Friendly, Curious, and Beautiful

We are headed out of the Faroe Islands today, are back to Scotland for a quick overnight in Edinburgh before heading back to the USA tomorrow.

We capped off our trip yesterday with a ferry out to the island of Nolsoy, about a 20 minute ride from the capital in Torshavn, where we hiked around the town and explored a bit. Later we visited a church in Sandavágur before enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant called Arrstova (“House By the Brook”) on Torshavn harbor. Arrstova is in a wooden building built in the 1600s, but the menu is decidedly modern (my favorite was the lamb tartare, and the multi-course meal was the best of our trip by far).

As is true with any adventure, we didn’t know what to expect here…even more so because we didn’t know a single person that had visited the Faroes (well, at least nobody that we had asked). What we found was a rich history and stunning natural beauty, along with more than enough tourist-oriented services and a lot of great people.

While there is not a lot of lodging (and just a handful of campgrounds), the choices are growing through new construction and through services like AirBnb. We really enjoyed our AirBnb house, and our host was super-helpful and responsive.

There’s a Faroese proverb that nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons. I’m not even sure what that means, but I can say that we’ve encountered people that are welcoming, curious, and eager to share their culture. And what a fabulous culture it is, with a deep respect for the past, optimism for the future, understandable pride, and a friendly approach to outsiders.

The Faroese are also very trusting. Nobody pays attention to locking anything here, the honor system is everywhere, fancy bikes are out leaning against fences and buildings in town, and the Faroese version of a key swap is to leave the door unlocked and the key on the table.

People are also very active and fit, and many of them were pushing baby strollers up trails that we thought were challenging ourselves. And pretty much every dog in the country is a black and white border collie (ok, so I’m not sure what that has to do with culture, but it does stand out).

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This was our new friend Fram

Topics of conversation with the locals have spanned a huge range, including politics, energy independence, education, and the economics of tunnel building (important stuff when you live in a mountainous country made up of 18 islands).

A quick example of the differences in culture: many of the rental cars are emblazoned with huge rental car logos, which would probably alert drivers in the US to pass at the first chance and maybe give you a “hand signal” if you weren’t up to standard. In contrast, a local in the Faroes told us that he saw the logos as encouraging folks to be more understanding when a tourist drives erratically (like us), too slowly (we did), or seems lost (we were, even though there’s basically one main road through the islands).

IMG_3415Based on our experiences, tourists are greeted with patience, whether fumbling for the right coins to pay, puzzling over a road or trail sign, mangling the pronunciation of a place name, or queueing in the wrong place (not that we ever did any of that, at least not in writing).

There is explosive growth on the islands right now, and people seem realistic about what tourism might mean for their country–both good and bad. For example, the introduction of new visitor fees—some with credit card enabled turnstiles–at the more popular attractions is something that the country seems to be struggling with (a lot of people were talking about it). Coming from the pay-as-you-go culture of the US, it all seemed fair to us–but I’m not sure how it would feel to pay for a hike if I were local.

It says something that the people made such an impression on us, as we don’t speak Faroese–but English is commonly spoken here. And the people were friendly, were interested in our story, and live in a beautiful country. That’s a nice combination for a wayward traveler.

You can’t understand a place in four days, but the Faroes–and their people–showed itself as a world destination. And just as nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons, it isn’t the most practical destination from the US. But as we get closer to wheels up, we are already talking about our next visit.

Ruins and Cows

Yesterday in the Faroes we started with a visit to the historic village of Kirkjubøur, about twenty minutes drive from the capital of Torshavn. Kirkjubøur is generally considered the country’s most historically important site, with structures that go back to medieval times. We visited ruins of 14th-century Magnus Cathedral along with a beautiful 13th-century church, Olavskirkjan, and Kirkjubøargarður, an 11th century farmhouse.

Kirkjubøargarður may be the oldest wooden structure in the world that is still occupied—and the same family, the Paturrsons, has lived there for 17 generations. How a wooden structure can last a thousand years is beyond me, especially as I have a fence back home that’s falling apart after a few seasons.

