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Anthony Bourdain Pushed Me To Be A Traveler Not A Tourist

I have never been a chef. I’ve never worked in a kitchen. I have never really worked in a restaurant (save those three days at a Pizza Hut my Senior Year of High School…shudder). I couldn’t relate to Anthony Bourdain on a professional level. I could relate to him and his travels on a personal level. His dislike of standard tourist destinations and the awfulness of stereotypical tourists and their fanny-packs. Their need to go to a destination, take the standard photo or now the ubiquitous selfie. He wanted to be with the locals. Eat like the locals. Understand the locals.

I yearned to travel like Bourdain. When I visited new places I did make a list of the standard places I wanted to see, but as important to the list that included such places like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Reclining Buddha and the Bund at Night, were the restaurants (ranging from hole-in-the-walls to fine dining) I’d read about from other travelers, chefs and proud locals.

I think back mostly to his episodes focusing on Paris. The one where he chased the green fairy (No Reservations S1E1). The one with the mine encounter followed by the outrageously complete seafood tower (The Layover S2E2). It wasn’t about the cost of the food, it was about uniqueness of the selections, dining on fresh local ingredients (and in that last example to screw the producers who organized the mime interaction).

While planning a trip, I would check out his episodes on the destination, and I would dream.  I would download them and watch again while in transit. Nothing makes a 16 hour flight to Hong Kong fly by than watching Bourdain meet locals and eat well.

Yesterday we lost a man who I loved. A love that was only one way. We never met. If we ever did, I’m sure we wouldn’t have meshed. We were very different people with very different backgrounds. He made me laugh. He made me hungry. Hungry not only for food, but for travel, for drink, for experiences…for life.

I won’t pretend to know what he was going through. I won’t pretend to know his pain. I won’t pretend that his death is truly impacting me personally.  I am saddened for his family, for his fans and for idea that he represented. We need to continue to fight the battle Bourdain fought: Travel for the experience, not the photos. Get to know the people – they aren’t very different from you and me.  Know their food and you’ll know them.

Now go online and find your favorite episode of one of his many shows.  Take a moment to raise a glass (or several) in honor of Mr. Anthony Bourdain, who without him, my travels would have been much different.


Holiday in Belgium – The Flanders Experience

As you likely read earlier, I found myself with a return ticket to Vienna on United (and Austrian) through Brussels. We weren’t really interested in visiting Vienna again. While I love that City and can’t wait to return, I was just there in March and was looking for something different. Belgium has been on our list for a while and I figured since I’d technically be flying through Brussels, I may as well just hop off the plane and explore.

I’m a pretty big World War I buff (not one of those nuts who reenact battles or anything, I just love reading personal stories about the war, watching shows that take place in and around the war and of course proper documentaries on the subject). Also, my favorite beers are Belgium beers, so it really seemed like a no-brainer. Since I had the ticket to Brussels, I just needed to find a way back home – which is exactly how I got into this “ticket to Brussels” situation in the first place. I’ve always wanted to try Brussels Airlines and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

The canals in Ghent.

Leaving on a Friday and returning on a Wednesday wouldn’t leave me much time to explore, but we could see a couple of places. Like I always say, I’d rather leave a destination wishing I had just one more day than wishing I had left a day or two prior.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll detail the portions of the trip that I think will provide the most interest to you all. If I’m leaving anything out, just ask – and feel free to use the comments section. Not that I don’t like getting emails from you all – which I love and respond to every one – leaving a comment will help others as well.

St. Bavo’s Cathedral – Ghent, Belgium

We spent all of our time in Flanders, the Flemish part of the country, so I didn’t really get a chance to speak French at all. A bit disappointing – but I did deal with the Brussels Airport and the Brussels Airlines crew exclusively in French.

You’ll notice I don’t plan on writing about my flight over to Brussels. There was nothing important to write about. We flew coach. Tight seats. EconomyPlus Legroom. Mediocre Food. Nothing to talk about here. Keep Moving.

Are you planning a trip to Belgium anytime soon? If you’ve been, what was your favorite parts of Flanders? I will return to Wallonia to explore Chimay and practice my French.

Austrian Airlines VIE-IAD (OS93)

My flight to Vienna was direct on Austrian, but they don’t offer a direct return on Sundays (at least during the off season), so I had to connect.  I found a connection through DC on Austrian in Business Class (with a return to Vienna a few months later in coach) for only $1,300.  It was a great deal and since I’d be flying Business, I’d be earning double elite qualifying miles which is a great leap to retaining Platinum Status on United.

I arrived at the airport for my return flight home to Chicago after my quick and wonderful weekend in Vienna.  The morning was a bit snowy but because I was taking the CAT (City Airport Train) I had no issues with traffic or timing.  The CAT is really the best way to and from the Vienna Airport.

