Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) Bar, Brussels, Belgium


Drinking beer out of skulls and setting your beer down on a glass-topped coffin with a skeleton inside. Fluorescent lights that turn white to purple and sinister bathroom doors. A small, almost obscure doorway opening to a dark, narrow hallway leading you inside - this bar was made for Halloween.  

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) in Brussels, Belgium has been parked on a side street off the Grand Place for eons, and it is definitely the tourist trap you read about. But, one beer couldn’t hurt, just for the experience of it all. My flight attendant friend and I ordered up some Belgian Barbãr beers - “The Warrior’s Reward” beer - which were promptly poured into skulls. Tiny place, so we made friends, some Brits out celebrating. 

The bathroom door, with a big headed, minatory skull vacantly staring back at me, made me miss the universal placard of June Cleaver (with devil horns, no less), but I did notice the pink ribbon on the hat and was pretty sure that meant the women’s restroom. I guess I wasn’t the only one confused since a woman came out of the men’s restroom as I exited the women’s, all flustered when she saw me, which just as well could be chalked up to those potent Belgian beers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kyoko and the Sushi Master Tokyo, Japan



When you have to make your way anywhere in downtown Tokyo, by yourself, and do not speak or read Japanese, it feels in that moment that nothing greater will ever test your independent travel mettle the same way. That was exactly my overwhelming feeling trying to find the restaurant Funibashiya, prefecture Shinjuku, downtown Tokyo.

On my way to the well-known Tsunahachi restaurant, housed in a building pre-WWII, I had my subway map, the name of the restaurant and address in Western and Japanese characters, and had to only travel two subway stops. How hard could it be? Very hard from the get go I discovered as I tried to buy my subway ticket at the machine for the Manarouchi line. Even in English, I could not find Manarouchi. As I struggled to explain this to the subway station attendant, I heard the utmost angelic voice say in flawless English, “May I help you?” I turned around to see eye for eye the absolute largest brown eyes I have ever seen in my lifetime literally inches away from me, staring straight at me. “Hmm, yes...” was all I could muster. I stumbled for a moment, looking at this creature with the saucer sized eyes framed by pigtails and realized this beautiful young Japanese girl would help me get my ticket for the Manarouchi line. Her two years of living in Toronto as a teenager was paying off for me now. 
Kyoko & me in the Tokyo subway station 

As I showed this Japanese beauty named Kyoko where I was going, she asked the station attendant to purchase my ticket for me, and since she was going the same way on the same subway line, she would make sure I got off at the right stop. I told her I was venturing out on my own for dinner, away from my crew, and going to Tsunahachi restaurant since I had read it served fantastic tempura. She offered her favorite place for tempura, a place she and her mother went to often, and had eaten at just a few days before that was near Tsunahachi. Kyoko believed Funibashiya was a better, more local, restaurant and felt sure I would enjoy it. She gave me directions, and as easy as it sounded at the time, the nano-second I exited the subway stop, I knew finding Funibashiya was going to be nothing short of a challenge. It took me asking the police, many strangers, a re-tracing of my steps, and a heavy dose of feeling overwhelmed and helpless among the shoulder-to-shoulder rush-hour crowds and neon lights flashing everywhere to find this restaurant. At one point, I just stood on the street corner, feeling utterly at a loss, thinking at least I know how to get back to the subway.

When I finally found Funibashiya, the hostess motioned for me to sit in the back room. I took one look and motioned to her I didn’t want to be relegated to the back room of tourists and the like. I wanted to sit up front, near the Sushi Master, and be a part of the Japanese crowd eating dinner. With a pause she relented, and I sat to the left of an older couple who I intently followed through dinner, doing everything they did. The Sushi Master scowled at me and made sure I knew he didn’t like having me seated anywhere near him. 
The older man watched me struggle to figure out the correct protocol for chopsticks, table seasonings, sides for my tempura, pots of broth, and hand towels. Even though this was far from my first time eating in a Japanese sushi restaurant (okay, first time in Tokyo) and I am near deft at eating with chopsticks, I have never sat at the elbow of the Sushi Master. My older gentleman friend explained to me in passable English my accompanying side dishes and sauces, saying “...and you mix here, with this (pointing to one of the sauces he had poured into my dish). I pointed to his plate and said, “But you didn’t mix yours!” which made him and his wife roar with laughter. Even the Sushi Master cracked a smile. 
When my eight piece tempura dinner of shrimp, pumpkin, onion, Chinese eggplant, mixed vegetable/shrimp, and fish, was finished, the Sushi Master motioned to me; the elderly couple next to me said, “Sushi Master say your tempura over.” I finished my Kirin beer, and as I stood up to leave, I thanked the older gentleman and his wife for their graciousness, and I thanked the Sushi Master with a slight bow and arigatou gozaimasu. This time he smiled.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealing Beauty from Bellagio - Varrena, Italy


