Ireland: September 2019- Part 1

Photo Temple Bar
Temple Bar

Make no mistake; it rains a lot here and now we understand why the locals tell us “…This is  why we drink so much!..‘’ There’s only one way to get rid of that damp, bone chilling feeling and it’s spelled P-U-B. Lucky for us all, that is also where many of the wonderful songs and stories that Ireland is famous for, originated. So, thank you, Guinness and Jameson for brewing and distilling us into a constant state of bliss. Rain, schmain; by the end of this trip, I’ll have a spring in my step, regardless of the weather, and will have to stop myself from saying “…Top of the morning!..” to everyone I pass on the street.

Day 1: Dublin
If Dublin were a shoe, it would be a toe tapping work boot tied with smiley face shoe laces. There’s nothing pretentious about this place; it’s not one of those stunning cities, but there’s a down-to-earth feeling that almost immediately makes you feel welcome. Dublin’s harsh history (think potato famine) prepared its people to be tough, proud and to find the joy in life and celebrate when you can.

We settle into the Maldron Hotel and we’re a bit underwhelmed; coming from Tigerlily in Edinburgh, which rocked our world, it’s a bit plain, but the great location and the young, eager- to-please staff seem to make up for it.

A lively discussion on where to have cocktails immediately follows, but the downpour outside results in a unanimous decision to stay put at the Maldron bar. It seems like a good night for a stick to the ribs dinner, so we head to The Chophouse and dine on sizzling steaks sourced from a local farm and served on wooden boards. If I lived here, I would be a lifetime member of the Beef Club, their foodie group.

Day 2: Dublin
The docent at St. Patrick’s Cathedral delights us with her anecdotes as we tour the imposing Gothic building founded in 1191. The largest church in Ireland, it is also the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland. This year the church celebrates famous Irish author and one-time Dean of the Cathedral, Jonathan Swift’s 350th birthday.

The drizzle doesn’t dampen our spirits as we walk around the lively Temple Bar area. Even though it’s a tourist area of bars, restaurants and shops and known for being higher priced, it’s still a must see. We follow Big A* across the River Liffey Bridge to Oxmantown, get the last four stools in this small sandwich shop and chow down. This gives the guys a good base for their Jameson Distillery Tour, while JC* and I people watch over a pot of Irish tea at a nearby cafe. We can’t help but stop in to The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland dating back to 1198 and then stroll the grounds of Trinity College, the top ranked university in Ireland.

Is it five o’ clock already? It’s time for cocktails at The Bank on College Green, renovated back to its Victorian splendor. Having stopped in at each of the contenders earlier in the day, we choose Terra Madre for dinner. Heading down the stairs to a basement, the tiny restaurant that only seats 18 in mis-matched chairs, makes you feel as if you stopped in at an Italian home. With no time for small talk, the owner glides through the tables, stopping only to discuss the menu. We get lost in the descriptions (pasta made in the traditional way as the old ladies did, who lived in the village of Campofilone that overlooks the Adriatic coast), share so we get to taste more of everything and almost fall off our chairs; it’s that good.

Day 3: Waterford
We say goodbye to Big A*, who’s traveling to London to visit friends before going home. Mr. Wiz*, JC and I are heading out on a six day bus tour of Southern Ireland. Even though we have always preferred to plan our own itineraries, having to drive on the “wrong side” of the road convinced us that there’s a first time for everything.

After much research, we settle on Paddywagon Tours. With high ratings, moderate pricing and small groups, we like the fact that they attract a younger demographic. We’re on our own for dinner each night (breakfast is included), leaving us some freedom of choice. While accommodations are simple, staying at bed-and-breakfast inns gives us the chance to get acquainted with the locals.

The jolly group from all over the world starts to assemble and introductions are made; three groups of women celebrating their 40th birthdays, a young man in his late 20s who just moved to Ireland, two recent college graduates with their parents, couples in their 50s and small world; two women from Austin, Texas.

Everyone (especially the birthday girls) likes our driver, Barry, immediately. He is a tall, good looking guy in his late 30s and has a nice way about him, speaking just enough to enlighten us about his country, but also knowing when some quiet time is needed. As we drive out of Dublin, he mentions that the locals call the Obelisk near the River Liffey the “Stiffy on the Liffey.” Having warmed up the crowd, he asks if we know the difference between Scotts and the Irish; Scotts are Irish people that can’t swim and then mentions that he’s half Scottish and half Irish; he likes to drink, but doesn’t like to pay for it.

