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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Poor President Trump


Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy and through becoming the 45th president of the United States I have had one overriding question. Is this a man “with a lot to lose” or one “with nothing to lose?” What follows is pure supposition, perhaps my intuition kicking in from being around characters like President Trump over my many years in real estate, and the automobile dealership business. Many of these folks were very much like Trump: loud, aggressive, sure of themselves, vain, narcissistic, misogynistic and tribal. And let us not forget egotistical!

To further explain I need to regress a bit, so bear with me. Financial wealth is defined as your net worth; your assets (what you have) minus your liabilities (what you owe). In life, we see only a person’s assets (what they have); liabilities are usually pretty invisible. By way of example, two persons might each have a net worth of $10 million. “Person One” might have a $10 million home with no mortgage; “Person Two” might have a $100 million home with a $90 million mortgage. “Person Two” will look much, much wealthier to the outside world than “Person One.”

My hunch is that President Trump is more like “Person Two.” If I’m right, it could explain lots of behavior – especially because President Trump’s outsized ego makes the average captain of industry’s ego look puny. I’m guessing that the Trump family is in the top one-tenth of one percent; but not close to inclusion in the top one-thousandth of one percent (in the US, roughly 1,600 households).

Trump has spent his life trying to be a member of this club, and has done a magnificent job of pretending he has succeeded. I’m sure his biggest fear is being found out. He probably has taken many outsized, dangerous gambles (with some failing disastrously) to secure a seat in this oh so exclusive cohort. And with each failure, his liabilities have increased. If this is true, it explains a lot:

·        Not releasing tax returns was not because he didn’t want people to see how rich he was; rather the opposite. It would expose his lessened status so he fought this to the bitter end.
·        His business interests are non-public and tribal; with governance and accounting managed by seemingly unqualified people and outside firms (think Madoff).
·       A string of bankruptcies ruining thousands of lives.
·      Aggressively litigious behavior with hyper reactions to threats on privacy or reputation; heavy use of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements.
·        Associations with Russian and other opaque characters. He could not use traditional banking or public credit markets – these institutions would not lend to him. These shadowy types were willing to provide financing to Trump and his enterprises in return for laundering funds, industry access and since Trump’s political ascension, governmental contact and influence.
·        Naked use of government associations to further Trump family interests. This is truly a low point in peddling influence for personal enrichment in the highest office.
·        Support of controversial single-interest policies. These policy lobbies were a source of campaign funding and political cover during the election and then bled into the administration’s cabinet picks and policies. If Bloomberg, Buffet, Gates or one of the Koch brothers ran for the highest office, would they be going hat in hand this way?

Over the years, some Trump-like people turned out to be very, very wealthy – truly rich and truly lucky. Others seemed so for some period, but ultimately their penury came to light. Robert Maxwell’s story in the 1990’s is a good example.

Maxwell, a media magnate and British member of parliament, led a flamboyant lifestyle, buzzing around in his helicopter and sailing in his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. He was notably litigious and often embroiled in controversy. In 1989, he had to sell successful businesses, including Pergamon Press, to cover some debts; and in 1991 his body was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean, he supposedly had fallen overboard from his yacht. After his mysterious death, huge financial discrepancies were uncovered, including his fraudulent misappropriation of hundreds of millions of Pounds from the Mirror Group’s Pension Fund. All of Maxwell’s companies were later declared insolvent.

So, back to the answer to my query. I think President Trump, like Maxwell, is a person “with nothing to lose.” He has and still is betting it all to show the world he is a member in good standing in the club he so covets. Combine this overriding passion with his lack of moral compass and the rest of us “with a lot to lose” have much to worry about. I think this passion, this fear of losing, drives this man more than anything else. This makes him perhaps the most dangerous man on earth.

Our Emperor

Our emperor may have no clothes, or more aptly, no cash.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

La Reserve - 23 Years On


This is just a quick post to remember our 23rd September in South of France and at La Reserve de Beaulieu. Its hard to believe how fast time is speeding by!
 
Entrance to "La Reserve"
We had a wonderful two weeks here blessed by a string of near perfect weather. Our routine remained the same: our morning walks to breakfast at La Civette in St. Jean Cap Ferat, swimming and reading by the pool, good lunches; aperitifs in the garden followed by dinner. They were mostly at the hotel’s one-star Michellin «Resaurant des Rois,» chef Yannick Franques and maître de Guillaume dishing up food and service perfection.

We had some dinners out to the African Queen and a nice meal at Da Rossana in Eze Bord de Mer with Rossie and Adrian. We also had friends Eileen and Drew spend one night at La Reserve, capped by a very pleasant meal at «Resaurant des Rois» under the stars. And we had a good visit with Marylène and Gibert over drinks one late afternoon.
 
Me, Judith, Eileen & Drew
There was also a visit to the Cannes Boat Show to drool over Beneteau’s Oceanis Yacht 62. Afterward we had a nice lunch at Hotel Majestic’s «Le Fouquets,» and took the train back to Beaulieu-sur-Mer early enough for a late afternoon swim.

