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By this Author: zzlangerhans

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part II


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On Saturday morning we visited the tiny market in front of our apartment building. In China things get going pretty early, so it was remarkable that the last two mornings we had left the house before the market opened. Despite the small size we were able to put together a good breakfast of bread, bananas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It was also my first time since we arrived that I saw our lovely apartment building by the light of day.
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We had two more markets to see that morning, both in the far north of Beijing outside of the fifth ring road. This is the outermost of the four concentric main roads that surround the center of Beijing (the original first ring road has been consumed by redevelopment). Although we weren't staying in a touristy area, here we might as well have been in China a century ago in terms of how many Westerners were present. Even so far from the center it was amazing how many enormous complexes of towering apartment buildings were present. I calculated that each building could hold close to a thousand people, and they often appeared in groups of ten or more. It seemed I could see enough housing for a hundred thousand people just from where I was standing, and I wondered how Beijing could be populated by only ten million people if the outskirts of the city were this densely populated.
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The Beiyuan market wasn't particularly remarkable, given that it was already the fifth market we had visited in Beijing. Even so, the sights and sounds and smells of a produce market are a great way to begin a day of travel. We also got to watch the process of making green onion pancakes at a popular food stall in the market.
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Taxis were hard to come by at Beiyuan market but we did come across a lady with a three-wheeled vehicle. Our next destination wasn't terribly far away so all five of us squeezed in and held on for dear life as the rickety transport careened through the busy avenues. The driver abruptly stopped well short of our destination, claiming she wasn't allowed to cross the bridge ahead. Mei Ling argued and docked the fare, but we had no choice but to cross the Lishui Bridge over the Qinghe River on foot. I put Spenser on my back for the long walk to Lishuiqiao seafood market, but the older kids weren't too happy about the trek.

Fortunately the seafood market was a good experience, thanks to a restaurant right next to the tanks that specialized in cooking their customers' fresh purchases. One of our favorite things about China is that in the markets we aren't limited to looking at the food and thinking how great it would taste on the plate. Most of the time we can buy what interests us the most and find someone to cook it for us. We bought clams and crabs and had our best meal in China up to that point.
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In the afternoon we met up with Cleo's online music teacher near our Airbnb. Cleo has been taking lessons for several months on Skype with an instructor who lives in Beijing, and she was very excited to meet him in person. Our destination was Ghost Street, one of Beijing's most famous food streets which was just a five minute walk from our Airbnb. Despite the spooky name, there's nothing scary about Ghost Street unless the sight of enormous piles of crawfish fills you with trepidation. Many of the restaurants are open 24 hours and display a festive mix of neon and traditional Chinese ornamentation.
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From Ghost Street we took a detour down an interesting alley and found ourselves in an area of peaceful hutongs and siheyuan walled courtyards. This style of housing was typical of Chinese cities for thousands of years but has been in drastic decline since the Communist revolution in the mid 20th century. Only recently has the government taken an interest in preserving the remaining courtyards. We were fortunate to stumble across one with open doors and were greeted cordially by one of the residents, who turned out to be the owner of the courtyard. The owner told Mei Ling the value of the property was a billion yuan, or about 140 million US dollars. I had some trouble believing that this pleasant but fairly plain courtyard on the ground level close to a busy commercial area could command a higher price than the most desirable New York City skyscraper penthouses, but Mei Ling insisted that the real estate market in Beijing had indeed ascended to such lofty levels.
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Dinner was most memorable for some of the interesting translations on the English version of the menu. I didn't have the courage to try either of these dishes.
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Afterwards we took the metro to another food street called Niujie, which proved to be a disappointment. Once again this was just a street with several restaurants, rather than actual street food. Many of the restaurants were closed, and a local advised us that this was more of a day time experience. Niujie is known for Uighur Muslim specialties, which usually means lamb skewers. Indeed, the large restaurant we eventually ate at offered a proliferation of skewers. I'm not particularly a fan of the lamb used to make these, which generally consists of tiny scraps of fatty and gristly meat. Furthermore, skewers have become so popular around Beijing that it's easy to find them anywhere so the long trek to Niujie had largely been a waste of time.

