Monday, February 18, 2013

10 Japan

No Uno House!
We loved Japan when we visited the first time in October 2009 so we knew at some point a return trip would be in order.  This time we were excited to be free of the $60/day budget from our honeymoon trip.  No nights on the street during typhoons, no subsisting only on bowls of cheap ramen, and no Uno House!  This time we were going to buy a rail pass to explore more cities, stay in interesting hotels, and eat a whole lot more sushi.

We were also able to spend a little more per day while we were in Japan this time around because we were flying for free.  Since the long term solvency of American Airlines seemed to be in doubt, we decided to cash in our frequent flyer miles we’d slowly been accruing one credit card purchase at a time.  We considered a few destinations in Asia to visit using the miles but what finally sold us on Japan was the new nonstop Boston-Tokyo route on Japan Airlines (part of the OneWorld alliance with American Airlines).  No connections plus flying on one of the few new Boeing 787 dreamliners in service?  Sold!  If we had known how many mechanical issues the 787’s would eventually have we undoubtedly would have been far less eager but that is a different story probably not for a different day.

Upon arrival in the land of the rising sun we planned to stay in Tokyo for just a night, so we went with our reliable standby: the Oak Hotel in Ueno.  Not only is Ueno familiar but it is also one of the easiest Tokyo neighborhoods to reach from Narita Airport via the Keisei Skyliner.  At about $25 one way the Skyliner is certainly a little pricey, but the ride is super comfy and takes half the time of most other options.  Once in Ueno, we dropped off our bags in our tiny, spotless room, found some street yakatori, conveyer belt sushi, and had a scenic nightcap at the Sky Room of the Asahi Brewery before finally hitting the jetlag wall.  

The next morning we put our JR Rail Passes to immediate use and headed to Kinosaki.  We took a big fancy shinkansen (bullet train) filled with businessmen to Kyoto and then transferred to the regional line filled with elderly men and women delighted to be off for a weekend getaway.  As they chattered excitedly and snacked nonstop, all we could think was that we were about to see all these people naked.

Katrina ready to spa
Kinosaki is a wonderful little town on the Sea of Japan that has made its mark due to the natural hot springs (onsen) it sits upon.  The whole place is a shrine to bathing and relaxation, and visitors spend their days hopping through town from one onsen to the next in their yukata (robes) and geta (sandals).  Kinosaki is a bonafide tourist destination for Japanese folks from other parts of the country, but buzz regarding the steamy paradise hasn’t seemed to have traveled too far beyond that.  English is scarce and we encountered only one other westerner during our stay.  Which made it awesome.  Though there was certainly a language and cultural barrier, the people in Kinosaki warmly welcomed us to their onsen retreat.  One girls-getaway group even stopped Katrina on the street and insisted on fixing some faux-pas that she’d committed when tying her robe.  Since Katrina clearly couldn’t understand their Japanese instructions they surrounded her and took it upon themselves to redress her from top to toe.  Extreme makeover flash mob edition!

At the onsens, the protocol is that women and men are immediately dispatched to their private side of the spa building.  You then undress and enter a room with a bath in the middle and little wash stations scattered along the walls.  Before entering the steaming waters for a soak it is required that you pull up a stool at a wash station to thoroughly scrub head to toe with soap and then rinse.  Once in the bath it is so hot that you can only withstand 15 minutes before you hop out and find another bath, steam room, or sauna if the spa offers those amenities.  When you are done you dry off, redress, and head to the next spa.  Our personal favorite were the rotenburos, or outdoor baths.  Though it was winter the transition from the chilled December air (naked mind you) made the baths even more inviting, especially coupled with the atmosphere of babbling waterfalls and an occasional snowflake.

