San Francisco – hopping over hills and bridges

Leisurely wake up and breakfast, but then it’s time for a spot of work: we have to prepare our presentations for the meetings we have set up on Monday – we go through a few revisions and a final honing which take us to early afternoon and then we’re ready to grab the car and go sightseeing. We want a panoramic tour, so first we head towards Lombard Street at Hyde, reputedly the steepest in San Francisco and featuring a series of hairpin bends. Yes, another tourist’s delight and the cars line up on top of the hill to negotiate the bends, but hey, it’s fun! We try to bounce up and down the SF hills as in a film car chase, but tone this down after we discover our Magnum has a low wheel base and risk tearing the exhaust off…

Boss, Beer and BurritoHaight-Ashbury is next: a district of Victorian houses and pretty gardens much beloved by 1960s flower children. The area still holds a certain feel of that age: shops selling clothing in psychedelic colours, smoke stores, bookshops, many bars and street cafés. We stop by a Mexican taqueria – El Balazo – and enjoy a beer and a burrito with chicken, salsa, rice, beans and guacamole which must be about the best I’ve had this side of Tijuana!

We then drive up yet more hills up to the highest of them all: Twin Peaks. From here the view on this glorious autumn afternoon is sweeping: the neat rows of houses on the SF hills; the straight line of Market Street pointing to the gleaming downtown skyscrapers; the fog starting to roll in from the Pacific Ocean towards the Golden Gate; the blue waters of the Bay stretching round to Oakland and beyond. Cameras click and videos whirr, and I happily join the lenspointers to take a couple of panoramas.

Twin Peaks Panorama - click to enlarge

The afternoon draws on and we want to see the ocean! We drive down from Twin Peaks through the appropriately named Sunset District to the Great Pacific Highway. Alas, there is no sunset to admire as a grey mist begins to envelop us, but still it’s an experience to walk onto the broad sandy beach, dip a finger into the cold waters of the Pacific and think: next stop – Japan! There are only a few surfers around us, paddling out towards the crashing waves, ignoring the warnings of strong currents and severe undertow!

Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

Time to head for the Golden Gate Bridge! This icon of 1930s engineering is probably the most photographed bridge in the world. I have made my little contribution to this record! Not much chance to admire the scenery on the drive over to the North side, as traffic is heavy: apparently over 100.000 cars a day cross the bridge, despite the $ 5 toll! More photo-ops on the North Plaza of the view across the Bay to San Francisco in the fading light.

We drive along the shore to Sausalito, and are pleasantly surprised by this beautiful little town reminiscent of a Mediterranean resort. The main street is lined with cafés, restaurants and upmarket stores and nearby a large marina attracts my colleague’s eye. He is a keen sailor and as we hop from one pier to another, he explains the finer points of each boat. Not that I understand much – they all look large and expensive to my untrained eye!

Well, at this point the sun has long set and we are getting tired, so it’s over the Golden Gate Bridge and back to the Omni hotel.

San Francisco – Cable cars, Chinatown and Crabs

SF SkyscrapersSan Francisco – arrived here very late on Friday night – 11 pm SF time, working out to 1 am Chicago time. Fortunately the bags arrive quickly and Hertz get me a Dodge Magnum with a huge Hemi engine to drive the way to the city centre.

A sidenote: I have taken the Tomtom satnav with me on this trip, and I noticed that it gets rather confused by the sudden location changes as I travel across the continent. I turn it on as I leave the airport but it takes ages to get a satellite fix, so that I am halfway to downtown before it springs to life and guides me to the hotel. Maybe it’s suffering from jetlag too!

The Omni San Francisco is just the right kind of place I want to stay the weekend: an upscale four star with excellent service, a great room with a very comfortable bed and good location in the financial district just next to Chinatown. Not to mention that it also offers very good prices over weekends when the usual business customers are at home!