On the last morning of our first stay in Beijing we met up with another of Mei Ling's friends at a mall in the eastern suburb of Tong Zhou. It was a fairly typical mall except for the workers making sweet cakes inside a Plexiglas enclosure. We let the kids entertain themselves in the play zone while we explored the mall. Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant where the kids could pull their own noodles from strips of dough and cook them in the hot pot.
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After a few hours more of letting our kids and Mei Ling's friend's kids play together at her apartment, we took a long metro ride back to the center of Beijing. The kids hadn't slept and both Spenser and Ian conked out on the first train. I was able to carry Spenser in the mei tai but Mei Ling had to carry Ian in her arms through two metro changes which was very painful. At least it was the final aftereffect of the jetlag that we had to deal with on the trip. We eventually surfaced in central Beijing adjacent to Beihai Park, one of the places I had enjoyed most in my previous visit to Beijing. Unfortunately once we arrived the sun was setting rapidly and it was clear we weren't going to be able to enjoy the park. The lakes north of Beihai Park and the surrounding neighborhoods are known as Shichahai, an area filled with restaurants and nightlife. We walked along the west side of Qianhai Lake, looking for a restaurant with an appetizing menu and a view of the lake. We didn't find what we were looking for by the water, but the brightly lit restaurants and their lakeside reflections were beautiful. We came across a street vendor who was making candy animals out of blown sugar and he let the kids help construct their own purchases.

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We walked as far as the bridge that crosses the narrow strait where Qianhai Lake joins Houhai Lake. On the eastern bank of the lake we finally found a place to eat and then loaded our exhausted family into a taxi for our last night in Dongzhimen. In the morning we caught the Airport Express from Dongzhimen which took us right to our departure terminal. We got a great spot in the front with a view of the track ahead. It was almost like riding through a forest except for the high-rises behind the trees. Our departure from Beijing was uneventful except for the unfortunate restroom signage at our gate.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:21 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony beihai_park shichahai friedman beiyuan lishuiqiao guijie niujie Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part I


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Every country we visit has its own unique attributes that make it virtually impossible to say that any one is intrinsically better than all the others. However, there's one country we have a special relationship with because it's Mei Ling's birthplace and the place she lived until her early twenties. Traveling to China is like going back home for her and has begun to feel that way for me as well. There's no other country where we can communicate and interact with the local population and integrate into the native culture as easily as we can in China. China is also the country most like the United States in terms of size and diversity, perhaps even more so. China's regions and large cities each have their own individual qualities that make every visit different. This was my ninth visit to China and I've realized that I would probably need fifty trips to begin to feel like I'd seen everything a traveler needed to in the country. For these reasons Mei Ling and I are on the same page when it comes to China - the only thing that stops us from going more is the number of other places we still haven't visited at all.

