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Archive for January, 2007

Jon with Snakes in the Djemma el Fna

Today when we started Day 2 of Buying Things We Don’t Need, Jon got sucked in by the snake guys in Marrakesh’s main square, Djemma el Fna (see creepy photo above).  Here’s how the Snake Guys work: they spot you, the big dumb tourist, wandering around the Djemma el Fna with a guidebook. Actually, scratch that. You don’t even have to carry a guidebook. They just spot you.

Snake Guy 1, smiling big, comes over (sans snake) and says hello, extending his hand. You reach out to shake his hand, exchange a few pleasantries, and voila, Snake Guy Sidekick (avec snake) is suddenly right next to you, wrapping a snake around your neck. In Jon’s case, there are now two snakes – one that Jon holds by the head so it doesn’t whip around and bite him, and another that the Snake Guy holds.  Moral of the story – don’t shake hands with strangers in the Djemma el Fna.

Alternatively, if you, being the friendly person you are, do shake someone’s hand, be on the lookout for a Snake Guy Sidekick lurking nearby.

Snake Guys come in many varieties. Some of them are scattered around the square putting on little snake shows. We’re talking huge-ass anaconda-looking snakes slithering around (*shiver*) while cobras “dance” to some gratingly high-pitched flute music.  Question: are these snakes drugged? I mean, you’d think the snakes would be making a break for it as fast as they can (at least to gobble up some unsuspecting child – or maybe one of the many sad-looking monkeys controlled by the close relative of the Snake Guy – aka the Monkey Guy).

There are miles of souks in Marrakesh. The souks are seemingly endless alleys (warrens) that twist and turn and seem to tunnel in every direction off the north side of the Djemma el Fna.  Jon and I have seen a few “maps” of the souks that tell you generally where all the pottery vendors congregate, where to find the tapis (rug) sellers, shoe sellers, wood carving sellers, leather sellers, etc., but really, unless you want a million people offering to give you somewhat biased directions, just put the map away and wander around. If you really get lost, you just ask for the Djemma el Fna, and you’re all set.leather drying in the sun, marrakesh

We started with the leather souks today because you can’t escape the leather industry when you’re in Marrakesh. You round a corner and encounter dozens of animal skins, drying in the sun, and every other souk seems to offer leather goods – shoes, belts, bags, picture frames, ottomans . . . even leather bellows. When was the last time you saw a bellow, really?

Most of the vendors work out of narrow, stuffed-to-the-rafters spaces (see photo below), but every now and then, you duck through a tiny entrance and find yourself standing in a cavernous shop with (generally) At a woodcarving souk shop in Marrakeshhigher-quality inventory. The souks are surprising this way.  The bargaining can get exhausting, but when I step back and think about it, these guys (no women shopkeepers spotted yet) have a grueling job. There are hundreds of stalls selling hundreds of pieces of identical inventory. I can see why the shopkeepers work hard to squeeze every last dirham out of their customers (the foreign ones, anyway).

Although Jon and I checked out this morning the “fixed price” government-run craft shop on rue Mohammed V to figure out the “high end” of negotiating for goods, we didn’t have a good run today. For example, I negotiated for a pretty run-of-the-mill, casual leather belt for 120 dh ($15 US), which seemed like a bargain until I noticed “opening prices” by other leather sellers started at 150 dh. Oops.

We encountered a particularly tough father-son duo at a leather bag shop. Even though I suspect we got a raw deal, I can’t help but be impressed by their tag-team approach, especially because the son looked like he was maybe 12 years old.

Son: “My father, he scrapes by after he pays the craftsman and the dealer. Best quality leather! You want shoes with that?”Father: “My son, he speaks French so well, no? This money – it sends him to school.”

Jon and I clearly need to come up with our own expert patter to have a fighting chance in the souks. Our “we’re just poor students” line doesn’t seem to go over too well. Suggestions, anyone?

Our limit for haggling today happened at one of those cavernous souk shops I described. The seller had a few gorgeous, unique-looking pottery pieces that had an asking price of 1100 dh (~$155) according to various price tags (price tags are when you know you’re not in a typical souk shop).We were interested in picking up three bowls as gifts, and before even getting down to negotiating for the bowls (rule of thumb in Marrakesh according to Lonely Planet is to start at 1/3 the asking price and move up from there), the seller starts freaking out on us when we ask what kinds of shipping options he offers. He’s pointing fingers at me, gesturing wildly and *telling me* that I should just carry these three heavy-ass bowls on the plane, and I’m explaining to him it’s not possible given (1) how strict EasyJet limits are; and (2) how strict EU limits are, generally, after the 10 August flight scare in the UK. We went back and forth about this until Jon signalled that I was having a meltdown and it was time to go home.

As most of you know, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s someone telling me I’m wrong! : ) [Seriously, I'm so right. I mean, I *just flew on a plane* the other day. Tell me when this guy last got on a plane to the UK! Besides, I'm the customer!]Jon and the fireplace at Riad l’Orangeraie  As you can see, the haggling ceased to be about the goods. It was indeed time to call it a day, so we walked away and came back to our cozy little riad and sat by the fire. All better now. Time for a home-cooked dinner chez Riad.

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Jon in MarrakechClearly, after putting in almost three weeks’ time at work since the Christmas holiday, Jon and I were in dire need of another vacation.So at 5:15 am, we headed out on a snowy, dark London morning to Gatwick Airport. After waiting two hours on the runway because of the unusual half-inch of snow on the ground, our EasyJet flight finally took off. Two hours after take-off, we landed in sunny, 60-degree Marrakech.

Despite a greeting by what can only be described as an oh-so-French immigration official (she pushed my passport back at me and refused to look at it until I had carefully tucked my landing card into the front page of the passport), my excitement to be in Marrakech was undiminished.

The 15-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Riad de l’Orangeraie was easy peasy, and after getting out to walk the last 200 yards through narrow alley chaos (donkeys, piles of dirt, motorbike madness, etc.), we arrived at our quiet getaway hidden in the heart of the “old” part of Marrakech (the walled-in old city known as the Medina).

Riads are traditional Moroccan townhouses that are Riad l’Orangeraie entrance gardenbuilt around a central courtyard garden and facing away from the street. These days, many riads have been converted into small (and in this case, gorgeous) hotels. Our riad, for example, has just eight guest rooms and a courtyard that includes both a garden and a turquoise gem of a pool. (Cheers to Travellerblogue for pointing us to this riad).

While our room was Mint teaprepared, we sat down to some mint tea, which came served in a small silver teapot and gilt-decorated glasses. Even though I am a huge fan of the minty goodness, I have to admit that the pre-added sugar is a little strong for me. I’d rather add my own sugar, but based on my one day here, I’d say adding your own sugar is a no-can-do.

Jon and I spent the afternoon wandering through the Medina attempting to orient ourselves, which may end up being a losing battle considering (1) there are a million winding alleyways here; (2) there are no street signs; and (3) all the shops start to look the same after a while.That said, we greatly enjoyed the street food we sampled. There was the chicken brochette (skewer) guy who served the chicken to us hot off the grill in a flatbread (khoubz) and topped with “tomato salad” (spiced tomato and onion salsa). At first, I worried about eating that tomato salad, but it added the best bit of moisture and spice to the hot, juicy chicken – so obviously this is a risk we had to take. For just 20 dirham ($2.50 at 8 dh to the US dollar), it was also a great deal.Jon buys Orange Juice in the Djamma el fna

Other highlights of our street snacking today included Jon’s purchase of fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of a gazillion (why so many?) old-fashioned-looking carts found in the main town square, the Djemma el Fna; crispy and hot deep-fried dough at the tourist-inflated (but still bargain basement) price of 1 dirham ($.12); and fresh-from-the-griddle roti-like flatbread for 4 dh (see photo below right). Roti type bread in MarrakechAlthough we greatly enjoyed the aimless walking and street-food-sampling, we spent almost four hours walking in what was surely a series of circles. I think we’d still be walking in those circles had it not been for an executive decision at around Hour 3 to actually ask all sorts of people: “ou est le Djemma el Fna” (where is the main square?).  Almost everyone we asked was super-friendly and helpful – going out of their way to walk a few steps to point us in the right direction. When we got really close to the Djemma el Fna, we rookies got waylaid by some teenage kid (whom we hadn’t asked for directions, but who insisted anyway that we follow his directions to the Djemma el Fna). The kid was annoyed when we paid him 5 dh just to go away. He started following us around and saying we hadn’t paid him enough.

In the interest of promoting world peace and understanding, we traded a few choice f*ck you’s before he left us alone (he started it, I swear). You could say it was not an ideal exchange. Dining room at Le foundouk

We had a fun dinner tonight at a beautiful restaurant called Le Foundouk (55, Souk Hal Fassi, 024 37 81 90). The food is supposed to be French-meets-North Africa, but it’s more like French and North Africa exist side by side. There are Moroccan dishes and there are French dishes on the menu, and the two are separate and distinct. No fusion going on here.

The food was fine. What’s worthwhile about the place is the decor and service. My briouates starter came with five deep-fried goodies. Normally, as you know, I am all over the deep fried food, but of the five pieces on my plate, I could only identify lamb and beef as fillings. The lamb filling was tender and sweet from the raisins and cinnamon; the beef was good enough; and the other three fillings were unidentifiable mush.

My chicken tagine with onions and grapes was a little dried out despite the (overly) sweet sauce made from the onions and grapes

Jon started with harira, the traditional Moroccan lentil soup, which was hearty and meaty, so no complaints there. Chandelier at Le FoundoukHis pastilla was tasty, and because we’ve never had it before, we’re not sure if it’s supposed to be this dry, but that’s what we thought of it. The pastilla is a pastry-wrapped bit of pigeon filling. On top of the pastry is a honey-and-nut coating that adds a great sweet contrast to the savoury pigeon filling.

We’d try it again, but we’re not convinced it was worth the money.  What *was* well worth the 700 dh we paid for dinner were the soaring ceilings, iron filigree work, warm lighting and perfect soundtrack in the dining room. Together, it created both drama and coziness. We’d go back, though maybe for drinks and desserts. The mahia (fig brandy) in the cocktails, for example, was a nice treat.

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Trevi Fountain

In late August, we spent five days in Rome. The weather was good, but I think a lot of the better restaurants were closed for the August getaway (feria) that Romans observe, or at least, that’s what I tell myself because many of our meals were hit-or-miss despite deep research.

That said, pasta courses were almost always fresh and cooked perfectly al dente, so maybe if all you eat is pasta, you won’t be disappointed. There are worse strategies than going whole-hog-anti-Atkins, I suppose.

The Colosseo was more moving than I remembered from my backpacker trip in 1999, but even though Rome is a beautiful and lively city, I think there are a lot of other places in Italy (Florence, Tuscany, Amalfi, Cinque Terre, Venice) I would re-visit before I travel to Rome again.