Photo Glendolough
So much to explore at Glendalough

We drive through the rolling countryside to the Wicklow Mountains and hike around the monastery ruins at Glendalough, Valley of the Two Lakes. It takes us a moment to realize that those are real reindeer just a few feet away and not animatronics. With only 34 of us on the bus, we are able to make quick on/off stops along the way and the first one is Hollywood (population 50). We learn that the iconic Hollywood sign actually originated here, when two brothers bought land in California and named it after their hometown. The medieval city of Kilkenny captivates us with its cobblestone streets and buildings that date back to the 12thcentury. We hang on every word, as our docent regales us with tales of the Butler family, proprietors of Kilkenny Castle.

Finally arriving in Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, we dine at La Boheme. The husband and wife owners lovingly restored the arched ceilings, pewter bar and original flooring into a French restaurant full of old-world charm. We’re not sure if we preferred the duck breast with ginger and honey sauce or the rack of lamb, but we can agree that Day One on the bus with Barry and our new friends went quite well.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Edinburgh, Scotland: September 2019

Photo Ediburgh

Edinburgh Castle looms over the city

It’s love at first sight! If Edinburgh were a shoe, it would be a Manolo Blahnik jeweled pump. This beautiful city, built on seven hills, looks like a movie set, with its cobblestone streets and its charming stone buildings, each vying for attention with flowering plants cascading from their window boxes.

There’s a certain feeling of comfort that English is the spoken language here, even though that Scottish brogue sometimes makes you need to pay a wee bit more attention. We’re told that it’s a short walk from the train station to the hotel and we take in all the sights and sounds, remembering to look right, left, up and down as we cross each street. It’s still unsettling to us that cars are driving on the opposite side of the road; each taxi encounter is more like a rollercoaster ride.

Stepping into our hotel, Tigerlily, takes our breath away. I’m here for only two minutes and I already know that we will add it to our list of all-time favorites. The small lobby gives way to two bar/sitting areas that have “Alice in Wonderland” written all over them.

Photo Edinburgh Tigerlilly 2

Photo Edinburgh Tigerlilly 1

The stylishly, large guest rooms, attention to detail (glitter balls hanging in the stairwells?!) and all-around trendiness is intoxicating; now I understand what the true definition of bling really is.

Day One
We hear bagpipes playing in the distance, so how can we not have a cocktail at a place called Angels with Bagpipes? We sit outside the 17th century building located on the Royal Mile, a main thorofare, and people watch (note: kilts on men are very sexy). Big A* and I compare research and settle on dinner at L’ Escargot Blanc. A winner of many awards, but unpretentious, it advertises itself as “the best of Scotland with a French twist.” Known for its casserole entrees, brightly colored casserole dishes of all shapes and sizes playfully adorn shelves as pieces of art. I am so impressed with the crockery canister of cornichons and wood tongs served with my terrine appetizer that I eat way too many, but save room for the luscious lamb entree. There’s no way we can bypass our jazzy hotel bars and not stop in one for a nightcap; a scenario that will play out each night of our stay.

Day Two
We’re not surprised that the Tigerlily breakfast is so exceptional. As I sip the best tea that I’ve ever tasted, I take note of how I can make sure to try as many of the offerings as possible. Fortified, we head to Edinburgh Castle for our tour (tickets purchased ahead online). A historic military fortress, royal residence and prison, it looms over the city. Our tour guide passes out his business card and introduces himself as “Australian David” (the better to identify him on TripAdvisor with). Dressed in a kilt, his acting background comes in handy as he regales us with countless tales of intrigue, warfare and romance.

We enjoy a quick lunch at Oink. A small space with a few seats, we line up to choose our size of pulled pork sandwich, type of bread, stuffing and sauce. Our next stop is Leith, a historic port town, and I will not let the rain dampen my excitement to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia. It is said that the day it was decommissioned, Queen Elizabeth II (not known for her emotions) actually shed a tear. As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult to be a Royal; all you need is a yacht and the handshake, which I practice on every level of the ship.

Our rain hoods affect our peripheral vision, but not enough that we don’t see into the bar at The Kitchin and decide that cocktails are in order. Contemporary and sleek, we dry off to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. Then, it’s back to Edinburgh and on to Michael Neave Kitchen for dinner. The décor is a contemporary mix of metal and wood and, Neave, one of Scotland’s top young chefs, introduces us to cod with chorizo risotto and venison and lamb, both with a slightly gamey flavor, alluding to the fact that it’s been sourced from local farms.

