Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | September 17, 2016

The Summer Report: New York City Pools

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | September 2, 2016

The Summer Beach Report: Where We Go

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | July 29, 2016

A Visit to The New York Aquarium on Coney Island


 

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The Sea Lion Show – picture from website

By Ernest Barteldes

 

It had been quite a while since I had  been to the New York Aquarium, which is located on Coney Island not far from the rides on Luna Park and the various eateries that have popped up close to Nathan’s Famous (in recent years, a Wahlburger joint and an Applebee’s have opened in the area – quite a change from my first visit over a decade ago when there were very few options). My last time had been in 2013 not long after Superstorm Sandy, and it was a shock to see it back then: the shark tank was gone and at least half of the grounds were closed to the public.

On this visit (like most of the previous times, it was part of a field trip with my students at ASA College), things were not that different – construction is in progress for the new facilities, but  they have a temporary shark tank with about 10 specimens swimming around.

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Sting Ray at Conservation Hall

My group arrived just before 11:00 AM after a long ride on the F train from Midtown Manhattan  and went straight to the Sea Lion show in the Aqua Theater. It was a very hot and sticky day, but thanks to the the ocean breeze it was quite bearable.  The show has pretty much kept the same format over the years – first they bring a younger animal and they do a few tricks while giving facts about them (there are some humorous moments, such as when a sea lion “steals” from his trainer’s pouch) and then they bring an older one. The surprise this time was when they brought out a two-year-old that was very small but already in the process of being trained. The presenters also spoke about environmental issues and how much trash is left in the ocean – at that moment, one sea lion “recovered”  a plastic bottle from the pool and gave it to his trainer, who put it into a recycling bin.

The entire presentation lasted about 20 minutes or so, and then we explored the grounds, starting from Glovers Reef (a large tank with various kinds of fish),  Conservation Hall (where they include some endangered species) and the outdoor “Sea Cliffs” where walruses, sea otters and South African penguins.

There were several programs for kids going on, including a “petting zoo” of sea creatures and a play about the importance of conservation and how trash can affects wild animals in parks and forest around the country.

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South African Penguin

There was not too much to see there, so after exploring a bit we headed to the gift shop and then left – walking on the boardwalk until we got to Nathan’s for a quick meal before heading home.

I really can’t wait to see the Aquarium’s renovation completed (one staffer told me that everything should be ready in about two years) and the place is returned to its previous glory. But even with the limited amount of things to see, it is a fun way to spend a few hours – even on  a such a hot day.

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | July 20, 2016

Summer Cooking : Keeping Things Easy

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | July 8, 2016

Back to Poland Part 4: Krakow and Oswiecim


By Ernest Barteldes

We arrived in Krakow in the early afternoon and set out to locate our hotel, which was not far away Krakow Glowny, the main transit station in the city,. Google maps played a few tricks on us, but once we found the right street we made our way there. It was a very hot day compared to the much lower temperatures we’d experienced in Zakopane, so before we checked in we stopped by Pod Kurem, a small restaurant we’d happened to walk by . The place seemed to be patronized by folks who worked around the area – mostly offices, small businesses and hotels that catered for users of the long-distance trains that stop there, so the prices were quite reasonable. We had planned on just sitting down for drinks, but we realized we were hungry enough to eat so Renata ordered kotlet schabowy (pork cutlets)  while I went for a hearty goulash.  The food was very satisfying, and then we checked in at  our hotel, which was just a couple of blocks down the street.

The room was nothing to write home about – a comfortable enough bed, a TV and free but spotty WI-FI. There was a single bar next door, but in its favor it was very conveniently located and in a very quiet area.  After settling down, we headed over to the nearby Jordan Park, the home of the monument built in 2014 for Wojtec, the bear soldier adopted by the exiled Polish army during World War II.

I stumbled upon his story on a piece on the Krakow Post, one of the few English-language online publications in Poland before our 2014 trip. I was fascinated by the story of how he became a soldier, holding the rank of private and even drawing a salary, which went for his keep and the beers he enjoyed (he also learned how to smoke).  He was trained to carry ammunition in the front, and after the war he remained in the care of the Edinburgh Zoo until the end of his days. We reached the park by tram in only a few minutes and walked around for a while  until we found the monument.

Unlike most of the busts of Polish heroes that populate the park, the monument for Wojtec is quite majestic – it is over six feet tall, and before him are his steps and the steps of soldiers marking the different battles he participated in. After admiring the monument, we checked out the grounds and saw the other busts – including those of Pope John Paul II, Marie Curie and others.

