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A Movable Feast

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for all of Paris is a moveable feast

Checked in at the Hotel Belle Juliette a great location just south of the left bank.  We were trying to make sure that we had a place we liked for our last days in Europe proper and we weren’t seeing apartments that made us dance. It is a good place, a bar with garden on site and a steam room, comfortable bed.  That said it takes both of us a couple of days to not feel disappointed – I think we were looking for a ‘treat’ and adjusting back to typically small hotel room size is a jolt after a succession of large apartments all to ourselves.

We set out on some of our normal walkabout but it is also fiercely hot across the city – 94F at 8pm at least one evening.  We’ve been doing a lot of very hot cities and it is wearing thin. Several conversations with locals across our travels have been along the lines: “This is not unusual for a week in the middle of August but it is not possible in June.”  It shapes some of our decisions but nothing too detrimental.

IMG_3157IMG_3160We spend an afternoon letting time deliciously while away under the speckled shade in the Jardin du Luxembourg.  No other place to be, relaxed and people watching.  It felt like luxury.

We eat some good meals in Paris but surprisingly nothing really amazing for gastronomy.  A great late night at the Prescription Cocktail Club.  We got chatting with Cyril the mixologist – I think cocktails aren’t as big in Paris as in some other cities and the bar doesn’t get many  cocktail-proficient customers.

Cyril: “How did you recognize a Last Word?”

Me: “I drink a lot of cocktails, in a lot of cocktail bars”

Cyril has really studied his craft and read a lot but not yet traveled. Discussion gets intense and in depth on ‘favorites’ where I have drunk and that he knows from menus or reputation.  He is insightful about different philosophical approaches across cities.

England: cocktails tend towards carefully, uniquely designed and crafted, each with its specific glass and decoration

New York: the place and the atmosphere (the exclusivity) of the bar becomes a significant part of the experience

Paris: we like more of a party atmosphere, we overcrowd the bar and have the music loud.  The mixing is frenetic and you have no time to do things perfectly but we prefer it like that.

Kelly and I spend a half day apart – one of the rare times on our entire trip.  P1010658Kelly heads to the shops, I follow Boston-Cyril’s tip to the Grand Mosque du Paris. Can’t speak much to the shopping other than that Kelly found a skirt, I stumbled into UniQlo (yes, embarrassingly the same Japanese UniQlo I could go to in Boston) and get new polos, new underwear and socks. Seems we both decided buying new was cheaper than the exorbitant laundry costs at the hotel!  P1010652The Mosque was special – a quiet, cool oasis in Paris.  I ate lamb tagine, drank mint tea at the very ornate, Moroccan-set tea rooms.  Took some interesting photos around the mosque and garden, particularly some amazing lilies.

On the last day check-out is at noon but don’t fly to Reykjavik until 10:15pm. The hotel stores our luggage and offers that we can change, shower, even use the spa when we come back that evening.  How to spend the time? We decide on food, inside and AC. I brainstorm museum restaurants and we read a good tip on the Musee d’Orsay.  Turns out to be a fabulous dining room – painted ceilings circa 1900, good food and wine, museum quality air conditioning 😉  I thought that I’d been to all the major Parisian art museums however, this may have actually been my first visit to M’O.  I’m completely sold.  The collection is as fantastic as you’d expect but the railway station/hotel conversion was also well done – that makes it a special place. Big clock faces from the inside remind me of the movie ‘Hugo.’

And so here I am: Sitting on WoW Air on my way to Reykjavik for the first time.  Paris visits are never long enough and we both said, ‘longer next time…’  I don’t know what to expect from Iceland at all – precious little time for any research beyond the basics of ‘What is the Golden Circle?’  Christine will join us for a few days and that will be the first time with other people for a while.  I booked a car at the last minute – hideously expensive which could be because the Hertz website was throwing a fit or could be, as I have heard multiple times, that everything in Iceland is expensive.  For the first time in ages (since leaving home?) the temperatures should be in the 50s and the ‘To Do’ list will likely be largely nature and scenery related – looking forward to it!

 

Oh, Porto!

P1010571Drove north from Coimbra, making a brief lunch stop in Aveiro. An old fishing town with lots more Art Deco buildings. Lunch was disappointing for the first time in ages. In hindsight it may just have been traditional preparation that was well done but which we didn’t much care for: great piece of fish but cooked in very heavy olive oil.

The ‘Venice’ of Portugal is a lot of a stretch but there were a number of traditional style boats taking tourists up and down.  A closer look and it turns out they aren’t too traditional – some of the scenes depicted are downright racy:

And so, in the sweltering heat, on to Porto – land of my dreams.