Day Three
The rain is relentless, so JC* and I decide to explore the art at the National Gallery of Scotland (free!), rather than accompany Mr. Wiz* and Big A* on their day trip to St. Andrews, known as “the home of golf.” Bypassing the bar where Prince William and Duchess Kate met (they both attended St. Andrew’s University), they head straight for St. Andrew’s Links. They find out that it is a public golf course and on non event days, anyone can stroll around it. As luck would have it, they spend the afternoon watching Rory Mcllroy and his dad play golf together. They are told that tomorrow will start a championship open, so entry will be restricted and ticket prices will be high.

JC, Google Maps and I make it to our meeting place, The Royal Oak. As we’re all sharing our day’s adventures, we notice three people from very different walks of life enter, pull out their instruments and just start playing. The bar is so small that our knees are almost touching the band members’ knees, so we try to not make any sudden movements and realize we can’t leave until their set is finished. We then head down a narrow alley way and multiple stone steps to The Devil’s Advocate for dinner. It’s housed in an old Victorian pump house and is lit by candlelight. We’re very adventurous and find that even animal innards (haggis and black pudding) and lamb neck filets pair well with pinot noir.

I’m sorry to say goodbye to Edinburgh and my dream of living at Tigerlilly, but there’s still one more nightcap and one more breakfast to look forward to before heading on to Dublin.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Glasgow, Scotland: September 2019

Photo Glasgow 1

Glasgow University

Glasgow is Gaelic for dear, green place. I open the plane shade as we are about to land and gasp. The craggy mountains are a splendid backdrop for the verdant patches that sparkle. JC* and I take one look at each other, smile, break into song with a quiet rendition of “Loch Lomond,” that old Scottish ballad, and receive a thumbs-up from Mr. Wiz*, while the family across the aisle claps softly:

“…You take the high road
And I’ll take the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland before you
For me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond…”

We head to our hotel, excited to meet up with Big A*. The Fodors review was so complimentary that before booking the Carlton George, I checked to make sure that the reviewer’s last name wasn’t Carlton or George. All in all, it was a nice hotel in a great location, nothing exceptional. Due to the recent liquor issues in hotels, the complimentary decanters of gin, sherry and whiskey in our rooms go unopened, but the rooftop bar is a nice touch.

If Glasgow were a shoe, it would be a practical oxford in a daring color. What the city lacks in beauty, it makes up for with its edgy vibe. And then, there’s that sense of humor: someone has placed traffic cones on the heads of the elegant statues all around the city, a sign reads “…There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter…” and a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad asks “…What the cluck?..” I’m still giggling when we walk through a tunnel and painted on the wall it says “… Are ye dancing?..” and we pass Sweaty Betty, a women’s fitness apparel shop.

We explore Argyll Street, City Center, the West End and Glasgow Cathedral. Glasgow University enchants us; it’s very Hogwarts-like and we search for Harry Potter around every corner. We arrive just in time for an organ recital at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and then learn about some of Scotland’s famous artists in a special exhibit.

We’re treated to a lovely view of the city at Citation, as we enjoy cocktails on its outdoor balcony. Even though we’re lucky to get the last table in the cobblestone courtyard at Sloan’s, a bar dating back to 1799, I make sure to check out its acid etched windows and mahogany staircase inside. We were so glad the hotel staff told us to check out the bar next door. We’d never seen anything like Waxy O’ Connors Pub. The waiter tells us that its design was the creation of the owner. We can’t imagine how he thought to combine six bars, multiple landings and nook and crannies over three floors in a gothic style that resembles a church and how the wait staff finds their way back to their customers.

Each morning at breakfast, we settle on our lunch choices. Catch wins us over with its luscious fish and chips and its navy and white nautical décor. Paesano impresses us by elevating pizza into an art form, its menu detailing how each imported ingredient was chosen and enlightening us about its wood fire oven, perfected over four generations.

Our culinary priorities set, by lunch time, we secure our dinner reservations, not wanting to miss out on any of the choices we’ve spent time researching. After dining at the Mussel Inn, we agree that, though delicious, we may have reached our mussel quota for the balance of the trip. Rogano’s elegant art deco décor sets the stage for their smoked fish chowder and lemon sole drenched in a brown butter sauce that I could have bathed in. The waiter tells us that we’re in good company (Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart have also dined at table 16) and he will be sure to add the Thornton family to the list.