Cable carSaturday morning I wake up at a leisurely hour. Yes, I want to go out to explore, but I also need some rest and recuperation after my to-and-fro travels last week. After an excellent breakfast (blueberry pancakes with lots of maple syrup – yum!), I set off up the hill of California Street towards Chinatown. Right outside the hotel I see my first San Francisco cable car of the day! These trams moved by underground cables were apparently common in many cities even in Europe, but only in SF have they survived replacement by buses, and have now become the icon of the city just as London’s double-deckers. It’s a glorious sunny day, starting off fresh, but soon I have to take off my leather jacket. Chinatown is a three by five block rectangle of streets crammed with restaurants, dim sum parlours and little shops selling not only cheap chinese artefacts, Chinatown paradebut also expensive furniture and jade and ivory carvings. Suddenly to the sound of beating drums a long red paper dragon comes round the corner, followed by other costumed dancers in a long parade. It’s some kind of celebration, presumably with political overtones as then several men with rather serious faces appear, waving Taiwanese (?) flags, escorted by San Francisco’s Finest appropriately riding Harleys.

I continue walking into the North Beach area on the way to the harbour. Here China gives way to Italy, instead of dim sum we now have pizza and gnocchi, and street cafés offering espresso coffee. Quaint touches of an old Italian community abound, there’s even an Alfa Romeo garage with 1970s Spiders being serviced!

From North Beach I walk down to the waterfront: Fisherman’s Wharf is an obligatory stop for SF visitors. Yes, it’s one giant tourist trap, with dozens of souvenir stalls, and “I escaped from Alcatraz”-T-shirt shops, but the view makes it all worthwhile: the blue waters of the Bay with bobbing sailing boats, Alcatraz Island with its white prison in front of the hills of Marin County, the orange span of The Golden Gate bridge to the left. Here too, plenty of restaurants: San Francisco offers the most diverse cuisine in the whole of the US! I stop at one of many crab stalls and enjoy a wonderful crabmeat roll with a Bud to drink.Crab sandwich

I walk along to Pier 39, which features the highest concentration of tourist tack, but also a unique attraction: a sealion colony that established itself right here sometime in the 1990s occupying three wooden piers and then refused to go away. Apperently they find the spot congenial for rest and recuperation after dodging the sharks in the Bay! The crowds are getting thicker still, but this is no ordinary Saturday afternoon: it’s the “Navy Week”, and the pilots of the “Blue Angels” squadron are about to start a show over San Francisco! A free airshow is not a thing to miss, so I watch the F/A 18s roar in and perform their evolutions over the water and the city.

Time to go back to the Omni to get the car and pick up my boss at the airport. He’s come in direct from Milan via Frankfurt – claims to be awake and well after the 11 hour flight, but that’s a tad optimistic. We head for a restaurant nearby the hotel and by the time he’s finished his steak, he’s already nodding off!


I have to wake up before dawn to catch my 7am flight to Chicago. I get to the airport on time, check in (not an easy process, US airlines these days expect you to it all by yourself, at a machine just like an ATM!) and then face a line of hundreds at security. I eventually arrive at the head of the queue. hand my papers, the TSA guy scans them and says: “OK, you’re a four-S, come with me!” Now I have no idea what a four-S is, but I can only guess Squarci Selected for Special Scrutiny, as I am then led into a area cordoned-off for screening Enemy Combatants from innocent businessmen. I get a hand search, my bags are searched with swabs put though an explosives detection machine, but as I’m not in the habit of carrying Semtex, I pass muster and am waved through.

Arrival in Chicago. The I-90/I-94 from O’Hare to the Loop is perennially congested despite the 10 lanes, so it takes over an hour and a half to get to the McCormick Convention Centre where I am visiting an exhibition. I meet all my contacts and customers then get back to the Loop to check into my hotel. This is the Allerton, right on the Magnificent Mile, one of the world’s grandest shopping streets. Nearby the hotel are Neiman-Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, and Macy’s and… an Apple Store right in front! A paradise for shopaholics!

Magnificent Mile

I rest awhile and dinnertime arrives. Where to go? Chicago has innumerable choices, I can certainly recommend the Chicago Chop House for excellent steaks, but I had steak yesterday so something different is called for. Why not combine dinner with another Chicago institution, the Blues? So I head for Buddy Guy’s Legends, just a short El ride away from the hotel on South Wabash.

