Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Holy Toledo! (Pronounced TOH - lay - doh)

The traffic and chaos of Madrid slips away on the A32 as we head through the Castillian countryside toward Toledo. (Confessional time, I have chronic travel disease …Autobuscomanus – commonly known as ‘Bus Coma’. It doesn’t matter if I am on a bus going 15 blocks or 150 miles, get me in a warm comfortable bus seat and I am asleep within minutes.  However like the prairie dog who pops up from the earth to check out his surroundings, as soon as I get within a few minutes of arrival I awaken to hear …” And that’s the entire history of Spain (or Greece, or Italy or whatever).  I awoke to see the medieval skyline as it came into view.  We stopped just before entering the city to get a panoramic view. The late November palette of umber, brown and mustard combined to provide an almost golden hue. The almost monochromatic background made the textures of in some cases almost one thousand year old building materials become front and center. The natural materials of rock, granite, brick and wood stood out in the morning sun. Romans, Visgoths, Jews, Moors and the ‘reconquistador’ Christians have all made their mark on this city.
(Pictured Toledo skyline)

We had to approach the city center on foot. Unlike Madrid founded in the 1500s style of wide boulevards that open into a multitude of squares or plazas, Toledo is a rabbit warren of narrow twisting streets. Where each turn provides a new surprise of an amazing door or archway or view of the valley below. After about 20 minutes climb we reached our destination – the cathedral of Toledo an UNESCO world heritage site.  Easily visible from many points, the 13th century cathedral’s spires rise majestically above the rest of Toledo. Our local Madrid guide, Teresa joined my small group to give us insight into the cathedral’s history and art treasures.   One on one time with someone who not only possesses the historical background but the cultural understanding is invaluable to a traveler wishing to not only ‘see’ a place like this but actually experience it.  I have found the right guide is worth the expense.  Catholicism is the prevalent religion for many European countries.  Many guides relying on their own personal experiences expect their audience to automatically understand the Catholic religion.  Teresa our guide made sure as she was explaining the art or history of a chapel or sacristy or baptistery of the cathedral also explained the area’s practical use.  Seeing works of art by Velazquez and home town boy El Greco in the sacristy took on new meaning once we realized it was the area where priests prepared for their masses.  And all those locked chapels I have seen all over Europe, they aren’t locked to keep tourists out, they are locked to keep everyone out as they are private property.  A place for family worship and burial.
(Pictured: 1. Streets of Toledo. 2. Pam and David in front of the Cathedral of Toledo)

Our final stop –Pasteleria Santo Tome the oldest producer of Toledo’s famous marzipan, located since 1856 at #3 Santo Tome Street.  According to the Santo Tome website – legend and fact about Marzipan in Toledo collide.  Due to the Almohad (Arabic) raids on Castilla (the Spanish province of Castille) the population took refuge in Toledo.  As the cities resources were depleted and began a great famine.  The Toledo cathedral’s wealth included land and from that land great reserves of Toledo almonds.  By combining ground almonds with fruit sugar they were able to feed the hungry.  Today’s recipe is very much as those from almost 1000 years ago (1085 a.d.) Santo Tome Marzipan still consists of almonds, honey and sugar.  Unlike the multi colored Marzipan I have encountered in other parts of Europe, Toledo’s Marzipan is primarily the natural shade of a baked almond product and the colors of Toledo itself.  The shapes not as elaborate but  more of a celebration of everyday life, fish, bread and crescents.  This is what draws me back to Europe year after a year.  A 159 year old company making an over 1000 year old recipe every day.
(Pictured:  1. Teresa our guide in front of a Marzipan recreation of the Cathedral of Toledo in the Santo Tome shop window.  2. Traditional Toledo Marzipan in shapes of fish, bread, chicken leg and crescent).

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Bull Ring, El Prado and Chocolate Madrid day 2

Since our last visit to Spain  my mother has been embracing her inner Hemingway.  Swapping white wine for red and wishing to view a bull fight.  (Luckily for me , I was reliever to find during our last visit to Spain that bull fighting is now illegal in Barcelona.  The city's former bull ring converted into a multi level shopping mall.).  However, for almost a century Mardilenos and bull fight enthusiasts have flocked on Sundays to the Plaza del los Torros de las Ventas just out side the city center to see if this week will the matador be victorious and be carried out through the Puerto Grande on the shoulders of his fans. Again luckily for me, this is only during bull fighting  season March to October.  So a compromise is met and we head out to  Las Ventas for a behind the scenes self guided audio tour.  (like most compromises no one is happy in the end. My mom misses out on blood and gore and I have to walk around in a place that even though intellectually I understand other cultures etc, I just see a big cow being hurt).  Despite my own personal misgivings I do have to admit the 1920s structure which mixes Spanish and Moorish influences is really quite lovely.   Just before we depart we are guided down to the actual bullring.  Standing there on the sand looking up at the thousands of spectator seats;  the residual feeling of excitement, danger and pageantry permeate the building.

