Part II

It is every writer’s dream to land a housesitting job in France. I’d have three months to start (and abort) a novel while enjoying the medieval landscape. But how did my galpal and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple, the Brays, at a cocktail party thrown by ex-“Condé Nast”-boss James Truman’s mother, in the Caribbean (Montserrat, before the volcano blew), who said a French hippy was housesitting for them in France.
“He burns candles everywhere instead of using electricity,” Mr. Bray complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them than a dirtbag flaneur?
So the next winter we arrived at the remote village of Couloume-Mondebat and took charge of the 15th-century farmhouse, whose barn had hidden American servicemen during World War II. We would be staying in the “gite” (guest quarters), which featured a master bedroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom.
Hot water was supplied via gas canisters, which had a nasty habit of conking out when guests were visiting, resulting in bloodcurdling cries, such as what happens later in this essay.
Our living quarters also boasted a bookshelf of pleasantly dated books, such as Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. No TV. Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts.

Expatriate Life

Over the course of three months, we lived an expatriate life reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” (My book proposal, Three Months in Gascony, upon which this article is loosely based, sounded derivative and unsaleable.)
The landscape is dotted with vernacular pigeonniers, windmills, churches, and “Inri” crosses–evidence that the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes through here. One of my favorite stops on “The Way of Saint James” was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Alaxander Dumas in The Three Musketeers. His abode, the Chateau de Castlemore, was closed on the day I visited, but I seriously admired its grand façade, somehow resembling Tintin’s manse Marlinspike Hall.
It was near Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont at a restaurant that requested anonymity (maybe: “The Auberge de Saint Mont”), overlooking a charmed thousand-year-old Roman vineyard. I paid a visit to the local dentist Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), who promised to fix it right up.
As the demonic dentist drill hit dent, Mr. Butterfly joked that he knew how to deal with Americans: “I am Iraqi! I am Iraqi!” he mocked with his limited English, enjoying my feigned discomfort. Needless to say, my replacement tooth was a little too large, but for only a handful of francs, not euros, I couldn’t complain much. At least they had doctors in this medieval demesne, most of them living quite comfortably in ancestral chateaux.
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The Hunters’ Feast

With its many feast days, it’s easy to become a glutton in Gascony. Luckily, cannibalism is no longer practiced in France; after all, it’s been eons since ancient Gauls (like the comic book character “Asterix”) wolfed the flesh and gnawed the bones of barbarians babbling bad French. Still it was hard to shake the feeling of apprehension, especially after we’d settled in at the local “Fete de Chausseurs” (hunters’ feast), a word similar to the French for “shoes,” to find the event liberally garnished with Gascon hunters brandishing rifles and aromatic Gitane cigarettes.This was the fairytale slice of historical Gascony where many of the inhabitants come as fattened as the geese they devour. And speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the unlearnedly accent-less hunters’ feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked: “Garbure, Assiette composee fruits de mer, Truite sauce champagne, Civet de chevreuil, Roti de chevreuil, Legumes, Salade, Foret noire, Café, Armagnac.” You don’t have to delve into a Larousse dictionary to divine the gist: a meal of more than six courses, including a thick soup (with duck in it), a whole trout, and two deer dishes, accompanied by three kinds of locally produced wine and Armagnac (including a must-try white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” –which is fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)

Shades of Monty Python

Between courses I breathed “beaucoup” and “trop,” waving my fork in a feeble attempt to ward off food, and feeling like the fat guy from the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” who is impelled by the French waiter, played by an evil John Cleese, to eat until he explodes. Which adds new meaning to “amuses bouches” (happy mouths) and “amuses geulles”(happy faces)—small gourmet bonbons to induce evacuation, Roman-orgy-style. The only other people at the “fete” who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, “T,” renovating an 18th-century chateau down the road (his ancestor was the Viceroy of India), and his wife, who handed me a business card: “Comtesse de ____.” (The Comtesse dabbled in real estate and assured me small chateaux were not “too dear.”)

Though this festive final lunch was supposed to last the traditional two hours, we were there from 12 to 5. And the worst thing was: we had a dinner date with some neighbors in just under an hour!

Where Is The Gers?

Taking a back road into Auch, France (population: 22,000), the remote ersatz capital of the Gers, in a rented Renault time machine, two hired housesitters pinched themselves. Auch! As the 15th-century Cathedral de Sainte Marie and the 14th-century Tour d’Armagnac, both protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our aching eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps (count ‘em) to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.

With a bright and breezy irreverent tone suitable for a Paid Advertisement, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the remote French countryside. We were deep in the heart of gastronomical Gascony, the stomping ground of ghostly gourmets, a center of the foie gras trade, and the birthplace of Armagnac.

Gently Rolling Landscape

Known for its bien mangé (good eats), the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, with more ducks than people in it, is a leisurely two-hour drive from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and only an hour from the ski lifts of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees.

Newly expatriated from Les Etats Unis, we found this gently rolling landscape of ancient farms, vineyards, and fortified towns, dating back to the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)–which was neither really a war, nor did it last a hundred years–the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like aristocratic budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of a Medieval-era illuminated manuscript.

Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages — but with electricity.”

What’s more, the Gers abuts the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, which boasts, besides birds like vultures, eagles, capercailles, ptarmigans, woodpeckers, and pigeons, also mammals such as marmots, chamoises, and bears. Unfortunately, maybe the fault of terroir chefs, there are only six bears left!

Since everything here involves festive sightseeing, there are not many things to do other than eat in idyllic mise-en-scenes out of your most extreme expatriate fantasies, except take part in the yearly Marciac Jazz Festival.

Here, in what many prefer to call the “Midi Pyrenees,” you can travel on no dollars a day (only euros)—but ten euros goes a long way, even with the hefty markup of French Elf “essence.”

Or, the occasional, blown Michelin “pneu.”

Historical Gascony

The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vascones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon), is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons and will tell you he is Gascogne first. Yet, unlike his Basque neighbors, he is quite happy to be French second.
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Gascons fought on the British side during the previously mentioned Hundred Years War, and the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux,” ideal for cycling around the over 50,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of grapevines, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery and sights, such as the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Abbaye de Flaran, filled with inebriated monks, and the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers,” Larressingle, also the name of a popular Armagnac.

Remember, a bastide is a purposefully built fortified town with distinctive grid-patterned streets and arcaded central squares; while a castelnau is an unplanned town growing up around a castle or a church, all built by either the French or the English. Fources, the only circular walled town, was, despite its froggy-sounding name, architected by the British.

If you think in terms of historical Gascony, this jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece of geography includes both Les Gers and Les Landes, and is sometimes referred to as “Midi Pyrenees,” full of traveling Cirques, Roma caravans blasting “The Gypsy Kings,” and Course Landais stadiums, which hold bullfights without the bull, instead they use horned heifers. Even though they do not kill the cows here, they sometime end up as ingredients in such restaurants as “BASTARD” (really!) in Lectoure.

Mysterious Alchemy

The gist of the Gers is, of course, Armagnac, and this is where the amber after-dinner drink is distilled, bottled, and shipped worldwide. There are three Armagnac appellations: Haute-Armagnac (center: Auch), Bas-Armagnac (center: Eauze), and Tenareze (center: Condom). For obvious reasons, Condom is a popular place to pick up postcards to amuse one’s friends back home.

Predating cognac by over three hundred years, Armagnac was once believed to be a snake-oil-like aphrodisiac and cure-all. A 14th century cardinal, Prior Vital du Four, spake, “[Armagnac] restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. . . . And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit if someone timid from time to time permits.”
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During various “degustations,” I was taught to cup the glass and swirl it to release the aroma, leaving behind long golden Midas tears streaming down the edges. If you really mean business, pour some into your palms, rub them, and sniff them like the locals do.

“Hey, did you know if your hand is bigger than your face you are retarded?!”

“Hey, did you know if you rub your hands together they smell like pizza?!”

These two tricks do not really work among the cognoscenti in France.

One day a gregarious neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged White Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.

“Cin Cin!” the producteur toasted.

“Tintin!” I managed with a pursed moue, leaking scalding tears reminiscent of the cartoon menace “Caillou,” the bald neo-fascist baby.

Or an infant Mr. Clean or Howie Mandell.

Fill Er’ Up

The region’s main magnet, though, is its mean cuisine. When the farmers aren’t protesting for unpasteurized Camembert, they are to be found with forks in their mitts, meandering over multi-course meals that last two hours or more.