It was another magical September!
Judith's "Kids": Michael & Alex


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Finca Cortesin - August 2018


We left London via Gatwick on August 14 for Spain’s Costa del Sol and some sun. The British Airways flight was good until the end; on approach to Malaga the plane, about 100 meters above the runway, suddenly accelerated and climbed back to a holding pattern. The pilot eventually came on and informed passengers that the wind had shifted and he had to abort the landing. After a second attempt, we were safely at our gate. Upon exiting, I noticed that the plane’s windscreen was cracked, an almost shattered baseball sized creator in its center. The airline made no mention of this, but later I checked the outbound flight – it had been cancelled for the day. Perhaps it was a bird strike on the second landing.

In spite of this little excitement, we picked up our rental and drove 90 kilometers west along the coast, through Marbella, and on to Caseras and The Hotel Finca Cortesin.  We were meeting our Luxembourg friends Annie and Jöel – our sixth summer spending some time together.
Finca Cortesin is an enchanting property, located on the hillside about a mile from the sea and comprising 215 acres. The ten-year-old hotel has 67 suites ranging from 50 to 200 square meters (525 – 2,100 square feet). It is a whitewashed Andalusian architecture lovingly placed on the property, beautifully landscaped with a golf course, two very large pools and an assortment of restaurants. There is also a beach club at the sea, with a great 33-meter pool, generous lounging areas for sun and shade, and a casual restaurant as well.
Hotel Finca Cortesin

Beach Club Pool - 33 meters

We weren’t too adventuresome while here, staying at the pools most of the day. The weather was perfect throughout.  Breakfast was on the restaurant’s terrace, quite nice. At 11:00, we all took the shuttle to the beach club; reading, swimming and lounging around. The pool was right at the sea’s edge, the sound of the waves providing a calm rhythm. Occasionally children got out of hand; but there was always the possibility to escape to the 50-meter adult only pool back up on the main property. We availed ourselves of this option a few afternoons.
Adults Only Pool - 50 meteres

Lunches were at the beach club and excellent. Friends Philip and John were coincidentally visiting near Cádiz, so they drove over for one afternoon for lunch and a catch up – it was nice to see them. Of particular note on the menu, the restaurant had Ibérico secreto, a succulent cut from the shoulder of Spain’s acorn fed pig – marinated in a mustard vinaigrette – fantastic! All of the fish were also excellent and the staff; young, professional and friendly.
We had our first night’s dinner at the hotel’s Italian themed restaurant, Don Giovanni; in a word, awful. Another was at their Michelin-starred Kabuki Raw, which was a letdown from its rave reviews. Still, our other alfresco suppers at the hotel’s El Jardin de Lutz were very good, as were the local wines. If coming here, I suggest you stick with El Jardin and the beach club.
Our foursome had one night outside the hotel, driving to Marbella and Messina Restaurante. This one-starred Michelin deserves it’s ranking – excellent. Mauricio Giovanni’s kitchen is inspired by Spain, South America and Asia. My starter, boned spider crab served in American sauce, and it’s accompanying Thai coconut soup was a standout.
Messina Restaurante


Our eight days here were very pleasant and relaxing (except for the gecko slithering up our wall right before bed one night – harmless of course). Our flight back to London was uneventful and on time; we were in the flat by seven that evening. I highly recommend Finca Cortesin; we will be back.
Here's a link: http://www.fincacortesin.com/ 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Sailing off Croatia | June 2018



We left Budapest on May 30 travelling to Zagreb to spend the evening at the iconic but dated Esplanade Hotel. The following morning, we were up early and drove another 390 kilometers south to Trogir and the Brown Beach House on the island of Čiovo. After settling in to suite 212, we revisited the quaint port town of Trogir, and the following day lazed about the pool; unfortunately, packed full with rowdy kids and inattentive parents. Our room was comfortable and the food good, but in the main the service was slow and inconsistent.
Brown Beach House - Trogir

SATURDAY, JUNE 2:
Saturday, June 2, was the start of our second sailing adventure on the Adriatic’s Croatian coast. We drove the short distance to Baotič Marina in Seget Donji and met up with Tilen, our skipper, and Cornelia, our hostess – the same young people that so ably looked after us last August. In January I had reserved a spectacular 2018 Oceanis 62 for this trip, the “Thora Helen”. Unfortunately, her mast was cracked and boom broken the week before our sailing dates by some inexperienced and careless sailors; we needed to make a last-minute change with the charter company. I settled on a 2014 Hanse 575, with a nice owner’s cabin, the “Lady S” – an agreeable substitute but still a disappointment.
Hanse 575

Cornelia was off to the store to stock our basic provisions for the week, and Tilen finished our check out. By three, we cast off mooring lines and were on our way motoring to Primošten, 3 1/2-hours and 20 nautical miles northwest – it was wonderful to be out on the water again. The harbor was well maintained; we arrived early enough for a walk around the old town - watched over on the hillside by St. George’s Church, its construction began in 1681.
St. George's Church
Ceiling - St. George's Church

Primošten is a clean, picturesque location. We happened upon a road rally of old Zastavs, a déjà vu moment back to my days with Yugo in the mid-eighties – crazy coincidence. 
Zastava (a.k.a. "Yugo")

Dinner was at the seaside “Toni Konoba” (tavern); a nice seabass for four and a few bottles of the local Pošip. It was a noisy night on the dock; singing and guitar very late into the evening – keeping us all awake.