An artist's work often starts out as a commission, a request to record an event or capture a person at a certain time or simply create decoration.   Centuries later those humble beginnings are now a moment captured in time. A country's culture and history as told through the paint brush.  Velazquez, El Greco and Goya, Spain's three greatest painters. Today Madrid's El Prado museum is home to these three.  Professional Spanish historian and art historian Ivan met us at the Pardo to help not only provide historical and political context but also help us understand each painter's obvious and not so obvious symbolism.  My takeaway was the literal history of a country.  From El Greco who played with anatomy and perspective to create his 16th century religious  works. To  Velazquez painter of the Spain's golden age of world dominance and whose "Las Meninas" was considered by his contemporaries as well as those who followed as the greatest painting ever created to Goya whose personal depression combined with the horror of the Napoleon's reign of terror in Spain created some of the darkest and most disturbing images I have ever seen. These works are interesting on their own, but when combined with the historical perspective they become so much more than a canvas on a way. ...and now for something completely different - Guest blogger David waxes poetic about chocolate and churro.

When I read about a chocolate/churro shop around for 120 or so years one of my first thoughts is that they must know their way around a hot chocolate and a churro. I have my trusty map, old school with the hard copy version and marker colors to light my way, and I am off to see what generations of fuss is all about. Walking along the narrow street, Calle de Arena, I hear the sounds of a man's voice and reggae. At first I think it is a record then I realize it is his voice, where is Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine - at least two of them are probably together somewhere in St Bart enjoying their new love - but I degrees. The mans voice, that's right, is very good and the song catchy. I turn down an alley where the Chocolateria is found but first another surprise a bookstore, but not the B & N produced option but instead the outdoor old world Paris version - I know more about rare books than you do - where the smell and the feel is intoxicating and oh yes there are rare books and of course postcards. Moving down the alley San Gines I see the light at the end - the Chocolateria San Gines since 1894. The shop is bustling and the crowd thick excited to have churro and chocolate hot. Mike and I place the order. I am about to espouse my best Spanish order phrases and the lovely lady behind the counter stops me. She says, "Dos Chocolates y unto churro y unto expresses?" I am amazed and say, "Senora, you are a mid reader." She smiles and we sit. As I look around it does also strike me that the green and marble tiled shop is quite efficient in all phases of operation not only in reading my mind. Well staffed, placement of materials and supplies with a reach, and energetic. The feel is that you will not only enjoy this but you will not wait long and not want to anything. I suppose they have seen it all in a hundred years. The hot chocolate and the churro were certainly to write home about - maybe we do not do that anymore - there is only writing in blogs or on Facebook - but that's another blog I think. However, the facet of the experience that stays with me is the overall efficiency and attention to detail. I can certainly see why this place is a staple of life in Madrid and has conquered time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

De Madrid al Cielo

From Madrid to the sky.  The EU's capital city shone in the sun as we set out for our orientation driving and walking tour. (Pam's travel tip, if you have a decent size group inquire about a private tour.  Our private tour cost only a few dollars more than an offered tour where we could be joined by up to 30 others.  It's a cost effective way to see what you want to see on your time table).'

Las Ventas at the Plaza del Toros was our first stop of the day.  Madrid's bull fighting ring built in the 1920s has a definite Moorish influence in the brick and tile exterior.  Theresa our private guide explained the significance of the many statues and monuments dotted through out the square.  Memorials to fallen and retired bull fighters, the bulls and even a monument of a bullfighter thanking Dr. Fleming, for inventing penicillin and  saving  more lives of bullfighters who without antibiotics would perished from infections than actual wounds inflicted by bulls.

