Cheers! (Na zdraví!)

Pop quiz: Which is the greatest beer drinking nation? Germany and Poland might spring to mind, or Australia perhaps. The biggest in fact is the Czech Republic. If that’s hard to swallow, try this: in 2017, its thirsty people consumed 137 litres per capita. That’s almost 250 pints per head. Factoring in the number of children counted in the total population, the adult Czechs are doing all the heavy lifting. (Literally. Those glasses are massive!)

Having just been travelling in France, which is very much a country of grape devotees, it’s a novelty to see the amber flowing with such enthusiasm and ardent dedication. Café tables are laden with gleaming pint glasses of golden suds. In Prague, there is a palpable passion for the stuff, and an obvious pride in the locally brewed product. I was excited to be able to enjoy a WIR moment (When In Rome…), with my Holmes-like detective work uncovering a Prague pub – ‘Svejk Restaurant U Karla’ – that serves a local gluten free beer. Wooo!

The Czech-made Bernard Bezlepkový light lager is not 100% GF, but contains a maximum of 20mg/kg gluten, which is an extremely low amount and considered safe for most with an intolerance. I gladly report no issues. Better still, it’s bloody delicious! Very light and very drinkable, with a fine hop aroma, the perfect Czech companion for my gluten free pork schnitzel. Yummy.

Food (and drink) is such a huge part of cultural identity, and it’s always a joy to ‘do as the locals do’ – especially in a city you really like. Praha is fantastic. I have a lot of affection for this Bohemian capital. Not quite 137 litres, but a lot.

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Art and soul

I’m not very cluey about art. All my knowledge would comfortably fit on the back of the “Mona Lisa”, even in my largest, most flamboyant scrawl. I like what I like, and I don’t like a lot of what I’ve seen to date. Ergo, my knowledge of Claude Monet, both the man and his work, is limited. But when in Giverny, as I was briefly this week, a visit to the revered artist’s house and gardens is a must.

Monsieur Monet was a founder of French Impressionism. Significantly, he and his pioneering colleagues painted landscapes outside, facing the elements, capturing nature in motion. Monet was chasing light, chasing time, on a quest to capture ‘real’ moments – paving the way for the torrent of Instagramming tourists that steadily pours through his property today.

The two-storey Monet house is large but modestly furnished, offering a glimpse into the painter’s life in the early 1900s. The flower garden in front is a wild explosion of colour, a joyous celebration of nature’s beauty. It’s a living paintbox of contrasting hues, with dazzling splashes of colour vying for your attention. The rose-laden arches are particularly gorgeous.

The pièce de résistance however (and serious click-bait for those wielding selfie sticks) is the water garden. Picture Monet’s popular artwork, “The Water Lily Pond” (1899). This here is the real thing, iconic bridge and all. Accessible from the flower garden via a short underground walkway, this is a space of genuine sensory splendour. Though no doubt meticulously landscaped and maintained, as with the rest of the grounds, it feels random, natural, untouched and real. And so tranquil. It is inspirational, and nourishing for the soul.

Dappled light gently kisses the lily pads. Beyond the pond, a serene, green, breathing border of foliage perfectly frames the scene. It’s undeniably stunning. If you really concentrate, you can block out all the (other) tourists, and then it’s just you, immersed in a spectacular, living painting.

The second most visited tourist site in Normandy (after the Mont St Michel), this pretty place is definitely worth a look.

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration”. – Claude Monet

84 rue Claude Monet, Giverny, France 27620 (Access to house, gardens & shop). Open 9.30am-6pm, late March – late October.

Winter is comi… oh it’s already here

Down here in the Southern Hemisphere, May is the final month of autumn. This week however, in some states of Australia at least, a taste of winter has been served – bitterly cold.

In Victoria’s central highlands, the regional city of Ballarat shivered through its coldest May day in 19 years, with snow fall and a wind chill factor creating a ‘feels like’ temperature of zero.

From my office today, south-west of Melbourne’s CBD, the street views were painted in a drizzly grey palette. Wind and rain lashed at the heedless commuters streaming into the adjacent train station, with a few Mary Poppins-esque inverted umbrellas in action. It was a miserable scene.

Yet I am filled with a quiet, almost-smug satisfaction. For I am now on annual leave, flitting off (again) to Europe and cleverly fleeing this soggy sadness. Joy!

I am not a sun-worshipper. You can keep your sultry nights. I don’t like extremes. I’m Goldilocks. I’m Even Steven. My perfect holiday has temperatures in the mid-20s (Celsius). Sunny, not scorching. Just right.