SUNDAY, JUNE 3:
After breakfast we were off north-northeast for about three hours to the tiny island of Tijat, only about one square mile, and Tijascica cove. It was an idyllic lunch spot to moor, have a swim and enjoy another mouthwatering lunch by Cornelia. After a few hours we were underway east toward Šibenik, a wonderfully historic port city, and then up the channel and the Krka River to the ACI Marina in Skradin. This route meandered by beautiful gorges, rock face and caves; small mussel farms tended by a contented lot of locals doted the shoreline.
Šibenik
Krka River Channel


Mussel Farm


One of many caves

The marina was well maintained, and a nice dinner was on the terrace of Evala Café.  After a bit more wine, it was off to a very peaceful sleep.
Judith & Me - Skradin

MONDAY, JUNE 4:
Up early, we backtracked down the channel, stopping at one of the floating stands for a large bucket of mussels, fresh out of the water. 
Our mussel stop

It turns out we got about 5-kilos of these, and they were certainly not in “store-bought” condition. The cleaning that followed was a group affair, scraping white worm and seaweed off of what seemed a thousand shells – perfecting our technique with simple kitchen knives so we all got pretty good at it.
While we were at this, Tilen motored us past Šebenik into open water, eventually reaching Zlarin Island and a secluded cove, Uvala Magaran. Here we anchored and rewarded ourselves with a dip in the pristine Adriatic.  Cornelia prepared another perfect lunch.
Uvala Magaran


Wow!

Up anchor, we motored north a bit more than an hour to Vodice. The ACI marina was full, so we had to settle for a place on the riva. Dinner was our hard-earned mussels, masterfully cooked by our hostess – some of the best I’ve had.
All cleaned up

 Unfortunately, about ten boats also tied up with us, and partied until 4:30 the next morning – not much sleep for us. I recall a “Viva Las Vegas” track blaring for about an hour! In all, a very inconsiderate group of young Germans.
Vodice at Night

TUESDAY, JUNE 5:
We dragged ourselves out of our berths, had a quick breakfast and left our raucous Germans to sleep it off. The morning was cloudy with the weather unsettled. Our original plan was to sail west northwest to the Kornati chain, a group of 140 islands, once densely covered with Mediterranean pine but now a sparse landscape of greyish rock. Our intended destination was to one of the Kornati’s larger islands, Zut.
Being cautious, we opted instead to travel northwest, less than 20 nautical miles, to Murter Island and the protected Marina Harmina. With Tilen’s experience, we easily navigated the very shallow island cuts on the approach. The judgement payed off; rain and wind descended upon us about an hour after we tied up on our mooring; and we enjoyed a lunch of Cornelia’s smoked salmon quiche; we were dry, and safely tucked away in the salon.
After the storm passed, Judith and I explored the town, walking to a picturesque ridge and St. Michael’s Church, built in the mid-16th century and reconstructed in 1770. 
St. Michael's Church

Dinner was in town on one of the jetties at Bistro Tic-Tac. I was put in charge of picking the fish, got a bit carried away and selected what turned out to be a 4.2-kilogram dentex, a local catch. Needless to say, it was a bit too much but a perfectly grilled, tasty masterpiece! Some ice cream on the walk back, a glass of wine onboard and we were all off to a restful sleep.
My Dentex

WEDENSDAY, JUNE 6:
After a good sleep we were up to sunny skies. Our itinerary took us south, 14 nautical miles to Kakan Island, with a lunch stop off the beautiful waters of the small islets Veli and Mali Borovnjak. 
Heading to Borovnjak

After a good sail, our anchor dropped into water so clear it could have been the Caribbean. Judith and I quickly jumped in, the sea a refreshing but not too cold 23°C (about 70°F). We floated about quite a while, also swimming ashore to the rocky beach. Lunch was a pleasing assortment: bruschetta, grilled avocado, prosciutto, local cheese and more.
Beautiful!
Judith & Me

After this idyll, we motored a short way to the Island of Kaprije, and its namesake town, and tied up adjacent to the ferry pier. It was a pretty sad place, abandoned by the young and now populated mostly by those that cannot leave. Still, we made the best of it, having a very good dinner at Liberty Grille. They served a local fish, Romba, slow roasted “peka” style (under the bell) with potato and assorted vegetables – savory!
Romba Peka
Kaprije Bay at night

THURSDAY, JUNE 7:
We were up early and had breakfast at Lola Café; cappuccino and a comically bad pain au chocolat. Another coffee at the Neptun Café allowed us to use their facilities; as the English say, “to spend a penny.” The “Lady S” was then quickly off on a magnificent 30 nautical mile sail in perfect winds to Šolta Island; a long leg on our way back to home port. It was my best day – totally hooked.
Totally Hooked

Late afternoon, we arrived at the town of Maslinica and Marina Martinis Marchi, in a protected cove on the northern tip of Šolta. It is a new and upscale property, with a very nice small hotel. 
Maslinica Bay
Marina Martinis Marchi

Dinner was on the quay at Konoba Sakajet; we had an excellent St. Pierre for four, preceded by a lovely stuffed pepper appetizer. Sleep came easily.

FRIDAY, JUNE 8:
It was yet another nice morning and another nice sail in 15+ knot winds, a broad reach back to Trogir to fuel up before the afternoon rush. This accomplished, we motored back to a small cove on the northeast of Čiovo Island and dropped anchor for our last lunch. Judith took a final swim, I decided not.
About three, we returned to Marina Baotič and said farewell to Tilen and Cornelia; another wonderful week on the water had come to an end. Shortly thereafter, we were in the car heading back to Zagreb through some heavy downpours, staying the night, and then continuing the following day, Saturday, to Budapest.

