Malawi – The Lake of Stars

Malawi – The Lake of Stars

My friends had a lot of questions when I mentioned I was on my way to Malawi. The most frequent was: Where? No surprise, since I too had to look it up when I first heard of the small landlocked country wedged into the East African Rift Valley system. It’s easily missed on the map of Africa, overshadowed by its much larger and better-known neighbors Tanzania to the North, Mozambique to the east and south, and Zambia to west. It is also one of the poorest countries on the planet and one the least developed in Africa, with only the most rudimentary national infrastructure and thus mainly overlooked by tourists. The only one who expressed enthusiasm was an avid diver: “You are going to The Lake!” he exclaimed with a hint of envy.

Lake Malawi - Beach on Cape Maclear

Beach at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi

The third largest of the great East African lakes, some 580 kilometer (360 mile) long and 75 kilometer (46 mile) wide, Lake Malawi is the main topographic icon of the country. But rather than its size, its pristine shores and deserted islands of towering boulders rising from crystal clear waters alive with small brightly colored fish are what earned its international renown among water sports enthusiasts and naturalists. It was these hundreds of endemic species of cichlids as well as the beauty of the scenery that drove the Malawi government to set aside the southern end the lake as Lake Malawi National Park in 1980 making it the first fresh water marine reserve in the world. It subsequently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Feersum Endjinn and the Magical Island

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

My driver drops me off by a sundrenched beach, deserted except of the representative of Kayak Africa here to welcome me, and a cluster of half-naked kids frolicking in the gentle surf. I am in Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi. A brave little wooden boat bobs at the end of a precarious jetty, the name Feersum Endjinn carved in its weathered bow. Thus reassured, I take the extended hand of the pilot and come aboard.

Feersum Endjinn at Mumbo Island

Feersum Endjinn docks at Mumbo Island

 

It’s an hour’s ride to Mumbo Island, one square kilometer (250 acres) of granitic rock topped by lush miombo woodland located ten kilometers (six miles) off shore in the heart of the 9,400 hectare (36 square mile) Lake Malawi National park. At first glance it looks just like another of the rocky dots rising out of the shimmering water that we’ve whizzed by along the way. But as we draw closer, tiny reed and thatch chalets barely distinguishable from the tangle of trees begin to materialize; then a small crescent beach of golden sand.

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island Guest Bungalows

A long footbridge leads to the guest bungalows

The camp is located on two islands. The dining room, lounge and tiny gift shop hut sit just above the beach on the main island. Meanwhile, a long footbridge leads to a promontory of giant boulders jutting into the lake, where guest bungalows are perched high in the rocks to better admire the dazzling waters of the lake.

Off-the-Grid into Eden

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island guest bungalows

Guest bungalows offer a dazzling view of the lake

This is off-the-grid living at its magical best. Until Kayak Africa was first award the exclusive rights to operate tourism accommodations on Mumbo Island in 1996, it had never been populated. To preserve the primeval beauty of its unique lake setting, the company’s founders Clive Bester and Jurie Shoeman created a minimalist property based on uncompromising sustainable principles. Rustic bungalows of reed and thatch, comfortable beds swathed in mosquito nets, bucket showers and “eco-loos” and a dining area that serves wholesome, simple foods. In a corner of the beach, a water sports gazebo has snorkeling equipment and kayaks at the ready. There is no electricity, just solar and paraffin lamps and wind up flashlights.

Mumbo Island - Red-billed Hornbill

A red-billed hornbill welcomes the new day

In his remote haven, life naturally falls into the eternal rhythms of the sun and the moon. My days begin at dawn with a wakeup call from a red-billed hornbill enthusiastically welcoming the new day in a tree above my head. I move from my bed to the hammock on my deck to contemplate the blood-orange sunrise slowly morphing into a clear morning while small boats dart across the lake after a night of fishing.

Mumbo Island - Morning coffee with a view

Morning coffee with a view

By now a tray laden with tea and cookies has materialized at the corner of my bungalow. When I finally stir I head for the dining room where a hearty breakfast await. I pause on the footbridge to take in the bright kayaks lined up at the edge of the beach and the crystal waves lapping at the freshly swept sand. Another day in Eden has begun.