Legends is Buddy Guy’s Blues Club and museum of assorted bluesy memorabilia that aficionados will appreciate. But it’s also a great place to enjoy southern Cajun soul food: I tried as a starter the fried okra with honey-mustard sauce and as a main course the Legendary Etouffé: crawfish tails and vegetables in a red roux, served with rice and cornbread. Excellent stuff, washed down with plentiful Goose Island Honkers Ale, a malty bitter Chicago beer. A Key Lime pie rounded off the meal.

Eddie Shaw

At 9:30 the music began! The performing act tonight was Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang. As my more experienced friends will know, Eddie Shaw, Howlin’ Wolf’s sideman, is a fine vocalist and sax player, and is accompanied by Lafayette “Shorty” Gilbert on bass and Vaan Shaw playing a triple-neck guitar. I’m no expert, so can only say “wow!” – a great gig that had all the audience rocking on their seats, especially when Buddy himself came on for a cameo appearance. A wonderful evening and great value at $ 10 cover charge.


Minneapolis – yes, a city of hard-working Lutheran Scandinavian immigrants. That is the cliché, and maybe it’s true. Certainly in the crowds at the airport there is a high proportion of fair-skinned blond people and there are ads for the “Lutheran Investment Funds”…

The Minnesotans I meet are a friendly and easy-going lot, open-minded and conversational. Maybe the long hard winters (fishing through a hole in the ice is a popular sport) have made these mid-Westerners particularly social people.

So it is with pleasure that I accept their invitation for dinner – my first proper meal since arriving in North America! We go to Redstone in Eden Prairie, a suburb to the south west of Minneapolis.

Redstone This is a hip, trendy place, set beside a lake and full to the gills – on a Wednesday night! The cuisine here is American grill, so I know just what to order: New York Strip Steaka large New York strip steak, cooked rare, accompanied by asparagus and potatoes. I am not disappointed,this char-grilled steak is succulent and tender.

To follow, a yummy pumpkin cheesecake – a very seasonal dessert and one that would be very hard to find outside the US!Pumpkin Cheesecake

All of USA in a post

Sorry for the lack of news in this USA trip, but there hasn’t actually been much to write home about!!

A lot of jetting around back and forth: Chicago – Minneapolis – Detroit, back to Chicago, then over to Newark, NJ, and finally home via Frankfurt. As you can imagine, much of the time was spent in the air, at airports, or getting to and from airports… In-flight “service” in the US is non existent, consisting at best of a bag of peanuts and a drink, even in so-called “First” class on UA or NW. So the majority of the Americans carry on board the offerings of the airport food counters: “Cinnabons”, garlic pretzels, Chicago pizzas, Big Macs to take away. You can imagine the mix of smells in a departing aircraft!!

The *few* highlights of the trip include:

* general chaos at airports due to “security”, with passengers milling back and forth, not knowing which check point to go through. There is a new organization – the TSA – that apparently has been given authority to *break open* your suitcase locks if it so desires. (I am in dispute with UA about this…)

* the *excellent* beer to be had in Minneapolis – a few glasses of Summit Pale Ale (served cold, naturally) helps to take your mind off the ferocious Minnesota winters, particularly if downed together with a Walleye sandwich (fried fish from the many Minnesota lakes).

* lunch in a private club on top of a Detroit skyscraper, to which a kind customer invited us. A great shrimp salad, pity that it was pouring with rain so there was no view…

* Good dinner at the “Chicago Chop House”:, an institution among Chicago steak houses. Lively, crowded ambiance, a tender 24 oz. New York strip steak, a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Stelzner Vineyards 2000. Expense accounts only. Hey, but a steak is a hunk of meat on the grill, can be done at home too…

For the rest of the time, it was mostly cheeseburgers on the fly!


Off for a week to the USA. Usual yearly trip to the cleaning industry convention, that is held this year in Chicago. Alas, no opportunity this time to visit sights as the Grand Canyon!

