One Last Thing

In an effort to squeeze out as much adventure as we could, there was only time for a brief overnight layover back in London.  For what I think was the 8th time I’d dined or drank at Electric Cafe in less than a month, we had one last opportunity to have dinner with friends and soak up the Notting Hill-ness (which is basically Cow Hollow meets Lower Haight, and with an accent).  After that, early to bed, early to rise, and GTFO.

GTFO

You don’t have to go home…

I’ll miss you, London.

We Dig Those Chicks in Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam

Time to leave “home” again.  Next up is Amsterdam.  Liz was here 2 years ago for her company’s global summit.  The tales of conducting business under the influence of Amsterdam’s finest are legendary.  I have to say that I wasn’t as excited about this leg of the trip as I was Ireland.  And I couldn’t have been more wrong.  As somber as Dublin is, Amsterdam is equally ebullient.  This city is old, beautiful, sophisticated, egalitarian, well managed, fun and on and on.

Garden Suite

View of the koi pond from the Garden Suite

The first stop was to check in at the truly magnificent apartment we’d rented for the trip.  The place is owned and run by local architect Charles Boonzaayer, and the picture doesn’t do it justice.  The highlight, as you can see, is the picture window in the living room that opens onto a lush garden complete with a koi pond.  When we were at the apartment, even when were weren’t outside it felt like we were.  And the location is pretty amazing as well: 2 blocks from the Museumplein.

Next we hit a cafe for some local goodies, and then to dinner on a canal.  The rest of the night is a bit of blur, but we hit a variety of cafes, bars and clubs until well after midnight.  And because of the latitude, the sun was still up.  I’m not sure if they have hot springs here, but I caught myself humming “Immigrant Song” a few times.

Jeffery

…stroke the furry wall.

The next day we started early to hit the museums a few blocks from home.  The Museumplein is a park/square bounded by the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum.  We started up at the first, then after lunch we hit a cafe and prepared for the afternoon to come.  Next came the Stedelijk.  The architecture was amazing, and while we visited they happened to have an interactive, light-based exhibit.  Hmm…it’s like they knew we were coming.  When things really started humming we hit the Van Gogh.  We could’ve spent a week there, and it was clear the docents had seen this level of fascination before.  More than once I was advised that if we spent so much time on this painting, we were going to miss the good stuff.  But thanks to them, we didn’t.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

 

Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty

After being in London for a few weeks, Dublin came as a bit of letdown.  It took me awhile to figure out why, as I should have felt a connection because of my Irish heritage.  Once I left, I felt like I understood why my ancestors did too: The place just seemed depressing.  But it isn’t really.  What it is is the capital of a nation that has no imperial history, and therefore no evidence of grandeur due to unexpected (or ill-gotten, as your opinion may be)  wealth.  Of all the other places we’ve been in Europe this is the first one that can make that claim.  Spain took gold and silver from the new world.  France had it’s forays in North America, Africa and South Pacific.  Britain had it’s sunny Empire.  Germany…well, yeah, you get the picture.  Ireland?  They’re just going about their business at (their exquisitely beautiful) home.

Once back in London, we did a few things that were at the bottom of the list.  We trekked into places that weren’t as easy to get to.  We saw the sorts of things that were afterthoughts.  This included a trip to Lewis Leathers for the red lined motorcycle jacket, a walk across the Abbey Road Studios’ famous zebra, the Sherlock Holmes statue and taking in the local flavor in Notting Hill with some friends I’d made in my short time there.

Abbey Road

Liz y Mig on the Zebra

All of these experiences were great, but the best part was coming “home.”  London in general, and Notting HIll specifically, felt like home from the day I arrived.  And returning from my first trip away really reinforced that feeling.

There’s a pub…

When the plan for Liz to fly over came together, one date stood out: June 16. That’s Liz’s birthday, and the date of the events described in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It’s hard to ignore when the Universe shouts out you, so we added 2 days in Dublin to the itinerary.