One of our favorite parts of Kinosaki was staying at Tsutaya Ryokan.  We had a beautiful, traditional Japanese room with tatami mat floors and futons laid out for us to sleep on nightly.  The highlight of our stay was the elaborate private meals prepared for us every morning and evening. 
Patrick digs in
There must have been at least 10 separate dishes at every meal--not all entirely identifiable, but each prepared elegantly.  They absolutely took care of us at every turn, especially during the crab feast.  Winter in Kinosaki is crab season and a visit to the town is not complete without enjoying crab fresh from the Sea of Japan.  In traditional Japanese fashion this involved enjoying every last bit of the delectable crab, from the mouth-watering crab meat right down to homemade udon noodles and rice immersed in the crab broth.  We were eating crab for hours.
After two days we were feeling incredibly clean and relaxed, so we hopped aboard a train south to Okayama.  Best known, at least to the Japanese, as the setting for the Momotaro folktale, Okayama could be easily overlooked as one whizzes by on the shinkansen to and from nearby Osaka.  The immediate draw for us was Korakuen, one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens.  Though winter is probably not Korakuen at its best, it was still lovely in all its precisely manicured glory.  One could easily spend an entire day roaming the serene grounds, occasionally snacking on kibidango for fuel.  Kibidango you ask?  This peach-flavored mochi-like confection is what the aforementioned Momotaro, or literally translated, Peach Boy, used for sustenance during his epic quest against a band of demons.  So whether it's vanquishing villians or perusing plum trees, kibidango is surely the way to go.  
While in Okayama we also ate delicious ramen at Tori Soba and had an awesome yakiniku experience--where you grill your own meat at the table--at Ichi Ban Kan.  We found Ichi Ban Kan when we were walking down a dark side street and noticed it first for its intoxicating meat aroma and second because it was the first full restaurant we had seen all night.  When we walked in they immediately provided us with a trash bag to protect our jackets from the smoke-filled air.  We were sat next to a table of boisterous and red-faced businessmen who had clearly been eating (and drinking) there for a while.  Then the challenge of the menu: all Japanese and no pictures.  Our waiter found the one person on staff who spoke some English, who then helped us order with descriptions like “gentle taste”.  Beef and pork is what we think we ended up with, though we are not sure about that.  However, we are sure whatever we ate was absolutely delicious!

Cycling the Kibi Plain
We spent a second day in Okayama bicycling through the nearby Kibiji District.  It really was a fantastic way to see the Japanese countryside in a way we couldn’t appreciate chugging through on the train.  Our route took us through endless rice fields to several Buddhist shrines and a gigantic pagoda--and Patrick managed to stay upright nearly the entire time!  That crash course a few years back in Argentina really paid off.  The upside of our journey was we had the route entirely to ourselves but this was mainly due to the downside- it was super cold and windy.  By the time we got to the end of the route we’d turned into popsicles.

Finding ourselves with a few unplanned hours and armed with our rail passes, we decided to check out the nearby town of Kurashiki, famed for its historic mercantile quarter.  About half an hour later we’d determined that historic mercantilism wasn't our thing so we got back on the train and this time took a shinkansen down to Hiroshima.  Though we only had a few hours that was plenty of time to hop on the streetcar and pay a visit to the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park.  Both sites were incredibly moving, especially experiencing them along side Japanese school groups as they paid homage to their fallen ancestors. 

Our next stop on our tour through Japan was Mount Koya: the world headquarters for the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  This small town nestled in the mountains is made up almost entirely of monks and temples and feels about a million miles away from modern civilization.  Upon arriving we took a walk through the darkening woods of Okunoin, a massive ancient cemetery that serves as a prologue of sorts for the main attraction- the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Born in 774, it is believed that Kobo-Daishi never actually passed away but rather sits in an eternal state of meditation in the mausoleum.  As we departed the grounds a thick mist danced with the departing sun's rays.  A more mystical setting we cannot remember.

Besides ancient cemeteries and shrines Mount Koya is known for its countless Buddhist temples that also serve as lodging for pilgrims and other guests like us!  We booked our stay at Shojoshin-in rather easily through Japanese Guest Houses but since we hadn't communicated directly with the temple we weren't quite sure what to expect upon arrival.  Pretty quickly we learned that we were in fact honored guests.  We were warmly welcomed by a soft-spoken, exceedingly polite monk who acted as the host for our stay.  The monks served us an elaborate vegan dinner and upon returning to our rooms hot water bottles had been snuggled into our bedding.  We were invited to join them for morning prayer and they even provided space heaters and optional benches for us visitors.  The monks themselves braved the cold and you could see puffs of their breath with every chant.  Katrina wanted to at least kneel on the ground like the monks and learned that it is not as easy as it looks. When it was time to go she needed a few extra minutes to get feeling back in her legs before hobbling back to our room, and even nursed a prayer injury on her foot for a few more days.

