“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Madrid: Tapas, Wine, Sherry, and Nun Cookies

We have been in Spain for five days and I've finally found the time to sit down and write. Our arrival routine was typical, dropped off our items at the hotel and quickly found lunch.  A lovely start to our gastro-cation involved an octopus sandwich, carmelized duck liver on toast, and homemade sausage. We napped hard afterward and prepared for our tapas tour later that night.  Our hotel was perfectly situated located in the Centro region of Madrid, equally between the Palacio Real and Parque Retiro. We were steps from the Plaza Mayor which was a great point of reference for finding our way around.  On the way to the tour we swung through the Plaza, and I promptly located a shoe store that has been hand-making espadrilles for nearly 175 years.  I walked out with two pairs. 

My grandparents were ecstatic that we were taking this trip and Opa gave us lots of recommendations, including eating at La Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid.  We found the restaurant for future reference, but never fit it into our schedule. They gave us lots of recommendations, some that we were able to commit to, and some that just didn't fit into our plans.  And I realize that when I give other people advice about what to see and do and eat in other countries or cities, they may never follow through, and it's not personal.  Sometimes the plans just don't coincide.  But I am making a mental list of other locations in Spain to visit thanks to Oma and Opa, which we'll attempt on our next trip here.  Oh yes. There will be another!

I had leaned Castilian Spanish in high school and college and thank goodness.  I was more capable of understanding Madrileño Spanish much better than the Mexican or puertoriqueño Spanish back home.  The Spanish is flowing more easily now and I'm excited when I learn new phrases and words. "¡Una otra ronda!" to call for another round of drinks!

The tapas tour was a great way to start off the trip.  We visited four tapas bars representing the different regions of Spain.  The first was one that served cider, where we learned how to pour it from a great height into a glass.  The higher the pour, the more bubbles are introduced.  Spanish cider is naturally flat.  Much wine was consumed group the night, and olives! I typically hate olives, but the green Spanish ones were very tasty.  We had anchovies on potato chips, dogfish bites, chickpeas with tripe, morcilla, jamón iberico, croquettes, and French fries covered in blue cheese sauce.  The group was merry and we made great conversation.  There were couples that joined us from Finland, Dallas, Canada, and Australia.

The next day we headed out for some sightseeing and a nosh.  Breakfast was at a cafe nearby where I had a tasty bit of toast with olive oil, crushed tomato, and ham.  This would become a theme, tomato on bread.  Lunch was a pop into the San Miguel Market that was a smorgasbord of tapas stands.  Locals and tourists filled the place, and it was a great stop to browse if we didn't know what we wanted to eat.  This was my first sample of Vermut, a dry crisp cocktail best enjoyed mid-day.  Next we headed to the Temple of Debod, which is an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain for their assistance in building the Aswan Dam.  The temple closed for midday at 2, so we had a respite in the shaded park that surrounded the grounds, as the day was hot and sunny.  

We had considered visiting the Palace next, but a snack was in order, and nearby was a tapas bar we had visited the night before and remembered it was quite good.  We saddled up to the bar and ordered white wines, and the barkeep Martín promptly presented us with a plate of paella and two forks.  Delicious!  We got to talking to him (in Spanish) and made a fast friend.  He was so passionate about Spanish food and wine, and we told him of our travel plans.  He approved, and kept feeding us more tapas selections from the bar, the cold marinated mussels being my favorite. As we sat, talked, and laughed with Martín, in walked a couple from Canada that was part of our tour the previous night.  They joined us at the bar and instead of visiting the palace, we stayed for two more rounds of wine and more tapas with our new friends. 

The next stop out of the tapas bar was to find the nun cookies.  There is a convent of cloistered nuns that bakes cookies, but finding the entrance is the first challenge.  The Canadians had a detailed map and we had already done previous research.  We found the front door of the convent.  A homeless lady that was perched on the convent steps had shuffled over to help us, and rang the bell, giving us instructions to wait 5 minutes and assured us the door would open.  Sure enough, it had and she gave us directions to navigate the convent halls.  We found a small door that hosted a lazy Susan with a menu of cookies.  The nun's voice could be heard - but not seen - from behind the revolving wooden door, and she passed through a box of cinnamon cookies.  Just as we were taking our purchase, the Canadians showed up right behind us! We helped them purchase their cookies, and were all giddy with excitement that we had found the elusive nun cookies.  A quick taste before dinner back at our hotel, and we made our way to the Prado museum for the free admission after 6. The major attraction here were the works of Goya ("The Third of May") and other notable Spanish artists, such as El Greco and Velazquez.