Thursday, August 2006 – dinner at Maccheroni

We arrived at Ciampino airport around 4:30 p.m. Rome time, and just our luck, we ended up waiting in the baggage area for about 40 minutes because the Rome airport authorities were (so the rumor was) concerned about unattended baggage sitting in front of the station. Instead of making a public announcement about it, the airport authorities preferred to rely on a system of communication best resembling the game of telephone. You’d see an Italian-speaking person approach the uniformed guy in the corner, converse for a while, and then that person would tell nearby people what the uniformed guy said, etc. We were told only to move from one side of the room to the other and then back – all in the name of safety. Not sure why we had to make the moves across the room, other than perhaps uncertainty about where, exactly, the unattended luggage was.

Jon and I decided to be adventurous (and cheap) and follow all the Italians in order to get from the airport to Rome. We paid 1 euro each to get on the local Cotral bus to the Ciampino railway station, which was about a 5 minutes’ drive away from the airport. The town of Ciampino looked pretty charming, considering its claim to fame is this relatively dinky airport. We paid another 2 euros each for our tickets into Rome Termini, and the ride to Rome was about 15 minutes, max. Definitely not a bad way to travel and it’s unbeatably cheap. Always a plus. Literally, when in Rome . . . .We arrived at Termini and I couldn’t help thinking how much snazzier Termini looks now than it did when I was there in 1999. It seems urban redevelopment and sprucing up has been a trend the world over.

The Golden Tulip Mecenate Palace Hotel is in a lovely spot on Via Carlo Alberti. The hotel overlooks Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, and it’s a pretty, grand-looking building. Jon and I got a tiny tiny room, which was fine with us since it was clean and well-air-conditioned. In my mind, it’s also nicer to have a smaller (full size-ish) bed that’s in one piece as opposed to a “European King Size” bed that’s effectively two twin beds shoved together such that one person always ends up in that annoying crack. (The Golden Tulip, by the way, is a chain we first encountered in Prague, where we thought the service and style were huge for the money (probably true of Prague, generally), so that’s why we tried it out again in Rome).

Jon and I unpacked and relaxed a little before going running to get rid of the airplane blahs. We ran down Via Merulana and didn’t turn off at the right place (bc bringing a map would slow down our obviously blistering-fast, Olympic-style pace), so it was a real treat when we rounded a corner and had a view of the Colosseo. It looked beautiful with the sun setting behind it and the ruins of the Forum also backlit. I loved how enormous it looked, and I thought about how when I last saw it with my friend Maura, I never thought I would see it again. Well, not in a morbid way. More that I wouldn’t expect to see it again “just” seven years later.

Our challenge of the day was to figure out how to buy bus tickets. Using the crap glossary at the back of our guidebook, we cobbled together the sentence: “Avete bigliottero per favore”? Very fluent are we.

The No. 71 bus was perfect – it stopped right in front of our hotel and ran straight west. We were in Piazza S. Silvestrio in about 6 minutes, and then we walked less for than five minutes to reach Maccheroni Ristorante, Piazza delle Coppelle, 44 (+39.(0)6.580.0919).

At first we were seated downstairs, and when we asked the waiter if there was room upstairs, he gave a non-responsive answer that amounted to “you were told you would be seated downstairs so that’s where you will sit.”

The problem is that the underground dining area was depressing. There were six tables, most seating big families, a woman eating alone, a couple with a baby . . . not deal breakers on their own, but I had seen and felt the buzz upstairs and so that’s where I wanted to be. I kept obsessing about it, and it’s a good thing the food was good and Jon has a lot of patience for my whining.

Our primi piatti (pastas) were excellent. I ordered zucchini flower ravioli which, despite the pretty heavy cheese sauce, managed to keep the delicate flavor of the zucchini flowers going. We could have stopped there, but of course we ordered secondi (meat) courses too.Most happily, after our pasta course, Jon convinced a sympathetic waiter to seat us upstairs. I was thrilled. Upstairs you get the cheerful, casual noise of a place like Two Amys in DC. The room is all white-tiled walls, and this being a trendy place, you of course watch the chefs at work in the kitchen through a glass partition.

My breaded veal breast with fresh arugula and tomatoes was all you could ask for in anything deep fried – crisp and greaseless on the outside while pink and juicy on the inside. With a 1/2 L of house wine and an espresso for Jon, our total tab was about 80 euros. An excellent start to the trip despite my initial unhappiness about the downstairs thing.

Friday, August 2006 – Capitoline Museums, lunch at Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, drinks at Hotel de Russie, and dinner at Il BacaroAntico Caffe Santamaria, Piazza S. Maria Maggiore, 7a (06 446 5863).

Because we had slept too late and missed the hotel -provided breakfast, we went to the place just around the corner from our hotel. We stood at the counter and ate our two cornetti (tasty) and Jon’s espresso. When you stand at the counter, you pay what the locals pay. The minute you sit down at a table, you’re paying triple – mostly for the privilege of parking yourself at a table for as long as you want, which is fine if that’s what you’re planning to do all morning. Cornetti, by the way, is a genius idea. It’s a croissant, but with a sugar glaze on top. It is a universal fact that Butter Pastry + Sugar Glaze = Yummy.

We then walked down towards the Forum to see the Capitoline Museum. Turns out we made a wrong turn at the monstrously-huge Victor EmmanuelVictor Emmanuel Monument monument (Il Vittorio) and got caught in a driving summer rain. Jon was surprised by the intensity of the thunderstorm – there is no such thing in London – and we had expected the day to be cold and gray the entire time. Instead, once the storm clouds had passed, the day was perfectly clear and sunny. We’d forgotten that’s how rainstorms can work.

The Capitoline Museum was OK. It’s comprised of two buildings. One of them, the Conservatore Palace, was not very exciting, though we gamely listened to the two-for-one audiotour we’d gotten. This two-for-one is not to be confused with getting two separate audiotours. With the two-for-one, you get one player, and one person can hold up the player to his/her ear like it’s a phone, and the other person has to trail nearby, listening to the same commentary but using headphones attached to the phone-like part. It’s quite a dorky sight, and you both have to want to see the same works of art at the same time. But it worked for us, because we’re cool like that.

The problem with the audiotour is that the narrator spends a whole lot of time in each room describing things like the ceiling carvings rather than the who, what, when, where Campidoglioof the artists whose sculptures are on display. In one of the rooms of the Conservatore Palace, there’s a famous statue of the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus. The twins are, of course, suckling at the wolf’s teats, and Jon and I watched in total amusement as two college-age-looking guys spent five or ten minutes trying to take a photo of one of them suckling at the she-wolf teats. For a moment, I was proud to be 30.After we had left the museum around 2 p.m., we set out in search of lunch.

Sora Margherita (Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30) turned out to be closed for August (and by the way, the restaurant’s doorway was so run-down-looking that it was hard to believe there’s a highly-regarded restaurant hiding behind, though apparently you’ll have a great meal there if you get in), so we went to our nearby backup: Ristorante Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 21/a-22 (06 68.61.105, closed on Mondays). The outdoor seating was irresistible, and wine really was cheaper than water: a 1 1/2L carafe was 3.50 euros.We tried our first Roman specialty of fried artichoke (carciofo) for 6 euros and kept things light with just one order of fried zucchini flower, a suppli (fried risotto balls with a cheese center), pasta carbonara, and pasta e vongole.

Unbelievably thrilling is that our total came to just 35 euros. The food was uneven (i.e., excellent pastas, really soggy, lukewarm appetizers), but when your bill is that cheap and the weather is so nice, it’s hard to be unhappy. Most of the diners at that hour appeared to be just like us (tourists), and when we went in to use the bathroom, we discovered the interior of the restaurant was depressingly dark and old-school as well as the size of a football field. Not exactly the small local find we’d hoped to eat at. Still, if you avoid eating inside and stick with the pastas, all will be well.

Jon and I did some shopping at the Frette store (it’s cheaper in Italy than in the UK) and then walked along Via Condotti in what turned out to be very hot weather. I walked through a few stores, and when I gave up on my window shopping, I found Jon napping in the sun on the Spanish Steps. To help him wake up, we decided to get some gelato near Trevi Fountain.

Blue Ice Cream, near Trevi, was pretty good, but not a destination. The chocolate-chip-cookie flavor was kind of watery and icy. The décor (all fluorescents) screams teeny bopper. Still, not bad, and you’ll find several locations of this chain in Rome.In the evening, we headed out for drinks at the Hotel de Russie, Via Babuino, 9, close to the Piazza del Popolo (a depressing piazza, I thought).

The Hotel was very sleek and built in expensive, somewhat-cold materials. It was like being in a luxe monastery surrounded by all this neutral, buff-colored stone with no color or textiles to warm up the space.

The “Stravinsky Bar” was empty at 8:30 when we arrived for aperitifs, so Jon and I sat outside in the hotel’s courtyard garden, which was pretty and lit by torchlight, but we could’ve been sitting in someone’s (really nice) backyard.

There was a lit-up double staircase to the formal restaurant that hinted at the possibility of something dramatic, but we didn’t hop up there. Maybe then we would’ve at least had a celeb spotting.

Our drinks were 18 euros each (sheesh), but luckily the drinks we ordered could double as tranquilizers for an elephant. Jon ordered a “baby peach martini” and I got one with a funny name that was a martini with lychee and ginger. What arrived at our table: The“baby peach” in Jon’s glass looked suspiciously like an olive, and his martini looked and tasted like a regular martini (read: strong). Mine might have been better with a little bit of sugar syrup. We were both overwhelmed by the alcohol in these little drinks and could’ve used some sweetness to help it all go down. Overall, I don’t regret the stop in. The little bar nibbles were elaborate and tasty, and the service was attentive. So perhaps it’s all about avoiding the martini list.

We ate dinner that night at Il Bacaro, Via degli Spagnoli, 27 (06.687.2554), near the Pantheon. Our total tab for dinner here, not including tip, was 74.50 euros, which wasn’t bad, but not exactly a bargain. Continuing the trend of not getting a good table, we arrived at 9:45 pm for our reservation and were seated at a table near the bathroom. While this table wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting in a basement (i.e., it was still part of the warm, buzzy room, at least), I was kind of annoyed that if we had arrived as walk-ins, we probably could have gotten a nice indoor table (or maybe even an outdoor table) simply by waiting 10 minutes for people from the last seating to leave. A plan was hatching . . . .That said, the Il Bacaro staff seemed pretty friendly – asking us if it was OK that they’d run out of water glasses and could we please use wine glasses instead.

My first course was a spaghetti bottarga (salt-dried cod roe) with carciofo (fried artichoke), but it was way too salty and not very fishy, and I suppose it was inevitable that I wouldn’t taste very much carciofo given what a strong flavor bottarga has. Jon’s tagliolini with zucchini and ricotta was much tastier than my spaghetti, but he was annoyed halfway through his meal when he realized he’d gotten spaghetti (a dry pasta) instead of tagliolini as advertised on the menu (a fresh pasta). I’m not sure how much Jon would have cared but for a recent New York Times article describing how Americans get served cheaper-quality ingredients than Romans get served), but his pasta was still really delicious even if he didn’t get the homemade fresh tagliolini.Jon’s second course was kind of bland – it was beef with a broccoli puree. Frankly, it’s something you would expect in a hospital, not in a romantic little Roman restaurant.

