January 14, 2011 Sam’s birthday celebration

Since we didn’t have a chance to celebrate Sam’s birthday on the actual day, January 11, we go over to Ryan and Jon’s a couple of days after the fact. By this time, Sam has recovered from his bout of croup and is looking as bouncy as ever. He is such a happy, charming little boy. He starts our visit out with a game called, Look Zayde. So Zayde looks and Sam flings himself on a cushion in one room and then runs into another room and flings himself on another cushion yelling, “Look, Zayde.” We enjoy the game although haven’t a clue what it’s about.

Next we go upstairs where Nathan and Sam show us their new Magna-tiles, a recent gift from Gram and Gramps. Nathan builds a tower and Sam builds a house. It’s a little cube that he puts little cars in. I keep putting my foot in the garage and Sam says, “No foot!”

Later we open some presents and Sam enjoys his Duplo “men,” puzzle and puppy puppets. He corrals his men in his card. He also takes the blocks of his puzzle and makes a tall tower and poses some of the Duplo figures on top. It is all very cute. Nathan in the meantime is playing with Zayde making some big boy Lego knights. It is really too hard for Nathan but he watches while John makes the catapault.

Later we all eat cupcakes that I actually made. Sam starts with the icing but eats the whole thing. It is a fun day seeing the kids and grandkids (except Sarah who has a cold) and it’s hard to believe that time has passed by so quickly and Sam is two.

January 11, 2011 Happy Birthday, Sam!

Today is Sam’s birthday. He is two. Sometimes I think he is older than that because he speaks so well. He even sneezes and then blesses himself! Anyway he is as cute as can be and we are looking forward to seeing him soon. Sam was supposed to have a little birthday party last Saturday but caught a cold which developed into croup and he ended up staying in the hospital overnight on Friday. So no birthday party. At first I suggested we just celebrate his birthday when we have our postponed Christmas celebration on the 16th. But, NO!, how could I suggest that when my whole life I have been campaigning for separate birthday celebrations for December (and January) birthdays. On Friday we will have Sam’s birthday followed by Christmas on Sunday.

In other news, what’s with the weather? I now realize how incredibly lucky we were to fly to Europe through JFK and not get hit with any bad weather either coming or going. Even while we were in Europe we only had chilly, misty weather at worse. Since I am not the world’s best flyer, I am thankful for clear skies.

So not much else going on yet this month. We are hoping to go to St. George next week to rev things up for a kitchen remodel. Brightening up the kitchen and getting a better cooking solution will be wonderful. It seems like there are a lot of contractors eager for our business. Times are tough for the building trade. A real plus in going to St. George is that the sun is usually shining there as opposed to here where it is foggy much of the time in the winter.

December 29 & 30, 2010 Madrid, Spain

Wednesday, Decedmber 29
We are winding up our trip now. I am lumping these last two Madrid days together. It’s about 5 PM on December 30 and our flight leaves tomorrow morning at 10 AM. We have vowed not to eat between 10 and midnight tonight. So I don’t think there will be too much happening from here on out.

On Wednesday we leave Toledo and make our way to Madrid. Madrid looks like a big city. There’s a bunch of industrial stuff on the outskirts and smog hangs over the city. The traffic is heavy but not too bad. We negotiate our way to the hotel with no problems. We can have our rooms right away which is a plus. John goes to return the rental car and walk back from the train station. Our Madrid outing starts around 2:30 PM.

First we decide to get some lunch. Well it seems that everyone else in Madrid has the same idea and every place we pass is jammed with people. A lot of them are smoking. Not good.

One of the things I have noticed here in Madrid is that the cafes are packed all the time. Whenever we walk by a cafe there is standing room only. And there are a lot of people out on the street. One wonders when they work.

We have decided to visit the Reina Sofia Museum this afternoon and decide to eat there instead. Probably no smoking at the cafe there. So we eat the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich and then start our visit.

The major work at this museum is Picasso’s Guernica.
Picasso  Guernica

Guernica, a small town in Spain’s Basque country, was bombed by German and Italian warplanes on April 26, 1937. Hitler supported Franco’s fascist movement and used this opportunity to try out new munitions. The town was mostly populated by women and children as the men were away fighting the war. The painting shows the horrors of war on the civilian population. It was shown at the Paris International Exposition in 1937 and has become a symbol of war’s destruction of innocent lives.

The museum also has a lot of Picasso’s sketches for the various pieces of Guernica and also film about the civil war, posters, and photographs. Although we rent the audioguide, it has very little information about the works. There are no English subtitles so we are left in the dark about much.

