Girls Only: Nashville

Photo Nashville

It was actually JC’s* Idea. Since Mr. Wiz* and Big A* would be totally absorbed in the Formula One Races in Austin for the weekend, she thought it would be a great idea to introduce my sister, Maria, and me to the Nashville she had fallen in love with on her first visit.

The capital of Tennessee, Nashville, seems to be changing its tune. Still known as the Country Music Capital and as Dolly Parton’s stomping ground, there’s now an energetic hum to the city.

It was one of seven U.S. cities to be chosen to begin a Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network. Innovative companies are finding its environs a less expensive, friendlier alternative. Foodies flock there in search of the next great new restaurant. New luxury hotels are springing up while historic buildings and neighborhoods are being revitalized. The city’s new slick sophistication remains in harmony with its long-standing southern charm and welcomes you with open arms.

We can’t wait to put on our cowboy boots and see the town, but it’s too early to check in to our hotel. We leave our luggage at the front desk and decide to reconnoiter in the lobby and plan our day. As we are chatting, we notice a well-dressed woman walk toward two of our suitcases, grab their handles and start walking out the front door of the hotel.

JC and Maria sprang to action! They jumped up and ran after the woman, who halted immediately when she heard Maria yell “…Hold it right there! …” There is something about a New York accent that means business. As little girls growing up in a suburb of New York City, we were trained to always be attentive to what was going on around us and to take care of ourselves. On our 18th birthday, our dad gave each of us Mace spray in the size of a lipstick container to carry in our handbags; an emotional right of passage that gave my dad great comfort in knowing that messing with his daughters would result in stinging eyes and being splashed with blue dye.

Apparently, I was the only one that noticed the well-dressed woman’s name tag. So, as the third member of this Keystone Cops comedy, I began running behind them to make sure that they did not tackle the hotel’s manager.

While it took us two days to be able to make eye contact with the hotel staff, our convulsive laughter set the tone for a great time together. Surprised, yet undaunted to find out that neither Maria nor I had any sense of direction (what other sisterly secrets would be revealed?)  JC took over the navigating and we were off.

We enjoyed a free outdoor big band concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. We were startled by the sweet-faced youth of Johnny Cash while he was stationed in Europe during World War II in a special exhibit of private photos shared by his family at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Germantown, originally established by European immigrants, has the same vibe as New York’s Greenwich Village and we still cannot decide which entrée was our favorite at Henrietta Red: the braised lamb with pole beans and polenta, the scallops with pistachios, beets, Granny Smith apples, kale and couscous or the cauliflower steak smothered with hazelnut, scallions, shitake mushrooms and nicoise olives.

According to JC, there were two things not to be missed while in Nashville: a mansion tour and an evening at the Grand Ole Opry and she surprised us by planning both. How President Andrew Jackson progressed from a 14-year old orphan to a man of so many accomplishments made his mansion, Hermitage, even more impressive. Though built around the same time, its décor was so much more modern than the Victorian design of the Belle Meade plantation. Known for its horse breeding, racing and deer farm, the original 5400-acre estate became a tourist attraction. So much so that on occasional Sunday mornings, the lady of the house would sneak out and post a hand written closed sign on the front gates for some needed peace and quiet. Touring the homes, then having the time to walk the grounds made the docents’ stories come alive.

It was a Tuesday night and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house at the Grand Ole Opry. A new band, Lanco, was introduced and we wondered how they felt playing for the first time on that famous stage. We tapped our feet and sang along with Trisha Yearwood and Kelsea Ballerini and were surprised to see all 4 foot 6 inches of special guest, Brenda Lee “strut her stuff” around the stage.

One of Nashville’s biggest draws are the country music honky-tonks on Broadway. While many cities have an area where bars and restaurants line the streets and the musicians play loudly on a stage, open to their patrons inside and to the street, Nashville does it with a style all their own. It’s more fun than seedy and everyone from families to seniors to bachelorette parties and every age group in between share in the revelry.

We seemed to be drawn to Nudie’s Honky Tonk daily. Named after Nudie Cohn, a famous clothing designer (think Elvis’ gold lame suit), the historic building houses many of the costumes Nudie designed, rare music memorabilia and Nudie’s $400,000 Cadillac El Dorado hanging from the wall. But, it was the music and the great bands that transfixed us. We danced and sang at night and then found ourselves back during the day. By the way, each time we’d arrive, JC was quickly led to the dance floor by another admirer!

Only in Nashville can you be sitting on a park bench one minute and then see Kenny Rogers ride right by you in a golf cart the next. We agreed that was a great way to end our visit. We chalked up our newfound feeling of relaxation and our mother/daughter/sister bonding to all that dancing and to singing “Sweet Home Alabama” multiple times together at the top of our lungs. Those southerners really know how to have a good time.

 

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

 

 

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Visiting Bryan/College Station: Trendy with a Texas Twang

Photo Bryan Coll Sta

I’m feeling a bit confused. I’m still not sure how I went from wishing for a place the four of us (Mr. Wiz*, Big A*, JC*and I) could go over the July Fourth holiday that was not in the $500 – $700 per night price range and landing at The Stella Hotel, a five star, Preferred Hotel with Frette sheets for a little over $100 a night. I think it was a combination of my positive thinking and JC’s suggestion that we take the lead from a recent Austin Monthly article and visit Bryan/College Station.

The home of Texas A&M University, over 66,000 students swell the city’s population during the school year. We wondered why these two neighboring cities were all of a sudden exploding with all types of development; why now? Apparently, social media had opened the doors to all of the campus sporting events and the general public accepted its invitation. Lucky for us, we were visiting offseason.

The Stella Hotel just opened in April and still smells new. The décor has that wow factor. The mixed use of materials, the textures and the interesting touches (saddle bags and iron I-beams mounted on the walls) all send out a sophisticated, yet edgy vibe. We were greeted by the sports jacket and jean clad staff who all had names like Parker and Morgan (no need to apply here if your name is Joe or Sue), who worked from their iPads, rather than standing behind the usual counter; very cool.

Outside was a man-made lake, two swimming pools, a golf course and a series of paths that led to a residential development of mega homes. The sprawling lawn was so welcoming, set up with assorted games, a fire pit, chairs and tables. Complimentary bicycles and paddle boards awaited our use at the front entrance.

JC acted as the official judge, as we filled our afternoons with pool races and seeing who could do the best hand stand in the water (some things never change). In preparation for the Scrabble championship (with a money prize to make it more interesting) and paddle board competition that I had planned, I tried to psych out Big A by boasting that I had trained on a paddle board while reading a dictionary. It didn’t work; he was the big winner of both contests.

In between, we visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and the Messina Hof Winery. Though the Campfire Restaurant at the hotel was in the running, we all agreed that our favorite dinner was at Christopher’s World Grille. The renovated historic home was rated one of the top 100 romantic restaurants in the U. S. by Trip Advisor. The next day, the fans and misters kept us cool as we listened to live music on the porch of the Hullabaloo Diner, a transplanted 1940s New York diner. As we waited for our table, we agreed that this was what Sundays were made for.

I’m not sure what Texas’ secret is; it could be the warm weather or everyone’s laid back style, but it has a way of reminding you to slow down. It gave our little family the chance to enjoy each others company and regroup. We all left feeling relaxed and pampered. I felt a bit more hip and happy to have another family adventure to tuck into my memory belt.

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

 

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Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

Photo Porto 2

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. He surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

 

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

 

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

 

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

 

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

 

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

 

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

 

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

 

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

 

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

 

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

 

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

 

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

 

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

 

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

 

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