My beef (stracciatelle di filetto di something something) had the opposite problem – way too strong a flavor. Basically, the beef was marinated in balsamic vinegar and then grilled and served with arugula and shaved parmesan. The first few bites were good, but then I couldn’t take any more of the intensely sharp tang and of the vinegar. My dish was much improved after I took some of Jon’s bland beef and put it in my sauce to dilute the vinegar’s acidity.

Overall, we’d give Il Bacaro another try because of the atmosphere and service, but maybe stick with the pastas and try to fight back against the table near the bathroom.

Saturday, August 2006 – Colosseo, lunch at Carlo Menta, dinner at Boccondovino and food shopping at Volpetti and Elite

We woke up in time to catch the hotel breakfast, which was lovely bc breakfast is served on the rooftop garden, and the sunlight in the morning on the hotel rooftop is irresistible. Jon on Roof of Mecenate Palace HotelWith complimentary copies of the IHT available, what’s there not to like? I read important stories like the one about David Bouley’s super-gourmet wedding at a castle in the Loire. The reporter asked him how much his wedding cost, and Bouley says something like: “oh, you’d be surprised how cheap it can be with friends in the biz,” and of course I’m thinking: hello?? “friends” my ass – he calls up his vendors and says “it’s my wedding, what can you do for me” and what do you suppose his vendors are going to do to keep their highest-margin customer happy? They must be tripping over themselves to make sure he keeps using their supplies!

On our way to the Colosseo, we tried to find Taverna Romana (Via Madonna dei Monti, 79, +39 06 474 5325) where a May 2006 NYT article claimed the best cacio e pepe (pasta with black pepper) was to be found. Of course the place was locked up for August feria. We increasingly think that if you try to find a non-tourist place, it will be closed, which of course leads to the disappointing thought that anything we can get into right now is touristy.

Anyway, we were mildly disappointed that our first option for lunch was closed, but we moved on to the Colosseum. Jon and I were glad to see that our Roma Pass allowed us to (1) get into the Colosseum for free; and (2) allow us to skip what looked Colosseolike (at least) a 1.5-hour line of people waiting just to buy tix. So, key tip: Buy the Roma Pass at a place with zero line (i.e., Capitoline Museums) and then use it at a huge-line place like the Colosseo. Just for avoiding the long line, the card is worth it. You’ll be so grateful for this tip, I promise.

superior about hitting the turnstiles at the front of the line that included an empty aisle for Roma Pass holders and tour groups. Awesome.The Colosseum itself was enormous and yes, awe –inspiring. It was extremely sunny and warm, Colosseo interiorbut thank goodness the heat wasn’t particularly high. There is now an elevator in the Colosseum, as well as bits of seating that have been reconstructed. Otherwise, everything looked as it did when I came with Maura seven years ago, which I guess isn’t remarkable when you think that it’s stood for almost 2000 years.

Instead of walking to the nearby Forum, we decided to search for lunch. Our second try of the day was to go to a pizza place called Pizzeria Ai Marmi (as recommended in the Great Eats Italy book and in a Feb 2006 NYT article), Viale di Trastevere, 53/59, but of course it was closed for August.

In search of our third option, Da Lucia, Vicolo del Mattonato, we wandered around forever in Trastevere, and then we found it, it, too, was closed for August. Argh.Tired and hot, Jon and I gave up on finding recommended/researched places, and we ended up at a bustling restaurant called Carlo Menta Ristorante on Via della Lungaretta, 101 (06.58.03.733).

At first, we sat outdoors, which sucked because the plastic tables were claustrophobically close, and the tinny radio soundtrack made me feel like I was at the Jersey shore. I know it seems I am super critical of where we’re eating, but I figure when you’re in touristy areas, it’s so easy to end up wasting your money at bad restaurants. So I guess I hope I can help other travelers avoid the waste.

So we switched indoors, where the décor was old-school, but simple – plus there was decent a/c. The food could have been delicious, but it seemed nobody cared enough to go that extra inch. They were so close as far as the pizza was concerned, for example. Jon and I each ordered a pizza margherita for 6 euros each. So cheap, right? The pies were fresh, but the sauce was such a disappointment – no tomatoes that I could see. So we cannibalized the bruschetta Jon had ordered and the tomatoes transformed the pizza. In the restaurant’s defense, our tab for two was less than 20 euros.

After lunch, we hopped on the bus along and over the Tiber river to turn onto Via Marmorata in a neighborhood called Testaccio. We searched out a gourmet Italian store called Volpetti, Via Marmorata, 47 (06 574 2352), and of course it was closed. But this one was just closed for siesta and would reopen at 5 p.m., so we revisited Volpetti around 7 p.m. to pick up a few goodies for tomorrow’s planned picnic.Because the weather was so tempting, we decided to run from our hotel to Volpetti, so started off down a small road to the Colosseum, which turns out to be very close to our hotel – must be less than 1 km away. It was amazing how, when you run behind the Colosseum to Via Gregorio, it empties of tourists, and instead we saw two Italian wedding parties taking photos with the Colosseum as backdrop.

We ran along the edge of a pretty-looking park (Palatine park) and then took a detour near the ruins of the Circus Maximus. I definitely see why the place isn’t on tourist itineraries. There’s really nothing left – it’s just a long flat, mildly-grassy field with a sort-of-oval indentation. There were a few other runners there, too, but it’s so barren and strewn with glass fragments that it’s not even welcoming if you want to go running.

If you run up along the southern side of the Circus Maximus ruins (which is a word I use lightly), you get a dramatic view of the Palatine ruins, which do look impressive, especially around sunset. What is about a sunset that gives off such a sense of time and history?

We kept running until we hit the Pyramid, which is really kind of weird to see in this otherwise unhistoric-looking part of Rome. This ancient-looking Pyramid sits near a traffic circle and metro stop, which makes a pretty jarring image.

At Volpetti, I have a feeling shoppers in workout clothes are not welcomed. People there were pretty rude to us, but I am guessing that the store considered it rude that we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts. It’s the kind of store where the guy has to gather your groceries for you, then you pay at the register, and then your groceries are given to you in a bag.So the man “helping” us was glad to pull down the two bottles of wine we decided to buy (low effort for him), and then he was annoyed that we wanted to try fresh pecorino (more effort for him). He kept trying to give us dried stuff, which we didn’t want (we thought saying “pecorino fresca” would let him know we wanted it fresh).

Then we asked for salami, and he started to slice us 100g of one of dozens of salamis without letting us taste it. I’m glad we insisted on tastings because of course the salami he wanted to give us was flabby and spiceless. We pointed to some type of Toscana salami, and he objected by saying “but it has fennel,” as if that meant we would not want to try it. We tried it, liked it enough that we just wanted our experience there to end, so we bought it and left.

I was unimpressed with the store even if you assume (being generous) that my running outfit was a huge faux pas.I can only guess that Catharine Reynolds, who wrote the March 2004 NYT article that recommended the place, must be BFF with the store owner. Same with the Food & Wine writer who wrote it up (article displayed prominently in the store window).

We caught a bus (72) headed back in the direction we wanted, and we got off at Via Cavour, near a fancy-looking supermarket we went to yesterday, Elite, Via Cavour, 230-236 (06 485 687). We stopped in bc we’d seen some pici we wanted to buy, and we also found some black linguini and bottles of Vignamaggio (only one bottle left of the 2000 Mona Lisa and a few bottles of some kind of anniversary bottle (“600”) in honor of the vineyard’s 600 years of existence, I guess. Yes, we’re suckers for marketing, perhaps, but we really have a soft spot for the Vignamaggio), so I’d recommend picking up food souvenirs at Elite over Volpetti.

We showered and then got dressed up because we were tired of getting bad seating (either bc we make the reservation ourselves on the phone in American English or because our hotel rats us out as clueless tourists). So today we were going to try something drastic – the walk in.

Ristorante Boccondivino, Piazza in Campo Marzio, 6, (06 6830 8623, Closed on Saturday lunch and on Sunday).

We had a really good meal here. And we got a table outside without any problem. Our fiore de zucca was freshly fried and the salty anchovy had melded perfectly in the gooey texture of mozzarella and the sweet, vegetal aroma of the squash blossom. Jon greatly enjoyed his fettucine with shrimp and zucchini, and my vermicelli con vongole was al dente and tasted of the sea. Simple and good.Jon’s secondi was a grilled dorado for a pricey 18 euro, and my duck breast (petto d’anatraco), was solid. With a side dish, espresso and a 20 euro bottle of slightly-too-strong nebbiolo, our total was 91 euros, plus a 10 euro tip. Of all our meals in Rome, our dinner here included the best mix of food, décor and service, other than Maccheroni after we moved upstairs.

After dinner, we hopped on the trusty 71 bus back to S. Maria Maggiore and got a piccolo coppo of dark chocolate gelato at the Orso Blanco (polar bear) Gelateria-Yogurteria, Via Carlo Alberto, 7, (06 4434 0765), just next door to our hotel. Good stuff.

Sunday, August 2006 – St. Peter’s, Pantheon, gelato at San Crispino, drinks at Hotel Eden, dinner at Piccolo Abruzzo

This morning the church bells were going crazy (it being Sunday and all). It was another bright, sunny morning, and we had another breakfast on the hotel roof during which I scarfed down two cornetti (the number of cornetti I eat seems to increase the longer I’m in Italy).

Jon and I were pleased to discover that it had been totally unnecessary for me to stow away two dinner rolls in a napkin from breakfast in anticipation of a picnic lunch, because the supermarket across the street was open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday! Who says the Italians take Sunday off from work?Armed with expensive buffalo mozzarella (12 euros a kg) and a Sunday porchetta special (seriously, the guy is standing there carving up a giant roast pig – it’s like the village market continues its tradition at your mega chain supermarket), we hopped on the metro to St. Peter’s. It was our first ride on the Rome metro, and the train we were on was super new with some fancy TV screens showing you visuals of all the sights above ground. A nice touch pour les touristes.

At the Vatican stop, clouds had rolled in and it was drizzling (new country, new climate, I suppose).We followed the crowds over to St. Peter’s square, where we got on a super long line that moved orderly and quickly until the last 30 feet, when it was just a big chaotic crowd pushing its way through four or five metal detectors. What’s even more irritating is knowing that these metal detectors are just for show. As far as I could tell, the guy manning the detector wasn’t watching any kind of screen showing what the scanners found in people’s bags, and he certainly wasn’t doing anything when people walked through the metal detector beeping all over the place. What a waste of time.St. Peter’s Facade

We checked Jon’s bag and then headed in to see the Pope’s tombs. It was a pretty fancy place for a crypt – all white marble, and you passed not nearly as many tombs as you’d expect. Pope John Paul II’s tomb was the big draw, and it was in a clean, simple style that seemed almost ugly. Maybe it was the two potted plants nearby – the kind you’d expect in your doctor’s office. Jon thinks the tomb is very bobo – expensive materials but a simple look.

