What are Tapas?

That depends on who you ask.  Tapas vary across Spain, region to region and town to town.  The general definition is that tapas are snacks, appetizers, canapés – samples of food on small plates. They can be cold – olives, cheese, onions – or hot – squid, vegetables, fish, spicy chorizo sausage, slow-cooked beef cheek, sweet potato puree and everything in between.

There are some wonderful stories about where tapas came from, which of course are firmly set in folklore.

One story claims that King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One” gave birth to tapas. While on a long journey across Spain, he stopped to rest in Ventorillo del Chato, a town in the southern province of Cádiz. He ordered a sherry, and as Cádiz is known for being very windy, the inn keeper covered the sherry with a piece of ham to prevent dust blowing into the glass.  The king really liked it and when he ordered another sherry, he requested it come with a tapa, or a cover. King Alfonso is said to have then passed a law in the province of Castile that all drinks had to be served with a small portion of food to slow down the effects of alcohol and thus reduce rowdiness, boisterous behaviour and arguments.

16661D4C1CAnother story tells how tapas became popular in inns which had sprung up along the major routes across Spain.  Most of the travellers and inn keepers could not read, so when exhausted travellers stopped for refreshments, instead of a menu, they were offered samples of the dishes on offer before they placed their order. These were served on the covers of the pots, or tapas.

Many early food establishments only offered standing room, and so, due to lack of space, people placed their small portions of food on top of their drinks. This became known as tapas.

Some say that sherry and wine were used to ‘cover up’ the taste of very strong smelly cheese, hence tapas.

Whatever the etymology of tapas, it is a very social way to eat. The sharing of small dishes of food seem to encourage conversation and create a relaxed environment and a social atmosphere.

Join your friends at a local Spanish restaurant and do as the Spanish do.

Bravo!

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Prague – the Centre of Europe

The energetic centre of Europe should be in the very middle of the Charles Bridge in Prague. It has for centuries been a sacred and spiritual place which has been linked to legend, religion and the heathen world.

Charles Bridge, Prague

Charles Bridge, Prague

And today Prague still feels like it is slap-bang in the middle of Europe. Huddled between Germany, Poland, Austria and Slovakia, it has a wonderful mix of cultural influences.

The Austrian / Alpine influence is evident in the colourful (and hugely calorific) cakes and the genuinely smooth coffee. Every street food stall sells at least two different kinds of sausages (the German influence) and German is heard on the streets and in cafes and restaurants. If you don’t speak Czech, just use any German you know – I was blessed by a passerby with “Gesundheit!” when I sneezed. Hungarian goulash regularly features on the menu too. All of this, points to Prague having been the capital of Bohemia, an important centre in the Holy Roman Empire and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War.

Interestingly Italian seems to be quite an important influence too. In the Prague Old Town I have seen a multi-lingual menu with items listed in Italian first and in Italian bold print – and most restaurants offer a variety of pasta and gnocchi dishes.

But of course, the Slavic influence is the most dominant as the Slavic tribes have been in Central Europe since the 6th Century.

In the twentieth century Czechoslovakia was created and Prague became its capital city. It was taken by the Nazis, bombed by the USA, liberated by the Red Army, became an important Soviet centre behind the Iron Curtain, it initiated the ‘Prague Spring’ which was hastily suppressed by the Warsaw Pact members, and the Velvet Revolution spoke out against Communist rule. The country spilt into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 and today is has one foot in Europe and one in the Eastern Bloc. It seems like the European border is moving further and further east.

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An old Prague tram

Architecture says so much about a city’s past and to me Prague feels more Austrian than Slavic –  but there are Orthodox style chapels sprinkled around the city – in smaller, quieter side streets – a city with an eclectic mix.

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Along the Vltava River

So, does Prague suffer from an identity crisis?

No, I believe. The people seem firm in who they are – influenced yes, but not culturally dominated. The challenging twentieth century gave the Czechs reason to be bold, be strong and carve a Czech identity for themselves.

So what is Czech identity?

