Out and About (and Eating!) in San Sebastian, Spain

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the goals of our trip to Spain was to visit the lands from which some of my Mom’s ancestors came to Cuba.  San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in the local language – Basque), in Spain’s Basque country, was perfectly situated to serve as our base to explore before heading out to Lourdes, France.  But San Sebastian itself was a destination!

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

San Sebastian!

I had always heard about the great cuisine coming out of San Sebastian so it became a key stop at the onset of our trip.  We would stay there two nights, with the day in between being our day to explore the towns and hamlets from which the ancestors came.  That gave us one full afternoon to explore the heart of San Sebastian – and two nights!

It seems it was peak vacation time in early September, which was a bit unexpected, so there were no good hotels close to the famous La Concha Beach or near the Old Town.  However, I was not disappointed with the hotel I found, not even a mile from the old town:  Hotel Astoria.  The hotel’s theme revolved around famous movie actors and directors and had a very modern design.  It was located on a quiet street and had both a full restaurant and a cafe in the lobby.  We did not try the restaurant but did enjoy the cafe for our breakfasts.

Luckily not only were we close to Old Town but it was not hard to find (underground) parking right by the Hotel Maria Cristina or across the river by the Kursaal Center.   Old Town (or Casco Viejo) is the second oldest neighborhood in the city and it is full of bars and eateries – clearly the teeming social center of this great city!

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The Kursaal Center (has underground public parking)

When we first visited Old Town, we headed first to the waterfront to check out the beautiful waters of the Mar Cantábrico, or Bay of Biscay after a quick snack and trying a “carajillo,” coffee with liquor (rum, brandy or anything of the sort!).

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Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, sea, blue, photo

Must be some good fish in those waters!

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Carajillo

Back in Old Town, we meandered through narrow streets.  Kalea (Calle) 31 de Agosto had many eateries offering the famous “pintxos” (like tapas).  We tried pintxos here and there as we kept exploring this part of town which is full of character.  We made it to the other side from which we had a glimpse of La Concha Beach and the rest of the same-named bay.

A distinguished gent (my uncle!) waiting to order while a distinguished lady (my sister) awaits

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Pintxos

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La Concha Beach in the background

La Concha, beach, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Bikes a great way to move around

We saw some neat churches (San Vicente, which was closed, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, which charged for entrance so we skipped it).  Lots of neat structures and charming narrow streets all around.

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Narrow street in Old Town

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Entering Old Town from the river

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Buildings in Old Town

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Lots of character in this balcony

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Streets of Old Town

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At Plaza Constitucion

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Neat sights – walking “aimlessly” is the best way to explore!

And, as we meandered through the old town, we ran into the restaurant we had made reservations for for the following evening.  As I researched San Sebastian, one of my areas of focus was food.  I wanted to find one of the restaurants that make San Sebastian’s cuisine so well regarded.  After looking at a few places, I settled on Bodegón Alejandro.  Coincidentally, my uncle had done research and had read an article on the newspaper that also mentioned Bodegón Alejandro.  So, that was the place and, luckily, making reservations was super easy:  their website allowed for making them online!

Part of Bodegón Alejandro’s menu

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Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

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Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

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Another dessert – torrija with ice cream

The charm of San Sebastian did not only reside in its waters or in the old town – it was a beautiful and livable town all around.  I would love to spend a few months residing there and enjoying this northern Basque city – and maybe with my wonderful travel companions!

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Sister, Mom, and Uncle!

 

A Quick Bike Tour of the Thai Countryside

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One of my friends mentioned how in her time in Bangkok, she enjoyed bike rides in the countryside.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, she also recommended visiting the unique railroad market by the Mae Klong rail station, about 1.5 hrs. outside of Bangkok.  My friend and fellow traveler Phil and I agreed that it sounded like a great idea so I contacted the individual that had taken her to both places and arranged for the bike tour as well.  We did not have a full day to spare so, unfortunately, the bike ride would only be about 2 hours.  Nevertheless, it would allow us to see something much different than the city so we felt it was still going to be worth it.

After visiting the railroad market to see the 9AM train go by (we almost missed it!), we headed towards the Amphawa Floating Market (which, unfortunately, was closed that day) to begin our bike ride.  Amphawa, floating market, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure, photoAmphawa, floating market, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure, photo

It had been a couple of years since my last bike ride (a bike tour in Buenos Aires that went flawlessly) so it took me some pedaling to re-learn balance and I had a couple of mishaps early on due to that (one of those more painful than the other…).  I found my biking groove and, combined with fairly easy terrain, went forward with the bike tour for the next 1.5 hrs or so with no further issue.

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Awaiting the river crossing with our guide (photo courtesy of fellow traveler Phil I.)

Bangkok, Thailand, river, Mae Klong, bike tour, travel, adventure

About to cross the river on this beauty

Riding by farms and plantations

Bike tour, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure

Our guide in the lead, followed by me (photo courtesy of Phil I.)

Bike tour, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure

Passing a bunch of empty coconut shells at one of the farms  (photo courtesy of Phil I.)

Bike tour, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure

Beautiful water (topped by some algae?) at one of the banana plantations

Bike tour, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, adventure

Love the shadow of a banana plant on the surface of the water

Bang Kung Camp

We made a stop at the Bang Kung camp which is a former navy camp from wars past (with Burma, I believe) dating from the late 1700s.  The camp has statues depicting the fight training the soldiers went through.  The camp also had a temple that was overcome with vegetation as the camp was abandoned for a couple of hundred of years (but is now open for the faithful – and bike-tourists!).

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Map showing the market, the floating market and the camp

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Outside of the temple; and our guide Andy and I taking a break (photo courtesy of Phil I.)

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Bang Kung, camp, navy, Thailand, Bangkok, temple, Buddha, travel, explore, bike tour

In front of the temple

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In front of the temple

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Inside the temple

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Training for a fight!

Bang Kung camp, Bangkok, Thailand, bike tour

I had to blow up one of the photos because one of the fighters looked life-like…

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Statue honoring an important leader of the war with Burma

Along the way, a church

We pedaled mainly either on well-paved roads or minor side roads along coconut farms and banana plantations.  It was all very serene and it was a very enjoyable, pleasant bike ride.  Along the way we passed a Catholic church, not quite labeled that way, it was called Our Lady of Help Christion (sic) Church.  It looked closed so we did not go in.  I have to say it felt out of place but it was also cool to see!Our Lady Help, Mae Klong, church, Catholic ,Bangkok, Thailand

Our Lady Help, Mae Klong, church, Catholic ,Bangkok, Thailand

In front of the church with my fellow adventurer and much better cyclist

Lunch time!

The ride ended with a late lunch in a small restaurant perched on the river bank of the Mae Klong River, upstream from where we had started.  And just as we got there, it started to pour!  It was perfect timing, great food, and a cool setting to rest from the busy morning while enjoying more of the delicious Thai food (see my post on food in Bangkok!)

Mae Klong, river, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, bike tour

View of the Mae Klong River from the restaurant

Mae Klong, river, Bangkok, Thailand, travel, explore, bike tour

View of the Mae Klong River from the restaurant

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Shrimp tempura and chicken curry – delicious

The bike tour was a phenomenal idea and a good change of tempo, especially as it got us out of the hustling, bustling city to see a beautiful countryside and breathe some fresh air – I need to be sure I always look for options like this in future travels!

What to Know

  • We hired Grasshopper Adventures for the bike tour (fully paid by us, no freebies given for me to mention them).
  • Wear your helmet.  You are in the developing world and, should an accident happen (like it happened to me!), it is better to be safe than sorry when you may or may not get access to the medical care you are used to.
  • While it is hot and humid, it was very pleasant while on the bike.
  • You can do a short bike ride like we did or a day-long one.