Mei Ling and I have traveled together to her hometown region of Heilongjiang and to Shanghai several times as well as Guangdong province. However, while I've visited Beijing on my own before and Mei Ling lived there for two years, we've never experienced that amazing and crucially important city together. That made it a natural choice for the location to base ourselves in for this six week exploration of the central eastern coastal area of China and the Kansai region of Japan. We decided that to reduce the stress of migrating around with all our belongings and three small kids to manage, we would base ourselves in Beijing and take a three shorter trips to different areas of interest. We changed our plans somewhat along the way in order to see more cities and spend less time sweltering in a Beijing heat wave.
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The worst thing about the flight from the US to Beijing was that there weren't any good red eye options so the kids were awake most of the way. That meant incessant requests of assistance with headphones, changing movies, drinks and snacks, and bathroom trips. Normally even though I almost never sleep on flights I get at least a couple of hours of being zoned out but that wasn't the case this time. When we finally arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon my brain felt like it had been pickled in brine, and it was another two hours before we finally arrived at our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a basic apartment on the 13th floor of a nondescript apartment building in the Dongzhimen area of central Beijing, not far from the Sanlitun embassy area popular with expats.
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It was still afternoon and going to sleep right away would have been a disaster with respect to getting on the right day/night schedule. Instead we took a five minute walk to a busy restaurant block where we had a huge hotpot meal. This was enough of an accomplishment that we didn't feel we had wasted the day completely and burned a couple of hours. At home we wearily unpacked and crashed into bed around seven.
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I have no doubt that I would have slept through until morning and been perfectly on schedule by day two. I was in the Marianas Trench of deep sleep when forty pounds of affection dropped onto my back. I probably would have had a heart attack if it hadn't happened countless times before. Cleo had woken up and decided she wanted to cuddle. I grasped as tightly as I could to whatever wisps of slumber hadn't floated away and prayed that she would fall back asleep, but within a minute a full-blown wrestling match was taking place on my back. Ian had woken up as well and was trying to share the real estate. After a few minutes of this I knew they were awake for real and my only chance at peace was the iPads. My phone informed me it wasn't even one in the morning. I tossed them their tablets and spent the next couple of hours in a semi-conscious fugue state trying to block out the alternating giggling and squabbling from the other half of the bed. At one point, Mei Ling opened our door and tossed in Spenser who was similarly wide awake and I gave up my attempts to catch up on REM. It's funny how all our kids of different ages, all sleeping different amounts on the plane, all woke up at the same excruciating moment in the middle of the night while the adults were on their way to complete recovery.
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In the end it worked out fine because China starts at five in the morning and we were ready for it bright and early. Our first stop was Chaowai Morning Market in the central neighborhood of Chaoyang, a short cab ride from our Airbnb. Within seconds of entering the market we were reminded of why the brutal flight and all the other inconveniences of traveling to China are more than worthwhile. The very first stall had an enormous heap of yang mei, one of my favorite fruits which is virtually unobtainable outside of China. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with it and the fruit doesn't even have a generally accepted English name, although it is sometimes called Chinese bayberry or yumberry. It is about the size of a small plum with a pit in the middle, but otherwise it is completely unlike any other fruit in taste and texture. The surface is rough and a little rubbery, kind of like a Koosh ball. The meat varies from sour to sweet depending on the ripeness of the fruit and possesses a faint fermented taste with strengthens as the fruit ripens. One of the reasons that yang mei is rarely exported is its extreme perishability. The fermented taste of the fruit becomes stronger over the course of the day after it is bought, and that process is accelerated dramatically if it is handled roughly. Just putting a bag of yang mei down on a table is enough to bruise the fruit. That's usually not a problem as I would have a hard time letting yang mei get through a day without being eaten. It was gratifying to see our kids all enjoyed the yang mei as much as I did, although Cleo seemed to be the one with the most passion for them.
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After buying our yang mei we slowly perused the rest of the market, which was dominated by fruits and vegetables. We also bought some amazingly huge and sweet mulberries which stained all our fingers purple. At he back of the market we found the food court where savory tripe and noodle soups were being served at very basic stalls. We all ate ravenously in this most local and authentic of all the places we could have chosen for breakfast.
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We took another cab to Shengfu Xiaoguan Market, a more upscale but no less authentic produce market to the northeast of our Airbnb. This market was inside an enormous warehouse and had a large meat and seafood area as well as fruits and vegetables. Here we bought cherries and several varieties of grapes, some of them as large and shiny as plums. I took the kids by the seafood stalls where live shrimp would frantically launch themselves out of their bins onto the floor of the market. We would probably have hunted for another food court but I could tell the kids were starting to sag. Cabs were completely unavailable at this point due to the morning rush hour but we were able to figure out which bus would get us close to our Airbnb. All three kids were asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. It was still just nine in the morning.
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We let the kids sleep until late afternoon while we worked on logistics, which was probably a mistake. We went straight from the Airbnb to dinner in Sanlitun, which has historically been a popular locale for Western expats. I had been in Sanlitun on my previous visit to Beijing in 2008 and I didn't recognize the environs at all. Previously it had been a collection of high end bars and clubs mixed with numerous less salutary establishments, but now the area was filled with skyscrapers and high end malls. Mei Ling had found a promotion for a seafood restaurant which allowed us to feast on an enormous platter of fruit and shellfish for a surprisingly affordable price. Afterwards we followed a narrow waterfall down the center of a staircase which turned into a stream that coursed along the lower level of the outdoor mall. Despite the late hour we could see a lot of people sweating furiously in a high impact aerobics studio with glass walls. Those less fitness-inclined had a wide selection of restaurants and cafes they could patronize. I realized that a lot had changed in Beijing in just a short time, and Mei Ling confirmed that the government was actively modernizing and gentrifying the larger cities. Cleaning out the cheap entertainment and the street markets was one prong of a larger effort to reduce the migration of Chinese from rural areas to the major cities, which were becoming unsustainably overpopulated. While there were certainly benefits to this approach, we would find that some of the changes were destroying what made Beijing so unique and interesting. The new Sanlitun was certainly a pleasant place to eat and shop, but it was now much like any high end shopping neighborhood in Korea or Taiwan.
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The kids hadn't make much progress on their jetlag, thanks to sleeping most of the previous day, so we had another early arousal the following morning. That allowed us to hit two more morning markets. Xinmin vegetable market is located just north of the second ring road, adjacent to one of Beijing's many canals. I'm always amazed by the sheer size of the stacks of fruits and vegetables in Chinese markets. The kids had fun getting splashed by the frantic carp in the live fish tanks.
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Back near Dongzhimen, Sanyuanli Market has a reputation for produce that is so high in quality that restaurant chefs shop there. We didn't have the facilities or the energy to cook our own meals at home, but we saw some of the most beautiful and colorful seafood that we've ever come across in a market.
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In the afternoon some local friends of Mei Ling's Chinese friends in Miami took us out to a Beijing duck restaurant near the historic center of the city. Apparently it was a very famous restaurant but I was so exhausted from dealing with the kids since three in the morning that I can barely remember the meal. Fortunately it seems I took a couple of pictures.
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After a long afternoon nap it was time to go out on the town again. Beijing may have lost their street markets, but they still have several somewhat pedestrianized areas that they call food streets. Nanluoguxiang is a narrow road in an area of the city center which has preserved its old-fashioned character. Most of these small streets, or hutongs, have disappeared during the modernization of Beijing and the remaining ones have subsequently become something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Nanluoguxiang has been developed into a combined shopping street and food street, but the street food was limited to a couple of stinky tofu and skewer vendors. Most of the shops lining the streets were selling souvenirs, clothes, and contemporary fast food. The scene definitely didn't lessen my nostalgia for the clamorous Beijing street markets that had all disappeared.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Madrid and trip conclusion