POSTSCRIPT:
This was a different trip than last August. Then we hit more of the major spots, mostly south of Split, all more built up and bustling than this year’s destinations. But this year we saw more of nature, pristine sights and open water – and had better wind and weather. The boat was an improvement too; the master cabin made life aboard much more pleasant.   I am sure we will return next year.

If you are looking to do this, Tilen now has his own company, and there is no one better. Here is a link to his site:
https://theyachtbreak.com/ 

Also, if you want to see our actual itinerary, follow the link to MyMaps:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1LJwWqMzmtL3Hn8tbM-1k6RLSlD-8OGSL&usp=sharing 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Grant's Tome


Since retiring more than a dozen years ago, one extravagance has been more time to read. During my frenetic career, I fed this passion mostly on vacation or on the rare occasion of a lull in the action.
I’ve had my blog since December 2009; writing about travel, economics, and politics. Today I’ve decided to add another “label,” “Good Reads,” to convey thoughts that were provoked from some of my best books. These posts won’t be reviews, more mind opening connections the authors have triggered in me.

“Grant,” by the wonderful biographer Ron Chernow, chronicles the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. Chernow is one of the world’s best; his generous use of the contemporaneous quotations of his subject, friends and foes insures that his narrative is not just his voice telling the story, rather the principals.  Here are my takeaways:

First, my impression of Grant was of a lackluster and drunken two-term president steeped in Gilded Age corruption. His signature post-Civil War policy of Reconstruction was a failure, with northern carpetbaggers and southern scallywags dividing up the spoils, with naïve newly freed slaves acting as their foils. These impressions didn’t come from fake news or Russian re-tweets, it was from my school’s history classes – my education.
I don’t recall being taught much about Grant’s military achievements in the Civil War and the humanity of Appomattox, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the early civil rights progress of the Reconstruction, the slaying of the original Klu Klux Klan, the peaceful settlement of the “CSS Alabama” claims with England, and Grant’s humane but badly misguided Indian policy in the west.
Chernow paints a painstaking and well documented revisionist portrait of this man. A principled individual flawed by an almost childlike loyalty to family, friends, and associates; many of whom badly took advantage and unforgivingly sullied his reputation. Although most likely an alcoholic, Grant recognized this; and through associates and family, stayed a teetotaler for most of this life. And certainly, whenever facing responsibilities in war or governance, was sober. He was perhaps the world’s best military strategist, understood trade and diplomacy, and was a brilliant writer. It turns out he wasn’t an oaf, rather a tragic hero.
We need to question ourselves when we think we are sure of the facts; that they are simple and straightforward. We shouldn’t assume there is no counter argument just because we haven’t run across it. And we must all have more of a stake in school curriculum – as parents, grandparents and citizens. We cannot let history be owned by only the winners.

Second, the intractable conflict and brutality of the Civil War, of the reconciliation of slavery, of the plight of American Indians during this hellish 50-year period should give us some solace as we live through the current political and social turmoil.
In retrospect, our problems look small. We need to push hard, but also need to understand the necessity for patience. The amendments of 1865, 1868 and 1870 are still not fully inculcated into our society, and are still a work in progress. But it’s better than it was, is getting even better in fits and starts; and could have been much worse. That we as a nation made it through the Civil War is a miracle longshot.

Lastly, we should more fully appreciate the genre of biography as a powerful tool of learning, not just entertainment. Its practitioners can unlock the past unlike any similar text of history. Chernow is a master, famous for his “Hamilton,” adapted to the blockbuster Broadway show. Grant was not as good as a celebrity, but in every way as complex and tragic. And the book, at 1,104 pages, certainly can be called “Grant’s Tome,” pardon the pun. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Dubai | January 2018

On January 12 we left a cold Budapest for Dubai for a two-week dose of warmth, sun and light – this time of year Dubai has almost two extra hours of daylight than Hungary. There is a direct Emirates Airlines flight from here, so it was very convenient. Five and a half hours later, and approximately 2,500 air miles, we landed at 11:20 pm local time at Dubai International Airport, the third busiest in the world, number one in passenger traffic. It is an immense place, with flights non-stop throughout the day and night.
Expedited through immigration and luggage, we were soon in the car heading south, about half an hour, to the Royal Mirage One & Only Hotel, a sprawling complex of three properties extending about a kilometer along the Jumeirah Beach. Ours was the Residences and Spa, a more intimate, private spot with only 50 rooms and suites, nestled in gardens of palm trees, fountains and bougainvillea; with a private 30-meter pool and private beach. We were in suite 31. In a word: luxurious.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a relatively new collection of seven emirates (the lands of emirs, or rulers) formed in 1971 after the British protectorate began to dissolve. Dubai, controlled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833, is the most populous, with 2.6 million residents. Its roots are in the 18th century; it was a small fishing village, with pearl exports a major trade. In 1966, limited finds of oil and gas boosted revenues and major infrastructure projects were started. But early on, there was an emphasis away from petroleum and towards commerce, retail and tourism. As of 2017, only five percent of Dubai’s economy derives from oil.