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Bangkok – A City of Amazing Food!

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Thailand is well-known for its diverse cuisine and great flavors.  One does not have to have been to Thailand to know this or to experience the greatness of the cuisine.  Enjoying the food was certainly one of the things I planned to do in my short visit to Thailand a few weeks ago.  With guidance from a local we found two neat spots in Bangkok where we greatly enjoyed the food as well as just going to places where the locals also dined.

Tuk tuk fun

Of course, getting there is half the fun so we took our first tuk tuk that night.  It was a crammed space (there were three of us).  Since the driver wove in and out of traffic (fairly safely), the time to get to places was not as much as if we had taken a cab.  A tuk tuk is definitely the way to go unless a little exhaust from cars around you bother you (in which case, you need a car so you can close the windows…).

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Fun and colorful rides

Bangkok, tuk tuk, Thailand, exploring, travel, adventure, photo

Of course, a selfie was required

Phenomenal seafood in Chinatown

The first spot was a seafood place in Bangkok’s Chinatown, named Lek and Rut Seafood.  We liked it so much we went back to it the next night! Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo

Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo

Corner in which Lek & Rut is located

The menu was quite extensive, the food was served quickly AND it was superb.  That and a big bottle of beer (or two) (or three) and we were in business.

Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo Bangkok, Thailand, street, food, seafood, travel, explore, photo

Getting pad Thai’d !

Our second stop that first night was a place known for its pad Thai – Thipsamai on Maha Chai Rd..  Basically, one moves in line past the cooking station set out on the sidewalk itself until one gets to the front of the line when a table opens up.  Until 7PM, the only tables available are inside (a small space) and in front of the restaurant on the sidewalk.  We got there right before 7PM and the line was long!  I figured we’d be there forever.  All of a sudden, the line sorts of clears and we are being walked to a table!  Basically, at 7PM they can set out tables in front of neighboring storefronts, greatly expanding seating capacity.

Bangkok, Thailand, food, pad thai, travel, foodie, explore, photo

The extra seating area

Bangkok, Thailand, food, pad thai, travel, foodie, explore, photo

One of the food prep areas

Bangkok, Thailand, food, pad thai, travel, foodie, explore, photo

Waiting for the pad Thai (thanks, Phil I. for the photo!)

It is fascinating to watch the guys cook the pad Thai right there.  They are masters!  (Check out the video to see them in motion.)

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An army of cooks!

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Video courtesy of my fellow traveler Phil I. who wanted credit 🙂  Gracias!

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Pad Thai – the final product!

What to Know

  • Street food is said to be very safe in Bangkok.  We did not hold back and we were OK.  Not promising you will have the same outcome but I felt comfortable.
  • Chinatown is worth exploring and sitting down somewhere.  But there are likely many places in town to explore.  We barely scratched the surface as our stay was too short.
  • Tuk tuks are a cheap and probably faster way to move around town.  As long as you are OK with some exhaust around you (it wasn’t horrible but it may make a difference).  I found the tuk tuk more fun than a regular taxi (though taxis with A/C are not a bad thing!).
  • Thai food goes very well with a nice cold beer!

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2015 – A Year in Review

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2015 is almost over and it is time for the year in review which, I think, is an exercise not just in writing but in re-living the many blessings the year bestowed on me.  Here it goes and share with me some of the travels in your 2015!

In the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia, USA

My first trip of the year was to Philadelphia where family and friends live.  It is a place I love to visit though I do not get to do so often.  I welcome the opportunity whenever it comes though as I greatly enjoy spending time with my aunt and uncle who make me feel so at home whenever I go.  Though I got to see many, I did not get to see all my relatives nor all my friends which was a bummer – but good reason to go back!  As usual, my uncle likes to show me around places historical to both country and family.  I had not visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell since the early 90s and I enjoyed my visit there.  We also went to Valley Forge which had a special look since it was winter-time (and was also very cold!).

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Liberty Bell with Independence Hall behind it

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Independence Hall across the mall

Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, history, independence, battle, travel, Olympus, photo

Valley Forge in winter – reminder of the cost of our freedom

Now, those places are not where the family history comes from 🙂 instead this building served as their home right after they moved up there from Miami.

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House where my parents and relatives lived

My first hike of the year – Blood Mountain, Georgia, USA

My first hike of the year was a training hike as I was going on a trek to Patagonia with Trekking for Kids.  My friend Phil who also enjoys hiking and I decided to do a hike near Blood Mountain that ended up -accidentally- in a climb of Blood Mountain.  While it was unplanned, it was a fortunate ‘accident’ as it all ended well and we enjoyed great vistas and trails.

Freeman Trail, Appalachian Trail, Georgia, photo, hiking, winter, outdoors

Entering Freeman Trail from the Appalachian Trail

Jarrard Gap, Appalachian Trail, Georgia, photo, hiking, winter, outdoors

Along Jarrard Gap, the start of our hike

An amazing metropolis – Buenos Aires, Argentina

The orphanage work related to my trek to Patagonia was going to take place on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina.  So I knew I was going to be spending time in this great city – and more importantly, eating the best beef in the world paired with great wine!  I enjoyed walking about town and having nice meals with my fellow trekkers (some which I knew already and some which I met there).

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The parrillada at Campo Bravo

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Don’t forget dessert: this beauty courtesy of Cabaña Las Lilas

But the best part was meeting the children and staff of the two homes we worked with on our projects which included repairing a very leaky roof and damaged walls and furniture.  Much as I loved spending time in BB.AA., this work was the highlight of my time there!

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Painting new furniture with the kids was an adventure onto itself!

Buenos Aires, Hogar La Teresa, Argentina, service, Trekking for Kids

These kids were hard workers and also great with the soccer ball!

Buenos Aires, Argentina, zoo, Trekking for Kids, service, photo

At Temaiken, Buenos Aires’ zoo

Back in time – Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When planning my Buenos Aires travel, I decided to add an extra day to cross the river by ferry and spend half a day exploring a town that was a good throwback to the colonial period of the region:  Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  I sold three other trekkers on doing this short trip with me and we had a great time walking the streets of this easy-going town.  I highly recommend making the crossing if you ever have time in Buenos Aires!

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One of the MANY vintage vehicles in town – an Austin

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Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

My favorite spot on Earth – Chile’s Patagonia

As I wrote earlier this year, I loved Patagonia when I first visited the Perito Moreno glacier and Chile‘s amazing Patagonia in 2010.  I’d always hoped I could return some day and that did happen… in 2015, much sooner than I’d ever thought possible.  I returned to hike around Fitz Roy in Argentina, re-visit the Perito Moreno glacier, and then trek through the Torres del Paine National Park – which I had not done in 2010.  And it was a rewarding effort for sure with great vistas and a glacier hike to boot.  Memorable is not a good enough word for the experience.  And, secretly, I hope I get to return a second time for my third visit!!  (click on the hyperlinks above to see more photos from each of the visits)

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Grey glacier, where we hiked

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On the trail to Fitz Roy

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The Torres del Paine massif

The great northwest – Portland, Oregon

Thanks to work, I spent five days in Portland, Oregon.  I had never been to Oregon so it was cool that I got to go there.  I arrived at mid-day on a Sunday and decided to take a walking tour of Portland as it would be the most effective way to see the highlights of the town while enjoying the great weather.

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Portland street

Mercifully, daylight went on late so I got to take advantage of it to take a drive along the Columbia River to see the waterfalls that dot the riverside.   I also got to enjoy dinners in establishments along either side of the river which was a phenomenal day to end the workday.