Now it’s on to Edinburgh! We head to the train, secure in the knowledge that we’ve successfully made the best of our short stay.

Photo Glasgow 2

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Thank You for Flying Lindita Airlines

Photo Lindita Airlines

Below zero weather in Chicago always brought out the imagination in me. When Big A* was a little boy, we’d both look forward to a day of pretend; our favorite was Lindita Airlines (adding “ita” to a name in Spanish denotes affection).

I’d set out rows of two dining room chairs next to each other and one at the head (the cockpit). While Big A was busy packing his suitcase and loading up the briefcase he’d asked Santa for last Christmas, I was considering my costumes; I’d wear a blue blazer for flight attendant duties and add an apron when serving.

He would choose which stuffed animals would be accompanying him on the flight and together we’d look at the map on the wall of his room and decide on a destination, making sure not to select a place we’d already been, denoted by pins. Then, we’d do a little research on the city, its history and its language.

Ticket in hand (we’d collected old ones just for this occasion), he’d eagerly sit on the sofa with a magazine, awaiting the announcement that his flight was ready to board. I’d welcome him aboard, thank him for flying Lindita Airlines and show him to his seat. Once his luggage was safely stored under the seat in front of him and his seat belt was securely fastened (one of his dad’s old belts tied around the chair), we were ready for takeoff. Now the pilot (unfortunately, Lindita Airlines suffered a downturn in profits this year and had to retrain their flight attendants to take on the commercial pilot duties as well), I announced the flying time, cruising altitude and the flight plan.

Back to my attendant duties, I asked my favorite passenger if he’d like to watch an on-board movie (TV show) before the meal was served. After that, I introduced him to a fellow passenger who was a college student on his way to Spain to study abroad for a semester (and all these years, Big A had thought that was his idea).

Big A was a bit shocked when the meal was served; orange juice in a shot glass and three peanuts in a dish. He called over the flight attendant (who quickly put the plane on autopilot to attend to her passenger), complained and asked to see the supervisor. I quickly took off my apron and introduced myself as the CEO, explaining that times were tough on Lindita Airlines and cutbacks were necessary. After much negotiation, we agreed that he would be moved to first class and offered a better meal.

On arrival, I welcomed my passenger to his destination and reminded him of the time and weather conditions. He waited his turn to exit and headed straight for the hotel check in desk, where I welcomed him to the Lindita Hotel and Spa Resort. He chose a room on the executive level (his bedroom) and got comfortable. Fortunately, it was game day, and he was able to choose his favorite games to play with the other guests (me). By days end, he was ready to unpack his bags and await his dad’s arrival, eager to tell him where he had traveled that day.

This is probably the reason why Big A thinks nothing of a weekend jaunt to anywhere on a moment’s notice, welcomes traveling back and forth to far off destinations on business and usually plans his next vacation before he arrives home.

On those freezing, snowy afternoons, I was able to pass on my love of travel and sense of adventure. To this day, nothing is better than our family exploring the world together, sharing experiences and holding the memories close.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Budapest: Nov. 1 – 3, 2018

photo budapest

Parliament sparkles at night

It was my idea to take the train from Vienna to Budapest. The ride was under three hours and I thought we might enjoy the scenery. As it turned out, I fell asleep (as I usually do in any moving vehicle) and had to rely on *Mr. Wiz and *Big A for the descriptions of the small towns and countryside that we passed. The train station is jam-packed, so it was comforting to see that little sign, with our last name on it, held by the driver that was to take us to our hotel.

In all the times I’ve stayed at Hilton hotels, I have never experienced one like this. It seems as if the staff stands at attention and clicks their heels to welcome us, with military precision. They operate together as a well-oiled machine, providing impeccable service throughout the Budapest Hilton. The subdued colors and stylish furnishings give it an elegant, yet contemporary feel.

Budapest is one of the largest cities in Europe and Hungary’s capital. Because of the considerable damage left behind after World War, the city is much more modern than Prague. It’s also more sprawling, less touristy and is known for its vibe. Budapest is actually made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Chain Bridge that spans the Danube River.

