Monday, July 29, 2019

The Bean Queen

Any day that begins with walking to cliffs overlooking the water is bound to be a good one.

We went for the views at the insistence of our landlady, but there wound up being so much more to absorb than just beauty. The location has historical significance, as well as a natural one - lots of obscure sea bird life, an important migratory stopover - as was explained on a Spanish/English sign clarifying that it's a national protected site.

And although it's technically the bay, there was sufficient waves-crashing-against-rocks churning up the blue water into halos of turquoise green that I could think of it as the sea.

When we hit the road, it was to Luarca, which warned incoming traffic that we were entering an "Urban Zone." Cute, but when it came right down to it,  Luarca was a picture postcard of a colorful, quaint fishing port (right down to boats in primary colors)  that drew vacationers in droves.

There was an open air market spanning several streets and offering such varied goods as local hams and running shoes, with almost everything - children's books, CDs from around the world, clothing, herbs, fruits and vegetables - you can imagine needing laid out on tables or hung from canopies. Bras of many colors, but also farm-raised beef and homemade sausage.

I'd chosen Luarca for el Barometro, with a view of the marina and houses built into the side of a cliff, because I'd read it was a long-time, family-owned seafood restaurant that never disappointed. Embedded into the exterior was a large old wooden barometer my Dad would have loved and three harpoons hung on the wall. Inside the front door was a poster showing photographs from a February 2014 storm that clearly delivered a fierce pummeling to Luarca's shores.

Tables were close together, probably to accommodate the frequent full houses, and if you said yes to your server's inquiry of "Pan?" (and who would say no to crusty bread?) it was laid directly on the tablecloth.

Because in the Principality of Asturias, they don't need no stinkin' bread plate.

Tempted as I was by the menu's abundant seafood offerings in this port town, as soon as I saw Asturian White Bean Stew my fate was sealed - as was the fate of that enormous piece of bread next to my hand - without knowing anything more than that beans were involved.

Never mind that it sounded like something you'd want on a cold January night, I was in Asturia in July. Carpe diem and all.

Not only was it a dish meant for colder months, it arrived in an enormous bowl full of huge white beans in a rich, garlicky broth and four kinds of pig: pork shoulder, pork belly, Chorizo and blood sausage.

Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but there's a menu gamble that paid off.

Afterwards, we strolled the market before heading to the beaches which were dotted with plenty of people but very few umbrellas. What they did have was lines of tiny, brightly painted changing cabanas that people seemed to be using for myriad purposes besides changing. The civilized people had brought folding tables and chairs, allowing groups to be sitting at a table, bottles of wine lining the center and food everywhere, laughing and talking while the young 'uns played in the shallow water below.

After walking to the point, we descended the stairs to the water so I could add the Bay of Biscay to the bodies of water I have waded through. I was surprised, though, because the fine sand of the shoreline was mixed with small rocks and pebbles I didn't expect. With its brilliant greenish blue clarity, the bay looked more like a swimming pool, as children splashed in the shallow water and adults ventured out deeper to escape their shrieks and splashing.

It was wonderful in every possible way, and not just because of how refreshing it is to see women obviously older than me wearing two piece bathing suits without looking the least bit self-conscious about it. That said, it's been obvious everywhere we've been that Spanish women, like their French counterparts, continue to make an effort to be stylish until they're dead. Never have I seen so many trim, well-dressed septuagenarians and octogenarians in heels and cute outfits.

Or bikins.

Eventually, we left the beach for the drive to Gijon, which is what passes for a major city in Asturia. Driving to our hotel, it definitely felt like we were in a thriving city, but then boom! you hit the beaches (a string of them, really, like a necklace of adjoining crescents) and it felt like a full-on beach town.

Which means you can be walking through the stylish urban neighborhood en route to a wine gastropub and pass girls in their bathing suits and boys draped in towels sauntering by you. Young people everywhere you look, but probably just as many older couples, her hand tucked into the crook of his arm. And noisy motorbikes ripping up and down the street that fronts the beach, the backfiring and racing sounds an open invitation to gawk at them (which only became tedious after 2 a.m.).

Everything, it seems, is fair game in Gijon.

Because we were in a bigger city, there were far more restaurants catering to a non-European palate, so after the wine bar, we nosed around until we found a place that looked like it hadn't changed since the '70s or '80s. There were multiple signs and menus in the front window and not one of them condescended to using English.


We found a table near the front window with a prime view down a narrow street to the water and settled in for another Asturian experience accompanied by the ever-present Albarino. I'm going to look foolish here, but I went right ahead and ordered Asturian white beans with clams, this time knowing exactly what to expect.

Repeat deliciousness minus the pig.

Several families with young children came in between 9 and 9:30 for dinner, adding to the liveliness of the place since all the servers seemed to know them and exuberant conversations followed as plates of food were ferried to and from the kitchen and around the boisterous groups. Clearly this was a neighborhood joint.

After breakfast the next morning, we took a walk along the beaches and in one area, through meandering tidal pools with water nearly two feet deep. This is what some of us call giving good beach.