Quaint and romantic, Vernna sits on a point on perennially beautiful Lake Como, across from the lovely, larger town of Bellagio, with ferries running daily in the high season to and from. Easy to enjoy, this is the perfect day trip from Milan. Varenna is a romantic, old city, which steps up the hillside it fronts, starting at the water’s edge. Less crowded, touristy, and expansive as the better known Bellagio, it’s breathtaking even more so for this reason. 
My crew members Martha, Gail and I took an afternoon train from Milan’s Centrale station for the 53 minute train ride, passing small coastal towns of Lake Como, having a picnic of Italian wine, cheeses, prosciutto, olives, with a fresh baguette. We got more than one wary glance over from the family sitting across from us. We walked along La Passerella (The Lover’s Walk), a promenade along the water bordered by cypress trees, privacy stone walls of villas overgrown with flowers and ivy, and the lushest hydrangea bushes I have ever seen, outshining those on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the 6 foot tall bushes that grow wild all over Brittany, France. I really regretted not having my swimsuit as I watched locals swim in the water at the small rocky beach along the promenade. At least my feet went in, and if I had not had to make my way back to Milan in the same clothes, I would have dived in.

My dinner entrée at Il Molo of “creamy cheese pasta with ruccula” wasn’t exactly notable, but our waitress made up for that deficit. There were baby blue fleece blankets rolled up and off to the side available to ward off any slight evening chill. With a terrace on the water, at sunset with a slight breeze, life in that moment just didn’t get any more perfect. The day before I was home in U.S.; now I was having dinner at a small restaurant in the Lakes region, on Lake Como, near the southern base of the Swiss Alps.  

After dinner was the requisite stop in any Italian town at the gelateria for gelato, where I had menthe and limone for 1 euro. The early evening sky put on a show for us across the lake with alternating streaks and flashes of lightening, and rolling thunder. We watched and ate our gelato, with the night falling, as the lights of the town glowed golden in the reflection of the water.   

We saw only a small fraction of what is the heart of old Varenna, leaving the Villa Monastero, Piazza San Giorgio, Castello di Vezio, and the many hidden gems along the narrow steps and alleyways for another day. Having started late in the afternoon, our day was pinched; Varenna is easy to fully experience in a day with an earlier start.

Waiting at the train station (on marble benches no less) for our 9:37 pm train back to Milano, it was after 10:00 pm when a train in the opposite direction stopped in Varenna.  I asked the train conductor about the train we were waiting for, and with a shrug of her shoulders and hands up in the air, she just smiled, titled her head, and said, “Sorry, retardo” (late). She shrugged her shoulder again with another head tilt, got on her train as it pulled out of the station, and left me on the side smiling, as I was thinking, well, this is Italy after all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A San Francisco Must-Do: Bike the Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California


Bike riding across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is quite a high and one of the coolest things I have done in the US. One of the most iconic landmarks in the United States, it was pretty intense and exhilarating. It’s a wild, fast ride across the 2 mile bridge, and so worth the day it takes to do it.

With various tour operators offering bike riding across the Golden Gate Bridge, it is easy to get outfitted. We (husband, 14 year old step daughter, and me) chose Blazing Saddles, a play on the title of the 1974 Western spoof movie by the same name, because it was the first one we saw when our taxi dropped us off at Fisherman’s Wharf (Bike & Roll is another good company to use). The college-aged employees mostly hailed from Ireland, in the US for school and summer jobs. They talked fast, showed us the map, and got us on our “Deluxe Comfort Mountain/Hybrid” bikes which they suggested as the best bike for the bridge crossing. The tour company offered ten different bikes total, even tandem bikes. 

