Mt Blanc Expedition

The Travellers Two are on the road again. This summer we were planning to drive from the UK to Rome to shoot an interview with an amazing photographer, and as we looked at the route we saw that we had to drive through the Alps. And the idea emerged to climb Mt Blanc on the way. We reserved 2 days in Chamonix to go up and down the mountain and then we would be on our way to sunny Italy. But as we started doing our research we realised that it’s not as easy as we initially imagined. Training, diet, altitude preparation, equipment, weather, refuge booking and finding a guide were among the things we needed to consider, research and execute.

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After four months of preparation we are on the outskirts of Chamonix in the beautiful and quiet town of Le Tour. We arrived here on Saturday the 23rd and met with people from Peak Powder, who organised guides for us. At 2 am on Sunday we woke up at the back of our Defender and drove to Geneva airport and flew to Rome where we spent 36 hours, interviewing Milton Gendel, eating pizza, pasta and gelato.

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Milton Gendel’s guest book

We came back to Le Tour at 3am, and after few hours of sleep we were on our way up our first mountain. It was not a great success as we left too late and we got caught in a storm at two and a half thousand metres above sea level, so we had to come back down. Le Buet conquered us, but despite the fact that we didn’t reach the top we did some good training in the snow with crampons.

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View of Mt Blanc from Aiguille du Midi

The next day we went up Aiguille du Midi at 3810m to get a taste of the high altitude. Walking up and down the stairs wasn’t as easy as at sea level, but we did a little bit of training there.

The following morning we met our guide Benji and headed to the Italian side of the Alps. That morning we got to the refuge in the foothills of Gran Paradiso. After a short nap we did some more crampon training, using our ice axes, ropes and harnesses, and organised our pack leaving all but the absolutely essential. At 3:20am we were the first out of the refuge heading up the mountain. After 4 hours and 25 minutes of walking on rocks and snow we got to the top. Four other teams passed us on the way but we still made it in a good time.

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Coming down from Gran Paradiso

There were moments when breathing was very tough and the thoughts of doubt came through our minds. “Why are we doing it? It’s not fun at all. It’s just walking, but really hard and up the hill in not so friendly conditions.” But we kept going, with our toes and fingers starting to get numb we reached the summit, took a photo, which we need to get from Benji, as Louise dropped her phone on the top, and headed down as quickly as possible. Slowly we started taking layers off as the morning sun warmed us up and we were getting lower and lower. I asked Benji “Why do people do it?” and he replied “I don’t know if it’s for the climb itself or the feeling after” but as we came down to the refuge by the parking lot and had lunch, he said “I think this is why people do it.”

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Breakfast at the L’Olimpique

As for today, we needed to get some rest before Mt Blanc so we decided to get a room for a couple of nights at l’Olimpique hotel in Le Tour, which was build for the Olympic Games in 1924. At breakfast we got the message that the weather forecast had changed and we have to move our ascent back by a day. So now we have a couple of days of rest, sending emails and recharging batteries for Mt Blanc. We’ll be leaving at dawn on Monday morning hoping to get to the top by sunrise on Tuesday.

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Admiring the view from Aiguille du Midi

As we started telling people about this idea a couple of months ago it was just a blurry thought without a clear vision, but as we started getting closer to the date we thought of doing it for a cause, something that will keep us going when we feel like stopping. We both work for an organisation that helps the extremely poor in the Philippines get themselves out of their current conditions. ICM focuses on education so the participants can “take the fishing rod themselves and fish, rather than feeding them once.” But as ICM trainers go to the poor communities they find many children that are malnourished. And this is the part that we felt that we wanted to highlight through our expedition. ICM gets tons of free anti-malnutrition food from a few organisations in the US but they have to pay for the shipping to the Philippines. We’ve set quite a steep goal but we’re hoping to raise enough funds to deliver half a million meals to the homes of malnourished children. You can partner with us by donating here, and if you would like to find out more about ICM please check out their website.

Of course we are aware that we could have donated the money that we invested in the expedition directly to ICM, stay at home and make videos of very slim children, with heartbreaking violin music in the background, but that’s what we do outside of our holidays anyway.

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Old Fashioned, Organic, and The Smashing Burrito

Before you read any further, you have to watch this short video… If you have watched the show Portlandia, you know exactly what Portland is all about. If you haven’t… sit back and relax…

We came to Portland to visit a friend, as we were on the way up to Seattle, and he told us to watch this video before we got there.

It turned out to be 100% accurate.