Later that day we traveled back down the snowy mountain to Osaka, and once we arrived it was nearly impossible to imagine that Mount Koya existed in parallel to this buzzing city.  There were skyscrapers, flashing lights, and miles of shopping from international names like Louis Vuitton to local specialties like “Womb”--unexpectedly more for the Abercrombie and Fitch clientele than Pea in the Pod shoppers.  We browsed shops full of colorful wigs and santa costumes.  We ran into a candidate campaigning for the upcoming election.  But after the sun set was when the fun really began.

As a big fan of Vegas and all things gambling, Patrick was dying to hit the pachinko parlors.  Pachinko is somewhat similar to slot machines but there is a small degree of actual skill involved- guiding tiny silver balls into an incrementally less tiny hole.  He put in 500 Yen and almost instantly lost it all.  Then it was Katrina’s turn.  She deftly maneuvered those metallic spheres to their home initiaiting all sorts of lights, music and announcements of “super lucky”.  In the span of 15 minutes Katrina had seemingly turned 500 Yen into 3000 Yen.  We were so excited to cash out!  
Katrina shows Patrick how it's done
However when we brought our receipt to the Chuck E Cheese-like prize area the cashier took a look at our stated winnings and pointed us to a selection of various trinkets and a shelf of uncooled cans of beer to choose from as our prize.  Crestfallen, Katrina selected a room temperature Asahi and as the cashier placed it in a bag he also handed us bars of metal wrapped in paper.  Somewhat confused as to what to do with said metal, we were immediately escorted outside to a small window where a hand shot out.  Our chaperone placed down the metal bars and suddenly appeared 3000 Yen.  Voila!  Turns out gambling is illegal in Japan so this elaborate scheme was invented to circumvent the law.  Slightly crazy, yes.  But totally awesome.

With our winnings burning a hole in our pockets and fueled by the now surprisingly refreshing warm beer, we made a beeline to a karaoke parlor to book a room.  In Japan they don’t make you embarrass yourself in front of strangers, just your friends (think Lost in Translation).  When asked for how long we’d like to book the room, Patrick responded two hours--which Katrina thought was crazy! How would we even fill an hour with just the two of us singing to each other?  But once we got singing (and calling for more food and drinks on our direct phone line to the kitchen) there was no stopping us.  Over three hours and four renditions of Summer Nights later, we had to tear ourselves away.

Katrina's Capsule
That night we slept in private pods at Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi, a capsule hotel.  Basically a modern version of a hostel, each guest is assigned a private pod with its own lighting and TV with shared bathroom and sauna facilities.  In effect a very novel way to provide quality, inexpensive lodging, but hard to get over that it looks like where they keep the dead bodies on Law and Order.

When we were researching our trip to Japan, we were delighted to discover that the birthplace of instant ramen was located just outside Osaka.  In fact we might have planned around that.  The next day we traveled to Osaka's northern suburbs to visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.  After wandering through an unassuming residential neighborhood we knew we were in the right place when we stumbled upon a statue of Momofuku Ando himself, inventor of instant ramen, standing on a giant stone Cup Noodles!

Inside, we learned that this museum was built on the very site where Momofuku Ando first invented instant ramen.  Hundreds of historical Cup Noodles containers lined the walls and a map showed annual consumption of instant ramen around the world.  There were some real surprises--we’re looking at you 1.4 billion-worth Nigeria.  But the main attraction was the “My Cup Noodle Factory” where we got to design our own flavor from 14 optional ingredients, decorate our own cup, and they sealed and vacuum packed the product for us to take home!  There was also a class on making your own instant ramen from scratch, but you have to sign up weeks ahead of time and we missed that memo.  We won’t make that mistake next time!
Patrick makes his Cup Noodles
That night we took the bullet train back up to Tokyo to spend our last night before our flight home to Boston.  During the trip we’d already stayed in a traditional ryokan, business hotel, Buddhist temple, and capsules.   What was left?  A love hotel!  These establishments specialize in hourly stays in themed rooms during the day for couples looking for some privacy.  Since night time is their slow time they offer affordable rates if you check in after 10pm.  We knew we’d found Tokyo’s “Love Hotel Hill” when Patrick was solicited while Katrina checked out a store.