Much later, after 9, we head off to dinner nearby. The hotel recommends the restaurant. There are actually a few tables occupied. From the general chatter in the room we can tell they are mostly Americans. This is the worst dinner we have had. Greasy, heavy food. None of us eat much.

Thursday, December 30

Today is our day to visit the Prado. We get up early so that we can be first in line. Once again we are the only people having breakfast. It’s 8 AM, where is everybody?! (Probably tired out from eating at 11 PM last night.) There are quite a few people who have the same idea as we do and we end up waiting in line for almost 45 minutes. They have one person selling tickets. Here’s a picture of John and Sarah standing in line.

Once inside we rent the audioguides and set out. John and I see some amazing 12th century stuff and a bunch of early Renaissance alterpieces and devotional pieces. Sarah has gone off on her own. Two high points in the Prado are

Velazquez  Las Meninas
Velazquez’s Las Meninas and

Goya   May 3rd
Goya’s The Third of May.

The Prado is an amazing museum. We stay for about 5 1/2 hours seeing as much as we can before our feet and backs give out.

And now there is nothing more to do but find some early dinner somehow, pack up, and fly home. It has been a wonderful trip.

December 28, 2010 Toledo, Spain

Thank goodness John is feeling better today and we are able to continue our journeys. We leave plenty of time to get to Toledo and meet our contact at our next lodgings. We get to Toledo with a half an hour leeway and then hit monumental traffic. We go about 1 Km in the half an hour. Then we get into the old city where most of it is a pedestrian zone unless you know where you are going and can get a policeman to lift the bollards. We finally give up and park in an underground garage and call our contact, Teresa. Apparently she is awaiting our call and says she will meet us in half an hour. We scurry back to the car and grab a few belongings because there is no way we are going to pull all our stuff up the steep, cobbled calles. Finally we reach our destination and then wait an additional half hour for Teresa. Not a good way to start the day.

Waiting for Teresa
Waiting for Teresa

She is all apologies for leaving us standing in the cold and shows us up to our flat (operative word “up”) but the place is nice and we settle in. Next mission, lunch! Not wanting to eat a three course lunch we stop at a little bar for bocadillos (sandwiches).

Sarah and John enjoy a lunchtime beer
A toast for Toledo

After lunch, the first thing we do is go look at the Alcazar.
Alcazar
The Alcázar of Toledo is a stone fortification located in the highest part of Toledo. It was used as a Roman palace in the 3rd century and renovated in 1535. During the Spanish Civil War, the building was held against overwhelming Spanish Republican forces in the Siege of the Alcázar. The incident became a central piece of Spanish Nationalist lore. It is hard to get a good picture since the streets are narrow and the building is very large.

Next we visit the Toledo Cathedral. It is enormous inside with many statues, alterpieces, a fabulous altar and choir. The choir is especially interesting as the bottom and back of the seats are totally carved. Sarah and I take our saints cheat sheet and enjoy once again identifying the who’s who of the cathedral.
Holy Church Cathedral
Holy Church Cathedral, Toledo

After the cathedral we visit the Sephardic Museum housed in an old synagogue. Visiting Jewish sites in Europe is usually a somber occasion. The synagogue gorgeously decorated with Hebrew and middle Eastern designs has three exhibition rooms. Unfortunately there is not too much left of what was a thriving Jewish community here. The Jews were expelled in 1492 and whatever remnants were left were subject to two later expulsions. No photography allowed.

Last item on our Toledo visit? A traditional dinner. We go to the restaurant that Teresa has recommended, Cafe Aurelio. We arrive for our 9 PM reservation. There is only one other couple. One other couple arrives around 10:30 and another as we are leaving at 11. We long for dinner at a regular hour.

Gazpacho with partridge
I have the only menu with English penciled in. Some of the descriptions are fanciful kind of like Google translating a page. John and I start with gazpacho with partridge. Sarah has what is called
Crackling mushrooms
“crackling mushrooms.” It’s actually giant pieces of mushrooms breaded and fried and served in a marinara sauce.
Garbanzos with lobster and cockles
John and I have garbanzos with lobster and cockles for our main course. Surprisingly it is served cold. It seems that we are fashioning the perfect summer dinner. Too bad it’s not warm out.
Pork with pureed potatoes and beans
Sarah has pork cheeks with pureed potatoes and beans. The pork is good but the potatoes are so runny that they need to be eaten with a spoon. The beans are meh. The silliest part of dinner is when we order sherbet with three spoons and it comes in a glass and is completely liquidy. Who knew?