My trip today takes with a short skip Venice – Munich, a rather longer hop across the Big Pond to Chicago, then a jump to Minneapolis for a some customer visits before hitting the Windy City again. Will be jetting around most of the week.

Just now, comfortably ensconsced in an Air Dolomiti ATR-72 with a grand view of the snow-covered Zugspitze on the right. Wunderbar!

USA 4 – Grand Canyon

Saturday – we check out from Bally’s and collect our hire car – nothing fancy – a Chevy Cavalier with usual incomprehensible ding-dong noises and crazy “central locking system” that requires you to press an assortment of buttons. Have GM never heard of keys?

Never mind. It’s a fine cloudless day and we’re off to the Grand Canyon! First direction on US 93 towards Arizona. About half an hour out from Vegas we are in Boulder City and have a hill top view of the shimmering waters of giant Lake Mead. Surreal in a dry desert country. Soon after, we pass by the reason for this lake: the giant Hoover Dam, an engineering wonder built between 1931 and 1934. We’d like to stop and visit the museum, but we have no time, there are still many miles to the Canyon! Security at the dam is strict: no buses and trucks allowed at all, all cars and RVs have to pass a security check. Uncle Osama has not been caught and they’re evidently taking no chances.

US 93 continues into Arizona desert country. First we pass through barren brown mountains stretching away for miles on all sides. Then through a flat, featureless desert. The road is straight as an arrow for thirty miles or so, disappearing ahead into a mirage. This is the great American West, the landscape is huge and there are few signs of human habitation. The sky is equally huge, and the few clouds dotting it are a vivid part of the scene. How come we don’t notice it in our everyday life?

We get to Kingman, Arizona (“the heart of historic Route 66”), grab a coke and bagful of beef jerky, and join I-40, the main interstate heading east from L.A. The traffic is mainly the huge American trucks with number plates from all over the US: Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee…. Incidentally, the speed limits are generous (75 mph on I-40, 65 on the state roads), and there are no snarling cops to be seen. The landscape changes again: no longer desert, but arid plains and barren hills, unlike any European scenery. Ever so slowly, the road rises: we pass 4,000 feet, then 5,000, mile after mile we climb onto a high plateau, studded with small conifers.

We leave I-40 at Williams, Arizona, a small frontier town, with Highway 64 heading directly North: its only destination, the Grand Canyon! Again, more miles of driving in high plateau country. This is the Kaibab National Forest. The few settlements we pass appear to be populated by Indians (Sorry! Not politically correct: they’re called Native Americans and now live in trailer homes, not in teepees). We pass the type of dusty gas stations you see in films: two pumps, signboards flapping in the wind, freezer chests with “ICE!” written on the side. Miles of nothing on both sides, the road points straight towards the only feature in this plain, a red rock butte.

We pass Tusayan, Arizona, and the Canyon is near: there are a few motels, a supermarket, a McDonalds, an airport with signs offering Canyon flights. Five hours and 280 miles from Vegas, we are there: the Grand Canyon National Park entrance. We pay the $ 20 entrance fee, and proceed onwards in a juniper and pinon pine forest. Can this be it? It’s not what I expected. I assumed we would be in some kind of mountain range! We proceed towards a newly built visitor center when a road sign indicates a view point: Mathers Point.
Grand Canyon Mathers Point.jpg

What I see takes my breath away: a huge gash in the Earth as though some giant had cut a zigzag separating the North Rim from the South Rim. In between, thousands of rock columns, amphitheatres, pyramids, walls, terraces, cliffs, crags and pinnacles, in hundreds of shades of red, yellow, ochre, grey. Far, far below, the blue water of the Colorado River can be seen. The North Rim is far away across from us, more than 16 km away, say the signs. What a sight! This is nature at its most majestic. What a difference from the tacky kitschiness of Vegas!