 

 

Treasured Moments

Mumbo Island Sunset

Mumbo Island Sunset

After a day of snorkeling among the cichlids, the colorful small fish than have evolved into hundreds of varieties for which the lake is famous, or blissfully whiling away hours with a book in my hammock, it’s time to enjoy the sunset. Boatswain Owen takes me around the island to the ultimate sunset viewing spot where we watch the sky turn into surreal shades of bronze to crimson to purple before fading to dark.

Mumbo Island Bungalow

Bungalow Number Four is my personal slice of Eden

After an unpretentious meal by the soft glow of the paraffin lanterns, I return to my bungalow and settle on what I will forever think of as “My Rock” still warm from the day’s sun. Millions of diamond-bright stars pierce the velvet sky. The horizon is outlined by the myriad pinpoint lights of the hurricane lights fishermen use to lure fish into their nets. I send a mental nod or understanding to nineteenth century English missionary explorer David Livingston who gave the place its moniker of Lake of Stars.

Good to Know

  • Kayak Africa is a South Africa based company that has been operating Mumbo Island since its inception in 1996. Kayak Africa, kayakafrica.co.za, email: letsgo@kayakafrica.co.za, or call + 27 (0) 21 783 1955.
  • There is no electricity on Mumbo Island. Any battery operated equipment can be sent overnight to the mainland for charging. There is a daily boat connection between the island the Kayak Africa office in Maclear.
  • Mumbo Island consists of five bungalows that can accommodate up to ten guests on the small island. Additionally,  a twin-tents family unit that can accommodate up to four guests in the woods just above the beach and common areas on the main island
  • Getting to Malawi requires flying via Nairobi, Kenya or Johannesburg, South Africa. There are connecting flights from Kenya Airways and South African Airways respectively to the two major cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre. From either, road transfers can be arranged by Kayak Africa.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Mumbo Island

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

Today we visit Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air), one of the largest Orthodox monastic complexes in Greece, built from the fourteenth to sixteenth century on gigantic sandstone pillars towering over the northwestern corner of the Thessaly Plain. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain and are still home to small religious communities.

Monasteries in the Clouds

Meteorga Monastry Complex

The monasteries of Meteora overlooks the Plain of Thessaly

It is one of the most visited historic sites in Greece and we happen to be here during a long holiday weekend. Anticipating crowds, our Tripology Adventures leader Yoav Barashi, has called for an early start and arranged a mid-morning privately-guided tour for us at Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ).

 

 

Grand Meteron

Steps hugging the chasm lead to the entrance of the monastery.

Perched on Platys Lithos (or Broad Rock) over 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the plain, Great Meteoron is the highest as well as the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It is slow going on the recently built road up to the nearby plateau. From the small parking area, the monastery is reached by a footbridge that straddles the chasm and leads us to the base of the 300 steps cut into the rock face.

 

Just a Basket on a Rope

Grand Meteoron pulley tower.

At Grand Meteoron the pulley system is still used to lift up supplies.

I recall a friend who had spent a summer roaming around mainland Greece in the mid-1970’s telling me how she had happened onto “a forest of colossal stone pillars topped with medieval monasteries” at the edge of the Thessaly Plain. It was a well kept secret then, with no visible mean of access other than an oversize basket pulled up and down by a basic rope and pulley system to transport the monks when they went down to the village for supplies.

After several days’ wait she was able to make contact with one of them and get a lift up for a visit. That was before James Bond gave Meteora its moment in the limelight by tracking villains to the Holy Trinity monastery for the suspense ending of its 1981 caper “For your eyes only,” and UNESCO anointed the complex a World Heritage Site in 1988.

 

 

Grand Meteoron Wine Cellar

Meteoron Wine Cellar

Much has changed since then. A licensed English speaking local guide leads us on a comprehensive tour of Grand Meteoron. With only three monks remaining in residence, the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.

The original refectory with its elegantly vaulted ceiling now holds the monastery’s rich collection of ancient manuscripts and icons. The ossuary can also be viewed, with its grizzly display of skulls of the earliest residents neatly lined against the back wall. For me the gem of the visit is the katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity).