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Monument to Wojtec

We walked around Krakow’s Main Square for a while and then returned to our hotel. The next morning, we woke up early and ate breakfast at a Lunch Bar Tu, a diner we’d discovered the previous day and headed to downtown Krakow, where we took my Iphone for a quick repair – the device had stopped charging in Zakopane, and I found a place called iMad , the only service center in the area that could look at it. After a brief exam, the tech told me that some dust had gotten into the circuits, but a quick clean was enough to get it up and running. He charged me PLN 10  (about $3.00) for the service, and we were quickly on our way.

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Krakow fruit market

A few blocks away was a fruit and vegetable market, and we decided to explore it a bit. Strawberries were in season, and their smell was everywhere, since vendors sold them by the kilo on almost every street corner. After buying some, we returned to our hotel, had a bite and went over to the train station to get tickets to Oswiecim – the city where the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp – is now a museum.

 

 

From the first time we went to Poland, I had wanted to visit the former concentration camp, but on that visit we didn’t have the time. The second time we were not quite prepared to do it, but as the cliché goes, three times is the charm – so we settled on going.

Admission to the museum is free, but reservations need to be made in advance. I got tickets online, and our appointment was for 5 PM. We took the PKP train for the 90-minute ride to Oswiecim. It was an uneventful but very slow ride on what was mostly a commuter train.

There was a single sign telling you where to go, and when we learned that city buses were horribly delayed, we chose to take the 15-minute walk towards the camp’s location.

I had always thought Auschwitz would be in an isolated location, but in fact it is in the middle of a residential area, with apartment buildings and a church right in the surroundings.  After a  while we thought we were walking in the wrong direction until we saw a sign pointing to the museum’s location, and then we walked a few yards into the entrance.

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The Gate into Auschwitz

We had our tickets scanned and went through airport-like security in what seemed to be a nondescript building.  After exiting that building, we faced the famous gate with the infamous  German words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work will set you free.”

We walked through it and began to explore the different buildings, which are mostly dedicated to the memory of the different people that came here to suffer and die, beginning with Soviet POWs, then Poles, Gypsies and finally the millions of Jews –  victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Each of the structures tells a story – we hear the voices of various victims who ended up here written on the walls of each exhibit, including Anne Frank in an exhibit dedicated to the Dutch Jews brought here.

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The replica of the shooting wall – Auschwitz

Towards the end of the camp are the places where the most horrifying acts happened, beginning with the  gallows were several Poles were hanged, and a re-creation of the black wall used for summary executions by firing squad (the original was removed by the Nazis towards the end of the war).  In an adjacent building were the places where prisoners were tried, stripped and then shot. Inside other parts of the building were the starving cells – one in which Polish priest (and now Saint)  Maksymilian Kolbe was taken after he offered to take the place of a man originally sentenced to die there because he had a family.

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The gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz

After that we get to see the gas chambers and crematorium where people were taken for “showers” after being brought on cattle trains. Gas was released and they quickly died – the bodies were then systematically cremated in the same building.

It is at that moment that it hit us. We were standing inside the building where millions of people were gassed and incinerated – many of whose names are completely lost to history, since the Nazis did not record the names of those who were immediately killed after arrival.

 

 

We walked out and found a bus back to Krakow just outside the museum, where we pondered on where we had been. After reaching our hotel, we visited the bar next door for a quick drink.

We still had a full day in town, so we headed over to Schindler’s Factory on the other side of the Vistula river. Located in what used to be a mostly industrial area, we had a hard time actually finding the location, since the city of Krakow does not post many signs on where to go.

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Schindler’s factory

The Schindler Factory is not a museum totally dedicated to the memory of its namesake, but a museum that tells the story of how Krakow fell to German powers and how life was like under occupation done in rich detail. As we went along, we learned about life for the Jews  in that city’s ghetto  and how Schindler made life for at least some of them bearable.

Halfway into the tour, we see a replica of Schindler’s office and a memorial made from roughly 1,200 pots – the approximate number of people he saved through the efforts depicted on the Stephen Spielberg movie Schindler’s List.

We left the factory and walked over to the nearby Makaronarnia, a restaurant we accidentally discovered during our previous trip. As I described then, it is a nice little Italian restaurant clear out of the more touristy area. The meal was as usual very satisfying – Renata had a risotto while I went with a more traditional pasta dish.  From there we headed to Wawel Castle to get a few souvenirs (way cheaper than downtown) and then it was back to the hotel.