We were here to relax and we were quite successful at it. Most days we were up to a nice al fresco breakfast at the Residence’s Dining Room, then poolside for a day of swimming and reading in a soft winter sunshine. From the hotel, the grounds are gently terraced, complete with gurgling fountains, leading to the pool and the beach. The whole area is a tranquil oasis with generous amounts of space for each guest. We landed in a cabana, #16; it provided very flexible areas of shade and sun. The pool attendants were very focused; topping up water glasses, delivering some refreshing fruit in the mornings and sorbet in the afternoons. The sunbeds were comfortable. And I got to the gym each day, housed in the very stylish spa facility.
The Pool at Residences
The Residences & Spa
Palm Trees at Night

Some days we had lunch, others we took part in the hotel’s complimentary high tea – both very elegant and delicious. Many evenings we also dined outside at the Dining Room, then retired to their Library for a nightcap.

We did do some sightseeing. There was a day trip south to Abu Dhabi, 140 kilometers and one and a half hours drive south along the Arabian Gulf.

The new Louvre of Abu Dhabi had just opened November 11, 2017. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, is a floating dome of light and shade, weightlessly placed into the waters of the gulf. Its planning dates back to 2007, when France and the UAE came together to form a new kind of institution dedicated to the universality of man.
The magnificent curation spans human history from 10,000 BCE to today in twelve galleries, each themed to a time and connected to the artifacts of its era. The first gallery, “First Villages” shows the earliest communities coming together, along with their belief systems; and ends in gallery twelve, “A Global Stage,” with the scale of 21st century communication transforming the planet itself into a global village. Every work in every room brought home meaning. Walking through over 12,000 years of our collective connections, I was both uplifted and humbled. An amazing experience.
The building itself is also a marvel, like the Guggenheim Bilbao. Here is a link to the web site: https://www.louvreabudhabi.ae/

Floating in the Gulf
 
Domes of Light & Shade - Judith

After the Louvre we also visited the immense Sheikh Zayed Mosque, completed in 2007. It combines Mamluk, Ottoman and Fatimid styles, the design of the minarets attempt to champion the diverse Islamic world into one grand summation of art and beauty. Its scale is breathtaking, but it does not yet possess the historical patina and authenticity of other ancient mosques we have visited – Istanbul comes to mind. Still, it was a stunning display of craftsmanship.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

The Mosque's Interior

Lunch was at the gigantic Emirates Palace Hotel; we ate on the beach at the “Restaurant BBQ Qasr” and would have been happy to have missed it. It was a long day; we arrived back to the hotel by five.

Another outing had us touring the sights of Dubai. The city is a civil engineer’s fantasy come true; massive projects going up all over. Malls are huge and are everywhere – a shopper’s paradise but not really our thing. We did visit the Palm Jumeirah, the first of the artificial archipelagos built into the Persian Gulf, in the shape of a palm tree – it is a man-made marvel. We returned to the hotel by three.

The Royal Mirage One & Only has eight or nine restaurants scattered about; we had two good dinners at “Celebrities,” and a so-so meal at “Beach Bar & Grille.” We also had a few sunset aperitifs at the “Jetty Bar,” looking out to the Dubai Marina - very chic.
Sunset at Jetty Bar

There was also a dinner at “At.mosphere” on the 122nd floor of the iconic Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, soaring 2,722 feet above the ground. The restaurant was, pardon the pun, “over the top” and a bit too much; but my black cod «en papillote» with artichoke and fennel in a miso beurre blanc sauce was definitely in my top ten main courses of all time. After dinner, we had our nightcap on the terrace at the Burj Khalifa’s Armani Hotel and watched the Dubai Water Fountain performance (of course, the world’s largest).
Burj Khalifa

At.mosphere Restaurant

Another evening we had drinks and nibbles at Burj Al Arab’s “Al Muntaha” on the 27th floor of this iconic sail shaped tower. It was a silly pretentious place, but one had to try it. Some of the other guests were so bizarre I found myself staring at them rather than concentrating on the spectacular view of the coast and cityscape stretched out below us.
Burj Al Arab
View from Sky Bar



In all, we got what we asked for; warmth, sun and more daylight to shake off the winter blues of London, Budapest and New Hampshire. Dubai is an odd place, a bit like Las Vegas; but very, very clean. Not much is real, the environment has literally been bulldozed into submission and “taste,” inevitably, always had a “theme.” 

Friday, November 17, 2017

October 2017 | Northern Spain

We recently returned from an 18-day trip to northern Spain, completing our tour of this wonderful country. In May 2011 we travelled the south, and in February 2012; Madrid and central regions. Much earlier, in the Nineties, we had visited Barcelona.

Sárdon de Duero
October 09 - 11:
It was into Madrid airport to start this adventure, renting a car there and driving northwest 200 kilometers to Sárdon de Duero in Castilla y Leon, and the Abadia Retuerta L’Domaine; staying three nights. This hotel is a former monastery amidst acres of vines – its wines are very well regarded. We were in room 206, very nice. The staff gave us a tour and that evening we had an 11-course tasting menu with wine pairing in their gourmet restaurant, Refectorio.
Abadia Retuerta L'Domaine

We awoke to a beautiful day, sunny with highs of 80°F. After a nice breakfast we were off to Burgos, 160 kilometers to the northeast. It is an old city, founded in 884, and played an important political, military and commercial role throughout the centuries. Our reason for visiting was the Burgos Cathedral, founded in 1221, a Gothic masterpiece. The magnificent star-ribbed central dome rises on four huge pillars. Built on a sloping site, there is a wonderful staircase linking the nave to the upper street level. I must compliment the creator of the audio guide for the visit – excellent.
Burgos Cathedral
Star-Ribbed Central Dome


The Staircase

Arriving back to the hotel, the weather was so delightful we went to the outdoor pool for some late day sun; I was brave (or foolish) enough to take a swim in the frigid water.
Dinner was at the hotel’s casual restaurant, Vinoteca; very good salad and lamb with rice. The vineyard’s 2010 Pago Negralada Tempranillo the perfect accompaniment.