A Repository of Hellenic Culture

Grand Meteoron Katholitikono Dome

The Katholiticon is topped with an elaborate twelve-sided dome.

Due to its isolated location, Meteora became an academic and artistic safe heaven during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece. Hellenic culture and traditions were kept alive here, especially at Great Meteoron. The monastery attracted among its early disciples Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king who became a monk here in 1373 and endowed his fortune to the monastery. The Church of the Transfiguration built in 1388 and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with a striking twelve sided dome. They are a fine example of orthodox architecture and a perfect backdrop for the icons adorning the sanctuary.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Painted in the late fifteenth century, the frescoes of the katholikon are in the Macedonian style, depicting the Virgin Enthroned and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially note images of Christ Pantocrator that remind me of the early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia. The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 are in the more rigid style of the Cretan school and recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. It is a rare pleasure to come across ancient frescoes that have been so well protected by their isolated environment that they are still in their original state and in remarkable condition.

Zebekiko Send-off

Athens - Acropolis at Night/

The Acropolis aglow against the night sky.

We head back to Athens to next morning. The smooth, multi-lane highway with its slick roadside rest stops and souvenir shops is a bit of a culture shock. After a detour for a long seaside lunch of freshly fished seafood at a small resort on the Gulf of Corinth we get back into our vehicles for the last leg back to the Hotel Alexandros. The mood is subdued. I trust I am not the only one to feel a pang of regret to have arrived at the end my Greek Odyssey.

 

Athens - Psiri Neightborhood Tavern

Psiri Tavern

But I am premature in my assumption. Izhar Gamlieli, the Tripology Adventures co-founder who has been in the background all week orchestrating our off-road expedition, has one more treat in store for us. As the starry night falls on Athens we follow our Tripology hosts through the trendy streets of the once gritty Psiri neighborhood to one of its oldest taverns for an epic farewell dinner of the best local specialties, live Rebetika music and laughter.

 

Athens - Zebekiko Dance

Nikos’ farewell Zebekiko

As the evening wears on, Nikos Manolis, our wonderful lead driver (and a national figure in the Greek rally racing community) who has led us though this unforgettable off-road adventure, finally breaks into the Zebekiko dance we have been begging him to do for us for the past week. Move over Zorba! Before long a couple of other patrons come to watch, respectfully waiting for Nikos to acknowledge them with the traditional tap on the foot before taking part in the dance. And then we, a group of reserved strangers a mere eight days ago and now a band of friends, all join in. And the Zebekiko (which traditionally is danced by men only) turns into a would-be Sirtaki kicking line with much joking and laughter.

After this unique opportunity to encounter the Greece of the Greek people, I have fallen in love with the country and can’t wait for a return visit. As for off-road touring? This experience was so intoxicating that I feel the Tripology Adventures logo should include a warning label. I am already poring through their itineraries for my next destination.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grand Meteoron, Greece

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

Hard to imagine but the landscape keeps getting more dramatic as we zigzag up and down the dirt roads of the Agrafa, deep in the Evrytania region toward Lake Kremaston, the largest artificial lake in Greece. And I find it easier to enjoy the view now that my car mate Mary Bailey has asked about the tiny roadside shrines standing at the very edge of the most precipitous drops. They are getting more frequent as we go deeper into the wilderness. Since Mary is by now doing all of the driving, I understand her concern. They are kandilakia, and yes, they sometime commemorate fatal accidents, but they are just as likely to give thanks for catastrophes avoided, Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, assures us. Or they can simply mark a spot for an instant of private devotion as people go about their daily business.

Of Olympian Gods and Judas Trees

Greece - Pindus. Lake Kremaston

Lake Kremaston and Episkopi Bridge.