The settlement of Kirkjubøur was founded in part because it was a spot that collected a lot of driftwood, which was an incredibly important commodity in a land with almost no trees. We saw a piece of driftwood on the beach during our visit and I caught myself wondering where it’d come from. If only a tree could talk…well, if a tree could talk, it probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

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Before the Reformation, Kirkjubøur was the center of Catholicism across all of Scandinavia, and the Bishop at the time wrote the “Sheep Letter” there in 1298. The Sheep Letter is a Constitution of sorts, and is the oldest surviving document on the islands. Kirkjubøur dwindled after the Reformation, and then was hit by a devastating hurricane in the 1600s. The Cathedral was never finished.

We followed our visit to Kirkjubøur with a drive an hour north to the village of Saksun, where we enjoyed a beautiful (and super-windy) five mile hike out to the ocean and back, passing a huge mountainside waterfall along the way. We had to watch the tides, as parts of the hike are cut off with an incoming tide, but there was good signage to help out a few foreigners.

We were blown away by–and because of–the hike. I know everybody exaggerates wind speeds, but I’m pretty confident that there were sustained winds of 30-40mph and gusts above 50. Even the locals seemed a bit winded.

From there, we drove another half hour up a narrow one-lane road to the village of Tjørnuvík, the northernmost village on the island of Streymoy and a popular destination with surfers (easy to see why, as a powerful surf pounded the beach the entire time we were there). We enjoyed a lovely lunch at the café there, and also looked out over an old Viking burial grounds.

We closed out the day back in Kirkjubøur, where we joined a friendly rancher tending to the Paturrson family cows.

The diversity of experiences that are possible on the 500 square miles of land of the Faroes is remarkable; I’m pretty sure that this was the first day of our lives that started with medieval ruins and ended with feeding cows. (Oh, and we fed ourselves, too, with local salmon, and a nice view at our lovely AirBnB in Hoyvik).

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Well, this is supposed to be mostly a food blog.

A Long Way To Go For A Screen Saver

Souzz and I are into the next leg of our vacation and arrived in the Faroe Islands last night by way of Edinburgh, Scotland (one of a handful of cities that offer direct flights). The Faroes are a collection of 18 islands that are halfway between Iceland and Norway. They are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but they are very independent. They have their own government, their own language (Faroese), lots of services/amenities, and a very interesting culture.

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Less than 50,000 people live here, although there are supposedly nearly twice as many sheep. That said, it’s a very modern destination with a lot to offer–dramatic scenery as well as wonderfully friendly people.

As to how we got interested in visiting the Faroes, there’s a famous waterfall here called Múlafossur, and it popped up one day on my dad’s cable TV screensaver (doesn’t everyone get trip ideas from screensavers?).

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The screensaver shot that inspired our trip

When I saw that photo, I asked “Where is that?” As one might expect, my dad hadn’t memorized the screensaver shots; he was more interested in the Georgia Tech football game that we’d paused while we freshened up our drinks. Later, I tried (unsuccessfully) to find the location of the photo through the web. I finally took a picture of the TV screen (after waiting waiting waiting for the same image) and did a reverse photo search with Google.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten a crazy idea for a trip in an unlikely place (see Pegman Meets Viking) and something tells me it won’t be the last.

We’ve just started our visit to the Faroes, but it’s clear that this is a special place. Cliffs plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean all around, the human history goes back to Vikings more than a thousand years ago, birds are everywhere, the roads and tunnels between islands are an engineering marvel, and the people are fantastic.

For our visit, we are basing out of an AirBnB in Hoyvik, just outside of the capital city of Torshavn. Our AirBnB host Sarah Ann has been super-helpful, and there’s a full kitchen so we have been able to pursue some local dishes. Most everything is imported from Denmark or Iceland, but the stores are full of choices.

As for the food, it’s always interesting to go grocery shopping when you are far away (much as it was in Scotland last week). The main store in Torshavn, called Miklagarður, was very well stocked, but with labels in Faroese that we couldn’t easily translate. A quick example: Toskaflak is what we cooked for dinner tonight. We’re confident that it’s fish…but we have no idea what kind.

This morning we spent some time in and around Torshavn, a vibrant town with a fabulous harbor. We really weren’t expecting so much culture here, and I felt sheepish about pre-judging this place (insert your own joke here re sheepish in the Faroes).