We felt like San Franciscan’s as we headed out from Fisherman’s Wharf and passed beach-goers, runners, joggers and bikers, locals walking their dogs, lots of BBQ’s and picnics (a two-year old’s birthday party at one of them), and local pickup games of football and soccer at Crissy Field. A velocity of people, all mixed in enjoying the outdoors - that’s California.

The temperature was no higher than 63 degrees that day; even the locals admitted it was unusually cold for being summer. The bike ride was relatively easy up to the bridge, with different points along the way to stop for photo ops. In particular, at the National Park Service’s “Warming Hut”, which was perfect timing, and a needed respite to grab that last cup of joe before heading up the winding hill to the entrance on the west side for the bike crossing. Only in California, the hot dog stand next to the Warming Hut sold “No Antibiotic, No Hormones” hot dogs, touting it’s “free range” status.

Once we started on the bridge, it was an impressive site to see the support pillars reaching upwards into the fog, the stark color contrast of rust and grey. The massive size is daunting, and everyone stops to take pictures at the base of the pillars, steeling themselves against the wind. The Bay below was a swirl of celadon colored energy with white caps, with cliffs of black boulders on each side. Suspended high above San Francisco Bay at 220 feet (67 m), the water looked beautiful, but nonetheless menacing. And I am not even afraid of heights.

I wonder how people climb the cables of the pillars and not be blown away? The constant buffeting of the wind and the roar of eight lanes of constant car, tour bus and truck traffic was deafening. (which is a pretty big challenge for little kids considering the height, total distance, stiff winds, voluminous pedestrian traffic crossing the bridge in both directions). When we stopped to take pictures, the wind would about blow us and our cameras away - it was tough to hear and even tougher to smile with what felt like a million little cold needles pounding our faces. Perpetual mist driven into every pore by the wind. Many tourists had little kids with them biking across the bridge - a quick way to see what a kid is made of.

Repeatedly we heard “it’s sunny on the other side”, and sure enough, it was. Sunny, saucy Sausalito awaited on the other side, the once, long ago, sleepy romantic getaway for San Francisco honeymooners and day trippers from across the Bay. This day, Sausalito was overrun by the bike riding tourists; it was keenly obvious the locals were in hiding. Even the tiny Vina del Mar park, a mini Mediterranean styled park in the center of town, flanked by two cement elephants from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Games held in San Francisco, was surrounded by tourists. Sausalito is a picture perfect, and expensive, little town, staring across the Bay at San Francisco. As Carl Nolte, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in an article about Vina del Mar in 1996, Sausalito is “...like living in a postcard.”

On the Sausalito side, we had every intention of seeing the “tallest trees in the world”, the California Redwoods, at the Muir Woods National Monument, (9 miles from Sausalito), and then on to the cute town of Tiburon, catching the ferry back long before the last one departed at 8:00 pm. The only way to accomplish such a ambitious 1-day journey would have been to start when the bike rentals opened at 8:00 am. Hit up a grocery store, pack some snacks, water, wine, and lunch and really enjoy the ride as an all day adventure, and pack it all in, all the way to Tiburon. We realized this about 4:00 pm, when we were just getting something to eat in Sausalito at the swank Italian trattoria Poggio, and hadn’t even begun to see anything beyond the town. We headed back on the 7:00 pm ferry.

Such an iconic landmark; now I will be forever looking at the Golden Gate Bridge differently, knowing how biting the wind is in August, how cold the mist that pounded my face, how stable the suspension bridge is in the perpetual wind, and how insanely high it is above the white caps below. 


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Teatro Colón – Buenos Aires, Argentina


The Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, built in 1910, is world renowned, and has showcased the stars of the opera world over the course of it’s history: Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas – and more.  All have all performed at the legendary Teatro Colón.  Coming off of a 10 year, $100 million (USD) renovation, which saw the Opera house shuttered completely for four years from 2006-2010, the century old Opera House shines its brilliance once again.
After a false start a couple of months ago when I tried to take the tour ($110 pesos/$25 USD), and was told the stage would not be seen on the tour due to a performance taking place that afternoon, I deferred my tour until my next trip to Buenos Aires.  After such extensive renovations, done in three stages, I wanted to get the full tour.  The acoustically perfect performance stage had been overhauled to pitch perfection; I did not want to miss this vital part of the renovations, and heart of the opera house.
Our group’s tour guide, Carla, was informative and engaging.  Standing in the intermission hallway, under busts of Mozart, Bellini, Bizet, Beethoven, she burst into operatic stiletto, smiling wirily at our surprise. (She is a student at the School of Opera, and all tour leaders attend the school).  Carla exhibited a cultural pride that floated on her words of the history and romance that is part of the Teatro Colón opera house.
Underneath the four busts is the sinewy marble statue, “The Secret”.  Two fingers of Venus were broken off somewhere along the way in the transport to Argentina from Italy (where the exquisite statue was carved on commission), and having been shaped from one single piece of marble, consequently the broken fingers were not to be replaced  So fine is the attention to detail, Cupid’s hand shows a soft, indented impression on his mother’s thigh, as he leans up to whisper in her ear.  Cupid is telling his mother a secret: whose heart he is going to shoot his bow of love through during intermission, as elegantly dressed men and women stand nearby, sipping champagne.
Four different marbles, ranging in colors from gold to copper to rust to dark green, resonate throughout the interiors. The Gold Hall, painted in 18K and 24 K gold, also used during intermission, hosts chamber concerts, and was modeled after the interior of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, embellished with furnishings from Paris.  Students who are to perform for the first time on stage must first present themselves in concert in The Gold Hall.
Again the pride from our tour guide as she swished back the red velvet curtains to the entrance for the concert hall.  Sultry Argentine beauty, red velvet saturation, turn of the 19th century, Dr. Zhivago, all rolled into one as we walked in to sit in the patrons chairs.  Concert boxes for the President and Mayor of Argentina, and Buenos Aires, respectively, were opposite us.  The VIP box at mezzanine level where we were gathered, and which is sold to ticket holders (the public) for $1500 pesos, is identified with the Coat of Arms of Argentina at the front. Our lucky day as a ballet performance was rehearsing.
The influence of Milan’s La Scala and Paris’s Opera House is evident throughout, yet Teatro Colón shines as its own beauty, especially at night, reveling in its status as one of the top five opera houses in the world.


(Originally published on LayoverTips.com July 21, 2012)


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cal Pep Restaurant - Barcelona, Spain


Dubious is an understatement when it comes to how I feel about going to a restaurant that is “outed” - Michelin stars, guidebooks and New York Times write-ups - since the quality decreases, prices increase and it is overrun with tourists. That was my thought bubble exactly the night three crew members (Diane, Debbie and Dee) and I went to Cal Pep for dinner in Barcelona.

The week prior, Debbie had gone to Cal Pep, and loved it so much, she insisted we go this trip. I was going to hold her feet to the fire over this one, especially since we had to queue up at least one hour ahead of the restaurant opening to be sure we were in on the first round of seating at the tiny counter where all the major action happens. Those in first were able to sit at the bar and be entertained by the perpetual motion and activity of Mr. Pep himself. The best way to describe chef Pep is to see his caricature on the restaurant’s website in the likeness of the Greek god Poseidon, chef Pep wearing his trademark eye glasses and a crown, wildly riding crustaceans for his chariot through the waves, a trident speared with an olive, of course.  Even the restaurant’s business card is Cal Pep in his trademark eye glasses and chef’s jacket hoisting platters of fish above a scene of The Last Supper with Jesus and his twelve faithful disciples. The caricature drawings line the wall where patrons wait for open seats at the counter, the glass door on the side of the tiny restaurant, and even the brown paper bags that rest over the top of the wine bottles seated at the tables in the back room.

We were too far back in the line to get a table at the counter and were offered seating in the back room. This room was the intimate and romantic dining room with walls of wine racks up to the ceiling stuffed full of red wines, exposed brick walls, and a ship’s galley door separating the rooms. We were all alone, eating too early for the Spaniards who avoid the counter.

