Archive for November 2018

French toast

In France, it’s called pain perdu, or “lost bread”—that is, bread that had gone stale but that has been rehabilitated by being dunked in an egg batter and fried. So it’s not exactly French, and not exactly toast, but it’s delicious. And, as we know, it’s not even necessary to use stale bread! French toast was one of the first things I learned to cook as a child, and it’s way less fussy than pancakes or waffles. If you haven’t had breakfast yet, it’s a good choice. And if you already have had breakfast, well, it’s great for lunch and supper too!

Image credit: Pxhere

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Neuschwanstein castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Although Morgen and I used to live in France and have distinctly francophile tendencies, we also have tremendously warm feelings for Germany—especially Bavaria, which we’ve visited several times. A recurring theme in the sights we saw there—and believe me, I mean this in the best and most complimentary way—is wackiness. I’m not just talking about lederhosen and sauerkraut either, though it has always puzzled me how such things came to exist. A particular slice of German history we became well acquainted with was the rule of Ludwig II, king of Bavaria from 1864 until his death in 1886. While the many stories about Ludwig are strange and colorful (and some are featured as Interesting Things of Other Days) his most famous follies are the castles he built—especially his grandest and best-known castle, Neuschwanstein.

Neuschwanstein is a beautiful castle set in one of the most scenic locations on Earth. If it looks a bit familiar, that may be because Walt Disney used it as inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle at the Disney theme parks. It really does evoke images of fairy tales, in more ways than one. But the story of its origin is one of tragedy, despair, and outright weirdness.

Swan Song

To understand the story, you’ll need to know a bit about Ludwig. As a child, he loved swans. This is not surprising, considering the castle he lived in was called Hohenschwangau (or “high region of the swan”) and contained artwork depicting the story of Lohengrin, a medieval knight of the Holy Grail who rescues a princess with the aid of a swan. Ludwig liked to feed swans and draw pictures of them, and when at age 13 he heard of Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” he was very excited. He memorized the entire libretto, and this led him to an interest in Wagner’s other music and writings. Within a few years, this interest turned into an obsession. In 1863, Ludwig got a copy of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle. In the preface, Wagner talks about “the miserable state of the German theater,” and that “a German Prince would need to be found to provide the required funds” to produce the opera. Ludwig took this as his personal mission. The very next year, at age 18, Ludwig became king when his father died. His first official duty was to send for Wagner and have him brought to Munich.

Wagner, who at that time was in his fifties, was a gifted musician but not, apparently, a very nice guy. History records Wagner as arrogant, self-centered, and prone to excess, indiscretion, and intolerance. It so happened that at the very time Ludwig summoned him to Munich, Wagner was trying to evade his creditors and was very much in need of a patron. So Ludwig and Wagner struck up an almost symbiotic relationship. Ludwig funded Wagner’s work and put him up in a handsome villa, and Wagner played the part of mentor and idol. Not long thereafter, though, amid reports of yet another affair and worries that Wagner might be exerting too much influence over the young king, he was forced to leave Bavaria and move to Switzerland. Although Ludwig was upset, he continued to support Wagner, and the two kept up a steady correspondence.

Meanwhile, Ludwig was not having a very good time as king. He lost an important war against Prussia, was forced to submit his army to Austrian control, and then ended an unhappy engagement. Depressed and bitter, he withdrew from the public eye as much as possible and consoled himself by planning the construction of several great castles. In 1869, work began on his most ambitious castle, Neuschwanstein (which means “new swan stone”).

Reinventing the Castle

Ludwig had always wanted a medieval castle, so he had Neuschwanstein built in what you might call a neo-Romanesque style. That is to say, it was made to look a lot older than it really was, and unlike authentic medieval castles, it had such luxuries as forced-air heating and indoor plumbing. But the most distinctive feature of the castle was that it was designed to be a stage for Wagner’s operas, both literally and figuratively. Some rooms were designed explicitly as places where an opera might be performed, but in every room and corridor of the castle the architecture and artwork reflected the German mythology that formed the basis of Wagner’s operas. All but a very few of Wagner’s operas are depicted in one way or another in the castle. One of the most unusual rooms—if you can call it that—is called the Grotto. It’s actually an incredibly convincing artificial cave, complete with stalactites and a waterfall. The Grotto was intended to represent a cave from Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser.”

Around the time construction began, estimates were that Ludwig would be able to move into the castle within about three years. But the work proceeded at a painfully slow pace and more than a decade later, the castle was still not complete. In 1883 Wagner died, causing Ludwig tremendous grief. So the composer never actually set foot inside the castle that had been built in his honor. A year later, Ludwig decided to move in, even though the structure was still unfinished and the throne room was not yet ready to hold a throne. But the king resided there for a grand total of only 11 nights. After Ludwig died under suspicious circumstances in 1886 at the age of 41, construction on Neuschwanstein continued for another eight years. When the builders finally stopped, only a third of the rooms had been finished and decorated.