Over the border in the département of Les Landes, also part of historical Gascony, one may visit one of the best restaurants in the world at the spa Eugenie Les Bains, where master chef Michel Guérard won three Michelin rosettes and invented “cuisine minceur” (less food for more money).
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But one of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns serving more than just glorified peasant grub, like the Vieux Logis in Aignan (the former capital of the Gers), to enjoy four-course Gascon fare with regional VDQS Cote de St. Mont wine (fill ‘er up in plastic jerrycans at local vineyards), all for about twenty euros.

In the Gers, the two standout Michelin-rosetted restaurants are the Hotel de France (Auch), where master chef André Daguin invented “magret de canard,” and the Ripa Alta (Plaisance), where stuttering chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet” surrounded by a largesse of truffles. Plus, “palombe” (a kind of wood pigeon which makes a sorry little carcass).

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In the long, glamorous history of ocean voyages, there has never been a better time to book a cruise. Today, it’s possible to visit exotic ports of call our grandparents could only read about. Holland America’s Baltic Cruise on the Eurodam explores the mystery and beauty of St. Petersburg, Russia, the charm of Tallinn, Estonia, and Scandinavian capitals.
From Copenhagen, the ship sails through narrow channels before heading out through the Baltic Sea to Estonia and Russia, circling back to Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden, and finally to Rostock/Berlin and Kiel/Hamburg in Germany.
A cruise is the most efficient and convenient way to see these ports. Where else can you see the sun set at l0 p.m. in Denmark and ll:30 p.m. in Russia a few days later?

 

 

The Eurodam

The 2,104-guest ship features a new Asian restaurant and bar, the Tamarind and Silk Den, as well as a casual Italian eatery, Canaletto. Other additions are the Explorer’s Lounge Bar, a new atrium bar area, and a show lounge with theatre-style seating. The dazzling Rembrandt dining room and Pinnacle Restaurant are upscale options.
Galley tours showcase the vast array of equipment and manpower that goes into producing 13,000 meals a day.
Themed dinners relate to the food of the country visited. A beer and bratwurst bash complete with Oompah band is held on deck when the ship is docked in Germany. A new Master Chef’s International Dinner showcases signature dishes from six continents along with regional wine pairings. This year a vegetarian-only menu adds 30 new dishes to the Rembrandt dining room menu.
Cruisers who never danced before get a chance to try on board. A new Dancing with the Stars at Sea experience features a dazzling production starring celebrities and dance pros. Cruisers can take dance lessons, meet the dancers, and take photos.
The ship is a sanctuary of rest and relaxation for weary passengers after long days of walking, climbing concrete steps, and waiting for buses. The Greenhouse Spa and Salon offers a full range of services from a customized bamboo massage to a pro-collagen facial lift. The thermal suite has a heated ceramic room with lounges that conform to the curvature of the spine. A Hydropool is enriched with mineralized bubbling water and powerful jets to melt away muscle tension.
My favorite spot on the ship was the Crows’s Nest and Internet library and bar. With its stunning panoramic view, this is the place to meet people and to hear the pre- excursion talks by travel experts. It’s also the best spot to view the unparalleled beauty of the Swedish archipelago—a waterway between Helsinki and Stockholm containing 24,000 islands. On the five-hour journey navigating the channel out of Russia, we passed by President Vladimir Putin’s summer residence, a former estate of the nobility.
The Eurodam is handicapped-accessible. Thirty staterooms are marked for the disabled, and the ship’s elevators make it easier to get around. I saw at least seven people with canes, six with walkers, and a few in wheelchairs who went on most of the excursions.

 

 

Shore Excursions

People cruise the Baltic to see exotic destinations they may never see otherwise. Going ashore in another country is one of the highlights of the cruising experience. Tours are organized by the cruise line and include all costs, lunches and snacks. They are booked in advance, but can be changed at the ship’s Shore Excursions Desk.
The ship’s tours are pricey. Some passengers opt to walk around the towns on their own, and shuttle busses are available for this purpose. Rostock and Kiel in Germany and Helsinki are walkable, but individual tours can be pre-arranged through travel agencies or the U.S. tourist offices of these countries.
The cruise begins and ends in Copenhagen. Pre- and post-cruise tours of the capital take in the highlights: Christianborg Palace, Tivoli, the fairytale amusement park, the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, and the opera house. The beloved poet, Hans Christian Anderson, once lived in picturesque Nyhavn, now a hip, regentrified area on the harbor. Outdoor dining and lively bars draw crowds who stroll along the quay.
The elegant Palace Hotel is in the middle of the action directly across from historic city hall with its distinctive bell tower, and five minutes away from Tivoli. The Glyptotek Museum is also close to the hotel; it has an incredible Rodin sculpture exhibit and lush conservatory.
Holland America added a second night in St. Petersburg because there is so much to see. Russia was the highlight of the trip, by most accounts. On a canal cruise through the city, one passes under a few of the city’s 365 bridges for views of the Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Favorite tours go to the summer palace of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, plus the fabulous Church of the Spilled Blood in the center city, and the magnificent Hermitage Museum.
Evening tours of the Hermitage are set up exclusively for cruise passengers on Mondays when museums are usually closed. This is a good way to avoid the crowds, and the air is cooler. The sweet Matryoshka (nesting dolls) are popular souvenirs in Russia (about $10). The ship also sells them during Russian night on board.
In Tallinn, Estonia, you can embark on a bicycling adventure through the countryside or take a laidback panoramic bus tour of the main sights (for scenic viewing only.) I chose a Stroll through Tallinn’s Old Town, one of the finest medieval town centers in Europe. It meanders along narrow cobblestone streets past crafts shops and up to Palace Square and the stunning Baroque Toompea Palace now used by the Estonian Parliament.
On the itinerary was the great Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its glorious mosaics and icons. Guests were treated to a medieval concert at St. Nicholas Church. Estonia, which gained its independence from the old Soviet Union in l991, is a wired nation. Skype was invented here, and 98% of the population is computer literate.
Stockholm’s splendid beauties can be best seen in the 7-hour Best of Stockholm tour, but a 3-hour stroll is also worthwhile. The city is built on a chain of islands. Highlights are the harbor and fabled city hall, where the Nobel festivities unfold each year.
The l7th century warship Vasa is on display at the Vasa Museum, highlighting Sweden’s inspired maritime heritage. Tours also take in the Royal Palace and Old Town, with its unique Bohemian atmosphere.
Helsinki’s famous Rock Church is a fascinating attraction. The church is built out of the side of a huge rock hill. It has l5 miles of copper wiring built into a frieze over the sanctuary. The acoustics are fabulous, and you may catch part of an organ concert. The movies Reds, Gorky Park and the last scene of Dr. Zhivago were filmed in Helsinki before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Designated as the 2012 World Design Capital, Helsinki’s Design District has 200 shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. The Tori Quarters, the neoclassical old city center, has been revitalized with restaurants and new design shops. A stroll around the harbor amid colorful produce stalls and outdoor cafes is a great way to experience the city in a short time period.
For fine dining, the stylish Salutorget bistro next to Market Square is ideal. It features locally-sourced fare, Finnish culinary treats, and is adorned in chic design.
Contact: www.HAL.com.