IMG_3123Two day rule: more than that you unpack, 1 day – live from the bag and only hang your shirts. My favorite thing to do after checking-in and unpacking is to wander.  Sometimes with a destination in mind, sometimes through a particular neighborhood, always trying to soak up what makes the place different and to absorb the ‘feel.’ It is a travel truism that sooner or later the cathedrals blend in to one another and any more ‘must see’ memorials are tough to remember. I am finding it increasingly important to try to imprint the feel of the place and the people, to understand whether that is unique.  Evening in Old Porto we find a very old book store – the claim is that JK Rowling wrote some of her books here.  I am skeptical since that claim is made across much of Europe however, it is easy to imagine how this interior inspired thoughts of magical moving staircases and dusty magic tomes!

We are staying in another AirBnB picked immediately and mutually on a couple of features: the bed is suspended from the ceiling and it has a large bathtub.  It is also a little north of old town center (“In an area where actual people live”) and so there is walking again.

I sit up half the night trying to plan how to take a tour of the Douro Valley – the wine region stretching east from Porto along the river and where the grapes for Port wine come from.  Hopeless.  There are at least a thousand river cruises, impossible to tell apart and all looking borderline hellish.  There is a train ride that looks good but inflexible, especially when you arrive in the heat at the other end.  There is even a steam train (‘the historical train’) that looks wonderful for part of the journey.  There is every possible permutation of boat up, train back.  It all seems to assume you are booking several weeks in advance (not a few hours!) and are OK being herded.  As I am giving up and deciding that we will drive, I read that the N222 was picked as “the best road to drive in the world.” A heady claim but we’ll check it out.

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P1010605It is a good road though matched at least with some of the small road that gets you to the N222 from Porto.  Part of it I described – joyful and terrified – as a log-flume for single cars.  Up, up, up with no sign what’s beyond the peak, the car tipping over the top before racing down. Terracing and vines on every hillside, it is unique, it is beautiful. The vines are more spread out than we’ve seen in other world regions.  We later hear that’s because of the soil and the arid conditions.  Along with the very manual picking process, it makes Douro grapes the most expensive there are.

Lunch halfway at DOC: starred restaurant, star chef, over the top tasting menu and a strategy to take the wine pairings with each of my courses but to have Kelly drink them as I must drive.  So glad every time we take time without rushing – this three hour lunch in the afternoon is no exception!

Finally possibly the closest I’ll get to Mecca: Quinta Do Bomfim. Vineyard at the heart of Dow’s, Vesuvius, Warres and Cockburns.  The tasting was sublime – first time tasting an ’85 vintage and only the second with a 2000.  Maybe ruined my budget planning for life as I’m not sure I can go back!

Home again late – the evening light is magical over the valley.  Before you know it, we are on another flight and are once more in Paris – the movable feast.

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Observe and Report

Observe and Report (2009)
Cast: Anna Faris, Seth Rogan, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña
Director: Jody Hill

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Observations made while wandering and watching … situational observations and people-watching have become an obsession on this trip and we are along a few of the primary migration routes for some of the best of the sport. To follow, current observations.

 

 

Smiley happy people
Having done my fair share of watching, it seems the smiliest, happiest travelers are the youngest. Kids in meltdown notwithstanding, kids are by far the happiest. That was predictable. What do they have to be concerned about? They don’t even have to worry about where to eat next. Everything is decided for them and the elders in the group want nothing more than to keep them smiley and happy – the catbird seat of tourism some might say.
EDE5F8DD-1369-41D4-BBA1-290C296528F620-somethings are the next happiest. They seem to always be grinning and pointing when not happily meeting up with other world-travelers of their age group (or checking their Instagram feed). Even when standing in line to see a site or board a plane or a train or a ferry, this group never seem anything less than delighted. We sat one evening at a cliff-top bar in Dubrovnik – high up on the rocks, down an unmarked alley, not easily found by the average traveler. Lots of small groups talking quietly amongst themselves and enjoying the sunset. Then these two appeared. Like glittery fairies they swept in, posed perilously on the highest rocks one at a time while the other documented the moment, then sat ever so briefly on the precipice before flitting away. Some might say shallow. I say refreshingly in-the-moment and happy to be there. In our last airport security line I couldn’t stop watching one young man and woman – 20 minutes in line, no phones in site and completely happily engaging with each other.

Sadly, from there, results are decidedly mixed. It seemed a rather stark reality that the older the group, the less happy they seemed. Boredom, frustration and confusion were increasingly more present as the age of the travelers increased. With that realization, I made a concerted effort to skew the averages and always be smiling and always be looking for new wonders. Chris is already better than me at this. But he’s not yet 50 so that makes sense.