December 27, 2010 Segovia, Spain

Today we have a problem. John has eaten something at breakfast (he thinks chorizo) that has made him violently ill. This occurs when we are partway into the four hour drive to Segovia. Fortunately, it is closer to the end of the drive. John being sick is a bad thing. Bad for him. Bad for us. He is the only one who can drive the manual transmission car. He is so brave continuing on to the hotel in Segovia after being so sick. He is spending the rest of today in bed. We hope he is better soon.

In the meantime, after getting John tucked away, Sarah and I go out to explore the old city and get some lunch. One of the big attractions here is the Roman aqueduct.

Sarah and the aqueduct
Our hotel is right outside the pedestrian zone of the old city. It is really good that everything is within walking distance. The aqueduct is amazing. It was built by the Romans in the first century A.D. It transports water from the mountains and is about 9.5 miles long. At it’s tallest it is about 93 feet high. It is formed of single and double arches and is made of granite that is fitted together. There is no mortar. And it was still in use until recently. It is an engineering marvel.

Sarah and I will marvel some more later. First we go to tourist information. We get a map in English with some high points to see. Sarah and I are not good map readers. We twist it this way and that but finally after only one mistake are on our way to visit the cathedral.

The cathedral is situated on a pleasant square and we decide to stop for some lunch. Only a ham and cheese sandwich today!

Enjoying some sun in the cathedral plaza
Oh, and a beer.

Then on to the cathedral which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and various important Segovian saints.

Segovia cathedral
Sarah and I enjoy roaming around the cathedral immensely. I have my cheat sheet of saints and their attributes with me so we walk around identifying various statues and paintings. Our favorite is Saint Anthony Abbot who is often pictured with a little pig. (The pig is actually the embodiment of the devil tempting him but he usually looks pretty cute.)

St. Anthony Abbot with his pig
See the pig? It’s down by his feet.

After a thorough investigation of the cathedral, we walk through the old Jewish section. We stop to look at a menu of a restaurant there. Hmmm, shellfish and ham. Not too kosher. There doesn’t really appear to be anything left of the Jewish quarter.

Now back to the aqueduct. Sarah wants to climb the stairs to the top to take some pictures. I am too tired and wait for her return.

Aqueduct
Amazing!

For dinner Sarah and I go out to a restaurant near the cathedral. She and I are pretty fooded out. She has soup and pasta and I have salad and pasta. We are done before 11 PM! When I come back John is feeling better although still weak from his digestive revolt.

December 26, 2010 Bilbao, Spain

Today we leave San Sebastian and head for Bilbao. Bilbao is the home of the Guggenheim museum architected by Frank Geary. Reaching Bilbao around lunchtime, we are excited to see the incredible architectural masterpiece. Here’s the view from our hotel window.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

We walk over and stop at the museum cafe for lunch. It’s a really good lunch.

Dog topiary
Giant dog topiary outside Guggenheim Museum

Leek soup with crushed potato
At the cafe, John and I had the leek soup with crushed potato.

Lightly baked egg, red onion soup and bread
Sarah had a red onion soup that had a baked egg in it and some bread. These were, of course, merely the starters. This was a fixed menu for 18 euros that included a bottle of wine, a wonderful amuse bouche of a tiny sip of potato soup, a starter, main and dessert. At a museum cafe. How do these people eat like this?

I had a block of turkey with cabbage and bacon underneath for my main. John had pork cheeks with celeriac and Sarah had a tomato stuffed with various seafoods on squid ink risotto. My dessert was the best – light chocolate sponge cake with coffee mousse and honey ice cream. (I am trying to cut down on the pictures for now since the internet is slow.)

Then it’s on to the exhibits. The Guggenheim is currently hosting a look at Dutch genre painting from the 17th century. This is stuff we love! They have on display one of Vermeer’s painting, the geographer. We ooh and ash over the painting and the rest of the exhibit.

vermeer "The Geographer"
The Geographer

Then we move on to the modern section. I definitely need the audio tour to understand these works. One is mostly red and another mostly black. Lastly we look at the Serra wing. This is devoted to the sculptures of Richard Serra who does large scale metal sculptures. They are supposed to be about time. They are giant elipses inside of other elipses or wavy pieces of metal. You can walk into them. It is interesting. We leave the museum and walk around outside taking pictures of various sculptures.

Guggenheim tulips
Tulips

Guggenheim spider
Spider

We have dinner at the hotel dining room that is supposed to be good called Beltz the Black. It is good and we have another successful gastronomic experience.

Scallop "sandwich" with herb salad
After a couple of tasty amuse bouche Sarah and I have a scallop “sandwich” with herb salad.

