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Friday, December 28, 2012

25th Wedding Anniversary - Nassau

I first experienced the Bahamas with my uncle almost 50 years ago; a half century has somehow slipped under my feet! He had a wonderful ketch of forty-five feet, the “Tamatoa,” berthed at the Nassau Harbor Club.

Some history; in 1959 Huntington Hartford, the A&P supermarket heir purchased what was then known as Hog Island. It is just north of New Providence Island and the city of Nassau; the water separating these two islands formed Nassau Harbor. Hartford changed the name from Hog to Paradise Island; building the Ocean Club, Cafe Martinique, Hurricane Hole, the Golf Course, among other island landmarks. He also acquired and installed the Cloisters, a 14th-century French Augustinian monastery originally purchased in Montréjeau and dismantled by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s; it forms a majestic backdrop to the Ocean Club’s Versailles Pool. A bridge was constructed to connect the two islands.
 The opening of Paradise Island in 1962 was covered in Newsweek and Time magazines; Hartford hired the staff from Eden Roc at Hotel Du Cap to work off season at the Ocean Club. This was an exotic destination at the time; I didn’t realize I was rubbing elbows with such glamour.
But summers here for me were mostly about the relaxed yacht culture, out-island exploring and the ocean. I have fond and lasting memories of this time.

I was next back in December 1987 to marry my wonderful wife Judith on Christmas Eve. We stayed on Paradise Island and at the Ocean Club. Some of the shine was already off the place, but it was still elegant. By this time the island had been sold to Donald Trump (well known for his exquisite taste), and then to Merv Griffin; plans were hatching to more fully exploit the island’s resources. Still, we had a happy and pleasant few days here.

Fast forward yet another twenty-five years to 2012 and Judith and I were back to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. By this time the Atlantis Resort on the western end of Paradise Island had been fully developed. The Ocean Club was expanded from a cozy and relaxed fifty rooms to over one hundred; three villas, a themed “star-chef” restaurant. The aspect of the original building had architecturally spun 180 degrees; the old entrance transformed into a very tony spa. The hotel was now managed under the upscale moniker of the “One & Only.”
After his purchase of the island from Griffin in 1994, South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner bulldozed most everything and in addition to expanding the Ocean Club, built a series of monstrous hotels, water rides and other attractions; fully obliterating the former natural landscape of the western stretch of the island with his new “Atlantis.” The result is a gigantic land-based cruise ship for all intents and purposes.

Until this time, there was a small canal that ran from the western end of the island through to the harbor. I well remember passing along its banks in our Boston Whaler, the tender of the Tamatoa. In the 1965 James Bond movie “Thunderball,” the home of Largo, the arch villain of “SPECTRE,” was along this canal, filming took place at the villa of the wealthy Sullivan family. Who can’t recall the shark pool scenes? Near the outlet to the harbor, the famous Café Martinique’s restaurant and patio serenely blended with the water and the landscape.
 Sadly, the Atlantis development obliterated all of this. There is nothing left of the canal; in its place is “Atlantis Marina” village, a smallish dock area with yachts totally out of proportion to the scale of the place and a soulless replica of Caribbean life re-imagined in a Disney-esque bad dream. The embodiment of this bleak metamorphosis is the reincarnated Café Martinique, placed in the fake and perfectly cobbled walkways. The former was a “one-of-a- kind” venue with an inimitable vibe; now a disguised Outback Steakhouse or other some such franchise.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten has lent his good name for a pound of silver; I never liked his fusion cooking style that much; now I like it even less. The wine list used to be boundless; now the vintages aren’t even listed for most bottles. The captain told me it was too much trouble to keep changing the list. Our food was terrible, service amateurish with a certain air of misplaced superiority. Clientele were matched well with this; our dinner was set among flip-flop melodies from passing persons in their flip-flops; shorts, even one sleeveless undershirt. The only things that remained at a high standard were the prices.

It’s curious that the 2006 Bond flick “Casino Royal” was shot in and around the Ocean Club – Daniel Craig was good, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “Daniel, your no Sean Connery.” Like the movie, the Ocean Club and Paradise Island had become a ghost of something past; something that was more real, more natural, and more of the moment.
Luxury is “a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense,” “an inessential, desirable item or service which is expensive or difficult to obtain;” “a pleasure obtained only rarely.” True luxury had been replaced by mass luxury; which deprived me of the sumptuousness I desired.

Even to myself as I write, I sound like a crotchety old fart. I am a fossil complaining about the modern world, longing for the past of my younger days; of memories made more enchanting by the sentimental mist of time.

There was, of course, one saving grace: Judith. With her I enjoyed the sun, reading, swimming, walking, making fun of the atrocious food and service, discreetly mocking other guests, lamenting the sprawl and soullessness and, yes, other miscellaneous whining. We had a good time with each other, we always do. It was a pretty good seven days; the weather sure beat London’s or New York’s.

   Actually it’s hard to complain, but as you can see I still manage quite effortlessly.   

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Antibes - 2012

We have habitually avoided South of France in the traditional vacation months of July and August; this is our usual haunt every September, after most Europeans have returned to the drudgery of their jobs. The weather is still great, in spite of the shorter hours of daylight as autumn approaches; reservations at the best restaurants are easier to come by, and traffic isn’t snarled to a crawl along the Corniche Inférieure.

We were coaxed into this visit in July by good friends. They are our age and their lives have taken a similar trajectory to Judith’s and mine. Joël and I both had private businesses with partners, sold them shortly after the millennium, and retired. We all enjoy food and wine, fine hotels, reading, politics and polite, civil conversation. We’re curious about each other’s perspective and although we don’t agree about everything, we can talk about anything without anyone getting all tied up in knots.