We scoped out a few places and were disappointed not to find a really over-the-top themed place (we’d read about jungles, supply closets, and outer space).  Eventually we settled on a colorful French-designed room selected from a touch screen computer menu in the lobby of one of the dozens of establishments on the hill.  No staff in sight--discretion is key.  We got a ticket with the room number and found it on the second floor.  We cautiously opened the door to find a tiny vestibule with a vending machine-like ticket dispenser.   The real room door was just on the other side. Unfortunately, zero English.  Determined, we left our luggage in the hall and spent close to 10 minutes massaging the machine with random button sequences and the occasional 1,000 Yen note.  To our delight our request was finally processed and the room lights turned on.  But to our dismay we heard the first door immediately lock behind us.  We were trapped, and even worse our luggage was still in the hallway.  We started frantically pressing buttons once again until the door unlocked.  Whew, that was close.  But then the lights turned off and a minute later the phone started ringing.  The genial voice on the other end was surprised we had finished so quickly...turns out we had checked out!  After much discussion they were able to reactivate our room and explain that we were locked in until we checked out.  We're not sure why the Japanese tryst-ers prefer to be trapped in their love nests, but we were just happy to finally be safe and sound in our room.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

10 Madrid, Spain

Twenty Eight. The number of days in February, usually. The number of dominoes in a standard set. And in May 2012 it was the number of months since we had returned from our honeymoon in January 2010. At this point the travel bug was in full viral overload. It was time again for international travel.

Katrina was already heading abroad to visit Ghana as part of a work trip and since she was connecting in Europe it was the perfect opportunity for Patrick to meet her.  There were about 10 possible connection cities and we settled on Madrid because... well, its Madrid.  Who could say no to spending a week in spring under the warm Spanish sun noshing on all the jamon one could eat? Certainly not us.

It was tough to say goodbye to our little man.  Jack was just over one and neither of us had been away from him for more than 2 or 3 days.  Luckily we had grandparents salivating at the opportunity to tend to his every need. And let’s be serious: he was 15 months old--he would've be happy with anyone with an arsenal of bananas and bubbles at their disposal.

The first order of business once we rendezvous'd in Madrid was sleep. Those transatlantic red-eyes are definitely a lot harder the older you get! We made a quick stop at a restaurant across the street from our hotel, Hostal Gala, to chow on a few varieties of pig and then entered a blissful food/jet lag coma. A few hours later were were awoken by bustling activity in the square below.  Though it was 11pm, we pulled ourselves together and hit the town ending up at one of the many nearby outdoor cafes for more ham (sensing a theme) and some cañas, Madrid's ubiquitous offering of draft beer in a small glass to ensure that it is always crispy cold in the aforementioned Spanish sun.


Our first destination while in Madrid was the beautiful Palacio Real. Though the maze through the notable salons of the estate is typical palace fare we never grow tired of the opulent decor and and imagining extravagant soirees of yesteryear that took place in those very rooms.  
Almudena Cathedral
Next stop was the adjacent Almudena Cathedral where we stumbled upon a massive crowd waiting outside as recent La Liga champions Real Madrid blessed the trophy inside. Being a fan of European soccer, it was pretty amazing for Patrick to stumble upon the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Iker Casillas emerging from the cathedral to the roars and swoons of the adoring Madrileños.  

The cathedral itself is definitely worth a visit but two notes of caution. First, if you are expecting an ancient, historic cathedral you are in the wrong place: Almudena was constructed in 1993.  Second, there is a museum entrance directly across from the Palacio that charges admission which we thought was the only way in.  It wasn’t until after we surveyed the museums many many vestments, and took in the view from the top of the Cathedral (Madrid does not need to be seen from above, sorry Madrid but you know it is true) that we realized that there is an entrance on the side of the cathedral that is free of admission charge.  It is worth a look around just to see a modern take on a major Catholic cathedral, flat screens and all.

Madrid is home to impressive art museums including the Prado and the Reina Sofia. We’d read that the Prado rivals the Louvre and Hermitage as one of the best museums in the world--we’re not quite sure its on that level, but the collection is massive and they really do a wonderful job of highlighting Spanish artists like El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez. And if you go after 6pm, admission is free! The highlight for us was the collection of Goya's Black Paintings. The Reina Sofia was a nice change of pace with its modern art collection--and seeing Picasso’s Guernica in person is worth the visit alone.