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At long last we had arrived at our ultimate destination, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. I had saved Madrid for last to keep us in a state of anticipation even as we were winding down our vacation. As with most large cities, enjoyment of Madrid is a matter of individual taste. Once the initial honeymoon of sightseeing is over, the experience depends on how one interfaces with the city. The energy, the culture, the food, even the weather come into play. This would be my third visit to Madrid and I had already seen all the touristy places like Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. I wanted to experience the modern city like a Madrileño, exploring residential neighborhoods and markets and eating like a local. Madrid was one of the forerunners of the food hall movement with the Mercado De San Miguel, which we had enjoyed on our last visit in 2014. Now there were at least three more food halls close to the center and we were determined to try all of them.

Our gamble on an Airbnb outside of the center paid off. The Salamanca neighborhood may not have been as atmospheric as Centro but street parking was relatively easy and our apartment was spacious and comfortable. It took two trips to get all our gear up to the fifth floor via the tiny elevator with a metal gate. As soon as we'd settled in, we jumped back into the car and drove to Mercado de San Ildefonso, the most promising of the new food halls I'd discovered. We found an impressive array of cuisines represented on the two floors of the establishment, with Asian and American-style food alongside the numerous Spanish offerings. The space wasn't particularly crowded but the energy was good thanks in part to an outdoor patio on the upper level as well as a stylish bar/vinoteca that offered a wide selection of wines by the glass and craft beers. We were quite happy with the results of our first dining venture in Madrid.
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An interesting development in our trip arose when my brother decided to fly over to Madrid after picking his two sons up from their nanny's home in Italy. This would make us a party of nine exploring the city, with five rambunctious kids. In the morning we decided the best option to feed everyone would be Madrid's largest market Mercado de Maravillas, in the northern neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos. Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when I maneuvered our car into one of the low metal posts that was placed along the curb, denting a front panel. I've damaged and even totaled enough cars in Europe that I refuse to let events like this ruin my day, but it was frustrating to have kept our car pristine across thousands of miles of driving only to damage it on the second to last day of the trip. The market was cavernous, as I'd expected, but it was immediately apparent that it wasn't at full strength. At least half the stalls were closed and some entire sections were almost abandoned. Many of the shuttered stalls had signs posted indicating they were closed for most of the month of August, the traditional summer vacation period in Madrid. This was unfortunate but on the bright side the market was so large that we were able to find several appetizing restaurants, mainly specializing in Latin American cuisine. Eventually we settled on a Peruvian stall where we had a satisfying meal of ceviche and anticuchos.
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Our next stop was the rooftop bar at the Círculo de Bellas Artes cultural center near Plaza de Cibeles. The drinks were ridiculously expensive and rather poorly made but the lounge chairs were comfortable and the views of Palacio de Cibeles and the rest of central Madrid were spectacular. Atop a nearby government building we could see two impressive black sculptures of horse-drawn chariots, or quadrigas.
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Returning to ground level we strolled west up Gran Vía, possibly Madrid's most famous avenue. The classical, ornate architecture was breathtaking but the midday sun was brutal on the wide boulevard and soon we had to retreat to a shadier location.
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El Retiro park began its existence in the 17th century as a private retreat for the royal family. While not the largest park in Madrid by a long shot, El Retiro probably is the best embodiment of the spirit of Madrid in green space. Two places in the park that shouldn't be missed are the beautiful rectangular lake, where sunbathers lounge on the steps of the marble Alfonso XII monument right at the water's edge, and the Palacio de Cristal. Unlike the similarly-named location in Porto, there is actually a Crystal Palace in El Retiro. The late 19th century structure is made almost entirely of glass set within an iron framework and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. large_70f888b0-b927-11e9-876f-b1d4b52ad718.JPGlarge_AXAM7964.JPGlarge_IMG_3619.JPG