And with such a compact geography, we had time this afternoon to visit Múlafossur Waterfall (which inspired the trip) and to hike about five miles to a viewpoint above Sørvágsvatn. With only 500 square miles of land, everything on the road system is totally within reach. For the part of the Faroes on the road system, it’s probably only about an hour end-to-end (there are ferries to a few of the outlying islands).

All in all, we had a great time taking in the culture, hiking in the tree-less terrain, and enjoying the incredible vistas. One is never more than three miles from the ocean here, so it’s not hard to find an interesting view.

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The village of Bøur

It’s easy to see why this place shows up in screen savers…and travel blogs. We are here a few more days, so we are looking forward to more time in a part of the world that isn’t as well known (at least in the US) as it should be!

What’s In A Name?

Wikipedia tells me that the name Ogilvie (also commonly spelled Ogilvy) is well known in Scotland. This has been reinforced a few times during our travels, like when we introduced ourselves to our innkeeper in Nethy Bridge and she responded “aaah, Ogilvie, that’s quite the aristocratic surname (I had to look up the word aristocratic, which means I’m probably not). And then a few days later, while paddling on the River Spey, our new friend Jerry said “Ogilvie? You have your own tartan. There’s some yellow in it, right?”

I’m hundreds of years (probably more) removed from anybody important, but it’s still interesting history. The name Ogilvie originally comes from the Earls of Angus, and it is derived from the Old British word Ocelfa, which means high plain. I’d rather be named for a mountaintop, but I guess high plain is better than some other options. In any case, it’s fun to visit my roots, however distant.

There are several Ogilvie castles in Scotland, and we tried to visit two of them, Airlie and Cortachy. Airlie Castle is a bit more “modern” (it was rebuilt in the late 1800s after it was badly burned in 1640; more on that later). It is often used for weddings,  events, and “lodging” (I’m not very aristocratic, so it was out of my price range for this trip).

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Airlie Castle on a sunny day

Cortachy Castle dates to the 1400s and most recently was the private home of the 13th Earl of Airle, Lord David George Coke Patrick Ogilvy. Lord Ogilvy served as Lord Chamberlain to the Queen, and he is one of the last surviving attendees of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1937. His younger brother Angus married Princess Alexandra of Kent in 1963, so there are some interesting connections to the royal family.

I had to laugh as I learned more about Ogilvie/Ogilvy lineage for this trip, as it conjured up memories of a visit to the Ogilvie Mountains in the Yukon a few years back. The Ogilvie Mountains are named for the famous Canadian explorer William Ogilvie (a descendant of the same British family), and I tried hard to find a link to him in my family tree…but I only succeeded in figuring out that I’m related to Scottish horse thieves. I need to be careful with this ancestry stuff.

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Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada

Horse thieves notwithstanding, I learned a bunch of interesting history as I researched the various castles ahead of our trip. For example, the Ogilvys had a longstanding (hundreds of years) feud with the Campbells, and the Campbells significantly damaged Airlie Castle and set it afire in 1640. There is actually Scottish folk song about it, called the Bonnie Hoose O’ Airlie, written in the 1800s.

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A drawing of Airlie Castle before the fire

As for the present day, we reached out to Lord Ogilvy’s assistant via email (is this a crazy world, or what?), and she told us that Airlie was not open for visits because the Ogilvy family was “currently in residence.” Cortachy Castle is never open to the public–but a few years back, my sister talked her way onto the property and even met Lord Ogilvy. So we figured we’d ask permission to walk the grounds, and we knew we could at least visit the church and cemetery at Cortachy.

While we weren’t permitted access the grounds of the castle, Lord Ogilvy’s assistant generously shared information on how we could get close to it on a neighboring property. So after a little sleuthing/exploring around Cortachy, that’s what we did. And we had a great time, even on a rainy day when we could only get within a few hundred yards of the castle.

As for the feud with the Campbells, we haven’t encountered any Campbells yet on our trip–but I’m keeping my eyes peeled, and Souzz has been watching my back. And I’m now revisiting my friendship with two close friends back home named Campbell–and I’m also totally giving up soup.