Mig and the Prick

Miguel and Joyce

The James Joyce Centre in Dublin hosts a variety of Bloomsday events, the highlight of which are a series of walking tours to trace the routes Leopold Bloom took in the book.  This was absolutely fascinating, as the city hasn’t changed much in the 100+ years that have passed since the book was written.  And odd thing that didn’t emerge until the completion of the tour at the Joyce statue (seen at left) is that Dubliners don’t really care for him.  He didn’t live in Dublin for most of his life, and the bulk of his literature is his ode to his homeland.  In “Ulysses” in particular, he paints Dubliners is a less-then-flattering light.  And while locals are aware of the book (even if they haven’t read it), their relationship with him is complicated.  As a result, the colloquial name for the statue is “The Prick with the Stick.”

Jameson Distillery

Reflection of Liz y Mig at the Jameson Distillery

Aside from this highlight, there was plenty of drink.  I know it comes as no surprise to anyone reading this, but the Irish LOVE to drink.  We hit the Jameson distillery, the Guinness brewery and all manner of pubs.  Of course we hit Trinity College and the Book of Kells, and a few U2 locales, but in all honesty we saw everything we wanted to in a few hours.  When asking locals what else we should see and do, the universal response was, “There’s a pub…”  Followed by some mix of the following: around the corner, down the road, you have to see, that’s really cool, etc.  The message was received: Welcome to Dublin, let’s get drunk!  So while looking for the (non-existent) typical meal of Dublin coddle or traditional music, we proceeded to drink.  And drink.  And drink.

 

 

London Calling

With the work portion of my trip almost wrapped up, we had a rare opportunity of one of us being abroad already and the other having the time to join them.  Since I’d already been in London for 2 weeks, and Liz had been here a few years ago, we didn’t have to rush through the normal speed-touring agenda that one typically endures during a short visit to a place you’ve never been.

I’d done all of the civic and religious buildings, perused the museums I wanted to see and even insinuated myself into the London arts community by securing invitations to a few gallery openings.  Liz on the other hand just wanted to eat and drink like a Briton.  So that’s basically what we did once she arrived.

My hosts at the BBC provided a thorough list of places that would serve in this capacity.  All of these places were in Central London, near our flat in Notting Hill or close to the office in White City.  However, the best experiences we had came on our second day together.  We hit Borough Market for some food and drink (see picture below), and then walked along the Thames towards Covent Garden for more drink at the Punch & Judy.

Mig in Borough

Mig showing his colors in London and sparking conversation.

The point of hitting the Punch & Judy was to see the street performers in the square below, and, in British tradition, mocking them from the safety of the balcony.  There was plenty of that, but the highlight of this spot for us was the random bloke we spoke with about his love of Bon Jovi.  He had to be 25, but had seen them play 12 times.  And he was jealous that I’d seen them open for Ratt in 1985.  It was one of those great moments you only experience when traveling – when you let your guard down and just embrace the moment because you know you’ll likely never be in that place or see that person again.

An’ after all this, won’t you give me a smile?

And we’re back!

Big Ben

Look kids, Big Ben…Parliament!

Michael’s back in Europe for 2 weeks, and Liz will join for the week after. FB has supplanted the purpose for this site for the most part, but I’ll post the more interesting bits here as we go.

 

Back in the USSR

The last line of our National Anthem asks the question: O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Does it?

The time away has me wondering what freedom means to me, as if I were a 5th grader writing an essay on the matter.  Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on the economic and cultural differences, I’m conflicted about which system is better.  I kinda like the Bill of Rights and not paying 70% of my take-home in taxes.  But at the same time it was really nice to drive on roads that didn’t knock parts off of my car, <gasp> smoke a cigarette in a cafe or move on to the next shop because the owner of the one I went to had gone on vacation.  This is the key difference, I think.