And the obvious exception – 70-somethings!

I wish I had a photograph … on our last day in Porto, on what we thought would be our last day of unrelenting heat, we parked ourselves at a coffee shop just above a rocky and roiling beach. As we watched with amusement, two ladies who had long since stopped worrying about their beach-bods, wandered in with one blanket and one umbrella. After some maneuvering they managed to plant their small umbrella and take up residence in the shade it provided. Soon, people began to join them. First, a man that Chris described as Benicio del Toro (pictured here for those who don’t know who he is). bdtThey happily kissed each other on both cheeks before they scrunched together in the limited shade sipping wine and snacking on whatever they brought in their bags. Soon, one by one, two other ladies joined in. They kissed, they laughed, they drank, and took turns sharing the shade under their one meager umbrella – a group engaged in a happy afternoon with the “give no cares” attitude of the aforementioned kids. I aspire to this. When I’m seventy-something.

 
FullSizeRender 9When did airports become shopping malls?
I’ve become accustomed to increasingly larger duty-free shops on international flights but on this trip the post-security concourses in Europe seem to have mushroomed into entire malls with occasional breaks for boarding gates. Seriously.
Well into this trip we arrived at the airport in Milan for a flight to Lisbon. After clearing security we were notified by signage that our boarding gate was a 9-minute walk. Virtually all of that walk was through shopping options. (So, 9 minutes if you weren’t distracted!) The same happened in Porto when we arrived for a flight to Paris. It’s insane but it’s apparently profitable. There were shops selling everything from bedding and kitchenware to lingerie and perfume. What must it be like to drive to work at an airport store, park, go through security and then finally punch in and start getting paid. Weird. That’s what.

Me: “When did airports become shopping malls?”
Chris : “September 12, 2001”

Standing in lines
Fairly soon after this trip began I found myself strategizing how to avoid standing in another damned line. It’s funny how a fairly mundane thing suddenly becomes the bee in the proverbial bonnet. I think it was at Plitvice (waterfall, waterfall, waterfall park). We arrived super early, had the park to ourselves, and then we didn’t. It was as if a cruise ship suddenly barfed out 2,000 passengers and, Bob’s your uncle, we became part of a slowly moving serpentine line of gawkers. That got me wondering. How much wealth or fame does one have to amass to secure a guaranteed line-free future? Let’s face it, Oprah, Amal, Gwyneth don’t queue. How much does one need to never have to stand in a line again? (Obviously, the answer assumes that before securing a no-queuing future, they’ve done their share of giving to end poverty, hunger, and abuse.This is, at the end of the day, a first world problem.) I’ve thought about this in different applications over the years. While at the DMV to renew my drivers license it occurs to me that nobody famous ever sits in that line. Who does it for them? While queuing at City Hall to obtain a parking permit for my moving truck it’s the same thing. Even at the voting booth – nobody recognizable seems to be there. With the exception of security lines at airports and the queue to board the ferry to Venice, we were mostly successful on this trip (so far). If it required standing in a line we suddenly realized we weren’t all that interested in seeing it. At the tour boat to take us around Lake Como we literally ran on board as it was departing thereby missing the line and making sure everyone knew we were there.

Just putting it out there … will now make this my next mission. Lines be damned.

Last time I booked a Fiat 500 primarily because it looked fun and we’d been warned: ‘small cars for the narrow streets.’ Hertz took great care of us and gave the option to upgrade to a convertible version.  Picking up a car in Lisbon, we couldn’t count on the upgrade and so I booked a Fiat 500 convertible.  Hats of to Hertz – they upgraded that for free.  To something called Abarth.  Still technically the same Fiat 500 convertible but with some serious attitude, lots of engine, turbo-charger, manual gearbox and sports everything.

It certainly barks but its bite is worse.  It’s serious fun!  Which brings me to the relationship Italians have to cars: Only Italians would name a car company Alfa Romeo (First Love) but this Abarth goes a big step further.  If you look carefully in the center of the display there is a target with a spot labelled ‘G’ in the center…

It took me a long distance to stop giggling and figure it out – it is actually measuring the G-force you experience as the car accelerates or makes corners.  Still…

We leave Lisbon,  with stops for lunch and castles in Sintra, en route for Coimbra.IMG_3082

The Moorish castle is quite something.  At the top of yet another serious Mountain climb, it is well preserved and covers a very commanding area of the hill top. I’ve seen plenty of ‘castles on hills’ before but never one that follows the contours of such a steep summit like this.