In contrast, St. Peter’s tomb around the corner is all crazy colored marbles and gold-and-bronze carvings. His tomb is a continuation of the Bernini madness above the crypt, so we won’t blame St. Peter for the gaudiness of his tomb. It was just the style then.We walked around the enormous interior of St. Peter’s, trying to appreciate all the details, but there are just too many to St. Peter’s Navenotice all at once. I focused on the floor, partly because it was so accessible. And if you think about all the care that goes into making the floor beautiful, you can start to appreciate the effort that goes into, say, the ceiling. Only the best for the Church, that’s for sure.

If ever you want to talk about an extremely wealthy religious group, you definitely should check out the Catholic church first. It’s not every religion that gets a half dozen works of art by Bernini, you know.

Jon and I exited the church and had our picnic extravaganza on the steps of the south colonnade. We felt so guilty that we didn’t come close to finishing our food, so we re-wrapped the salamis and cheeses and breads and planned to give them to someone begging in the street. Of course we didn’t see any beggars on the walk from St. Peter’s to the Vatican, and instead we passed at least a dozen guys selling fake bags and sunglasses.I loved the Vatican post office, by the way. Jon thinks it’s solely for money-making and then he made the good point that the Vatican has probably ‘outsourced’ its mail function to the PT (Italian Post).St. Peter’s piazza

We hiked around the high walls of the Vatican gardens to reach the entrance to the Vatican Museum, only to discover the place closes at around 12 noon (last exit at 1:45 p.m.). argh.We decided to take a break at a touristy café on the square surrounding the Pantheon. We chose to Pantheon rotundahave our overpriced (i.e., 4 euros for a can of diet coke) drinks at Night and Day, Piazza della Rotunda (next to the McDonald’s that happens to have an outdoor terrace). Of course we got our money’s worth by sitting for an hour, reading books, watching the crowds (esp. the two Japanese guys to our left who spent most of the hour taking turns posing with espresso cups and taking pictures of each other) and using the toilet twice. If that’s not worth 8 euros, I don’t know what is.

We took a 5-minute walk through the interior of the Pantheon (dedicated to all the major Roman gods), which is pretty impressive even though it’s been stripped of all its gold and such. And it’s now a Catholic basilica of course. Waste not, want not.

The big skylight in the rotunda is the only source of light, and it still does a good job after a thousand years. What’s curious is that it’s not glassed in. So when it rains, there’s water everywhere (as evidenced by the water on the floor today from the light morning drizzle). I wonder why it’s not glassed in? It gets too hot, maybe? What a pain to wipe up all that water, right?

We walked from the Pantheon to try the famous Il Gelato di San Crispino, Via della Panetteria, 42 (06 679 3924), which is Jon at San Crispinoso close to Trevi that you think it’s another tourist trip. But it was very good and just 2.50 euro for a cup with two flavours. Definitely the best we’ve had yet, though we’re not connoisseurs (but we are picky, generally). I loved the stracciatella, which had blended the chocolate chips smoothly into the vanilla, and Jon had “San Crispino,” which is vanilla and honey.

In case it’s not clear you’re at a special gelateria, there are food magazines and articles from all over the world posted along the walls, with the Sophisticated Traveler section of the NYT having pride of place in a large blown-up sign outside the entrance. The gelato here is great stuff. This destination lives up to its high rep.

We had drinks that night at the Hotel Eden, which we reached by taxi because when we got off the No. 71 bus in the middle of a side street, we realized the little 116 bus that would take us to the Spanish steps wasn’t running on Sundays. We asked the bus driver to take us to the Spanish Steps, and just before we got there, I thought of asking him to drop us off at the “nearby” Hotel Eden. Well, the guy made all these huffy/puffy noises to tell us that the hotel was nowhere near the Spanish Steps, so he took us on a long route to reach the hotel. So we spent 10 euros instead of 6.50 euros.

According to the Hotel Eden concierge, we were just 3 minutes’ walk from the top of the Spanish steps, so it’s one of those things where driving just takes a lot longer than walking.The bar was nice, but in a very generic-looking-nice-hotel way. At first we were seated outside with a large group of Japanese tourists and after ordering our drinks (17 euros a drink seems to be a magic number), we moved to the indoor, main bar area. The snacks were not inspired or good, and our drinks were so-so. I ordered the “Garden of Eden,” which didn’t taste at all alcoholic. The views from the hotel bar are pretty, but nothing too stand-out. I wouldn’t do it again. It was like having drinks at a Ritz-Carlton.

And then dinner was at Piccolo Abruzzo, Via Sicilia, 237, which turned out to be a 10-minute walk from the Hotel Eden. We walked in and were encouraged by the checked table cloth and funky décor. There was top 40 radio on (the volume of which was raised a lot during a remake of Owner of a Lonely Heart – weird). The concept is that you pay 35 euros a person and get a “fixed price” menu. I wouldn’t go here again despite the rave reviews on the international chowhound board.

First came a plate of cold appetizers – a slice of roasted eggplant (kind of limp and flavourless), some cannelloni beans (creamy and yummy), and cole slaw (no joke – mayo and cabbage in an Italian restaurant!). Then we got a plate of hot appetizers, which had clearly been sitting in an oven for a while – suppli e telefono and empanada-looking doodads had gone kind of soft on the exterior, and while they were hot, they lacked the freshness you’d expect from a deep-fried goody.

We got to help ourselves to salamis, of which one was excellent, and the other two (including a soppressata) were just OK. The wine, a montepulciano d’abrezzo, was pretty good.Throughout the meal, I swear there were mosquitos under the table, because I am definitely not imagining the four or five mosquito bites on my legs and feet right now. Unpleasant, to say the least.Our first pasta course was rotini with a few limp and skimpy pieces of zucchini and tomato thrown in. The rotini could have been cooked for just another 30 seconds, and the dish was definitely oversalted. Overall, it is something we could make at home a lot better.

The second pasta course was good, assuming the arrabiata sauce was home made. It was penne served with a nice tomato-y sauce and with a little bit of kick from the pepper.I couldn’t eat anymore after that, so we ended up sharing a meat course that was horrible. It was three turd-like bits of homemade sausage that tasted mostly of the limp breadcrumbs inside, and then some baked potato and wedges of toast. You could call it “plate of randomness.”

We skipped dessert and ended up with a huge hunk of watermelon and as much grappa as we wanted (not much).At the end of the meal, our waitress (to her credit, she was extremely nice and friendly) asked what price she had quoted us at the beginning of dinner (35 euros), so she charged us “only” 65 euros for dinner because we’d skipped dessert or something. Jon threw in 5 euros tip and we were out of there. Never again!

I think it’s the kind of place where you’d love to go with a big group (family or friends) in the same way you’d like going to Buca di Beppo, right?We jumped on one of several buses leaving from Salaria back to Termini and then walked back to our hotel. Quite a night.We should have stuck with our original plan, Dal Bolognese, 1/2 Piazza del Popolo (06 361 1426), but when we called around 7 p.m., nobody picked up the phone, so we figured they were closed.

Monday, August 2006 – Campo de Fiori, lunch at Shaki’s Wine Bar, National Pasta Museum,

This morning, Jon asked the hotel front desk if they’d look up our RyanAir flight time, and they refused, telling him he should call RyanAir. So Jon asked for the RyanAir number, and the guy claimed he could only find the Ciampino airport number. Jon tried calling that one, but it was no good. Clearly the hotel was not going out of its way to be helpful.

So we packed up, checked our bags at the hotel and headed out to see Campo de Fiori. We had hoped to catch some market action there – we hopped on the 71 to Piazza di San Silvestri, and then we walked a block to pick up the little electric 116 that took us to Campo de Fiori. There wasn’t much to see – six or seven stalls at most.

We tried to find Grappolo d’Oro- Piazza Cancelleria 80-84, (06)6897080, the cheaper (but supposedly still delish) pizza-and-pasta cousin of Ditirambo, but it was closed, of course. Reopening tomorrow! We were so close.Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona

On our way to find Da Luigi near Chiesa Nuova, we popped into an Internet place. You had to hand in your ID, and your name and address were dutifully recorded before you were assigned a non-transferable plastic card loaded with the minutes you ordered (15 minutes, in our case). This handing over of your ID is an anti-terrorism measure, though given the number of sketchy-looking Internet places, I doubt every seller enforces this rule.Unfortunately, the address we had written down for Da Luigi must have been wrong because we didn’t find it, but we did come across a very good, attractive place called Shaki’s Wine Bar, Via Governo Vecchio 123 (Piazza Navona/Chiesa Nuova) tel 06 683 08796.

The service was not very friendly or prompt, but the outdoor seating was pretty and so were the pastas, which were slightly pricey at 12-15 euros a plate, but good. Glasses of wine were particularly good. Jon’s 6.50 chardonnay was refreshing and flavourful.

We had just beaten the Italian office crowd lunch rush – immediately after we sat down, tables around us filled up. So the scene became very lively. During our lunch, an old beggar woman leaned on our table and held out her cup. Jon put some money in, and then she reached for the overripe orange that was sitting as decoration on our table. I felt so sad that it hadn’t occurred to me that our orange centrepiece could be considered a treat of a meal to someone.

After lunch, we walked over to Riscimento so that I could go to the S. Maria de Novella store. It’s not half as atmospheric as the original in Florence, but I couldn’t resist popping in. I picked up four bars of my beloved melograno sapone (pomegranate soap). The store offered to charge me in GBP rather than in Euros, but I was suspicious and went with the Euros. Who knows what exchange rate they were charging?San Crispino GelatoJon and I then walked over to good ol’ Il Gelato di San Crispino and greatly enjoyed our stracciatella, peach and cioccolato gelatos. We ate our fab ice cream while sitting on a sidewalk. I love all the functional public water fountains in Rome, by the way. There was one next to us, which, while wasteful seeming, was also handy for washing your hands and cooling off in the afternoon heat.

We continued on to our original destination, which is the National Pasta Museum.All I can say is that we Air Conditioning at National Pasta Museumshould have been suspicious when the sign out front bragged in five different languages that the museum was air conditioned. Having now experienced the museum, I’d say air conditioning is the only thing the museum has going for it!

