Take a Hike!

No one in his right mind would ever refer to us as athletic! That being said, we do like to spend time—especially on weekends— taking short hikes and enjoying natural areas. I recently discovered a website which can help anyone, nationwide, find walks close to home. With this post I’d like to describe some choices for embracing Mother Nature around New York’s Capital District.

Perhaps one of our favorite places to walk whatever the season is Peebles Island State Park in Waterford. We've been there in spring, summer, and fall, even after Thanksgiving dinner. Although there's a parking fee in most of the warm weather months, one can always park in downtown Waterford and walk across the bridge to the island. Located at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk, the island has trails which follow the water's edge. While the paths may not be very well marked, it would probably be impossible to get lost in the small location. The big loop around the island, which takes about forty-five minutes to complete, offers beautiful views of the rivers, birds, a small dam, and some falls. Just be careful not to get too near the edge or you may find yourself closer to the water than you planned!

Thacher State Park, in the Helderberg Mountains outside of Voorheesville, is another close-by favorite. The view of the river valleys and the mountains from the parking lot alone is worth the trip! From there, you can take a simple walk along the fenced-in side of the cliff or you can descend a long staircase, passing under a waterfall to admire the scenery. The park has playgrounds, as well as big fields for playing Frisbee or baseball with the kids, and grills and tables for family picnics. In the fall, you can also go by Indian Ladder Farms and get fresh apples and cider.

Then there is Grafton Lakes State Park. Mostly known as a swimming and boating area, Grafton has some lovely trails through the woods around its two lakes as well. We’ve often spotted signs of beavers in the area: tree stumps gnawed to a fine point; intricate dams sitting out in the water. In the winter you can go skating on the frozen lakes.

There are really so many local places to discover. Beebe Hill near Chatham presents a two-mile walk, with a fire tower at the top for the more adventurous to climb. Christman Sanctuary in Schenectady County has a very easy circuit which includes a nice waterfall (pictured left). If you’re willing to travel farther afield, Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills is well worth the drive. A somewhat challenging trail--steep but short-- goes up Prospect Mountain and offers wonderful views of Lake George.

So there you have a few ideas for hikes in the Albany area, just as the cool and colorful fall days approach. Enjoy!

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Vive Montréal!

I used to joke that Albany is a good place to get out of. While living in our tri-city area has its benefits, being within a three-hour drive of a big metropolis like New York City or Boston is a definite plus. Another great place, which people don’t always think of, is Montreal, just a short ride up the Northway (I-87). One proviso: it’s best to time your trip so that you don’t have to battle long lines at the border. So, leaving early in the morning and coming home at an off-time (like four p.m. on a Saturday, say) are strongly encouraged. Of course, in these post-9/11 days, you now need a passport to go anywhere in Canada, but it’s truly worth it to have French-speaking Québec province only four hours away. En route, it doesn’t take long before you realize that you’re heading for a foreign country. As early as Plattsburgh, New York, you start to notice highway signs that say Sortie as well as Exit. Then after crossing the border the distance markers are in kilometers instead of miles, which remind you that you’re “not in Albany anymore.”

There is so much for first-time visitors—young and old— to see and do in Montreal: Place Jacques Cartier with its street performers and restaurants; the winding streets, tourists shops, and la Basilique Notre-Dame of le Vieux Montréal; Mont-Royal, the mountain which gave the city its name, and its church, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph; Olympic Park with the unique Biodôme museum and the beautiful garden, le Jardin botanique; La Ronde amusement park, operated by Six Flags, on an island in the Saint-Laurent. Montreal also offers many special events each year, like the summer’s Festival de Jazz, which attracts thousands who enjoy free, outdoor entertainment as well as the indoor paying variety.