Family, friends and food fest (4 F’s) – Spain, olé!

Friends of mine were going to hike the Camino de Santiago, a hike I did in 2014.  I thought it would be cool to combine my wish to meet relatives I had not met who live in the outskirts of Santiago with my friends’ arrival in Santiago de Compostela.  My grandmother has two surviving cousins she never met in person who live in Bastavales.  I had met one of them last year when I finished the Camino walk but I had not met the other.  So I met María and her son, grandkids and great-grandkids for the first time and enjoyed their warmth and sharing special memories and photos of the family.  I also visited time with Flora, the cousin I had met last year.  It was really cool.

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With Maria, my grandmother’s cousin

I then welcomed my friends and their fellow trekkers as they arrived in Santiago at the end of their Camino.  It was wonderful seeing them glow in joy as they wrapped their long walk.  After they got their Compostela and going to Pilgrim’s Mass, it was time to celebrate with some cañas (beer) and tapas in one of the many beautiful old streets of this phenomenal city.  We also took a day trip to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, a nice place.

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Beer and tapas in Santiago de Compostela

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The left side of the Cathedral

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With friends Phil and Tommy at Finisterre

The visit with my friends continued in Madrid and, after they left, I got to spend time with madrileños friend of mine, enjoying good drinks, food, and atmosphere around town.  It was fun spending more time in Madrid (check out “6 Cool Things to Do in Madrid“!).  I love Spain but I loved more the opportunity to be there with friends!

Reuniting with dear friends – California

In late May, dear friends left Atlanta to head to California due to a job opportunity.  It was hard to see them go as I spent many a Friday night over ten years hanging out with them pre-kids and after-kids.  So, it was great when work offered me the opportunity to go to San Francisco so I could spend the weekend after the conference with them in their home outside of San Jose.  They took me to two great Mexican restaurants, one of them right by where they live.  I enjoyed a drive down Pebble Beach on the famous 17-mile drive (which I still have to write about!).  And we visited the charming coastal town of Carmel – and its impressive mission.

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Glorious skies at the Carmel Mission

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Waters along the 17-Mile drive

Up-north (WAY up north) – Duluth, Minnesota

Work took me for a brief business trip up north, to a small town 45 mins north of Duluth, Minnesota.  Driving along the coast of Lake Superior was very nice and peaceful.  We only had one night in Duluth but enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom-and-pop type of place and dinner at a pub.  Of course, being the traveler that I am, never having gone to Wisconsin, and realizing I was just a bridge-crossing, I just had to do it… We had mostly an open morning so, along with a colleague, I drove across the water to a coffee shop I found online in the town of Superior, Wisconsin!  A coffee later, we crossed the bridge again and back in Minnesota!

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Wisconsin, here we come!

Returning to one my favorites – Chicago, Illinois

I first went to Chicago in a bitterly cold January in 1991 with company for training.  And I kept returning over the years mainly in winter.  This year I got to go in August for pleasure, after spending a few days in Minnesota for work.  I got to enjoy walking everywhere, getting to the lake, which I had never done.  I also explored new parts of town thanks to friends (including little gems in terms of eateries).   Overall, what I enjoyed most about this trip was a first for me in Chicago:  going to a museum!  The Art Institute of Chicago was right up my alley as very much an amateur in terms of art.  It made it all approachable and enjoyable without overwhelming.  I highly recommend it.  I look forward to returning to Chicago and having more time to see all the friends who live there (this was practically a day-and-a-half visit) – and explore a new museum or two!Chicago, Illinois, skyscraper, cityscape, photo, glass. buildings, architecture

An epic trek to close the year – on the route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I was not planning any other hike on 2015 after having done Patagonia earlier in the year.  However, I found out that several folks I knew from prior treks were going to do the trek to Everest Base Camp and I started wondering if I could go…  I was generally fit even if not well-trained, it was a generally good time to go from a work standpoint, and though I did not have vacation time to be able to go to base camp, the trek offered a shorter itinerary.  So, I went for it.  I had a great time and was thrilled to having seen the Himalayas, Mt. Everest, and the hamlets and people of the highlands of Nepal.  I am still writing about the trek so I will just point you to a couple of the writings:  flying into scary Lukla airport to begin the hike, day one of the hike (you can keep going from there to later days), and one of the neat sites I saw in Kathmandu.  The best part of the trek was the work done before the trek in the village of Kumari.  Check out the work we did with Trekking for Kids here.

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The prayer wheels

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Kids from Kumari

Epilogue to a year that ends…

2015 was an epic year.  From great hiking experiences, time with family and friends, new destinations, and good food and drinks, it had it all.  I got to step in South America, North America, Asia, and Europe all in one year!  However, as the year came to a close, we lost my stepdad, Rubén.  It was a bittersweet time as he had been suffering from Alzheimer‘s and his last week was one full of suffering.  So his passing offered him rest that we were thankful for, sad as it was to not have him around us any more.  Rubén, as my Mom, loved to travel.  They traveled across Europe and other places many times.  I got to travel with them and my sister and her family in several cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Baltic Sea, as well as explore places like Copenhagen, Panama, and Paris (where they visited me in 1999 when I was living there).  Though we will sorely miss him in this final journey he has undertaken, I know I will see again at the final destination.  Until then, I will continuing journeying here.  Rest in peace, Rubén!

ilivetotravel, family

In Panama in 2009

6 Cool Things to Do in Fantastic Madrid

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I have visited Madrid several times and, while it may not have the charm of Paris or Venice, it is a town meant to be lived, not visited.  And I don’t mean “lived” as in “live there” but a place “to live life.”  Sure, other cities are beautiful and glamorous but I find cities where life is lived to the fullest the best.  And such is Madrid.  Here are some cool things to do in the Spanish capital.

Drinks at the Westin

The Westin is an extremely well-situated hotel in the best part of Madrid.  It has incredible architectural charm – and a great lobby lounge with separate areas to sit, depending on your mood.  My favorite spot was right under the colorful and bright cupola.  If you don’t get to stay at the hotel, at minimum, go and treat yourself to a glass of wine or a cocktail.

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Awesome glasswork

Tapas and drinks at Plaza Santa Ana

Plaza Santa Ana is at the heart of Madrid. Sure the Plaza Mayor officially is “the” plaza in Madrid.  But, Plaza Santa Ana is small, manageable and a great spot to sit and watch life, while enjoying tapas and beer/wine.  And the great thing is that you can do it from the plaza itself – or from above at the trendy and cool bar at the roof terrace of the Reina Victoria Hotel.  There is a charge to go up but it applies to a drink – so as long as you have a drink, entrance is free.  And the views of the Plaza at night are awesome.

Reina Victoria, Madrid, Spain, Plaza Santa Ana, travel, bar, food, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The Hotel Reina Victoria at sunset

Reina Victoria, Madrid, Spain, Plaza Santa Ana, travel, bar, food, photo, Samsung Galaxy

View from the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Reina Victoria (Teatro Español in the background)

Tapas crawl!

The Plaza Santa Ana is a wonderful place to hang out.  But Madrid is full of neighborhood plazas and other areas where you can find the most delicious spots to have a tapa and a caña (short beer).  Madrileños on a typical night out move from tapas bar to tapas bar prior to going somewhere for dinner.  A great spot for tapas is near the Calle Cervantes where the are several good establishments.  Taberna La Daniela, Cervecería Cervantes and Taberna de la Dolores are all different and great spots to eat, sip, walk, and repeat!  And my local friends actually referred me to these places so you know they are good!