In the past, we have kept ourselves east of here, in Beaulieu–sur-Mer; actually annually for more than a decade. Our Septembers slowly morphed into lazy times of sun, food and wine – we hardly moved from the sun beds of our hotel. The sloth would be quite content with our lifestyle.

Nice and to its east, the Alps encroach the seashore, tightly packing activity against the steep cliffs of the range. By Antibes, the reach of the mountains has surrendered; the beach civilization comfortably stretches much further inland. Perhaps this explains the more laid back, less formal feel of the area – everyone has room to spread.

The week passed very quickly. We weren’t total sloths; getting out and seeing more, meals away from the hotel. Our decades on the Côte d’Azur had gotten us into a bit of a rut, without us really knowing. Thus this sojourn to Cap d’Antibes has reinvigorated our future pilgrimages here.

You can read on through my daily entries if you care:

Sunday, July 8, 2012
We woke up in London to gray cloud and 55˚F. Masood whisked us to Heathrow’s Terminal Five, skillfully skirting the temporary closure of the M4. Our British Airways flight was good; we were transported to a different and distant planet in just two hours: blue sky, brilliant sun, azure sea; and 80˚F. This “planet” is more commonly known among us as the South of France.
A nice young taxi driver got us to the Hôtel Imperial Garoupe in Cap d’Antibes by two; our room wasn’t ready so we were invited to have lunch at the hotel’s beach restaurant. We were pleasantly surprised to see Joël and Annie there; we joined them for lunch. It was at our friend’s prompting that we decided to try this new place in Antibes and meet up with them for the week.

The property is small and charming; our original room on the ground floor wasn’t ideal so we moved to the first floor; lighter and definitely more comfortable for us. It was then down to the pool for a late afternoon of catching up with our friends from Luxemburg. My thoughts about the hotel are mixed; we are so jaded and spoiled by the opulence of La Reserve de Beaulieu.

We spent the late afternoon at the pool; it is not very good for swimming. Still, the area is tranquil and not crowded at all. Drinks and dinner were with our friends at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Pavillon; the food inventive. Sleep came quickly.

Monday, July 9, 2012
Up to a beautiful day, breakfast was in the courtyard – pleasant. We were down to the pool early; Europcar dropped off our rental; a jet black Audi TT Coupe. Lunch was at the seaside restaurant; more reading and relaxation until six by the pool.

Dinner was with Annie and Joël again. We first stopped for an aperitif at the Eden Roc Hotel’s marvelous terrace; afterward taking a little time to walk down to the pool and through the majestic gardens. Tonight’s feast was at Les Pêcheurs at the Relais & Chateaux’s Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel. Our table was outside on the terrace; the meal was wonderful as was the magnum of 2008 Clos de Blanc Vougeot Monopole. We got back to the hotel around midnight.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
We were up early to another hot and beautiful day, and got out for a walk along the Sentier de Tirepoil; a five kilometer trail on the Cap’s rugged seashore. This walk is much more rustic than Beaulieu; parts are just rock and dirt; narrow passages, small bridges and steep steps jutting over the sea. Still it was a beautiful moonscape of weathered rock; we were out about 45 minutes.

We rewarded ourselves with a sensible breakfast and it was then down to the pool. The day was only interrupted by lunch at the seaside.

This evening we drove with Annie and Joël to Vence and the expansive Le St. Martin Hotel and Restaurant. Drinks were on the terrace with wonderful views to the Mediterranean; our meal exquisite.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
After breakfast we drove the short distance to Cannes. The city was busy and lively; after some walking we had lunch on the Carlton’s terrace facing the sea and the bustling Boulevard de la Croisette. We arrived back to the hotel about four; quickly donning our suits and heading to the pool. The weather is hot; 86˚F today.
We enjoy our friend’s company so it was a pleasure to have another dinner together. Le Figuier de St. Esprit is a wonderful restaurant, along the ramparts in old Antibes. There is an ancient olive tree growing in its middle; the tables surrounding it. Conversation and laughter leavened the fantastic food.

Again we were to bed well past midnight.

Thursday, July 12, 2012
Hot again. After breakfast we took a trip into old Antibes; visiting the Eglise de l’Immaculée
Conception, the busy farmers’ market, Marché Provençal; the façade of the Picasso Museum (visited in a “past century” by us), the narrow shop lined alleyways and finally, the winding ramparts.
We joined Annie and Joël for lunch; then read for the balance of the day at poolside under the shelter of our parasols.  The pool itself is a disappointment; too shallow and short for serious swimming – in this respect I miss La Reserve’s wonderful salt water piscine.

Dinner was at the hotel; the place was empty. The food is creative and delicious, but the service is immature in relation to the meal. Even so, it is a mystery why this place is so forsaken.

Friday, July 13, 2012
We were down to the pool early. I thought it would be nice to try lunch on the terrace at Hotel du Cap Eden Roc; unfortunately our hotel couldn’t make the booking. Undeterred, I decided to drive over myself to plead our case to their concierge. This effort was rewarded with a 1:00 reservation.

Arriving at Eden Roc, the wind was too strong for the terrace, so we ate in the very airy grille; watching the panorama of gale driven whitecaps behind the safety of glass. Lunch was good; the same cannot be said of our fellow guests. We remembered why we don’t stay here; it is an earthly paradise but inhabited by a roving band of barbarous philistines, celebrating their plunder of the world’s economies. We all commented that some of the regalia worn by the female companions of the male warriors were downright frightening. I think I saw an anthropologist or two hidden in the bushes on our way out; perhaps here studying the different customs and interactions of these primitive, sun worshiping hedonistic peoples.
After returning to Hôtel Imperial Garoupe, the balance of the blustery but sunny afternoon was spent reading by the pool and inventing ad-hoc tools of rock and twig to keep the parasols in their bases so as not to fly off and kill someone – the wind very strong.