As we go (on foot) from one viewpoint to another, we begin to appreciate the subtle nuances in the rock layers, more than a dozen from rim to canyon floor – a geologist’s dream! As the afternoon wears on, the light changes, the shadows lenghten, and the whole view changes too. We are now at Hopi Point, and have a fantastic outlook on the sun setting down on the Kaibab plateau and of the reddening rocks of the Canyon walls. Soon, only the highest spires are bathed in the evening light, and as the sun finally sets, the full moon is rising on the opposite side. A chill wind sets in – we are at about 2,500 metres here! But soon the shuttle bus arrives and takes us to our lodge.
Grand canyon Hopi Point.jpg

Evening meal at Bright Angel Lodge – a southwest steak fajita with guacamole, refried beans and tortillas and an excellent “Fat Tire” Colorado ale. We retire tired but happy.

Sunday – we take the shuttle bus to the viewpoints we didn’t see yesterday – here I must admire the organisation of the US National Parks – with a regular free shuttle bus service they have eliminated the traffic of the hundreds of private vehicles, whilst providing access for all. The informative panels at each viewpoint and at the park center are exemplary. At every point we admire the Grand Canyon’s unique beauty and changing scenery. But at 11 we have to say goodbye, we must drive back to Vegas to catch the 5pm flight to Denver and thence to Minneapolis. The drive back retraces our previous day’s route, but it is not at all tiring, we just set the cruise control and enjoy the endless vistas.

As I write, I am brought back to earth after the wonderful Grand Canyon experience. Or rather, I am up in the sky – in a cramped centre seat in the DEN-MSP flight with nowt but a packet of peanuts and a coke to eat, and a 23:45 arrival time!


My second full day in Vegas today. Much like the first: wake up at 4-5 am due to jet lag, toss and turn around in bed, eventually I get up, check mail, breakfast, then off to the convention centre. I’m visiting a janitorial supply exhibition, much like the one in Amsterdam I saw in May. Only this is bigger. Lots of meetings with customers and potential customers.

The fun part starts after the show: we go off to visit the fantastic hotels – Paris complete with Eiffel tower and bistros, Bellagio with huge lake and fountain display, Caesar’s Palace with Roman Forum, the Venetian complete with St. Mark’s campanile and gondolas, the Mirage with exploding volcano, Treasure Island with pirate battle….Vegas is the true capital of kitsch! And people everywhere late at night – a most uncommon sight in American cities. And of course the sights of the casinos: hundreds of slot machines a-ringing at all hours in a cacophony of sound, the yells celebrating a winner on a roll at the craps tables, the discreet side-rooms where middle-aged Chinese ladies bet thousand-dollar chips at Baccarat.

Nothing to report on the foodie front. The convention centre specialities are warmed-up cheeseburgers with greasy fried onions or hot dogs. Last night we chose badly and went to the buffet at Caesar’s: shrimp salad, spare ribs, assorted sweets. OK, it was just $ 16.99 (“gratuity NOT included”), but we could have had better. Tonight we will patronise the steak restaurant in Bally’s, supposedly one of the best in Vegas.

Our Saturday excursion has been decided: we will go to the Grand Canyon! We’ll have an early start, drive over at European speeds and hope to see something before sundown. Hey, it’s supposed to be one of the wonders of the world, it’s not that far, I’ll give it a go! North Rim is closed, so we’ll go to Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim.


As it turned out, my flight to IAD left at the same pier A as my arriving flight from VCE. But this is no consolation: gate A56 is upstairs in the long distance area, whilst gate A28 is downstairs in the Schengen area. The escalator connecting the two is cordoned off for “security reasons”, so this means a long trudge to the head of the pier, up a flight of stairs , through pasport control and a long trudge back again!!! Germanic efficiency is losing its famed touch!

Security is relatively relaxed, I meet my colleague Andrea who has come in from a Milan flight. Again, the flight to Washington is full – evidently the airline cuts have resulted in a higher passenger load.

Usual high LH standards aboard – a prime reason why I choose this airline over another. After take off we are served lunch – I choose the Gravlax with Coriander Ginger Mayo and smoked trout tartare as a starter, the Gravlax is fine, but I would much rather have a Hovmästersäs with dill instead of the mayo as a side. As a wine, I select the 2001 Riesling Schossgut Diel – a fine wine with appley flavour, but I would really have preferred something drier with the salmon.