Taking a European vacation at the start of June gives me a great shot at experiencing my ideal weather. When I return, yes, there will be more soggy sadness. But escaping a couple of weeks of the gloom will be an absolute pleasure, just as ticking a few more countries off the travel Bucket List will be. Waltzing through imperial Europe beneath clear blue skies… the mere thought warms my heart. (But not too much… Just right.) And a forecast 25 degrees for my arrival – that’s Even (Steven) better.

Hunting and gathering

Hear “Birregurra” in 2019 and you’re likely to immediately think of Brae. The highly acclaimed world-class restaurant has really put the humble country Victorian town on the foodie map. Last week I passed through Birregurra en route to Lorne, and while Brae wasn’t on my culinary itinerary, Otway Artisan certainly was.

Now, veering off the beaten highway can be fraught with danger for a travelling Coeliac. As a rule of thumb, the frequented spots have better awareness and accommodations for food allergies and sensitivities. Road trips, either at home or abroad, take some planning. It would be wonderfully liberating to take a devil-may-care approach, just ‘wing it’, but when you have genuine dietary requirements, research is paramount. Holidays are meant to be worry-free after all, and for most of us, memorable local meals are an essential element of the broader experience. Relying on emergency soups and protein bars does not a happy camper make. What you crave is the chance to recharge with a luscious latte (or a vino) and sample regional fare that won’t come back to viciously bite you hours later.

Otway Artisan Gluten Free popped up in my Google search of the area. Against all odds (and perhaps business logic), a town of approximately 800 residents is home to an incredible 100% gluten free bakery. Located just 64 kms from my home (Geelong), I was a bit ashamed to not have found it before. Offering freshly baked loaves, rolls and pizza bases, as well as café-style breakfast and lunch options, this hidden gem is heaven for local and visiting Coeliacs alike.

The menu boasts a number of tantalising treats, including freshly made up rolls and toasted paninis packed with yummy ingredients. This hopeless procrastinator struggled of course, but I eventually chose the chicken pesto panini, paired with an iced mocha.

The GF bread itself was right up there with the best I’ve had. The texture was outstanding, light but with a proper crust. It was like… bread! What a joy. Free from gluten, and full of hope for sandwich-loving Coeliacs. (You can also find these baked beauties used in cafés along the Great Ocean Road in Anglesea, Lorne and neighbouring towns).

My days in Lorne included a couple of dining delights too, again with pre-planning paying off. The majority of dishes at Greek restaurant Ipsos are gluten free, and with quality food and service, is highly recommended. Try the duck – so good.

Pizza Pizza serves up top-notch toppings on a crisp GF base, while Mexican Republic has plenty to offer too.

The Otways region provides stunning ocean views, and is great for a relaxing and gluten free getaway.

View their GF goodness on Instagram:

@otwayartisan

@ipsos_restaurant

@pizza_pizza_lorne

@mexicanrepublic.lorne

#WeRemember

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and marks the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I thought it was a fitting time to recount my visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum back in November.

The museum was established in 1992 by the generation of Holocaust Survivors who settled in Australia. This very special place continues to give a voice to the victims of the Holocaust, so their individual and collective stories can spark dialogues and inspire change. As well as preserving and documenting this important historical period, the museum also beautifully illustrates the richness of Jewish life in Australian society. The ground floor displays teach many aspects of Jewish faith and traditions. This Gentile found it fascinating.

The Holocaust exhibition stretches across three levels of the building, and details the persecution and murder of European Jewry from 1933-1945. The events of Hitler’s WWII are described in chronological order, interspersed with personal Holocaust relics and photographs donated for display. Volunteer guides (many of whom are relatives of Survivors) give regular tours of the museum, and share personal family insights. Joining a tour enriches the visitor’s experience, making the Holocaust events very real, ensuring deeper emotional resonance.

Whilst the Holocaust exhibition focuses on the Jewish experience, it also addresses the many non-Jewish victims of Nazi brutality, those classified as ‘enemies of the Reich’. Millions were persecuted because of their politics, religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexuality and physical abilities/disabilities.

Anyone who relishes detail will appreciate the amount of information available here. The most ardent history buffs will likely make many discoveries such is the scope of the collection. For example, I had no idea that the yellow cloth Star of David badge had to be purchased by the wearer, or that Shanghai welcomed many displaced European Jewish persons. Wouldn’t that have been a case of culture-shock in 1945?!

There are uplifting victories, treasured family keepsakes that somehow survived the camps against all odds. Photos and heirlooms that bear the scars of war, and accounts of daring escapes, rescues, reunions and resettlement. There are also slightly macabre objects as well as the downright chilling, such as a canister for Zyklon B pellets (used in gas chambers).

These walls house many, many stories, and it’s vital they continue to do so. In 2019, the Survivor generation is dwindling, and this museum preserves memories and pays tribute to those lost, and importantly also celebrates the triumph of the human spirit. Exploring these exhibits is a solemn experience; there is inescapable grief, sadness and resentment for the atrocities of this dark period in history. But there is hope too. Hope for educating the younger generations about the dangers of racism and bigotry. Hope for genuine peace. And hope that all Holocaust stories are not forgotten. It is imperative that #WeRemember.