We were told by our waiter who spoke minimal English we would each pay 25.  Then came the tapas: a total of eight in all. Certain choices on the menu change daily depending on the daily catch. First up for us though was a round of cold, locally brewed Estrella Damm beers.  Our waiter started us with some of the restaurant standards: pa de coca (the equivalent of Italian bruschetta) and truita trempera (Spanish omelette), which was so fresh the eggs didn’t dominate the taste the way it is often is the case in sub-par tapas restaurants. The xpirons amb cigrons (baby squids with chickpeas) came in a black cast iron pan that enhanced the smoky, deep flavor (just like the regional foods of my hometown in south Louisiana such as gumbo and cornbread).  

Photo courtesy of Diane Levinson @www.merci-paris.com
Next came calamar fregit (fried calamari), which were fried with a very light touch, and cloises amb perni (clams with ham). The carxofes (artichokes) were simply delectable, not the least bit salty or mushy. With this amount of seafood there is always the danger being over salted to a point of ruination which is quite the contrary at Cal Pep. The one food that we fought over the most for the last bite was the pebrots del padró (Padron peppers), lightly sautéed in olive oil with a smidgeon of salt. Retaining their bright green color, these small, green peppers burst with flavor, not heat, and are worth returning for!   

I am going back to Cal Pep, and I plan to be out there waiting with the tourists to get a seat at the counter to watch Cal Pep himself in action. And this time, I want to order dessert with a cup of café con leche, as surely the desserts are as savory as the tapas. A perfect ending to dishes that surprisingly stand up to the glowing write-ups.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Buena Vista's Irish Coffee - San Francisco, California


When I was buying Irish coffee mugs for my flight attendant friend from Ireland who was getting married, I wanted to find an exceptional recipe to include with the gift. (I ended up buying a book instead about speciality coffees). In my searches, I found the location of The Buena Vista in San Francisco, which brought over the Irish coffee via an international travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who had been served this coffee at the Shannon, Ireland airport in the early 1950’s.

This is a perfect drink for the often blustery, fog-shrouded City by the Bay. The recipe calls for one full jigger of Irish whiskey, which even though it is poured into the coffee and is drunk though the cream that floats on the top, the first pull will let you know this drink means business. After my first sip, feeling the power of the Irish whiskey over the coffee and cream, I wondered how many patrons have sat on the same barstool I was sitting on and after a few of these potent coffees, ended up on the floor at some point.

The Buena Vista had a fair mix of locals and tourists; most of the locals sat at the booths while most of the non-residents sat at the bar to have their obligatory one Irish coffee in order to tell their friends and family back home this was checked off of their to-do list. I watched the musical chairs of customers rotate filling the seats at the bar, then head across the street to jump on the famed cable car for the ride to Union Square. There is no doubt, if I lived in San Francisco, I could easily become a regular drinking these hot toddies. Mine seemed to disappear way too fast.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Confiteria Anahid - Buenos Aires, Argentina




There has yet to be a time I have been in the Confiteria Anahid bakery on Hipólito Yrigoyen street and not seen a line inside of customers waiting to place an order. I always have to pull a numbered ticket from the red machine. Being that I am not versed in my numbers in Spanish, I have to watch which paper numbers are impaled on the metal stick to know when its my turn that is called. It is an even divide between patrons buying pastries, and those purchasing empanadas. I buy both - every time.




Often by 2:00 pm, most of the empanadas are gone: the spinach and onion, the jambon y queso, the plain jambon. I have eaten these filled puff pastries in Spain, in Puerto Rico, and in Miami, and in Buenos Aires. None compare to these at Confiteria Anahid. Located on a street corner in San Telmo, the outside of the bakery, with its sheaths of wheat logo painted in red, is quite the antithesis of the pretty patisseries of Paris, but it’s front belies these empanadas inside that are worth traveling across the city for if necessary. On my last flight from Buenos Aires back to JFK, one of the Spanish speaking flight attendants on my crew took one look at my empanadas and tried to talk me out of having them at all costs, saying that by looking at the texture of the pastry and the consistency of the filling, he just knew these empanadas were excellent. He quickly wrote down the name of Confiteria Anahid. 