It’s all organic, chilled out, and young people do go there to retire.

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But we started the visit with a smashing burrito! Tomek, who is a partner at the “FUEGO burritos and bowls” food carts business, brought us a couple of his best burritos. Food trucks are one of the Portland staples, and Tomek’s burritos are one of the best! They’re only open for lunch and you can find their locations on their site.

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old-fashioned-short1Tomek is a friend from Poland, but he has lived in Portland for years, before  the hippie-organic movement exploded. He wanted to show us the best that his town has to offer, and so we went on the search for his favourite cocktail, the best “Old Fashioned” in town.

Michal and I are new to the Old Fashioned drink; it’s a simple, yet hard to perfect mixture of Bourbon, Bitters, Orange Rind and Simple Syrup. We sampled these delicious little drinks in bars all over town, and they all had their own twist. And they were made all the more enjoyable by the local bands that were playing here and there.

Mornings were lazy breakfasts from farmers markets or at brunch spots; at the farmers market, we took so many samples that we weren’t particularly hungry for breakfast… but of course, everything’s local, everything’s organic, and everything’s triple the price!

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The organic, vegan, local movement is hard to get used to… Even when Michal asked for some milk at a bar, they apologised and said that they were a vegan bar! A little bit strange…

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Portland is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, and Tomek took us hiking to a spot with amazing views of several peaks. After the previous evening’s bar tour, it was good to get some exercise.

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After a good barbecue, we went to try a couple more Old Fashioned’s at a couple of bars that we couldn’t visit the day before since we didn’t have our passports (If you’re a foreigner visiting Oregon, make sure you bring your passport as ID otherwise they won’t let you in.)

When we came back, we were greeted by a garden on fire! The hot ashes from the grill had fallen onto the wood chips that the landlord recently spread all over the back garden. Had we come back an hour or two later, the house would probably have been gone!

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So after playing firefighters, we spent the rest of the night celebrating the fact that we had been spared and learned our lesson.

We had a wonderful trip – Portland is definitely a fun place. But the health-food hippie culture brought out Michal’s rebellious side – after finding out that the bar we were in was vegan, he asked for a steak…

But if you want eat chicken-with-a-name, sleep in until 11am, and live the 90s dream, Portland is the place to be.

Mario’s Pizza and the Tulsa Food Tour

For as long as I have known Michal, he has told me about his favourite pizza. In fact one of our very first conversations was about the so called Best Pizza in the World – Mario’s Pizza in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I didn’t really think much about it then, but as I have heard the story over and over, people’s reactions are always the same: “What?! The best pizza in the world is in Tulsa?!”

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And Michal is crazy enough about that pizza that he would make a huge detour and drive for hundreds of miles to eat it, as well as to confirm that it’s still the best pizza in the world after ten years.

So, as we drove up from Arkansas, we set our GPS to ‘51st and Harvard, Tulsa, OK’ i.e. Mario’s Pizza. We arrived just in time for lunch, to order the XL White Pizza.

And the pizza is still as good as it was years ago. The Best Pizza in the World!

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We couldn’t leave without saying something. So we started chatting with the owner, Sally, telling her that Michal is one of their biggest fans and travelled across the world to eat there.

Although she wouldn’t tell us all of her secrets, she said the key is to keep consistency in her suppliers. She has had the same suppliers with the best ingredients since she started.

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“I don’t do any of those weird things, like putting a pizza on top of a pizza! I just stick with what works. Sometimes I add a new topping here of there, but I’m not trying to invent something new.

“If it works, just keep doing it!”

Sally and her husband were born in the same hospital in New York, just north of the Hudson river.

“A lot of people say that’s upstate, but it’s still New York City. Martio’s was my favourite pizza place growing up – it was right where we lived – you don’t have to go to Manhattan for good pizza!”

Sally and her husband moved to Oklahoma in 1973, and there were no good pizza places!

They met Mario, who was born in Italy, moved to NYC, and then came out to Oklahoma. He worked in several of the Tulsa pizzerias, but no-one made it the real Italian New York way.

So when Mario met Sally and her husband, Mario’s pizza was born!

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Today, Sally runs the place alone; they bought Mario’s share of the business years ago, and sadly her husband recently died. But Sally’s staff share her passion for that perfect slice, and continue to make their famous New York style pizza.

Eric, one of the pizza chefs at Marios, says that they get a lot of New Yorkers  coming in to try their pizza, and that they’re always impressed.  “When I went to New York City, I couldn’t find the slice that was better than ours!”