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Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. I could just as easily be accessing a medieval castle as a lodging facility — and then I found out I was. Although I suspect our room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.
Which certainly set the tone for our Walking Through History Tour of Southern France—conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were immersed in their history.
According to our guide, Richard Posner, every mountain, every hill, has great historic and cultural significance and his running commentary throughout the trip bore him out. Visigoth chateaux, Knights Templar towers, Cathar castles — admittedly I knew little about these guys but by the time we were done visiting their many abodes, I felt we were all old friends.
The walks ranged from easy to moderately challenging and the talks from fascinating to eyes glazed over, usually in direct proportion to the difficulty of the hikes when I might have preferred to be back at the castle courtyard relaxing with a vin de pays — but I was willing to wait. As one of our compatriots enthused about Richard: “He opens his mouth and facts fall out.” The fact that he could make these facts endlessly interesting was the real accomplishment.
Cresting a hill, I would often turn and look back down upon an expanse of beautiful countryside that was, of course, there the whole time, but I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to notice. As we walked, and everyone is encouraged to go at his/her own pace, we would come to a crossroads where multi-hued wildflowers whose fragrances accentuated the already-challenged senses, distant mountains, castle ruins, and crops of beans, vineyards and barley were all vying valiantly for attention — demanding notice in so many directions at once as to warrant whiplash.
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Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes that does not see a lot of drive-by traffic. Consisting of a few houses and churches dating back 900 years, the sense of history was somewhat moderated by the large red tractor by the side of one house that appeared anachronistic by several centuries. Still, it was a start.
As we traveled from one medieval village to another, we heard stories of church intrigue and love stories, military battles and religious controversies, mysterious anecdotes of priests and royals and other local residents over the centuries that brought the towns to life in a very tangible way. For one, in the 1890’s a priest named Berenger Sauniere sold secret medieval documents he found in the hollows of the church at Rennes Les Chateaux for great sums of money. Those documents? Well, does Holy Grail mean anything to you?
And every morning, Richard’s wife, Marion, scoured the market in preparation for our picnic lunch, composed of different breads, cheeses, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local village delicacy which we feasted upon overlooking a lake, a garden, a vineyard or some random medieval ruin. Every day, the same response — it just doesn’t get any better than this!
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Accompanying us on much of our journey were the Cathars, Roman Catholic heretics who were prominent from the 10th-12th centuries, but were ultimately destroyed during the Crusades, and the Knights Templar, a well-financed military religious order of the 12th-14th centuries, and later rumored to be a secret society that exists to this day.
The impregnable Queribus Tower, the last of the Cathar castles to fall, was an old Roman structure, initially built in the 4th century. It was later refurbished by the Cathars to resist attack during the Crusades. The most recent restorations? They took place in the 13th century. This sort of time warp is ever present in southern France. The present and past – long-ago past — coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
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As we climbed the almost half-mile straight up, I couldn’t help but think “Why would anyone want to attack this place?” Obviously, I wouldn’t have made a good candidate for medieval knighthood. Views from one tower to the next compete with each other for their own personal sense of wonder and enormity of vision. But then again, how often are you looking over a vast countryside from a 360 degree angle from multiple towers in a single day?
One morning early, Richard pointed knowingly to a small abbey halfway up a mountain. Our collective response was, “You’re kidding, of course?” He wasn’t. Not only did we make it to the abbey, we reached the top of the mountain. Admittedly, the ascent itself was much less challenging than it appeared, but we still all felt unduly proud.
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou, where one of the most controversial of the Knights Templar theories is in evidence — that within the mountainside is a cave containing the buried remains of the body of Christ. Whether true or not, just standing there felt like a spiritual experience. The Knights were ostensibly eliminated as a religious order by the 14th century — although that may be a surprise to Dan Brown whose DaVince Code perpetuated many of these theories.
But nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us for Carcassone, one of Europe’s largest and best preserved fortified cities, an entire medieval town protected by almost two miles of double walls and 52 watchtowers.
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Hard to imagine yourself walking among the knights, priests and ladies of the time with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir shops keeping you grounded in the modern world. Still, how often do you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn over the drawbridge? I managed to avoid the moat enroute…
Late in the evening or early in the morning when most of the tourists are gone, it’s much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges, towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels and streets so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously. And then once they let the crowds back in, it’s possible to imagine another similarity to medieval times – only now the throngs, equally motivated, are coming to shop rather than siege.
As we left Carcassone, our exposure to medieval architecture and lifestyle wasn’t over, but our connection with the Cathars and the Knights Templar was, so it seemed an appropriate time to say au revoir.
For more information about the Walking Through History Tour of Southern France, visit nehikingholidays.com or call 800-869-0949.

After the full day’s eyeful feast of Gaudi’s works, I was ready for a feast of another kind. For that, I followed the recommendation of a colleague and dined at Los Caracoles Restaurant, conveniently located off the city’s famed La Rambla, just a two minute walk from Reial Plaza.
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I found this restaurant to be a combination of old world charm and very fine food. Started in 1835 by the Bofarull family as Casa Bofarull, it is run by its fifth generation under the more fitful name of Los Caracoles to reflect a signature dish of snails. As I stepped inside, I could see the long exquisite bar on the left and the big stove in the open cooking area on the right. I later found out that the coal-burning stove is over one hundred years old.
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I made my way straight through about 15 meters (50 feet), slowly and at times even stopping, turning my head left and right, to admire the beautiful bar and the impressive cooking facility. At its end, I was greeted by a gracious woman who introduced herself as Aurora.
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She led me through several floors of dining areas, some with private dining rooms of various sizes whose walls were hung with framed pictures of Spanish and international celebrities who have dined at Los Caracoles over the years. On one of the pictures, I recognized the famous Italian opera singer Luciano Pavorotti. After an appetizer plate consisting of garlic shrimp, bread with tomato, jamon (Iberian ham) and snail bread, I ordered the caracoles (snails) without hesitation.
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When they came, I could smell the sauce, and went right to work on them with both hands. I was sure the sauce mix was proprietary but could taste that it included fresh garlic, a bit of salt and black pepper, olive oil and mint springs.
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Next came the entrée, salmon “house style,” and what a dish. Just mouth watering and freshness of taste. I especially liked its accompaniments – lightly fried potatoes, green onion stalks, and tomato. While the restaurant has an extensive wines list, I opted for a pitcher of sangria and it served me well throughout the course as I enjoyed the delicious meal. For dessert, it was Catalan cream, similar to crème brulee. I had of course tasted flan, custard, or crème brulee, but this one was unusually rich and savory. All in all, a very fine dining experience for elegance and flavor.

Okay, I admit it. I’m a business traveler. And when I travel on business, I can get so involved in work, in getting things done, in just reading and replying to email, that I don’t always take the time to lift my head up, look around, and really see the place where I am. And I’ll admit it – that’s a huge mistake.

While business travel doesn’t often take me to the typical entertainment or best vacation destinations in the world, it does take me to some wonderful places, where there are still delightful people to meet, interesting attractions to see, and great local foods to eat.

Take Frankfurt, Germany, for instance. Most vacationers head to the sights of Hamburg or Berlin, or seek history at Zwickau or Dresden, or travel further south to Munich or into beautiful Austria. Frankfurt is known as the financial district of Germany, and so usually isn’t on the top of the list for sightseeing. But there is still so much beauty, history, and wonderful people in Frankfurt, it’s worth the stay.

I started my own Frankfurt visit by meeting up with my local tour guide, Dagmar (okay, she’s really my coworker). Although not necessary, having a local who can speak the language, understand the customs, and recommend places to go is a huge help in really getting to know a country and city.

To get a sense of authentic German food, Dagmar started us on our visit by taking us to Haus Wertheym, one of the few remaining original timber-framed buildings that survived the Second World War, situated just off the river Main in central Frankfurt. Since other structures have been rebuilt to showcase Germany’s pre-war architecture, this structure built in 1600 doesn’t stand out much as different until you enter the restaurant on the first floor. Inside, I was struck by the amount of stained glass windows, carved boards with past and modern quotes hanging from the ceiling, and beautiful figures and images carved into the wooden walls, doors, and posts.

As a suburban American, I’m used to sitting in a restaurant at my own table. At Haus Wertheym, in addition to the smaller individual booths, there were longer tables where diners from multiple parties are seated, which is a common European practice. I like the sense of closeness and fellowship it provides, and the opportunity to talk with friendly strangers who instantly become fellow participants in your journey.

Dagmar advised me to try a local specialty, the “Grüne Sosse”, or green sauce. I couldn’t have been happier with her suggestion. This herb-based sauce tasted so clean and wholesome, poured over boiled potatoes and the Wiener Schnitzel I ordered. I enjoyed the local dish so much I ordered it twice more during my trip.
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After dinner and an apple cider called “Äppelwoi” in the local language, we walked outside the restaurant into the brisk December evening. A left turns and a few steps later, we entered the Römerberg. The Römerberg is a town square lined by historical timber-lined buildings, all restored to their original form and appearance as if the war in 1944 had never happened to this beautiful city. Here in the square, among the other stately and resonant buildings, is the Römer, a majestic house that has served as the town and city hall since 1405. I read that there are 52 oil paintings of past emperors who ruled the Empire until 1806 placed in the Emperor’s Hall on the first floor of the building.

Truth be told, I didn’t get a chance to go inside and see them though. All my attention was drawn by what was happening outside, in the Römerberg plaza and up and down neighboring streets. Since this was Germany in December, and the Germans really know how to celebrate Christmas, there was a bustling and vibrant Christmas market, filled with stalls offering food, drink, and Christmas gifts and decorations aplenty. And it was also the main reason Dagmar had brought us to this part of the city. While there are Christmas markets in many other German cities, the Frankfurt market is arguably the most important, due to its size and number of visitors. This Christmas market has history dating back to 1393. However, the Christmas tree tradition didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 19th century. Two hundred years later in 2012, the Christmas tree tradition was alive and well, taking its place in the picture-worthy form of a statuesque 25 foot (at least) tall tree standing in front of the Römer, brilliantly lit and decorated.
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The crowds at the Frankfurt Christmas market

On this first and subsequent visit to the market (it was worth going more than once), I sampled and saw much of the local fare. I ate and drank items such as sausages in buns, roasted chestnuts, and mulled wine, replacing mine with the child’s non-alcoholic version called “Kinder Glühwein”, which tasted like a perfectly brewed wassail. There was gingerbread to eat, street performers to hear, and nutcrackers to buy. But my favorite was the chocolate, which was everywhere.