Water, Barley, and Yeast

Suzy and I left Nethy Bridge yesterday morning hoping to paddle some of the River Spey in our packrafts, which are ultralight inflatables that are quite capable in whitewater (although the Spey is super-mellow, class II). We then proceeded to get thoroughly lost on back roads looking for the put-in. We were basically giving up when we saw a van with a rack full of kayaks pass us in the other direction. So we did a quick 180 and followed them to the river.

Once at the put-in, we soon learned that river etiquette is the same in the UK as in the US–yet another thing that our countries have in common. We asked the friendly local folks from Abernethy Nethybridge Outfitters for information on the run, they sized us up (including our boats and weather-worn gear), and then our new friend Jerry offered us a shuttle from the take-out–as long as we could be ready when they were. What followed was the quickest gear throwdown in history, and then a lightning fast shuttle ride (amazed that their van could move that fast, even towing a boat rack).

The run was very straightforward, maybe a few rapids of class II, but very pretty. And a great way to see the Scottish countryside.

Another first for us was that the take-out was at a Speyside distillery. So naturally we followed our paddle with a tour of Cragganmore Distillery.

Both the paddle and the tour were worth doing again, and the day gave new meaning to the idea of adding barley and yeast to water.

Bookends

Today we bookended one of the most touristy destinations in all of Scotland with two slices of more local culture. We started our day at the Scottish Highland Games in nearby Newtonmore, followed that with a visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart, and closed things out back in Nethy Bridge at the remains of one of the oldest castles in Scotland, Castle Roy (11th century).

As for local culture, both the Highland Games and Castle Roy certainly fit the bill. We didn’t know the Highland Games were happening nearby until we saw a sign yesterday while driving. The games go on all summer, with the venue moving from town to town, and today was the day for Newtonmore.

The activities are a mix of athletics (hammer throw, high jump, trail runs, shotput, etc.), cultural activities (traditional Scottish dancing, bagpipes, children’s games), music, carnival rides, and the Scottish equivalent of funnel cakes and candy. It’s hard to go wrong with any of that.

As one might expect, the Highland Games are a very big deal to the communities that host them, in particular the athletic events. We were likely the only Americans (or at least among the few) in attendance today, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience something truly local.

The mix of athletics with music (especially bagpipes) and dancing is certainly unique–but we walked away from the Games thinking more about how alike our cultures really are. There were carnival rides, adults enjoying family outings, kids that dropped ice cream cones and burst into tears, kids that were all smiles after getting replacement cones–pretty much what you might see in a lot of places in the US.

Next, we were off to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, where we went from being the only Americans to being the only Americans that had attended the Scottish Highland Games that day (?), quite the trade.

As for Loch Ness, it gained its fame in part through the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, which dates to 1933 (at least). Regardless of the veracity of that tail, we’d heard that the Loch was beautiful and that Urquhart Castle was interesting (it was, and it is). And when you combine an historic castle (1200s) with a beautiful Loch and the story of a mysterious sea serpent, you have a recipe for a giant gift shop and an overflowing parking lot.

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The Loch is loved well beyond Scotland. And much of the Loch’s draw has to be that it’s hard to prove to a skeptical public that something doesn’t exist (and how ironic is that?!). Another thing that humans seem to share across cultures is that we thrive on the mystery of the unknown, whether it’s Nessie, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Souzz’s personal favorite, Champ, the sea serpent that supposedly prowls Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

Monster or not, the sheer beauty of the Loch and Urquhart Castle are not to be discounted (and yes, I really did just type “monster or not”), And it’s a reminder that touristy things are sometimes touristy for multiple reasons. And we don’t know what’s under the surface, either.

We closed out our day at Castle Roy, an 11th century fortress built by the Clan Comyn in Nethy Bridge, and we were delighted to find that we were the only people there. While Castle Roy is not nearly as dramatic or famous as Urquhart, it is also a special place, and it reinforced to us that Scotland is a land of many different kinds of experiences.

We didn’t expect to see Nessie today, but just yesterday we hadn’t expected to go to the Highland Games or Castle Roy. That’s a pretty good day of discovery.

Space Between My Skis

Souzz is on the Alumni Board for her college, St.Michael’s, near Burlington, Vermont, and there was a board meeting this past weekend…so of course I tagged along to enjoy the winter fun. Afterwards, we were able to squeeze in a day of skiing at Stowe—a place that I hadn’t visited in forty years (!).