He says the ‘cheese warm, not too hot’ (i.e. the standard cheese pizza slice) is the best way to judge if someone is doing their pizza right. “If you get that right, then anything you put on top will be good.”

After finishing the whole 22” pie, (a lot of pizza!) Michal’s praise for the pizza carried on. And Sally didn’t let us leave empty handed, giving us two Mario’s Pizza t-shirts.

The day before, a lady had come from a newspaper to interview Sally and feature her as Tulsa’s top pizzeria. So if you’re a pizza lover, Michal is sending out the challenge to come to Tulsa and give Mario’s a try.

For four years, Michal went to University in Tulsa, and so the food tour had to continue. The second stop on the tour was a visit to his friend Margeret, who owns Margeret’s German Restaurant.

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Their menu is filled with German delicacies; schnitzel, sausages, and spaetzle, but since Margeret  is originally from Poland, she always has some Polish specialties that aren’t on the menu.

We had Goulash with Spaetzle and a dessert sampler; it was amazing to eat European food and catch up with an old friend.

The next day we had cravings for Chinese food since we had been out of Hong Kong for over two months. So Michal took me to one of his old favourites; Hot Wok on Louis Ave, right next to his old university.

We ordered Szechuan dishes… not as hot as the authentic Szechuan but they are still definitely worth a try!

That evening we were invited to dinner by our friends Mark and Susan, who we knew from Hong Kong. They wanted to take us out, and we ended up at an Irish Pub on Cherry St. Of course Guinness was a must, to go with the Guinness Pie!

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On Monday morning went to visit Michal’s old school and reconnected with his professors. We said that we might be coming through Tulsa on our way back to New York, (for another slice of Marios), and since the school year would have already started, Michal could come back and share with the multimedia students – so we have another great incentive to come to Tulsa.

The food tour continued, and later we visited another friend Renata. As hard as it is for Michal to admit, Renata makes better Pierogis than his grandma!

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But as it was a surprise visit, she didn’t have any Pierogis in the freezer, so she made us a fantastic home cooked Polish meal. We could hardly leave the table we were so full!

After a long day, we arrived back at Mark and Susan’s home; and to our surprise, they had cooked amazing seafood Creole! Originally from New Orleans, Mark who is a pastor by day turns into a chef by night, and cooked us come delicious authentic dishes.

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It was great to have that true Creole food, since when we were in New Orleans having lunch with a friend, we got so caught up in conversation that we didn’t even order proper Creole dishes!

Our Tulsa visit was filled with food and friends; the two seem to go together. As we were driving south on our way to Texas, it got hotter and hotter, and so for the final visit on the Tulsa Food Tour, we stopped for ice cream at Braums.

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You can only find Braums in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas; a double-dip of butter pecan is Michal’s choice every time!

Nashville Diaries

We were just supposed to be in Nashville for a day or two… we had one meeting planned and a couple of potential connections. The meeting turned into a perfect day of music, philosophy and, surprisingly, off-roading…

That evening, with very muddy tyres, we went up to Nashville not knowing where we were going and without plans. But it happened that Glen, an Aussie friend from Hong Kong, was in town at the same time. The person that he was going to meet invited him to an event that night – so we ended up at launch party for Weld; a creative collaborative space for designers, photographers and artists. Never have we seen so many hipsters in one room!

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Catching up with friends at Weld

It was a night of connections – first we were shocked to see two guys we knew from Hong Kong – Nick “the Greek” Georgiou, who had cut his epic beard, and Brady Toops who was now a Reality TV star. And the surprises continued when Michal met not one, but two people from university who he hadn’t seen for over ten years!

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Nick the Greek

Nick the Greek had promised us a tour of Fort Houston, where he works. “The Fort” as it is lovingly referred to, is an old hosiery factory that has been converted into workshop space for woodworkers, mechanics, metal smiths, artists and artisans. (For more on the Fort see our write up here).

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Is Everything In Order?

Inspired by the serious motorbikes that surrounded us, Michal started tinkering with the Land Rover engine. Honestly, the engine had cut out a couple of times previously, so we knew we needed to check it.

The oil was REALLY low. And Michal tried to clean the fuel pump… but it turns out that Michal doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows about engines, and it’s easier to unscrew something than put it back together.

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Becoming a real man…

So as we were driving away, we realised that the engine didn’t sound right… it was coughing and lurching and was obvious that we weren’t going anywhere!

But thankfully, we had hardly got out of the parking lot, and the motorcycle boys either knew what to do or knew whom to call. And amazingly there was a Land Rover specialist around the corner, who said that he would come over after work to check it out.