From the park it was a pleasant walk west into Centro, culminating at the enormous Plaza Mayor which is almost double the size of the one in Salamanca. In the cobblestoned square we recuperated from the long walk while the kids played with giant bubbles created by a street performer.
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That evening we regrouped at Platea, Madrid's most upscale food hall which offers a selection of high end plates for diners that aren't troubled about their budget. We splurged on a large and very expensive steak, sushi, and an assortment of other dishes in the noisy, neon-illuminated main floor dining area. It was a cool experience but I would rather return to Mercado de San Ildefonso on our next visit.
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I'd discovered after our itinerary was already set that our second and last full day in Madrid was Assumption Day, a major public holiday on which markets and many other businesses would be closed. In the morning we decided to try our luck at Mercado de San Antón. The food hall was open although most of the stalls offering anything substantial were shut until late morning. We stuck around long enough to get what we needed but made a mental note for our next visit that this was more of an evening place. Afterwards we drove to Templo de Debod, an authentic ancient Egyptian temple that was disassembled, shipped to Spain, and put back together in Madrid in the 1960's as a donation from the Egyptian government. The temple now stands incongruously atop the Príncipe Pío hill, surrounded by an attractive park filled with palm trees and conifers. A musician in the park was optimistically playing "Despacito" on his clarinet despite the absence of foot traffic on the paths.
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We followed a staircase down the hill which led us practically to the gates of the Sabatini Gardens, the official garden of the Royal Palace. Although the gardens seem to complement the 18th century palace perfectly, they were constructed to replace the royal stables in the mid 20th century. The kids enjoyed themselves racing around the manicured hedges and making us chase them until we were all exhausted.
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We met my brother's family at Plaza de la Armería, between the Palace and the splendid bluish-grey Almudena Cathedral. The cathedral was only completed in 1993, although its Gothic revival architecture makes it appear much older. We got the kids some ice cream and beers for ourselves and then we had to take a long walk back through the searing afternoon heat to our car. At least we could console ourselves with more beautiful classical architecture along Calle de Bailén.
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We took custody of my brother's kids for the afternoon and brought everyone to Parque Madrid Río, on the bank of the Manzanares River. I didn't even know Madrid had a river despite several previous visits to the city. It's hard to imagine being unaware of the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, or even the largely-ignored Tiber in Rome. Nevertheless, no tourist guides to Madrid make any mention of the Manzanares. Part of the reason for this is that the M-30 highway was constructed alongside the river in the 1970's, making it difficult to access and unpleasant for those who tried. In the early 2000's, the highway was rerouted underground and the reclaimed river bank was converted into a long chain of parks connected by bike paths. The largest section of park extends from the Puente de Toledo to the Puente de Praga, in the Arganzuela district south of the center. The park was very crowded due to the holiday with hordes of kids playing in the splash fountains and on long metal slides. The Arganzuela footbridge that crosses the Manzanares is an amazingly creative blend of form and function.
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We had to tear the kids away from the slides because we didn't want to miss the Assumption Day festivities back in Centro. The silver lining to the market closures was that there would be a parade, street food, and possibly rides for the kids as part of the holiday celebration. The problem was that I couldn't find anything official providing details of locations and times and I therefore had to rely on information I'd gleaned from message boards. Our best bet seemed to be a square called Plaza de la Paja, but once we arrived in the area many of the streets were cordoned off and traffic was extremely slow and heavy. We eventually found a parking spot a half mile away, and we were lucky to find that one amid a dense thicket of cars occupying every single possible space. We joined a stream of pedestrians headed towards the square, but instead we ran into a huge crowd at Puerta de Toledo that was obviously waiting for a parade. The kids worked their way to the front, oblivious to angry grumblings from mostly elderly locals, while Mei Ling and I resigned ourselves to catching glimpses of them through the packed crowd. All we saw of the parade was the tops of some banners passing by. We realized that some white canopies further up the road were likely food tents and decided to prioritize that over the parade.
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Once we reached our destination we found some very appetizing grilling going on. I saw a sign for gallinejas which I assumed were small grilled chickens and turned out to be chicken intestines once I received my order. Fortunately I've eaten intestines of practically every farm animal but chickens before so I had no problem completing my sweep. They were pleasantly chewy and savory.
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Somehow my brother with his kids managed to find us in the huge festival. He ordered way too many sausage rolls and then we treated the kids to cotton candy and a couple of rides before calling it a night. Although Madrid overall had been anticlimactic, it had been a satisfying ending to our long journey.
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Amazingly, it's taken me almost a full year from the end of the trip to complete my travel blog. While some memories have already started to fade, the passage of time has shaped my perspective on how this sixth major European road trip compares with the others. While I had expected most of our great experiences to revolve around food and wine, what actually stood out the most was the number of beautiful and walkable cities we discovered over the course of the month. Most of the best meals we had were at the night markets and food halls rather than at restaurants, so I combined the top ten list for food and experiences on this trip.

10. Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica in Zaragoza. Some of the best and most interesting tapas we had on the trip, all in one location.
9. Winery Airbnb in Lamego. Eating breakfast under a canopy of grapevines laden with heavy bunches of fruit is an experience I'll never forget.
8. Dune du Pilat. A natural wonder and an amazing experience for the kids.
7. Laguardia. The most enjoyable and lively of the many tiny medieval villages we visited in Spain.
6. Aqueduct of Segovia. A breathtaking structure that doesn't get the recognition it deserves among Europe's unmissable sights.
5. Bilbao. San Sebastian gets most of the tourist love in Basque Country, but this much larger city has the best architecture and character.
4. Bordeaux. A sharp contrast to the refinement of the wine region, this gritty and intriguing city is unlike anywhere else in France.
3. Dordogne night markets. Particularly at Montignac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly, these riotous celebrations of food and community are unmissable.
2. Valencia. My favorite city in Spain. A beautiful old town, amazing architecture and street art, a pleasant coastal climate, and the home of paella.
1. Porto. Possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. Absolutely magical, beautiful, and full of energy. We will be back.

Although I expected Salamanca and Madrid to give us a huge ending to the trip, both cities proved disappointing this time around. I'm confident that the main culprit was timing, in that August is very lethargic in central Spain due to the heat and the migration of many business owners to the coasts. We enjoyed Madrid much more on our previous visit in March despite the freezing weather. There's still plenty left for us to see in central Spain, including major cities such as Valladolid and Burgos and countless alluring small towns, which means we'll be giving Madrid another shot at a better time of year. We might combine that with a return visit to Portugal during the September wine harvest, or dedicate a special trip to the area. Either way, it will have to wait until our kids are all in college which is at least thirteen years away. Definitely a back burner project. In the meantime, I expect our next visit to Spain will most likely be a Spanish language summer immersion for everyone in Valencia.

I've fallen way behind on my travel writing, in large amount due to the sheer amount of traveling we've been doing. My next project will be to write up the six week trip in China and Japan we just returned from, followed by the shorter trips to Yucatan and Uruguay we took in 2018. Stay tuned!

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:24 Archived in Spain Tagged travel madrid blog tony gran_vía templo_de_debod friedman sabatini_gardens retiro_park Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Salamanca and Segovia


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I had been looking forward to my first visit to Salamanca almost as much as I had to our return to Madrid. Despite its relatively small size, the city is legendary as a center of learning and culture in Spain. The University of Salamanca, established in 1134, is the third oldest in the Western world and dominates the center of the city. And wherever there is great literature and great art, great food seems to follow.

