did! It was a really wonderful walking tour. We started in the tunnels under Sydney, which are not as cool as they sound. There are tunnels that run under the city, some were built for fallout shelters and used for water storage, others have been made into malls. Those are the ones we visited.

entering a tunnel 5 seconds
before it became a huge mall
Sydney is like an alternate universe London. They have a Hyde Park, Kings Cross, Oxford Street, Liverpool St, and Paddington. Surrounding towns are Newcastle, Swansea, Belmont, and Victoria. Yet on the other hand, walking around the city during Christmas Eve is warm and exciting, unlike how depressing and desolate an empty and bitter cold it feels on the streets of London on Christmas Eve. The Sydney accent is less Paul Hogan and more Flight of the Conchords. It comes across very cockney (London commoner) because those are the people who were brought here with the first fleet.

the happiest protesters

Australian paper money is plastic. The Australians figured out how to make "paper" money last four times as long but only cost twice as much to produce. They pioneered this process and mint bills for other countries around the world. Australia literally have the license to print money -- even though it no longer grows on trees.

The only country that eats its national animal?
Kangaroo and Emu aplenty.
The Occupy Sydney area is a very quaint group of about 10 people, and the clean, well-spoken, friendly leader invited me back to have Christmas Day lunch with them. Apparently the social safety net is quite strong here and unemployed citizens can get $240 a week indefinitely as long as they demonstrate they are looking for work in earnest. I'm not sure what they were protesting actually. Too bad we won't have time to come back for that lunch offer.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walking around the Darlinghurst neighborhood, we stopped by Dr. Schwartz Brewery Hotel to sample their half pints. The Schwarzbier is a disappointment - (tastes as if Gordon Biersch's Schwarzbier has turned) but the Hefeweizen is a little nutty with a hint of citrus and a bouquet of wildflowers. Yum! For those wondering, the older bars and brewpubs in Sydney are called Hotels, although few if any of them seem to have lodging space. I guess it's a holdover from an earlier era - such as in Inn or Lodge.

Liberal is a very relative term
Our next destination was the Bourke Street Bakery in Potts Point suburb (neighborhood), which Olga found on David Lebovitz's blog. We shared a dark chocolate raspberry marshmallow tart outside the shop and enjoyed all the fine weather Sydney has to offer - mostly sunny in the 70s-80s with high humidity and scattered daily rains lasting about an hour.  The tart (and most food we've tried) was noticeably less sweet and buttery than its American counterparts.  The same cannot be said of the people ;)

My goodness!
Our friend John called and invited us over for Christmas dinner "meat on the barbie" with his family. John and his daughter Katie gave us another driving tour around the city - it felt like pure pride in their city mixed with a love of driving. Along with Jackie and Sam, they treated us to an Australian feast of beef steaks, lamb and kangaroo sausage, greek salad, and I followed it up with Lady Grey tea (a blend of English Breakfast and Early Grey), Christmas cake (a yummy spiced fruit cake) with custard (brandy egg nog as a sauce on the plate), and some gingerbread wafers. So delightful! The Kangaroo sausage is a little gamey and spicy - I would say it's peppery, crumbly, and a bit like chopped liver - except that it hopped from the barbie to the plate!

Barbie time
Australians don't make such a big deal about marriage as they do in the US. Couples (regardless of gender/orientation) have full rights and tax status as a couple regardless of whether they are officially married. Funny story, John's family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a few years - John and Jackie had to get married after having lived together for almost 30 years and having two kids - because otherwise the US wouldn't recognize John as a legal immigrant. The difference in attitudes between Australia and the US seem to be related to how/why the country was settled, with the US being settled by a Christian sect - and Australia being settled as a penal colony.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dec 23 2011 - Australia is slightly less pale

Olga and John at Bondi Beach
We flew out of SFO Wednesday evening, landing 14 hours later in Sydney on Friday morning. What happened to Thursday? They gave us one dinner and one breakfast. Why didn't I notice I was going hungry for an entire day? Maybe I slept through it.

Cutest recycling bins ever!
The first thing I needed to figure out is which direction the water swirls when you flush a toilet in Australia. So far we tried it on a couple of toilets and they all seem to flush straight down rather than swirling around first. Oh those tricky Australians trying to use their fancy toilet engineering to disprove to Coriolis effect

"It's stonefruit season...again!"
The Australian border patrol takes itself very seriously - after major infestations of flora, fauna, and rabbits over the past century or two, they have a quarantine system that rivals border patrol in any country we have been to. First they systematically wear you down with long meandering lines. Then when you are completely worn down and full from all the apples and oranges you brought and were told to destroy before entering the country, everyone is split into three groups based on some masterful profiling system: express exit, x-ray scan, or dog sniff. We had the cutest dog sniff our bags, and then when we lingered in customs a bit, he gave us another complementary sniff. Super cute!!

Roadside sign: "Stay left unless undertaking"

Vat of meatballs simmering in streetfood area on The Rocks
Our friend John picked us up at the airport and did a wonderful job showing us around Sydney by way of Bondi beach. Despite what Bill Bryson says in In a Sunburned Country

end of downtown, beginning
of botantical garden
Australians aren't all overly defensive or sensitive about their past as a penal colony. John proudly discusses his ancestors who were sent to Australia for a term of four years for forgery - after which they were given a farm. That farm is still in his family after the centuries. The wonderful Museum of Sydney - which had such a horrible review in our guidebook that we want just to check out the trainwreck - thoroughly discusses the currently-accepted view of history, which includes soldiers, criminal prisoners, and native Aborigines.