At this point, a cold was coming on. Someone at work had a cold just a day before I left, and behold... I caught it.  Again.  I need to be in quarantine at work when someone gets sick.  I was desperately hoping this wouldn't be like a Rome situation where I was barely functional.  But I had my medicinal reinforcements, and hope.  We dined outside on the Plaza Santa Ana on a warm summer evening and planned our next day. 

The next morning, the cold really had set in.  Ugh.  Regardless, we had things to do and places to go.  Back to the shoe store for more espadrilles! Then on to the Palace finally.  Some of the rooms rival those of Versailles.  I have never seen their equal.  It was impressive indeed.  This second evening was a required visit to the Reina Sophia museum.  We had time to kill before the time of free admittance began, so we walked across the street to the Atocha train station.  This is the largest station in Spain and we were surprised at how beautiful it was.  Rain forest vegetation filled the central atrium, and a pool with hundreds of turtles encircled it.  They were entertaining to watch.  This was also the sight of the deadly train bombings in Madrid a few years back that they equate to their 9/11 and England's 7/7.  Yet onward into the Reina Sophia where I had one goal: to see Picasso's Guernica. In 1937, Hitler lent Franco air equipment to practice bombing raids, and the Basque town of Guernika was the guinea pig. The painting depicts the suffering and destruction of the town. Meanwhile, the museum also housed other famous Picasso pieces, including Spain's greatest surrealist works from Dalí and his contemporaries, and Juan Miró. I was pleased.

The night finished with a tapas crawl of our own, no special place in particular.  This time we were really on our own at night to navigate the world of the tapeando.  Our first stop was pleasant enough, and on the way out we passed a wine shop.  It was cute so we stepped in to talk to the proprietor. This conversation was mostly in Spanish, and i have to pause to say that although Carrie has never had a formal lesson in the Spanish language, her comprehension is amazing.  She is picking up lots of words and her ear is keen.  She enthusiastically wants to learn the language now.  The shop owner described the many different wine regions of the country, including sherry, made in Jerez, and suggested if we wanted to try sherry, there was a sherry bar around the corner.  He drew us a little map on a business card and off we went!

This bar hadn't changed since the 1930s.  Stained walls, dusty bottles of sherry on the shelves, and the sherry itself was served from wooden barrel taps.  Two dogs sat behind the counter while an old black cat held court on nearby table.  No photos were allowed, a rule in place since the civil war to protect the Republican patrons from Franco spies.  We enjoyed our sherry (me more than Carrie), and two gentlemen next to us began engaging us in conversation.  Carrie referred to one of them as Phil Collins as he was the spitting image.  They were smitten with us. The night had to come to an end as we finished up with obligatory chocolate and churros.  

Madrid tugged at my heart strings for sure.  It was a very easy and comfortable city to settle into. Everyone was more than friendly and forgiving. The city is clean and certainly doesn't feel it's age despite what the historic architecture reflects. I am happy here, and have many more adventures to come around the country these next couple weeks.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This is 40: Spain Edition

My family traveled the world when they were young, long before I was born.  My travel bug was inherited from my Oma and Opa who lived in Europe and toted the kids around nearly every weekend to the far corners of the continent.  Many of my mother's souvenirs were dolls in traditional national dress from each country they visited.  Growing up, I was drawn to one doll in particular.  She had a veil of black lace, an elaborate dress, and tiny wooden castanets in each hand.  She was from Spain.  As I grew up, Cabbage Patch Dolls were becoming popular.  Perhaps I was about 8 years old when I asked my dad for one.  But not just any Cabbage Patch Doll... oh no, I wanted one from the World Traveler collection, the Spanish Matador, complete with passport.

At the same time, I was immersing myself in Egyptology.  One day I would visit, and I made that dream come true in 2006.  Now, there was a second dream that I had yet to realize.  This dream was Spain.  I'll never be able to explain why my heart was drawn to Spain.  In junior high, I was picking out my high school courses, eager to enroll in classes that the "big kids" got to take.  The language courses were French and Spanish.  Growing up in a French-Canadian city in Rhode Island, I had heard enough French (everybody calm down, I'm fully aware of the difference between Quebecois French and Parisian French), and what would be come a personality trait - choosing a path contrary to popular opinion - I quickly enrolled in Spanish.