Annie, Joël and we had aperitifs and dinner at Bacon, a one-star Michelin jewel jutting out on the Pointe Bacon, with breathtaking views of the old ramparts of Antibes. This stalwart has been family owned by the Sordello’s for perhaps thirty years. Judith and I were both sure upon arriving that we tried to have a meal here perhaps in 1985; 27 years ago! Our circumstances were certainly much different then; we were staying at a nondescript hotel in Nice, took a train to Antibes, then a taxi to this restaurant; only to learn it was closed for lunch that day. At any rate, our Capon, a local fish, was fantastic; served in a traditional provincial style.
Unfortunately it was too windy for the fireworks display off the point of Antibes to proceed. The celebration of La Fête Nationale, or Bastille Day; officially on the 14th, was thus a muted affair. We would have had the best viewing spot available for the show right from our table. C’est la vie.

Saturday, July 14, 2012
We were up, had breakfast and then took a one hour walk along the sea. Poolside by eleven, the sky started to become cloudy as we went to lunch at the hotel’s restaurant on Baie de la Groupe. After that, we were back at our sun chairs reading until about five; when the day turned a bit chilly and windy; we retreated to our room. Overall, the day wasn’t as pleasant; the pool was crowded with guests who were too loud for our taste.

Dinner with our friends was at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Pavillon; the food was excellent, service slow.

Sunday, July 15, 2012
Thankfully the weather report turned out to be wrong; we had a nice final day, hindered with a bit of wind. After breakfast we were down to the pool until noon; cleaned up, packed and said our goodbye to Annie and Joël. We had a quick taxi to the airport and an easy check in.

The flight was good and even arrived ten minutes early. Masood had us back to Kinnerton Street before six; another adventure at its end. We are already looking forward to September.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The "No-Pledge" Pledge

Some pundits are now saying that there is some hope for compromise on the budget, tax reform and reduced spending before the end of this year. The Tax Armageddon of the combined expirations of the Bush and payroll tax cuts on December 31, 2012 might prompt our government to some last minute action. This “solution” will be less than “strategic” to say the least – just crisis management like the debt ceiling debacle of last summer.

I submit that a major contributor to this chaos is the Americans for Tax Reform (“ATR”) and it’s President, Grover Norquist.   Norquist and ATR are the developers of the “No-Tax Pledge,” or in their parlance, the taxpayer protection pledge. The organization’s description starts as follows: “Americans for Tax Reform opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.”
Of course, Norquist takes this to the absurd. To cite just two examples: ATR opposes closing any loopholes for any reason, or for even ending ineffective and market distorting Ethanol subsidies, arguing these would both be tax increases. I will not get into the flawed logic of ATR’s “starve the beast” philosophy here; however, suffice it to say that our recent history has shown that tax cuts are generally accompanied by increases in government spending, not decreases.
41 Senators, 236 House Members and 1,263 state legislators have signed the “Pledge,” scared to death of Norquist’s wrath and threats of electoral retaliation.

America needs an anti-Norquist with matching political cunning. The pledge we should ask candidates to sign is a “No Pledge” Pledge. Other than the Pledge of Allegiance, all others should be out. We need people of honor and integrity in government, individuals who we trust to have wisdom to balance principle with compromise. Many veteran legislators in Washington possess these sensibilities, but are punished for showing them by the ATR.

Norquist’s influence needs to be neutered and exposed for what it is – horribly crippling demagoguery over public policy and the implementation of true tax reform. Maybe I will be scolded by some for making analogy to the terrible images of McCarthyism; but similar fears are engendered in the hearts of politicians today. It’s time to stand up against ATR and to just say no to the “No-Tax Pledge”.

I believe money would pour into an organization supporting and backing the idea of a “NO PLEGDE” PLEDGE. I am not promulgating the idea big government or limited government, higher taxes or lower taxes; rather for supporting a democracy that actually works as intended.

To whom should we write our checks?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Refrigeration - Urban Style

This is a simple tale about a refrigerator replacement in the Big Apple.

We purchased our apartment on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan in 1998; the former owner was an interior designer and did things up in the grand style of one of the Louis’, probably the “Top Louis” to steal a line from Woody Allen. Everything was built-in to look good, but not actually function all that well. After all, this was an interior designer, not an architect or engineer.

About one year ago, our built-in refrigerator started to act up. A repairman tried to resuscitate, but alas it was not to be; it died. Thus started our quest; the dilemma was that to replace this 41” wide built-in was more than the price of an average used car sold in 2011. But to buy a more reasonably priced standalone model would require a cabinet maker to remodel the built-in, custom made cupboards. The net price of this alternative would be another used car. We decided to go with the built-in replacement, a Sub-Zero (the Bentley of cooling solutions) was the only model with the dimensions we needed.

Our apartment is on the 8th floor of a pre-war building; moving things in and out is problematic. A gentleman from the appliance store came to do measurements. The old fridge is 84” high and couldn’t fit in the freight elevator, nor could the new one. The old would need to be disassembled to get out, the new disassembled and re-assembled to get in; of course these services are all “extra” and would extend the installation over a three day period. There was, for instance, a $200 charge for the 14 steps leading from the street to the freight elevator.

