Category Archives: Hotels

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.

 

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.

Barthelona

This is the view from the balcony at our hotel. We’re a block off the Plaça Catalunya, a key hub in the city. Barcelona has been really great so far: easy to get around, great food, great art history and the Olympics turned it into the Spanish San Francisco/Miami.

Also, I’ve never seen such amazing interior design. Most of the elements are familiar, but the Catalans have put their own spin on it. They’ve integrated the disparate cultures of the Med (Spanish, French, Italian/Roman, Greek, Turkish, Jewish/Israeli, Egyptian and Arabic) into a cohesive whole that just feels right.

Cafe In Roses

Shortly after arriving in Spain, we drove all the way out to the Roses peninsula.  It’s a 2 lane road about 18 km long with a rotary every km.  If they were 4-way stop lights, the ride would’ve taken 45 minutes.  As it was it took about 30.  We drove all the way through the town of Roses and into a residential area before we saw the first sign for our hotel, “Hotel Vistabella *****”.  Those stars don’t really represent reality.  It’s a wonderful hotel, and perfect for the site.  The Four Seasons would stick out like a sore thumb here, so this is really how it should be.

After we checked in, we walked down the hill to a beach-front cafe.  It was packed because of the free Wi-fi.  We had some beer, fried calamari, and milkshakes. Yummy beach food! Just as we were leaving to walk back up the hill, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” began playing in the background.  I have no idea what that means…I just thought it was nice.

The Casino

We did our obligatory stroll through The Casino tonight after dinner. Very interesting experience in that they:
1) Have a 10 euro cover charge, complete with bouncers at the door. At first I was a little offended, but when I got inside it made sense. The fare, while pretty substantial given the exchange rate keeps the tourists from meandering through and basically keeps the riff-raff out. I can only imagine that this was what Vegas was like in the yesteryear.
2) There is no smoking in the casino, but they have what I can only imagine was developed in Asia, a smoking bubble. Basically you walk into a round Plexiglas room that fits about 4 people, close the door behind you and light up. The air travels into the room through holes from the outside and gets filtered into the ceiling.
3) This one is for the ladies and may be too much information for the men reading this blog. But, in case you don’t know, women do not under any circumstances sit on a public toilet seat. They basically squat over the seat and you can imagine there is some sprinking that happens. A polite woman will wipe it down upon exiting (though this is not always the case – gross!) At The Casino, they have a contraption attached to the seat that lowers onto the seat and the toilet seat itself spins to clean it off. Pretty impressive, I must say. Okay, that’s it for my toilet rant.
4) Similar to exiting a restaurant in LA, there is also the Paparazzi out front, only in this case they are tourists. Upon our exit, about 30 flashes went off. We felt like J-Lo and Phil Collins, who are coincidentally staying at our hotel right now.

More from Spain tomorrow…or today, depending on where you are in the world.

P.S. The 20 euro bet on red (for Ferrari, of course) didn’t pay off. That was the extent of our gambling in Monte Carlo. We came, we saw and we lost. Mike doesn’t get to yell “I’m the man that broke the bank in Monte Carlo” the next time he rides a camel through Saudi Arabia.

P.P.S. – Liz wrote this, not Michael.  Michael would never name drop Phil Collins 😉

Le Gatsby

F. Scott said it best: The rich are different than you and me.   Never have I felt that sentiment more acutely than upon my arrival in the Riviera.  I grew up with a modicum of privilege, and I’ve known some of the wealthier people in the places that I’ve lived.  But none of that could prepare me for the gratuitousness of Port Hercules in Monaco.

And the display doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.  Every third car is a Ferrari, and more often than not one of the other two is a Bentley.  I’m not sure if there was more money tied up in the wheels in Monaco this week, or at Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance.  And don’t read any bitterness into any of this post.  I thoroughly enjoyed the show.  If I couldn’t be in Monterrey this week, Monaco is the next best place.

Here’s an analogy that makes sense to me since it’s Fantasy Footbal Draft season.  If wealth were football ability, Monaco would be the Pro Bowl.  You may have gone to high school with one or two guys who made it to the next level, Division 1A (USC, UT, Michigan, etc.).  And if you went to one of those schools, you may have known one or two guys that were so good that they went to the next level, the NFL.  And if you were to hang in those circles, you might be fortunate to know one or two guys per team that could be considered the elite.  That’s pretty much what Monaco is like, if wealth were football ability.