Arriving at the Airport, walking up the stairs into the main terminal where Austrian operates, you could easily miss the Business Class and Elite (HON Circle Members, Star Alliance Gold, etc) check-in area.  While it is well marked, it is something you could just walk by and never notice.  Not all of the check-in lines were open, but the ones that were had only about 4-6 people in line. Unfortunately, those lines didn’t move very fast and each  person in front of me had more luggage than a refugee.  Again, I decided to check my roller suitcase, as Austrian can be sticklers when it comes to hand luggage rules.

The elite check-in area for Austrian Airlines. Business Class, HON Circle and Star Gold Members can use this area.

The elite check-in area for Austrian Airlines. Business Class, HON Circle and Star Gold Members can use this area.

I made it through security and immigration pretty quickly and found my way to the Austrian Lounge – there are two lounges, one for Business Class Passengers and one for Star Alliance Gold.  I was very disappointed when I was told I couldn’t enter the Business Class Lounge, because I was a Star Gold Member, even though I had a paid Austrian Business Class Ticket.  The Star Gold Lounge was completely packed – not a single seat was available, people were standing around, it was miserable and reminded me of the Swiss Lounge at O’Hare.

I decided to pop over to the Priority Pass Lounge a few meters away.  It sure wasn’t fancy, but I managed to get a seat and had a couple tomato juices and a bloody Mary before heading off to the gate.  I left the lounge about 20 minutes before boarding and as I walked to the gate, I snapped the Boeing 767 that would take me to Washington.

Austrian’s Boeing 767 parked in Vienna.

The gate area was blocked off into a standard economy section and the business class section – you were put into your section after your passport and boarding pass were checked again. Boarding began about 25 minutes before our scheduled departure.  There were about a dozen people who hopped on the plane before me.  We boarded through door 1L.

Flight: Austrian Airlines OS93 (Business Class)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
Seat: 7K
Departure: 10h35 (11h50)
Arrival: 14h30 (15h31)

I was seating on the other side of the plane this time, in seat 7K – again, the seat closest to the window with the side table on the aisle, really, the best of the seating options on this flight.

As soon as I stowed my briefcase and sat down, I was approached by the flight attendant with water, apple juice and champagne as pre-departure beverage options.  Of course I enjoyed a lovely glass of champagne while the rest of the plane boarded and our menus were distributed.

Pre-departure champagne.

Pre-departure champagne served in a beautiful Riedel Glass

Like the previous flight, the chef came by and took our orders for lunch and the pre-landing snack while we were still on the ground, and I was served another glass of champagne.  Unfortunately the snow had picked up and we were told we’d need to head over to be de-iced and we were fifth in line for the procedure.  I started to get a little nervous since I did have a connection in DC and I really didn’t want to get home too late as I had to work the next day.

We waited on the de-icing pad for about 45 minutes until it was our turn.  15 minutes of de-icing and we were ready to take off.  The snow was really limited and I was surprised that we actually needed to be de-iced, I think we’d have just taken off if we were on a US based flight, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

An Austrian Airbus painted in classic livery.

The business class cabin was quite full and some people tried to take a nap before take off.

About two hours after our scheduled departure time and about 45 minutes after we actually took off service began.  I had another glass of champagne with some mixed nuts.  The nuts were ice cold, which was a little disappointing – I think the warm airline nuts are a nice treat.

Continuation of champagne and fresh nuts. Cold Nuts.

The meal service moved quite quickly.  The antipasti trolley made it’s way down the aisle and I picked one of everything, excepted for the smoked salmon – I am really not a salmon guy.  The octopus was quite good, and no one else on my aisle seemed to like it, so the flight attendant returned and offered me a substantial refill.

I sampled most of the antipasti from the trolley.

The next course was a very lovely tomato soup that was a little smokey and had a few small pieces of bocconcini mixed in.  I was very nervous about eating this soup – a deep red tomato soup on a plane always makes me think I’m going to be wearing the soup with just a touch of turbulence.  Luckily, I wasn’t covered in this tasty soup….this time.

The smoked tomato soup with bocconcini.

For my main course, I had the Viennese style veal goulash, which had a shockingly sweet sauce.  It wasn’t bad per se, it was just not at all what I was expecting and it actually paired horribly with the red wine the flight attendant suggested I have with this course.  The sauce was sweet and the wine was extremely dry, making for a cloying combination.  The spaetzle was really done perfectly though.

Viennese style veal goulash with homemade spaetzle

I was utterly stuffed after this course and couldn’t even bring myself to have cheese or dessert on this flight.  Take a look at my previous Austrian flight review to see how that turned out – the desserts were exactly the same (which is why I chose to steer clear this time).