Under a robin’s egg blue sky, the scenery is a riot of colors. When first revealed from high on a ridge, Lake Kremaston is a palette of greens from pale jade to emerald, turning to teal whenever the sun hides behind a cluster of puffy white clouds. The Judas trees are in full bloom, splashing the mountainside with random hot pink patches. This is a photographer’s paradise and every few minutes someone gets on the radio to announce an impromptu photo stop, until Yoav ends the chaos by telling us the best vantage point is just ahead. Once we are back in our cars, he finds a sure way to keep our unruly lot going. He entertains us with a story. Yoah is an Olympic-class storyteller. Whenever driving conditions allow, he takes to the radio and weaves mythological tales for us (with voices) with such an irreverent humor he has us all asking for more. Who knew that Greek mythology was all about testosterone-laden Zeus, all these demi-gods birthed from his various body parts and his wife Hera’s dim view of his shenanigans!

Greece - Pindus. Trikerotis River.

We stop of a break on the sandy shore of the Trikeriotis River.

By now we have crossed the Episkopi Bridge to the far size of the lake. We follow the tree-shaded shore of the Trikeriotis River where we reach a sandy beach and find Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, putting finishing touches to our morning break. The river looks like liquid rock crystal as it rushes toward the lake.

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa village.

We reach of small village high in the Agrafa.

It’s a long, steep climb out of this idyllic place. At times the road seems little more than a ledge not much wider than our cars and with lots of sharp turns. I wonder idly what would happen if we were to come face to face with an incoming car? Mercifully, I don’t have to find out. All we see are goats that bounce up the mountain at the sight of us. Eventually the road widens and flattens a bit and we come to a village. Yaov tells us to walk down to the platia while Nikos, our lead driver, takes the cars down. I pause to snap a few shots of the valley below, and almost get knocked of my feet by jet engine thunder. The culprits are already vanishing behind the next ridge before I grasp what just happened. Here I am in a remote village that has been clinging to its mountainside since the days of the Ottoman invasion, and I am getting buzzed by the Greek air force!

Into Monastery Country

The footpath down is so precipitous it could have been traced by the goats. Although well kept, the village looks deserted. I don’t see a soul until I reach the platia and find Izhar once again on catering duty setting up a buffet lunch.

Greece - Pindus. Proussos Monastery,

The Proussos Monastery is home to a sacred icon said to have healing powers.

Back on the road, and there actually is a proper road here, albeit narrow and hewed into the rock high above the Karpenisiotis River, we head to the Panaghia Prousiotissa (or Proussos Monastery). According to tradition this monastery partially overhanging the edge of a chasm traces its roots back to the discovery by local shepherds of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. Originally from Proussa (in Asia Minor) the icon is said to have found its way to a shallow cave here during the reign of the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842 AD). Believed to have healing powers, it has remained to this day in its shelter within the monastery that was built around it starting in the twelfth century. It is a place of pilgrimage for faithful from all over Greece. In addition to the icon, the chapel that surrounds the cave also includes thirteenth and sixteenth century frescoes. With Karpenisi only 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away, we are back at the Hotel Spa Montana in plenty of time for me to enjoy a water massage in the spa’s elegant glassed-in pool before dinner. Tonight we discover another of Izhar and Yoav’s favorite restaurants in a nearby village. That’s one of the pleasures of traveling with them; they know all the best places and have friends everywhere. This gets us invited to visit the kitchen and witness the unveiling of a delicious lamb and potato stew that has been simmering for hours cocooned in charcoals in an ancient oven.

One More Mountain Pass, or Two

Greece - Pindus, Niala Peak

From Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass the view reaches the vast expanse of Lake Plastiras and the plain of Thessaly.

Although I have been happily loosing track of time recently, it’s clear than we are now bound for the end point of our expedition, the medieval monastery complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Meteora. But before we reach it, there is still an exciting day ahead. We start with a morning climb from the Karpenisiotis Valley to a mountaintop café for our morning break, followed by a steep drive down into a gorge of the Agrafiotis River where we enjoy a waterside lunch of freshly grilled trout at a local trout farm before the climb to the Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass. At an altitude of 1,657 meters (5,436 feet) the pass is one of the highest in Greece and well above the tree line. Then it’s down again to the northwestern edge of the plain of Thessaly and our first jaw-dropping sight of the famed monasteries of Meteora atop their colossal sandstone pinnacles.

Greece - Pindus. Kalambaka Dusk.