Without Ludwig, Wagner may never have achieved the successes he did, and without Wagner, Neuschwanstein would never have been built. But there is much more to the story of the life and death of King Ludwig II than Neuschwanstein. The “swan king,” as he is sometimes called, built other equally interesting castles and led a fascinating, if deeply troubled life. His story, like his castles, reminds me that there’s more to Bavaria than meets the eye.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 1, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on August 16, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A meringue-topped pie that, if you don't look too closely, might sort of resemble a Bavarian cream pie

Bavarian cream is a dessert consisting of a custard thickened with gelatin and blended with whipped cream. Pour said custard in a piecrust, and you have yourself a Bavarian cream pie. Of course, few people stop there. You can find Bavarian cream pies of any imaginable flavor—vanilla, chocolate, coconut, lemon, and so on—and with a wide variety of toppings and other layers of sugary goodness. Needless to say, I’d gravitate toward a recipe involving at least some chocolate, but it’s National Bavarian Cream Pie Day, so you should feel free to bake, buy, or eat whatever form of Bavarian cream pie pleases you. As usual, I must point out that the nation implied by the word “national” is not the nation where Bavaria is located (namely, Germany), but if you happen to be in Bavaria, I’m sure you have no shortage of dessert options.

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Ushuaia, Argentina

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on a trip to Patagonia in 2004, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough.

The End of the World as We Know It

The marketing hype declares Ushuaia to be the southernmost city in the world, and it is undoubtedly this distinction, more than any inherent characteristics of the place, that’s responsible for bringing so many tourists. Whether or not you agree with this assessment depends chiefly on your definition of “city.” Some argue, for instance, that the title “southernmost city in the world” belongs to Puerto Williams, Chile, located on Isla Navarino just southeast across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia. Puerto Williams, however, consists basically of a naval base with a small town of 2,500 or so residents; calling it a city is a bit of a stretch. (And if you’re going to stretch that far, you have to start wondering about even smaller settlements still farther south.) Meanwhile, there are others who say that even Ushuaia, with its population of about 60,000, is itself merely a large town. But no city farther north would dare lay claim to the title, and Puerto Williams is no match for Ushuaia’s army of souvenir vendors.

Considering that Tierra del Fuego was once thought to be part of the great unknown southern continent, as Australia was, I find it especially interesting that Ushuaia was also once a penal colony. Although Anglican missionaries settled there in 1871, Ushuaia was little known until 1902, when the government of Argentina established a prison there to house the country’s most dangerous and notorious criminals. The prison’s security was relatively lax; guards knew that prisoners ultimately had nowhere to run, and several escapees voluntarily returned to the prison rather than risk death from starvation or exposure. The prison remained in operation until 1947; it’s now a museum and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Later, Argentina set up a naval base on the same site, but as of the early 1970s, Ushuaia’s population was only about 5,000. As a way to lure more people to the area, the government offered extremely generous tax incentives to businesses that chose to set up operations in Ushuaia. This had the desired effect—and now manufacturing and other industries employ many of Ushuaia’s residents.

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

Tourism, naturally, is another big industry, and the city has some fantastic hotels, restaurants, and shops. There at the end of the world, you can find a coffee shop (with internet access) almost literally on every corner; and anything you may want to buy, from cars to giant TVs, is readily available. The business district is just a short walk from the port where cruise ships dock on their way to and from Antarctica (about 1,000km [600 miles] away); in between, you’ll pass by several casinos and at least half a dozen travel agencies, which seemed oddly out of place in a town that’s supposed to be the ultimate destination.

Although it was summer in the southern hemisphere when we visited, it was chilly—but the temperature seemed somehow appropriate given the backdrop of gorgeous, snow-capped mountains. Within a short drive you could find pristine wilderness, well-kept national parks, skiing, and almost any other kind of outdoor recreation. The business district was noisy, and traffic on the main streets was heavy. Automobile exhaust, along with dust from some of the roads that were unpaved, made for less-than-ideal air quality, despite the fact that Ushuaia is in a windy region and right on the ocean. Still, we found the town extraordinarily endearing—quaint, friendly, and (as far as we could tell) safe. And yes, I did buy the obligatory “fin del mundo” t-shirt. I wear it proudly.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 23, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Cyber Monday graphic on laptop screen

Brick-and-mortar stores have had Black Friday sales for a long, long time. However, there was a period during which online sales were starting to take off, but home internet access wasn’t yet ubiquitous. So people wanted to take advantage of after-Thanksgiving online sales, but they had to wait until Monday, when they were back in the office, to do so. Online retailers, recognizing both the challenge and the opportunity, began offering their big promotions the Monday after Black Friday. And, since that became one of the biggest days of the year for online purchases, people started calling it Cyber Monday.

Today, the very idea seems quaint and anachronistic. But old habits die hard, and some online retailers still offer special deals today that didn’t exist on Black Friday (or extend their Black Friday deals beyond the weekend, just in case). So if you celebrated Friday as Buy Nothing Day (good for you!) but you still have some unmet shopping needs, today’s the day to look for discounts.

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day