Two workers arrived to pull the old unit out and then left; he said a crew would be here to deal with the broken fridge and move in the new one. These men showed up about an hour later; no ladder and a few tools. They borrowed our ladder and proceeded to try to take the compressor/condenser off the top of the unit; many perplexed looks. After about a half hour of this, one of them punctured a Freon line, the gas escaped and refrigerant oil spewed over our floor, cabinets; literally everything was covered with a greasy slime. They started halfheartedly to wipe and smear the stuff around with paper towel (our paper towel) so we told them just to leave it. Dragging the unit out our back door, they damaged our molding and wall corner bead in several places. It squeezed into the elevator and it was gone. We quickly cleaned things up as best we could while they were gone. Not quite the BP Gulf spill, but you get the picture.
The new base of the Sub Zero appeared from out of the elevator. Surprise; it would not fit through our back door in spite of their earlier measurements, so we needed to go to plan “B.” The freight elevator opens to the 8th floor hallway as well as our service staircase. This meant dragging the unit over our marble foyer and through the kitchen door. This door wouldn’t open wide enough; after the workers were about to give up, I removed the floor stopper which provided an extra inch and a half of clearance. The new Sub-Zero was placed in the middle of the kitchen; the crew left – no apology, no goodbye.

The following morning a certified technician from Sub-Zero arrived to sew together the two pieces; it came to life about an hour later. Of course, this worker couldn’t complete the installation; we would need to wait for the arrival of the original two workers.
An hour or two later, they showed up, hooked up the water line, removed the protective packaging; and positioned and leveled our new refrigerator. The man, Rigo, and his assistant, were at least a bit pleasant; they dragged out the cardboard and other packing materials on their way out.

The Sub-Zero looks monstrous; it’s stainless steel finish clashing with other parts of the kitchen. It looks like more renovation will follow. What’s not to love about New York?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Our Spanish Holiday

We were in España for 16 days, February 18 – March 5, 2012. Driving almost 1,500 kilometers, staying in five cities and visiting three others, our knowledge of this country clearly has grown. Judith and I were last here in May 2011 for 18 days, in the south; in Al-Ándalus.

Between this trip and our previous one, Judith and I have been in Spain 34 days in the last twelve months. We have seen most of the country, with the exception of the far north: San Sebastian, Santander and León. I find in many ways this country is more foreign to me than “the other more obvious ones” that we have visited over the years. I still haven’t adjusted well to the rhythms of late meals and mid afternoon siestas.
The arc of Spain’s history is also hard for me to fathom. I understand the prehistoric period, the Romans, the serial invasions of the Visigoths and Moors; the Christian reconquest, and Spain’s zenith in the Age of Discovery and the Golden Age. But why did the wheels then suddenly start to fall off? Was it some metaphysical revenge for the Inquisition?
Ruinous wars, anarchy, rampant political corruption, the loss of Cuba and its empire, civil wars and the horror of fascism and Franco followed. The fall from grace of this once super power isn’t as well documented as that of Hellenic Greece, Rome or even Islam. It just slipped off the world stage unnoticed.
Free elections weren’t again held here until 1977 – devoid of democracy for so long, a terrible waste of talent and resources for literally hundreds of years. Once one of the richest countries in the world, it now ranks 26th in per capita income and below the EU average. And it was further crushed in the 2008 financial meltdown, and once more teeters on the brink of disaster.

In spite of this, moving through the old city centers, their architecture and their people; the churches, mosques, synagogues and museums provide a way for me to start to solve the enigma of España; bringing history’s events into focus by touching art, artifacts and everyday life. Sitting in the squares, walking the streets and enjoying food and wine in the restaurants all connect me. For almost 700 years Islam had its only foothold in Europe here on the Iberian Peninsula. This Moorish culture creates a very unique place, with the spice of Jewish and Visigoth ethnicity folded in. In this respect, it is unique on the Continent.

Unlike Russia or even France, I never got a sense of bitterness for days of past glory from the Spaniards. Perhaps they, like me, have trouble connecting the present day to the past and thus are more blasé about it.

Below, if you care to read on, is a diary of our trip. The weather was wonderful and surprisingly mild, not a drop of rain.

February 18, 2012 (London; Segovia)
We had an easy ride to Heathrow and a good British Airways flight to Madrid. Border security and luggage pick-up done, we headed off to Europcar to pick up our Audi A6; I splurged for a nice car since we will be doing a lot of driving on this trip. Unfortunately, I discovered we had a flat on our left rear tire, so much for Spanish quality control. The agent switched out vehicles fairly quickly and we were on our way at six-thirty for our 110 kilometer drive northwest to Segovia.
The navigation was problematic; we seem to pick boutique hotels on very small streets in the center of old towns. Tom-Tom never can find them so we “approximate” a location. All went well, except at the end. We circled many times, occasionally zipping through pedestrian zones – thankfully no casualties. We finally made it to this GPS “black hole” address: Calle Daioz, 7 and the Hotel Don Felipe – our home for the next four nights. Its location is good, and although encased in an ancient building, the insides had been completely modernized in 2010. Our room and the place are pleasant; a nice view to the Alcazar.

It is unknown when the city was first settled by Celts, but the Romans arrived in 80 BC and its population grew to perhaps 50,000. The shape of Segovia’s craggy limestone cliff can be conjured into the shape of a ship, with the Alcazar (royal fortress) at the bow, and the aqueduct at the stern, with the Eresma and Clamores Rivers splashing along its two sides. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
We were in later than we planned, so we canceled a reservation outside the city. Dinner was at Jose Maria, recommended by the hotel.  We had the traditional Castilian cochinillo asado, roasted piglet. It’s cooked whole in the oven 2 ½ hours and basted continuously with butter and oil.  Presented sort of spread eagle at the table, the maître d’hôtel proceeds to smash it into four or so pieces with the edge of a dinner plate; not a process I would describe as delicate.
Within a few bites, my bad cholesterol shot up to 500; lots of fat, crisp skin - very messy to eat. I’m embarrassed to mention that I also had several deep fried ham and cheese croquettes as a starter, each the size of a medium chicken egg. 