Another beautiful day, we were off to Valladolid, just 60-kilometers west of the hotel. Although now a modern sprawling city, the old town is packed with history. Fernando and Isabel married here in 1469, laying foundations for the modern Spanish state, and beginning the drive to push the Moors from the country; Granada finally fell in 1492.
We parked by the rail station and walked to Plaza Mayor visiting the 15th C university with its impressive Baroque façade, the three churches of Iglesia de Santa Maria la Antigua, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de las Angustias and Iglesia de San Pablo; and finally, the cathedral. 
Valladolid University

The Cathedral Metropolitana is an unfinished work, started in 1580. It gradually lost momentum but the redeeming feature is the flamboyance of Juan de Juni’s altarpiece. The Museo Diocesano inside contains some beautiful religious art and sculpture.
Lunch was tapas at La Cantina on Plaza Mayor before our drive back to the hotel. We had a little more time at the pool; weather still unseasonably warm. It was dinner again at Vinoteca and then to bed.

Leon
October 12 -13:
Before leaving the Abadia Retuerta L’Domaine, we walked the vineyard along the Duero River; the weather was still beautiful – there is something spiritual connecting the land with the eventual elixir in the bottle. Our next stop, Leon, was about a two-hour, 200-kilometer drive northwest. We arrived to the Parador de Leon on Plaza San Marcos; a 16th C Renaissance marvel, one of the best examples in Spain, along with its well-preserved Cloister of San Marco.
Unfortunately, the rooms and interior public spaces were sad. The spartan décor would be a familiar sight to the monks; only the poorly done modernizations would seem odd. Judith and I were both sure many centuries of clerics had slept in our bed, the indents of their bodies visible in the saggy mattress. In a word, awful accommodations; ditto for the food. By the way, the monks didn’t have Internet access, neither did we.
We were quickly out to see the city, walking up the Gran Via de San Marcos to the old town, then on Calle Ancha to the Leon Cathedral. Begun in mid-13th C, it was inspired by the French techniques of vaulting and buttressing in their Gothic cathedrals in Paris and Chartres. The tall nave is slender and long, showcasing the great glory of the stained glass, 182 windows in all, spanning the 13th to 20th centuries. The adjoining museum off the cloister contains a wonderful Pedro de Campaña panel. 
Leon Cathedral


Main Altar

We had a cava near Plaza Regla, walked back to the parador and visited the adjacent Museo de Leon. After a blah dinner of baby lamb, it was off to bed.

Up to a very proletarian breakfast, we were off on a very nice day to see the rest of the city. Our first stop was in the northeast of the old city, to the best preserved of the ancient Roman walls and the Colegiata de San Isidoro, actually a part of the walls. Travelling south along Calle Ruiz de Salazar we visited two well preserved palaces: Casa de los Guzmanes with its elegantly arcaded Renaissance patio, and Antoni Gaudi’s unusually restrained Casa de Botines. Still further south we saw three plazas: Plaza del Grano, Plaza San Martin and Plaza Mayor. Lunch was on Calle Ancha at Via Principalis.
Casa de los Guzmanes

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel and had drinks on the terrace, cleaned up, had another bland meal and were off to bed.

Santiago de Compostela
October 14 – 15:
We were up early and off to Santiago de Compostela, 3 ½ hours and 320-kilometers, again northwest. Leaving Castilla y Leon behind, we travelled to the Galicia region, the remote northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The discovery in the 9th century of the supposed remains of St. James the Apostle confirmed Santiago de Compostela as Medieval Europe’s most important religious shrine after St. Peter’s. For over some 1,000 years pilgrims have followed the route over the Pyrenees and along the north coast of Spain to this holy destination.
Our home for the next two nights was the modern NH Collections Hotel, just a bit outside the old city. Unpacking quickly, we were off on a 20-minute walk to Santiago Cathedral, travelling up Rúa de San Francisco like so many pilgrims before us. Unfortunately, a large portion of the majestic west façade of the church was shrouded by scaffolding, hiding most of the twin Baroque towers that reach high over Praza do Obradorio. The present building dates from the 11th – 13th centuries.  Entering, there was more ongoing restoration obscuring the ornate high altar and the iconic botafumerio, the giant silver censer that hangs above it. We left a bit unimpressed; perhaps our expectations were too high.
Botafumerio (Censer)

We walked the balance of the city, passing through Plaza de Cervantes and stopping for a pleasant lunch at Café de Altamira on Rúa das Ameas, east of the cathedral. We were back to the hotel by early evening and had a light dinner at the bar of some charcuterie and a bottle of local white.