With not a moment to spare, we set off to explore. Because the sights are not all within walking distance, we rely on the good old on/off tourist bus, so as not to miss anything. We pass on the funicular and decide to walk up the steep path to Castle Hill to admire the views. The third largest building in the world with over 600 rooms, the commanding presence of the Parliament building is even more impressive when it’s lit up and sparkles at night. We stroll the luxurious grounds of Buda Castle, a palace complex built in 1265. The Matthias Church, dating back to 1015, misleads us with its neo-Gothic exterior and its mystical, exotic interior. Heroes’ Square is impressive, with its stately statues honoring important Hungarian leaders. The Great Market Hall is bustling and we make sure to buy some of the city’s famous paprika to take home.

As we stroll along the Danube, we notice that people are quiet as they approach the Bronze Shoe Memorial. Between 1944 – 1945, many people (most of them Jewish) were murdered along these banks. Before being shot and having their bodies fall into the Danube to be swept away, they were forced to remove their valuable shoes, so as not to waste them. The assorted sizes and styles of shoes that have been bronzed are placed as if the person has just stepped out of them. Whether one shoe was in front of the other or one is on its side, you get the feeling of motion and of realism. It is such an emotional and moving tribute.

It’s worth the wait to eat at Mazel Tov.  The contemporary Israeli restaurant is housed in an old warehouse that looks abandoned on the outside and is one of the city’s classier ruin bars. Derelict buildings circa World War II have become a tourist attraction when transformed into bars and restaurants all over Budapest. When we take a minute to look up from our tahini, hummus, chicken shawarma and homemade, hot pita bread served in a paper bag, we notice the vines hanging from two stories up and the glass ceiling; very cool.

The Hilton recommends a restaurant down the street and we lunch on shrimp, duck pate and goulash soup along with Hungarian wine at the Baltazár Wine Bar. When we learn that two sister restaurants are nearby, our dinner decisions are made. Pierrot Restaurant is housed in a 13thcentury bakery. The black and white photos that line the walls and the pianist playing softly in the corner convey an old-world elegance. We share tastes of the duck in puff pastry, beef tenderloin, venison loin and are starting to appreciate Hungarian wines. By the time we arrive at the 21 Restaurant, Mr. Wiz is well versed on local wines and has an interesting conversation with the manager. Together, they choose a bottle to compliment the rack of lamb, crispy duck and chicken paprikash, which is accompanied by homemade spätzle.

We cannot leave Budapest without visiting Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar and now known as one of the world’s most famous bars. Created in an abandoned warehouse in the Jewish Quarter, It’s hard to describe; think of a giant, dark junk shop that serves liquor (in a good way). The DJ is housed in a glass room, music is blaring and people from all walks of life (babies in strollers to a senior citizen tour group and everyone in between) are either sitting down (on bar stools, in an old bathtub fitted with benches or inside the body of a car) or strolling around to view what looks like a Fellini movie on steroids.

Is it the entire room filled with old televisions featuring psychedelic patterns on the screens, the wide-eyed doll heads glaring at me from the wall-to-wall shelves or the knight in armor standing next to the six-foot ceramic rabbit amid a collection of old typewriters dangling upside down from the ceiling that will give me nightmares this evening (in a good way)?

Instead, I fall asleep with visions of tomorrow’s last sumptuous buffet breakfast in the lovely hotel dining room, complete with castle views out every window followed by a morning of last minute sightseeing before saying goodbye to Buda and Pest and heading home.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Vienna, Austria: Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 2018

Photo Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

It’s a short flight from Prague to Vienna and by the time we get settled in our seats, we are already there. It’s a good feeling when you arrive in a foreign airport and see that little sign with your last name on it, so, once again, we hire a driver sent from our hotel.

The Der Wilhelmshof Hotel is a unique, family run boutique hotel. Designed in collaboration with Viennese artists, their art is not just placed on the walls or on display, but actually becomes part of the décor. Our room has a contemporary mural painted on the wall behind the bed that playfully continues onto the wall sconces.

We enjoy a drink in the hotel bar, as the cheery cocktail waitress (she introduces herself as “Pauline from Poland”) and the concierge assist us in a restaurant selection for the evening. The decision is unanimous; Schweizerhaus is a landmark from the 1920s serving traditional cuisine in a beautiful beer garden. It’s a short walk through a lovely park and a carnival that’s in full swing. We’re seated at a long communal table next to a large Viennese family. We smile, say hello and when they hear that we are from Texas, they are fascinated and have many questions. They guide us through the menu and do not steer us wrong. The gigantic, crispy pork knuckle arrives on a large wooden platter along with a helping of wiener schnitzel (thin pan-fried, breaded pork cutlets) and a warm potato salad made with oil rather than mayonnaise. The ice cold beer tops off a perfect meal. We thank our new friends, who all line up to shake our hands when they leave.