We happened to be in Europe during the most popular month for the yearly vacation.  While it was a little frustrating to have to go another block to find a bodega for a bottle of wine, how profound is it that small business people can let their entire staffs leave town for 2-4 weeks?  That’s economic freedom!  It’s been a recurring theme in what I wrote over the course of this trip, but they (Europeans) just seem to have figured out something that we don’t get here in the US.

Place Clichy

On our last night in Europe we took a long stroll to do some shopping and have a final taste of cafe culture.  We ended up back in Pigalle.  This is “supposed” to be a red light district, but I think it’s more like a caricature of a red light district.  To start, there aren’t any “ladies”.  And the only traffic is from tourists in rented Benzes or in Norwegian Grey Line buses.  This is also where Moulin Rouge is at, as well as a few other similar places with floor shows.  We didn’t set out to come here, but it was a good place to end up because of the cafes and the show on the road.

Ahh, Mssr. Franks!

When I told my Mom where we would be traveling she remarked that it sounded like fun, but that we should be careful in Marseilles. Little did I know how prophetic her warning would be. It turns out that someone in Marseilles has had a grand old time on my dime. They went out to what appear to be a few bars on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, racking up around $700 bills each night. Then they apparently decided to bring the party home, so they stopped off at Carrefour (the European Walmart) and dropped another $2800 (I’m guessing a new plasma). It’s still not fully resolved, but my accounts have been closed and BofA has wiped the fraudulent transactions from my statement.

This whole situation has cast a little pall on our last few days in France, but today was really magnificent regardless. While we’d planned to rise early and see some smaller Chateaux before our 2:00 p.m. tour at Ch. Mouton Rothschild, 3 hours of late night phone calls with Bank of America and Visa killed that idea. We got started around 12:00 and found a delightful cafe in in the village of Bages. We ate a small, traditional lunch of Charcuterie (various sausages and cured meats) and a cheese plate (2 chevres and 2 cow’s milk). This set the tone for the short ride out to Mouton.

Once there we assembled in the visitor’s salon, went into a small theatre to view a welcome message by the Baroness and then started the tour proper. The facilities are amazing, and we learned a great deal about how one of the finest wines in the world is assembled. Like any prestige product, Mouton jumps through many self-imposed hoops out of adherence to tradition knowing that they can make up the expense at the back-end. We’ve seen the entire gamut of wine-making facilities in Napa and Sonoma, and none of them can hold a candle to what goes on here. After we’d toured the winery, they took us into the phase of the tour that neither of us appreciated very much: the Baron’s ram-art collection. It was a huge room full of jeweled and gilded objects d’art featuring male sheep. The old-French word for “ram” is Mouton. In modern French, it means “small hill.” Next, we were off to the tasting. Last year’s estate bottling is going for roughly $400/bottle, and they didn’t bring this out for us. While I would’ve appreciated a vertical tasting of ’61, ’82 and 2000, that wasn’t in the cards. What we did get was a preview (barrel tasting) of the ’09. It wasn’t ready to drink by any means, but it was a wonderful insight into what the wine will become in 10, 20 and 30 years. This is typically our favorite feature of tastings in Napa, so it was a unique treat to do this at Mouton.

Next up was Pichon Longueville. This property is awe-inspiring. They’re classified as 2nd growth from the 1855 Classification, and in my opinion it’s the top of the 2nd growth pile (the market tends to agree with me). This Chateau doesn’t have the glitz or name recognition of the first growths, so they must rely on their wine to speak for itself. To this end, everything in the winery is geared towards efficiency and consistency. We thoroughly enjoy this wine at home, and it was a wonderful treat to see where it’s born.

Next we took a short drive around Pauillac, if only to see Lafite, Latour and a few other places whose wares we covet and/or enjoy. The drive helped us decompress from the winery experiences, and soon enough it was time for dinner. Our hotel is rather like a country inn, albeit in an 18th centruy Chateau. The restaurant is run by Thierry Marx, and they’ve had 3 Michelin stars for a few years. If we hadn’t eaten at El Bulli a week earlier this meal would likely have been the high point of our trip.