Loving Coimbra. It is definitely a smaller city, built around the oldest universities in Europe.  The sprawling ‘modern’ facilities are all uniformly monumental or art deco in style – I am sure with some architectural education I could give a better definition – then you turn through a gateway and you are in the courtyard of the ‘old university.’IMG_3095

The chapel is pretty cool with lots of very traditional Portuguese ceramic tile for decoration.  The library is breath taking.  They are strict about no photos inside but I snuck this one so that I had something to write about.  There is a great discussion about how they have kept the books in such good condition for centuries. Part of the secret is a colony of bats that have always lived inside the library and swoop through the multiple floors at night taking care of any insects that have found their way inside.  The ornate reading tables are covered with leather protective sheets each night at closing.

At check-in we have a very large apartment (since the place we tried to book was taken and they talked us up into the available two bedroom apartment instead). It is good to spread out and I certainly appreciate the patio to sit out on.  Hills everywhere around town – steep enough to be a serious problem at this point in our food-and-wine guzzling fitness regime.  One of our best meals of the trip: lunch in Coimbra at Alqueire – Comes E Bebes.  A student come restaurant manager, Raphael, took such good care of us, describing every wine on the list in great detail and every ingredient on the menu.  One sausage he brings himself from his home village of 400 people! My tasting menu (I think 6 courses) was 19Eur and we sprung for the most expensive wine on their list of local fare at 18Eur.  Really great, go there if you can!

 

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At night we went to hear Fado, traditional Portuguese music defined by its sadness and longing.  Much better than I expected, though I don’t think I would get into it long-term.

One observation: Fado singers (at least the men) typically perform with long black cloaks wrapped around themselves.  I think these are the vestments from the university but we have seen the same in live performances and videos.  I was already suspicious but now I have photographic evidence.  As you can clearly see here – he may have cast aside the cape for this one song but the shadow is still a giveaway! Vampires all of them!

Portugal!

Arrived in Lisbon. A nice first evening before calamity struck. After breakfast, while Kelly was getting a therapeutic massage to fix a rough shoulder, I developed a really serious abdominal pain.  Worse than any pain I can recall. When Kelly returned a couple of hours later it wasn’t getting better.

Emergency room time!  I have only dim recollection of the next part, I’ll share the summary:

I’m fine, they aren’t sure what it was but suspect a twisted intestine or colon, which, “are relatively common but aren’t normally this painful.” The phrase ‘not normally normally this painful’ may be Portuguese for ‘you are a wimp.’  The medical staff were amazing. We headed to the ER in a taxi at 1:30 and were back at our hotel by 6:30. Of that, I slept an hour or more, once they knocked me out. Within the first 90 minutes I had received two drip bags (pain relief and anti-vomit), they had taken two blood tests, a urine test, x-rays and a CT scan and the results were coming in.  Kelly had a granola bar.

Another observation for my American friends: total bill was 95c…for the granola bar.

All discussion was focused on what was the necessary and best diagnostic and treatment, nothing was about insurance, cost or billing responsibilities.

Portugal (GDP 52nd in the world) accomplishes this for it’s citizens or apparently anyone passing through while spending a tiny fraction per capita of what we spend on healthcare per capita in the US.  Because they prioritize things that matter in this case.

I’m not arguing the country, the politics, even the health system is perfect, but that there is something to be learned in this.  Maybe that the existence and profits of large insurance companies are only detrimental to getting better, more affordable healthcare results?

Otherwise, we liked Lisbon.  Our stay was seriously impacted by the hospital visit, plus me being very wobbly for a day or two after so I can’t really say we explored enough.  We stayed at Art Deco marvel the Hotel Britania – first departure from AirBnB’s in a while.  Great place, good staff, huge rooms all in 1920’s Gatsby glam.

Lisbon (and we later find Portugal in general) looks cool but shabby.  Paint peels, weeds grow up through sidewalks, there are some boarded buildings and more than any city I have visited, walls are tagged with pointless spray can sign-offs.  The later makes me question my affinity with graffiti, can you have the creative, rebellious art that I like while still condemning spray can scrawls?  Art that somehow doesn’t meet my standards? Should Graffiti artists be prosecuted based on their intent and skill level?

That isn’t to deny the beauty of Lisbon or of individual buildings.  P1010478 (1)There are great cathedrals and monuments here but more, there are wonderful buildings amongst the chaotic planning. There are unexpected pieces of art or design that seem casually included by people who really seemed to care about how their environment should look.  More economically vibrant times? Money to design and build with exuberance but no longer today for maintenance?  Here is an example installation from the inside wall of what appeared to be a parking structure…

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P1010464 (1)The blue of the sky is intense and the clouds somehow manage to be huge and, small and fluffy at the same time.  The light is everywhere bright.  There are pops of color among the whites and sienna tile. Some more building examples are below.  Then some examples of the graffiti I have liked across Portugal so far – I admit to cheating here, including graffiti from locations we haven’t yet written about however,  I have supreme confidence in my kind reader’s ability to cope!