Alongside the stalls featuring chocolate-covered bananas, chilies, pretzels and wafers, the treat that caught my eye the most was the solid chocolate in the form of machine parts, cameras, hand tools, and other shapes. They looked almost real; wrenches and bolts that had been left out in the rain and become worn and rusted over years of neglect. I’m not keen on neglect, but I would take one of those “neglected” tools any time.
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Chocolate paradise

If you visit the market, remember to bring plenty of cash, since few places in the city and fewer in the marketplace take credit cards. And bring your appetite. As soon as you think you’ve sampled enough, you’ll come to another stall with another treat you hadn’t seen yet, and you’ll have to try it.

After thoroughly enjoying the Christmas market, we began to get a bit cold being out in the snow and winter weather. On a main avenue just outside the market, we found a nice modern café named Weidenhof, where we could relax and warm up. A nice cup of hot chocolate (of course) with cream, and I was as toasty as ever. While Weidenhof is more modern than traditional, it still acts a gathering place for locals and tourists spending time shopping or visiting the center of the city. It also gave me a chance to sit back and people watch. Old friends, new acquaintances, families and couples, all would greet each other with a smile and a hug, glad to be with loved ones during Christmas and out of the cold. Germany really is wonderful at Christmas time.

After such a successful and enjoyable first night, I made it a point to see as much as I could. While the downtown Messe conference center, where I spent my next three days, is interesting by itself, wrapping its several buildings around the Festhalle concert hall, I couldn’t wait to get out and visit more of Frankfurt. Some of my favorite places to visit any time I travel are the beautiful architectures and peaceful settings of local churches and places of worship. There are no fewer than eight churches, old and historic and regal buildings, in the heart of the city of Frankfurt. So I made a point of visiting at least one of them when I had the chance.

Just off of Töngesgasse lies the Liebfrauenkirche, a beautiful and historic Catholic church. The Liebfrauen has a comfortable grotto and cloister grounds, and as you step inside, presents you with a quiet, solemn chapel, resplendent with stained glass windows, Gothic panels, and Baroque figures. I stood, pondered, enjoying the difference in sound after being in the market, but I couldn’t stay too long. I had other places to see.
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The Liebfrauenkirche

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Inside the Liebfrauenkirche chapel

I wanted to take the opportunity to get out of the city, so I jumped on an S-bahn and traveled out to Friedrichsdorf, where there is an LDS temple with its more modern architecture and inviting grounds of grass and winter landscaping.

The smaller town of Friedrichsdorf is about 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt by train, so it gave me a chance to see some of the German countryside as well. After spending three days within the city, it felt great to see some farmlands, meadows and the modest train stations in the country villages we passed through.

The further away from the city I traveled, the fewer people there were who spoke English; however, I could still feel their warmth and genuine concern as we struggled to understand each other while they gave directions and help. I needed the help, since I ended up wandering around Friedrichsdorf for several minutes before I gave up and asked for directions to the temple. Which I would recommend anyway; take a stroll, view the sights of the villages with no destination in mind, and visit the small shops and cozy main streets of a German country town. I felt at peace and comfortable in Friedrichsdorf, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
And home is always nice to get back to after a business trip. Seeing my own family again and recounting the wonderful sights and experiences is a joy, and Frankfurt didn’t disappoint. On any business trip, necessary work can take up a lot of the time during a short visit, but remember, there is always ample opportunity to see something and meet someone new. It’s my version of “slow down and smell the roses.” It’s good advice. I suggest you take it next time you find yourself typing madly away at an email in your hotel room after working all day. Pause, breathe, and then get out there. Wonderful things can happen.

The Barcelona Airport information agent answered my question without hesitation, “See as many pieces of Gaudi’s works as possible.” Not the food, not the shopping, not even the famed Las Ramblas. I had done my homework, reading up for my trip. Architect and designer Antoni Gaudi, who lived 1852 – 1926, is the most internationally prestigious figure in Spanish architecture. He is also one of the most revered personalities in Spain, particularly in Barcelona where his work is concentrated.
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain in the north-east portion of the Iberian Peninsula, with the official status of a “nationality.” Its capital city is Barcelona, the center of “Modernisme,” the term depicting a cultural movement by the people of Catalonia for national identity. And Gaudi is generally considered the grand master of Catalan Modernism in its heyday. World architectural experts have hailed his work, while adhering to Modernisme, to even go beyond that, being characterized by the predominance of the curve over the straight line, the expression of asymmetry, and the integration with various crafts such as stained glass, wrought iron forging and carpentry.
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Well, one would be hard-pressed not to see it as he approaches it. And I was no exception. Casa Batllo’s front façade sure looked like a bunch of bone features to me, a layman when it comes to architecture. In fact, I later found out that the locals call it “Casa dels ossos” or the House of Bones. Built in 1877, it was restored and partially remodeled by Gaudi during 1904 – 1906. He focused on the facade, the main floor, the patio and the roof, and built a fifth floor for the staff. The facade is of Montjuic sandstone cut to create warped ruled surfaces, the columns are bone-shaped with vegetable decoration. Gaudi kept the original rectangular shape of the building’s balconies – with iron railings in the shape of masks – giving the rest of the facade an ascending undulating form. He also faced the facade with ceramic fragments of various colors (“trencadis”), which Gaudi obtained from the waste material of the Pelegri glass works. The interior courtyard is roofed by a skylight supported by an iron structure in the shape of a double T, which rests on a series of caternary aches. The helicoidal chimneys are a notable feature of the roof, topped with conical caps, covered in clear glass in the center and ceramics at the top, and surmounted by clear glass balls filled with sand of different colors. Much of the facade is decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles (“trencadis”) that starts in shades of golden orange moving into greenish blues. The roof is arched and likened to the back of a dragon. At the first floor level of the undulating facade is a striking stone structure in the form of loggia supported by columns with frame fine windows decorated with stained glass. The ceramics and multi-colored glass mosaics of the upper part are interrupted by iron balconies in the form of venetian masks. Crowning the whole is a suggestive tile roof over double garrets, which evokes the back of a dragon. Casa Batllo gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera, was designed by Gaudi and built during 1905 – 1910. What a humongous building, I thought to myself, as I first saw it standing at the corner located at 92 Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona’s Example district.
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The brochures available at its gift store combined with my walk-through helped me to really appreciate what a fine and unique piece of architecture La Pedrea is. Gaudi designed the house around two large, curved courtyards, with a structure of stone, brick and cast-iron columns and steel beams. The façade is built of limestone from Vilafranca del Penedes, apart from the upper level, which is covered in white tiles, evoking a snowy mountain. It has a total of five floors, plus a loft made entirely of caternary arches, as well as two large interior courtyards, one circular and one oval. I particularly noticed the roof, topped with the four-armed cross, and the chimneys, covered in ceramics and with shapes that suggest mediaeval helmets. It was a controversial design at the time for its bold forms of the undulating stone façade and wrought iron decoration of the balconies and windows. In 1984, Casa Mila was declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Another interesting fact is that Gaudi wanted its occupants to know each other so he designed lifts on every other floor only so people had more interaction and thus had to communicate with one another from different floors.
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Perhaps his most famous work, during the last years of his career, Gaudi devoted almost exclusively to Sagrada Familia, a monumental church to say the least, whose formal name, in English, is Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. I arrived at a morning hour that I thought was early, but the line of waiting visitors had already stretched from the front around to the left side of the cathedral, with more visitors to follow as the minutes ticked. Across from it, on limited open space ingenuous merchants had set up shop, selling a wide variety of souvenir items and snacks. In fact, on the sidewalk slightly from the curb, merchants had placed at various spots small tables and chairs for those who just wanted to sit, have a soda, relax and take in the majestic view of Sagrada Familia. I overheard from a passing tour guide that the wait to get inside the cathedral was going to be almost two hours. Taking a cue from other visitors, I bought a cold soda and some snacks and quickly grabbed an empty chair and claimed the table nearest to it. This was going to be my base for taking in the grandeur of the Sagrada Familia.
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Among the many expert comments I read, Sagrada Familia can be summed up as Gaudi’s achievement of perfect harmony between structural and ornamental elements, between plastic and aesthetic, between function and form, between container and content, achieving the integration of all arts in one structured, logical work. It is probably the most remarkable cathedral in Europe, and it’s not even finished yet! It was in an unfinished state at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, the work stopped in 1936 and resumed sixteen years later in 1952. Projected completion is in 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death. At completion, there would be extraordinary facades representing the birth, death and resurrection of Christ with eighteen towers or spires symbolizing the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the Christ. UNESCO bestowed 2 titles of World Heritage status – one for the Nativity façade and the other for the crucifixion façade. I could see that visitors may be confused into thinking that these facades represent the front and the back of the cathedral, when in fact they are actually the sides.
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Locals I encountered invariably mentioned Parc Guell, a municipal garden on the hill of El Carmel in Barcelona’s Gracia district. On a pleasant Spring morning, I started off from Placa de Catalunya, the huge square just minutes by foot from my hotel, by taking the #24 bus. I had deliberately planned this particularly long ride, with the idea of leisurely seeing the various Barcelona’s neighborhoods from one end of the city to another. Parc Guell was originally part of a commercially unsuccessful housing site; of sixty lots, only two houses were built, and Gaudi occupied one of them from 1906 to his death in 1926. Among the many examples of Gaudi’s designing genius evident here is the huge plaza, surrounding by a long winding bench in the form of a sea serpent. The bench has small semi-enclosed areas where the facing of a brightly colored ceramics creates a spectacular collage.Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, at its highest point Parc Guell offers a panoramic view of the city and the bay, including the Familia.