Although it wasn't yet 11, there was a steady stream of morning people out on the sand. Several older men were already in the water swimming laps to the markers while walkers were getting in their steps. A few people were stretched out as if sun bathing, although it seemed a tad early for that. A line of colorful, patterned umbrellas stood in a row, leaning against a wall waiting for the call to serve.

And one mesmerizing older guy in orange swim trunks with a thick gold chain around his neck and ear buds in couldn't stop swiveling his hips Elvis-style as he listened to whatever music was causing his groove thing to endlessly shake.

It was an invitation, no doubt about it, and all he needed was the right taker. I'm thinking a senior from New Jersey would have eaten him up with a spoon.

Once I'd had my beach walk, we motored to Llanes, with its medieval tower and crumbling town wall from 1206, but it will stay in my memory for the scorpionfish cakes I had for lunch at Chigre el Antoju Sidreria.

Anticipating being served something related to crabcakes, I was thrilled to instead take possession of two orange rectangles that had far more in common with a seafood terrine than anything cake-like. Meanwhile, on the other side of the platter, a towering mound of small toasted and oiled bread squares awaited their opportunity to be the vehicle on which I could spread the terrine scorpionfish cakes.

So, what have I learned so far in Asturia? Verdant cliffs edge beaches of fine brown sand around here. You don't have to know what you're ordering to wind up eating well in these parts. And with six glasses of Albarino costing about 13 euros, they want you to drink wine like water.

Most importantly, say si to pan every time. You can ask questions later.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Lost in Translation

Espana is full of surprises.

About the last thing we expected to hear when the Hertz agent looked at our passports was, "Oh, Virginia is for lovers, eh?"

Seems this young Spaniard had a Virginia girlfriend for a while and could rattle off Virginia places like Roanoke and Richmond, only with a far better accent. As we were leaving with the keys to a Volvo, I inquired if he still had his Virginia sweetie.

"No, she moved to Phoenix," he said as if that were that.

With wheels, we could bid farewell to Santiago and head for the North Coast beaches for a while. And while life may not be a beach, I could make a case for beach life being best.

En route, we stopped in Rinlo - a one cathedral town, if you know what I 'm saying - a tiny village with narrow streets and a highly recommended restaurant for lunch. Scallops in garlic brown butter were served in scalloped shells, the ideal place for the brown butter to pool and from which to sop it with the crusty bread that has become de rigueur at every meal (at breakfast I slather it with jam).

After a walk through the tiny town and along the sea wall to a view of the sea, we hit the road to Ortiguiero, near Porcia where we were overnighting. Everything worked according to plan until it didn't. The GPS deposited us near a dirt road (part of the Camino trail) but the tiny hotel with a view of the sea was nowhere to be found.

With a can-do attitude and an extremely limited Spanish vocabulary, I hoofed it down a dirt driveway to a patio where three women were enjoying the beautiful day. After trying to explain our destination, I pulled out the email confirmation from Tesera, our home for the night. Her response was to lead me to a side porch, indicate that I should lean waaay over and point across a valley to a verdant hill.

Apparently our hotel was there.

But rather than trust us to find it alone, this sweet Spanish woman who spoke not a word of English marched to her car and indicated that we should follow her to our final resting place. Along the way, she stopped not one but three times to ask of strangers where the hell Tesera Apartmentos were until finally a neighbor pointed beyond her hedge.

Hallelujah and pass the Albarino, we are in Porcia, home at last.

Running the Tesera was a woman with nine broken bones in her back (or so she told us) and a fondness for conversation with strangers. Once she'd led us to our apartment (complete with kitchen and magnificent view of the water), she spent 20 minutes regaling us with the nearby eating options.

As soon as she mentioned a place just down the hill and on the water - "a cabana, no?" uh, no - we were sold. Bar Menos Mal was part hilly picnic area, part ramshackle restaurant and part exquisite water views complete with paddle boarders, setting sun and tree-covered cliffs. We scored a bench and low table next to a young Spaniard drinking a beer while he awaited a friend's arrival to enjoy it all until dinner service began a couple hours later.

All the servers clearly loved where they worked and both a neon sign and their t-shirts - "Life is better in Porcia" - said it all. Had the shirts been for sale, we'd have bought them on the spot. "Maybe in the future," the young bartender promised.

Not likely we'll be back this way, but good to know.

Jamon tostada - ham over pureed tomato on toasted, oiled bread - kicked things off until an enormous pan of paella arrived studded with the bounty of the sea. With every langoustino I crack open, I seem to break a nail or two, but it's a price I'm more than willing to pay. Happily, mussels, clams, cockles, fish and the like don't make me work for my food.

Not that I'm complaining.

The place was understandably wildly popular and people kept coming but only certain locations rated service. For us, it had been nothing more that dumb luck to have happened onto a table that did since every possible reservation for the 8:30 and 10 p.m. seatings had long since been spoken for when we'd arrived.

Many glasses of Albarino later, we stumbled back up the hill to Tesera's Apartmentos, far easier to find in the dark than in broad daylight apparently.