This year I turn 40, and I wanted this trip to be somewhat different than the ones I've taken in the past.  Sightseeing would be secondary.  Spain has a lot going for it these days.  They've been rescued from a Greek-like economic disaster.  Although unemployment remains dramatically high, the economy needs our dollars.  The ETA has laid down arms, opening the Basque country to the world.  The Euro is lowest against the Dollar than has been seen in years.  Spain boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other country in the world, namely in the very same Basque country.  With so many restaurants on the World's Top 50 list, it was high time that we spent our time and money on gastronomic tourism.  And what goes well with food?  Wine.  Spanish wine.  Rioja and cava.  And it shall be done.

We have spent years discussing, and 5 months of planning, as we're mere weeks away from our two-week Spanish adventure.  We won't be experiencing the land of flamenco, paella, or gypsy singing.  We won't be climbing the citadel walls of Toledo, or - sadly this time - not basking in the beauty of the Alhambra.  It's been decided that we'll need to make multiple visits to Spain.  This time, our journey is through the tapas bars, vineyards, world-renowned restaurants, cider houses, seaside shellfish towers, cava on the Mediterranean, and enough jamon to survive the zombie apocalypse and then some.  It is about viniculture and food.  With a little Gehry, Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, and Goya thrown in for good measure.  How did we get here?  And how did we decide where to go, with so many wine options in Spain?

It's no secret to those close to us that we're fans of good food and wine.  We try to take advantage of every opportunity to collect knowledge from an expert.  We had success with this plan before, so at the beginning of our dinner at Alinea late last year, we asked the sommelier for recommendations to wineries in northeastern Spain that we should visit.  By the end of our dinner, he presented us with a list of his favorite bodegas in the Rioja, Penedes, and Priorat regions.  Bingo: We had a place to start our trip planning!  A wine and food tour of Spain based some of Chicago's very own recommendations.  Next Restaurant is currently "playing" their Tapas menu, based on Achatz' and Beran's tapas research with some of Spain's legendary chefs.  Yeah, so... their Twitter feed was also a solid base for restaurant recommendations.

I urge you to follow along on this adventure.  We'll be two gals in a car (!) on a Spanish road trip through cities, farmland, from Atlantic to Mediterranean, and through the Pyrenees.  Our journey begins in Madrid, where, after our chance at a siesta, we'll start our vacation immediately with a guided tapas tour.  This will give us the lay of the land, er, tapas bars, to get our bearings on how to order, what to order, how to pay, and how to blend in.  Our total three days in Madrid will likely involve a visit to the Prado and Reina Sofia museums, the Royal Palace, the Temple of Deblod (yay, Egyptian!), and definitely involve more tapas, late dinners, and even later churros con chocolate.  And shopping.  My Desigual card is ready to go.

The car trip begins when we drive north out of Madrid and head to Elciego, in the heart of La Rioja
Marques de Riscal
wine country, to stay at the Marques de Riscal winery, with the hotel designed by Frank Gehry (who also designed Chicago's Pritzker Pavilion). We booked a package deal here for one night's stay, tour of the winery, tasting menu in their Michelin-star restaurant, and breakfast.  And more wine.  Maybe squeeze in some time in the spa.  With wine.  Maybe we'll be too busy with the wine.  This is our birthday treat to ourselves, as Carrie and I are both 40 this year and this is our dual celebration trip.  One night in Riscal is enough for our pocketbooks, so the next day we head further up Rioja country to the heart of the region, Haro.  We have a tour and tasting booked at Lopez de Heredia, which is partners with the Guggenheim Museum (more Gehry!) in Bilbao, so we'll collect our free tickets here.  We'll also try to find some time to book tastings in town at Muga, Cune, La Rioja Alta, and/or Ramon Bilbao.  Perhaps one of the most interesting accommodations we booked is in Haro, at Los Augustinos, a hotel built in the 1300s that also used to be a convent, military garrison, and hospital.