While in Prague we heard about the medieval town of Kutna Hora, located about 120 km from Prague, a drive through undulating, Czech Republic farmland. We were informed that Kutna Hora and the neighboring town of Sedlec are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth taking in as a side trip in conjunction with a visit to Prague, so we contacted the Prague tourist agency Premiant City Tour Travel Agency and booked our visit to Kutna Hora. Premiant City Tour offers a number of different tour opportunities in and around Prague, as well as places like Kutna Hora and Dresden, Germany.

We were picked up at our hotel in the morning of our departure for Kutna Hora and began our journey through what turned out to be a little over two hour journey on a comfortable bus through a snow covered landscape. Prague and the Czech Republic had experienced an unexpected, overnight snowfall for this particular, late autumn time of year. Between the commentary about the history of the region given along the way by the tour guide accompanying us and the views of the snow covered fields, forests and towns we passed, the trip to and from the town of Kutna Hora passed quickly.
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We discovered that the area around the town of Kutna Hora was found to be rich in traces of silver in the 10th Century, bringing miners first into the area in the 900s. The medieval town of Kutna Hora was the site of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, established there in 1142 AD. The town was, at the time, situated in the Central Region of Bohemia, which is now called the Czech Republic. The town competed with Prague economically from the 13th to the 16th century and was a favorite residence of many Bohemian Kings.
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Our first stop on reaching Kutna Hora was the Sedlec Ossuary, which is a small Roman Catholic chapel next to the Cemetery Church of All Saints. The Ossuary contains the bones from an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 skeletons, which have been artistically arranged to decorate the interior of the chapel. The nearby cemetery became a popular place for burial when the abbot of the Cistercian monastery went to the Holy Land at the request of King Otakar II of Bohemia and returned with a small amount of earth he had removed from the hill in Jerusalem called Golgotha and sprinkled the earth on the abbey cemetery. During the 14th Century with the Black Plague sweeping the country, many thousands were buried in the cemetery. In the 1500s a half-blind monk of the monastery was given the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking the bones in the chapel. Through the years the bones were assembled into artistic decorations and became a great attraction.
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After our stop at the Sedlec Ossuary we traveled over to the magnificent Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist. The Church was built in a Gothic style at the end of the 13th Century. It was destroyed and rebuilt at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the style of the baroque. After the reunification in Germany and the independence of such countries as the Czech Republic the Church went through another restoration in 2001. The architecture both outside and inside is remarkable to behold.
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A walk from the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist into the central part of the town of Kutna Hora took us over a bridge like structure that gave us a view of the hillside on which the town was built, the town, and the building known as the Italian Court. In the center of town, we entered the Italian Court, which was originally the Central Mint of Prague. Because of the silver being mined in the area around Kutna Hora, the town became a natural place to establish minting the coinage used in the Bohemian Kingdom, beginning as far back as the late 13th Century. The original mint became known as the Italian Court because of the Italian experts that were instrumental in the minting reform that took place there. The Italian Court was reconstructed at the end of the 14th Century and became a part-time royal residence. Our tour took us through the rooms in which the coin-makers workshops were housed around the building’s courtyard and up into the museum of coin minting, as well as through the royal chapel and hall of audience, which were once used by Bohemian Kings.

Having gone back in time in this UNESCO World Heritage site and viewed history taking place through a period of almost 900 years covering all aspects of society, we were amazed at the wonderful experience we received from our visit to Kutna Hora and how lucky we were that someone had recommended this tour to us. We also found that instead of hampering our trip to Kutna Hora the snow was like icing on a cake, giving the experience a heightened effect.

It was late at night when Nataliya and I arrived in Madrid on the one hour flight from Barcelona. The former gateway to the city, Puerta de Alcala,looks spectacular when lit up at night. We got off the bus at Plaza de Cibeles. In the center of the square is the iconic fountain crowned with a statue of the Roman goddess Cybele, seated in a chariot pulled by lions, welcomed us to Madrid.

Beyond the statue, on the other side of the square, the Palacio de Comunicaciones and City Hall were lit up like fireflies—the illuminated clock tower told us it was nearly midnight. We lingered for some moments, taking in the lively sights as they only looked at night. Then, we extended our suitcase handles, pulled them behind like dogs on leash, and headed down the road toward Puerta del Sol.
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Sun Shines at Night

Puerta del Sol, or “Gateway to the Sun,” was still alive with energy even at the late hour when we arrived. The people here appeared to be more locals than tourists, with cafes and shops and the metro stop
under a mirrored glass that looked like a silver moon on the cobblestone. Ten streets extend from Puerta del Sol, making it a little more confusing than expected to find our Hotel Santandar, which was off one of the ten streets. We asked the policemen who stood guard in the square (more half-moon than square, really) and they were happy to offer directions. “Look for big lions at the Congreso de los Diputados. Same street.” By the time we found the afore-mentioned lions at the home to Spain’s parliament, we had gone too far. But it only took minutes to turn back and find the big “Hotel Santandar” sign. We went to the unmarked door below the sign to find it locked. It was after midnight. “What if they’re closed for the night,” Nataliya asked. “I told them we were arriving late,” I said. Both a little worried about spending the night leaning against a monument, we looked around for another, better marked door. Turns out that the sign was only that—a sign. The actual hotel (and another well-lit sign) was just around the corner on the nearest side street.And there, we were warmly greeted in the historic building—a lobby filled with carved wood and marble and statuary—by a desk clerk who was expecting us.

Hotel Santandar is by no means a posh, luxury hotel, but it was a far cry better than the typical cookie-cutter chain hotel. Family owned since the 1920s, it is located in a historic building of the same era. Other reviewers have mentioned that, being near the square, it can be noisy at night. But our room was located above a quiet alley and we never once heard a peep from outside—even with the windows open. Our room had a western-style bed (not two twins pushed together as we remembered from non-chain hotels in London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Moscow). The furniture was either antique or wonderfully reproduced furniture, heavy wood and stately in style. The large desk would have made a good place for writing, had it not been covered by our notes and guide books, tickets and maps. The ceilings were a good fifteen feet high, but not too far away to miss the details: a decorative middle framed by plaster molding. The bath included an extra-long soaking tub (good after a long day of street and museum walking) with a European-style shower handle that could be plugged in up top or handheld. There was even a bidet. During our days at the hotel, we encountered four friendly desk clerks. The one we spoke with most often happened to be from Cuba. Interestingly enough, he had gone to college in Russia and Ukraine, had worked in Mexico, and had only recently moved to Madrid. Being from Cuba tied him to three diverse cross-cultures: Cuba, Russia (with the former Soviet connection), and Hispanic countries, like Mexico and Spain.

When traveling abroad on our own dollar (or Euro as the case may be), we tend to want a local, non-chain hotel that is clean. No whirlpool or king-sized bed is needed—just a place to sleep during the few hours of the night that we’re not out exploring. We were happy to find that Hotel Santandar, located at Echegaray 1, was not just a place to sleep. But when we finally got settled in and showered off well west of Midnight, sleep we did.

Gateway to the Sun

We rose with the sun for our first full day in Madrid, with breakfast in Puerta del Sol. Once, there really was a gateway here, but it was destroyed in 1570. This square is also where the massacre took place in 1808, when locals were attacked by Napoleon’s forces. These days, the Gateway to the Sun comes closer to living up to its name. The atmosphere is pleasant, the energy positive. There are peaceful demonstrations, but it is mostly a square of meeting and greeting, where locals come together.