I guess it takes a lot of wine to see clearly in Porcia. Maybe that's why life is better here.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Pilrims' Progress

Santiago is my kind of town and I'm finding out all the reasons why with each day that passes.

And that's despite it being the end point for religious pilgrims for thousands of years, which a heathen like me couldn't care less about. I would guess that most of the hundreds of pilgrims we've seen showing up in the square in bright, matching t-shirts, walking sticks in hand, did not walk all those kilometers to be cured by the remains of St. James buried here as pilgrims once did.

All I know is, they make it to the square after walking or cycling, collapse in the square and then find a place to sing group songs while quaffing beer and eating everything in sight. Most of them remove their shoes and not a few begin picking at scabs and blisters on their feet, looking grateful to be off their barking dogs.

Speaking of, part of the appeal to this beautiful place is hoofing around it.

Lots of walking this hilly, holy city means that I don't need to start my day with a walk because it's built into everything we do. Like visiting Santiago Cathedral - currently under renovation, which is actually pretty cool to see - the Galician Contemporary Art Museum (very ICA-like with no permanent collection but some fascinating art tied to asylum/refugees/immigration), untold convents, monasteries and plazas (Plaza de Cervantes being a particular favorite).

But woman can not live by pilgrimages and art alone.

Santiago is known for its octopus and you can't swing a dead cat (side note: we saw a man riding a bike with a cat in the basket, its paws on the front of the basket as if it were following the master's route as he pedaled) without hitting a restaurant/bar with a window full of octopus (and often, other assorted live sea creatures).

The preferred Galician preparation is octopus a la gallega - after beating and cooking, coins of local octopus tentacles get a bath of olive oil, coarse sea salt and sweet and spicy paprika, only to be served on a wooden plate - that is so tender and delicious we can't be the only people who could eat it daily.

Needless to say, sopping up the flavored oil with the fabulous Spanish crusty bread only adds to the appeal.

Without even meaning to, we returned to Abastos 2.0, site of our fabulous first night dinner, the very next day for lunch. It's not that we were moonshine-addled idiots who couldn't recall where they'd been 12 hours earlier, but that we'd been unaware then that the restaurant also had an outdoor outpost just across the street.

It wasn't until we found stools at a counter built for two (not an easy accomplishment at 2:00 when hordes of hungry locals and tourists are looking for a lunch spot) that our French waiter (who also spoke Spanish, Galician, Italian and some English) solved the mystery of where we'd landed.

Knowing that meant we didn't need to look at any stinkin' menu.

So from there, we put ourselves in his more than capable hands, requesting no more than a bottle of Albarino and whatever he thought we needed to taste. With a shaded perch and the hustle and bustle of the Saturday market just around the corner, we sat back and ignored the madding crowds while he kept us fed.

First up were oysters from the north Atlantic, significant not just because they were briny enough for my taste, but because the man who'd sworn off eating oysters 20 years ago after a bad experience joined me in slurping bivalves.

Relationship milestone right there.

Next came Sea Bream ceviche tasting like it was not long out of the water and dressed so lightly as not to change that. Scored sections of pickled mackerel met crusty bread for what is undoubtedly a frequent meal in seaport towns, hearty and flavorful.

As much a fan of seafood as I am, I had never had langoustinos in the shell, so picking the lobster-like meat (albeit in much smaller amounts)  from the tiny, spiny shells added to the pleasure of eating the sweet meat. A couple at a nearby table watched us for tips on how to do it before being brave enough to attack their own.

And just like the night before, when we wanted  a sweet ending to a stellar lmeal, our affable server came back with cannolis, the only echo of the night before beyond the incredibly high quality of every bite we put in our eager mouths.

But we're not just mouths, constantly feeding, either.

Like in Madrid, street music is everywhere, but the unlikeliest of all is bagpipes. Except for after dinner, which means after 11 or midnight, we've yet to walk through a long arch near the Cathedral without passing by a bagpiper or two taking advantage of the acoustics in the tunnel-like space and blowing their hearts out. A big music stage in one of the plazas has a band almost every night and crowds of all ages gather to listen under the stars.

The walk to the Contemporary Art Museum  also took us to a former convent's grounds and gardens where flowers I didn't recognize bloomed, a stone aqueduct and fountain attested to the centuries they'd carried water and we had a sublime view of Santiago from above.

I could finish by saying "wish you were here" except I've got everything I need already here.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fake Cake and Mad Moonshine

It's not like I wasn't warned.

Standing at the baggage kiosk at Madrid airport, an Iberia  rep approached me, asking where I was headed. When I told her Santiago de Compostela, her face lit up.

"You are going to have so much fun there!" she said with great enthusiasm. "And it'll be so much cooler there than here because of the mountains. And the food! Wait till you eat some of their octopus...or any of the seafood. Believe me, you will love Santiago."

With an endorsement like that and a flight of just an hour, how could I lose?