When we walked in, there were three middle-aged Italian women waiting to sell and collect our tickets, which of course were 10 euros each. One woman was very snippy about my pushing the wrong button on my “audio guide.”Feeling smart alecky, Jon and I went through the 1-1.5 hours of bland, vague, uninteresting narrative. One entire room (four posters that looked straight out of your Harcourt Brace Jovanovich elementary school textbook) focused on the structure of wheat. And that was the interesting part! There were lots of drawings of industrial pasta machines and such that were not comprehensible without better visual aids. The only room we thought was entertaining showed these weird theatre sets National Pasta Museum displaythat looked like they could be used for puppet shows (see photo). But instead of puppets, there were people-shaped glass containers filled with pasta that echoed the shape of the glass figure.

We were glad we left the place behind, though sad that we spent 20 euros on it. Even sadder is that we could have gone to see the Vatican Museum (Sistine Chapel, anyone), but we actually discussed matter and concluded that the Pasta Museum would be more interesting to us! Ai ya.After the Pasta Museum, we walked over to the Spanish steps, read books and relaxed for forty minutes before we headed back to our hotel. We got our bags, walked over to Termini, handed an American stranger our stamped postcards for mailing, and then caught a 6:35 p.m. train to Ciampino. We were there by 7. Excellent.

A mother-son duo on line were sad to learn that they’d exceeded the weight limit big time by buying so much wine. Having had this happen to us in Montpellier, we were sympathetic. They ended up having to give away bottles of wine because the weight surcharge was more expensive than the bottles were worth.The flight back was uneventful, though I was annoyed at Stansted when there were just two immigration officials checking the “other” line’s passports. I mean, if we’re going to pay taxes with no recourse to benefits, the least we could have is reasonably well-staffed service on bank holiday.We arrived back in our flat around 3 a.m. Clearly a long day, but what a great trip.***

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Map of Provence

Jon and I, along with Anthony and Sara, rented a house for a week in the heart of the Rhone wine country, in a town called Cairanne (pop. 865, no joke). The house sat in the middle of a working vineyard (Domaine de l’Ameillaud) and had a pretty exterior and a modern and comfy interior. I’d highly recommend renting this place.

I landed at Marseilles airport after a lovely red-eye from Boston to Paris and then another flight from Paris to Marseilles. It was a sunny and 75-degree day outside, and Jon was at the airport to pick me up. A sight for sore eyes!

We drove along the coast for a little while and then turned north to Cairanne. On the way, we stopped at Orange, which had a market day that day, a Thursday. We picked up a snazzy Provencal-patterned tablecloth for just 15 euros, and we stocked up on fresh produce to cook up that night.

The outdoor markets in Provence are *not* overrated. They’re so colorful and picturesque that you’re tempted to think they’re set up just for tourists, but then you see all the fresh produce and useful everyday items being sold (peelers, colanders, sponges, etc. – things of minimal use for most tourists), and it’s clear that locals must still shop at these markets.

The house in Cairanne was beautiful. With views of Rhone vineyards and of mountains in the distance, it was definitely the getaway I had pictured and looked forward to.  And did I mention the swimming pool?

After hanging out at the house a little while so I could nap and recover from my cross-Atlantic flight, Jon and I visited another pretty town called Vaison la Romaine, about 20 minutes away by car. We walked around the “Puyman” Roman ruins, which weren’t too much to see. Still, even though they weren’t nearly as interesting as the ones in Arles, it was cool that this dinky town had a few on offer. Could you imagine some random town in New Jersey offering Roman ruins for tour? All we had growing up in NJ was Jockey Hollow, which is cool, but no Roman ruins.

We had a better time walking around the town’s winding, shady, cobbled Medieval streets lined with homes covered in bright flowering vines.

We stopped for an ice cream, Orangina and crepe sucre at Halte Gourmande (rue des fours, Cite Medievale, 84110 Vaison), which had pretty outdoor seats and umbrellas shielding us from the warm, late afternoon sun. There was much well-being as I enjoyed my Orangina (shake it!).

The next day, a Friday, our handy market calendar told us that we’d find market day in Carpentras, so that’s where we headed in our trusty Renault rental. The town was just 20 km away from Cairanne, so we reached the town in just 25 minutes, but it took Tablecloths at Carpentras marketanother 15 minutes to find parking. I can’t imagine what a madhouse it is in the height of summertime. We ended up having to park with half our wheels up on a curb – just imitating the French drivers.

Anyway, there was a lot of produce, herbs, textiles and soaps for sale (along with the usual low-quality kitchen gadgets). Being a tourist, I’m drawn to the tablecloths, the problem being there are only so many tablecloths you need, and only so many your friends want as gifts.

One guy was selling a cheap-and-cheerful table cloth for 20 euros, but the competitive bidder in me wanted to bargain it down to 15 euros, and Jon had only 50-euro bills (stupid ATMs). I thought it would look bad if we handed the guy a 50-euro bill after bargaining things down to 15, even if it is still a fair price. Lesson learned – when going to market, bring small bills.

So we didn’t buy much besides a few noix (I’m addicted to unshelled walnuts from Grenoble ever since visiting our friends Jeff and Bridgette in Lyon) and produce-type goodies for lunch.

We drove to Beaume de Venise thinking we would find someplace yummy to eat lunch (after all, it’s famous for its dessert wines), but everything looked closed except some big, touristy-looking café that seemed to have anything and everything on its menu. So we passed on Beaume and drove back through Aubagne to reach a “Shopi” brand supermarket, whose big gimmick is “ouvert le lundi!” (Translation: Open on Mondays!) Bragging about the fact that you’re actually open on Mondays is so French.

For such a big chain supermarket, it was surprisingly lacking in choices. For example, there were no red onions, and when we searched for balsamic vinegar with which to make salad dressing, we had very few choices – mostly giant bottles of generic brand dressings. So we skipped the dressing and picked up a good jar of mustard instead. People must buy these fancy things at the markets?

Back at the house in Cairanne, we made ourselves quite the lunch. Well, correction, Jon did the cooking while I hung laundry outside on an actual clothesline in the bright sunshine. I could have been on a Tide commercial – in the warm Provencal sunshine, even hanging your laundry is a treat.

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, snacking and slurping down cold drinks (more Orangina, anyone?) at the Café de la Place, which is one of two cafes on the one tiny square in Cairanne. Still, even tiny little Cairanne has a government-sponsored Tourist Information office in the town square.

We left our prime café table around 8 p.m. to drive to Seguret, about 9 km away, to find Bastide Bleu, a mid-range restaurant recommended by the owners of the Cairanne house. But when we reached Seguret (after a gorgeous drive through vineyards lit up by a setting sun), we couldn’t find the restaurant.

Seguret, however, is a really gorgeous town – perched high up on a hill and full of cobbled, winding streets. It reminded me of Eze, except a lot less jetset, in a good way. You imagined some band of religious heretics holing up in Seguret and defending themselves against crusaders for years in a desperate fight to the last. Well, OK, maybe that’s just me. Or anyone who has just read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth. [No, not *that* Kate Moss.]

We ended up sitting down at an elegant place called Le Mesclun (rue des Poternes, 84110 Seguret, 04.90.46.93.43). We were drawn by the menu offerings and also by the beautiful garden dining area, which was lit by candles and lanterns. It was the perfect place to watch the sun set. The place was also full of French speakers, which was a treat and a reassuring sign.

Dessert at Le Mesclun restaurant in Seguret

Dessert at Le Mesclun restaurant in Seguret

I ordered from a 37-euro prix fixe menu that included a starter of langoustines and white asparagus; a delicious cut of lamb (baron d’agneau); a palate cleanser of orange marmalade-y stuff topped with whipped cream accompanied by a chaser of orange vodka and cassis); and ending with a really yummy and visually-fantastic trio of chocolate mousse (with bits of cherry?), a still-piping-hot mini chocolate soufflé, and an intense kiwi sorbet. All three desserts were served in pretty, creative-looking china and topped with a delicate, crunchy lace of burned sugar.

Jon’s 32 euro prix fixe menu included a so-so taboule; a delicious guinea fowl served in a cassoulet (braised); and a tarte tatin that included some really ripe, juicy fruits besides apple. We shared a half bottle of the local gigondas, a bottle of water, and Jon had a coffee. Even his coffee was a big “to do” (see above photo). Our total for all this excellent food was 101 euros. Amazing. This meal was money well spent.

Menerbes, Provence, made famous by Peter Mayle

Menerbes, Provence, made famous by Peter Mayle

Luberon

On the map we used, the Luberon was labelled a big national park area, but it’s not a park in the way we understand it in the U.S. First, there are a whole lot of inhabited towns (villages, is a better word) in the Luberon. The part we drove around in for half a day was pretty hilly and green. Maybe we didn’t go far enough into the Luberon, but from what I could tell, while the Luberon was really picturesque, it seemed no prettier than the area we’d just left behind around Cairanne.

We started off by heading west to Cavaillon on the western border of the Luberon. As we headed east along the N7 through scenic mountain towns like Oppede le Vieux, I realized the beauty of the area is in the medieval, crumbling tan-colored towns set against the green Luberon mountains.

We headed only as far east as Menerbes, which is the small town Peter Mayle made so famous that it should probably be renamed after him. Mayleville actually could sound French, don’t you think?  I, in a very original manner, kept wondering which scenic villa was his.   [Peter Mayle has apparently moved away because of all the annoying people like us who look for his villa in Menerbes.]

Jon and I ate lunch picnicking on the steps of a local museum dedicated to a painter/photographer who lived in Menerbes. Every French couple that walked by wished us “bon appetit,” whereas the one or two Brit or American couples who came by hardly answered Jon’s very hearty “bonjour.”

We had quite the feast – more of the fresh cherries from Cairanne, walnuts, saucisson, fresh bread, cheeses, leftover rotisserie chicken, spicy Dijon mustard.We walked to the top of Menerbes in the intense late afternoon sun. You could feel the sleepy siesta time everywhere. Nobody but the occasional tourist was in the streets. The ruins at the top of the town were private property, and the 12th century church looked desolate in the dry sun. You could feel how this part of France has a lot more in common with Chianti than it does with Paris.

Tree-line road to St. Remy-de-Provence

Tree-line road to St. Remy-de-Provence

We got back in our car and headed out to St. Remy de Provence, driving along a stretch of beautiful road that was covered on both sides by arches of trees (see photo at left). It reminded me of Oak Alley, but with some other type of tree (plane trees?).

St. Remy-de-Provence

In St. Remy, we stayed at the Mas de Figues (translated unpoetically by yours truly: the fig farmhouse), Chemin Vieux d’Arles, which was about 5 km down a series of winding lanes and paths (les chemins). I thought it was kind of ridiculous that we had to wait in the car for a very fussy gate (code: 1717A, for anyone who wants to know), but whatever. All about the drama of the gate opening, maybe.

The farmhouse is very pretty on the outside, surrounded by beautifully-landscaped gardens of lavender and rhododendrons. There are horses moseying around and a big swimming pool in the back. But despite all this, I wouldn’t recommend staying here – our room kind of smelled. It’s unclear why. Everything looked clean, which made it even more disturbing that our room rather stank. Good thing we stayed only one night.