I’ve already mentioned the modern glass train station entry. The square is also famous for the bronze statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree—often used as a symbol for Madrid. At the center of the square is a statue of Carol III astride his horse. And the building where the helpful policemen are on guard 24 hours a day, with its iconic clock tower, is home to the regional government. In past eras, it has been everything from a post office to headquarters for Ministry of the Interior.

Although we avoid chains, we did enjoy breakfast a few times in Puerta del Sol at the “museum of ham,” where they served up juice from Valencia oranges squeezed right in front of you, delicious Spanish coffee with steamed milk, and good sandwiches of meat and cheese. Like many places, you actually stand at the bar to eat and drink. Most people in the early morning enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate with churros and sandwiches and juice. But every time we went for breakfast, inevitably there would be at least one gentleman enjoying an a.m. ale with his morning meal.

Who doesn’t like to sleep in? But when we have limited time in a place like Madrid, we want to be up with the sun, at the Gateway to the Sun, each day. The best time to hit the places where lines get long is in the early morning. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the three great art museums of Madrid, opened at 10. We were there at 9:45.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had a very modern feel to it. The collection was put together by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son, Hans Heinrich. The location is the Villahermosa Palace, from the 18th century. As a sort of history of western art, the paintings and sculptures (more than 1,000) range from Flemish and Italian primitives to 20th century pop art.

One could easily spend a day or two perusing the paintings of this museum. We dedicated a few hours, stopping to linger over the ones that captivated us. Some of the highlights of the Thyssen-Bornemisza include Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room, and Harlequin with a Mirror by Picasso; Women with a Parasol in Garden by Renoir and Swaying Dancer by Degas. Goya, Titian, Gauguin, Rubens, Christus, Van Gough, and Dali are all represented here, along with their contemporaries.
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Promenading Paseo del Prado and Proximity

After a few hours in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, we enjoyed some time in the open air. Right next to the museum is Paseo del Prado, a long park
that connects Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Canovas del Castillo. The latter of these features a sculpted fountain of Neptune. Just beyond Neptune, you can see Madrid’s greatest Museum, the Prado. We would
visit the museum more than once during our time in Madrid. But for now, a leisurely stroll along the tree-lined park brought us back to the goddess who had welcomed us into the city the night before. We entered the Palacio de Comunicaciones, or Palace of Communications, where we were able to take a look at the beautiful building from the inside. We climbed the top for a nice bird’s eye view of the area. Museums can be wonderful, but they can also fill your mind with
confusion, seeing so many impressive impressions in such a small amount of time. That’s why it is important to balance museum time with
outdoor time. We spent a couple hours of our time enjoying some of the
impressive architecture of the surrounding area.

After admiring the Palace of Communications and City Hall, we took a look at the Plaza de Espana, where the most recognizable feature is the huge stone obelisk. The Spanish author Cervantes is seated in front of the obelisk, looking as though he is dreaming an impossible dream. In front of Cervantes, just below him, are his most beloved characters: Don Quixote on Rocinante and Sancho Panza on his donkey.

Another impressive building (among many not mentioned here) was the
Metropolis. Glinting in the sunlight, the bronze designs on the huge dome atop the ornate building is a sight not to miss. And if you’re walking in the city for any amount of time, chances are, you won’t miss it.

For lunch, we had tapas at a Cervicera, or a bar-restaurant, where we enjoyed some jamon (ham) sliced right off the pig’s leg, on display atop the bar. This seemed to be common at a number of bars, cafes, and restaurants—ham hocks, hoof and all, decorating bars and tabletops. Along with baguettes and soft goat cheese, we drank house wine and beer.

We ended the day in the same mode that opened it: with time well-spent in a museum. Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s (and the world’s) largest art museums, with the world’s biggest collection of Spanish paintings. Dominating the museum are the works of Velazquez, Rubens, El Greco, and Goya. (We met two of them before even entering the palace, Goya and Velazques immortalized in statuary.) There are said to be more than 8,000 paintings at the Prado. Only about a fifth of them are on display. But that fifth could take days to properly take in. We didn’t have days, we had hours. But we managed to walk through most of it in the limited hours we had, and we paid special attention to the paintings that interested us most.

El Greco is well represented at the museum. One of the most notable paintings: the Adoration of the Shepherds, a dramatic work with somewhat surreal figures in vivid colors that pop within the dark framework of the picture. The painting was intended for his own funerary chapel. In this painting, and most of El Greco’s work, one can see why he is held apart as a unique artist; unlike most of his contemporaries, he uses elongated, somehow ghostly figures who make up with vibrant color contrasts what they lack in proper dimension.

There are a great number of paintings by Rubens at the Prado, including The Three Graces, one of the last great masterworks by the Flemish painter—originally from his own personal collection. Another interesting depiction is The Birth of the Milky Way in which our galaxy is created with breast milk. Of special interest is the El Bosco (Bosch) painting, The Garden of Delights. The enormous painting shows people falling into their desires, illustrated on three panels. One panel seems to be heaven, the other hell—and in between, people in a Garden of Eden-esque setting having fun. What many viewers may not realize is that the work has yet another panel: the two side panels close over the middle garden to show the garden encircled in a sphere, seeming to be closed for the night.

The Velazquez collection is perhaps the most impressive of the Prado. His contemporaries, like Manet and Giordano called him the “painter of all painters” and his work “the theology of painting.” My favorite Velazquez at the Prado is Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honor. This work is an experimentation of perspective: a portrait of the king and queen of Spain in which the subjects are barely noticeable—unless you know where to look for them. They are in the mirror on the wall behind the painter (in self-portrait), as though the viewer of the painting is in the position of the king and queen. But it is not a vanity project: the painting centers on the five-year old Infanta Margarita, who looks out at her parents (or the viewer of the painting) as her ladies in waiting tend to her. It is an interesting examination of perspective.

And then there are the works of Goya. Of note is the set, The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, each showing the painting’s subject in the exact same pose, one clothed, the other nude. The latter Maja is regarded as one of the most famous nudes in European painting. Maja seems a content character; in fact, a number of Goya’s works are happier ones: The Parasol, and The Pottery Vendor, for example. But most of his best-known works are of a darker nature. The Third of May 1808 is one of his most well-known paintings, depicting the shootings on Principe Pio Hill. It is displayed next to The Second of May 1808, depicting the charge of the Mamelukes. These less delightful paintings are located just outside a room that houses Goya’s Black Paintings.

Goya’s “black paintings” depict the dark mood he was in during his later years of life. Totaling 14 paintings, they were originally frescoes he painted on the walls his own house, Quinta del Sordo, or Deaf Man’s Residence. The home was named after a previous resident who was deaf, but Goya himself was nearly deaf as well. Although the black paintings were not exactly intended as a series, they share some of the same unique qualities: the large paintings are somber, irreverent, and bitter, dealing with, misery, sickness, corruption, and death. At the time of their creation, from 1819 to 1823, Goya was in a dark mood himself, fearing death or lunacy. The paintings were for his own use, not intended for public display. He did not even title them himself; the titles were attributed by art historians after Goya’s death. To stand inside the room, surrounded by the dark paintings, is depressing, the weight of them on your eyes. It is hard to imagine that this is what the artist decided to surround himself with day in and day out at his home.

One of the brighter of the black paintings is Dog Drowning. Some of the darker ones include a horde of witches in the night huddled before a he-goat, and child with similar, monstrous features before them; Two Men Eating Soup shows two crazily smiling men at a table with bowls, one of them looking like nothing more than a skull in the shadows.

The painting of Men Reading seems somehow tuned into death. An old, bearded man sits with a printed page and other men gather closely around him, looking at the paper. One of them looks pleadingly to the sky, as though praying desperately. Certainly it could not have been the artist’s intention at the time, but in today’s age of the ailing printed page it almost seems to predict the demise of the printed book in an age preoccupied with screens and electronics. As a companion to Men Reading, Ladies Laughing depicts a group of old women mocking a subject. Who are they mocking? Undoubtedly the men who are reading.

It was in this pit of darkness that we met up with the husband of Cybel, the goddess who welcomed us to Madrid on her lion-drawn chariot. Saturn’s painting is probably one of Goya’s most well-known. Saturn Devouring his Son depicts just that: the beastly god devouring his own son, his hands brutally digging into the man’s back as though into crust of a blood-red cherry pie. It is a troubling painting, but Saturn, for his terrible deed, actually looks pathetic, crazed, and you almost feel as sorry for the monster as the victim. Saturn is, after all, only eating his son because he fears his own loss of power, because he is plagued by the universal fear of growing old. A person could age just examining the troubling paintings in the room. But that is what makes them fascinating, and well worth examination. It was getting dark when we left the Prado. It was time for some red wine and tapas before heading back home to Puerta del Sol.