  We were easily off to sleep with our stomachs rumbling in stereo and in dire need for a flushing with industrial strength Draino.

February 19, 2012 (Segovia)
We were up, had breakfast and were off to explore.
Our first stop was the Alcazar, the royal castle of Segovia, built on a rocky outcrop between the years 1410 and 1455. We arrived shortly after opening and had the fortress almost to ourselves.
The Cathedral of Segovia, dating to 1525, the last great Gothic church built in Spain was next on the tour. Some parts were closed because of Sunday services, but the graceful ironwork grilles and elegantly vaulted ceilings were spectacular. We’ll return during the week.
Then it was on to the marvelous aqueduct, built in the first century AD, an engineering masterpiece. It carried water to the city until the 1950s. The aqueduct is breathtaking; it comprises 166 arches and extends almost 3,000 feet in length, this without any mortar holding it together. What an esthetically elegant engineering marvel the Romans had created.

We walked more of the city and stopped for a very late lunch at El Fogón Sefardí. Today we had the Castilian lamb; same procedure as the piglet – no need to describe the process. In two days my health has been seriously jeopardized. We wobbled back to the Don Felipe.

Toward evening we walked back to the Plaza Mayor; some sort festival was going on, youngsters dancing around in costumes, almost like Halloween. We were to bed early, again with bellyaches.

February 20, 2012 (Segovia; Coca)
I should mention the weather has been bright, but the mornings cold.

Most sights are closed Mondays, so we decided to travel to Castillo de Coca, a little more than an hour northwest of Segovia. Built in the late 15th century, it was a residential palace masquerading as a defensive fortress in the style of military Mudéjar architecture. It has a deep moat with wonderful turrets and battlements. We arrived back to Segovia in time to take in the rest of the Cathedral; the cloister and Chapel of the Conception were worth the return trip.

We decided we had to reign in our eating, so vowed to have only a bit of tapas and a bottle of wine. We found a very nice spot off the Plaza Mayor, called Casares. The tapas were very good, and thankfully light.
After returning to the Don Felipe and planning tomorrow’s trip to Ávila, we fell quickly off to sleep.

February 21, 2012 (Segovia; Ávila)
We were up, had breakfast and were off on another bright but crisp morning. Ávila is about an hour and a half northeast, sitting at 3,710 feet, the highest elevation of any provincial capital in Spain. Its medieval walls span over a mile, punctuated by 88 sturdy turrets. We visited the marvelous Ávila Cathedral with its mottled red and white stone, the Basilica de San Vicente and walked the length of the walls.
Afterward we had a nice lunch at El Tostado at the Gran Hotel Palacio Valderrábanos. Always the intrepid tourists, on the way home we detoured to and visited the Palacio Y Bosque de Riofrío, a royal hunting estate dating to 1752. The tour was in Spanish so it was not all that rewarding.

We arrived back to Segovia after six, had a light tapas dinner again at Casares and lingered in the cold enjoying an evening of music and dance in the Plaza Mayor; it turned out this was the week of the city’s February carnival - then quickly to bed.

February 22, 2012 (Segovia; Salamanca)
After a quick breakfast and a smooth check out, we were on the road to our next outpost, Salamanca, 190 kilometers west. The trip went well and miraculously the navigation worked perfectly. We checked into the very lovely Hotel Don Gregorio about one. Salamanca is a university town, its schools founded by Alfonso IX in 1218.

We were out on a sunny and mild afternoon and walked up Calle de San Pablo to the expansive Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s largest. Completed in 1755 and designed by the Churriguera brothers, it is an architectural wonder in warm golden limestone; we stopped for cappuccinos at Café Novelty, bathed in the heat of the sun and lazily people-watched in the square.
Afterward we walked north to see Casa de las Conchas, the Convent de las Úrsulas and Casa de las Muertes. Our return stroll had us down Rúa Mayor and Calle de los Líberos to see the cloisters and façade of the University, a perfect example of the Plateresque style. We continued on to the 1st century Roman bridge that still spans the Rio Tormes.

Back to the hotel about six, we had a nice drink in the bar and were off to our room. Our bath is unbelievable, a large and luxurious shower room; even a sauna – we selfishly pampered ourselves after a long day of sightseeing.
Dinner was at Restaurante Victor Gutierrez, a Michelin 1-Star steps from the Don Gregorio.  A small place, 20 or so seats, very minimalist; not even paintings on the wall – it was all about the food. Our tasting menu was delicate and light; a real switch from our earlier fare in Segovia.
One more nightcap at the hotel’s bar and we were out.

February 23, 2012 (Salamanca)
The weather remains bright; cold mornings but by afternoon temperatures moving into the high fifties.

First on our list today were the Cathedrals Vieja (old) and Nueva (new). One enters through the Nueva, completed around 1560, one of the last major churches in the Gothic style. Throughout, the Gothic is competing with ornamental detail of the more “modern” Baroque and Plateresque. The beautiful choir was the design of Joaquin Churriguera.
The Nueva did not replace Vieja, but was merely built beside it; you enter via a connecting chapel. The Vieja dates to 1152 in Romanesque style; the altarpiece is a 15th century golden Florentine masterpiece comprising 53 panels depicting the life of Christ. The adjoining cloister has a marvelous set of chapels.
Just a short walk away was Iglesia Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery with a unique, superbly ornamented façade. The rooftops are nesting places for several families of storks. Its large single nave church is stunning; an ornate altar of twisted gilt columns decorated with vines. Afterward we visited the nearby Convento de las Dueñas and strolled by the Torre Del Clavero.
It was then to Plaza Mayor and Café Novelty for cappuccinos, a rest and the penetrating restorative rays of the winter sun. Late lunch was at Rio de la Plata on Plaza del Peso; unremarkable. After a short stop back to the hotel, we finished our day visiting the Museo Art Nouveau Casa Lis.