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I’ve enjoyed downhill skiing for a long time, as I was taught to ski by my dad at age seven (my age, not his) in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When we lived in Rapid City, we had season tickets to nearby Terry Peak, and the whole family had a chance to learn the sport, pretty special (thanks, dad!).

My Stowe history began in 1979, when my high school ski club came up to Vermont from Virginia on a four-day bus trip. Back then, I had bushy hair, Stowe’s lift tickets were $16, the mountain had 34 trails, and skiing was my main passion. In the present day, my hair looks best under a helmet, lift tickets are $147, and Stowe has more than a hundred trails…but I still have a passion for skiing.

Souzz spent a lot of time during college in the 1980s gazing out at Mount Mansfield–the highest point in the state of Vermont, and one of the two mountains that form Stowe (Spruce Peak is the other). She didn’t downhill ski back then, only recently having found the sport, so she welcomed the chance to appreciate the view from the other direction.

There is a lot of history to this place. Stowe started as a lumber camp in the late 1700s, and skiing here likely began in the 1800s. The first known recreational skiing was in 1914, when a Dartmouth librarian skied down a trail now called the “Toll Road.”

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a road to Stowe for automobiles, and the US Ski Patrol was started at Stowe in 1934. The resort fully opened for business in 1936, and lift tickets were a dollar (still a hefty sum during the Depression).

Stowe felt the impact of World War II in a lot of ways. For starters, the Stowe ski patrol had a big hand in training the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division (specializing in winter warfare, often on skis). And in the midst of the war, Stowe’s only chairlift had to operate on a limited schedule due to fuel rationing.

Today Stowe is big business, with a lot of fancy lifts and services, and an entire village at the base of Spruce Peak (some call the village the Vail of the East).

Still, in some ways, the mountains are just as they have always been.

Another thing that is unchanged about Stowe is the cold. On that 1979 trip, I remember that the lift operator on the single chair handed me a pancho-style wool blanket before I got on the lift. At the top, I handed my blanket back to an attendant who then stacked it onto a pile of blankets that rode down on returning chairs. This practice continued until the single chair was replaced with a faster four-person chair in 1986.

As a teenager, I also remember aggressive runs down steep trails with huge moguls, as well as a big wipeout on a trail called Hayride. I’ve had a lot of falls over the years, but that one was particularly memorable because I knocked the wind out of myself on my thermos (tucked neatly inside the chest pocket of my anorak). Gasping for air after a faceplant is no way to look cool in front of your high school buddies.

It was also at Stowe that my high school idol, Tye, broke a ski binding in the middle of a trail called Goat (part of Stowe’s fabled “Front Four”) and then promptly one-skied the rest of the way down (clearly a cooler move than doing the Heimlich on yourself with a thermos). I had been trying hard to keep up with Tye on that trip, but it always felt like he was trying to lose me (well, maybe he was).

My return trip to Stowe this year was marked by a more conservative approach, but there was still some nice skiing, including a bunch of trails recommended by Souzz’s friend George. I even got back onto Hayride (sans faceplant)–and I love that George calls Hayride a “cruiser” (see his note below). It occurs to me that George might be a better skier than I am.

I’m no expert skier, but I’ve had the chance to travel and ski a fair amount—and Stowe remains my absolute favorite. The conditions have been great on my trips, the terrain is super interesting, and the mountain has a great vibe.

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I shared a chair with these fine folks. Is it still 1979?

Lastly, my Stowe advice: leave the thermos at home, skip Hayride, and don’t try to keep up with anybody named Tye.

Pegman Meets Viking

We just wrapped up a trip to the Oregon Coast, ostensibly to Newport and Cannon Beach, in an adventure that came together by way of Pegman. If you aren’t familiar with Pegman, that’s the name of the little guy on Google Maps that you can drag around to get a street view (I learned that little tidbit of information through Google, of course).

So here’s the backstory: a few weeks ahead of our trip, we were surfing the net to scope out different driving routes on the coast. At some point, we dragged Pegman down to a totally random spot…and he just happened to land on the stunning view from the Nordic Oceanfront Inn, in the small coastal town of Lincoln City.