Arriving at the Hotel San Francisco - incidentally a former convent - to meet my partner-in-travel, I was immediately struck by the coolness after three days of hot, hot, hot in Madrid. One of the many benefits of making my home in a convent for the next few days are our bedroom's beautiful long windows that look out over a grass courtyard flanked by the three sides of the convent/hotel and a pool house.

Let's put it this way, a girl could get used to this in July and that's not even counting the way it stays light until an hour before midnight. Seeing the magnificent architecture of the Cathedral de Santiago against a clear blue sky at 10:00 p.m. is breathtakingly unexpected.

Where I began to see what Miss Iberia was talking about happened after the cocktail reception on the hotel's grassy terrace. A short walk took us to Abastos 2.0, a seemingly simple little restaurant with a Michelin logo out front, conveniently located across from the market - an extensive series of meat, seafood, cheese, flower and fruit/vegetable stalls in several long halls - which is also the source of everything they serve.

The 20 of us sat down around a large table with a carved wooden head of lettuce and (inexplicably) a carved wooden shoe on either side of a colorful flower arrangement. The only drink options were red or white and this being the Galicia region, choosing white means Albarino every time.

No complaints here.

Next to each place setting was a pop-top can lid which was meant to serve as a bread plate for the crusty slices that our servers kept us supplied with all evening.

From then on, this tiny restaurant proceeded to dazzle us with course after course displaying the bounty of the Iberian peninsula. First up was creamy gazpacho with sweet-tasting cockles floating on top. I licked the bowl clean. That was followed by marinated mushrooms, although the Australians claimed that they were pickled (they weren't) in a tomato-based sauce. Like the cockles, the mussels tasted like they were right out of the water.

Given the size of the table, it was tough to chat with everyone. One of the funniest members of the group was also one of the most multi-talented. Besides having been a Buddhist monk for years before rejoining the secular world, he's currently a bike tour guide and big wave surfer. But he's also a good gay boy, having seen Leonard Cohen (RIP) three times, albeit always with his Mom.

When he starts singing "Hallelujah," he expects the group to chime in and pouts when they won't. Hilarious.

His ability to break into song, dance or impersonation at the drop of a hat made him invaluable to the party vibe, even if some of the more macho types (the Costa Rican, the Australian) didn't like how touchy he was.

Get over it, guys, no chance you're his type.

Up next was tuna tartare with an avocado cream that wowed even those who'd never had tartare before, although I have to wonder where these people have been eating. Luckily, after three courses, everyone was sufficiently lubricated to banter about such things. The French Canadian couple, curious about my food reviewing, were especially eager to know about whether or not there was anything I don't eat.

Um, crappy food by choice?

Our fish course was another cousin of cod over braised greens, the meat white and delicately flavorful, the skin crisped and tasting of herbs. Just when the Tazmanian lamb rancher was convinced that there would never be a meat course, plates resplendent with slices of rosy veal  and bronze-skinned fingerlings arrived to soothe the savage beast.

You'd have thought this group was bloodthirsty from their reaction to red meat, but more likely the seafood focus in Santiago was just wearing on some of them. Not so this bounty-of-the-sea fan who could eat seafood and fish for weeks without complaint.

While everyone was admiring a photograph of a drunk Brazilian woman jumping off a bridge naked (something they had all witnessed before my arrival), a palate cleanser of Asian pear wedges arrived to prepare us for dessert. Everyone was surprised when one of the chefs arrived with a birthday cake ablaze in candles, intended for the rancher's wife whose birthday today was.

After she made a wish and blew out the candles, the cake was whisked away and cannolis arrived. Some of us assumed birthday cake slices were to follow but, alas, the cake had been plastic (one of the guys had poked it, unbeknownst to those of us at the other end of the table), a mere symbol to acknowledge her big day.

Once we'd eaten all the things, we were invited out onto the terrace for after-dinner drinks, all of them variations on Galician moonshine with herbs. There was a variety made with coffee for those who wanted to speedball, another made with cream that was very popular with this crowd and the straight ahead version, which was a deep yellow, smelled like a first cousin to moonshine and singed the nose hairs of anyone brave enough to try it.

That would be me, although, I added plenty of ice and drank small sips slowly. And although I didn't finish mine, the rancher had not one but two glasses, which surely factored into him getting lost walking home. His wife, the birthday girl, found him near the town square later, sitting on a stone bench and looking dazed.

We got back to the convent just in time for fireworks over the plaza. Not a bad way to begin my stay in Santiago, not that I had a single thing to do with the planning of any of it.

All I'm saying is, Miss Iberia sure knew what she was talking about. I can take all of this Santiago can dish out.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Moon River in Madrid

The spirit was willing but the dogs were barking.

After sleeping eleven hours and only eating twice yesterday, I awoke ravenous. The hotel restaurant breakfast buffet took a beating as I moved through filling two plates and a bowl before finding a table where I could chow down while plotting my route for the day.

Warm from the fryer churros tasted like the best thing I'd ever put in my mouth and that was after two bowls of cereal, a heaping plate of dates, pineapple and watermelon, three pieces of crusty bread toasted and slathered with strawberry jam and ham.