Taberna de la Dolores, Madrid, Spain, España, tapas bar, food, foodie, Olympus, travel

Taberna de la Dolores

La Daniela, tapas bar, Madrid, Spain, España, food, foodie, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

About to go in!

La Daniela, tapas bar, Madrid, Spain, España, food, foodie, travel, photo, Olympus

The counter at La Daniela – always hang out at the counter!

 The Mercado San Miguel

I could not believe that I had never visited the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid until I learned that it had been closed for years to open finally again in 2009.  It is a feast for the eyes – and the palate.  The structure itself is about one hundred years old with a style reminiscent of Paris metro entrances.  But the main attraction is, of course, the food!  Stop there for a bite or a meal – and a glass of wine, ¡por supuesto!

Mercado San Miguel, Madrid, Spain, España, travel, food, foodie, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Mercado San Miguel

ham, jamón, Mercado San Miguel, Madrid, Spain, España, travel, food, foodie, photo, Samsung Galaxy

¡Jamón!

fruits, frutas, Mercado San Miguel, Madrid, Spain, España, travel, food, foodie, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Color and flavor!

Drinks with a view

Thanks to my local friend, I discovered the “Azotea,” or rooftop, at the Círculo de Bellas Artes building on the Calle de Alcalá.  It offers not only a bar but all sorts of comfy spaces to just lounge.  It must be spectacular at night but it is great at sunset or just during the day time to admire the views.

Azotea, Bellas Artes, rooftop bar, rooftop terrace, Madrid, Spain, nightlife, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The Azotea terrace

Azotea, Correos, Palacio de Comunicaciones,Bellas Artes, rooftop bar, rooftop terrace, Madrid, Spain, nightlife, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The former main post office – now the Palacio de Comunicaciones

And just walking around

Walking about, aimlessly, sometimes yields the best experiences in a city.  Madrid is no different.  My friends showed me around districts I did not know with small plazas and great places to enjoy food and drinks.  This is the best way to get the vibe of a place.  You can stroll through parks like the famous El Retiro, grand avenues or tiny old streets.  cobblestone, street, Madrid, walk, walking, Spain, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy cobblestone, street, Madrid, walk, walking, Spain, travel, tourism, photo, Olympus

Also, Madrid is a great town to see monuments and buildings old and new so if you like architecture, walk, I say!

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Puerta de Alcalá near El Retiro

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain, architecture, travel, tourism, Olympus

Plaza Mayor

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Cathedral of the Almudena

Palacio Real, Royal Palace, Madrid, Spain, architecture, travel, photo, tourism

The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) in Madrid, Spain

Congreso, Congress, Madrid, Spain, nighttime, lights, classic

Congress (Congreso de los Diputados)

modern architecture, Madrid, Spain, Olympus, photo modern architecture, Madrid, Spain, Olympus, photo

Walking unknowingly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we happened upon the presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors who crossed the Plaza Mayor (I assume coming from the royal palace) and dropped/picked up the dignitaries in colorful carriages.  So one never knows what one will find!

tradition, carriage, ambassador, Madrid, Spain, photo, Samsung Galaxy

One of the carriages

Hope you enjoy Madrid!  Have you been?  Any places you’d recommend??

Images of a Northern Town: Akureyri, Iceland

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Olympus

Akureyri is the largest town in northern Iceland and it sits pretty deep in the Eyjafjörður fjord.  It is exactly at 12 o’clock if the island of Iceland were a clock (which it is not – in case you are wondering).  The town sits tight against the mountains behind it, almost being on the verge of being thrown into the water.

Where we stayed in Akureryi… or across from it

Through airbnb we found a phenomenal house sitting on a hillside directly across the fjord from the town so we got to look at it at night.  Er, in the evening hours in the daylight, since we were down there, er, up there, at the peak of summer when the sun did set, but not deep enough where it got dark (see the last two pictures in the sequence below).

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Olympus

The main “window” of the house we stayed at!

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Olympus

Looking from inside the “main window” across the fjord towards Akureyri – who cleans this window?

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Front” of the house I stayed at – and our nice rental vehicle

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Our house looking towards the end of the fjord; see the bridge to town on the right

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Late night in Akureyri in late June

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Late night in Akureyri in late June

My friends’ young girls loved running on the deck of the house and the field around it while we enjoyed sitting out there, soaking the view, with a beverage in hand (perhaps…).

In any case, I digress.  The town is small and is quite charming but is large enough to have a small airport for those who do not want to drive there from Reykjavik – which would be a crime if you skip the drive on the ring road!

Akureyri was a site for Allied forces in WW II which seems quite interesting given it is still a town of under 20,000 yet one that was first settled in the ninth century!  Something must have been right about it to be picked by the Allies during WW II given how far it is from Reykjavík.  You’d think they would have picked somewhere easier to get to.  In fact, Keflavík, where the modern Reykjavík international airport is located, was a U.S. air force base in WW II.

But I digress.  One night, we were wanting to be sure to have a good bottle of wine to have at the house so we rushed into town after we looked online where to buy some.  We knew we were tight on time as we had learned that liquor sales ended soon that day (I think maybe it was at 7PM but can’t recall) so we rushed out with a map on the phone marking where we needed  to go (thanks wifi!).  The drive over was nothing short of spectacular, rushing downhill, crossing the end of the fjord via the short bridge and then driving into town trying to find our way to the store (without wifi or GPS!).  We made it on time, like 10 minutes before it closed.  My friend ran in to get the wine while I stayed in the car – no time to find parking.  I sat there and watched people literally running into the store to make sure they could get their alcohol before liquor sales ended for the day.  People are people no matter what country you are in!!!

So what does Akureyri look like up close?

Alright, here are some images of this very northern town to close up this post…

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Hof Cultural and Conference Center by the waterfront

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Akureyrarkirkja (church)

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Akureyri Junior College

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The town from the house I stayed at

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Downtown”

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Downtown”

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Downtown”

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Downtown”

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

“Downtown”

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Sculpture in the image of a ship

Of pylsur, ice cream and pastries…

And of course, a post here cannot leave out a mention of something food…  Icelanders love their hot dogs or “pylsur”.  They are everywhere.

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, hot dog, pylsur

They love their hot dogs (“pylsur”)in Iceland!

And, when in Iceland, well, have ice cream!  Brynja is one of the national brands.  We indulged.

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, Brynja, ice crea,

After the liquor store, we found the ice cream store. Priorities.

And, when everything else fails, go pastries!

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, foodporn, pastries, bakery, food

Pastries at a local bakery

Akureyri is definitely a place far away but, having spent three days staying there, it is like any other place on earth:  food and drinks matter and, where there are good views and you are in good company, it is all perfect!  Even if my family is only with me on a photo 🙂

Akureyri, Iceland, fjord, mountains, beauty, nature, travel, photo, Olympus

My family always travels with me…

——– More on Iceland ——–

My itinerary for my week visit to Iceland

A stroll around Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik

Þingvellir:  Where History and Nature Meet in Iceland!

The Blue Lagoon

Goðafoss:  The Waterfalls of the Gods

Whale Watching in Iceland

Iceland’s South Shore:  The Dyrhólaey Peninsula and Vik

Postcards from Iceland:  Dalvík

Buenos Aires Re-Visited (Again)

church, Pilar, Argentina, Buenos Aires, Duarte, Recoleta, cemetery, travel, photo, Olympus

When I sat down to write this post, my first thought was:  “What can I possibly write about Buenos Aires that has not been written before?”  Good question.