We took a late-night flight back to Warsaw –While booking,  I could not find a flight that would connect more directly to our trip home to New York on Saturday afternoon, so we stayed overnight at a nearby hotel that offered shuttle service to and from the terminal.

We had plans to head to the Old Town, but we realized it was time to rest a bit, so instead we explored the surroundings. There was an outdoor clothing market mostly operated by immigrants – it was one of the few times we saw people of Chinese and African descent interacting with Polish folk.  I tried to find a Poland T-shirt, but they were all themed around the Euro Cup. Renata did find a few things she was interested in.

Eventually it was time to head to the airport, so we took the shuttle bus and headed back to the airport – it was time to check in and come back home.  It was a great trip, but there is so much yet to discover in Renata’s homeland.

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | July 1, 2016

Back to Poland Part 3: Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | June 24, 2016

Back to Poland Part 2: A Weekend in Warsaw


By Ernest Barteldes

 

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Ernest Wedel’s portrait

On the early stages of planning this trip, Renata and I decided that we’d spend at least a few days  in Zakopane, the famous mountain town near the border with Slovakia, we figured we wouldn’t have too much time to hang out in Warsaw, but we still wanted to visit the nation’s capital even if it were for the weekend.

We left Chelm on Friday right after lunch and boarded our WI-FI equipped minibus (something we did not have two years ago) for the three hour drive to Warsaw. They dropped us off in front of the Palace of Culture and as soon as we got our bearings we walked towards our hotel.

Part of the Mercure/Accor group, our hotel was conveniently located on Zlota Street in the vicinity of the city’s main rail terminal, a shopping mall and several restaurants.  The room had free WI-FI, a TV (with only one English-language channel), a pot for heating water for coffee or tea, a   refrigerator and the minor comforts a commuter hotel would have. To eliminate unnecessary, We’d decided that we’d only have one restaurant meal a day and would buy food from a local supermarket for either breakfast or lunch. Our booking did not include breakfast, but they could upgrade us for an additional cost, which we declined.

I searched for a supermarket on Google maps and was glad to find that there was a Carrefour right across the street in the shopping mall outside the rail station entrance (something they also have in Krakow). As I searched, I found that we were mere blocks away from the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, so we made a mental note to check it out the next day.

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Drinks at Wedel

We’d only have that evening and Saturday to explore the city – our flight to Krakow (the closest airport to Zakopane) was booked for 7:35 AM on Sunday, so our options of things to do were very limited. We got some basic provisions at Carrefour supermarket and headed towards E. Wedel, the  famed chocolate factory that makes some of our favorite Polish sweets.  We had walked by it during our 2010 visit, but unfortunately it was closed then.  It was about a 15-minute walk from the hotel, so we headed there without delay.

Though the factory itself has since moved elsewhere in town, the original building on Spytalna Street is now a store and café, and is a major tourist attraction as well. Prices are quite expensive there compared to other places in town, but we figured we could afford one little indulgence during our visit.  We browsed through the store’s selections and sat down for drinks.  We both ordered hot chocolate drinks – I had bittersweet chocolate with stout, while (if memory serves right) Renata ordered one with whisky. I later had a cold drink that included fizzy chocolate and vodka. They were all incredibly delicious and definitely worth the expense.

The space is quite luxurious – ambient music (some of it Brazilian!) plays in the background, and the service is impeccable. On the walls there are large paintings of the brand’s founders and the sons that succeeded him until communist rule nationalized it (after the fall of the regime, the brand was briefly owned by Kraft Foods but has since been sold to South Korea’s Lotte Group, a huge conglomerate that owns brands such as Canon and TGI Friday’s).

After we left we strolled towards the Old Town and stopped for coffee at one of the many Starbucks locations in town.  We were quite tired from the trip, so we decided to walk to a nearby bar, have a few drinks, return to our hotel and get some sleep. On the way back, we checked out the city’s Hard Rock Café, which was adjacent to the train station. The service was great and so was the ambience, but the prices were considerably high – a single shot of vodka went for PLN 16 (about $4), which more than three times the price most bars in the area charge. In comparison, we had just paid PLN 5 for the exact same thing in the touristy Old Town area – so I guess branding is everything.

We woke up early and after a light breakfast we headed out to find the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Wall. We looked up directions on Google maps and they seemed quite straightforward, but getting there was not that easy. After walking around for a few minutes, we did find one of the markers of where the wall went through. It quite a few inquiries until we found a local who walked us to an apartment complex we’d had walked by.  It was a regular building where folks live. In different part of the complex wre two remnants of the infamous ghetto used in movies like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and the underrated Robin Williams-led Jakob the Liar (before you mention Schindler’s List, let me remind you that that one was set in Krakow, not Warsaw – more on this next.