After lunch, I decided to watch some movies on the in-flight entertainment (IFE). Again, since I had just flown this product 4 days earlier the movie and (dismal) TV selection were unchanged.  As I rewatched Murder on the Orient Express, I napped for a few hours.  I didn’t want to get too much sleep because I had to work the next day, I tried to focus on getting reacclimated to the Central Time Zone.  I also spent much of the flight watching TV shows on my tablet.

We ended up landing in DC about an hour later than scheduled, which meant we picked up about 30 minutes in the air.  Many passengers had tight connections and deplaning was a bit of a mess.  I got off pretty quickly, but then remembered the awful part of Dulles – those people movers that look like they belong on the moon.  I don’t know if you can bypass these monstrosities and just walk, but I boarded these futuristic contraptions and waited.  And waited. AND WAITED.  It took about 30 minutes from the time I hopped aboard until we started to move, then once we stopped everyone began pushing to get off.  Often times I’d rather have a long walk – at least I’m in control of that situation. Being at the mercy of these Star Wars style people movers just made my frustrated.

This was my first time flying Austrian Airlines westbound.  Heading this direction you aren’t focusing so much on sleep as you are on the eastbound journey, so I was able to slow down and enjoy the product and the service of it all.  I really do think that Austrian offers the best Star Alliance Business Class Product out of Chicago to Europe.  I’ll have to expand my horizons and try British, Iberia, Air France or KLM soon though.

Have you flown Austrian Airlines in Business Class?  Which direction is your favorite?  Don’t you just love the onbaord chef and the BLAZING Red Uniforms of the cabin crew?

The Bristol Lounge

We made the mistake on our first visit to Vienna of not eating dinner before the opera – thinking we could grab a meal nearby afterwards.  We were sorely mistaken – we ended up at an awful tourist trap with mediocre food and a surly staff.  This year, we decided to eat before the opera and then grab a simple dessert afterwards.

We had eaten an enormous and long dinner the night before at Steirereck and weren’t interested in another 700€+ dinner, but I really wanted something traditional and Austrian.  We hadn’t planned on dining in our hotel, but after a rain soaked afternoon of exploring the city, we found ourselves back in our hotel grabbing a drink at the bar.  While relaxing we were researching restaurants and the Bristol Lounge (the very place we were sitting) had many good reviews about their creation and presentation of Austrian Cuisine.  Plus it was right across the street from the Opera House.  But could we get reservations?

At first the restaurant was sold out, but as we left, we walked to the concierge at the hotel and asked if he could get us a couple of seats and we reminded them that we were going to the opera (I’d been working with the concierge staff trying to get tickets for weeks) and that we’d be out and they could reseat the table by 19h00.  The concierge hooked us up.

We ran upstairs and changed into our tuxes then popped right back down for our dinner.  We arrived a little before 18h00 and were escorted to our table in the Winter Garden, which is just a glass enclosed area of the restaurant that is fully heated and covered, so it didn’t feel like you were outside at all.  The stylish Art Deco design made for a comfortable place to dine.

The menu was full of great traditional Austrian courses, but also with more classical fine dining options as well.  As we were in black tie, the waiter immediately confirmed that we were going to the opera and he guaranteed that he’d pace everything to get us out on time – but we had to put our order in within 15 minutes or he couldn’t guarantee our timely departure.  Fair enough.

We had already scoped out the menu and decided on our selections before the menus were even delivered.  We also ordered a bottle of Austrian Pinot Noir, which was light and delicious – it even had a little of that dirt/soil flavor that I love so much from Oregon Pinots.

The bread course came out with the wine.  The breadboard was great – with a small cutout for the butter, which was topped with pink salt flakes – we devoured the bread, which was served very warm.  God I hate when you get a cold piece of bread and cold butter – you just end up tearing it to shreds.  Everyone should serve bread like they did at the Bristol.

The bread course was served piping hot with rich olive oil and creamy butter topped with pink salt.

Dinner started with an amuse bouche chilled beets, which was surprisingly tasty.  So often, I find the complimentary amuse to be…well, not amusing, just forced and wasteful — or at worst, designed poorly and can start to wreck your palette.  This was neither – I did want another bite though.

The beet amuse bouche was quite chilled and refreshing

The beet amuse bouche from elevation.

I continued on with the Champagne Risotto, which had great flavors with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, but was piping hot.  When I make risotto at home, I always make mine nice and creamy, which is easy to do with Arbolio Rice.  This risotto was pretty dry – it wasn’t quite a pilaf, but it felt closer to the pilaf side of the spectrum than the risotto side.  After it cooled quite a bit, I dug it.

The Champagne Risotto with mushrooms and tomatoes tasted great – it wasn’t a creamy risotto which disappointed me.

Finally, the entrees arrived – my Weinerschnitzel almost covered the whole plate and was served with half a dozen small potatoes with parsley.  I really hate when you get a schnitzel larger than your plate and find that the meat somehow shrunk and mostly what you have is breading.  This wasn’t like that at all – every bite had a lovely thin slice of veal and with the lemon juice sprinkled on top, made for a perfect dinner.