My visit there was triggered by its being the location of two children’s homes we were going to help via a trek to Patagonia with Trekking for Kids.  I was not disappointed in that being the location as my prior visits to Buenos Aires, even the overnight trip one, were always good:  good city, good vibe, good food, and good wine.

I decided to go two days ahead of the official start of the group trip so that I would have some time to tool around some.  Tooling around soon turned out to include a day trip to nearby Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, across the river from Buenos Aires.

So, I turned my attention to determining where to stay.  I had already paid a good bit to be able to trek in Patagonia after the time in Buenos Aires so I was looking for a good alternative to just paying a hotel room.  Two others from the trek decided to come early too so, immediately, I decided that an apartment rental was the best option.  Using FlipKey, I found a great 2 bedroom apartment in Palermo on a high floor and with some good views.  Mercifully, it had A/C as it was summer in Buenos Aires.  (FlipKey did a great job of showing me apartments based on my criteria which included not only location and price point but availability of A/C and wifi!)

apartment rental, Buenos Aires, FlipKey, travel, comfort, lodging, Olympus, photo

My room at the apartment: nice corner and a balcony!

The landlord was very friendly and flexible but was spot on on restaurant recommendations – bonus!  And when I looked out of the balcony, I recognized the small square by the building as one I had seen on HGTV’s House Hunters International a couple of years ago.

After the couple of days on our own, we moved to the hotel were the group was going to stay while we worked with the children’s homes outside of Buenos Aires in Moreno.  The hotel was located in Recoleta, another nice neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The hotel was located across from the Recoleta cemetery where Evita is buried.  I lucked out with the room assignment and had a great view of the cemetery and could even see the ocean, er, the river.

Buenos Aires, Recoleta, cemetery, Argentina, photo, travel, South America, church, architecture, history, Evita, Olympus

The Recoleta Cemetery

Argentina, Buenos Aires, Duarte, Recoleta, cemetery, travel, photo, Olympus

Typical scene at the Recoleta cemetery

church, Pilar, Argentina, Buenos Aires, Duarte, Recoleta, cemetery, travel, photo, Olympus

Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar right at the cemetery’s entrance

I had visited the cemetery in 1991 but still went back in to look for Evita.  Of course, there is a sign indicating where the famous’ tombs are but if you look for Evita under “P” for Perón, you will not find her.  You must look under Duarte, her maiden name.

Evita, Eva, Peron, Argentina, Buenos Aires, Duarte, Recoleta, cemetery, travel, photo, Olympus

The family mausoleum where Evita’s remains rest

Eva looms large in the Argentine psyche – and on the side of buildings too…

Evita, Eva, Peron, Argentina, Buenos Aires, building, travel, photo, Olympus

That’s Evita up there

The other plus for the hotel -and another thing that loomed large for me- is that it was a few storefronts down from my favorite ice cream place in Argentina: Freddos, first discovered by me in 1991!

Freddo, ice cream, gelato, Buenos Aires, Argentina, foodie, food, foodporn

I could not even wait to snap a photo before taking a bite (or 3)

Oh, the food in Buenos Aires…

Maybe the city should be renamed “Buena Comida”, instead of “Buenos Aires”…  In my time in Buenos Aires, I probably gained weight.  The likely contributors certainly included my almost daily Freddo’s ice cream cup but it also included the incredible beef, pastries, desserts, and wines enjoyed at places like Cabaña Las Lilas (which serves some of the highest quality of beef I have ever had as well as an incredible appetizer plate), Campo Bravo (where we enjoyed a highly diverse plate of cow components…), El Trapiche (a locals place with not only great beef but amazing pasta), and even Biking Buenos Aires (a bike tour that provided delicious pastries during our break)!

food, foodie, Cabaña Las Lilas, Puerto Madero, foodporn, Buenos Aires, Argentina, delicious, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The appetizer plate at Cabaña Las Lilas was a home run!

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The parrillada at Campo Bravo:  name that part

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Butternut squash stuffed pasta with an outstanding blue cheese sauce

pastry, churros, factura, food, foodie, foodporn, Buenos Aires, Argentina, delicious, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Pastries served as a snack during the bike ride

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Mate cups

dessert, postre, Cabaña Las Lilas, chocolate, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina, food, foodie, foodporn, Samsung Galaxy

Don’t forget dessert: this beauty courtesy of Cabaña Las Lilas

A place to stroll around – and bike around!

Buenos Aires is such a walkable city.  Trees and parks everywhere and, as I shared before, PLENTY-O monuments in this South American metropolis.  Walking down Ave. Libertador, which is bordered by a park between it and the river, is a good way to stretch the legs after an overnight flight – or after a massive lunch on beef and wine…  #justsayin

Libertador, Argentina, Buenos Aires, bike path, jogging trail, Olympus, photo, travel

Ave. Libertador is good for walking, jogging or riding!

One thing I had not contemplated to do is in Buenos Aires is to ride bicycles.  I mean, ride a bicycle in a large metropolis in Latin America?  Nuts, right??  Well, let me tell you, it was so much fun and, actually, safe!  I did not realize it but Buenos Aires has built bike lanes in some parts of town which meant that about 80% of the bike tour I did with Biking Buenos Aires was on bike lanes.  For about 13 of us, we had the main guide who shared a lot of great information about the sights, and two additional guides who supported the group, handled crossing intersections, and were just great guys.

I had never visited La Boca (more on it later) and got to re-visit the Plaza de Mayo and ride around the Casa Rosada.  We rode around Puerto Madero were we had a snack.  And then we hung out at the bike tour office to eat delicious empanadas that we had bought.  Enjoy these final pictures of what we saw during my bike tour and don’t forget to eat and explore to your hearts’ content in incredible Buenos Aires!

Cabildo, cathedral, Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo, Argentina, history, architecture, bike tour, travel, photo, Olympus

The Buenos Aires Cathedral in the back and the old Cabildo on the left

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The Women’s Bridge by Calatrava in Puerto Madero

 

2014: A Year of Travel and Food in Review

Madrid, Plaza Mayor, Spain, España, red, sienna, color, Samsung Galaxy

Well, 2014 is now for the history books.  Lots happened in this crazy world of ours and, likely, lots in each of our worlds.  My year started planning my big trips for the year:  Iceland and doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain (the latter with Trekking for Kids, a charity I am involved with and with whom I do a yearly trek somewhere around the world to improve the lives of orphaned children).  But the year brought me a few unexpected destinations and a return to some favorites.

Lake Placid – winter wonderland

But my first trip of the year was to wonderful Lake Placid, New York best known for hosting the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

Lake Placid, Olympic museum, New York, Olympus

Welcome to the museum!

There, I explored local food and beverages at great places like the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, the bar at the Whiteface Lodge, and at Lisa G’s (with its delicious chicken wings!).  I also got to skate on the Miracle on Ice skating Herb Brooks arena (after over a decade of not ice skating!), and got to do a luge run in the indoor training facility for the U.S. Olympic team!

 New York City

Business took me to NYC but only for an overnight visit.  I managed to squeeze in seeing my cousins A and Z and enjoyed a great meal with them.  One great outcome of this trip was this neat photo from my business partners’ office.

Empire State Building, New York City, NYC, Manhattan, blue sky, clouds, architecture

Picture perfect day!

I might add that the photos/videos from my airplane window seat upon takeoff from La Guardia were pretty neat thanks to the blanket of snow on the ground.  I shared some of them here but here is one example of the great opportunity I had on this flight.

winter, snow, New York City, Manhattan, Hudson River, view from plane, New Jersey, photos, window seat

Right after take-off

Washington, D.C.