We had a light tapas dinner at a funky café, the MOMO, and fell asleep easily.

February 24, 2012 (Salamanca)
We both were sluggish upon awakening this morning; our diet is doing us in, perhaps the tapas at MOMO weren’t as fresh as they should have been. We reluctantly walked a bit in the morning, but Judith, especially, was feeling under the weather. We spent most of the day in the room recuperating; having a light room service for dinner.
We were to bed early, still a little out of focus.

February 25, 2012 (Salamanca; Cáceres)
Feeling a bit better, we had breakfast and were on the road to our next stop, Cáceres, 200 kilometers to our south; leaving Castilla Y Leon for the Extremadura region. It was another adventure to find the hotel, navigating pedestrian zones and automatic bollards that had a mind of their own. But Cáceres was worth the aggravation; this ancient city is well preserved; the serene Renaissance town dates to the late 15th century, untouched by the wars of the 19th and 20th.
The Relais and Chateaux property of Atrio Restaurante Hotel is fantastic; the whitewashed hews of its modern interior juxtaposed against the 600 year old exterior of this lovely spot in San Mateo Square.
Our friends Lilla and Stan are meeting us here, driving from Portugal; we arrived about one and Judith and I were able to explore a bit before they arrived. We eventually met up in Plaza Mayor and then had some light tapas on the hotel’s lovely terrace. Afterward we did more walking, climbing the tower in the Iglesia de Santa Maria for its expansive view, and visiting a few other sights of this compact jewel. The real value of this experience isn’t any one monument; rather the very unique package of a completely intact late Middle Age city. If you stumble upon a lane deserted by tourists, it truly could be 1500.

Lilla and Stan joined us for dinner. The Atrio is really a restaurant at its heart, having 9 rooms and 5 suites almost as a side business. Still, the accommodations are divine.
The chef, Toño Péres, created an unbelievable culinary experience for us; and the wine cellar, with its 40,000 bottles, is mindboggling. Of course we drank too much; the highlight was the tinto vino 2009 Astrales from Ribera Del Duero. We didn’t leave the table until after one in the morning and bid our friends safe travel back to their hotel.

Our suite is peaceful and calming with views to the Square and the 14th century San Mateo Church; we were off to sleep quickly.

February 26, 2012 (Cáceres)
In spite of our late evening, we were up by 9:30 and had a wonderfully avant-garde breakfast in the hotel. It was then out for some early explorations, visiting the Museo de Cáceres and its ancient cistern, the small Jewish quarter and the Casa y Torre de Carvajal before meeting Stan and Lilla in Plaza Mayor.

The four of us had a pleasant lunch, walked a bit more and then our friends set off back to Portugal. Judith and I toured a little more; afterward retreated to the hotel’s terrace; the afternoon sun had moved the temperature to almost 70˚F. We enjoyed a marvelous bottle of 2010 Basa, D.O. Rueda; 85% verdejo, 12% viura and the 3% balance sauvignon blanc.
Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant, again excellent. After a tour of the wine cellar, we soon dozed off.

February 27, 2012 (Cáceres; Toledo)
We awoke this morning to the sound of water dripping; the bathroom ceiling had a slight leak. Staff came and we navigated around the problem cleaning up, had breakfast and were on our way. It was a wonderful two days; the hotel’s manager, Carmina Marques could not have been nicer. I would recommend a trip here unequivocally.

By 10:30 we were on our way to Toledo, three hours and 260 kilometers east of Cáceres. It was an easy drive but upon arrival our accommodations went from the sublime of the Atrio Hotel that we had just left, to Dante’s eighth circle, reincarnated as the Hilton Buenavista Toledo.   This corporate property was outside of the old city; 117 soulless rooms, a conventioneer’s oasis. We could have been in Toledo, Ohio; what a pity.
We checked in quickly and took the hotel’s shuttle to the old town. Our first stop was the massive Toledo Cathedral, the second largest only to Seville. Construction began in 1227; the Baroque altarpiece “Transparente” behind the high altar is a masterpiece, as is the double stalled choir.  If nothing else were here, it still would be well worth the trip just for this. Afterward we visited the Iglesia de San Tomé with El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” A nondescript late lunch followed; then we returned by shuttle to the hotel.

We had tapas and a bottle of wine for dinner, and then, sleep.

February 28, 2012 (Toledo)
After a restless night and a quick breakfast we were on the shuttle heading to the old town. Our first stop was to the Mezquita del Christo de la Luz, a mosque dating to AD 1000, then to Iglesia de los Jesuitas, a Jusuit church and cloister begun in 1629. The high vaulted white nave and Baroque altarpiece were superb, but the real fasination was the remarkable views from its tower.
We continued on to the Iglesia de San Román, a treasure of Visogothic history. A special feature of Toeldo is that it retains wonderful touches of the culture of the Romans, Visogths, Moors and Catholics; it allows one appreciate the ebb and flow civilization’s changing power over the milleniums. 
Today was filled with so many sights; we continued on to the Casa-Museo de El Greco, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, and finally to the Monisterio de San Juan de los Reyes. This magnificent monestary and cloister, begun in 1477, was originally envisioned as the royal burial place, only to be replaced by the Granada Cathedral after the reconquest in 1492. The splendor; however, remains nontheless.