A brief overview of our main plates:

  • Liz had the Canadian lobster, and it was cracked in the kitchen.  It was taken out of the steam basket just before it should have been, and then was placed in a bowl and sealed in a bag.  The steam expanded the air in the bag so that the bag formed a bubble and the lobster finished cooking as if in a pressure cooker, only from it’s own heat.  At this point, the bubble is brought to the table and “popped” in front of the diner. The meat was served with a cup of the water from the pan in which it was steamed.  It was suggested that a sip be taken and then a bite.  Remarkable preparation, presentation and taste; an amazing concept.
  • Mig had a fillet à la Bordelaise.  This was pan seared in the kitchen and then plated.  Next, a cup of smoldering vine cuttings was placed next to the meat and the whole package was wrapped up in a sheet of cellophane, tied off and then delivered to the table.  For an idea of what this looked like, imagine a gift basket with just a small fillet at the bottom of the basket.  Once at the table, the bag was opened and the smell of vine smoke wafted above our table.  The meat was absolutely fantastic, and again this was an amazing concept.

The rest of the meal was equally remarkable.  Unfortunately for them, the El Bulli experienced seriously compromised our enjoyment of this meal.  I would likely place it as my 3rd or 4th best meal ever, and I’m sure Liz would place it somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Driving to Bordeaux

We had an early morning today to get ready for the trek from Barcelona to Bordeaux. Just as we were getting the hang of the city without street signs (Barcelona), it was time to leave. On the way out we planned our route a little more carefully, and it paid off. First stop? Liquor store! We weren’t sure if we’d be able to get Havana club easily in Paris, so we stocked up before we left Spain. Next stop? Bocadillos for the road! A chorizo and brie sandwich just tastes better at 160 kph.

About halfway from Barcelona to Bordeaux is the tiny mountain country (principality) of Andorra. How often do you get a chance to go a few minutes out of your way to get another stamp in your passport? It took a little extra time and effort to get there, but that’s just what we did. The border station is pretty funny. There’s basically a roundabout ~1/4 mile in radius with a hut at one end. If you want your passport stamped, you pull aside, walk into the hut, then continue back the way you came.

And a word about the road. Last year the BBC program Top Gear did a segment on the best driving road in the world. They tried out various roads on the continent, most of which were in Southern Europe. Eventually they decided on a route from Davos, Switzerland, to Stelvio, Italy. I’ve only been on the segment of that road that has all the stop lights so I can’t make an honest judgment. But after what I saw today I think they may have gotten it all wrong. The road from Andorra to to Foix, France, is breathtaking. Again, I’m slightly disappointed to have been cooped up in a Audi A4, but more often than not I was in the fastest car in the pack and I was able to pass the “cloggies” at will. The Europeans have this driving game figured out. You want to drive fast? Have at it; but it’s going to cost you. Consider this: the road tolls from Barcelona to Bordeaux ran ~€40 and the tank of petrol was ~€70. That’s $156 at today’s exchange rate (1.4255:1). Certainly not an everyday event, but man it was fun!

Once we’d passed the Pyrenees, the road into Toulouse and ultimately to Bordeaux was completely uneventful. In fact there wasn’t really any excitement until we started seeing signs for Pauillac. Our hotel is in an old Chateau a few hundred yards from the the Port/Centre of Pauillac, in the village of Bages (as in Chateau Lynch-Bages). After we’d found the hotel, we rolled into the driveway and a porter met us with a smile on his face. When I stepped out of the car he greeted me with, “Good evening Mr. Franks.” I can only guess we were the last guests to arrive tonight, as I don’t look a thing like my latest press photo.

After we’d checked in, we jumped back into the car for a ride down to the docks for dinner. We decided on a local specialty: pizza. ;) Keep in mind, this pizza had duck on it! Dinner completed, we came back to the hotel to head to bed. We’re hoping to have an early start for the Chateaux visits tomorrow.