While walking the city streets, we discover that there is a refined and artistic elegance to Vienna. The largest city in Austria, it’s the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven and known for its many imperial palaces. We feel as if we are taking a step back in time when we visit Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former summer home of the Habsburg family.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is considered the most important religious building in Vienna with its mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and magnificent spires dating back to the 1300s. Considered the “mother church” to Roman Catholics, it was built on an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times.

There is no time to visit them all, so we let Mr. Wiz* choose which museum we will explore. He makes a good choice; the Albertina Museum. The magnificently furnished state rooms from the Habsburg Palace come alive when they are accompanied by narratives of its occupants. The dramatic black and white photographs chronicling everyday life in poor New York City neighborhoods in the 1930s by Helen Levitt startle us. The comprehensive exhibit of Claude Monet details his life, revealing little known accounts that give us new insight and on display were paintings we’ve never seen at any other museums.

Once again, all the restaurant research Big A* and I have done has paid off. The music is loud, the place is packed and the tables are communal at Miznon, an Israeli restaurant. We stand on line to order lunch, gawking hungrily at the open kitchen. Both the lamb and beef burgers served in pita bread have won raves, but it is the charred, spiced cauliflower that is the star of the show. Grilled and served whole, we pull it apart and dunk it into tahini, one of the sauces offered. At Ulrich, a hip, casual restaurant, we lunch on chorizo flatbread and smoked salmon and trout. We are lucky to secure a dinner reservation at an upstairs table with a city view at Lugeck. Sharing entrees seems like the right thing to do, so we can all taste the fried chicken, shrimp and goulash with homemade spaetzle.

We go to great lengths to plan just the right cocktail hours. Alfred Loos is known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture, so we had to experience Loos American Bar. Designed in 1908, the groundbreaking concept combines dark mirrors, low lighting, wood and onyx into the 290 square foot space and fools you into thinking it is surprisingly larger. With Ella Fitzgerald serenading us softly in the background we’re reminded that this is one of those few times that the word “swanky” is apropos.

Das Loft Bar is perched on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna. It’s dark and moody. The ceiling is covered with what looks like flowing silk awash in a combination of colors. Blended with the 360-degree views of the city sparkling back at us, we can’t help but  snuggle into our seats, order another round of cocktails and make another toast to beautiful Vienna.

* Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About’ page

 

 

Prague, the Czech Republic – Oct. 27 – 29, 2018

Photo Prague

Leave it to those millennials; Big A* reminds us that we should take advantage of one of the perks of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card he suggested we switch to and meet at the VIP lounge in Madrid’s airport. After warm welcomes all-around, we compare the research we’ve all done and start creating daily itineraries for our visit.

The capital and the largest city in the Czech Republic, Prague, is known as “The City of a Hundred Spires.” There is a fairy-tale like quality to the city; the buildings all look as if they have just been painted their pastel colors and the Baroque architecture makes you feel as if you are strolling through a European Disneyland.

Rather than navigate the language and worry about changing our euros into Czech Korunas at the airport (not the best exchange rate), we decide to take advantage of the hotel pickup service. We are reassured by the driver that English is taught in schools and is Prague’s second language. He points out some sights along the way and tells us proudly that tomorrow is the country’s 100th anniversary of its independence and we can look forward to parades, fireworks and many special events.

The Hotel Leonardo has a wonderful, Old World feel about it. The genteel staff seems as if they have been waiting just for us to arrive and surprises us with an upgrade to a junior suite. After a quick review of the city map and all its walkable sights, we thank them in Czech (“Dê Koji” pronounced “Dye-koo-yi”) and head out to explore.

The show must go on! The pouring rain does not stop us or the many events planned. We snuggle into our raincoats and conclude that it might be better to keep moving than to stand in a downpour to watch the parade and fireworks.