Because this is a place where ham shows up at every meal.

En route to the Prado Museum, I passed a store called Joyeria (which kind of described how I felt), a man in a Washington Capitals t-shirt and, like last evening, another man in a paper mache head, which is apparently a thing here.

I knew from a recent New York Times article that I wasn't going to get to see the actual Prado building because it's being renovated, but the upside to that is that during the renovations, the entire building is wrapped in fabric which is printed with details of some of the 3,000 canvases inside, so it's sort of a temporary, gift-wrapped building that will be unveiled in November as part of the 1619-2019 museum celebration.

You know, I'm okay with only getting to see this one-time look on the Prado.

Because the paintings aren't arranged chronologically - or even all of one artist's work in adjacent galleries - it was interesting to navigate the museum. I used the directionally-challenged method, wandering from gallery to gallery with only a few attempts to find certain ones because of the artists in it.

While wandering, I came across Eduardo Rosales' "After the Bath" - considered the finest nude in 19th century Spanish painting - which could have passed for an Impressionistic work with its sketch-like qualities and masterful use of light. That it was executed in a single day was nothing short of amazing.

Another aimless find was an entire gallery of still life paintings, hung salon style like I like so much. Many were of intricate flower arrangements, but my favorite was Cerezo's "Kitchen Still Life," a scene filled with meal fixins: a freshly killed lamb, a calf's head, strung up game birds, round loaves of crusty bread, peppers, copper pots and a carafe of wine.

Turns out, of all the unlikely things, that the Prado has the most extensive collection of Peter Paul Rubens in the world because he was such a favorite of King Philip IV. So much flesh. Truly, there's nothing like seeing all those Rubenesque women to make a person feel good about having eaten like a field hand at breakfast.

Who am I kidding? Any meal for that matter.

Seriously, though, seeing a major work like Rubens' "The Three Graces," a staple from my college art history classes, was mind-blowing. Ditto the two oil on slate works by Titian (slate?), hung inside a glass box so viewers could see both sides.

Still, the Prado's collection is enough to overwhelm even the biggest art lover, not to mention tourists who are mainly there simply because a guidebook told them to. I overheard one glazed-over sounding woman tell her husband, "There's some huge ones in here," as a justification for entering yet another gallery despite sounding tired and bored.

Lady G and Mac will appreciate this: I got to see even more Tintorettos today to add to what we saw at the National Gallery last month. Significantly, there was "The Washing of the Feet," a huge work that was painted for the choir of the Venetian church San Marcuola with a dog at its center and Jesus way over in the right corner.

Looking at in the enormous Prado hall, the perspective was weird, but viewed from the far right side, I could see Tintoretto's foreshortening brilliance given the intended placement of the canvas. There were also various portraits he'd done, one of a senator and another of a general, the latter holding a baton which extended out of the picture plane into the viewer's space.

That's Tintoretto demonstrating his mastery of depicting three dimensions. Like he does.

Most surprising about Velazquez' "Las Meninas" - considered the jewel in the Prado's  crown  and justifiably since it's often referred to as the finest painting in the world - was how few people were in front of it when I got to that gallery. It was a pleasure to ogle it for as long - as I wanted.

And may I just say how satisfying it was that picture-taking wasn't allowed. If you ask me, some museums should take a page from the Prado's book .

This blog post isn't going to be long enough to mention even a fraction of what I saw today so what matters is that I got to see Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," Albrecht Durer's "Self Portrait" and Goya's "Nude Maja," among so many others.

After nearly four hours, I abandoned art for food, making it only as far as the Prado Cafe for a jamon (I told you, every meal) panini with cheese, spinach and egg, patatas bravas and a chocolate cookie for dessert. Just while eating my simple lunch, I overheard people chatting in at least five languages, including a British woman noting that, "Getting married again at this age is a lot more work than I thought."

When I left the Prado, I made my way around the building to admire the draping on all sides before strolling past the Royal Botanical Garden which I wanted to visit but not in the heat of the afternoon.

My next stop was just a look-see at the Atocha train station- designed in 1892 by an architect named Ellisagne in collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (you know the one) - inside and out. The elaborate 19th century brick facade is topped by a half moon of steel and glass that gives it a lacy look from the exterior and an open, light-filled (and plant-filled) look inside.

Let's just say it's light years beyond our American train stations, even the better ones.

Ready for some contemporary art after so much classical work, I walked toward the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, passing musicians on nearly every block and corner: a man playing classical guitar,  a violinist and guitarist playing "Moon River" and several accordionists.

Fascinating to me was that the bike lane was the center lane of a road with two car lanes on either side. I marveled at the brave cyclists willing to pedal between all those speeding cars.

The Sofia's building was originally a hospital and reminded me immediately of D.C.'s Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum because it was a four-sided building with an interior, albeit outdoor, courtyard. Its most striking feature was two glass elevator towers flanking the entrance and giving me a reason not to take the stairs.