As a seasoned traveler and travel agent, I am always astounded by those who tell me:  "I don't need a tour, I am going to download an app." Or "We watched a video on YouTube" or "I have a guide book, I'll just read about it there".  Technology can never replace a local guide, period.  Traveling is all about going to a new place, and while technology, guide books, maps etc, it is the local guides whose daily life in the city you are visiting provides the local flavor and culture that in my opinion should be the goal of any traveler.  Christopher Columbus proudly looks down from his perch high  top Plaza de Colon and is noted in every guide book and map we brought with us.  Theresa lead us down several steps underneath the plaza to the Nacional Bibleoteca  where Columbus's departure and subsequent discovery of the new world was displayed graphically. It was easy to see that while three ships departed from Spain only two remained.  And how those two ships returned to different ports based on the prevailing winds.  It also charted where and when Columbus arrived at each of the Caribbean islands.  It was a powerful and interesting display of something every American kid thinks they know but is so much more.  And we could have simply visited the plaza and gone on our way never knowing what was literally below our feet.

I literally knew nothing about the neighborhoods in and around Madrid.  By venturing outside the city center we got to experience and see how real Madridlenos live.  It also gave us a chance to see the Madrid Real stadium sparking a conversation not only about futbol, but about a local brewery Mahou whose delivery truck was unloading cervesa for the following weeks match. David and several of our other travelers have a real (no pun intended) interest in local beers and were excited to learn about this 100 year old Madrid brewery. Another way that be interacting with a local person we learned so much more than the guide books and apps could provide.

Our final hour of our private Madrid tour was on foot, in and around the Gran Via where our hotel is located.  Not only did we visit all the major sites of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), Plaza Mayor (main square) and Puerto del Sol (Sun Gate) Theresa was able to point out local shopping areas, bar and restaurants as well as the Mercado de San Miguel Madrid's largest open air market.  An app could have guided us to all the highlights of our neighborhood, but wouldn't give us the detail and experience walking and talking with a local provides.

Stay tuned for my next blog featuring - Back to the Bullring!  Chocolate and churros! Flamenco and Taps

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pack your patience ... a lesson long time coming

Those of you who know and love me, family, colleagues, friends and fellow travelers, I hope will say I possess several virtues.  Without opening that debate, one virtue we can all agree I do not possess is patience. 

Travel is by definition is full of potholes and road bumps (pun intended). Months of careful planning and arrangement can be thrown askew by a delayed flight or an attraction closed for renovations. The usual patience platitudes of 'go with the flow' and ' it is what it is' has in the past sent me into a fit of rage.  Friends, I am a control freak.

Admitting you are a control freak is one thing.  Learning to let go over the anxiety and angst over that which you can not change is another.  These lessons have come via a Dublin flight delayed 6 hours at Heathrow due to fog.  Waiting for the next train in the Metro an announcement in French that obviously meant the trains were stopped indefinitely and to trudge out into the dark raining night with hundreds of work day weary Parisians.  And to be told in Savannah, 'Good news!  We've upgraded your room.  Bad news Pauly Shore stayed in it last night and he sort of trashed it.  Head out to dinner for a few hours... should be ready by then".  And a bunch of other times that just run together in the life of a traveler.  And I am 100% sure each and every time I was at least slightly put out.

What I failed to realize is every detour off the plan gave me another unexpected experience.  The 6 hours spent at Heathrow resulted in the to this day hotly contested Scrabble marathon.  Trudging down the rainy Parisian boulevard, the street lights were ringed in a heavenly golden halo.  And Pauly Shore?  Well nothing, it was Pauly Shore.

Today, after four hours on the tarmac at Metro airport where we not only were the wings deiced once we waited so long they had to be deiced a second time...and without leaving the gate we had to refuel.  The Pam I know and love would have been on her phone frantically checking weather and estimated arrival times, calculating if we could still make our 10 am arrival.  It quickly became obvious the answer was 'nope'. So I settled in and watched all the movies over the last few months I didn't take the time to see.  Played a trivia game and practiced my Spanish in anticipation of my final destination. 

Travel and life itself are a series of little pearl moments strung together like a necklace.  Instead of grabbing breakfast and then departing at 9:45am, I found myself at 10:30am in a 10 person deep line at the transfer desk...waiting just outside the roped area was a gentleman and his Chihuahua.  I smiled as I got into the queue and my smile was returned. As the line suddenly stopped I found myself right next to the dog.  I asked if it was okay to pet her and he nodded.  I spent the next five minutes instead of fuming in line, cuddling and playing with that little dog.  As the line started to move I told them both what a pleasure it was to meet them,  Now almost 3 hours after my connecting flight jetted off without me, I sit in Amnsterdam Schipol airport with a Spanish family and a nice Ukrainian man at a ING charging station.  Little moments.