El Retiro
A great spot to visit in conjunction with the museums is the nearby gem El Retiro. This beautiful park formerly belonged to the monarchy and was opened to the public in the 19th century. A highlight in the park is the Monument to Alphonso XII which is surrounded by a large pond by which you can explore via rowboat. We passed since it was midday and the pond has no shade and instead spent a good deal of our time in the Rosaleda, the park's large rose garden, which was cooler and much more fragrant.

Another outdoor space worth a visit during a longer stay in Madrid is the Casa de Campo. Another piece of former royal land, in this case a hunting estate, the sprawling park is perfect if you are looking to escape the clatter of the city for a little bit. There is a metro stop on the outer edge of the park or better yet there is cable car, that runs from the northwest part of Madrid to Casa de Campo. We are absolute suckers for cable cars and though this one was scary-old and had a cheesy narration during the ride it was fun nonetheless. There is an amazing network of trails both beaten and not that criss-cross the park, perfect for a day of bike riding or a long run as Patrick can attest.

We are sorry to say we had a few sightseeing disappointments during our stay. The El Rastro open-air flea market is billed as a must-visit Sunday morning event, but aside from being massive (it really never seemed to end) we found the goods being sold lacked character and it would be more appropriate for getting your errands done than snagging unique fashion finds or artisan crafts. We woke up early that morning to make sure we could visit before catching our flight home...and rather wish we’d skipped it and maybe enjoyed a leisurely breakfast instead.

We were also none too impressed by Puerta del Sol, a public square that came up in every guidebook. Now this place is probably fantastic when there is a major event or celebration going on. But when we visited it seemed like just a big open concrete space...kind of like City Hall Plaza in Boston. And if we ran into some tourists in Boston we certainly wouldn’t be like, “You know what you really need to check out, City Hall Plaza.  Thank us later.” There are plenty of more alluring small plazas sprinkled throughout the city that would make a more pleasant oasis while sightseeing.

-Bullfight and Soccer Match-

We were lucky to be in town during the festival celebrating Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro, which included bullfights every night at the famed Plaza de Toros. Patrick had perhaps what will go down as his best exchange in Spanish ever at the ticket office with two elderly Madrileños. We were a little concerned before we arrived in Madrid that the bullfights would be sold out, but as Patrick gathered there were tickets available for every night during the festival, albeit some nights were a lot more pricy than others. We opted for the cheapest ticket which was that evening's novillada bullfight, basically novice bullfighters and younger bulls. Despite this we feel like we got the full bullfight experience and even if we didn't it was our first so we didn't know any better.

In our research before the trip we had read that it was common for people to bring in their own picnics so before the bullfight we went to a local market to stock up on beer and ham. We also picked up a bag of sunflower seeds which we found were a very common snack among Spaniards at sporting events.  

Both of us had our reservations about the bullfight....watching an animal be toyed with and subsequently killed seemed like an odd thing to pay to see.  But once the event started those reservations were swept away by the artistry and grandeur of the event.  On the docket were three bullfighters, or torreros, each fighting two bulls a piece.  The first torrero was actually a torrera who was immediately overshadowed by the ineptitude of her henchmen, or whatever the technical term is for the bullfighters assistants.  One had his cape stripped away by the bull and then was chased into the boards and nearly gored.  After a quick leap to safety over the outer boards of the ring the bull then proceeded to roam menacingly around the ring with a unmistakeable aura that read “Who else wants a piece of this?”.  It took 15 minutes for everything to sort itself out....eventually the bull was escorted off to what we hope is a lifetime of safety on a ranch to tell the tale to younger generations of bulls of the night it owned the ring at Plaza de Toros.
Bullfight at Plaza de Toros
The next torrero and his team also didn’t seem up to snuff and as the second intermission began you could certainly tell the crowd was restless. We don't know the first thing about bullfighting (actually, yeah we do....don't get gored) but we could tell that the first two torreros had not performed well. We took some time to scarf down some food during the intermission and it quickly came to our attention that Patrick is not very graceful at tearing bread.  Combined with a slight breeze from our right it resulted in a bread crumb shower for the women seated in front of us and they seemed none too pleased. Americans, right? The worst.