And Graffiti

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Two travelers, both alike in dignity, arrived dusty, hot, tired and in good spirits into this postcard medieval town.  Our AirBnB hosts, as Kelly mentioned were great.  They recently finished renovating this apartment, including ‘years’ arguing with the local authority about what windows you are allowed to put in a listed building (sound familiar Desmond?)  Very keen to impress on their first rental, the whole family showed up to greet us (the two littlest demonstrating that yes, Frozen attire is of universal appeal). They showed us the lovely apartment, the fully stocked fridge (no way we could eat all that) and gave us tips on the town.

Saturday evening, 94 degrees at sunset. I downed as much water as I could and set off on the walk to Verona Arena.  This is one of the world’s religious sites if you are an Opera fan – a mostly intact Roman Arena with an original capacity of 20,000 people. Today a reputation for over the top spectacle.  Our friend Clive recalled seeing a stage set, designed by Fellini, that featured 40 live horses.  I didn’t see that but Aida did look like this:

Aida Stage Verona

Stunning performance that finished to ovation at 1:45 am.  What you can’t tell from the picture is that a crane outside also hoisted a huge lit ball – the moon – rising over the edge of the arena walls and at the climax when our lovers are sealed in a tomb, the whole reflector in this picture tilted down and enclosed them against the stage.  I have tales filed away of Dad and Christine in Verona with Paul and Avis. I’ll always remember Dad lighting up when he talked about that night and matter of factly instructing: “You have to go, you have to sit in the expensive seats and you have to drink champagne. Because how often will you ever get to do something like that?”

Beautiful walk home. Almost deserted, a few revellers and stragglers. Women barefoot, heels in hand on lamp lit lanes. My head in a daze, Kelly and I sat up talking another hour or two. Overnight, the heat breaks, appropriately accompanied by massive thunder. Washes clean the new day.

It rained the morning but we made good use of the patio and caught up on much needed admin.  The problem with making up travel as you go along is that you actually have to take time to do it!  Several night’s coming accommodation now booked, we head out. Verona is a good place to walk.  We’ve seen wonderfully curated gardens at a distance, all over Italy (Como especially) but in Verona we visited Palazzo Giusti – quiet, relaxing and not at all our normal thing.

Verona – another city I could stay in for a while.

Time to leave. Malpensa airport in Milan is not only on the world’s most notorious list but on clear roads it is 2hr20 from our Verona apartment.  11:15 flight means a clean getaway is important in the morning.  Everything is going to plan, bags packed,  engine is running in our cute, convertible Fiat 500 and she is waiting patiently in this lovely courtyard:

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Which is only a problem when the beautiful gates, for the beautiful courtyard are stuck closed and our beautiful Fiat is stuck inside!  It takes a fraught hour and a frantic plea to our hosts before we pry them open with tools.

We make our flight in part due to Johann saying, “You’ll never get out of Verona quickly at this time of morning, follow me!”  Our Fiat chases his, at extremely illegal speeds, down all the back streets of Verona like some surreally twisted ‘Italian Job’ reenactment. We pop onto the motorway in the countryside and get the hell out of Dodge…

 

Some people may be confused by Kelly’s postcard post but it is really quite simple.

Think of a postcard like a blog post. With only one picture.  That someone else picked. You get to write the text but no more than a tweet and in a font that is tough to read and has to be entered manually.

Once you’ve composed your post you can only private message it to one person.

To send it you have to re-purchase a single-use operating system every time you want to hit send. You can’t do that online but rather go to specialist brick-and-mortar stores – they are normally closed.  You should also note that the particular operating system you need to purchase must be matched both to the physical location where you are standing when you wish to hit send AND the physical location where you hope your chosen recipient will be approximately two weeks from today.

This may sound complicated and it is. Fortunately the stores hire specialist trouble-shooters to help you select the correct operating system for the message you have. At the store you will recognize them as the angry looking people, behind bullet-proof glass at the opposite end of the long snaking line of other customers.

Once sent, your message will be delivered.  About 1 out of every 3 attempts.

Delivered in this context does not mean exactly what you think. Your post will not be readable for approximately 2 weeks after you ‘hit send.’

If you are the individual recipient of the postcard you should now be able to read the message. If you are physically at your domestic residence. Postcard technology is not yet compatible with mobile devices.

Thank you.