We had a nice late lunch at the nearby Adolfo Restaurante, and eventually found our way back to the hotel by the shuttle. Dinner was tapas in the bar; then we were out.

February 29, 2012 (Toledo; Cuenca)
We were up early to another brilliant day; by afternoon it’s more like early summer than the last days of February. It was off by car to Cuenca, a three hour 200 kilometer trek east of Toledo. It is a picturesque town astride the steep slopes created by the Júcar and Huécar Rivers. Built upon a Moorish garrison but now with only its tower surviving, this Gothic and Renaissance city is known for its “hanging houses” that jut over the rivers’ ravines.
We had a simple tapas lunch on the patio at the nearby Parador de Cuenca, walked a bit more and then loaded into the Audi for our return trip; arriving back about five.

Almost boringly now, we opted for the tapas and some wine in the hotel’s bar; it’s quiet and peaceful. After some BBC News we slipped under the covers.

March 1, 2012 (Toledo; Madrid)
We were up and out by eleven on our way to Madrid, a short one hour north. We found our hotel, A.C. Palacio del Retiro, with ease, checked in and then dropped the Audi to Europcar at the nearby Atocha train station; if you remember, it was bombed allegedly by al Qaeda almost four years ago on March 11, 2004.
The 50 room hotel is housed in a wonderful 1908 mansion retrofitted in 2004, replete with elegant features including a marvelous staircase, stained glass and frescoed walls. We’re in a lovely suite, room 210, overlooking the royal Parque Del Retiro.

After a small snack at the hotel we were off to the Museo Del Prado, known for its great assembly of Spanish paintings, 12th to 19th centuries, vast stores of Velázquez and Goya. It is a marvelous museum; spacious and well lit galleries, uncluttered. We spend four hours here. Ironically, it wasn’t the usual Spanish masters that enthralled me; rather the 19th century Spanish Realists – Fortuny, Rico, Buruete; and most notably Joaquín Sorolla. His “Young Boys on the Beach” and “They Still Say Fish is Expensive” were wonders of color and light. These were artists I had never before encountered; what a treat.
We strolled back to the hotel; had a late but light dinner and a great Spanish white, a 2008 Belondrade y Lurton, a verdejo grape; and were off to bed.

March 2, 2012 (Madrid)
Up to an overcast morning, we had breakfast and were out to a day with our first chance of rain. We walked from the newer Bourbon district to old Madrid, along the wide Calle de Alcalá to the Puerta Del Sol and the Plaza Mayor. It was then to the Cathedral de la Almudena, begun in 1879 and not completed for a century. I was struck by the emptiness of the edifice; it seems we can no longer build churches that truly inspire.
Next was the Palacio Real; the Bourbon monarchy spared no expense here. The exuberant décor of Carlos III and IV was the most “over the top” suite of rooms Judith and I had ever seen. The Russian czars should be jealous.

We stopped for a late lunch at the Westin on the beautiful Plaza de Las Cortes and arrived back to the hotel around five. Dinner was again at the hotel; and to sleep.

March 3, 2012 (Madrid)
We were up and out early to visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum on the nearby Paseo del Prado. The Thyssen-Bornemisza family, Barons Heninrich and son Hans, were wealthy industrialists of Dutch origin that had amassed an art collection starting in the 1920s that was thought at one time to be the second largest private collection in the world. Hans was a busy fellow; five marriages, the last to Carmen Cervera, 1961 “Miss Spain.” Through Carmen’s influence, eventually the collection went to Spain in 1992; but not without great controversy. It is now housed in the Palace of Villahermosa.
The space is neat and organized chronologically, over 800 works, 17th to 19th centuries are covered. Again I was drawn to the 19th, Impressionists, Fauves and Expressionists lifted the heart. Our three hours there passed quickly.

Lunch was late on the sixth floor of the Palacio Cibeles, the recently renovated Madrid communications building; now an annex of the City Hall. The transformation was spectacular, the restaurant, food and wine wonderful. We got back to the hotel about five, relaxed for the balance of the day; going down to the bar for a late snack before bed.

March 4, 2012 (Madrid)
Our last full day, and we admit to one another that we’re running out of gas. We were out on a cloudy morning to visit the expansive Parque Del Retiro; the Pleasure Lake, and the two Neo-classical palaces: Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio de Cristal.
Walking out of the south end of the park, it was next to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid’s 20th century exhibit space. Many of the rooms were closed, which was fine. I still suffer with this period, never really connecting with Dalí, Picasso, Miró and the Cubists. We had a late lunch at the hotel and relaxed for the balance of the day.

Toward evening, we took a long walk up the fashionable Calle de Serrano, eventually stopping on the way the way back at a café on Plaza de la Independencia for some croquetas and wine. We returned to the hotel around eleven and were off to sleep soon after our heads touched the pillows.

March 5, 2012 (Madrid; London)
We were greeted by another sunny morning on our last day in Spain. Final breakfast, packing and we were on our way to Madrid’s Barajas Airport. We had a good flight and easy ride back to our flat; happy to be back in our “adopted city.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

City of Lights

For many years Paris was our hub to Europe from the States, but with the 2004 collapse and temporary closure of Terminal 2E at Charles De Gaulle, Paris became inefficient. London, Zurich or Frankfurt became better choices. When I checked my diaries, I was surprised that we hadn’t been to Paris since May 2006; more than five years ago. And this was just a quick overnight visit from London to see friends Regine and François.