So who chooses a destination by way of Pegman? Well, I guess we do. I’d never heard of Lincoln City (or Pegman) myself, which seems like how a good adventure might begin. And on top of the opportunity to discover a new town, the Nordic Oceanfront Inn looked like a fun destination itself. It’s locally owned and slightly quirky, with a giant wooden Viking out front, and oceanfront rooms with massive windows.

Lincoln City was founded in 1965 by combining seven adjacent communities, and it was named through a contest with local school children. I remember the 1960s as the heyday of a child’s toy called Lincoln Logs–so I was sure that was the inspiration for the name. Souzz suggested that the name could also be because the town is in Lincoln County (but I’m sticking with the Lincoln Log thing).

Lincoln City is maybe 20 minutes north of Newport and about two hours from Portland, and Wikipedia tells us that about 8,000 people live there now.  It has a lot of attractions and services for tourists, but it struck us as a local kind of place. The shops seem oriented more towards year-round business, and we didn’t hear a lot of Virginia accents. I got the sense that there weren’t too many Portland accents, either, at least not this time of year.

The dinner scene in Lincoln City was pretty memorable, too, as there were lots of folks on a first-name basis with the friendly staff at Pier 101 Restaurant. I also really like places where the chairs don’t all match perfectly, the décor varies from rustic to contemporary in the space of a single booth, and the food is simple, well-prepared, and fresh (our catch came up from Newport just the day before).

In contrast, Newport had more of a tourist vibe, and Cannon Beach felt like a weekend destination for Portland (albeit a very worthy one).  While Newport and Cannon Beach are clearly great destinations–with a beautiful harbor in Newport and a classic rocky beach at Cannon–they just felt a little more discovered.

And as expected, our entire drive north up the coast was beautiful.

This was a short trip for us–wedged in the middle of a long solo return trip from Alaska for me–but we got the most out of it. We walked on the beach, ate Dungeness Crab, drank Oregon wine and local craft beer, and sampled Tillamook cheese right at the factory (is cheese made in a factory? ok, creamery).

We also enjoyed amazing Pacific sunsets from a hot tub…and all because of Pegman. Where should we go next, Pegman?

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A Recipe To Remember

Back in 2005, we had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my parents and sister and brother-in-law on a pleasure trip that was also a mission of sorts. We went in part to visit Tuscany, but our primary purpose was to visit the site of a World War II memorial near the northern Italian city of Mantova.

In October of 1944, four aviators from my dad’s unit, the 319th Bomb Group, were lost on a mission to take out a rail bridge in Mantova. Two of those lost, Don Treadwell and Joe Prebil, were close friends of my dad, who was a pilot in another B26 bomber on that mission. My dad was able to return to his base in Corsica that day, but that mission clearly was a defining moment in his life.

The idea of our 2005 trip started when I learned about the memorial that the village of Redondesco had recently built to the four lost aviators. I’d learned about it by chance through my brother-in-law—a history professor fluent in Italian who had read about it in the Mantova newspaper. I was only half-serious when I announced later at a family gathering that I was going to visit. My dad surprised me when he immediately asked “can I come with you?”

A few months later, my parents, Souzz, me, my sister and her husband headed off to northern Italy on a trip that we’d never even imagined. We set things up entirely through email using web-based language translation programs (I think this internet fad might be here to stay).

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Once in Mantova, we were met by the Mayor of Redondesco along with a very knowledgeable Mantova historian and a volunteer translator from Redondesco. The three of them proceeded to take us on a guided tour of targets and crash sites, a tour that was simply amazing.

During our tour, we met a local farmer that witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, and he shared his emotional story as if it had happened yesterday. Later we were joined at the memorial by a huge group from the village of Redondesco—a group that waited for us for quite some time, undeterred by steady rain. We then closed our visit with a remarkable meal at the Mayor’s family farmhouse.

Calling our experience at the farmhouse a “meal” understates things quite a bit, as it was more like a commemoration and a celebration of friendship–and it was also the most amazing cultural experience that I’ve ever had. Lunch lasted five full hours, and there were seven courses, all hand-prepared over the previous two full days. Wave after wave of food came out while gregarious townspeople chatted away in Italian. Several times, our new friends did their best (in English) to thank my dad and the US for helping to bring Italy its freedom in World War II (and “their best” was pretty great, just perfect).