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Stuck in Nashville

When the mechanic showed up, he told us that we needed a new lift pump; and because it’s a unique car we needed to order it from a specialist dealer in New York. If we got the fastest shipping it would be here before the weekend…

So we were stuck in Nashville… but, hey… there are worse places to be stuck!

Over the next couple of days, we slowly fell in love with Nashville. The guys at Fort Houston took us under their collective wing, and we were semi-initiated into the Blackbirds Gentlemen’s Motorbike Assembly with the super spicy Hattie B’s chicken and the Fort Houston jersey.

The only problem was, we don’t have a motorbike… we only have a broken down Land Rover… but they didn’t seem to mind ☺

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Nick and Tanner, the Blackbirds

After two days of getting to know the city and the arts community, Friday morning came. After a serious breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we retuned to the Fort hoping that the part would have arrived.

But when we saw that the mail had been delivered and there was nothing for us, and that I still hadn’t received the confirmation email or tracking number from the company, we started to worry… If we didn’t get it today, we would be stuck until after the weekend!

Just then, I got an email saying that there was an incorrect zipcode on the order, and that I needed to call UPS to find out where the parcel was!

I finally got the tracking number, called UPS, and they told me that the shipment had been rerouted and that, even with the new, correct zip code, it wouldn’t be delivered until Monday…

But, Nick the Greek, a.k.a our saviour, got the address, jumped on his Harley and drove for over two hours to pick it up for us… and he even managed to grab us pizza in the process!

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To the rescue!

The mechanic was busy the whole day, and didn’t show up until 7.30pm on Friday night. He is obsessed with Land Rovers, and although he knew them well, he had never actually seen the 300TDi before. He was like a kid in a candy shop! And was very entertaining… we learned a lot that evening, and not just about Land Rovers… Patrick, one of the motorcycle guys stayed with us until 1am to help us finish, before being woken up early by his 2 year old daughter… I don’t think he got much sleep!

With the car fixed, there was a weight off our shoulders, and we should have been on our way. But we were having too much fun, and there was so much creative stuff going on that we had to at least stay for the weekend.

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Louise playing at Nashville’s Art Crawl, Fort Houston

Too many wonderful people and experiences to post about – artists, entrepreneurs, Land Rover lovers, lakes, barbecues, musicians… our souls were enriched and our senses were saturated!

We knew that we had to get back on the road, but put off saying goodbye for as long as we could. We had really found a home in Nashville – people who we admired, were inspired by, saw eye to eye with, laughed and ate and fixed things with.

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Bennett’s Airstream; Born in the N.A.S.H, at Porter Flea

We had been blown away by their hospitality, their generosity, their willingness to help us out and go the extra mile, or 100 miles, for. It’s an amazing feeling to be welcomed in to a community like the one we found at Fort Houston. What they have is truly special. We know we will be back.

After checking the oil one final time, (we had changed it once, and then again by accident!) we finally set off as the sun was setting and the rain stopped pouring.

And as we drove away, we were already trying to figure out how and when we could come back to Nashville. Michal realised the next day that he left his camera charger… I guess we’ll just have to go and get it!

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On the Road Again

New Orleans, LA

Our New Orleans objectives were clear: hear great music, eat great food.

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As we were on way to the city, we found out that a friend from California happened to be in the city at the same time. And we also found out that the annual Oyster Festival was taking place that day!

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Even before we parked, the soulful jive of a live band filled our ears. We instinctively walked towards it, and found ourselves in front of the main stage of the oyster festival, with sun, jazz and oysters in abundance!

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The day was spent much as it has started; always with music to be heard, something delicious to be tasted, and the quintessential French Quarter terraces with their hanging gardens spilling colourful blooms above us.

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Of course, we had to visit the famous Bourbon Street with its street performers and legendary musicians… but even early in the day, the drink flowed a little too generously, and a shouting, swearing match in front of a bar gave the place a sour feel…

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After lunch, with our ever-so-entertaining waitress Tamarra, we caught the old Nawlins tradition of a Second Line – a bridal party dancing their way through the streets after the wedding ceremony to the reception. And it poured! So we were all stuck together for a brief, chaotic, joyful moment.

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As the rain stopped, off they went.

“You’re gonna love Key West!”