On Thursday morning, January 19, the Eurostar whisked us in just over two hours from London’s St. Pancras to Paris’ Gard du Nord; then a twenty minute car ride had us to the always pleasant Four Seasons Hotel George V.
The City of Light at first glance lacked its traditional sparkle; La Ville-Lumière seemed dimmed into a funk. The weather was damp with low and heavy cloud, well matched to the dreary economic climate now hanging over the Euro Zone. I wondered if all this would affect our trip. After a quick lunch, we were out walking the length of Rue Saint-Honoré; the smart shops were not as bustling as I had remembered.

As it turns out, the cadence of our long weekend in Paris was to be a beat of transition and change, but ironically, also continuity.

Upon our arrival to George V, I asked the concierge if there might be a cancellation at Taillevent for dinner and it seemed luck was with us – a reservation for 8:00 pm was available. Taillevent is a short stroll from the hotel, on Rue Lamennais.  The wonderful restaurant has been around since 1946, guided by the ever watchful Vriant family. Under the founder’s son, Jean-Claude, the restaurant prospered, receiving 3-Stars Michelin in 1973. Sadly, he died in January 2008 at only 71, and the restaurant passed to his daughter Valérie, with the financial help of the Gardinier family.
This evening the restaurant was only half filled, I had never seen the place as empty; reservations were always hard to come by. But everything remained marvelously the same; our Dover sole main course was fantastic. The room is wood paneled, overflowing with flowers and art; soft to the eye, and the staff prescient to the client’s every need.
Toward the end of our meal, the long time maître d’hôtel, Jean-Marie Ancher came over to talk. We mentioned that we had been dining here for almost two decades, and passed on our condolences regarding Mr. Vriant.  As we were finishing our espressos and petit-fours Jean-Marie said Jean-Claude still guides him daily. I then mentioned to him the habit forming effects of their caramels and pulled one out of my pocket, confessing I had stolen it for later. In a moment, I had a small plate full of caramels for the road; Jean-Marie confessed that he shared my addiction.
Michelin Guide downgraded Taillevent in 2008 to two-stars in what seemed to most a callous and capricious move. It remains Zagat’s number one for food in Paris and the chef, Alain Solivérès, continues on at the restaurant since his start in 2002. For me everything was just right in spite of the absence of the impeccably dressed Jean-Claude with his permanently affixed yet subtle Mona Lisa smile. French pride and patrimony protect institutions such as Taillevent; I am confident in its survival.

We awoke Friday to another sullen day. After breakfast, we were off to Musée du Luxembourg and the “Cézanne et Paris” exhibit.  Cézanne is more famous for his emblematic scenes of South of France, but he spent more than half his life in Paris; the collection celebrates this time with about 80 works depicting the City and environs.
It was then off to our friends at Freego, sisters Nadia and Katia, who have a wonderful cashmere shop. Since last in Paris, it moved from its longtime location on Rue Dauphine on the left bank, to a location close by at 11 Rue Jacob.  The new shop seems a little bit bigger. After a small shopping spree, Nadia suggested we have lunch at a nearby restaurant, La Crémerie, 9 Rue des Quatre Vents. We had a great time, but more on this wonderful place later.
Dinner was at the hotel’s grand restaurant, Le Cinq.  Our starters were good, but our main course of slow cooked, Moroccan scented lamb was somewhat fatty and a disappointment. All was made well; however, by the voluptuous 1990 Volnay Pitures from Jean-Marc Boillot.

The weather hadn’t improved as we walked a bit more Saturday morning. In the afternoon we took in another exhibit, this one at the Gran Palais featuring a massive display of the Stein family’s (Gertrude and her three brothers) Picasso’s, Matisse’s, Cézanne’s and others gathered from over 100 collections on five continents – magnificent but very, very crowded.
The most pleasing time was left for dinner tonight; Nadia and Katia invited us back to La Crémerie.  It’s hard to describe this restaurant; originally an old dairy shop. The owner, Serge Mathieu, is an architect by training, but finally succumbed to his passions for wine and food about seven years ago and bought the place. It’s tiny, ten or twelve seats; walls lined with wine; a beautiful hand painted tile ceiling, a giant, completely ill proportioned 1936 bright red Berkel meat slicer sitting on a cramped bar, with four stools tucked under it. This is where we sat, almost as guests of honor.
We started with champagne, I don’t recall the producer, but all Serge’s wines are artisanal, most organically produced. We continued with Burrata di Corato and tomato, a plate of slow simmered eggplant, tomatoes and onion; duck confit and a smoked tuna so good that it cannot be described. Serge’s wife Helen helped; rich conversations ensued; the playlist softly in the background, eclectic and a perfect fit. I can close my eyes, smell the charcuterie, and hear “Baby I’m a Fool” from the smoky voice of Melody Gardot even as I write.

After another long walk Sunday morning, we took an early afternoon Eurostar back to London. I mentioned in the beginning that this trip became about change and yet also things staying the same. Taillevent transitioned from Jean-Claude Vrinat’s professional hands to a new generation, but the spirit lives on; Nadia and Katia are in a new location, but their fashions endure; La Crémerie, once a dairy, is reincarnated to still serve its locals nourishment, for both stomachs and minds. Serge is still an architect, just designing delicious dishes instead of buildings.
I too changed. I realized that my last Paris trip was just a quick interlude from a three week trip to London. On the flight home on May 18, 2006 I pretty much decided to sell my remaining interest in my businesses; I talked to my friend and partner Walter that same week and we came to an easy agreement. We signed our sale agreement shortly thereafter.
So my last time in Paris I was a full time automobile dealer; this trip a relaxed retiree. But I too remain the same, still curious about places and things; and part of me continues to be a restless soul.  

And yes, Paris has changed a bit too, but remains the "City of Light."