Of course I was there for the ultimate art history nerd viewing: Picasso's "Guernica," definitely the holy grail of Picasso's enormous output. Situated in a large gallery, there was appropriately sad music playing, though it was frequently punctuated by one of the guards yelling at people trying to take a picture of it.

No book or slide can prepare you to see "Guernica" in real life, its stark black and white palette adding to the horrific images of a town being bombed. Given the work's importance, both artistically and historically, I was surprised at how quickly people left after laying eyes on it. There was so much to take in.

Adjacent galleries housed related work, such as Dora Marr's photographs of the evolution of the enormous painting and smaller studies done for it. As disturbing as the pieta in "Guernica" is, the study for "Mother with Dead Child" may be even more so for its up-close focus on the scene.

When I finally finished absorbing what I doubt I'll ever see again, I moved on to some of the other galleries. I found Picasso's "Femme au Jardin," a slightly larger than life-size bronze from 1930-32, absolutely captivating with its suggestion of a woman and flowers taller than me. Works by Miro and Calder were inside as well as outside in the courtyard.

This trip will be remembered as the one where I saw another side of Dali that I fell hard for. His "Portrait" from 1925 shows the back of a woman sitting in a heavy wooden chair on a rooftop, her braided hair contrasting with her back. That;s it, no skulls or clocks melting, just a portrait..

It was like no Dali I'd ever seen.

But where I became an uber-fan was with his 1925 "Girl at the Window," an evocative scene of another back, but this time the entire woman. A woman in a blue-striped gray dress is looking out a green-blue framed window with striped blue curtains to a view of water, with a small boat in the distance.

The whole scene was so inviting and believable you could almost smell the water and feel the breeze stirring. I had to know more, so I found signage to help me. Seems Dali is considered the Spanish artist who combined new classicism, modern realism and surrealism (the only part of him I'd known previously) to create what was labeled Arte Nuevo.

By the time I took the glass elevator down, my feet were screaming but I wasn't ready to give up on art entirely.

Instead, I found a shaded bench in the Sofia's courtyard to sit back and admire a huge Calder mobile turning in the late afternoon breeze and a familiar Miro sculpture in black marble. A nearby fountain provided soothing sounds, although there were only a couple of other people outside, making it wonderfully private and peaceful.

And speaking of fountains, walking home I passed one near the Botanical Garden, only to spot three small squirt guns laying on the fountain's lip. I imagine some kid is going to feel like he hit the jackpot when she or he happens to find them.

Kind of like how I hit the art jackpot today. It'll take a while - and multiple conversations with fellow art nerds once I'm home - to fully absorb all the major artwork I got to see today. As G would say, I'm a lucky girl.

I'll just say that it was a joyeria kind of a day and leave it at that.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Buenos Dias, Madrid

It takes a lot to get me up for a sunrise, but flying to Madrid will do it.

Watching the brilliant red ball inch its way up over the curve of the earth while my body thought it was more like midnight was just the start of trying to put myself on Spanish time. My cab ride from the airport to the hotel was notable for two things: I believe it's the first manual transmission taxi I've ever ridden in and the driver and I exchanged not a word beyond confirming the price of the ride.

Partly, it was a language thing and partly, my mind was mostly shut down since it was under the mistaken impression that it was nearly 2 a.m. (which it was in Richmond). In any case, a quiet ride gave me the time to do my initial gawking at Spain on the drive into city center, marveling that we came in on Calle de O'Donnell - incidentally my mother's maiden name - which I found awfully Irish sounding for these parts.

I felt like my official introduction to the city was seeing the big Plaza de la Independencia, with its central neo-classical triumphal arch - actually five arches leading into the city - with an assortment of soldierly sculptures lounging atop it. A statement piece about arriving in Madrid, for sure.

My driver deposited me and my luggage at Hotel Liabeny with a minimal farewell and someone immediately slid into the back seat I'd just vacated, which had to still be warm.

Determined to re-orient myself to Spanish time, I took a quick nap (after only two hours sleep on the plane, I think a 3 hour nap qualifies as quick, don't you?) before heading out into blinding sunlight bouncing off white and light-colored buildings. My goal was to soak up some neighborhood color and eat, well, lunch technically (it was after 2), but as far as my belly was concerned, breakfast.

It had been waaay too long since my last meal.

Without the energy to do my usual 4 mile walk today, I instead decided to use the hotel staircase, not only because of the six flights of stairs but to check them out architecturally given the hotel's age and pedigree. Made of white marble, carpeted in the center and with shiny brass handrails and leaded, stained glass windows in a "modern" early 20th century style (not to mention a "Vertigo"-worthy view when you look up or down at how they corkscrew), they were worth a look.

Taking Rick Steves' recommendation for a good lunch, I headed to the bar at Restaurante Europa, one of only four people balancing on the backless stools to eat at that hour when any decent Spaniard would be siesta-ing.

Twice, I was asked if I wouldn't rather sit in the dining room, but Rick's assurance that the "fun, high-energy scene with a mile long bar, old school waiters, local cuisine and a fine prix fixe lunch menu" - yes, one of the courses is a choice of wine or cerveza - had sold me on a stool meal.