St. Remy’s claim to fame is that Nostradamus was born here and Vincent Van Gogh painted while stuck in the asylum in town. For me, the appeal of St. Remy is that it’s really small, walkable and has a high number of fancy stores despite its small size and slow-going feeling. There’s a giant Occitane store, which was probably a big deal before Occitane showed up at the Paramus mall (not that I have a problem with the Paramus mall), an even bigger “O & co.” store (how nice to have all your olive oil products in one roof, though same deal as Occitane as far as dilution of specialness thanks to mall diaspora phenomenon) and even a Villebrequin (what man doesn’t need $160 floral nylon swimming trunks?).

Jon and I watched a wedding party and guests arrive at the square in front of the town hall at the bottom of the city center. Then after the wedding party disappeared into the town hall for party time, the square morphed into an odd celebration of German-French relations. The speeches were interminable, but Jon and I had scored a cushy park bench, so we were just reading and dozing off during the speeches and enjoying the local color.

There were folks dressed up in “traditional” Provencal outfits and playing some old-sounding instruments. One guy in particular was way too into the performance, hopping around on his feet and twirling his instrument in all directions, but we figured he probably never gets to bust out with that thing. So he clearly made the most of it.

We ate dinner at 9 p.m. at L’Olivade restaurant on rue de Chateau, mostly because the outdoor seating area looked so comfy and inviting. Our meal was alright – not particularly good. We sat next to a French couple that chain smoked their way through dinner, which didn’t make things better. My chevre chaud could have been more tangy, instead of just blandly warm and creamy, and my duck was drowning in an overpowering “honey sauce.” Jon’s duck confit was slightly better, and both of us had potatoes gratinee that had been under a heat lamp. Ah well, we’re just dumb tourists. Next time we’re in St. Remy, we’ll do some research on where to eat.

The highlight of our stay in St. Remy was definitely the dancing in the street we encountered after leaving dinner. For reasons unclear to us, there was a three-person band at a big intersection near the bottom of town. YMCA sung in French was never so fun. And hearing “zat’s zee way ah lak it” (aka That’s the Way I Like It) was classic.

Arles

For such a small town, Arles has a lot going on. I always like to check out the postcards sold by tourist shops to get a feel for what a town has to offer, and in Arles, there are tons of photos of cool-looking Roman ruins, museums and all things related to Van Gogh, who painted Café Terrace at Night and L’Arlesienne while living in Arles.

St. Trophime Cloisters in Arles, Provence

St. Trophime Cloisters in Arles, Provence

For 13.50 euros a person, you can buy a combo ticket that lets you see all the Roman ruins in Arles (of which there are a surprisingly high number) and pretty spots like the Cloitre St. Trophime (Cloister of St. Trophimus). I was Cloitre St. Trophime in Arlessurprised that the cloister looked exactly the same as it did 7 years ago when I last visited it. But why shouldn’t it, really – I mean, it’s been the same for hundreds of years, so what’s 7 years going to change?

Roman arena in Arles, Provence

Roman arena in Arles, Provence

Another Arles highlight I enjoy is the Roman arena. It’s nowhere near as huge as the one in Rome, but (1) it’s been restored and is in working condition; and (2) it reminds you that Rome meant business when it controlled the continent. I like to think about the effort involved in making sure every far-flung outpost of the empire would be stamped with Roman institutions like an arena (not to mention a theatre and thermal baths, the ruins of which you can also see in Arles).~~~

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Prinsengracht

Over May bank holiday (which coincides roughly with Memorial Day weekend), Jon and I went to Amsterdam for four days to hang out with Anthony, who’d flown in to relax and celebrate completing his MD PhD. A well-deserved celebration, and Amsterdam was the perfect choice for fun and games thanks to its gorgeous canals and shops, pubs, clubs and coffee shops. Plus, everyone speaks English and everything is walkable or trammable, which makes it super easy to orient the minute you arrive.

Jon and I were surprised at how quick the trip from London to Amsterdam was: just 40 minutes after takeoff, we landed at Schiphol Airport, which has a rep for having the best duty-free shopping in the world. We didn’t have time to investigate this particular claim, but it’s worth looking into on your next stopover in Amsterdam, I suppose.

We zipped through immigration and immediately caught a train for the 20-minute ride to Centraal station, which is a really large, brick structure on the outside, but oddly tunnel-like on the inside.

Amsterdam MapBrief geography overview: Centraal station sits in the oldest, most central part of Amsterdam, and radiating outward from the station are rings of canals, which make up the part of Amsterdam known as the “Canal Belt.” Within the Canal Belt (which is where most tourists, like us, spend their time), you have sub-neighborhoods like the Leidseplein (which I describe below) and the Jordaan, which is a yuppie SoHo’y neighborhood of picturesque canal houses, shops and cafes. Just outside the Canal Belt is the Museumplein, which is pretty much identical to the Upper East Side – you’ve got a big park, the Vondelpark, the major museums, and ultra-high-end shops (Cartier, Tiffany et al.)

When Jon and I arrived in Amsterdam, Anthony had already checked into the Marriott at the Leidseplein, which is a centuries-year-old square that’s one of the main centers of nightlife in Amsterdam. Most guidebooks to Amsterdam refer to it as the Times Square of Amsterdam (I love how every city seems to have a “Times Square of [insert European city here]” as if it’s something brag about), but the problem with that comparison is that it carries so much negative baggage and at the same time causes disappointment when you see how small and not-nearly-as-busy the square is compared to Times Square. I’d say the only resemblance is in a few (modest-sized) neon signs and the fact that three or four tram lines converge in the square.

I had my doubts about the Marriott, by the way, because Jon and I usually try to find small, more “local” places to stay in places we visit, but because Anthony is the master of Priceline, we got our rooms for about $100 a night and the hotel was shiny, new and comfy – the beds, in particular, get a shout out. I haven’t used that many feather beds since staying at the Ritz-Carlton for work.

We ate a huge meal that first night at Sahid Jaya (Reguliersdwarsstraat, 26). All our research about food in Amsterdam pointed in the direction of Indonesia, particularly towards the rijsttaffel (“rice table”), which is a set menu of dozens of small Indonesian dishes that are served with rice. Indonesian tapas. At Sahid Jaya, the rijsttaffel menu was 23 euros each, which turned out to be a little bit pricey for what we ate. One of the plates was just a few peanuts buried in powdered coconut, and another was cabbage cooked in cream. Basically, the one or two plates that were really delicious came in a size too small to consider a meal, and the other dishes weren’t particularly memorable. At least the service was accommodating and friendly.

Day Two:

Jon and I searched out a synagogue in the morning to remember his Grandma Sylvia, who died last year. It took us almost an hour on the trams to reach the synagogue, though I did enjoy orienting myself to a series of street names in Dutch (straats, pleins and so on) along with some really American ones (Kennedy, Roosevelt, etc.).

When we arrived at the synagogue, there was a young guy blocking the double-gated entrance. We got the full 20 questions, which included reasonable questions about where we’d come from and why we were trying to go to temple, and also some sort of petty and juvenile quizzing about Jewish vocabulary. “What’s a bar mitvah?” “On what holiday do you say the Kol Nidre?”

My two cents’ is that even if we’d gotten those questions wrong, we should still be allowed to go inside and worship, but I understand I’ve never lived in a country where Jews were hunted down, deported and killed. It’s just sad that in May 2006, we would be encountering this level of caution to go to an everyday service.

The service was entirely in Dutch, which was not good, because at least if there’d been Hebrew bits, Jon could follow along. So we stuck around for an hour and a half, and we were grateful to the Dutch woman next to us who would translate occasionally for our benefit.

We met Anthony after the temple service and walked along Prinsengracht, which is one of those picturesque streets that run along a central canal. Not realizing the Anne Frank House was on this canal, we saw a huge line by the museum (which has a very sleek and modern annex to the original Frank house) and initially thought it must be a line of diners waiting to get into a “really cool” restaurant. We’re such hedonists.

We ate a surprisingly good Dutch pancake at the Pancake Bakery, and I say “surprising” because this place was tourist central. Everyone waiting on line to get in was carrying a guidebook, though at least the guidebooks were from different countries (i.e., not just Americans waiting on line). The pancakes, which are really nothing like an American breakfast pancake, were fresh, hot and delicious. They’re more like thick crepes that you customize with fillings. With crispy edges and hot, savoury fillings, you can’t go wrong.

We spent most of the day checking out small shops in the Jordaan, and then we caught a band at the Paradiso, which is a concert venue in an old church. I think the band was from Canada. They were loud. I felt old.

The highlight of the evening for me was dinner at Zuid Zeeland, Herengracht, 413, which serves delicious French/New American food in a small, elegant room. Probably the only negative thing you could say about the place is that you could have been eating anywhere in the world. But we needed a break from the rijstaffel and pancakes.

Day Three:

Bookshelf at Anne Frank HouseA sunny but breezy and chilly day. We walked up the Prinsengracht and by 9:30 a.m. we were on the already-long line at Anne Frank House. Although the line was long, we were in the House by 10. And you know what? It’s a really great museum. The original “house” (really, it was Otto Frank’s office building) is in its original, cramped state, so walking through is powerful because the building is relatively bare. There’s very little text and videos to distract you, and everyone knows enough of the story to feel the sadness in the house. The rooms really do speak for themselves – for example, when you see the bookcase that hid the stairway to the attic, you’re struck by how real Anne Frank’s story was. And then you look around the small room she shared, and it’s heartbreaking to see the movie star photos she pasted to the wall, still there.

After walking through the house, the modern annex houses a lot of exhibits and videos to put Anne Frank’s story in the larger context of the German occupation of Amsterdam, the Holocaust and World War, and then in the context of continuing intolerance today.

Because we’d decided to continue our museum-going streak, we headed to the Museumplein (Museum square) and decided to have a picnic in the sunshine. We found an open supermarket right on the square, Albert Heijn, and had quite a lunch on a park bench near the Von Gogh museum. We had to fight off a lot of aggressive pigeons, and Anthony managed to cut open his hand somehow using the picnic knife, but overall, the picnic was a success.

We paid 25 euros for a ticket that admitted us to both the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. Audiotours were additional euros, and all I can say is that culture certainly gets pricey. The Van Gogh museum was enjoyable, mostly because there are so many of his works on display that you see all the changes in his style and themes over time. That’s about as deep as my art analysis gets. I have to admit the one thing I will always remember about the Van Gogh museum is the crazy fistfight we witnessed in the Van Gogh café. It was definitely weird. Anthony, Jon and I couldn’t make out the dialogue (which we think was in Dutch), but two guys appeared to be fighting over a table in the café, and somehow the disagreement escalated into hard shoves and swings. I was surprised by how long it took security guards to pull them apart, and if you saw the museum, you’d be surprised that this sort of thing happened. It’s such a gorgeous, light-filled, crowded-with-tourists museum, so you figure people just try to be on good behavior in this sort of surrounding.