We can’t decide if we prefer the day or night view from the Charles Bridge, which connects Prague’s Old Town and Castle Districts. Rather than take the tram, we decide to take the steps all the way up to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, stopping along the way to admire the views. The castle is a city within itself, named the largest castle complex in the world by the “Guinness Book of World Records.” We tour its main floors and make sure not to miss the spiral staircases that lead up to small collections of everything from a torture chamber to a lady’s boudoir. St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church within the castle. Built in 920, it initially served as a burial ground for princes before being converted to workshops for art and music. The Jewish Quarter isn’t too far a walk and we’re anxious to see the medieval synagogue and the historical exhibitions in its cemetery.

Balancing out our sightseeing with equal amounts of culinary adventures is always a high priority. Prague is known as a beer mecca, so a stop for one at the Restaurant Pekla in the cellar of the Strahov monastery is a must. The underground cave with thick, stone walls dates back to the 12th century and is a welcome respite from the weather. Hard to pass up with our beers are the large, warm pretzels at Kolkovna and the homemade sausage at Lokal, two Czech breweries we also visit. Though we can’t decide if our Prague favorite is the onion soup, mussels, roast duck, goulash or steak frites, we agree that Café de Paris is our choice for the loveliest restaurant. A beautifully restored bell-èpoque café, it exudes elegance and sophistication; just the thing for three, soggy, hungry souls.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Madrid, Spain: Oct. 23 – 26, 2018

Photo Madrid

The Royal Palace

Traveling with Mr. Wiz* is amazing. The last time we were in Madrid was eight years ago and yet he remembers every place we’ve been and how to get there as if it were yesterday. That said, we quickly plan our itinerary and set out, not wanting to waste a minute.

The bad news: The Royal Palace is not open to the public on its free day. The good news: there is a meeting with the German delegation and we are front and center to experience all the pomp and circumstance that is involved with a state visit: the changing of the guards, parade and musicians. Built in the 1700s, we marvel at the size of the structure (the largest building in Spain), which at one time housed the 3000 courtiers of King Felipe VXIII.

Retiro Park is just as we remembered it. One of the largest parks in Spain and a part of the Spanish monarchy until the late 19thcentury, it still seems to have a regal air about it, as its paths wind past sculptures, monuments, a serene lake and beautiful gardens.

We make sure we line up early for the free evening admission to the Prado National Museum. Being serenaded by Spanish guitar music from a local musician helps the time go by quickly. We spend the entire two hours admiring the detail within each painting and fascinated by the stories behind the people depicted.

History records show that tapas became popular in the Middle Ages in taverns that the lower classes frequented. The wine was served in jugs covered with a slice of bread to avoid spills. The word “tapas” evolved from the Spanish verb “tocar” (to cover) and tapas soon came to be known as the little morsels of food that are traditionally served with a drink.

The Mercado de San Miquel Public Market is now serving tapas, but when we arrive it is so crowded. The food at each stall looks amazing, but there is nowhere to sit and hardly anywhere to stand. We are afraid that we might accidently bite into someone’s tapas at this wall to wall giant cocktail party, so we opt to keep going.

Our exploring takes us to Terraza Cibeles, a lovely rooftop bar. The architectural elements of the neighboring buildings, the city views and the European techno music playing in the background makes us feel so hip. We pass on tapas after all and decide that we are still full from the delicious bocadillo (sandwich) we had for lunch at Bodega Vianda. With a seat on the second floor overlooking the city, we dined on jamón (cured ham produced in Spain and Portugal made from black Iberian pigs that is similar to prosciutto in look, but much tastier), sheep cheese and crusty bread; so simple, yet so delicious.

The Petit Palace Opera turned out to be a good choice. It’s a boutique hotel housed in a historic building, located near the main plazas, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (Madrid’s grandest plaza) and is within walking distance to most sights. Our Juliet balcony looks out over the pedestrian street, which is never without the throngs of people swarming in and out of the many stores and restaurants or watching one of the musicians, dancers or magicians performing.

I wish Mr. Wiz a Feliz Cumpleaños (Happy Birthday) and regale him with a poem that I have written in his honor:

It’s great being a 65’er
With all its wonderful perks

Senior discounts galore wherever you go
And cheaper health care that actually works

So, be adventurous, be happy and enjoy this wonderful stage
And most of all remember, to never act your age!

I surprise him with a lunch reservation at La Botin. According to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world (dating back to 1725) and is renowned for its roast sucking pig and lamb cooked over vine shoots in the huge charcoal oven that’s been there since opening day. My Spanish is better than I thought; the maître d’ honors my request to sit at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite table and even brings us a complimentary dessert. We dine slowly and savor each bite.