I highly recommend a visit. Allow at least 3 hours. (I spent over 4 hours there and didn’t see it all!)

Sydney Jewish Museum

148 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst.

Open Sun 10-4, Mon-Thur 10-4.30, Fri 10-3. Closed Saturdays.

$15 for adults (less for under 18s/seniors).

Chinese Garden of Friendship – Sydney

In the middle of Sydney’s loud and lavish CBD lies a delightfully tranquil sanctuary. In Tumbalong Park, a stone’s throw from the milling touristy crowds of Darling Harbour, you’ll find the Chinese Garden of Friendship, nonchalantly tucked away behind a couple of high walls.

In celebration of the long association of the Chinese community in Australia, this beautiful garden was conceived and created in the 1980s, a gift to Sydney from the city of Guangzhou (southern China).

The garden adheres to the Taoist principles of Yin-Yang, with the five opposite elements represented – earth, fire, water, metal and wood – for balance, and ‘Qi’, the circulating force of life and energy.

Plants aren’t intended to pull focus or dominate the scene, but rather integrate with the natural flow of the landscape. The result is a gently winding, relaxing space that provides a sense of harmony. It’s serene and green, and in springtime, punctuated with tiny bursts of blushing colour. There are birds by the pagodas, fish in the ponds, and perhaps surprisingly, several sunbathing Eastern Water Dragons, who prove to be popular photography subjects. (I’m guilty of course. Who doesn’t love lizards?)

I’ve visited this place four times, and I’m always staggered by how quiet it is. The low roar of the relentless traffic, elsewhere in the CBD inescapable, here seems so distant. And despite the imposing backdrop of hotels and shiny office complexes, it somehow still feels like an escape. A peaceful place offering refuge from the noise and bustle of the metropolis. For the most part, all you can hear is the soft waterfall, and the occasional scampering of a camera-shy amphibian.

I recommend you visit. There’s charm in the calm. It’s good for the soul. And at just $6 entry, in a city that typically commands a hefty price tag, it’s easy on your pocket too.

Flippin’ awesome

Penguins fascinate me. Flightless, skilled swimmers, they are an oddity of the animal kingdom. Fish out of water, or rather, birds out of sky. I admire their resilience, adaptability and noble sense of duty in the face of adversity. Out there in nature, survival is not assured for the entire black and white army – it is only for the fittest and luckiest of its soldiers. These guys live in harsh environments and face prey at sea as well as on land. I can’t bring myself to watch wildlife documentaries, it’s too much reality. Ignorance is bliss – as is a leisurely hour observing and appreciating these beautiful creatures at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium.

I like to wander through Melbourne’s world-class aquarium every year or so. Sea Life is home to an impressive array of marine life, with the King and Gentoo penguins the star attractions. There are beautiful displays of jellyfish, seahorses, fish and coral, rockpools offering touchy-feely experiences, and the somewhat scarier resident sharks, crocodiles and stingrays safely out of reach. (You can opt to get up close and personal, if that’s your thing).

There are fewer than 20 known species of penguins in the world today. All bar one species is found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere. My favourite is the Little Blue, formerly called the Fairy Penguin, which live in colonies on the coastlines of New Zealand and southeast Australia. I’m a big fan of the Antarctic long-tailed Gentoo as well. These guys have huge personalities and are fun to watch. (Not unusual for me to kill 2hrs+ viewing them at Sea Life, much to the supposed amusement of staff… promise I’m not casing the joint! Nothing suss here. No feathered, flippered souvenirs in my backpack).

At this time of the year you can watch the engrossing ‘nest’ building ritual in action. The Gentoo penguins construct mounds of small rocks or pebbles, which will serve as nests for the upcoming egg laying. Courtship begins with the offering of a single rock. (Ladies, who doesn’t love a rock?!) If it’s accepted, the couple then set about building as big a nest as possible, even if this means sneakily thieving from their negligent neighbours’ stash. One stands guard on the nest while the other goes pebble-hunting. The stealing back and forth is relentless. These are smooth criminals, committing instinctive crimes of passion.

The King penguin is a stunning bird, proud and regal, with highlights of gold adorning his elegant tuxedo. By contrast, their chicks are fluff balls, dressed in thick brown fur coats. It’s not fur of course, just lots and lots of tiny feathers. It’s so odd to see parent and young side by side, they appear to be completely different breeds. As the chick matures it will moult, with the vanishing fluff revealing the suave Bond-like ensemble underneath.

Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium is open every day of the year, for your penguin-viewing pleasure. Go! And enjoy. 🙂