Octopus with rice, marrow and clams
John opts for the octopus with rice, marrow and clams.

Pigeon with livers, mushrooms and mezze rigatoni
I think I have the best main course of the evening, roasted pigeon with livers, mushrooms and mezze rigatoni. It was really good.

Sirloin with bacon and sauces
Sarah has sirloin with what must be a half pound of bacon and a couple of sauces.

Hake with clams
And John has hake with clams. We decline dessert but they bring us a little dessert anyway which included egg nog, raspberry puree, a little cake and a chocolate. Good thing we didn’t order dessert.

December 25, 2010 San Sebastian, Spain

Merry Christmas to everyone! This is the first Christmas I have ever been away from home or a relative’s house. It had some high points and a low point. I am sad that our Skyping attempt with Jonathan and his family is poor due to technical difficulties. We miss Jon, Ryan and the kids a lot. Jon looks sad that we can’t talk well. So the phone conversation is kind of a bummer. But we do have a good time and a great dinner here in St. Sebastian.

It is sunny today! Yay! We drive up to the top of Mt. Igueldo and have a look at the city from a different perspective. A nice couple takes our picture.

Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas!

San Sebastian is a lovely city. It has a lot of well-kept 19th century buildings, an old town, and a wide sandy beach. The ring of mountains around it adds drama to the setting.

San Sebastian from Mt. Igueldo
San Sebastian from Mt. Igueldo

We return from our outing to our hotel, Villa Soro, which is old worldly beautiful. We dress up for our Christmas luncheon.

Villa Soro
Villa Soro

San Sebastian is also the gastronomique capital of the world boasting more Michelin three star (and other star) restaurants than anywhere else. Of course they are all closed the whole time we are here. We’ll have to come back. And that brings us to our fabulous Christmas luncheon. A couple of restaurants are open for Christmas dinner and we are able to get reservations at Viento Sur. It is a small place and is packed with large families. At last we have a wonderful meal in San Sebastian that is really fitting for celebrating Christmas.

The starters are incredible. Really I wish I had ordered a couple of these instead of a main course (even though the main course is great.)

Clams with pale dry sherry sauce
John starts with clams in a pale dry sherry sauce. He says the dish is brilliant. The sauce is light and flavorful and the clams are cooked perfectly.

Tomato and olive oil cream with scarlet shrimp, cheese powder and passion sorbet
Sarah has tomato and olive oil cream with scarlet shrimp, cheese powder and passion fruit sorbet. She cannot stop oohing over this. It comes without the cream so you can see the components and then they pour the cream over it. The cream tastes like the very essence of tomatoes.

Scallop with peach, cauliflower puree and Iberian pork fat
I have the scallops with peach, cauliflower puree and Iberian pork fat. It is fabulous. The scallops are cooked perfectly.

For his main course John has
Confit codfish with red pepper cream, tomato and albahaca foam
confit of codfish with red pepper cream and tomato and albahaca foam. The fish is gelatinous and delicious.

Iberian sirloin with fried potatoes and mustard sauce
Sarah has Iberian sirloin with fried potatoes and mustard sauce. This is actually a mistake but we do a lot of pointing while ordering and the waitperson misinterprets where Sarah’s finger is. But the sirloin is really good and the mustard sauce is outstanding.

Roast shoulder of lamb with veal trotters and potatoes with lemon
I have roast should of lamb with veal trotters and potatoes with lemon. I think this is the best dish of all. The lamb and veal are served in a block with a wonderful sauce and the potatoes are delicious with the tartness of the lemon. I would never think to put lemon in potatoes. But now I will.

Okay we are full but we must try a dessert or two. So we order
Left-chocolate cream with orange, muscatel, and olive oil sherbert, right-white chocolate and coriander coulant with malt ice cream and biscuit foam
on the left, chocolate cream with coriander coulant with malt ice cream and biscuit foam and on the right,white chocolate and corander coulant with malt ice cream and biscuit foam. We are stunned.

Replete from our fabulous dinner (which took about three hours), we return to the hotel with happy Christmas in San Sebastian thoughts.

December 24, 2010 Dune du Pilat/San Sebastian

We wake up to snowy rooftops in Eymet. Perhaps the little church was not vigilant last night. But it is not enough to hinder travel and we depart Eymet for our first stop, the Dune du Pilat.

Almost there
Actually, there are a couple of things in France named after Pilat. There’s also a park. But this dune is reportedly the highest sand dune in Europe. It’s about 150 feet high. We are excited to see our namesake but first we stop for lunch in Arcachon.