The rest of my travel day was fairly uneventful.  I had a lovely conversation in Spanish with our transfers driver (again thank you Sra. Horning-Cline).  He was so happy to have me speak to him in his native language, he gave us an impromptu tour of the Grand Via as we arrived at our final Madrid destination.  Tapas for dinner (my absolute favorite) and a fairly early bedtime.  Tomorrow I will report about Spain's capital Madrid.

One little postscript.  Some of my new found Zen comes from my friend Tatiana.  Tatiana and I on paper couldn't be more different, and I have always admired her musical talent.  She is also an extremely grounded person and has been coaching me on meditation.  While I wouldn't say I am any where near guru state, I think her lessons if not have made me change my old ways, at least acknowledge there are other ways. You may want to try it as well.

Friday, May 15, 2015

An Architect, A Lawyer and a Travel Agent Walk Into a Bar....

An architect, a lawyer and a travel agent walk into a bar… how language brings us together.

Majestic Colonial, Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. It’s hot, Caribbean hot.  Salsa music is blaring, kids are jumping in and out of the very large pool, the blenders are non stop blending Pina Coladas and Margaritas… the typical location for a Spanish lesson at an all inclusive resort.  Several announcements are made over the loud speaker encouraging attendance. After a few minutes, it’s obvious the class will be two; another guest and myself.

The class is offered by the resort Activities department. Sporting a head full of corn rows mirrored shades my instructor ‘J’ leads us from the hot pool edge to the shaded dimness of the pool’s wet bar. We grab seats at one of the tables and begin. Clad in t-shirt with the resort logo and matching shorts, ‘J’ appears to be about 25.  My fellow student, ‘D’ about the same. I am definitely the senior of the group.  ‘J’ informs me ‘D’ attended the previous day’s class.

The lesson begins with the normal ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’. After a few minutes it becomes apparent that both ‘D’ and I are way past remedial Spanish.  ‘J’ is now speaking in Spanish to both of us and with some stops and starts we are following and able to contribute. This leads inevitably to ‘how many languages do you speak’. In this group I am the beginner with my conversational Spanish and very basic Italian, both leave me in the language dust.  ‘D’ and ‘J’ both speak at least six languages, they have a lively exchange in Russian. ‘J’ explains that with the recent influx of Russian guests, the resort needed someone to speak the language, so management sent him to an intensive 3 month Russian course. That’s when the class shifts to something different and so much deeper. ‘J’ who at first glance is seems to be a 25 year old beach bum, is a 30 year old university graduate and practicing architect,  speaking no less than six languages. ‘D’s’ blonde side swept locks and baby face, masks a 33 year old corporate lawyer from Kiev, Ukraine. Switching back to English, ‘D’ remarks that Russian language, in fact Russian culture, is based in arrogance, and the Russian hotel guests that ‘J’ is now converses with must be the same.     I am mentally absorbing these amazing facts (and giving myself an internal lecture about judging a book by the cover) when J’ begins to explain how an architect is running fitness classes, kicking soccer balls with 10 year- olds and teaching Spanish in a pool bar.

“I was bored”.  Pushing up the aviator sunglasses, ‘J’s brown eyes are thoughtful.  “My uncle owns a firm here in the Dominican Republic, the plan was always for me to work for him. After I graduated, I sat in a cubicle, designing mansions and large resorts like this one…60 hours a week plus inside, while life when on outside. All I have ever wanted to do is dance.  During the day I run activity programs, but at night, I dance! I perform in all the shows. My uncle only speaks Spanish, so I still am responsible for English and French clients, but this is my passion”.   This amazing statement is followed by “Law is incredibly boring, that is why I am not practicing right now. I need to find what I too have a passion for”, ‘D’ chimes in.

‘J’ checks his watch and immediately stands up, says  goodbye and is gone, class is over. To boogie at night, ‘J’ runs Activities programs by day. The spell broken, ‘D’ and I gather our class notes and drift back to our respective families and loungers on the beach. I find my mother asleep on the opposite lounger, so I reapply my 70 sunscreen. As I do, I start to think about my own circumstances. How just five years ago if you would have told the lumber company marketing representative in the beige cubicle that I would not only break free of that cubicle just 15 miles from my home, but I would make my living as travel professional. Plying my craft not in a cubicle in Michigan, but all over the world… including a Punta Cana pool bar.