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Thanks to our late arrival on Saturday we didn't have time for anything except a quick al fresco dinner close to our Airbnb. On Sunday morning the municipal market was closed so we set off on our exploration of the old town. In Salamanca the sights are clustered within a very small area. Just north of our Airbnb was Plaza Mayor, one of the most well-regarded main squares in Spain. Early on a Sunday morning the square was pretty but largely deserted. We fueled up for the morning at an atmospheric tapas bar with a friendly staff.
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La Casa de las Conchas is a 15th century mansion whose facade is decorated with hundreds of scallop shell forms, symbolic of the Order of Santiago of which the homeowner was a knight. The building is now a public library, and behind it are the twin belltowers of the baroque La Clerecía church.
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A short walk south of La Casa de las Conchas is the Salamanca Cathedral, which is actually two joined cathedrals. When the Gothic new cathedral was constructed in the 16th century, it was built adjacent to the much smaller Romanesque old cathedral and actually leans on it for support. Later on, Baroque elements were added to the new cathedral. Although to cathedral is beautiful and majestic, what seems to fascinate visitors the most is the figure of an astronaut that is carved into the facade. Many people have chosen to believe that this carving demonstrates some kind of supernatural premonition of the 16th century masons who constructed the facade, despite the fact that it is well-established that the figure was placed there during a restoration in 1992.
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We walked around the university area in search of an imposing medieval campus but there was nothing to be seen on the order of an Oxford or even a Princeton. All we found was a collection of relatively featureless stone buildings that did little to convey the weight of nearly nine centuries of higher learning. Behind the cathedral is a small but immaculate garden called Huerto de Calixto y Melba which overlooks the River Tormes at the base of the hill. The upper reaches of the new cathedral are visible above the trees in the garden.
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The final sight on our walk through the center of Salamanca was the Convent of San Esteban. The ornate facade of this Dominican monastery is notable for its ornate Plateresque style. Soon after that, we had returned to our starting point in the center of the old town.
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At this point I was scratching my head. I had expected to spend the entire day exploring the highly-anticipated town of Salamanca but we seemed to have covered all the interesting buildings and streets by noon. Perhaps I should have been warned that I had overestimated the city by the fact that the tourist guides all seemed to agree the most fascinating detail of Salamanca was the astronaut carving on the cathedral. Fortunately we had the car and I had a great back-up plan. Just an hour southwest of Salamanca is the Sierra de Francia. Within this mountainous region are several medieval villages that have maintained their historic character thanks to their relative isolation. A relaxing drive over hilly regional highways brought us to Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia Natural Park as the children slept peacefully in the back. We stopped for lunch at La Alberca, the largest and most touristed town in Sierra de Francia. We ate in the idyllic setting of the main square, surrounded by half-timbered houses with impressive floral displays on their balconies.
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Probably the most unique village in the area is Mogarraz, which clings to a steep hillside not far from La Alberca. In recent years the tiny town with just a couple of cobblestone streets has become well-known for hundreds of portraits that adorn the walls of the stone and half-timbered houses. The portraits were painted within the last decade by local artist Florencio Maillo, who based them on photos of town denizens that were taken for identity cards in the 1960's. The portraits were intended to be a temporary exhibition, but the residents enjoyed them so much they have requested that they remain hanging permanently. On the Sunday we visited, one would never know that Mogarraz has now been firmly enshrined on the tourist map. There was only one other car in the parking lot above the town and it was an easy task to find deserted sections of the main street to take our photos. Afterwards it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for their perseverance exploring the villages and then return to Salamanca.
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For dinner we decided to change things up by eating outside the old town. It was a fairly long walk north to Calle Van Dyck, which was reputed to have Salamanca's highest concentration of tapas bars. It was interesting to see the sudden and complete disappearance of older buildings once we crossed Avenida de Mirat into the modern town. We found ourselves in an area that was devoid of character and rather gritty. The tapas street was a far cry from Calle Laurel in Logroño. There was only a smattering of restaurants without much atmosphere, and hardly anyone on the sidewalk. Fortunately the place we finally chose provided a decent meal, but not a memorable dining experience such as we'd had elsewhere in Spain. Before tucking in for the night we returned to Plaza Mayor to see the brilliantly-illuminated facades and enjoy the growing energy. The square was far busier in the evening than it had been when we had eaten there early in the day.
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In the morning we only had the municipal market left to see, but it was largely a disappointment. Partly because it was a Monday, the market clearly wasn't at full strength and there was little in the way of foot traffic. Also, it seemed Salamanca was suffering from the same syndrome that affects Madrid in August where the locals abandon the city for the coastal areas. Many of the stalls looked like they were closed down for much more than a weekend. Perhaps that explained the lack of energy in the Salamanca's streets and restaurants as well. We left Salamanca somewhat underwhelmed but hopeful that we would find a more vibrant city if we ever return in the spring or fall when the university is in full session.
