El Bulli Overview

*** UPDATE: The full El Bulli review can be accessed by clicking on the El Bulli buttons in the top navigation bar. We look forward to seeing your comments and responding to any questions you may have. ***
This is just a placeholder post for the El Bulli review. I’m planning to do a full write-up, course by course, after we return to SF. At the very highest level I can say without equivocation that the hype is justified. This is the best restaurant in the world, and quite honestly I can’t see how anything could’ve been improved upon.

Briefly, we met Ferran Adrià as soon as we entered the restaurant. We took a brief tour of the kitchen and he shared a few seconds with us. It felt like we were in the presence of Pablo Picasso, John Lennon or Coco Channel. We were completely awed before we ate and the admiration we hold for him following the meal is indescribable.

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.

Leaving the Riviera

The 5 and 1/2 hour trip from Monaco to Roses was bittersweet. Everyone knows how I drive, so you can imagine that I was like a pig in slop driving the A8, the main artery through the Riviera. Again, every 3rd car is a Ferrari.  And those that aren’t are driven as if they were. It was the most awesome and efficient traffic experience I’ve ever witnessed. A 3 lane automotive ballet!  And I was part of it without disrupting the flow. The only thing that would’ve made it better was my own car.  C’est la vie.

Another thing that we loved about driving the Rivera was a local English-language radio station: Riviera Radio.  Their self-agrandizing catch phrase?  “From the best yachts to the finest villas, Riviera Radio!” In actuality, it was super cheesy 70s/80s oldies-but-not-so-goodies. But it was a fun sort of camp, and it was much better than the monotone Italian talk radio or French-language Euro Pop on every other frequency.  When we lost signal someplace west of Cannes, we knew we were no longer in the Riviera.  And pardon the horrible turn of phrase, but when the music stopped so did the ballet.

But before we knew it we started seeing labels on trucks that we could prounounce, and soon thereafter we had crossed into España.  I tend to compare many of the places in which I’ve traveled to Mexico.  This is primarily because Mexico is my baseline for societies that live below the mainstream standard we enjoy in the US.  I almost instantly got this vibe from Spain and I mean this as a really good thing.  The roads aren’t in the same condition as in France, and nowhere near the pristine billiard tables that Monegasques enjoy.  And there’s a little more dust in the gutters.  And there are bars on the windows.  But it seems completely without pretense and so full of life.  We’ll write more about our experience in Roses over the coming days, but it’s a really great place so far.

This little comparison came to mind when I was trying to explain to Liz cultural differences in Europe.  Please forgive the sweeping generalizations, but here it is:

  • Italy: Work hard, play hard.
  • Spain: Play hard.
  • Germany: Work hard.
  • France: Don’t do anything hard.

I’m probably way off, but that’s my experience and I thought it made sense at the time.

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 😉

Monaco Grand Prix

After a day trip to Italy we returned to Monte Carlo, and since we were in the car we thought it was a good time to do a (video taped) lap of the fabled Monaco Grand Prix circuit. I only clipped one mirror! When you see the video, you’ll see what I mean. By the way, the lap record is ~1:13. We did it in about 10:30. It should be fun to edit, although we may try to do another lap in the morning if the traffic seems lighter.

Dinner last night was at Stars’n’Bars, a pretty decent facsimile of a US sports bar, only with an F1 theme. It’s owned by a Texan, and we felt right at home. I didn’t tell Liz where we were going, although I did promise it was the only time we’d do something cheesy while we were here. The highlight of the meal wasn’t what was basically a TGI Fridays menu printed in French. No, it was the two Spanish gentlemen seated next to us. They could only be described as “Euro Lizards.” After we left we made up stories about the shady business dealings in which they were involved. For the rest of our lives we’ll be telling stories about the metric tonne of smack they just smuggled into Europe aboard an America’s Cup yacht.

Now we’re off to another famous F1 haunt: the Tip Top Bar. Rumor has it this is where the drivers hang out when the F1 circus leaves town. Since they all live here for tax reasons, it seems reasonable enough. We’re also going to stop into the Casino. We’ll be sure to post some pictures later tonight.

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.

Children are behaved?!

Since we arrived, we’ve noticed how remarkably behaved the kids are in Europe. They basically act like adults, albeit small adults. Anyhow, while waiting for Mike to sort out the rental car, I saw a small girl playing on a parking curb. It only took 2 falls for the mother to administer a beating like I’ve only seen my sister give. So it seems a little “fear of god” does the trick. If only CPS wouldn’t be notified immediately in the US.

TGV To Marseille

I can only guess that my slaughter of Français with a funky Chilango Spanglish accent made Lyon sound like du Nord, so the taxi driver took us to du Nord. After realizing that we weren’t in the right place we took a cab to the right Gare. Despite arriving at Gare Lyon only 15 minutes before our scheduled departure, we made our train.

The French countryside is rolling by us now, and it is absolutely beautiful. It’s hard to make a value judgement from a mile away while going 200 mph, but from here it looks like they respect their land more than we do. Maybe it’s because it’s more finite for them? Maybe because agriculture is a heritage rather than a ticker symbol (ADM)? Again, it’s hard to say from this vantage point; I’ll revisit this theme on the next train: Bordeaux a Paris.