I worked in DC for two years right in the heart of the city.  I so enjoyed being in the center of power, arguably, of the world watching people, exploring the various museums and monuments (surprise find:  the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery right by the White House, which I got to visit!), enjoying great cocktails (especially at Le Bar in the Sofitel) and savoring all the great food around town (like at Granville Moore’s or Café Mozart).

German food, Washington, DC; Cafe Mozart, delicious, food, foodie, foodporn, travel, Smsung Galaxy

Delicious German fare at Café Mozart!

I got to return on a winter weekend in 2014 as I just love the town and I got to attend the travel show held yearly in town.  I got to visit my former workplace and say hi to my former colleagues as well which was a nice touch.  I finally got to do a slow “walkaround” of Lafayette Square, a place I often went to to eat my lunch during workdays but that I never paid close attention to.   And then I got to hang out with a couple of friends and fellow trekkers from Trekking for Kids – icing on the proverbial cake!

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A pile of snow in front of the White House

Finally, I love when taking off from Reagan National airport affords me a neat view!

Pentagon, Washington, DC, takeoff, Reagan National, airport, view, airplane seat, photo, Samsung Galaxy, travel

A “close” look at the Pentagon

Traverse City

I had not heard about Traverse City ever until a couple of months before I went.  How could it be that this world traveler who had also seen a good bit of the States had never heard of this place??  I was pleasantly surprised at all there was to see and do around Traverse City.  From good food, great local beer, plenty of nature and outdoors, and excellent drives.  On top of it all, I actually ran into Cuban pork (one of my favorite dishes) at a local winery in the Leelanau Peninsula while exploring the area’s wine with the Sip & Savor festival – an event I greatly enjoyed.  Traverse City, Michigan, wine, food, festival, Sip and Savor, Leelanau Peninsula

But my favorite part of the whole trip was driving around the peninsulas, taking in the vistas and checking out the architecture of the area.  I did not get to see the dunes that are not far from Traverse City but that, my friends, will be for a future visit.

Iceland

My trip to Iceland was special.  It is a place I have always wanted to explore but I got to do it with dear friends and their two kids.  In addition, one of them had second (or was it third??) cousins there and she connected with them.  They hosted us for a great evening of food and wine and, more importantly, warmth and great company!

Iceland, dinner table, photo, Olympus

Sadly, I didn’t take pix of the great spread but here is the table we ate at!

I enjoyed seeing the diverse landscapes of the island.  There are not enough posts I could write about it to convey how majestic it is and I am not yet done writing about it (I did write about the South Shore, Reykjavik and its main church, the site of its first parliament, and the Blue Lagoon).  But here are a couple of the sights I enjoyed.  In the meantime, stay tuned for more posts about Iceland!

Akureyri, Iceland, view, mountains, water, travel, photo, view, vista,  Canon EOS Rebel

The view from our house in the northern town of Akureyri

Puerto Rico

As some of you may know from prior posts, I moved to Puerto Rico when I was 2 years old until I finished high school when I came back to the mainland U.S.  This year I went back to P.R. for a high school reunion.  Given many commitments, I had to keep it to a 2.5-day weekend visit centered on the reunion activities and my classmates.  Of course, and it goes without saying (or typing), that EVERYONE looks the same.  (You never know who is reading these things… best to be careful and say that.  LOL).

Sagrado Corazon, Santurce, Puerto Rico, reunion

OK, not a typical travel pic but I wanted to honor my classmates. Me? The one front & center!

We stayed at a resort in Rio Grande which was OK but did not compare to other resorts in terms of service, cleanliness, or quality of food and beaches.  But, what made the weekend perfect was sharing with so many wonderful people – I truly was happy to see them and try to catch up.

I did enjoy two things about this trip besides the reunion:  sunset at the resort and the landing in San Juan which was like a trip down memory lane seeing all the places I knew (on my side of the plane), so  much so on the latter that I dedicated a post to share the views from the landing!  Check it out here.

Puerto Rico, sunset, palm tree, ocean, silver, grey, photo, travel, Samsung Galaxy, silhouette

The start of sunset. Picture perfect.

Santa Barbara, California

There are so many places you hear about constantly and sometimes you just never think anything of them.  Santa Barbara is a name I have heard so much yet never made it a point of going there.  That is, until  my friends Chris and Wendy invited me to join them on a trip to Cali.  I only could take a long weekend not the whole week of their trip but I decided to go with them and explore Santa Barbara with them.  I am so glad I did, even if the trip was so short. The trip started with lunch at The Hat in Simi Valley where I enjoyed a delicious hot pastrami sandwich and an obscenely (and deliciously) large bag of onion rings!

pastrami, The Hat, Simi Valley, onion rings, California, food, foodporn, foodie

Look at THAT!

The food, the wine and the company were excellent.  But the sights of Santa Barbara were indeed worth the effort:  the Presidio, the Old Mission, and -of course- the beach!  This is a place I would love to get back to just to relax!

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At the pier, ready to watch the sun set

Spain:  Madrid, León, Santiago and the Camino

Oh, Spain!  Where to begin.  León, where the trip began?  Any of the number of towns along the Camino de Santiago, where we walked and experienced a millennial pilgrimage?  Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrimage ends and near where my great-grandfather was born?  Or, Madrid, the grand dame of Spain?

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León captivated me

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Detail of the massive Plaza Mayor in the heart of Madrid

beef, steak, sea salt, Madrid, cafe, Spain, food, foodie, foodporn, Samsung Galaxy, travel, photo

Well, I can’t talk about Spain without talking food!

Morocco

Unfortunately, my visit to Morocco was short as I was headed to Spain to do the Camino de Santiago.  I got to experience a little bit of Marrakesh but the bulk of the visit was spent in Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco – quite an unexpected vibe to a Moroccan city for me (I knew little about Morocco before this visit!).  It is a little weird that I am writing about Morocco in the year in review before I have even finished writing about my visit there last summer!

As is usually my reaction to Arab countries, I loved the architecture.  The red of Marrakesh was a stark contrast to the white and some blue of Essaouira.  And just the same, Marrakesh was intense whereas Essaouira was relaxed – another sharp contrast.  I felt like I could live in Essaouira quite easily though Marrakesh would require a significant adjustment.  What a neat experience to see these big differences within Morocco!

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The red of Marrakesh in the city’s walls

Essaouira, Morocco, blue, fort, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Essaouira and its blue

The Florida Gulf Coast near Tampa

I visit Tampa where I have a good bit of family a few times a year.  Usually, this means hanging out together or doing things nearby.  But I rarely go beyond the area of Tampa where they all live.  Christmas 2014 was the time, given the length of my visit, to go beyond.  We did a couple of day trips to “sample” places like Naples (about 2.5 hrs away from north Tampa), Lido Key, Longboat Key, and Anna Maria Island.  The latter seemed like a great community to live in but otherwise, not that charming.  St. Armand at Lido Key did strike me as a neat place to go and walk around and sit back and relax.  We checked out the park at the southern tip of the key and walk to the beach.  Later we drove the length of Longboat Key (pretty long indeed!) but we “broke it up” by stopping at The Lazy Lobster for an outdoor lunch centered on, guess what, lobster!

lobster, Longboat Key, seafood, foodie, delicious, travel, food, Samsung Galaxy

This delicious dish is called the lazy man’s lobster – served all cracked up!

But 2014 was also a year of exploring not only far off places but also places near my own hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

On the Camino de Santiago: Day 3 from Portomarín to Palas del Rei

mixed salad, ensalada mixta, tomatoes, tuna,food, Spain, Camino, pilgrim's menu, fried eggs, Canon EOS Rebel, foodporn

I enjoyed our night in Portomarín as the town had a nice location along the Miño River – and we enjoyed sitting at a bar the night before with a nice wine enjoying the awesome weather.  So I was rested and ready for Day 3.