The morning’s weather did not look promising as we left for Costa da Morte, the wild and remote “coast of death” stretching from Fisterra in the south to Malpica in the north. The coast is dotted with isolated fishing villages, tucked into the majestic headland.
We were heading west on AC-441, about 1 ½ hours, to Cabo Fisterra (“where the land ends”). The terrain drops into the sea, scattered with rocky outcroppings, menacing shipping over the millennia. The lighthouse stands sentry to this place where the pilgrimages final ended; many trekkers burning their shoes to mark the completion of their journey.
Cabo Fisterra Lighthouse


Pilgrimage End

Afterward, we drove along the coast and up into the hills to O’Fragón Restaurante and had a wonderful lunch: blue lobster to share, then a tasty grilled seabass. It was then another drive on to Carmariñas, seeing many of the iconic hórreos, quaint stone grain stores on raised stilts; and Rio de Porto Rias. A “rias” is a long tidal estuary, and found all along the coastline of Galicia. 
Judith posing in front of a  "Hórreos"

We got back to the hotel around 6:00 pm; dinner was at the hotel and so-so.

Lluces
October 16 – 20:
We left Santiago de Compostela early on another overcast morning, driving east-northeast 320 kilometers, a 3 ½ hours’ drive. The route took us through the western edge of the Galician Massif and into Asturias and Cantabrian Mountains. The effects of Ophelia, the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record, made for a windy and sometimes rainy trip. This was added to by smoke from forest fires in southern Galicia and northern Portugal. Sadly, all were started by arsonists. So the air was thick with a smoky fog, but it added to the atmosphere as our route passed through pristine forests, pastureland and deep gorges. At times we were just meters from the ocean. The landscape was dotted with wind turbines, the country is the fifth largest producer of wind energy, contributing 19% of its total domestic electricity demand.
Hotel Palacio de Luces

We arrived to Hotel Palacio de Luces at about 2:30 pm, a very bucolic Relais & Chatueax property just a few kilometers from the Atlantic. After a quick lunch of croquetas, we had a swim in the indoor pool. Dinner was terrible, a traditionally served chicken: a giant chicken leg (it could have been from a small pig) served in a thick muddy brown sauce. Oh well, it was off to bed.

We woke to an overcast morning with an acrid smell of smoke in the air. After breakfast we drove east on the coast road, AS-257, to Lastres, and then the N632 to Ribadesalla. This is an upscale town with a wonderful seafront on a broad estuary of the Sella River. There is a striking white church perched upon a promontory looking out to the Atlantic. We walked the jetty and were buffeted by high winds.
Ribadesalla's Church


Brave Surfers

Back to the car, we winded our way further east along the coast on AS-263 to Llanes where we had a nice lunch at El Cuera – very good croquetas, and a wonderfully rich white bean and pork cassoulet, locally called Fabada. Taking the A8 back to the hotel, the haunting Picos de Europa looming high to our left, we stopped at a car wash to clean the built-up ash on the car.
I took another swim; dinner was not very good which meant more leftovers for the white house cat who seemed very happy (and fat).

More rain to start another day. After getting totally twisted around in the wrong direction, we finally made our way up very winding roads, looking down into deep gorges, to Santuario de Covadonga nestled in the Parque de los Picos de Europa. These beautiful mountains purportedly got their name, “Peaks of Europe,” from returning sailors for whom this was often the first sight of their homeland. Built between 1886 and 1901, the church here is a Neo-Romanesque basilica and stands at the supposed site of Pelayo the Warrior’s victory, in 722, over the much larger and better equipped Moorish army. This is of course fiction; this battle most likely took place in Cantabria – an early example of “fake news.”
Santuario de Covadonga
We headed back to the coast and to Comillas, known for its many buildings designed by Catalan Modernista architects, including the grand Palacio Sobrellano built in 1881. Overshadowing all is Capricho de Gaudí, a small colorist palace designed by the then young Antoni Gaudí. In town we had lunch at the work-a-day Samovy Restaurante – grilled ham and cheese; Judith finished with the regional chocolate con churros.
Capricho de Gaudi

Our final vsit was to the beautiful fishing port of San Vincente de la Barquera, its low-slung stone Maza Bridge gracefully crossing the broad estuary. We arrived back to Palacio de Luces about 6:30 pm, a 370 kilometers jaunt. Breaks in the rain blessed us at each of our stops.
We had light bar fare this evening; unfortunately, also two bottles of 2015 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo!

We woke to another overcast day, travelling west along Coste Verde, or Green Coast, which is a beautiful succession of attractive coves and dramatic cliffs, punctuated by deep estuaries and pretty fishing villages. Our first stop was Luarca, a neat little harbor packed with boats, and a cemetery perched on a promontory. It was difficult to get to but worth the effort; it is consistently ranked in the world’s “top ten” most picturesque graveyards.


Luarca Cemetery


Luarca Cemetery

It was then on to Cudillero, another tiny port positioned at the base of a deep gorge. We parked and walked around looking for a lunch spot, but we found nothing appealing. 


Cudillero

Thus, our midday meal was a highway rest stop; we also had a self-service car wash to clean more fire ash off the car and fueled up. Before returning to the hotel, we checked out the nearby lighthouse in Lluces (faro in Spanish). I got another swim in; then we were down to dinner. Nothing special.