The eyes of Prague?

The eyes of Prague?

To answer that you would have to visit, not just Prague, but other areas of the Czech Republic, delve into history books to understand their complex journey from where their souls come, and actively engage with the Czech people. This is the only way one will ever understand what makes a Czech a Czech; and what it means to them to be Czech.

Travel does that!


Goritsy and the Monastery of the White Lake

Wherever you look in Russia there are gorgeous buildings – along the river, in the towns, peeping over the trees, in the cities – but sadly so many of them are in desperate need of renovations. They look sad and tired.

On arrival in Goritsy we boarded buses for our visit to the Monastery of the White Lake, Kirillov. Although it was founded in 1397, and is of course old, it is dilapidated. It is so very depressing to think that at its peak, it was home to two hundred monks. Today, it is mainly a museum and chapels. Part of its beauty is the contrast between the restoration that has already taken place and the old walls, towers, chapels and monk cells. Strolling through the gardens you can feel the serenity the monks would’ve felt living here. It feels sacred. It feels peaceful.

We were treated to a choir of three in one of the chapels. The acoustics within the ancient walls and the harmonising male voices brought the spirit of the monetary to life. You could feel commitment to God and work dedicated to others. I could almost touch the passion and the history.

The museum was an interesting display of art, weapons, icons and clothing, depicting the life and times of this monastery, the community and Russia.

As we exited through the main archway, we were greeted by a wedding party. The bride and groom were coming to have their photographs taken here. This is a real indication of the importance of this monastery and what it represents to those in the local community and from surrounding villages. The photographs will no doubt produce a wonderful contrast – the white wedding gown against the backdrop of the fortress-like stone walls.

If the role of a monastery is to provide peace and spirituality to this community, then this collection of buildings on the White Lake still serves this purpose. I walked away feeling pensive and reflective and oddly fulfilled.


Kizhi Island, Russia

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Whether you are spiritual, religions or neither, Kizhi Island awakens something in you. On the approach, the World Heritage Transfiguration Cathedral welcomes the ship as it peers over the trees. It is beautifully positioned to be seen from all the islands in the area and from almost anywhere on the island itself, which only 8km long and 1.5km wide.

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As the daughter and grand-daughter of a carpenter, I have a love of wood that runs through my veins. This island has been the highlight for me so far as the architecture is all wooden. It is an open-air museum of edifices, churches, chapels, bathhouses, houses and the very impressive cathedral. The craftsmanship to create the Russian Orthodox domes using over thirty thousand shingles is almost mesmerising. Surrounded by basic and sparse vegetation, the buildings really make a statement.

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Three men from the choir thanked us for coming to their special church by singing in the main chapel. It was so incredible to stand in this ornately decorated chapel, embraced by the smell of wood and Russian harmonies. I captured the moment by staying focused on the experience for as long as possible so it remains imprinted in my heart.

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Wondering around I stumbled across a smaller chapel and spent ages trying to absorb all the details of the icons, the ceiling and the altars. It was even more special that I was in there on my own and was able to feel it and not just see it.

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I was sad to leave and lingered on the pier for as long as I could. I kept looking over my shoulder to get as much time with the cathedral and the other buildings in my mind’s eye as possible….I just don’t want the feeling of being there to fade. I know it will, but I hoped to take away as much as I could.

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Svirstroy

One of the many advantages of travelling on a cruise ship is that you get to stop off at some more remote communities. This could of course provide an income for a local community that would supplement their salaries or wages. Unfortunately this is only a seasonal flow of funds and one hopes the people do not become reliant on tourism and over time maybe lose their traditional talents and skills.