“You’re gonna love Key West!” is what everyone told us. Naturally slightly cynical by nature, we thought that perhaps we wouldn’t love Key West, if everyone kept telling us how much we would…

IMG_0082We arrived on Friday night, and were meeting a friend of a friend of a friend – it’s always a huge benefit to have someone local to show you around, especially in such a tourist-trap as Key West. We met at the Hogfish Bar and Grille, a locals’ place on a working waterfront of Stock Island, and a few minutes later had met the owner of the place, had heaps of delicious food in front of us, had been offered a place to stay in Key West, a place to stay in Colorado, and were discussing the embargo on Cuba… it was a first-class first impression!

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Key West is the (almost) furthest south point of the 48 states. (I say almost because there is a private island that is further South, but there wasn’t any hope of us being able to visit there… at least not on this trip). It is actually closer to Havana than Miami, with many monuments proclaiming “90 miles to Cuba”. A beautiful drive down from the mainland connects the Florida Keys, by what used to be railroad, and is now an impressive engineering feat of hundreds of miles of bridges and highways stitching together dozens of islands as you drive further and further out into the ocean.

The sea is shallow, warm and boasts beautiful sealife. The island itself is nothing particularly remarkable except its southerly claim – it has everything you would expect from a tourist spot: bars, a couple of beaches, boutiques and botanical gardens.

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Funnily enough, the monument to the furthest south point in the 48 states is not even on the furthest south point of the island… but still the tourists line up for their photo, fresh off the cruise ships from the Bahamas or the East Coast of the USA. And then of course you have the proud ‘southernmost house’, the ‘southernmost bar’, ‘southernmost grocery store’… and the more unusual ‘southernmost hockey club’…

_MG_4821In some ways we came at the wrong time of year. Louise played two gigs at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon – highly recommended place with amazing food, great fun staff, and great music! [website] But even for a long weekend celebrating Memorial Day, they were quiet evenings. The “snow birds”, as they are referred to, spend their winters in Florida, and when it gets hot they make their way up North. Many of the bar staff that we met were also preparing to leave for the off-season, and told us that their busiest season is October to February. But still, the average number of daily tourists is 25,000… as much as the population of Key West itself!

So we were glad to be in town on a quieter week, and thankfully, we didn’t have to pay the extortionate hotel rates – they are as expensive as rooms in downtown New York City. We stayed at a friend’s boat yard, which allowed us to see the “real” Key West – the people who work on the coast; border patrol, fishermen, boat builders.

Before we left, we had our introduction to the world of the Laundromat. A stark contrast to the tourist world just minutes away, we were joined by Spanish and French speaking immigrants, who were getting pushy over who was next in line to the few machines that actually worked.

IMG_0080And then our farewell lunch was at the place where we had been so wonderfully welcomed – the Hogfish – where we toasted Key West’s working waterfront by ordering the workman’s lunch: Meatloaf, Mash and Gravy.

So again, we are on our way… and the only way from Key West is North!

Food in the Big Apple

When you come through New York City and if you enjoy food, you probably already know you’re in the right place. Especially if you like comfort food. In New York you can find any food you desire; pizza, hot dogs and pretzels are on almost every corner, and that’s why it’s so hard to find one favourite. Usually when we travel, I try to find a good pizza in a new city, but since there are so many to choose from, I didn’t even bother with it here. Although I do have to mention that I came across Artichoke Pizza and their signature artichoke slice which is amazing.

But the reason I’m writing it is to share my new discovery. To many it’s old news, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple, you have to try The Halal Guys food.

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“It all started in 1990, when the founding partners opened a hot dog cart on West 53rd & 6th Avenue, New York, NY. The saw a huge demand among the Muslim cab drivers needing to have a halal Muslim meal. They quickly exchanged their cart and began servicing halal food, which became a huge success. They focused on the enhancement of their products to make it different and enjoyable. From that time, they pledged to use the best halal products to serve the public. During that time, they created their special magic white sauce and fiery hot sauce, which our public loves.”

Excerpt from http://thehalalguys.com

_MG_4155I had the chance to try their food a couple of years ago, but it was a leftovers from take out that I found in our friend’s fridge, without knowing where it was from. When we came through the city this time I decided to find out who makes this incredible chicken and gyro meat over yellow rice. As it turned out it was not that hard. Their carts are still there whey they started 25 years ago, plus they opened bunch of other shops that you can find on their websites. The choice is simple: chicken, gyro or mix. It is so good that even as we were driving from Westport, Connecticut to Atlantic City, we had to take a detour and pick up some goodness for the road.

So next time you’re in town, don’t forget to treat yourself to The Halal Guys.

MSJ