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It is a very sad place but I guess locals pay little attention to it. Around both memorials life goes on as if these walls had never existed, and they are just part of the background really. As we paid our respects, several English-speaking tourists were lectured by local guides about life inside the ghetto and what came after the Uprising. I tried to listen, but being at the site of such a place – and so close to where we were staying – was a bit overwhelming.

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Remnant of the Original Royal Castle in Warsaw at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising

Our next stop was the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, a space created in 2004 to remember the amazingly courageous effort by the residents of the Polish capital to fight against the Nazi occupiers – it could have been successful if Stalin hadn’t ordered his soldiers wait the whole thing out just across the river. The museum depicts the city’s life before and after the war – including the horrible years under communist rule.  Walking through it is very moving because it shows the resilience of the Polish people under crazy odds – and the price they paid.

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lunch at Retauracjia Hector

We had plans to eat at the same traditional restaurant we’d eaten during our 2014 visit, but heavy rain got in the way. We took refuge at a local eatery near  the Culture Palace called  Restauracja Hector,  and after perusing their menu we realized prices were far more affordable. I ordered the kielbasa I was craving since we got to Warsaw, while Renata had Polish-style croquettes. I must say that the food was just as appetizing if not better – and the fact that this was more of a ‘local’ place outside the tourist area made for a much better experience.  We washed our meals down with some very cold Zwiec beer (I also had a shot of ice-cold vodka – the right way to serve the stuff)

Considering we had a very early start the next day, we just strolled by the shopping mall by our hotel and checked out a feel deals and then retired back to our hotel –  we woke up the next day and headed to the airport, where LOT would take us to Krakow and then Zakopane – a place we had yet to discover.

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | June 17, 2016

Back in Poland Part I: Chelm, Wlodawa, Lublin & Zamosc

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | June 2, 2016

Eating Pizza in Poland


making-pizza-england

By Ernest Barteldes

 

The last time we visited Poland back in 2014 we stopped by a restaurant in Chelm called Kozak – it was a small group consisted of Renata, her brother, his girlfriend and me. We had just stopped by for drinks, but I noticed that the place specialized in pizza. We were not hungry then, but I made a mental note to stop by before the visit was over.

As things turned out, we didn’t have a chance to return to Kozak that week, so I planned to finally try Polish pizza on our next visit (which is happening as I write this piece). I wondered how different the experience would be compared to places like New York, Sao Paulo or other places where I had the chance to sample their take on the Neapolitan treat.

Not all the trials have been great – I remember that when we were in Hawaii, I ordered a slice at this place on the main tourist zone, and was not happy with it – the crust was way too dry and the cheese (whatever that was) just didn’t feel right. As much as I love the Aloha state, I was glad to bite into a New York slice the day we returned from our vacation.

So on the third day of our visit to Chelm, we set over to Kozak, and as we perused the menu we noticed some Italian-style mainstays alongside some creative ideas that included a “tropical” flavor (comparable to America’s “Hawaiian”) that included pineapple, ham, cheese and sauce and also “Four Seasons,” topped with salami, ham and mushrooms.

When I looked at the menu, I noticed a “very spicy” choice called “Alla Twardziel” made with bacon, jalapeno peppers and very little cheese.  Since we could order half and half, Renata went with “Alla Campagnola,” which had chicken, mushrooms and pickled Italian peppers. The first thing we noticed was how little cheese it had – it was mostly veggie and meat. On the side, the waiter brought some tomato sauce in case we wanted more (we didn’t). The crust was very thin and the experience was very satisfying. The wine, however, was served in glasses with a very small pour –  a little more than they do at tastings – which is weird, since vodka goes for the same price (4 zloty) and the shot is quite big.

The next day we took a day trip to Lublin, a larger city about an hour away. We visited the local old town, and when it came the time to eat we looked around and found a hole in the wall that also served pizza – it was not our original choice, but it was the only one we could settle on for the moment.  We ordered a simple chicken pie, and it turned out to be surprisingly good. It was cheesier than the one at Kozak, but the crust was also thin and crispy – just as we liked.

I am not sure if we will experience pizza in Poland again – there’s just over a week left in our trip, and we might go for something different in the future – but if someone invites you for pizza in Poland – at least in the area we are in now – go for it.

Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | May 16, 2016

At the 39th Annual International Food Festival

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