We left the hotel (and our luggage, which was picked up by a service that dropped it off at our next hotel)around 9 AM and went towards the river where we had just a little confusion as to which way to go.  We crossed the river and returned to the path that would take us to Palas del Rei.

As usual, we stopped for lunch at a place past Hospital but before Ligonde.  It has a very nice outdoor seating area with plenty of shade.  The menu was typical of the pilgrim’s menu.

pilgrim's menu, Camino de Santiago, Camino, Spain, food, trekking, hiking, Canon EOS Rebel

Menu board with the offerings for the day

In this case, for example, 9 euros would get you a nice burger or lomo (pork) with real French fries accompanied with fried eggs!

lomo, pork, food, Spain, Camino, pilgrim's menu, fried eggs

Delicious!!!

I also have to highlight one of my favorite dishes:  ensalada mixta which has tomatoes, lettuce, tuna, onions, olives and just goodness!

mixed salad, ensalada mixta, tomatoes, tuna,food, Spain, Camino, pilgrim's menu, fried eggs, Canon EOS Rebel, foodporn

Not only colorful and diverse but mighty tasty!

Palas del Rei is a small town of over 3,000 people.  We arrived around 4:30 PM after a beautiful, but long walk, with some good climbs.

Camino de Santiago, Spain, trekking, hiking, path, Palas del Rei, wildlife, farm

Wildlife along the way!

Camino de Santiago, Spain, trekking, hiking, path, Palas del Rei, Samsung

Dirt path going between farms

Camino de Santiago, Spain, trekking, hiking, path, Palas del Rei, Olympus

Sometimes the Camino overlaps with a modern road

Camino de Santiago, Spain, trekking, hiking, path, Palas del Rei, Olympus

Continuing to walk in rural parts of the Camino

We walked into it and past a church where a funeral service was being held.  We approached it from the back and then saw the steps leading down from the church to the street below – a steep walk down.

San Tirso, Palas del Rei, Spain, Camino, church, charming, Santiago, trekking, photo, España, Spain

San Tirso Church

Our hotel, Hotel Casa Benilde was not far from that point (maybe 50 meters?).

We arrived at the hotel and the manager and his assistant were at the front desk, likely expecting us.  They were the nicest folks, so ready to make us feel at home, walking us through every detail – including how they could accommodate our celiac and vegetarians in the group.  The hotel lobby was small and, we found out, that was the reason they “scored” low on the star rating system in Spain.  We were shocked at the low star rating as this place had excellent customer service, incredible breakfast catering to the dietary needs (all items were labeled gluten-free or not, etc.), the rooms were clean (if small), and the wifi was great in the rooms.

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More about the Camino before Day 3:

–  Day 1

–  Day 2

And after Day 3:

–  Day 4

 

Michigan Wine Country: Unexpected and Beautiful

Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting

I was looking forward to visiting Traverse City, Michigan and exploring the neighboring areas but little did I know my timing was going to be SO good.  You see, that weekend, the Leelanau Peninsula Spring Sip & Wine was taking place (check here for other events!).  Over 20 wineries participated and the ticket included a small appetizer and several tastings of wine at each participating winery.  Heaven!Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting

I did have to mind how many places I visited as I only had one afternoon and I would not want to rush just to score more wineries!   (<- crazy talk)  Plus, it was my first time in the area so I wanted to also admire the scenery.

Upon entering Leelanau Peninsula, our first stop was the Ciccone Vineyards.

Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting, Ciccone, Madonna

If the last name sounds familiar, it is Madonna‘s last name:  it is her Dad’s winery.  I don’t know the full story but I know at some point (and maybe still) they are not close.  The “savor” part at this winery was the homemade chili by the owner.  It was delicious and perfect given the rainy weather at that point in the day.  We enjoyed chatting with the staff!

Michigan, wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Sip and Savor, wine tasting, Ciccone, Madonna

The grounds of the Ciccone vineyards

My partner-in-crime, er, fellow traveler and I moved on to Blustone Vineyards which stole a piece of my heart…  Why?  They were serving CUBAN PERNIL (pork)!!!!  As a 100% Cuban-blooded human being and cook of Cuban pork myself I was impressed with the quality of the pork.  The pork was from Georgina‘s in Traverse City (I looked at their menu online and I immediately started salivating!!  Next time in TC, I will HAVE to visit!).  Kudos!

Michigan, winery, vineyard, Traverse City,  Blustone winery, Leelanau Peninsula, wine tasting, wine tasting room

Plus, the wine at Blustone was the most impressive of the whole lot I sampled on this visit.  I also did love the space:  modern, spacious, and well lit with natural light.  It got quite packed after we arrived but there still was plenty of space to hang around.  Good job, Blustone!

Michigan, winery, vineyard, Traverse City,  Blustone winery, Leelanau Peninsula, wine tasting, wine tasting room

Random driving led us to encounter 45 North winery.  “What’s with the name?,” you may say?  Well, it is near the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole!

45 Parallel, Michigan, road sign, halfway

The place was festive on the inside and out as you can see!  We enjoyed being served our tastings there and watching the “hat scene”.  Good job, 45 North!

Michigan, wine, vineyard, winery, 45 North, wine bottle, Leelanau

The tasting area and the bottle tree that greets visitors – pretty cool!

Michigan, wine, vineyard, winery, 45 North, wine bottle, Leelanau, food, white wine

What greeted us upon entering the testing room!

Michigan, wine, vineyard, winery, 45 North, wine bottle, Leelanau, hat, clever

One of the cleverest hats I saw!

It was time to keep on trucking along and we decided to go to Old Mission Peninsula to try a winery that was recommended, Brys Estate.  I enjoyed their reds – and the view of the east bay.  Though there was a great outdoor seating area with Adirondack chairs, because of the slightly weather, we did not partake of the outdoor.  But that was fine because we enjoy chatting with our server and some of the other visitors.

Brys, Estate, winery, vineyard, Old Mission, peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan

Brys, Estate, winery, vineyard, Old Mission, peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan

A view of the east bay

So, after this Saturday spent driving around these and other Michigan wineries, I can safely say it is a GREAT way to explore the beauty of Michigan – and enjoying delicious food and wines!  I do hope to return as there were many wineries I did not get to check out.  I love having a reason to go back to places I like!

The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa: Something for Everyone!

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, view, vista, hotel, travel, photo, blue sky, East Grand Traverse Bay

I had the opportunity to head north to Michigan recently to explore the town and area around Traverse City.  Mind you, I had only learned about Traverse City a couple of years ago when I read about it from one of my favorite travel blogs, The Working Mom’s Travels.  So, always ready to explore new places, I did not hesitate to make the trip even though I could only go for a weekend.

Getting there required a connection for me coming from Atlanta but, frankly, it was easy as a Michigan cherry pie as Detroit is a great airport, easy to navigate and with many flights in and out to my place of origin and my destination.  Traverse City is but 10 minutes away from the airport, a straight drive in.

I arrived at my place of stay, the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in no time.  The courtesy airport pickup was excellent and my driver, Aaron, did a great job of giving me an intro to the area.  His friendliness was just the first one I experienced after arriving but it was not to be the only one at the GT Resort and Spa!  (I like the GT abbreviation they use because I went to university at another GT:  Georgia Tech!)Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, view, vista, hotel, travel, photo, blue sky,

When I arrived, the place was packed as there was a convention that weekend but everything flowed smoothly, with check-in being lightning fast.  The Grand Lobby is large and has multiple seating areas (so many hotels these days forget to make their lobby inviting; I like it when they feel almost like a living room) including one in front of a fireplace, another in front of a piano, and a couple of others, including a small bar area.