In Kalambaka, our al fresco dinner comes with a glorious view the night falling over the Pindus Mountains

We settle at the four-star Famissi Eden Hotel in Kalambaka where my room has a large balcony with a straight up view of the monasteries. It is the start of the long May-Day Weekend in Greece and when we go for dinner at a lovely Main Street restaurant terrace, the town is lively with tourists, the first we have seen all week. An omen of what awaits us tomorrow when we visit the Meteora complex… to be continued.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Monastery of Proussos, Evrytania.

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

It’s Day Two of my Tripology off-road adventure through the mountains of Central Greece. We congregate in the parking lot of the Amelia Hotel in Delphi to carry on our departure routine. Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, reviews the day’s itinerary, we eagerly pile our luggage and ourselves with into our designated cars (mine is # 3 and Tim Campbell is at the wheel today) and proceed with an all around radio check. The morning sun is dissipating the last of the early mist as we meander down a country road toward the sea. I marvel at the serenity of the bucolic setting, until Nikos Manolis, our lead driver (and a noted figure in the Greek rally racing community) leads us onto a narrow gravel road.

From Breathtaking to Hair-raising

Greece - Pindus - Lake Mormos

A first glance at Lake Mormos

This is Bauxite Way, Yoav explains, named for the aluminum ore mine on our right. And by the way, we are now on one of the best-known stages of the famous Acropolis Rally, which is part of the European Rally Championship schedule. The best time recorded on this 24 kilometer (15 mile) uphill, tightly winding trail is 13 minutes (that’s 110 kilometers-or 70 miles- per hour!). Mercifully, Tim takes it considerably slower but we are still stirring impressive clouds of red dust in our wake. Back on paved road high on the Giona Ridge, we catch our first sight of the turquoise waters of the Mormos Reservoir far below. We unanimously call for a photo op stop.

Greece. Pindus, Lidoriki wisteria.

In Lidoriki, main street balconies vanish under a riot of wisteria blooms.

The road snakes steeply downhill toward Lidoriki, a postcard perfect little village with just a few shops along a main street not much wider than our Jeep and lined with stone facades overwhelmed by riotous wisteria in full bloom. We stop for refreshments on the platia, the village square that is the heart of every Greek village before resuming our roller-coaster ride, uphill once more. The narrow rocky trail hugs the rock face to the right. The scenery goes from breathtaking to hair-raising as I consider the precipitous drop to our left and the conspicuous absence of guardrail. This is the wild, off-the-beaten-paths Greece I wanted to experience, but right now I wish for something a bit tamer.

Bonding with boulders

Greece - Pindus.Boulder.

Jessica telling the boulder who’s boss.

Greece - Pindus. Ridge view.

Picnic view at the top of the ridge.

A jarring rock-against-metal grinding sound interrupts my musings as our car comes to a decisive stop. The lead vehicle and Cars # 1 and 2 are already out of sight, Car # 4 has not yet caught up. I reach for the radio (as the non-driver in our car, I am the designated radio operator) searching for the appropriate words to admit that we have just bonded with a boulder. Deep breath. “Number Three to Lead. Do you read me?”. “Go-ahead,” Yaov prompts. “We have … hit a rock,” I squeak. Jessica, the unflappable Coloradoan in Car # 4 takes over with a businesslike “Getting out to assess and will report.” Within minutes Nikos’ big Land Rover comes to nose to nose halt with our Jeep (How did he manage to turn around and go past two cars so quickly?). The rock in question is firmly embedded into our front right wheel-well. Nikos and Yaov spring into action. A winch materializes from the front bumper of the land cruiser, the rock is lassoed with the capable assistance of Jessica and just as it is being dragged out of the way a nimble rally emergency vehicle zips to a stop behind us to offer a hand.

Greece - Pindus. Bee-hives

Tending hives under the Judas Trees.

We are off again in short order. When we reach the top of the ridge, we are greeted by Izhar, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, a copious picnic already laid-out and jaw-dropping mountain vistas to the horizon. An hour later, the camping stoves, plastic stools and assorted remains of our picnic stowed into his 4WD, Izhar zooms down the trail with a “see you tonight” wave. We start our descent at a much more sedate pace. Other than lots of goats, the occasional herd of shaggy sheep and now a pair of beekeepers tending to their hives in a roadside orchard, we have barely come across anyone on these remote roads.