Europe’s Largest Palace

Our tour the next morning was a little cheerier. Our breakfast consisted of hot chocolate and churros. Curros are much like the
binges of New Orleans only without the messy powdered sugar—deep fried dough, crispy on the outside and still a little wet and gooey on the inside. The hot chocolate was hardly a drink, being so thick it was like pudding. We actually ate it with a spoon, and followed this sweet treat with a cup of coffee. Palacio Real, Madrid’s marvelous Royal Palace, was designed and built with the purpose to outdo the Louvre in Paris. It stands as one of Europe’s most impressive works of architecture.

About half of the state apartments are open for public viewing, which makes it a popular place to visit. That’s why we got there early, about half an hour before the palace opened. Waiting in the short but growing line was actually fun. We were graced with the impressive views of both the palace and, across the courtyard, with the Almudena Cathedral, which we would visit after the palace. A group of Spanish nuns collected at the top of the cathedral’s stairs, admiring the decorated doors. They broke into song, singing Spanish hymns for us. Their voices carried across the courtyard and provided a nice, ten minute concert.

Then, a few minutes after they ceased, another entertainment began. Street musicians and entertainers are clever to set up next to long lines, and today’s act made me wonder why they don’t do so more often, given the captive audience. Our street entertainment for the next fifteen minutes of our wait consisted of a master accordion player and a flamenco dancer. They broke into song and dance, perhaps their best number being the bullfighting song, the accordion player even marching in step with the dancing “bull.” Many of us tossed Euro coins into the open container before them. It was one of the only times we were actually a little disappointed to see the line begin to move.

But we were leaving a peasant’s realm for a nobleperson’s. The impressive location has been the site of a royal fortress for centuries, but in 1734, after the previous fortress burned, Felipe V ordered the extravagant palace that stands now. It is still used today by the present king and queen for state functions, although Juan Carlos I prefers to live in a slightly less showy residence outside Madrid. Upon entering the palace through a visitors’ center and gift shop, we exited back into the inner courtyard before stepping into the royal pharmacy. The first few rooms of the pharmacy alone were impressive, each lined with gilded shelves of Talavera pottery and ornate drawers, filled with every imaginable ingredient for a home remedy. But room after room continued, making this what must be the most complete royal pharmacy on the face of the earth. The idea was to have everything and anything that might be needed for any ailment on hand. It seems they succeeded, and the results are still showcased today.

After a tour of the royal pharmacy, we entered the front door of the main palace. In the entrance hall, it’s easy to trip on the marble staircase because you can’t help but stare up at the Giaquinto frescos and decorations all around. In fact, even Napoleon, after setting up his brother in the palace, said, “your lodgings will be better than mine.” Circular windows brighten the large entry with natural sunlight. The throne room is another marvel, and one can imagine the king and queen seated on their scarlet and gold thrones, guarded by the Roman lions of bronze next to each. Just as stately is the enormous dining room, decorated with ceiling frescos, wall tapestries, Chinese vases,
and a vast table for large parties. The hall of columns is another beautiful room, not to mention the billiard room and smoking room. The walls and ceiling of one room are covered entirely with royal porcelain, wreaths and cherubs decorating the walls. One of the most impressive rooms to behold was the Gasparini Room, named after its designer. Used as Charles III’s robing room, the elaborately decorated salon bursts with lavish rococo chinoiserie. Fruit, flowers, and vines encrust the ceiling. The Royal Chapel in the palace is absolutely stunning with its blue and gold hues giving it a cool, reverend look and feel.

After some time in the residence, we exited back to the inner courtyard and then took a tour of the royal armory—showcasing the actual armor worn by Spanish royalty of days gone by, along with weapons and a display of armor that had been damaged in battle. The armory features more than 2,000 pieces and has been open to the public for more than 400 years. Impressive as the armory was, it seemed less so than the palace itself. So, while we were still within the walls, we decided to end our visit to the royal residence with one last stroll through the palace. By this time, a couple hours had passed, so the crowds were thickening. In some rooms, we had to swim through a crowd of people or dodge the loud lecturing of a tour guide. Our first walk through the
palace was the better, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of some of the impressive rooms once more before leaving.

The Santa Maria la Real de la Almudana is the cathedral that stands directly across from the Palacio Real. It is an interesting mix of styles. Unlike most cathedrals in Spain, this Cathedral of Madrid is a relatively modern structure. Dating back to the late 1800s (practically brand new for Spain), the cathedral was still being worked on until 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. When construction began, a Gothic revival style dominated. But when work resumed after the Spanish Civil War, the plans were adopted to reflect a more baroque style, to match the palace it faces. The mosaics and designs inside the church have a modern, almost “pop art” feel to them—and they really do pop!

While tourists may be used to walking into a cathedral and doing a once-around the place, this one is quite different. The tour seemed almost a maze as we went through one section after another, starting in the chapterhouse and main sacristy, then climbing to the balcony for a bird’s eye view of the Royal Palace and a glimpse of the roof-top statues from behind. Then, it was all the way back down into the neo-gothic center, passing through mini museums artifacts of the church and priests as we descend while grand and beautiful, does not exemplify what one will find inside. The unique mosaics alone made our time visiting Cathedral de la Almudana a pleasure.

The Basilica San Miguel, or St. Michael’s Basilica, is just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Palace. When we arrived, we came to find the guard closing the great iron gate as the basilica was closing. Another group of four older people arrived at the same time as we did, from another direction. The guard, a man in his late fifties, smiled at us all, said something we could not quite understand, and extended an open-armed welcome to enter the gate, which he reclosed behind us. Carrying an enormous key ring with equally large keys, he opened the great door to the basilica and allowed us to enter. The cool room was dark when we entered. The guard was kind enough to let us in to enjoy a quick viewing of the shadowed frescos and statues, the painted dome and the circular altar. But after just a few minutes, he ushered us out. We understood that the basilica was closing when we arrived; he was kind enough not to turn away visitors who had traveled far to see the beautiful basilica.

Next, we made our way to another site we were told was not to be missed: the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. The working convent is also an award-winning museum. From what I’d read, it sounded a bit like the Sloan Museum in London: not one of the larger museums, but a smaller collection that is in some ways even more a pleasure to discover; just enough of a good thing without becoming overwhelming. When we arrived to find a long line outside, we decided to wait. To our chagrin, the line was not moving.

As we often do in such cases, one of us remained in line as a placeholder while the other shot to the front to get details on what was to come. We knew ahead of time that they maintained selective hours, only opened a few hours at a time and closing for siesta during the early afternoon. We learned now that they also had timed entries. We had about half an hour until the next group would be allowed inside. We decided to wait. Then the rain came down. The rain in Spain fell mostly on us. We didn’t have our umbrella with us—it had been sunny most of the day—so after a few moments we fled the line and made our way to a nearby restaurant. It was past lunch time anyway; we enjoyed some house wine and tapas as we watched the rain pour.

When the rain stopped pouring, along with the wine, we returned to the monastery only to find that they were “full.” We took this to mean they were full for the moment, that at the next timed entry they would allow us in. So we did some shopping along the nearby pedestrian street where kiosks and vendors sold jewelry, art, and souvenirs. About an hour later, we returned to the monastery for the next timed entry. To our surprise, there was no line. We waited at the front door, closed to us, and stared at the sign that seemed to say the next timed entry was right then. After knocking, a worker told us they were full for the day.

Carefully following the printed schedule we’d found in a tourist publication, we would return the next day when they opened after siesta … only to be told, once again, “we are full.” “Full for the 4:00 timed entry? So we can come back at 5?” “Full for the day. We are full for the day.” So, although we made three visits to Monasterio de las Descalzas, we never actually got in. Yet another reason to return to Madrid … perhaps with a local who can help us navigate the complicated schedule.

After the rain stopped, after our Spanish omelets, cheese, salmon, and red wine, after we were turned away from the convent, we found something right across the street we weren’t expecting: a special Chagall exhibit sponsored by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Fundacion Caja Madrid. The two main floors and several additional rooms were filled with the works of Marc Chagall, the works ranging from the early 1900s to the 1980s. In the collection were large oil paintings, sculptures, and series of engravings. Some of the most memorable pieces included War, Vava, The Red Circus, The Blue Circus, and Dance. Just when the rain and inability to get into the art collection at the monastery were beginning to get us down, Chagall unexpectedly came to the rescue.