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, view, vista, hotel, travel, photo, blue sky,

Lobby at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa

The hotel has about 600 rooms, a combination of standard hotel rooms, suites, and condos, some privately owned.  Wifi is free and it’s everywhere – now THAT scores high on my list of amenities, as I am sure does for everyone.  It gets so old to go to a hotel where you have to pay for it…  Come on, people, move on to the 2010s before the 2020s get here!

Since I arrived later in the afternoon, I decided to stay in and not go into town (I knew that would be on my agenda on the next day anyway).  So I opted to check out the health club facilities and explore some of the resort.  I guess I am not surprised their health club was larger and more complete than a standard hotel as this is not a standard hotel.  Plenty of treadmills, elliptical, rowing machine, etc. and not of the archaic kind (mental note:  add this to my hotel pet peeves list…).  The health club overlooks a large indoor tennis facility that apparently is well known.  I didn’t count how many courts but at least 5, if not more.  So if you pick the right piece of equipment and your timing is right, instead of watching TV, you may be able to watch a live tennis match!  Next door is a large indoor pool entertainment area with stuff for kids of all ages to enjoy.  Pretty neat place.

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, hotel, travel, photo, pool, recreation

Pool area

With the workout done ahead of eating a big meal (see how I plan ahead??), it was time to shower and get a cat nap in.  The bed and pillows were so comfortable it took me no time to get to that nap.

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, hotel, travel, photo, bed

Look at that bed!! All comfort!

Recharged, I decided it was time to discover some Michigan wines since I had never tried one before.  Yes, I had planned to taste some wines the next day as part of Leelanau Peninsula’s Sip & Savor festival but I am nothing if not a student and a learner, so no harm in pre-research 🙂  The resort’s up-high restaurant and bar, the Aerie Restaurant and Lounge, sits on the 16th floor of the tower at the Grand Traverse.  I really liked the openness of the bar and restaurant with great views of the East Grand Traverse Bay and the golf course at the resort. Unfortunately, it was cloudy that day so the setting’s incredible sunset views were not going to happen for me but I can only imagine how spectacular the sunset must be from up there.

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, view, vista, architecture, hotel, travel, photo

The Aerie offers great vistas 360 degrees

Having sampled a couple of wines, I proceeded to have dinner.  There is not bad table at the Aerie since they all have a window view.  In the area where I sat, the booths away from the windows are slightly raised above the floor so you also can get a pretty unobstructed view from them – and so I did.  I enjoyed a blackened trout and a spinach salad that were tasty and fresh.  I capped the meal with their version of a bananas foster which consisted of a small scoop of cinnamon ice cream, dark chocolate pot de crème, chocolate mousse chips, bruleed bananas, and banana cheesecake.  Pretty.  Dang.  Delicious.  I got to my room and in no time I had fallen asleep fully clothed…  That’s a good night!

Aerie Restaurant, dinner, bananas foster, chocolate mousse, Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, hotel, travel, photo, bed

The awesome dessert that closed up my meal

Though some signs of the age of the wing I stayed were evident (other wings are newer), for the most part a good effort has been made to update the spaces, especially the rooms and bathrooms.  The room I stayed at had two double beds and was quite large with a side view towards the East Grand Traverse Bay with Old Mission Peninsula in the background – not bad!

Though I am not a golfer, if you are, this may be a perfect place for you.  Their main golf course, aptly named “The Bear,” is a Jack Nicklaus signature course and I hear it is for those who like a good challenge!  They have two other golf courses in the 900-acre property, one a Gary Player signature course (“The Wolverine”) and another designed by William Newcomb (the more pleasantly named “Spruce Run”).  Looking out the window of the Aerie, I was begrudging not having pursued learning how to golf!  (I did briefly try in the late 1990s but if you keep missing the ball when you tee off, you know it is time to pursue other interests…)

On the day of my departure, I went for a massage at the spa.  Work had been hectic the week before and my last massage was four months ago so I was overdue for one to help set me right.  A mid-morning massage, a couple of hours before heading to the airport, was the right thing to close up the weekend visit.  Using cherry infused oils (I was worried the smell would be too much but it was actually subtle), the relaxation massage was just what I needed before returning home to face the work week after such a fun weekend.

I am glad I invested my time and money to visit Traverse City and in an upcoming post, you will see what else contributed to making this such a fun and excellent weekend!

Have YOU been to Traverse City and its vicinity?  What is your favorite spot?  I leave you with the view from my room towards the East Grand Traverse Bay!

Grand Traverse Resort, Traverse City, Michigan, view, vista, hotel, travel, photo, blue sky, East Grand Traverse Bay

View towards East Grand Traverse Bay

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I was hosted at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa during this visit.  Opinions all ilivetotravel’s.

Monticchiello: Charm in the Middle of Tuscany

La Porta, foodie, food, restaurant, Monticchiello, delicious, pasta with truffle, Italy, Italia

A few years ago, in one of my trips to Italy, we spent a few days in Tuscany.   We opted to rent apartments in a small mountaintop town called Monticchiello, a charming place, sandwiched between Pienza and Montepulciano (lucky folks!!!).  Montecchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, food, pasta, truffles, Palm Sunday, photos, travel, exploring

We truly lucked out:  the town was quaint, quite small, and its location was central and offering greats views. The place we stayed at was an awesome building a few hundreds of years old (but, the landlady mis-led us in terms of it sleeping all of us – I ended on a cot by the dining room).

apartment, Tuscany, La Toscana, Monticchiello, Italy, Italia, travel, lodging, accommodation, photo, old, stone

What a real person’s room looked like in that apartment!

A meal to remember

One of its gems was the only restaurant up there, aptly named Osteria La Porta (the gate).  There was a wait so we went to stand outside.  Not a few minutes later, the owner came out with a bottle of wine and five glasses for us to entertain ourselves with, courtesy of the house.  Yea, like THAT would happen in the U.S.!  We immediately knew we were at the right place.

La Porta, foodie, food, restaurant, Monticchiello, delicious, pasta with truffle, Italy, Italia

THE right place!

And we were not disappointed.  We made it inside and began studying the menu.  However, the waiter advised us that the pasta with truffle was very special.  That was a plate with no meat of any sort.  Just fresh pasta, fresh truffles, and a trickle of plain butter sauce.  I decided that if it was being recommended, I ought to try despite its lack of meat or any veggies I normally like (mushrooms do not fall under that category).  It was simply a superb dish.  I can safely say top 5 ever eaten by me without any fear of exaggeration.

La Porta, foodie, food, restaurant, Monticchiello, delicious, pasta with truffle, Italy, Italia

5 very happy campers

A special coincidence

We traveled to Italy during Holy Week which led to a few opportunities for good timing to happen.  Such was that Sunday at Monticchielo:  we were there on Palm Sunday.  We went to church that Sunday and it was neat to hear Mass in Italian.  But  bigger surprise awaited us:  the procession around town.  All 40  or 50 of us followed the priest around this neat little town.  I normally don’t spend enough time researching places to find out if there are local events that could be of interest – I just explore once I get somewhere.  Maybe I have missed some things with this approach but, I have to say, it makes running into these local situations so much more fun.

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

The faithful getting their palms before the procession

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

The priest leading the procession

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

Walking down the narrow streets of Monticchiello

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

Headed back in to the church at the end of the procession

What experiences have you had were you as pleasantly surprised while traveling?  (Except the part about me in a cot next to a kitchen!)

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