Category Archives: Traveling

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Fat Americans

So we already suffered the indignity of the Renault Vel Satis.  I tried to get either an Audi or Mercedes for the Monaco leg of the trip, but Europcar wasn’t having it.  They said that most Americans like the bigger cars, and this was the biggest they had.  This exchange happened in Marseille, and I didn’t have the language skills to debate with them.

On the Barcelona to Bordeuax leg, I wasn’t going to have it again.  First they tried to strap us with the Renault Espace.  One look at it and I told them to it was too big (it seats 9, I think).  Then they tried to move us down to a Ford X-Mas.  Basically the same car, only made by Ford and about 2 cm shorter.  Maybe the Ford only seats 8.  They actually had to bring this one from the main lot away from the airport and we had to wait 30 minutes for it.

When we balked at this one they finally gave us an Audi A4 (for the same price).  They should know that I’m not your normal everyday fool!  😀

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.

Loving Madrid

A quick blog before we head to dinner. While I’d been here before on business, I didn’t quite get what the city was about since I was mainly hanging out with coworkers from various offices around the world. But this is definitely our kind of town. The food is fantastic (who doesn’t love heaps of chorizo, el jamon serrano and manchega) and the people are wonderful. While Paris was beautiful and Monaco otherworldly in that James Bond sort of way, it was challenging for us since neither of us speaks much French beyond “bon jour” and “merci.” In only 3 short days Michael’s Spanish is getting us around remarkably and he’s even taken to the Castillian lisp, which I fear may stick with him – the people in Mexico DF are going to love him the next time we visit – HA! Really, to hear Michael pronounce “gracias” as the Castillian’s do is hysterical (it’s “gla-th-ias”, by the way.)

Anyhow, we’re off for our last evening in Madrid. Barcelona, ready or not, here we come!