Arcachon is an attractive seaside town on the Arcachon basin which is arm of the Bay of Biscay. But today is no day for lolling about on the beach. It is co-old. And the wind is howling. We stop at a noname place for lunch to get out of the wind. John and Sarah order moules. It seems the most popular dish here.

moules and frites
I am not so much a fan so I order sole and show off by taking all the fillets off the bone while my poor fish stares up at me with his lopsided eyes. Arcachon, for those fans of Anthony Bourdain, was the summer vacation spot for the Bourdain family.

After lunch we arrive at the Dune du Pilat. Sarah is excited to pose by our namesake.

Yeah, it's named after us
Yeah, it’s named after us. We hurry to the gift shop to buy up all the souveniers. But, oh no, every last article has the alternate (and incorrect) spelling, Dune du Pyla. Darn, I was going to get cute t-shirts for Nathan and Sam. Really annoying.

We take the path through the woods and behold the great Dune du Pilat. It’s really big.

Dune du Pilat

We leave a little sand graffiti.

Sand graffiti
Pilat was here.

Now we need to hurry on to San Sebastian to get there before dark. The drive is no trouble and we get to San Sebastian and check in around 5 PM. We are staying at the Villa Soro which Sarah says is “swank.” I’ll have some pictures of it tomorrow. We need to hurry and get cleaned up for our fancy Christmas Eve dinner at the Maria Christina Hotel, the best hotel in town. Unfortunately, only two restaurants are open tonight, Saigon, at the Maria Christina and another one to which one has to wear formal clothes. So we are having Vietnamese food tonight!

Well, what a disappointment. The food was neither Vietnamese nor good. San Sebastian, a mecca for foodies, has let us down. The food was kind of like what you would get at Panda Express. I am sure the people who do my nails would not recognize it as Vietnamese. I am not going to bother with posting pictures of all of it. But here’s a picture of the lobster which could have been good if they had given you any way of getting into it. Except for the tail, the meat was difficult to get out. Plus it had a sauce on it which made it impossible to hold on to. We emerged from that course coated in sauce. (No shellcrackers, no towelettes) The waitstaff was unpleasant as well. So all in all a bad experience. We are hoping for better tomorrow.

Difficult lobster

December 23, 2010 Eymet/Bergerac

Unfortunately my WordPress blog is not working so I am continuing on Blogger. If I don’t get these blogs written, then I’ll forget what we did. Once I get too far behind, I won’t ever catch up and this is supposed to be a record of our trip. (Update 01/03/11, my WordPress account has been fixed and I am transferring all blogs over.)

So here we are in Eymet two days before Christmas. It is cold and rainy out but we decide to check out Market Day in Eymet.

Soggy market day in Eymet
Soggy market day in Eymet

We check out the little church. Our landlady has told us that the little church had protected Eymet from getting snow in the last big snow storm.
Liitle church in Eymet
The little church is not too exciting. It was built in the late 19th century. It has some Christmas decorations. The end. But at least now we can report back that we have seen the little church since our landlady has already asked us twice if we’ve seen it.

We also poke around the old walls and buildings of the original bastide. In the 13th century in order to colonize the wild southwest of France, bastides were built. Bastides were sort of planned communities and the local lord would offer farmers a plot of land in the city, a garden plot and some land to farm on at the edge of the bastide. The farmers would become free men. So a good deal for everyone. There are lots of bastides in this part of France.

Parts of the old bastide of Eymet
Parts of the old bastide of Eymet

Then we set off for the larger town of Bergerac which is somewhat nearby. This is the Bergerac of Cyrano de Bergerac. There is a statue of him although the town really doesn’t have anything to do with him. It’s good for the tourist trade, though.

Cyrano de Bergerac
Cyrano de Bergerac

Then of course there is lunch. We stop in at the Restaurant Saint James. They are very nice and welcoming. It is nice to get in from the rain and cold.

Sarah at Saint James Restaurant
Sarah at Restaurant Saint James

And what would a blog post be without food pictures?

Ris de veau
John has ris de veau. The sweatbreads are sauteed and crispy. Thumbs up.

Roast pork with lentils and beans
Sarah has roast pork with lentils and beans in a mushroom sauce.

Foie gras
I have the foie gras with country bread. This is not quite the foie gras I am looking for but very good nonethelss.

Leaving the restaurant, our main goal is to find a store that the landlady has suggested to us.

Valette's in Bergerac
Ah, here it is Valette’s foie gras. Hopefully our purchases won’t be confiscated by gourmet TSA agents.