There are many flamenco shows in Madrid, but Cardamomo is the only one that has been sanctioned by The New York Times and it’s near our hotel. Atypical of most performances, the male dancer absolutely steals the show and we find ourselves shouting “…Ole!..” along with the rest of the audience. Note to self: Why did I stop taking flamenco lessons? Maybe it’s time to go back to dressing in my flamenco outfit and practicing the steps in my closet again?

An evening walk seems in order and what better way to end a perfect day than to scout out where our next and final dinner will be tomorrow evening. Having found La Sanabresa, a family run restaurant and a favorite of the locals, we sleep like babies, with visions of all of our favorite Spanish foods on the menu dancing in our heads.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Salamanca, Spain: Oct. 20 – 22, 2018

Photo Salamanca

Salamanca University

We’re headed to “The Golden City.” We still have a few more days before we meet Big A* in Madrid, so Salamanca seems like a good place to stop on the way; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s also a university town.

We’ve read about the fact that the sandstone used to construct the buildings is exclusive to this region and gives off a caramel/yellow tint, but to actually see the buildings glow when the sun shines on them is amazing. That coupled with its cleanliness makes this city something special.

Known as the Spanish version of Oxford, Salamanca University dates back to 1218 making it the oldest in Spain and the fourth oldest in the world. It gives the city a lively, fun and energetic spirit. We marvel at its Renaissance architecture as we search for “La Rana de la Suerte” (the good luck frog); legend has it that if a student can find the single carved frog within the many carvings on the façade, they will pass all their exams.

Of the two Cathedrals, the old Cathedral was initially built in the 12thcentury and has the distinction of being one of the oldest constructed buildings in the world. To be standing among the ornate carvings and the frescoes dating back so many thousands of years is sometimes hard to fathom.

Considered one of Spain’s most beautiful plazas, Plaza Mayor is a welcome respite from our exploring. All day long, people gather to eat, drink, people watch and listen to the musicians. The public square most probably hasn’t changed much since the 18thcentury; it is tranquil each morning and crescendos to a party atmosphere by nightfall.

The Room Mate Hotel Vega is in a great location near the Plaza Mayor and turns out to be a good choice. Not too expensive, it offers a boutique feel with its red, white and black contemporary décor.

For some reason, we are too hungry to wait until 8 p.m. for dinner and settle on enjoying “dunch” each day, my term for the meal between lunch and dinner. My favorite is the paella which combines all of my favorites: rice flavored with chicken broth and saffron, chicken, pork, shrimp, clams and scallops.

With just enough time to figure out how to get to the walkway and picturesque gardens that are majestically perched above the city, we agree that Salamanca was well worth the stop and has cut our travel time to Madrid to only two and ½ hours by bus.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cas of Characters” on the “About” page.

Post-Camino: The Next Steps

Photo Post Camino

Wanderlust is a wonderful thing. The adventure of exploring new cultures never gets old. It takes you out of yourself, broadens your horizons and leaves you with the gift of memories that are your souvenirs to conjure up at any time.

There is something very cool about traveling with a backpack (something I thought I would never do). I felt like a nomad; out in the world, with my arms free and feeling as free as a bird.

After five weeks, I’m not tired of living out of a backpack and assorted sizes of Ziplock bags. With only a few changes of clothing, the feeling of wearing a uniform each day was liberating. The simple pleasures of a hotel room with a bathtub or locating my one pair of earrings (after a few glasses of wine and forgetting in which bag I had placed them for safe keeping the night before) would make my day.

With my daily focus on my destination, what I would eat and where I would stay, it left me time to pay attention to the details of nature around me that I might ordinarily miss. It gave me an opportunity to associate with my fellow pilgrims and really listen to what they had to say.

It is said that you should focus on “my Camino”; no two are meant to be the same. My knee injury, though not what I had planned, gave me more time alone. Whether sitting in the room or outside with my foot up, I had more occasion for introspection. I finally gave in to the frustration of the healing process and found the peace that was awaiting me each day.

Always drawn to the mystical side, I longed for a sign, a message that might sum up my journey. Leave it to me to find it written on a bathroom stall in Finisterre, Spain: “…Fill your life with experiences, not things; have stories to tell, not stuff to show…”

And with that, I wish you a buen Camino!