Category Archives: Museums

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.

Random thoughts…

Names: The Catalan language is something unlike we’ve ever heard before. From what we can decipher, it’s a hybrid of Spanish and French, with an awesome lisp on various letters. That said, we decided to take on psuedo-names for the trip. Miguel’s Castelonian name is “Sergio Sebastian de Barcelona,” pronounced “theregio thebathian of Barthelona” and mine is “Vicky Christina de Barcelona,” pronounced “vicky chrithina of Barthelona.” Evidently Vicky Christina Barcelona is actually a movie title that we’ve now added to our Netflix as I’m sure it will provide some post travel entertainment. Yeah, we’re silly, but adds to our entertainment when we hear people pronounce various words in the city.

Architecture: We spent a day touring various Gaudi architectural wonders including the Sagrada Familia and Casa Batlló. The Sagrada Familia is a church that started construction in 1882 and still isn’t finished. Currently it’s estimated to be complete in 2030. Definitely some amazing architecture, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit swindled when they charged us 13 Euro to enter a church that isn’t complete. And by not complete, I mean the entire inside of the church is blocked off with raw materials (marble/concrete, etc) on the ground and the exterior has 4 cranes. What I couldn’t understand is that we were one of a few thousand people paying entry, so I’m not sure why this thing isn’t finished yet. Mike said I was full of sour grapes.

The Casa Batlló was far more impressive, and completed. Gaudi was commissioned by Josep Batlló i Casanovas to convert an existing building, and WOW: I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was somewhat mythological while also very aquatic. Miguel took a whole lot of photos of this, which will describe it better, but we definitely enjoyed it.

Cigarettes: One of the best things about Europe is that you can smoke virtually anywhere. I mean, I’ve seen mother’s smoking with their kids sitting next to them (taboo in the U.S.) and pregnant women sitting at a table full of smokers (also taboo in the U.S.) I think I read somewhere that the life expectancy of Europeans far exceeds the U.S., but you’d never guess when you see how many people smoke here. Anyhow, we finally ran out of our last carton of U.S. smokes, so we had to go on a quest to determine which non-U.S. cigarettes were suitable. We started with Habanos (too much like a cigar), tried the French brand, Gauloises (not bad), but found our preferred brand is John Player Special White. Very smooth and comparable to U.S. carton prices.

Nigerian Prada Kings: All around Spain, at least in the cities we’ve been to, you see African men wandering around with big white bundles. These bundles are full of Prada and Vuitton knock offs, and not very good ones at that. Anyhow, the bundles, when on the ground, form a sheet where they can display their various bags for people to buy. Of course this is frowned upon by the Policia here. So to solve for this there is a string tied to each corner, and if you watch these guys they are constantly looking over their shoulders. When they see the Policia coming, in one quick pull of the string, their sheet pulls in all 20-30 bags and they are off and running. They also travel in packs, so when they come running, it’s about 20 guys coming at you at full speed. Pretty entertaining sight to see, I’m just disappointed I didn’t get it on video :)

That’s all for now. We loved our time in Barcelona, but it’s time to head to the French Wine Country :)

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.

The Oldest Restaurant In The World

We came to Europe because we won, in some cosmic lottery, a reservation at the best restaurant in the world. But since we were going to be here we also wanted to see what else they had to offer. Although we didn’t know about it before we came, our guidebook tipped us off to the presence of the oldest restaurant in the world here in Madrid. That’s nice and all, but what sold me were the facts the Hemingway hung out here and that their specialty is suckling pig. The place is called El Sobrino del Botin, it was founded in 1725 and it’s featured in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The history in the restaurant is palpable, and the menu is simple. The pretty much do one thing and they do it really well. We started with some Jerez (Tio Pepe) and gazpacho. I think this was the first time either of us had tried either and we’re now big fans of both. Next came the pig, and it was absolutely awesome. I haven’t had this dish since I was ~7 years old, and to be honest I can’t remember anything about that meal other than the cool wine bottles. This time, however, I get to record it for posterity! While they didn’t deposit a whole pig on the table, there was at least a pound of pork split into three large pieces from various parts of the beast. The meat itself was tender, juicy and had more pork flavor than I would’ve expected. The meat was accentuated by a simple au jus-like broth and the skin (crackling). Regarding crackling: think wafer thin chicharones that are as crispy as fresh tortilla chips. The whole package is delectable. I’m really going to seek this out in the US.

