Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Lithuanian SeaScape

Imagine a ribbon of land that's a mere 1,300 feet wide at its narrowest. A land that stretches some 60 miles (one half in Lithuania and the other half in Russia). with a sandy shore where tall dunes are topped with sea grass, roses and sea sicily, while the interior is thick with pine forests. No hotels cluster along the beachfront where development is banned. Welcome to the Curonian Spit that's cradled between an eponymous lagoon and the Baltic Sea. This wild landscape -- it's a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- makes for an idyllic venue for bicycling, which is why I stepped ashore with bike in tow.

A ferry regularly runs back and forth between Klaipeda, Lithuania's port city, and Smiltyne, one of the handful of settlements on the Lithuanian side. From there, a network of bike paths thread along the shore and the interior where bird sounds from blackbirds, chat finches and other species are abundant. In fact, bird whistles, chirps and tweets are about the only sounds ringing through the forests. Beyond the towering sycamore, willow, birch and aleppo pine trees, a white tent comes into view; it's a snack bar for the nearby beach. From here, I climb the steps that course over the dunes and down to the wide stretch of white sand. I'm alone because it's only 11 am. This beach bears the sign Bendras, which means it's a general (non-nudist) beach. But the spit has nudist beaches as well that are signed Vyru (male), Moteru (female), or nudism for everyone (Nudista).

It's quite common for Lithuanians who crave nature to cycle the Curonian Spit after work or to bring a blanket and picnic and settle on one of the beaches even in the fall. But it also makes for a relaxing weekend -- there are a number of accommodations available, including Hotel Viesbutis, which is sited very close to the ferry.

Imagine sands sweeping across the villages on this strip of land to the point that they bury the houses. That's what happened in the 18th century -- the villagers were, obviously, forced to relocate. And this is why dense conifer forests now dominate this landscape. (The locals planted them to make up for the rampant deforestation and to reduce the land erosion.)

Sure, cars do roll down the roads, but I see few of them as I peddle past myriad side trails leading, of course, to more tempting sands. I stop at another beach where I spy three local men along the shore with large nets. If you think they're fishing you'd be wrong. They're sifting for chunks of amber, the fossilized resin of conifers and a valuable commodity that this area has long been known for. As I stroll the beachfront, I stop and check out the sand, finding a handful of amber grains. (I'm told that a violent storm the night before is the reason why the amber is especially plentiful.)

But the ferry waits so it's back on the bicycle, passing the Sea Museum and Dolphinarium, several old fishing boats from the mid-1900s as well as a collection of traditional 19th century farm structures. Once on board, I gaze at the receeding shore and imagine what my next trip will reveal. I plan to spend the weekend, traversing the bike paths from village to village, visiting the museums, and maybe collecting some larger chunks of amber.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Luxembourg: 15 Myths

What do you know about Luxembourg? If you're like most of the people I recently spoke with, you probably haven't ever visited this petite country (it's barely the size of Rhode Island) that's bordered by France, Germany and Belgium. And, also like most everyone I polled recently, not only have you not thought about visiting Luxembourg, but you probably haven't given this country a second thought. And, yet, everyone I asked about Luxembourg City's night life, culinary scene, topography and more had an opinion, that just wasn't based on facts. Many thought that this center of finance was plenty boring. (It's not.) That it's a wide expanse of flat land. (Hardly.) And that the cuisine is so dominated by rich, meat-laden meals that it's a vegetarian's nightmare. (Wrong, again.)

Check out my article on 15 Myths About Luxembourg that just appeared in the Huffington Post. It'll give you a whole new perspective on this vibrant country. So much so, that you might want to just jump on the next plane bound for Luxembourg City. Just remember, even three days -- the number of days I spent in the capital -- isn't long enough.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Vibrant Restaurant (and Restaurant Owner) In Luxembourg

Even if you're not a committed vegetarian, you'll be seduced by the riot of color on the walls, the ceiling and on your plate at Mesa Verde in Luxembourg City. (The menu includes salmon teriyaki, curried tofu, and a mixed salad with tempura prawns) Almost every surface of the interior is adorned with colorful murals, including one displaying myriad fanciful sea creatures. Many hued butterflies flit across the ceiling and paper lanterns in all shapes and sizes glow from their lofty perches. One resembles a hot air balloon, another a pumpkin. In the back of the restaurant, a mosaic sculpture with a likeness to tree roots stands near a lantern shaped like an insect pupa with wings.

Quite a curious d├ęcor, but no more curious than the owner's resume. Lucien Elsen is a world traveler, trained chef, party planner and professional clown. And I was lucky to spend an hour with him one morning at his favorite cafe in Luxembourg City where we sipped lattes and nibbled on warm croissants.

It seems that you're a major multitasker. You have a lot going on. How do you get inspired?

I was born on a beautiful farm and I would go out into the forest to discover things. Now, every day I go into the forest. It's like brushing my teeth. I camp, I get ideas, and I ground myself.

How did you become interested in cooking?

Cooking was my first passion.  I wanted to be a macrobiotic chef. So I traveled the world. I'd hitchhike around and worked for room and board. I was a dishwasher for a year in Japan but you learn by watching.

Your staff has been with you for awhile. Why are they so dedicated?

At Mesa Verde, I was originally the cook and I trained everyone there. The people who work there feel it's our restaurant. I met the manager in India. And when I go back there, I see his family's house, which is there because of my restaurant. It's all connected.

I'm told that you organize some amazing parties, including street parties. How did that come about?

I had lived in San Francisco where I did food styling. But I couldn't continue to do that job. It was so fake. They threw away so much food. (I would give it to the homeless.) But, when I returned to Luxembourg City, I found it a bit boring. I had a club because I wanted to bring people together. (It was one of the best clubs in town.) I also like street life – open air events – because I like when energy comes together. So I also organized an outdoor party, and 100 people showed up. The police said I couldn't do that. But I held it again the following year and this time 1,500 people showed up. And the mayor liked it. Each year it grew. It was a way for me to do something for everyone. Four times a year I hold a big party in Mesa Verde, including on New Years and National Day. Every Saturday next to Mesa Verde I have outdoor music. It's free. It becomes a meeting place with good music. I'm a connector.

You certainly have a diverse background. But how does being a clown figure into this whole picture?

I went to Berlin to learn script writing but someone told me about a clown school in Ibiza. That's where I also studied to be a healer. A clown is about truth. People are afraid of clowns because the clown goes to the truth and people don't want to hear that. My current play is about an apocalypse. At the end of it, kids are laughing, the women are crying, and the men say what the f*** just happened. Cooking is something you do with your heart and you transmit those feelings to people. A cook touches them with emotions. But so does a clown, and that's the connection.

Mesa Verde radiates an appealing sense of vibrancy. How do you achieve that?

At Mesa Verde, I bring my energy to the restaurant, which is a micro-cosmos.  Aside from making love, cooking is the most intimate experience you can have with a person. I can look at a sandwich somewhere and I see that there's no love in that sandwich. I believe you should treat a salad like a flower you would offer a loved one. You care for it. Every leaf has a different texture. It's like painting. You're making a picture.
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