As much as I love the empanadas, and I buy two for every 10 hour all-night flight back to JFK from Buenos Aires that I work, it is Confiteria Anahid’s chocolate dulce de leche cookies that have me singing their praises. Yum-YUM! If I could buy all of them in the case, I would; like the empanadas, often when I get there, most of these off-the-chart cookies are sold out. The smooth texture, the luscious and creamy flavor of milk and caramel, the freshness of having been baked that morning - unbeatable!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Trattoria der Pallaro – Rome, Italy


Most everything seems to be about a stone’s throw away in central Rome – restaurants, outdoor markets, Roman antiquities. Located near one of Rome’s most famous markets, Campo di Fiori, is a simple, rustic restaurant, Trattoria der Pallaro.
A pilot recommended this restaurant to a flight attendant on our crew, swearing up and down anyone she took there would love it. He emphasized being hungry on arrival, since plate after plate of food is brought to the table. Patrons eat what is brought to the table, which seems to be the restaurant’s traditional fare. The three of us from my crew were the second patrons to sit down, and the last to leave that seating general seating of patrons, pacing ourselves through the multiple plates of food that continued to arrive.








Within moments of sitting down on the enclosed terrace, we were asked, “Vino rosso or blanco?” Vino rosso!  And immediately arrived a pitcher of red wine, with sparkling water.  Then the food started: the ubiquitous basket of fresh baked bread, sliced fennel in vinegar and salt, green olives, sliced prosciutto and salami, a bowl of lentils, arancini rounds and Italian falafel, fresh mozzarella balls, pasta with pancetta, sliced veal au jus, and after all this – handmade potato chips.
To cap it all off, next was a slice of baked lemon cake straight from the black, cast-iron pan, an ideal dessert for a Roman dinner in the summer, accompanied by a shot of Fragioli, a wild strawberry liqueur.
Serving everyone was “Momma”, the essence of Italian grandmother (might have been great-grandmother in this case), who looked the throw back to WWII Italy – a little rough and poor, but with a gregarious and infectious smile of happiness and joy of life that dispelled any other notion.  With a kerchief on her head and apron around her waist, smiling broadly, she was giving friendly hugs and pats to the mostly local crowd of diners.
I thought I was going to roll right out of the restaurant at the thought of so much food. But the servings were not of copious amounts, and shared amongst the three of us, and pacing ourselves, I was able to have a little bit of everything, and feel satiated. Was this the best restaurant I have been to in Rome? No. But it is good? Absolutely. And you can’t beat the local Roman ambience, including the framed picture of the Pope over the bathroom door.
When the bill came, we each paid 25€. Trattoria der Pallaro is tucked away, but is worth finding when you want to feel like part of the neighborhood.







(Originally published on LayoverTips.com June 22, 2012)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Coffee, Chocolate & Churros – Barcelona, Spain


Getting a good cup of Spanish coffee at Buenas Migas the afternoons of layovers is a standard for most of my fellow crew members; the coffee shop is out the back door of our crew hotel. But, like Americans who can’t live a day without their skinny, grande lattes at Starbucks, the price of this expensive layover coffee starts to add up. My alternative has become the coffee at the local Caprabo grocery stores’ bakery for just 1€. It doesn’t come in a fancy labeled cup, but it is good, and that is what I want. The bakery has a tempting selection of pastries in the cases and fresh baguettes in the baskets behind the counter. I pair my cup of coffee with a pain au chocolat, and I am set for the afternoon. With three other flight attendants on my last trip to Barcelona, after we had coffee and pastries at Caprabo, we headed for the Barri Gothic, the original city of Barcelona.









I was quickly detoured by the inviting, old world entrance of a chocolate shop in the old quarter of Barcelona. Walking through the doors ofFargas, the smell was of truffles, and cocoa powder. One of the other flight attendants Diane, and I, each picked out some truffles – it was a quaint selection, but it filled the tiny glass cabinet. The proprietor wrapped our individual pieces in small bags, smiling broadly, not understanding one word of our English. I couldn’t wait to try mine, and as soon as I stepped outside, I plucked one of the truffles out of my tiny bag and stood there amongst the crowds thinking how much I love the Spanish for their love of chocolate.