Food of the evening included a really tasty falafel at Moaz near the Leidseplein, followed by a so-so Indonesian food dinner at Bojo, Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, 51. Walking down the Leidsedwarsstraat, you’re pestered by touts, which is always a bad sign, but we were going to a Daniel Powter (Mr. “because you had a bad day”) concert at the “legendary” Melkwag in the area, and we’d read that Bojo was the best of the bunch. That may be true, but it wasn’t good. The menu offered diluted Indonesian food (satay in all its forms, anyone?), made worse by a lot of use of the heat lamp to keep food warm indefinitely.

Day Four:

In the morning, we went to the Rijksmuseum, which is famous for its collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers. There was a huge line to get in, but because we’d bought a museum pass yesterday for both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum, we followed the arrows directing those of us with the passes/pre-ordered tickets to the front of the line. We loved it. It’s definitely worthwhile to get one of these museum passes in order to skip the long entrance lines.
Standing in front of the RijksmuseumThe vast majority of the Rijksmuseum is closed for at least another year because of renovation, so the “treasures” are currently all gathered in four or five small galleries. The thing is, you spend the first 3 galleries trying hard to pay attention to commentary on haphazardly-collected things like the “William rex” model warship or the Delft earthenware and silver, and then when you get to the Vermeers, they’re beautiful, but amusingly enough, they’re displayed so tightly a small corner that you can barely see them because of all the crowds trying to see the same small gems.

Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” is in a room of its own in the last gallery. I was glad for the commentary on how it’s unlike your usual guildhall decoration because of the active, chaotic posings of the figures, but I think I would have gotten more out of it had there been other large-format “guildhall” decorations to contrast it with.

Overall, I think that while the museum is under renovation, it’s probably worth skipping because everything is so jammed together and haphazard that it’s hard to get much context out of the exhibits.

The best part of our day was going on a super-touristy “Yellow Bike” tour (guess what color the bikes are?) through Amsterdam. We cycled through the canals and learned gossipy facts like which canal rings were traditionally wealthier than others, and overall, as Anthony pointed out, we were “checking” things off our mental list of things we’d seen and done already.

I enjoyed cycling through the Vondelpark, which is like a small version of Central Park, but it was surprisingly unkempt. I guess take for granted the carefully-manicured parks of London and New York and was surprised to find bald patches of grass everywhere.

Our bike tour ended with a pass through the red-light district. Even though I keep reading how cleaned-up and touristy the red-light district is, it’s still creepy and unsettling how openly all the women (and a few men) display themselves in the windows. So on the one hand, it’s a shock to see people selling themselves in one way or another in a “shop window,” but on the other hand, they’re all wearing lingerie that you see in catalogs and ads, so maybe most of the shock value of seeing them standing in windows comes from our imaginations. I can also see the truth in the argument that sex workers in Amsterdam are better off than in other countries, simply because there’s some kind of regulation in place for the industry in a country where the work is legal.

Most of all, I’d like to believe the sex work in Amsterdam isn’t so evil and oppressive if dorky tourist bike tours stop by the red-light district as a matter of course.

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We decided on a last-minute weekend getaway to Paris in May 2006. Below are a few notes from our 36 hours in Paris that weekend, during which we also squeezed in some quality time with our friends from DC who were in Paris to celebrate a milestone birthday. How jetset is that?

Moulin a Vent (Chez Henri), 20, rue des Fossés-St-Bernard, 43-54-99-37, M: Jussieu.
This one’s a “traditional” convivial bistro ambiance with delish food (specializing in meats, but serving great fish, too). The tables are so close together that it’s like eating at one, long communal table: the 70-something-year-old man and his wife, (regulars, it seemed) to our left leaned over us with forkfuls of their food and insisted we try their kidneys dish, while the Swiss father-son duo to our right asked us to help settle their debate about whether you’d find better skiing in Switzerland or in the Rockies (have no idea). Dinner was delicious, though. The restuarant’s classic frisee salad is one I still think about longingly, with savory lardons and a soft-boiled egg gooey with yolk. Really simple and satisfying. The onglet a l’echalotte (hanger steak with shallot sauce) was no slouch, either – tender, juicy and perfectly rare steak smothered in sweet shallot sauce. And it goes without saying the frites were perfectly crispy and salty.

This place is small and feels like a secret, but it’s not – Patricia Wells talks it up, after all. 80 euros covered dinner for two with starters, mains and a bottle of decent house red.

Pershing Hall Hotel, 49, rue Pierre Charron, M: Champs d’Elysees.

Can’t beat this lounge for beautiful décor, beautiful people, and tasty mixed drinks. The drinks are a pricey 17 euros each, but happy hour prices are two identical drinks for the price of one. The lounge’s open courtyard is stunning – one 50-foot wall is entirely covered in shrubbery and lit up to look like a lush tropical garden. We were a little worried we’d find high-stress attitude and noise at this place, but instead it was a gorgeous, relaxed scene. Our party of four easily had a conversation and found a table with a view and comfy seats.

Cuisine de Bar, 8, rue du Cherche-Midi, 01 45 48 42 59, M: Sevres-Babylone or St. Sulpice.

Perfect lunch break while shopping in the Left Bank. Close to the Bon Marche. Specializes in tartines using bread from the Poilane next door – try the avoka’ani tartine (guacomole and fresh crabmeat topping). Prix fixe menu is 12 euros for salad, tartine and glass of wine. Skip the desserts and walk around the corner to Pierre Herme.

Pierre Hermé, 72 rue Bonaparte, 01 43 54 47 77, M: St. Sulpice.

This patisserie close to St. Sulpice serves mouthwatering pastry creations, though pastry doesn’t seem a fancy enough word for the goodies here. The specialty flavor (that made Pierre Herme famous) is the rosewater- raspberry-lychee mix he calls ispahan. There’s a sorbet ice-cream- sandwich-type thing he makes that is perfect way to try an ispahan-flavoured treat. It’s got some ridiculous name like Ms. Icy Icy Ispahan. It’s easy to miss the tiny store, but the line out the door is a good giveaway.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, 5, rue de Montalembert, 01.42.22.56.56, M: Rue de Bac.

For a fancy (2-Michelin-star) French meal without the fancy French infrastructure (read: fuss), this place is still goingZucchini mille-feuille strong and is delish. You sit at bar stools like you would at a sushi counter. You then mix and match small dishes, choosing from a huge menu list, though some are more main-dish-size than others. Each dish costs between 12 euros and 36 euros, so your tab adds up fast. But the meal is creative and delicious, and with friends it’s extremely fun to talk about the different plates and the other customers and décor. Joel Robuchon just opened up one of these Ateliers at the Four Seasons in New York, so if you don’t catch it in Paris, you can always try it in NY now.

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Map of Andalucia

map of Andalucia from Cycling Country

In April 2006, Jon and I spent three days in Granada, one day in Cordoba, and two days in Seville during semana santa, which is the week that ends with Easter Sunday. Below are a few notes from our trip, starting with Granada and ending with Seville.

Casa de los Migueletes, Calle Benalua 11 (Plaza Nueva), Granada, +34 958 210 700

Attractive, small boutique hotel in a renovated mansion dating to the 1600s. Just a two-minute walk into Plaza Nueva. The front desk is extremely helpful and spoke good English. Because it was semana santa (holy week), I assume it was the most expensive (but fun) time of year to visit Granada, and eCasa de los Migueletes courtyardven then, the hotel was 129 € a night for a regular room, and 179 € a night for a big room with a view of the Alhambra.

The hotel breakfast at Migueletes isn’t bad for a continental deal. It’s served in a vaulted downstairs dining room across from the hotel bodega. There’s classical music playing in the background, juice and water, tortilla Espanola, various meats and cheeses, and the usual bread, jams, yogurt and fruits. On the whole, a good breakfast for 9.50 €, but I’m too cheap to pay for it every day. It was a useful option the morning we woke up early to go to the Alhambra (for which you should definitely order tickets beforehand on the Alhambra website to avoid long lines or the very real possibility that they sell out).

Eating in Granada – Just a general comment that a lot of tapas dishes we had in Andalucia were fried, which was, for me, a dream come true at first. But it got old. At the end of our six days in Andalucia, I was crying for a salad. Bacalao, the salted cod, is served everywhere and worth a try. Same with the manzanilla (dry sherry). Tapas in Granada is still served the old-fashioned way (i.e., you get free tapas when you order drinks at the bar, and the tapas become more elaborate as you order more drinks). In Seville, which isn’t frozen in time quite as much as Granada is, you pay for all your tapas, which come in two sizes – media racion (small snack size) and racion (sharing size).

Bar R. Sibari (Plaza Nueva, 3, 18010 Granada)

Slow service, but good for late breakfast or coffee/snack in the afternoon while people-watching in the big square in Granada. The place has what seems to be just one waiter serving all 20+ tables out on the plaza. The tortilla espanola is pretty good. Otherwise, the churros were good but didn’t come with the thick gooey chocolate. Still, all those churros for just 1.50 euros = no complaints, right? The café cortado (aka strong coffee cut with milk) is the real winner here.

Ajo Blanco, Palacios 17, near the Santo Domingo Church

GREAT for a light lunch or late-afternoon snack/loafing. Four of us shared the most delicious plate of hams and salamis, along with a plate of cheeses (10 € a plate) along with some wonderful “free” tapas (slice of orange, pickled red onion, bits of cheese on rounds of bread) and some tasty cavas and chardonnays. And while we nibbled these goodies outside in the sunshine, we saw a semana santa procession leaving from the S. Domingo. Would not sit at the small tables inside. The place welcomes people spilling out and sitting outdoors on the walls/ledges.

Avoid all the restaurants on Calle Navas, which is packed, but it’s definitely tourist hell in Granada (though to be fair, it was mostly Spanish tourists when we were there). We waited forever for a table, and then the food we ordered got progressively worse. It was called Café Jose or something generic like that.

Also, while we’re on the topic of not worth the money: Restaurante Las Tinajas, (Martinez Campos, 17) which is supposed to be one of the big-name fancy places to eat in Granada, was so disappointing. It was highly recommended by our hotel and we’d read about it someplace else, too, but I would avoid it if I were you. The decor was dark woods and yellow lighting with china that looked last updated in the 60s. My appetizer of artichoke hearts with ham, pickled onion and raisins was, to be frank, totally gross – the worst part being the clear, gloppy mucus-like sauce that drowned the ingredients. On the other hand, my friend C’s almond soup was wonderfully savory and creamy, and J’s stuffed aubergines was good, too. So I had high hopes for my monkfish entrée, which ended up also being disgusting because of yet another gloppy sauce coating the fish and pine nuts. The wine was the only good thing we ordered, and our total tab for four was about 200 €. Money poorly spent.