Our next move brings us to the very heart of the culinary world, in San Sebastian.  We haven't booked anything outside of meals in this town because, well, we're here to eat.  The food is the star.  One afternoon lunch has us booked at Arzak, the #17 restaurant in the world, which has maintained 3 Michelin stars for a record 30 years.  We'll leave the evening open to tapas-hopping (tapeando?), followed by another stellar lunch the next day at Extebarri, located in the hillsides outside Bilbao.  I was on the fence about eating here, until I met the rep from Ramon Bilbao winery at the Rioja Wine and Tapas festival in Chicago (research!), and he insisted we visit.  I'm all for meat cooked over an open fire, which is what Extebarri, #13 in the world, is known for.  We'll use our free passes at the Guggenheim this day, then head back to San Sebastian to lay around the famous beach and attack more tapas before we head out of town to visit a sagardotegia, which is Basque for "cider house."  From what we've learned, hard cider has been brewed in this region for hundreds of years.  Fans of cider that we are, we're not passing up this opportunity.  I might change my tune after driving in Spanish traffic, but so far I'm happy we'll be renting a car so we can explore so many of these special places.

At this point in the trip, a mini-vacation likely be necessary, so we'll be high-tailing it through Pamplona and Zaragosa on the way to Sitges, which is a seaside resort on the Mediterranean, just south of Barcelona.  We were sold on the beachfront hotel when they noted cava was free with breakfast.  Easy like Sunday morning.  Beach and bubbly and some relaxation will recharge us for the rest of the trip.  A pass through cava country in Penedes on the way to Barcelona will allow some time for tastings (shaking things up a bit from red wine and cider).  We'll be in Barcelona during the Catalan national holiday, so we're looking forward to what festivities we'll run into.  We'll likely keep our sightseeing here to the Picasso Museum and La Sagrada Familia, focusing on leisurely lunches and more tapas.  Carrie found a most-excellent hotel with a bakery in the lobby, so waking up to fresh baked-bread will be an added bonus.

Our last day will be a morning drive back to Madrid to catch our flight to Berlin for the night.  Berlin.  Yeah.  Didn't see that one coming?  We both used frequent flyer miles for flights (and for the car rental), so connecting in Berlin back to Chicago was $283 cheaper in taxes than connecting in London.    We don't care that Berlin isn't on the way back, or a bit out of the way.  That's $283 saved.  That's a good meal out.

So there you have it.  Our 40th year birthday celebration in Iberia.  I owe my Oma and Opa an apology for not visiting Toledo (which they spoke so highly of) or making a swing through Portugal or the Costa del Sol while we're there, as we only have 2 weeks, but I do thank them for the spirit of travel that I only began to appreciate as an adult.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Value of Tech on the Road

Thailand.  I'm in love.  This winter saw my second trip to the country and I can see why friends love it so.  Sunny, warm, inexpensive, friendly, and yes, safe.  Although I try not to visit most countries more than once (Mexico being a glaring exception because it's so close to home and quick/easy/cheap to get to), I learned the value of returning to a familiar place.  Orientation is faster.  Remember a few more words than last time.  Knowing how much that cab ride really should cost.

This time, I decided to tackle a couple more new adventures, such as navigating Chiang Mai's songthaew system.  They're the red pickup trucks that roam the streets with a couple benches in back.  You flag them down, tell the driver through the window where you want to go.  He either waves you off, or nods for you to get on.  Don't take offense if he says no, he likely isn't going the direction you are.  It helps to ask the fare before you get it.  Not knowing Thai isn't an issue, just wave a 20 baht bill and see if he nods.  Done.  Fare set.  Hop in back!  When you've arrived at your destination, he'll either slow down and pull over, or you can knock on the back window or ring the buzzer on the ceiling indicating when you want to stop.  Hand him the bill through the front window and you're set!  I'd advise that you have a reasonable sense of direction, though.  It can be difficult to know when you've arrived at your destination when you've never been to where you're going before.  This where some tech helped out.

Before I ventured out, I staked out the area I was heading to on Google street view so I'd recognize my surroundings when I arrived (Wararot Market!).  The TripAdvisor City Guides app showed my progress on our ride over with its offline maps with real-time location tracking (without using the phone's data plan!).  Google Maps has also been recently updated to make maps available offline, so I'm eager to test this out overseas later this summer.  City Apps syncs with your TripAdvisor profile so all saved locations show up on the offline map.

One of my favorite and necessary apps on the road is TripIt.  It's an itinerary-building app to keep day-by-day details of flights, hotel reservations, tours, directions, maps, notes, links, and has a budget tracker.  The data also works offline, so when I'm checking into my hotel or flight, the app is immediately available to recall confirmation numbers.  Or remembering where to meet the food tour guide in the market.  If you subscribe to the Pro version, it tracks your frequent flyer and hotel reward stay points, plus alerts you to flight and gate changes.  The minute I begin planning a trip, I start a new TripIt itinerary.  Adding info is a breeze.  Just forward you email confirmations to a plans@tripit.com and the itinerary automatically populates.