Francophiles like us try to schedule a trip north at least once a year. Readers won’t be surprised that one of our favorite things is to have a good meal or two, which is not at all hard to do! One restaurant we’ve visited a few times is La Prunelle on Duluth Street in le Plateau area in the northern part of the city. The menu offers classic French dishes such as escargots and salade de chèvre chaud, as well as New World food items, displayed on Old World ardoises ("chalkboards"). Just this summer we went to O'Thym, a small place on Maisonneuve in le Village. We enjoyed speaking French with the guys at the next table as much as the dinner. I had tartare de saumon (a raw salmon appetizer) and a duck breast, magret de canard. My husband tried the foie gras and the bavette de bison. We’d definitely make a second trip there. Another great thing about dining in Montreal is that at many restaurants you can bring your own wine.

Another favorite of ours is to go to bookstores while we're in Montreal. Archambault and Renaud-Bray are large chains
along the lines of Border's or Barnes & Noble. They have lots of branches throughout French Canada and stock the most current reading materials and music. We really like exploring small, secondhand bookstores. If you take le métro to le Plateau, you’ll find loads of petites librairies lining Mont-Royal street. It’s fun searching for hidden treasures in the stacks of books and CDs.

Last, but not least, we try not to leave Montreal without a visit to one of their covered marchés. Downtown on a street of the same name is the upscale Atwater Market. Here you can get everything from Dijon mustard to some of the most delightful pastries in town. Yum! But our market of choice is le Marché Jean-Talon. There, you really get the feel of being where the world shops: African people in dashikis and kaftans, Muslim women in veils, ordinary white Canadians who look a lot like us. We try to stock up on maple syrup when we’re there and always go to a branch of la Fromagerie Hamel to drool over their selections of Canadian and French cheeses.

There’s so much to see and do in Montreal and at least three of four seasons to do it in very comfortably! Give it a try!

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Zum Wohl!: Beer and Wine in Germany

I’m far from being an expert on alcoholic beverages of any kind, but who can write about Germany and not mention a few of them? Kneipen (bars) and Biergartens abound throughout German cities and towns. Beer, “liquid bread” as some locals call it, is part and parcel of the country’s culture. While the Germans are well-known for their beer-making, we found that they make some good wines as well.

Although they make and drink a lot of beer, Germans are not the world’s biggest consumers of the beverage. They come in third worldwide after the Czechs and the Irish. Still, one finds a brewery, in nearly every German town (around 1200 total apparently) and many excellent ones exist. People tend to be loyal to the brew from their local area: in Berlin locals opt for the Berliner Weisse, Pilsner, or Kindl; in Dresden we saw Radeberger everywhere, though one resident suggested we drink other brands; in Munich tourists head for the Hofbrauhaus, but for the locals the Münchner Helles is often the beer of choice. This devotion to the home-style beer can lead to serious intercity rivalry, like a celebrated one between Cologne and Dusseldorf. In Cologne one does not even ask for “a beer” but “ein Kölsch.” To do the same in neighboring Dusseldorf is a highly risky venture! German beers come in many types: light and dark, lagers, ales, wheat, and smoked beers, to name a few. All are controlled by the Reinheitsgebot, a law that serves to preserve the purity of German beer, much like the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) does for wine in France. One thing I know for sure: it’s so refreshing to take a “beer break” mid-afternoon and relax after hours of sightseeing.

From our first trips to Germany, we were sure that we would find good beer. But who knew that Germans would also produce some tasty wines? The country is, in fact, the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world. When our son got married near Würzburg in 2006, we discovered Franconia (or Franken) wines from along the river Main. For over a thousand years, this region has been producing mainly white wines (only 20% reds), immediately recognizable because of their unique, rounded bottles.

While it is primarily a white-wine producing nation, Germany also has several good red wines, as we discovered this year. At Faustus restaurant in Erfurt we tasted a lovely red wine from Naumberg in Saxony. The southwestern region of Ellerstadt has been producing wines since as early as the eighth century; we had a good one from this area at the suggestion of our waitress at Alte Meister in Dresden called Ursprung by Schneider.

I hope this introduction to the beers and wines of Germany gets you to give them a try. Prost!

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