As a main course, I select an excellent lamb medaillon with herb crust accompanied by ratatouille and potato dumplings (= gnocchi in Italian!). The lamb is very tender and tasty, but the wine, the wine – a superb 2000 Stellenzicht Stellenbosch really gets the ticket! Michelin would say “it’s worth a journey”. Let me quote the blurb accompanying the wine: “the deep red ruby colour of this Cabernet Sauvignon and its exotic bouquet with predominant aroma of blackcurrants and mulberries make it a very pleasurable wine. The elegant oak tones and a long finish complete the picture”.

What really completes the picture for me is the Taylors Port to accompany the Gingerbread Mousse Basel-style and Fig compote, followed by a delectable Kirsch……..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Somewhere over Chicoutimi, Québec, I get prodded awake – it’s mealtime again! Jeez, I was sleeping soundly! With an admirable spirit of self-abnegation, I decline the meal, and settle for a glass of mineral water!

Flight time FRA-IAD: 8h35min. I arrive in Washington at 15:55 = 21:55 CET. A cloudy autumn day, 14C. No sign of Bush’s pad out of the window. Lots of United jets on the tarmac, must be one of their hubs. An hour or so to rush for the Vegas flight. Let’s hope we make it through customs and immigration in time!

AAARGH! The immigration queue was *miles* long! No amount of entreaties could convince the guys that we were in a hurry to get a connection. Final result – our bags make the flight to LAS, but we have a gate door slammed in front of our very eyes!

UA rebooks us to Vegas via Denver. It ends up that we should arrive in Vegas two hours later than we expected. It’s now 00:00 CET, I’m still on the East coast, I have a nose bleed, there are no biz class seats and I’m pissed off!

A lunch box is served aboard. I peruse the contents: a bag of tortilla chips (“perfect for dipping” – but no dip!), a bread roll with “honey roasted turkey and American cheese” (dry as a bone), a sachet of mayonnaise (presumably to relieve the dryness), a tub of vanilla pudding.

Flight time IAD-DEN 3h10min. Arrival at 19:40 local = 03:40 CET. My eyelids are drooping…..

DEN is at 1,650 mt. above sealevel -we’re now on the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (sadly invisible in the darkness). Supposedly one of the world’s largest airports by area. Curious terminal building with a roof like a circus tent. Not that I care much – at this point I’d rather have a bed!!

On to my fourth flight of the day: DEN-LAS is 1h50min. Travel in so-called “First Class” – all you get is a couple of cans of Heineken and a sachet of peanuts! And then the airlines wonder why people aren’t travelling any more…

Finally get in to Vegas at 21:30 = 6:30 CET. Just about time for you folks back home in Europe to get up!! The airport halls and baggage claim areas are alive to the sound of the slot machines, welcoming the first punters. Quick drive by shuttle bus to Bally’s Hotel and I’m now ready to straight to my king-size bed!


Looooong day flying today – a trip to the USA beckons! I set off through the usual morning traffic to Venice airport – a full hour and a half is required – I’m always disconcerted when about 10 minutes after take-off I see my town and house below on the right. Think of the time wasted! I could use a company ‘copter instead!

Disorienting arrival at VCE. They inaugurated a new terminal last July and this is my first time here. The car park remains next to the old terminal, so I have to hike a while before I get to check-in. The new terminal is supposedly modelled on old Venetian warehouses. Lots of glass, a zigzag roof.

The LH A320 is full! A cold collation is served over Innsbruck: asparagus, smoked chicken breast, sausage, jumbo shrimp, a Kartoffelsalat, mustard mayo. Two Lindt chocs. A Gerolsteiner Sprudel and a nice Chilean white wine. Didn’t see the label, but quite possibly a Chardonnay! Flight time to Frankfurt – 1h05, we are slightly late on departure, I’ll probably have to rush for the connecting flight to Washington – most likely on the furthest possible pier with the longest security queue…..