Look carefully, they are not coconuts
but Flying Foxes (Australian for Bats)
Our self-guided walking tour of Sydney brought us past Pancakes on The Rocks, which was recommended by a friend. My stomach said it was a bit early for their famous dessert pancakes, but I did enjoy a lunch of their buttermilk pancakes with hash browns and "turned over" eggs. As we were sitting down, Olga observed it was the most boring American thing to have at the most boring American-style restaurant. But how would we know Australians aren't obsessed with pancakes? As far as I know, it IS the most authentic food one can have in Australia! Anyway it was in an interesting area of the city (The Rocks) that was condemned and then razed in 1900 because of the Bubonic plague! COOL!

Epic happy hour scene next to the Opera House
After the museum and the botanical gardens, we ended up at Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. It's a fun place, but they were all out of their Nelson's Blood Porter. We tried their Three Sheets Australian Pale Ale. What makes it an Australian Pale Ale? I couldn't find an official answer, so want to say it's "slightly less pale"!

Dinner at the Australian Hotel (no,
we didn't try their Kangaroo pizza!)

After a walk all around the city, and two failed attempts at finding a nice seafood place that didn't have a 2+ hour wait, we ended up having dinner right down the street from our lunch destination at The Australian Hotel on The Rocks. We gladly shared a communal table and conversation with a group of 4 slightly toasted Australian gentlemen who were discussing work, hunting, and genealogy - diverse interesting characters!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Midsummer nightmare (not really) - Stockholm June 24 2011

Looks like a mob - on the outside is
people on bleachers - inside a group is
dancing around the Maypole
We received a list of Midsummer events from the TI this morning on a scale of completely touristy to traditional to wildly alternative hosted by "Miss Inga" (Martin Johansson) - we went somewhere down the middle. The events at Vitabergsparken were super cute, from the town aldermen raising the maypole (which was almost certainly made by the town women) to the music (an oompah band with Swedish singing - we haven't heard much Swedish this trip as everyone seems to try English first) to the ring-around-the-rosey type dance with hand motions of playing violins, laughing, and clapping. We're not sure exactly what was going on, but it was adorable.

Celebrating Midsummer with
 jordb√¶rret (local Swedish stawberries)
It's interesting to be celebrating an overtly Pagan holiday. Kids make garlands (crowns of flowers) and everybody eats fresh local strawberries. A lot of the Judo-Christian traditions follow along Pagan lines, but going to a nationalized overly Pagan ritual is amusing.

Went to Vapiano for lunch. It's described as a pizza/pasta/salad bar where you can add your own toppings and make whatever you want. You carry around a sort of library card and check out when you leave. The problem was - I selected a fairly plain pizza and tried to ask to add a few toppings - plus Olga and I were planning to share one pizza so we were finding out what toppings they have, negotiating with each other, and trying to get the chef to sprinkle it onto the pizza on the spot. It was really complicated! Olga sat down and I surprised her with what I could figure out for pizza toppings and salad ingredients. It all turned out well, although quite stressful.

Stockholm's Karlaplan metro station
 The restroom at Vapiano is confusing as well. There is a common area shared by men and women for washing hands, and there are two doors that are marked for women. There is also a urinal area a corner and a couple of unmarked doors - presumably for men. An older woman wandered into one of the unlabeled doors and then through the urinal area - I didn't mind but she seemed embarassed. Later I saw her again while washing up. Using rusty English as a second or third language, she clearly said "I didn't see it". Does it refer to the signage? Or something specific she didn't see while in the urinal area? We'll never know!

The monstrosity Vasa
Headed over to Djurgården island for a visit to the Vasa museum. The museum is dedicated to one thing: the fully-preserved gigantic Swedish warship from the early 17th century they recovered in the 1960s. They have countless period accoutrement, a handful of skeletons, and several sails recovered from the ship - and a number of films depicting the recovery and preservation. It's really overwhelming as you walk around it - very close in dimensions to a Boeing 747. It's ornately decorated and have they recently have performed in-depth tests to determine which colors of paint were used - now they have detailed models showing what it looked like originally, colors and all.

Belgian ales in Stockholm
As Midsummer Eve was rapidly approaching, and everything on our contingency list turned out to be closed, we started walking different corners of the city trying to find an open restaurant. We'd walk a hotspot area, hop on the tram with our all-day-unlimited transit pass, walk around another restaurant we'd read about, hop on the subway, repeat. Eventually tried the touristy area of Gamla Stan because, hey, a tourist's gotta eat, right? We consider ourselves travelers rather than tourists, but we were getting desperate. Walked around in circles a couple of times until we found Hermitage vegetarian buffet. It's a perfect place for our last dinner because (1) it's open (2) it's inexpensive (3) it's heathy, tasty, and bottomless. It’s a family-run place, self-proclaimed “30-80% organic” – smorgasbord of lentil soup, barley salad, homemade hummus, a well-loaded potato salad.

Capped off the night at Belgobaren (Belgian bar). I ordered the Helcule Stout, which claims it is the only Belgian Stout. Although they have no competition, it's a really smooth stout, dark brown in color, with a very smokey aftertaste. I made the mistake of ordering Westmalle Dubbel for Olga, which she claims is reminiscent of sawdust and horse pee. Perhaps not the best way to end the trip.