Things to Do in Granada (with eats thrown in):

Albaicin in GranadaThe Albaicin (traditional wealthy nbhd) – fun to browse the touristy shops stocked with Moroccan knicknacks and to enjoy the views of the Alhambra. There’s even a street that’s all bright colors and crowds, and it’s supposed to be a dead ringer for a Moroccan bazaar, but since we haven’t been to Morocco (yet), I can’t confirm or deny.

Café Bar Panero (Plaza Aliatar, 18) close to the top of the hill in the Albaicin. Kind of a run-down-looking square, but full of locals and the food is uneven, but overall, good. There’s Alhambra cerveza on tap at 1.50 € a glass, a slightly creamy but still savory and cool gazpacho at 3.70 € a bowl, and all kinds of other tapas for between 7 and 12 € a plate. The ubiquitous gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic and butter) was so heavy on the butter such that the garlic flavor was diluted. Still, the shrimp was tender and flavourful, so no big complaints as we sopped up the butter and garlic with our bread. Croquettes were definitely my favourite, but I do have a weakness for the fried goodies, especially if potato and bechamel are involved. The mixed fried treats (fritura pequena) included pretty good fried fish, but only so-so calamari. Why must fried calamari so often come out rubbery? Why?

The pimientos de padron were good once you added salt, which of course we had to ask off the table next to ours. Our server was this huge surfer-looking guy who definitely didn’t dispel any stereotypes when he painstakingly took our order down on his notepad and then spaced out the rest of our meal. C suggested we spell out our orders for him, letter by letter.

The sangria, by the way, was very tasty – good mix of fruit and wine. The octopus pulpo we ordered was extremely nasty – rubbery and dry. Our total tab for four was 53 €, so despite the hits and misses, overall worth returning.

Alhambra viewed from Albaicin

Alhambra & Generalife:

Getting to the Alhambra is just a quick walk up a steep hill from Plaza Nueva. Took us just 20 minutes to reach the ticket booth at the top/far end of the Alhambra. It was a steep walk, but nothing bad. We had to arrive by 8 a.m., though I can’t remember why. Some rule about picking up your tix two hours early or forfeiting them?Patio de los Leones

Tickets were 10 € per person (and a 5 € reservation fee on-line), and we’d reserved a 10 a.m. spot, so that was good given the enormous lines that were forming there.

You don’t want to miss the Alhambra – it’s stunning. Definitely spend at least 3-4 hours there. The rooms are dreamy. Everything is soothing and a perfect balance of ornate carvings and simple perspectives.Patio of the MyrtlesHall of the Ambassadors, AlhambraHall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra

Cordoba:

We took a metered taxi from Plaza Nueva to Granada Stacio de Autobus, and 7 € later, we were at the bus station and had bought one-way bus tix on the Alsina Graells line to Cordoba for 11.50 € each, which is not bad for a 2.5-hour ride. The bus was so comfy and clean that I even managed to read during most of the trip w/o getting carsick. Considering how easily I get carsick, this tells you something about how nice the bus was.

The Cordoba bus station was pretty dumpy – not nearly as snazzy and modern as the one in Granada. However, the Cordoba train station across the street is gleaming – mostly white marble and glass. We went through a whole rigamarole to leave our suitcases in lockers – the suitcases had to go through the screening machines, and then we had to cough up enough coins for the lockers.

We hopped in a taxi and a 6 € fare later, we reached the Mezquita, where we met up with our friend Jane. Definitely our logistical achievement of the week. The Mezquita (which means mosque in Spanish) is a grand, imposing space. Like a lot of religious buildings in Andalucia, it’s been used by many religions. In this case, when the Catholics took over, they built a cathedral inside the mosque, and it’s Mezquita in Cordoba definitely unreal seeing the mix of styles and religious symbols. For example, you’re admiring all these ornate Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches and then your eye catches a crucifix tucked into the curve of an arch. Mezquita tix were 8 € each.

We ate lunch nearby at El Faro, (Calle Blanco Belmonte, 6) which at 3 p.m. wasn’t very crowded except for a large Spanish family and an older Spanish couple. We ordered (as usual) tons of food – glasses of wine, a pitcher of sangria, and I appreciated the croquettes again. The tortilla de camarones was OK –a crispy fried disk with vaguely seafood flavor. We ordered it bc the Spanish family sitting near us ordered one and it looked good when the waiter passed by us carrying the dish. But it was kind of dry. Must have been for the kids! Fried calamari was good. The fish in orange sauce got my attention, though it could have used salt.

For more on things to do in Cordoba (along with a nice photo of the Mezquita), check out this 12 November 2006 article in the NYT travel section.

The high-speed AVE train from Cordoba to Seville cost 21.50 € per person, and it got us into Seville Santa Justa train station in just over 30 minutes. Very snazzy. We took a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Puerta de Sevilla on Santa Maria La Blanca, which is on a corner with busy cafes and restaurants, so the buzz/noise from our balcony, while loud, is very cheery. The rooms are clean and very bright, but overall, not worth the money (200 € a night). Priced too high for what it is, bc of Semana Santa.

Semana Santa processions in Seville are pretty grand, though. We were already impressed by the pomp and seriousness of the processions in Granada, but the Sevillan ones were a whole different level.Nazarenos in Seville

We set out to find dinner at El Toison, highly recommended in our Time Out guide, but it seems to have been replaced with some cheesy Mediterranean-themed yuppie bar.

So we checked out Jane’s recommendation (bc she had just spent three days in Seville) and ate at Meson de la Infanta, Dos de Mayo, 26. 954 22 19 09, which was really lively when we arrived around 10:30 p.m. We stood at a converted barrel (now used as a table, of course) and ordered beers and fried bacalao, spinach and chickpeas that were pretty good, though a little bitter tasting, and some more good ham.

Then we walked past the Cathedral of Seville and the Alcazar lit up prettily at night, watching all the workers put away thousands of folding chairs from semana santa and sweeping the streets.

As tempting as the churros place near the Hotel de la Puerta is, we were in search of eggs one morning. So we walked a few blocks further to Café Caceres, Calle Los Olivos, 9, which was kind of a diner-style place. We took seats at the bar/counter, and I’ve never been more pleased with scrambled eggs in my life. The great fresh OJ and café cortado was just icing on the cake.

We sat in theMurillo Gardens near the hotel for half an hour, killing time until our 12 noon appointment at the Arab baths, calle Aire. For 20€ a person, you get the hammam experience, and for a mere additional 4€, you got a 15-minute massage. (J, of course, opted for the massage , which turned out to be not very good). But back to the baths – you start in the large warm pool, move to a really hot pool, and then spend time in a really cold (16 C/60 F) bath. And then after freezing your butt off, you jump back into the large warm pool, and you know what? You end up feeling surprisingly good. Tingly and relaxed. These baths are large indoor pools that are pretty dark except for the small rays of light coming in through the delicate Moorish carvings high up in the walls.

After the baths, we went to some sort of jacuzzi-like room, which was OK, but despite the powerfully loud jets, it was hard to get the full massage effect. I actually enjoyed the sauna more than I expected – there the strong smell of mint everywhere. You could feel the mint seep into your pores and you couldn’t help but relax. Then we took a break in the waiting room and had some cold tea and sat on the heated stone benches.

We finished off the hammam by going downstairs into the basement to hang out in a tepid salt water pool. The goal seemed to be floating around, which was entertaining, but I would’ve been happy ending with the mint sauna.

Seville Cathedral on Easter SundayAfter the baths, J and I walked to the Seville Cathedral, which opened at 2:30 p.m. to the general public. The place is definitely huge, but there’s very little to see or do inside – at least, the historical significance of the place isn’t clear to me.

We walked up the Giralda tower, which had some cool views over Seville, and I enjoyed that the entire walk was up a series of ramps. Apparently horses used to carry the rider to the top. I thought about all the people who had seen the same views I was seeing, but 1300 years ago. How crazy. I know that’s not an original thought, but sometimes the feeling strikes you at the most unexpected moments, and then it feels original to you.

J and I then sought out some lunch around 3:30, and we ended up at La Bodeguita Santa Justa (Calle Hernando Colon 1-3), only to find out the restaurant was about to close and had only ham and cheese available. So that’s what we had – an excellent half-portion of ham for 8 euros and some aged cheese for 6. In total, we paid 18 € there for our “snack” and then moved on to El Rincon Gallego (Calle Harinas 21), which was packed with spanish speakers (unlike La Bodeguita). We ordered pulpo del feria, which was the way grilled octopus should be – thin and flavourful. The empanada aton was not what I expected, but so tasty. Instead of a thick pastry shell, it was more like puff pastry with tuna in the middle. Very buttery and moist. J then ordered some type of “house roll” that tasted like a giant pork meatball with cheese or cream inside, but we’re not sure exactly what it was. Along with a glass of rioja, we paid about 18 € again for what amounted to Phase 2 of lunch.

J and I then paid our 7 € each to tour the Alcazar, which was lovely, but not as quiet and calm as the Alhambra.Alcazar entrance Alcazar is definitely grander, possibly because of the Italian renaissance influence obvious everywhere, especially in the formal gardens out back. But the Alhambra is more romantic and serene. When we were entering the Alcazar at 4:30, all the guards at the ticket sales counter told us we “only” had an hour. An hour turned out to be plenty of time. But given how tempting it is to linger in the beautiful gardens, I can see why the guards are annoyed with having more people to kick out at closing.

After Alcazar, we came back to the hotel, rested a little, and then at around 7 p.m. headed back out to go running. We checked out Plaza de Espagna, which looked prettier from far away, I thought. When you got close, you noticed a lot of trash and dust everywhere, plus all the sand from the nearby park blew into your eyes and mouth and made me cough. So we didn’t stay there long, especially bc the area is undergoing restoration and there is hideous construction netting everywhere.

J and I continued our run through the Maria Luisa park and then down to the Guadalquivir river. We followed the river until we reached the bullfight ring, which you’d think would be noisy given that it’s opening day for the bullfight season, but we heard nothing when we were walking around the ring.

We ate dinner at the early-bird hour of 9:30 p.m. at the really outstanding Cava de Europa, just three doors down from the hotel on S. Maria La Blanca. J had seen three reviews from Spanish newspapers hanging up, so we gave it a try even though we couldn’t read the reviews at all. This had to be our favourite meal in Spain during this trip, slightly edging out El Rincon Gallego. We had really creative and delicious tapas overall, and the wines were also great – not surprising given that it’s more of a wine bar.

Our favorite dish there was pork served with an “argentinian sauce.” The won-ton specialty was definitely disappointing (sitting under a heat lamp somewhere), while the beef and the smoked salmon we ordered were also very good. Our tab was around 35 €, which was a good deal, and then we went to watch a cool flamenco show at the nearby cultural center. Our tix were just 12 € each, and I wondered if the performers (a male and female dancer, a guitarist, and a singer) were able to make a decent living off these shows. The emotion and skill that goes into every gesture and head-turn were so impressive.

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