Besides, it was only from a bar stool that I could see the enormous ham behind the bar, draped with a cotton towel, which was removed every few minutes when a server needed to cut paper thin slices from it and arrange them on a plate, in a pattern like petals on a flower.

My first choice was gazpacho which arrived as a creamy, orange chilled soup. The bowl had barely hit the bar when a server eager to show off his English was at my elbow offering me guarniciones. His tray held bowls of chopped cilantro, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and bread and he wanted to know which I'd like scooped into my gazpacho.

Constitutionally unable to eat something as unripe and nasty tasting as a green pepper, I opted for onion, tomatoes and cucumbers with a soupcon of cilantro, eschewing the bread bits only because of the stellar crusty roll I was already dipping in nutty olive oil.

My main course, enjoyed with a glass of local white wine, was Bacalao (that's cod to you) in salsa verde with potatoes. It's not that the generous piece of fish wasn't perfectly cooked, but my idea of salsa verde doesn't involve a white sauce with green peas in it, though it was tasty enough, just new to me.

What was challenging was convincing my stomach that it wanted all that food at what it still thought was breakfast time. Trust me, we'll get the hang of this soon.

Not long after I finished eating, I was being offered dessert and tea or coffee, but feeling my energy waning after a hearty meal, I thought it best to do some walking to further assure my body we weren't in Kansas anymore. Every calle I walked down meant another piece of monumental sculpture or an elaborately decorated building facade, always with church spires pointing skyward in the near distance.

The sun had shifted behind the buildings when I went out later, making it far more pleasant to stroll the wide pedestrian streets (with an occasional cop car) without sweltering. People watching in Madrid had already proven to be an eyeful, none more unexpected than a guy in a Municipal Waste t-shirt.

I gotta say, it did my heart good to see a Richmond band on a stranger's chest.

And speaking of strangers, I always get a kick out of being some place where there's almost no chance of running into someone I know, or even recognize.

Turning off one wide calle onto another, I stopped in my tracks when I heard music. It turned out to be a quintet - two violinists, two singers and a conductor in an enormous paper mache head (probably a politician but not one I recognized) - performing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." Using a small speaker to project the other instruments, the enormous sound of live and recorded music bolstered by live hallelujah vocals bounced off the surrounding buildings and up into the sky.

It was a remarkable thing to witness, even if most tourists were watching it through their phone ratehr than simply taking it in fully.

El Corte Ingles, a multi-floor store that was part department store, part ABC store, part Starbuck's and part grocery store, I couldn't help but smile walking in when I heard Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy" belting out of the sound system as people shopped.

Over near the fruit and seafood sections, I spotted another Richmond connection: a big display of Duke's mayonnaise with a sign reading, "Probablemente la mejor mayonesa del mundo."

Now, I may still be brushing up on my Spanish (I did manage to ask for the check in Spanish at lunch, a proud moment considering my brain was flat-lining), but I'm pretty sure that display was telling the Spaniards that Duke's is the best mayo in the world.

Although surely the guy in the Municipal Waste t-shirt already knew that.

Walking home, I scored an empanada de pollo and side of fruit, took them to a bench near some trees and ate it all, trying to convince my stomach that it counted as dinner because, with every step I took, I knew I was that much closer to an epic night of sleep. All I needed to do was see the sun set to bookend my first day in Espana and I was good to go.

Good and ready to spend my first night in Madrid anyway. Te veo manana.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Flying the Friendly Skies

I did not come from a traveling family.

Granted, part of it was undoubtedly the sheer numbers - six daughters plus Mom and Dad - so cost and difficulty must have factored in. That and Mom had absolutely no curiosity about unknown places beyond wanting her ashes scattered over County Cork from whence her grandparents came.

For my family, travel meant two weeks in the Outer Banks each summer and honestly, I was grateful for that. One summer stands out because we broke rank and instead of heading south, drove to Portland, Maine and took a ferry across Casco Bay to Peak's Island, where we spent a month eating lobster, wandering the island and dipping our toes in the frigid water, despite it being July.

When I turned 21, I did what any travel-deprived young woman did in those days: marched myself into an American Express Travel office, sat down and asked for help planning my first trip. I'd talked a slightly younger girlfriend into joining me but she left all the decisions to me.

My burgeoning wanderlust was limited somewhat by my budget but I gave the agent a starting point: I wanted to go somewhere not touristy, preferably where the primary language was not English. Her suggestion was Guadeloupe - with a caveat that we should learn some French and that their tourism industry was in its infancy - a place I knew nothing about, which made it a perfect destination.

That my friend's mother was a native born Frenchwoman seemed like a good omen, although as it turned out, I spoke and read far better French than my friend did, even if it was schoolbook French.

Despite never having flown or so much as traveled without my parents, I don't recall any hiccups getting to the Caribbean island or navigating once there. My girlfriend, however, had several complaints starting with the food, much of it new to us. While I happily ate my first conch fritters and some whole fish we'd never heard of, she declined, planning to order a ham and cheese baguette once we got back to the hotel.