Greece - Pindus. Sheep.

On these mountain roads, sheep have the right of way.

But by now I’ve realized that we are never left to our own devices. In addition to our leaders Yoav and Nikos, Izhar is always one step ahead of us, test driving our itinerary to make sure it is still passable (between weather and rock slides, conditions can change fast in these mountains), catering the occasional al fresco meal and checking that hotels and restaurants are ready for us. And there is road support at our back, ready to intervene in case of mishap. How else could the blue mosquito with its crew of two and the spare wheel strapped to its roof have found us so quickly? We didn’t need them this time, but it’s good to know they are here.

We dine and stay at the Elatou that night, a cozy country hotel in the mountain village Ano Chora surrounded by dense forests of fir and chestnut trees.

Into the clouds

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa

These remote mountains kept the Moors invasion at bay for four centuries.

The weather is drab and chilly as we leave Ano Chora the next morning, and even more so when we stop for coffee in Arachova, a village precariously perched on a mountainside. We are in the Evrytania now, a pristine region of steep, thickly forested slopes and rushing streams that have earned it a reputation for splendid scenery and the moniker of “the Switzerland of Greece”. But for now, clouds are blotting out the landscape and the going is slow. Yoav seizes the moment to tell us of the harsh history of the area and the fiercely independent people who left the cities to take refuge in these mountains; and succeeded in maintaining their autonomy and culture through the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece.

Greece - Pindus. Lake Evinos.

Lake Evinos fills a series of deep canyons.

The clouds finally part and we are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant green waters of Lake Evinos meandering at the bottom of deep canyons, and hills dotted with the bright fuchsia Judas trees in bloom. Our next stop is Krikelo, where after lunch at the cheerful Tavern Antigoni, there is time for walk across the platia to the village church. Behind its humble exterior of pale local stone, it is a treasure trove of gilded byzantine-style icons and dripping crystal chandeliers.

Greece - Pindus. Krikelo church.

Crystal chandeliers and rich icons light up the village church.

One more stop in Megalo Horio, a exceptionally picturesque village clinging so closely to the mountain that it appears to rise in layers from the platia, before heading for Karpenisi, a small town (population 13,000) best known for its popular ski resort. After two days spent exploring remote wilderness, there is something a bit incongruous to being greeted with welcome drinks at check-in and bellman service at the five-star Montana Hotel and Spa. But one look at my room with its king-size canopy bed and spacious seating area opening onto a large deck with a panoramic view of the mountains (plus an oversized whirlpool bath in my bathroom) and I am quite happy to re-enter the lap of twenty first century luxury. We have dinner in a tiny nearby village in a family-run restaurant where Izhar and Yoav are greeted like longtime friends. I never caught the name of the place, but I will long remember the warmth of the welcome and the freshly caught brook trout grilled to perfection.

The Tripology Fairies

We find our vehicles freshly washed and lined in formation when we leave the restaurant. It reminds me that we haven’t once had to stop to refuel since we left Athens. Tripology fairies must be servicing the cars while we eat or sleep. All this seamless planning and attention to details make our expedition feel so easy I would travel anywhere with these guys.

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Karpenisi, Greece

Karpenisi, Greece

An exceptional Parisian Bistro

An exceptional Parisian Bistro

The Parisian bistro in its original incarnation as a small neighborhood eatery serving simple home-cooked meals traces back to the industrial revolution. From the mid-1800s, rail transport unleashed a flow of migrants from the rural areas attracted by employment in the new industries around the capital. Many settled in boarding houses that provided meals as well as rooms. Industrious landlords started supplementing their incomes by opening their kitchens to paying nearby residents. In time, the food service moved from these basement kitchens to unassuming storefronts. Today their ubiquitous presence throughout the city makes them difficult to differentiate at first glance. The quality of their offerings can vary wildly, from just another meal to a memorable dining experience.