I didn't think I'd need to sign up for an international calling plan before I left, but it turned out I needed my phone more than planned.  A $5 international plan on Sprint would have saved me about $35 off my bill, so note to self next time.  Confirming restaurant reservations, calling for a new van when our driver never showed up, and connecting with friends meeting up is when a good old fashioned phoned call came in handy.  Text messages are considered part of a voice plan so if you turn off your data, texting should still work.  Just remember that outgoing texts usually cost more than incoming ones.

XE Currency app is also one of my favorites.  It's great in a pinch when trying to calculate currency conversions on the fly.  Sometimes I keep my data signal on my phone on but only allow it for certain apps.  XE is one of those that I'll allow.  When you're overseas and using data apps on your phone, try to keep the time short, and know what you're looking for and need before you open an app.

GateGuru has been helpful when navigating gigantic airports like Hong Kong, Seoul Incheon, or Beijing.  When I have a layover, the first thing I need off the plane is Starbucks, followed by some quality airport shopping (I go gaga over airport shopping, no idea why).  Connect to the airport wifi if you can, and use GateGuru to locate a coffee shop, airline lounge, ATMs, and other amenities.

Lastly, before I leave home and am preparing for a big trip, I use PackTheBag, a packing app.  When I begin planning a trip, I set up the packing list and set out a suitcase.  Whenever I think of something to bring with, I toss it in the suitcase and check the item off the packing list.  Next trip: remember to pack the wine bottle packing materials.  This is a hint for the next blog entry.  Enjoy!

Beijing Day 5: Summer Palace on a Clear, Sunny Day

Our last day plan was to visit the Summer Palace.  An ancient canal ran from central Beijing out to the palace, and fortunately we picked an excellent day to take the slow boat to China.  The rains of the past week cleared the thick smog and we were able to enjoy a warm, clear, sunny day.  I had no idea that Beijing was surrounded by mountains.

The boat ride was a pleasant change from walking, taxis, and subways, and along the canal we passed couples out for a walk, friends strolling, a naked old man sunbathing (I didn't look twice), an man fishing with a trident (I had to look twice), and a girl taking her pet squirrel out for a walk on a leash (I had to stare).  What we didn't find out in our research that the boat ride was cut in half.  The boat docked where we had to exit (we were "shooed" because we didn't realize we get to get off), then followed the crowd to another dock where we boarded our last boat.  This wasn't anything I saw mentioned on TripAdvisor so we were a bit confused about the unannounced transfer.

The total trip was under an hour and left us at the south entrance of the palace grounds in front of a large lake full of rowboats and dragon boats.  Plenty of locals and tourists were out enjoying the grounds and weather, eating ice cream cones and snapping pictures. We climbed the central pagoda of the palace that overlooked the city and it was nice to see the entire metropolis without the smog.

Carrie and I have a tradition finishing our trip with a fantastic meal on the final night.  Usually it's off the Top 50 list, or another highly-rated restaurant.  Our choice this time was TRB, which coincidentally was at the end of the alley of our hutong.  After a week camping in Mongolia, followed by a hot summer week in Beijing, hiking, walking, rain every day, and a 3-star hutong hotel, I was ready to spoil myself.  Tasting menu, wine pairings, linen napkins, Michelin-ranked restaurant. This was long overdue.  

There was something about China.  Two weeks isn't a long time to be away from home, but for some, it really is.  Near the end of the trip I started to feel comfortable being away.  I wasn't ready to go home.  Fortunately, the portion of the return trip I was looking forward to was in First Class.  I settled in to a spacious "cubby" with linens, pillows, and a duvet.  It was a bit odd being the first person to board the plane.  The flight attendant handed me pajamas (which are now my favorite set in which to bum around at home), and shortly after a lovely steak dinner, my bed was made up and I relaxed with some bubbly, Maleficent queued up on the video screen, and a comfortable bed.  The 14 hour flight seemed to only take a few hours.  Breakfast was served while I was in "bed", still cozy in my PJs, brought to me when I roused from sleep and freshened up.  I had every plan to visit Carrie and Danielle during the long flight, but the creature comforts at the front of the plane kept me in place.

I would return to China.  It was fascinating.  A culture so entirely opposite of my own, it was a feast on the eyes and mind.