For the record, she ate one of those nearly every day we were there. Le sigh. She also experienced major homesickness which made me sorry I'd asked her in the first place. Lesson number one: choose your travel companions carefully.

During the time we were there, we went on day trips in rickety buses to see the island, learned to snorkel, took a sunset cruise in a questionable boat and went to a market where I bought locally-made bowls and a large handled basket, all of which I continue to use today. And while I still have the brown t-shirt I bought to remember the Hotel Meridien (though it's now faded to ghost lettering), an online search reveals that it's long-since been knocked down and turned into a resort.

So I guess tourism did finally arrive full-blown in Guadeloupe.

Tellingly, that vacation to a strange place with new foods and never-before seen sights lit something in me that's only grown with time. First it was other tropical places - Aruba, the Bahamas - and eventually other continents. Though I've only traveled alone a few times - Dallas, New Orleans, California, one of my two weeks in Italy - my solo flight to Dubrovnik last fall to meet up with my main squeeze reminded me of the pleasures of the unknown, even when it's just for the length of a flight.

So here I go again after multiple trips to the nearby AAA Travel for adapters and a phrase book, packing and repacking my dresses and dealing with usual Dulles madness. Only this time, I'm flying past a full moon to my next adventure as a stranger in a strange land, at least for a few days.

After that, you can be sure that lesson number one goes into effect. In travel, as in love and life, choosing the best possible companion is everything.

My 21-year old self had no idea how much she had to look forward to.

There She Goes

Sometimes all a girl needs is a valise stocked with vino and a willing partner-in-crime.

Pru had packed hers with a bottle of Moet et Chandon Brut Reserve and a bottle of Sancerre, ensuring that the evening would be a delightful one despite the face-melting heat. After her usual complaints about the heat in my apartment and insufficient tables lamps in my bedroom (I never measure up in lamp wattage), we popped the cork on the Moet and retreated to the bedroom because it's the coolest room (north-facing) and boasts three fans, all angled in her direction.

As I transferred the contents of my 20' into her 24' and the Pet Shop Boys' "Discography" played, we bantered about over-sized bras (into the trash it went), cute sandals (she's a fan of the ankle-tie green ones) and my new bathing suit (already a proven compliment-getter), until everything had a new, more spacious home and the bottle had achieved dead soldier status.

Business part of the evening complete.

That was our signal to head out into the humidity for food, which is how we landed at Max's, smack in the middle of the bar. As soon as she felt the air conditioning, she spread her arms and announced, "I may never leave here" while my focus was on the menu.

Since Max's went more casual, I'm a fan of the more bistro-like menu and felt sure she'd like it, too. After scoring a couple of splits of Cremant de Bourgogne (Pru: "I could drink this all night long"), I decided on the roasted cauliflower with a side vegetable medley, while she wanted the soup du jour, a lobster bisque, and the Little Gem lettuce salad.

We were savoring our Cremant and looking at pictures of the beach house she's rented when the bartender returned, looking apologetic. "We ran out of cauliflower. I'm sorry, but did you want to choose something else?" So we paused ogling the myriad ocean views of her rental house and I returned to the menu. "It's half price oyster night," he suggested helpfully.

Never one to turn down a briny bivalve, I asked about the oysters' salinity, which he didn't know, so another trip to the kitchen was in order. Verdict? Mid-level, somewhere between buttery and the salt bombs I love. Okay, give me a dozen.

Moments later he returned to inform me that cauliflower was back in the house and did I still want the oysters. I did not, since they were a compromise anyway. That finished, we returned to our bubbles and beach planning until the food appeared.

Having had the cauliflower before, I'm a big fan of its nutty roasted taste smothered in French onion ricotta with pickled red onion for kick. My medley was a rich mixture of carrots, peas and mushrooms in an herbed oil. Pru's bisque was nothing short of pale coral obscenity, while her salad was essentially a gussied-up wedge with much better ingredients: tons of creamy bleu cheese, loads of bacon, tomatoes, cucumber, pickled onion and a generous dressing of ranch "du Provence."

That's what I'm talking about when I say it's nice to have a French bistro a few blocks from home. Well, that and Pru's unexpected comments like, "Sometimes you just gotta speedball."

When I asked about using the loo, the bartender offered to escort us there due to its proximity to the kitchen. "Coming through!" he bellowed as we were lead past the kitchen staff. "Put your knives away!" One of the kitchen guys overheard my name and called out a cheery hello as we passed by. We got the same treatment on the way back. Hilarious.

We capped off the meal with my Coca Cola cake - the bartender assured us, "It's really chocolate cake with Coke glaze" - and her cappuccino before heading back out into the heat.

Once back at my place, we poured glasses of Sancerre, took them to my balcony and listened to Bryan Ferry, all the while trying to catch whatever night breeze was stirring as we chatted.

When we called it a night, Pru left with only a little Sancerre to prove that we'd sweated together. And for the record, there was no speed balling that I know of.

Of course, it might help if I knew what speed balling was.