While everything was wonderful, I couldn’t help thinking that we just ate at the Madrileño House of Prime Rib. They do one thing, they do it well, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of have to think that if we lived here we would only bring in guests from out of town. But as a traveler, it was exactly the sort of place I seek out. And as a bonus I got to walk in some more of Ernest’s footsteps!

Las Ventas

One of Madrid’s allures to me was the Plaza de Toros Las Ventas. This is widely considered to be the most important bull ring in the world. It’s the equivalent of Yankee Stadium for baseball or Texas Stadium for Football (which oddly enough both had a swan song last season).

This photo was taken just before the start of the parade that kicks off the corrida. Note the position of the shadow at the center of the ring. The location of this shadow is what dictates the start time for the fight because the promoters make more money by selling more seats in the shade. Our corrida started at 19:00, and as you can see we were in the shade (sombra).

Unfortunately there were no Habanos to be had since the state-run tabacarias in Madrid have been closed all weekend because of the Fiesta la Paloma. It’s basically like all of the neighborhood fairs in San Francisco were held over one weekend. Most of the stores are closed, and many of the bars and restaurants have closed for the holiday. However, in our 2 days here we have been to enough cafes, cervecerias and restaurants to last us a month at home. More about a few of those tomorrow!

Museo Reina Sophia

After we checked into our hotel (more on that over the next few days), the first order of business was lunch. Our hotel is on a square that is filled with cafes. We had our first real meal of tapas, and were happy as clams (marinated in olive oil, of course!). The next stop was El Museo Nacional, Centro de Arte: The Reina Sophia.

In one word: Wow!

Granted, this museum is only for 20th Century art, but it was absolutely my favorite so far (Liz still has Picasso, Paris, on her ballot). The famous pieces are:

  • Picasso’s Guernica
  • I bought a portfolio of the entire canvas at a 1:1 ratio…it’s a box with 600 sheets. Problem is they’re printed front and back, so I would’ve needed to buy 2 copies to assemble my own. Esta bien.

  • Dali’s Woman at a Window
  • Her calves have the most amazing lighting effect. It is indescribable.

  • Picasso’s Woman in Blue
  • He disavowed this painting because it didn’t win a National competition; only came in Runner-up.

Sleep Deprivation

When the subject of jet lag came up many of the more advanced travelers that we call friends suggested that the best way to beat it is to just power through the first day.  That’s what we did.  It’s bed time now (11:30 p.m.), but we’ve had a very busy day.  A brief overview:

  • A 10 minute dash from FiDi to SFO
  • A 4.5 hour flight to Chicago, which was experiencing thunderstorms
  • A 30 second layover in Chicago where I was accosted by a Francophone American for having the audacity to stand next to my wife in line to board the plane.
  • An extremely pleasant ride across the pond with a cabin at 1/3rd capacity.  The attendant staff were extremely attentive and jovial.
  • A virgin ride on the Paris Metro from the Etoile to the Louvre (amazingly efficient).
  • A not-so-mad dash through the Sully wing of the Louvre for the all the goodies one is supposed to see.  My favorite was the room behind the Mona Lisa.  It’s an absolutely amazing red and gold leaf dome(?) that I’ll post about later.
  • My first Parisian cafe experience at a place halfway between the Louvre and Notre Dame (Pont du Neuf).
  • A leisurely stroll through the Musee d’Orsay.
  • More cafe life in Saint Germain, this time at Les Deux Magots (hope that doesn’t mean what I think it does).
  • More strolling the streets and stopping to drink here and there
  • A cab to the Trocadero to see the Eiffel Tower glittering at night

That’s all for now.  Elf needs sleep badly.

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