But our next stop was a wonderful opportunity for us to see the social side of Russian culture by stepping into a smaller Russian community. On arrival in Svirstroy we followed our on-board guides in small groups to the homes of local families. My group walked to the far side of the village and on arrival we were seated in their ‘summer room’ – a bit like a conservatory which was prepared with such care – fresh flowers from the garden and some needlework and icons on the walls. Our hostesses were two sisters from St Petersburg. Since they have retired they spend the summer months in Svirstroy with their children and grandchildren. We enjoyed the most tasty tea I think I have ever had. Strong tea is poured from the tea pot only half filling the tea cup and it is topped up with hot water from the kettle. The ladies added some mint leaves from their garden to the brew and had baked some traditional cakes. Not sure what they are called, but they are made from a sort of a doughnut tasting dough and filled with jam or cabbage. I loved the jam one and was very good to try the cabbage one, but I don’t enjoy cabbage generally and this was also cold. I was very polite and finished the cake trying not to offend my hostesses … my mother would be very proud of me.

We were given an opportunity to ask questions and the on-board guide translated for us. The questions ranged from heating their homes in winter, to the main professions of people in the village (they mostly work in the hydro electric plant) to gardening. It was a thoroughly charming experience, and with the gorgeous grandson popping in to see what his granny was doing and the son-in-law pottering away outside and in the hallway, it really felt like we were experiencing (as much as we could) something unique and very memorable.

Sadly the rain got quite heavy when we left and I am sure a lot less money was spent in the local market than would normally have been spent. I did support the local craft and economy by buying myself a necklace. Jewellery always makes me happy and I love that most of the pieces I own tell a story. This necklace will always tell a warm story of the Russian people and my time in a small village on the River Svir.


St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg

Our afternoon excursion was to St Isaac’s, the fourth largest one-domed cathedral in the world after St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and St Maria in Florence. At 101.5 m high and four thousand square metres, it can hold a congregation of twelve thousand. I have seen cathedrals numbers one, two and three, so this was going to be a necessary visit for me.

The vast interior is awe-inspiring! Every wall has a painting, a statue, a mosaic or a frieze. As the cathedral is so big, everything is made up to four times bigger so it has the right perspective. There are no pews in a Russian Orthodox Church as the congregation stand for the service. This must be a real challenge for some as the services can go for up to four hours!

Although there were many visitors in the cathedral, the size if the interior dwarfed the numbers and muffled the sound. Amazingly a person could almost ‘withdraw’ from the world and enjoy their personal spirituality amidst the tourists. This building embraces the religious and welcomes those who aren’t. And surely this is what religion should be about…creating a secure environment for the individual to be whoever they want to be.

I left the cathedral feeling like I had been loved, respected and smiled upon.


The Hermitage

Having taken groups to the Louvre in Paris many times, I have always felt overwhelmed by the art, the building, the atmosphere, which is abuzz with tourist energy. I know the Louvre and the Hermitage complete. The one claims to have more art on display, the other acquires something new and they claim to now be the biggest. This has gone on for years…and it was my opportunity to decide for myself – which one was truly the biggest, the most impressive and the one to take the Dawn title of excellence.

The Hermitage green is gorgeous! You can see the building from most prominent spots in the city. It really stands out! The queues of tourists snaked along the river, but moved so very quickly. As we got through the turnstiles I could see a grand staircase ahead…the excitement was building! And from then on I was awestruck! Every room, every passage, every ceiling, every floor was magnificent! The sunlight streamed in through the windows creating a wonderful ambiance, shadows and warmth. I was entranced! And this was only a small piece of the five buildings. What a pleasurable time it must’ve been for the royalty when they lived here.

To top it off I got to stand in front of two Da Vinci paintings and many Rembrandt masterpieces. Unbelievable! They say you need at least a week to see the Hermitage properly. And that is what I will do! I have had a small bite…and it tasted fabulous! Now I will go back for more to satisfy myself completely.

So, who wins the Dawn award? Well, the Louvre is impressive. Its decor is simple, less fussy and the focus is on the art. There is a wonderful modern element with the IM Pei structure and it oozes French history. But for me the Hermitage is the clear winner. The decor and the displays are presented in a creative way – in a way that the art does not take away from the elegance of the building and the building does not overpower the incredible artwork. It is perfectly balanced to allow your senses to ‘ooo’ and ‘aahhh’ involuntarily.