Our final day here was reserved for a visit to Oviedo, about 60-kilometers west and inland from our location. We parked near the beautiful, centrally located park of Campo San Francisco before walking to the cathedral. It is in Flamboyant Gothic style, with a very high tower and asymmetrical façade. There are many wonderful works of art; a 16th century reredos, the supreme treasure of Cámara Santa chapel from the 9th C, and many other gold and silver objects of beauty.
The city was made more famous by Woody Alan and his 2008 movie “Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona.” We bumped into a life sized brass statute of him and Judith took a cheeky photo of us together. 
Woody & Me


Leaving the city early afternoon, we made our way to Mount Naranco and its two magnificent Pre-Romanesque churches. Santa Maria del Naranco is the more impressive; its large barrel-vaulted hall on its main floor opens to two arcaded galleries on each end.
Santa Maria del Naranco


Barrel Vaulted Hall

We drove back and had a very late lunch in Ribadesella, arriving back to Hotel Palacio de Luces after six. Another swim; then we had another uninspired dinner in the hotel.

San Sebastián
October 21 – 25:
We were up for a late breakfast and left Lluces for San Sebastián, 4 hours’ drive east into the Basque region, arriving at Hotel Maria Cristina about 3:00 pm. Our first suite was not to our liking, the staff switched us to a terrace suite, #503, which was very nice. After unpacking, we took a short walk to the Zurriola Bridge and watched the tidal waves crashing into the estuary of the Urumea River that cuts through the city on its way to the Bay of Biscay. It was room service for dinner, accompanied by a strong rainstorm. We were quickly asleep.
Zurriola Bridge - Hotel Maria Cristina in background

Up to cooler and more unsettled weather, we were out to explore the old town. It is a maze of small streets tucked behind the headland of Mount Urgull. Our first stop was to the 16th C Church of St. Vicente, then out to the promenade that circles the base of Urgull, eventually leading to the aquarium and the port. Lunch was at Borda Beri on Fermin Calbton Kalea; we had a local small plate specialty called pintxos. These bite sized portions are laid out on the bar, you are given a plate and make your selection; then pay the bartender, perhaps also asking for a vino blanco (yes, of course I did).
St. Vicente Altar
Promenade - Rough Sea
A Selection of "Pintxos"

Afterward, we dodged the raindrops to visit Museo de San Telmo. The large museum is housed in a 16th C monastery. Its chapel contains 11 large murals by Catalan artist Maria Sert, depicting Basque legends and culture. There was a large display of local decorative arts and an extensive collection of paintings by Basque artists. A standout for me was Antonio Ortiz Echagüe’s “Dos Mujeres del Taliflet,” or “Two Moroccan Women.” Overall, an excellent few hours.
Murals of Maria Sert


"Dos Mujeres del Taliflet"

We walked back through Place de Constitucion, with its rows of numbered yellow balconies. In the past this square was used for bullfighting and these terraces were rented out to patrons by the municipality.
Place de Constitucion

We were late reserving at the many Michelin-starred eateries, but the concierge booked a nice spot for dinner in the hills overlooking Zurriola Beach, “Zelai Txiki,” meaning small fields in Basque. We had very good scallops and turbot. After a nightcap at the hotel bar, it was off to sleep.

We finally awoke to the sun. After breakfast we took a long walk west on the promenade of Kontxa beach to the Wind Comb sculptures of Edward Chillida, which are mounted in the rocks at the shoreline. Then it was back to the old town, visiting the town hall and later, lunch at another pintxos spot, Restaurante Bartolo – again very good. We finally had our bearings in the winding narrow streets.
Kontxa Beach
Chillida's "Wind Combs"
More Pintxos

We took the afternoon “off,” and had another good dinner in the old town at Casa Urola; piquillos as a starter, followed by a very nice sole.

Judith and I were starting to run out of steam; we had spent two weeks in non-stop tourist mode. The day was again sunny, so we took a leisurely walk east along the Zurriola beach to its end to see the Dove of Peace sculpture by Nestor Basterretxea. Lunch was at IBAI in the Zentro section, on the fashionable Calle de Getaria. IBIA is known as a chef’s restaurant, the preferred place for many of the city’s top culinary stars. It was a simple establishment, quite small, and in the basement of a nondescript bar. Our beef main course was superb; and it was fun to watch the passion for food and wine in the other professional patrons. Lots of smelling, smiling, laughing, oohs and aahs!
More rest late afternoon; dinner was simple and at the hotel’s bar.
IBIA

We received the gift of another nice day. In the morning we walked some more neighborhoods, skirting the Urumea River up to the beautiful Maria Cristina Bridge. It was then back to our car; we were off to Bilbao and the Guggenheim. So much has been written about this Frank Gehry architectural marvel, clad in titanium. It is impressive and strangely organic, in spite of its metallic skin. But the building is the attraction, nothing inside really moved me. I came away with a sense that there really wasn’t much art, only very sterile “installations.”
Bilbao's Guggenheim
Interior Shot

We walked a bit more after our return to San Sebastián; dinner was uninspired at the hotel’s Café Saigon.

Back to London
October 26:
We were up early, had a quick breakfast and were off to Bilbao’s airport. After dropping off our car at Hertz (we had driven a total of 3,337 kilometers), we had a short wait until our flight departed. It was a smooth trip; Masood had us back to our flat by 3:00 pm.

Looking back, we had seen lots of beautiful architecture from the 9th to the 20th centuries. Still, for me, the real star was the landscapes travelling out of Castilla y Leon and then into the very picturesque northern countryside of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, and the Basque region. I recommend it highly.