The Weinerschnitzel was the best I’ve had and the parsley potatoes were perfect.

We wanted dessert, but didn’t have time.  Unfortunately we still had about a third of our bottle of wine left too.  Our server suggested he reserve a table for us after the show so we could have dessert and finish our wine.  Stellar idea!

After seeing Carmen, we walked back across the street, in the snow and wind, to the Bristol Hotel to find the Lounge completely packed.  The opera let out and people flooded into the lounge for a cocktail.  We found our server who greeted us with a big smile and a hearty handshake.  Leading us to a corner table that would seat six (but just for us two), we found two wine glasses and the dessert menus waiting for us.  We had just walked past three couples waiting in line too.  It was a wonderful way to close out the day – a delightful chocolate cake and finishing off our Austrian wine.

The service and the food were really top notch.  Unless I have a compelling reason to eat in our hotel’s restaurant, I’ll usually skip it and explore more of the city – in this case, I recommend you stop by the Bristol Lounge for a wonderful dinner and if you are heading to the opera afterwards, even better.  Just be sure to let the server know you want to come back for dessert and they’ll take care of you.

What are your thoughts on dining in your hotel’s restaurant?

Going to the Opera – A Night Out in Vienna

Each of my visits to Vienna, I’ve been fortunate enough to snag tickets to the Saturday night opera.  The first time we saw Elektra.  While I didn’t really dig the story or production of Elektra, I did enjoy the experience of going to the opera.  This year, we were able to see Carmen, interestingly enough, Carmen was on the docket for our first trip, but last minute changes in our plans meant our only opera option was Elektra.

Tickets to the Vienna Opera can be quite expensive, coming in at several hundred Euros a ticket.   You can get standing room only tickets for select shows too – these tickets are only 4€.  Some friends did this a few years ago and loved it.  They aren’t big opera fans, but taking in a show whilst in Vienna seemed like one of those once in a lifetime experiences, so they pulled the trigger.  You can only get these standing room only tickets the day of the performance – you should line up 2.5-3 hours before the show and plan on going right to your area.  Be sure to eat before hand.

We struggled getting tickets for Carmen and even had calls in to ticket brokers, the AmEx Platinum Concierge and through the opera house’s ticket office.  We didn’t actually get confirmed tickets until three days before the show – the day before I left for Vienna.

Both times we’ve gone to the opera in Vienna we decided to wear tuxedos.  Like many experiences in the modern world, your can get by with quite a wide range of attire.  Just like us at Steirereck, you can easily feel comfortable at the opera in jeans and a polo shirt, but you won’t be the odd man if you are in full black tie.  I would say most men ended up wearing a jacket and slacks and most women were either in pant suits or nice dresses.  Not many women were wearing evening gowns, but there were a few.

I’m all ready for the opera

The opera isn’t an every day experience, so I say dress up and make a night of it.  That being said, it’s not the most efficient thing in the world to pack formal wear on a trip. I abhor packing items that can only be used once on a trip, but I will make an exception for a night out in this glorious city in this fabulous building.

Carmen had two intermissions and at each one, we popped out and grabbed a glass of champagne.   The intermissions were about 25 minutes each and allows us plenty of time to stretch our legs, use the washroom and grab a glass of bubbles.  This was also the perfect time to grab some action photos of the opera house and people watch.

At the end of the show the building empties very quickly, which allows you some extra time to take pictures of the amazing interiors.  You can’t spend a ton of time after the show, but you’ll have at least 15-20 minutes with a relatively empty opera house.

The Beautiful Staircase in the Central Hall

The View Across the Atrium with Classical Sculptures Make a Perfect Photo Op.

The whole experience at the Vienna Opera House was great.  The performance and seating area isn’t huge, so you’ve got really good views of the stage.  Our first visit had a Marge Simpson look-a-like sitting in front of me, so it was a bit hard to see the stage.  Each seat is outfitted with a small screen that displays transcripts of the performance.  For Carmen you could read it in English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Korean.  I only remember English and German when we watched Elektra.  I watched the second act of Carmen with French subtitles (the woman in front of my had English subs, so I could practice my listening and reading skills while cheating and looking at her screen if needed).

Stunning Paintings Adorn the Walls of the Vienna State Opera House

No matter what opera is playing when you visit, you should plan on visiting the opera house – take a few hours out of your trip to experience the high art and stunning architecture.  If the ticket price is outside of your budget, try for the standing room only tickets – if it is meant to be, you’ll get your tickets, if not – head out and grab a coffee and a lovely pastry.

Have you visited the Vienna Opera House? What show did you see?  If you had the standing room only tickets, how was the process and did you enjoy seeing a show like this?