But ineptitude and crumbs were all soon forgotten as one Gonzalo Caballero took the stage for his Plaza de Toros debut.  Decked out in a pristine white and cream traje de luces (“suit of lights”) Caballero’s boyish good looks and silky smooth moves quickly charmed the crowd including Katrina who was suddenly day dreaming of the life of a matador’s wife. Caballero’s maneuvers were precise yet elegant and were met with crescendoing olés after each successful pass of the bull. Once the fervor had reached a peak he plunged his sword into the bull for the kill, the bull’s knees buckled and the matador’s attendants rushed in to finish the job as was needed for the previous two matadors.  But Caballero knowingly waved them off....extended his arm towards the bull and performed some sort of voodoo mind trick that willed the bull to the ground and his ultimate demise. The triumphant matador took a victory lap around the ring collecting bouquets and women’s scarves with which he would swiftly wipe his glistening brow and return to his new devotees.  A star had been born.

Being Spain, Patrick was also very intent on taking in a soccer match while we were there. He was disappointed however to discover that the season for Spain's top soccer league, La Liga, ended the day we arrived. Determined Patrick scoured the internet for alternatives and found that the Liga Adelante was still in season. There are usually a number of teams in this league on the outskirts of Madrid, reachable by the suburban rail network. He settled on AD Alcorcón and though the ticket prices were La Liga prices and the town itself didn't have much to offer, it was still an unforgettable experience as we sang and cheered with the faithful in the diehard fan section right behind the goal.

-San Isidro-

Jack in his best chulapo gear
The actual saint day for the patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro was one big party. Can’t say that we learned too much about San Isidro but we certainly enjoyed celebrating his sainthood.  We started the day by enjoying some tapas on Plaza de Santa Ana, watching families emerge in their chulapo/a outfits, traditional Spanish clothes that are worn on special occasions.  (We made sure to get Jack one before we left). After tapas we found a stage that was hosting concerts with traditional Spanish music and dancing.  We sat back in the midday sun and enjoyed the entertainment as we sipped cañas and our new favorite drink, tinto verano, which translates to ‘Summer Red Wine’.  It is basically a quick and dirty sangria made of red wine, carbonated water and a sugary citrus element such as lemonade.  Mighty refreshing on a hot day. Towards the end of the evening we were riding the metro and noticed the train was unusually crowded. Then we arrived at the Retiro stop and the train became unusually empty. We immediately remembered the old travel adage..."Follow the crowd", hopped off, and secured a prime spot at El Retiro for magnificent fireworks over the statue of Alfonso XII to cap off the day's festivities.


Visiting Toledo is a popular day trip from Madrid...and for good reason. It’s just a half hour direct train from Atocha station to get to this fortified, hillside city full of history and charm. The cathedral is hands down the main attraction and for good reason. Upon entering this gothic marvel one is immediately taken a back by the sheer magnitude of everything inside. Though one could spend hours viewing the altarpiece alone make sure to save some time to explore the various chapels and other rooms as they all have remarkable pieces.

Toledo is also known for being the home of the painter El Greco during his later years and you can find his work scattered around town in the most unassuming places. Our favorite was the magnificent Burial of the Count of Orgaz housed in the Iglesia de Santo Tome. At night, Toledo transforms from a bustling tourist destination into a peaceful little town powered by the hum of the outdoor cafes situated in every nook and cranny of the maze of cobblestone streets. We stayed just one night at the well-located and very affordable Santa Isabel Hotel.

Apparently Toledo is known for its sword construction, so shops really push them as the must-have souvenir. Since we didn’t think we’d make it through airport security, and had no idea what one does with a souvenir sword, we opted for the #2 Toledo item, the Spanish-style almond confection Mazapan. Yum!


La Latina Tapas
Now finely for the main La Latina is Madrid’s go-to tapas neighborhood, so we did it justice with a full-blown tapas crawl. One street in particular, Calle Cava Baja, is tapas joint after tapas joint. We spent two hours walking around, popping into places that were busy and interesting, and filling up on delicious morcillio, patatas bravas, croquettes, and other items whose identity we were unsure of now and then. Thinking we were fully satisfied we started back to our hotel, but 10 minutes later we found ourselves tempted by the Mercado de San Miguel.  The mercado, a modern indoor marketplace, hosts 15-20 vendors serving artisan treats from ham (of course) to flan and other sweets.  We picked up some delectable ham chips and a local favorite, white anchovies.