It didn’t take us long to be detoured once more by a small gem deep in the Barri Gothic: an box of aXurreria on Carrier dels Banys Nous tempting passer-by with smells of hot bread and melted chocolate. Seeing the churros piled up in a tiny window was temptation enough, but locals popping in and out with a fixed determination of destination was conviction enough for us, this was where we should eat churros. Behind the small counter, the owner was scooping up the fried dough out of the deep fyers and plopping them in paper cones. With a quick twist of his hand, he threw sugar over the hot churros before handing them over. Piping hot, perfectly formed, and sprinkles of sugar – we dived in, and just as quickly they were gone. It didn’t take but two seconds for one of us to get out another5€ to get a second order.  Standing out front of the Xurreria, we knew we didn’t want to ruin our appetite for our dinner, but as far as we were concerned, it would have been well worth it!  These churros were deliciously fresh, and plump in size; the best I have eaten in Barcelona.
An afternoon in Spain sipping and savoring coffee, chocolates and churros. !Buen apetito! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

ONE DAY IN BUDAPEST, HUNGARY


When you get only one day in a city as sublimely beautiful as Budapest, especially as a crew member, this becomes a “see you at pick up” layover. My very senior crew (40+ years of flying...) wanted to do only two things: stroll through the village leading up to Fisherman’s Bastion, and eat dinner at Café Kör. I, on the other hand, wanted to do everything. I wasn’t sure I would be back to Budapest any time soon, so I opted out of the crew plans for the layover and hit the ground running. Driving along the Danube river on the crew bus the morning of arrival, looking at the beauty of Buda through rain streaked windows, I knew this was a layover that was going to be short on sleep.  

Budapest is a deceivingly vast city, and undeniably breathtaking. The former Royal Palace of the Hapsburg kings (Buda Castle built in 1265) looms in grandiose style at the peak of Castle Hill, high above the Danube; Pest is gifted with the striking Gothic Revival style of the Hungarian Parliament building, hugging the Danube in dominant fashion.  

The Danube is wide and flowing, with its flat bottom boats and barges moving like chess pieces up and down the river. The afternoon proved sunny and warm; I walked as much was possible in my limited one day layover. I started my afternoon making the trek across the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge to catch the Castle Hill funicular up to the Royal Palace. The amount of pedestrians, bike riders, tourists, cars, and photographers on the Chain Bridge was constant movement. Crossing the bridge and seeing Budapest’s sweeping beauty was exhilarating, intoxicating - the beauty of is, at every turn, astounding.

My dinner at Művész Café ("artist café") 

was as old world Hungarian as I could hope for. This traditional coffeehouse, wrapped in dark wood, baroque, chandeliers, and red velvet was a reflection to 1898, the year it opened. It was easy to envision dark suits and bustle dressed patrons sitting all around me, conferencing over coffee their vision of the future that I am a part of in the 21st century. My dinner entree of fettuccine alfredo was colored with a few red-ripe tomatoes and slices of shaved parmesan cheese. I picked a light, crisp rosé wine to savor with my fresh pasta - a dinner and drink the anthesis of traditional Hungarian sustenance.  I am convinced the pasta was hand rolled and prepared the minute I ordered as it was as near perfect and fresh as I could wish for in Rome. I ordered an Irish coffee afterwards, and with the first deep pull wished I ordered three more as it was also - perfect.  I asked the bartender about walking back to my hotel alone along Andrássy út (avenue), late on a Sunday night. He assured me I would be fine and confidently waved me on, with a broad smile, and he was right.  

The cafés along the river boardwalk were full of life and patrons, even at midnight, having their last bites of dinner or sips of coffee. I walked in solitude; the cool, evening weather and ambiance transported me to a Budapest that had in earnest shed the shackles of Communism.  I listened to laughter and conversations, and walked beside couples holding hands.  

As much as I tried to pack into my one day, I didn’t even make it to the many of the major sites: the Gellért thermal baths, the Gellért Hill cave church, the Freedom statue, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Parliament, a glass topped/flat bottom boat ride, the Great Market Hall food market, a Tokaji Aszú wine tour, or Margaret Island. Not even a bike ride along the Danube. But, I did see the Art Nouveau artistic and architectural renderings of the Gresham Palace (now a Four Seasons Hotel), the majesty of St. Stephens Basilica, listened to a violinist playing in front of the Royal Palace-Hapsburg gate, a Pest man showing his British girlfriend the view of his city from the Castle Hill funicular, and in a serendipitous moment, a young couple kiss with a view of Parliament behind them. 

The pictures are really the story as Budapest is a city rife with iconic images, a photographer’s dream.