At the center of the meal was a regional favorite called tortelli di zucca, a pumpkin-stuffed pasta that is a Mantova specialty.

After we returned home to Virginia, our new friend Ivano (our translator on the trip, one of several new friends with whom we are still in touch, some 14 years later) generously shared his tortelli recipe. Since then, tortelli has become one of our favorite dishes. We’ve made it twice in just the last few months, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. And perhaps best of all, it is both a meal and a story.

 

Like any food experience, the memories of our meal in Redondesco are shaped by the context―the people, the situation and the emotions involved. Lunch that day in 2005 offered us a chance to connect with people from another country and to acknowledge a sacrifice that should never be forgotten—and we had the opportunity to share that experience with my parents and my sister and brother-in-law, pretty special.

And through my dad’s stories, our trip also offered a glimpse into what our troops did for us in 1944–and what they continue to do for us today.

Each time we make tortelli di zucca, we raise a glass to Don and Joe, and to all of the others that never made it home. As I’ve learned time and again, food can be a meal, an experience, a memory, a connector, or even a tribute. Sometimes it’s all five.

 

Getting Closer

We just visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—commonly called “the U.P.” by all but the most uninformed tourists—and absolutely loved everything about it. Our U.P. trip was a short one, but we crammed in quite a few adventures. We kayaked at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, mountain biked on Grand Island, and stopped by Mackinac Island for an overnight on the way home.

Mackinac (pronounced “Makinaw”) is a tiny little island (two miles long) out in Lake Huron, and visiting is like time travel—no cars, lots of horse-drawn carriages, and buildings and hotels dating to the 1800s.

The U.P. seems largely about the fantastic (ok, Great) lakes and the beautiful northern forests, but it’s also about the food—and you tend to see and hear a lot about pasties, perhaps the most well-known regional treat.

But there’s so much more to food in the U.P., in particular the seafood. Coming from the East Coast, I didn’t really associate seafood with Michigan, and yet there is amazing fresh Great Lakes seafood all over the U.P..

On our trip, we fell in love with the local market in the town of Munising, VanLandschoot and Sons. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it has an amazing selection of whitefish, salmon, trout, fish dip, and smoked fish.

Like a lot of U.P. businesses, VanLandschoot and Sons is a family affair. It was founded in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant named Philip VanLandschoot who initially set up shop on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1942, he and his family shifted operations to Munising, a town of about 2,500 on Lake Superior. He fished all summer by boat, and then ice-fished all winter—moving his gear around by horse and sleigh. Those were no doubt different times.

In addition to running a high quality market, VanLandschoot and Sons has also been at the forefront of sustainable fishing practices. In the 1960s, they pioneered the use of trapnets, which are a more responsible way to fish than gillnets. With a trapnet, fish are caught live and any fish that are not being targeted (“bycatch”) can be released. In contrast, gillnets typically kill anything that they catch. The use of trapnets are one of many innovations over the years that have help maintain Lake Superior as a very health commercial fishery.

Whitefish are one of 88 species of fish in Lake Superior. They are near the lake bottom in terms of habitat, but are clearly near the top in terms of popularity—comprising almost 90% of the commercial harvest. Whitefish owes its popularity in part to its mild flavor, which means that even people who don’t like fish seem to like whitefish (illogical much?).

 

VanLandschoot and Sons is located in a building next to their docks on the edge of town, and there’s nothing fancy about it. But you can see the boats when you are standing in front of their cold case, so I’m thinking you are getting pretty fresh stuff. They also process, filet and smoke everything right on site, with a friendly staff and prices that would make Whole Foods blush.

Back at our spacious and lovely AirBnB rental in Munising (we splurged a bit), we pan-fried our whitefish with a little paprika, olive oil, pepper, and lemon juice, and we also made a smoked whitefish dip with green onions and cream cheese. That’s a lot of whitefish, but it was definitely a Superior meal.

It’s funny to think that time spent together in the kitchen was one of the highlights of our vacation. But there’s something special about supporting a local (and responsible) business, eating what’s in season, preparing your meals from the freshest of ingredients, and doing it right near the source. A lot of people go on vacation to get away, but sometimes it’s fun to get closer.