For a lower key tapas experience, head to the Bodega De La Ardosa: a tiny place on Calle de Colon serving up the best croquettes we had in Spain. If you can’t snag one of the handful of barrel tables in that tiny hole in the wall, walk a few blocks to Lateral for an expansive menu and chic ambiance. We strongly recommend the Pimientos del piquillo rellenos de carne.

Another favorite stop of ours was the chain Cervecería 100 Montaditos, which serves a bevy of a little sandwiches, or montaditos, with basically any combination of fillings you can imagine.  Add some papas fritas and one euro cañas and its the perfect place to finish off a long night of drinking and eating.  Another great place to finish off the evening is at Chocolateria San Gimes, just off Calle Mayor and down the block from a Montaditos; this place has specialized in serving creamy hot chocolate and churros since 1894.  Definitely super touristy but super delicious nonetheless.  And one final shout out to Museo Del Jamon--Madrid’s McDonald’s if you will.  Here the value menu is a must: for a solitary euro you can get a full plate of ham or other tapas favorites.  The place is called Museum of can you go wrong?

One note of caution about restaurant dining: a lot of stuff closes early, even on the weekends.  We were under the impression that Madrid was a 24-hour metropolis where the party never ends.  We basically found the party ends unless you want to go to a club.  On a Friday night around midnight, we were stunned to go from establishment to establishment that was either closed or closing, including Montaditos.  Eventually we resorted to a charcuterie that was closing up shop for some ham and bread and a beer from a man hawking beers from plastic bags on the street.  The bag beer was very satisfying though.  Also the metro doesn’t run all night, we were lucky to catch the last train around 2am one night.  


We spent most of our nights in Spain at Hostal Gala, an incredibly charming little place with big windows looking down on the small square below. This was a great location for sightseeing, eating, and generally accessing Madrid. Don't let the name fool you....all the rooms are private with a bathroom ensuite that has an awesome shower.
Plasma Floor at the Puerta America
We also spent two nights at the very unique Puerta America design hotel thanks to a successful priceline bid. While further out of the city, it was fun to stay in these highly stylized rooms, each floor by a different designer. The elevator would open on one floor to white plastic hallways, the next to a lobby covered in lights. Our floor was 3D, reflective, geometric walls and the room shared the same theme.


Friday, July 2, 2010

5 Freelance Friday: Travels with Vivi, Cambridge Massachusetts

We last left off when the family moved back to the United States from Germany...

In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, George finished his course of duty with the military, and the family returned to his native Cambridge, Massachusetts, where George took a position as a librarian at Harvard’s Yenching Institute. They moved into an apartment in Hammond Street, a unique community of Harvard graduate students and employees, some with young families, and many with international backgrounds--all of them idealistic, intense, and politically engaged. 

The stories of the life on Hammond Street are legendary – the mutual support in times of crisis, the wild and crazy parties, the amount of champagne consumed, the raucous meetings of EOS, Inc, (membership only open to those who do not live up to their potential), and the happy evenings sitting on the stoop with all the neighbors...the list goes on. The small apartment had also, again, become a haven for all who needed a place to stay – recent immigrants and visiting scholars from the Far East, partners during break-ups, children during family feuds, and of course a never-ending series of visiting friends and relations from Europe. Vivi kept the tradition of absolute hospitality alive, as she had learned and experienced herself in Japan. 
The family eventually moved to a new Cambridge home: a coop in Putnam Avenue provided a similar community as the Hammond Street apartment. They soon became a drop-in center for the coop members, and were known for their readiness to provide an open ear to anyone, accompanied by a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day. 

The last three years of Vivi’s life were affected by tragedies: In 2007, George died suddenly of a heart attack, on the day of their 61st (military) wedding anniversary. Later that same year, her oldest nephew sustained significant brain injury in an accident. One year later, her son Jan committed suicide. Meanwhile, it was apparent that Vivi was experiencing progressive stages of Alzheimer's. It is not clear how much she was able to really take in the extent of these sad events.
In her last year of life, she was cared for diligently by her many friends, who enabled her to stay in her house until her death. She enjoyed life to the last moment and reflected on how good it was. She passed away quietly on April 26th, the day of her 64th (church) wedding anniversary, thus bringing to an end a truly remarkable life.

This is the final installment from guest blogger (and Katrina's mom) Kerstin Potter.
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