Bistronomie – The Best of Two Worlds

Food-Paris, La Regalade Doucet

Chef Bruno Doucet

La Regalade never fails to deliver the latter. Located near the Porte d’Orléans in a middle-class neighborhood at the southern edge the city, it has been the domain of Bruno Doucet since 2004. Here this talented chef, steeped in the grand classic tradition, dishes out a cuisine that has become so popular over the past two decades that a name had to be invented for it: Bistronomy. It is where gastronomy and the skills Doucet honed at the side of the likes of Gabriel Biscay at Prunier’s, Pierre Gagnaire at his eponymous Pierre Gagnaire Restaurant and Jean-Pierre Vigato at Apicus, take bistro fare to new heights.

His blackboard menu of unpretentious, flawlessly prepared dishes is offered at a friendly three-course prix fixe of € 37.50 at lunch and dinner. It is seasonally adapted and includes a few selections of the moment at a small additional cost. The service is attentive and convivial. The wine list is well rounded, with interesting and fairly priced selections from all the major growing regions of France.

The décor is timeless, quintessential bistro, with a long zinc-top bar Hemingway would have enjoyed. The retro tiled floor harks back to the same era. Small square oak tables are lined along burgundy leather banquettes and open shelves filled with food jars and copper cooking accessories hang from the plastered wall.

Paris - Regalade Paté

The signature Paté de Campagne is served as amuse-bouche.

All of that becomes irrelevant the instant the welcome white china terrine of the signature house paté de campagne materializes on our table with its usual sidekicks of earthy country bread and tiny cornichons. I could make a meal of it but previous visits at La Regalade have taught me moderation. There are three scrumptious courses to come and portions are usually generous.

A Late Summer’s Day Treat

Food - Paris. Regalade Maki

Maki of tourteau crab with cucumber.

Food - Regalade Risotto

Creamy squid ink risotto is a house favorite.

On this recent visit I start with an imaginative maki of tourteau crab wrapped in shavings of marinated cucumber served with summer greens and drizzled with a warm vinaigrette. My main course is veal, thick tender slices of it roasted to pink perfection and topped with an unusual croquette of pulled veal, served in a cast iron casserole, with baby vegetables braised in a reduction of Banyuls wine vinegar.

My companion enjoys an appetizer of creamy squid ink risotto topped with sautéed calamari, followed by caramelized pork breast, so succulent with its crunchy exterior that I make a note to order it next time I see it on the menu.

Food - Paris. Regalade Soufflé.

Grand Marnier Soufflé

 

Her dessert is the exquisite Grand Marnier soufflé served at the height of its perfection. As for me, although I know I will be able to manage only a few spoonfuls I indulge in my all time La Regalade favorite, the Riz au Lait Grand Mère. The delectable creamy rice pudding speckled with vanilla bean is served in a china crock large enough to share, accompanied by a pitcher of orgasmic hot butterscotch with sea-salt. This is the ultimate comfort food of generations of French children and, with apology to my own Granny, the best I ever tasted. Our wine selection is a lovely bottle of light red Saumur from the Loire Valley, 2011 Chateau du Hurean.

Chef Bruno Doucet

Food - Paris. La RegaladeI am not surprised in the middle of our meal to see Doucet emerge briefly from the kitchen, a working chef in the heat of the midday crush. He is a hands-on chef whose talent and enthusiasm shine through every dish. Paris gourmets and gourmands love it. When he appears again at this end of the service, he graciously takes time to share his thoughts on his continued success. “I believe in steering clear of elaborate cuisine,” he states. “I focus on the best seasonal products from the French heartland, turn them into simple, rigorously prepared dishes and allow the honest food to take center stage.” A command performance that calls for encores.

Good to know

  • La Régalade, at its flagship address 49 Avenue Jean Moulin, 75014. Tel: +33 1 45 45 68 48, is opened Monday through Friday for dinner from 7:30 to 11:00 pm and Tuesday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. It can seat up to 55 and usually is a tight fit. Reservations are necessary, at least one week ahead for dinner, and a couple of days for lunch.
  • Two additional addresses have opened in recent years in different parts of the city. La Régalade – Saint Honoré, near the Louvre in the 1st Arrondissement, and La Régalade – Conservatoire, wedged between Les Grands Boulevards and Montmartre in the 9th Arrondissement. Opening days may vary there but reservations remain necessary.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Regalade, Paris