After a day of art and palaces, we decided to begin our evening at Plaza Mayor. We’d strolled through it before, just a couple minutes from our own Puerta del Sol. But now, we decided to spend some time there. Vendors beeped and whistled with annoying toys in their mouths and shot lighted rubber band toys into the sky—not five minutes of walking in the square passed without one of them approaching us with a series of beeps and whistles, offering unwanted souvenirs that were anything but Spanish. But ignore that, and you see why the square is a popular tourist attraction. The allegorical paintings on some of the buildings are beautiful. The tile work of other buildings in the square seem to catch the setting sun and rising moon. The equestrian statue of Felipe III at the center of the square is a nice place to stand and look around at all of the buildings surrounding the square.

After getting our bearings, we took to the open hallways along the edges of Plaza Mayor and walked along the shops, cafes, and restaurants. We found a pleasant café that offered perhaps the best tapas we ate in Spain. Instead of going to the sit-down portion of the restaurant downstairs, we enjoyed our red wine and tapas at the classy stand up bar where we could look out the window onto the square. The kind bartender, dressed spiffily in black and white, did not speak any more English than we did Spanish, but he aimed to please, and he even called down to order some special tapas for us when we ordered a second round. Hearty food at a bargain price in a place that felt more formal than fast, the place offered two large open faced sandwiches (enough for a meal) and a glass of wine or mug of beer for three Euros. Two orders, and you feel like you’ve been to a buffet.

Although Madrid is one of the cities where bullfighting is still a part of the culture, it is becoming less accepted by the general public. Indeed, one of the things on our list when we first planned our trip to Spain was to go to a bullfight. It was after we got to know the sport—saw some video and pictures and did some reading—that we decided we didn’t want to go to one. On one hand, it is part of the culture and perhaps no more cruel than how animals are treated on mass-market farms and in slaughter houses. On the other hand, when you see the bulls mercilessly attacked and outnumbered, it can be hard to see it as sport instead of massacre.

So we compromised. Instead of going to a bullfight, we went to Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a bar with a bullfighting theme. Located along inner-edge of Plaza Mayor, this clean, well-lighted place has on display many photographs of bullfighting and a good number of the beaten bulls have their heads mounted on the walls. We had some beer
and perused the photos, one series of stills showing the horn of a bull penetrating below a matador’s jaw and going up into his head, then drawing back out. (He survived to bullfight again!) We were told that one of the bulls on display in the bar was killed during a bullfight that had both Ernest Hemingway and Franco in the audience at the same time—presumably not together. It was here that I enjoyed my first taste of Anise. I expected to enjoy it, since I like licorice as much as I tend to like herbal liquors. Anise is a sort of synthesis of the two, and it went down sweet and smooth. After strolling through Plaza Mayor some moments more, we took the pedestrian street, full of vendors selling everything from painted fans and sunglasses to little statues and jewelry, back to Pueta del Sol.

Before returning to our hotel, we decided to try out a bar we’d passed several times during our visit. The bar was open to the street at one end, as many cafes and bars tend to be, but the interior was rich and lavish with heavy dark woods and decorated with gilded carvings. We started out with a beer and a wine. I wanted to try a few of the drinks we’d been told were well-loved in Spain.

Liquor 45 looked and sounded great. But it seems to have been good marketing. It tasted heavy and sweet, much like drinking a peach schnapps or Kahlua with a few tablespoons of sugar or corn syrup added. Zorco was a little better. It reminded me of the anise we’d had earlier at the bullfighting bar. It was good, although I preferred the anise. When an a couple of expats—a husband and wife who lived in England but spent some time out of every year in Madrid—came to the bar, chatted with the bartender, and walked to an outside table with a specially steamed glass of brandy and a big cigar, I took notice. I’d wanted to try Spanish brandy and hadn’t yet. I struck up a conversation with the expats and asked him to recommend one. “You can’t go wrong with anything on the top shelf,” he said and pointed. “But my recommendation? The 1866.” I ordered a snifter of 1866 Solera Gran Reserva, a brandy produced in La Mancha.

We decided to begin our Sunday morning with a leisurely stroll through the park, so we walked to Parque del Retiro. Once the private gardens of the royal family, it was often used for pageants, mock naval drills, and bullfights. In the 18th century, parts of the park were open to the public, but only for people who were properly dressed in formal attire. In 1869, the park was fully opened; these days you can enter the park in tank tops and flip flops. The people may have dressed down, but the grounds still appear to be dressed up with gardens, trees, and flowers. The Rosaleda, for example, contains more than 100 varieties of roses with a total of more than 4,000 individual roses. Some of the 18 entries into the park are worth seeing, such as the Independence Gate, which is the grandest among them. The Estanque, or boating lake, was one of the first features of the park, finished in 1631. The Palacio de Velazques and Palicia de Cristal are both worth a visit. And the Paseo de las Estatuas, a line of Baroque statues representing the royalty of Spain, makes for a nice stroll. But the park’s most memorable feature is the colonnade: a half-moon of columns at the edge of the lake in front of which towers an equestrian statue of Alfonso XII.

On the way back from the park, we stopped in at Plaza Mayor once again to check out the coin and stamp market—one of the biggest in Europe. The halls that the night before had been full of tourists were now filled with locals trading, buying, and selling collectible coins and stamps. While at the Plaza, we entered the San Miguel Market for a bite to eat. The historic place actually looks like a new market, selling everything from tapas and wine, coffee and churros, to vegetables and deli meats. We settled for a cup of coffee and some churros (sans chocolate) and headed on our way. We weren’t expecting what came next. A distinct whistle shot through the air, as though from a lookout. In an instant, the vendors and their spread-out blankets of goods for sale were no longer there; in their place, people walked around with four-stringed bags on their backs. In an inventive tactic, these not-quite legal vendors had small ropes tied to each corner of the blankets that held their merchandise. Some of them held the ropes discretely in their hands, others had them positioned for quick pick up. At the first sign of the police, it took only a second to whip up the display and go from vendor to backpacker. Mixed in the crowd, once the police arrived, were people with packs
slung on their backs. A few minutes later, once the police had walked on, the vendors were back, their wares displayed on blankets as though they’d never left. We left.

We’re told that a trip to Madrid isn’t complete without a trip to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. As one of the three most important museums in Spain’s capitol, we knew the Reina Sofia was not to be missed. Set in an old hospital, the Reina Sofia has an impressive collection of Spanish art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Picasso’s Woman in Blue, Miro’s Portrait II, and Dali’s The Great Masturbator are among the highlights of the collection. The most important work in the Reina Sofia is also considered by many art critics to be the most important painting of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

It was our last full day in Spain, so it was time to fit in a little bit of shopping for everyone back home. It was Sunday, and we knew what that meant: the busiest and liveliest day of the week at El Rastro. El Rastro is Madrid’s most famous street market, and it has been filling the streets for more than 400 years. Located in one of the city’s oldest working-class neighborhoods, this “trail” is full of kiosks, booths, and street vendors selling everything from homemade puppets and toys to designer sunglasses and purses.

Sunday evening, I had a gig. As part of my book tour for Tracks: A Novel in Stories, I had a reading and social lined up at a bookstore in Madrid that specialized in English-language books. So after we had a nice meal between Plaza Mayor and Peurta del Sol (steak and paella), we headed for Calle del Espiritu Santo for J & J Coffee and Books. Perhaps “J & J Beer and Books” would be a more fitting name. The establishment, with a highly literary crowd, seemed as much bar as bookstore. Patrons sat around partaking in lively discussions about everything from football to literature. That was a good thing.

 

IF YOU GO
A bit of wisdom picked up during the conversation: “What’s for you won’t go by you.” A bit of insight on Spanish literature: “Don Quixote was a jerk!” I discovered, after my invitation to read, that J and J was written up in a several guide books on Madrid and Spain. They were even written up in the New York Times.

Visit J & J Books and Coffee at their website, www.jandjbooksandcoffee.com. You can catch a podcast of what I read to them. A few weeks later, I read the story again on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR. Find the audio reading of “Idle Chatter” at www.tracksnovel.com/radio.html. I sold out of all the books I brought with me, and signed a good number of them. It was a fine way to cap our visit.

 

Late Night Tapas
It was dark out by the time we left J & J Books. Almost as dark as it had been when we arrived in Madrid. We headed back to Plaza Mayor for one last serving of tapas and wine. Then we stopped in at our favorite pub for one last Spanish wine. There wouldn’t be time to stop for coffee at one of our favorite breakfast spots. Our flight was leaving early in the morning and we needed to be there a couple hours early. We needed to catch the bus a good hour before that. This meant getting up around three in the morning. And we still had to pack. So, full of tapas and topped off with red wine, we returned to our room at Hotel Santandar, spoke a few moments with our newfound friend, the front desk clerk from Cuba, and went to our room to pack and
prepare for our return to the United States.