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We had a busy day on the road that would culminate with our arrival in Madrid. We deviated northward to see two medieval castles, La Mota and Coca. La Mota is a relatively modern reconstruction of a medieval fortress that had fallen almost completely into ruin by the early 20th century. The walls were surfaced in neat lines of brick separated by thick layers of mortar, giving the castle a pinkish, shimmering appearance.
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We arrived at Coca Castle during the mid-day closure which did not trouble us as we were eager to press on to Segovia. Coca's brick exterior was remarkably similar to that of La Mota, leading me to think that La Mota's restoration was probably based on the appearance of Coca although La Mota was originally constructed centuries earlier.
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Segovia is a small town that sits in an area of Castile y León that is reminiscent of American flyover country. We were surrounded by large brown fields of recent harvested grain that looked like they had been burned by the merciless sun. Trees were sparse. Segovia itself, however, has been blessed with a bounty of unique and majestic buildings that makes it a worthwhile destination for a traveler. Foremost among these is the Aqueduct of Segovia, which along with the Pont du Gard in France is considered one of the most impressive Roman aqueducts still in existence. The aqueduct occupies one end of the expansive Plaza Azoguejo, which makes it visible for quite some distance as one approached from the west. Up close, the dimensions of the structure are breathtaking and it is hard to believe from its excellent preservation that it was constructed almost two thousand years ago. Having visited the Pont du Gard as well, I feel that the Aqueduct of Segovia is more visually impressive because of its urban location and its composition of unmortared granite blocks. In fact, I can comfortably say that it is probably the most splendid remnant of Roman civilization I have ever encountered including the Coliseum of Rome. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from this colossal beauty and explore the rest of the town.
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Although Segovia is substantially smaller than Salamanca, it has a much larger historic area. The small modern neighborhoods occupy the eastern fringes of the town like afterthoughts. Between the aqueduct and the Segovia Cathedral there was no shortage of interesting narrow streets, some with intriguing views over the lower levels of the town.
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There's no shortage of majestic cathedrals in Spain but I found Segovia's version to be one of the most appealing. The enormous Gothic structure dominates the expansive Plaza Mayor with a seemingly endless array of ornate spires spaced around the multi-level exterior.
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From the cathedral it's just a short walk further west to the Alcázar. The stunning medieval fortress grows out of top of a steep cliff with a river gorge on either side. The facade is an imposing rectangular block topped by an array of turrets that looks like the model for the rook in chess. The Gothic steeples that top the lower turrets at the corners of the fortress are reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. Inside the castle were plenty of relics of medieval warfare for the kids to frolic on.
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I took the two older kids up the steep staircase to the top of the central tower, from which we had amazing views of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
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We could have happily spent more time in Segovia, but once again we had to meet our Airbnb host in person in Madrid and we couldn't arrive too late. Surprisingly we had found much more worth seeing in our midday stop in Segovia than we had over a two-day stay in Salamanca. Regretfully we saddled up for the last leg of our month-long European road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:32 Archived in Spain Tagged travel segovia blog tony salamanca friedman la_alberca mogarraz Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Douro Valley

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We had finally arrived at the last of the three legendary wine areas of our journey, and the least well known. Few people would name Portugal if asked what European countries are known for their wine, but wine has been produced there for four thousand years and exported as early as the 12th century AD. Those whose familiarity with Portuguese wine begins and ends with port are missing out on some of the most full-bodied and textured reds that Europe has to offer, often at at a fraction of the cost of a similar quality bottle that originated in France or Italy. There are more than a dozen wine regions in Portugal that cover pretty much the entire area of the country. My personal favorite region since our first visit to Portugal is the Alentejo in the south, but the best known wines come from the Dão region around Viseu and from the Douro Valley. In the world of travel, the Douro Valley is the most popular region because of the amazing mountainous landscape and picturesque villages that surround the serpentine Douro River.
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We had allotted ourselves less than 24 hours in the valley, which is something of a sacrilege. On the other hand, we're used to making sacrifices in order to become familiar with a wider area on our road trips. We're not done traveling by a long shot, and fortunately there's enough in northern Portugal to make a return visit more than worthwhile. There are no large cities in the Douro Valley and after much consideration I'd decided we would base ourselves in the central town of Lamego for the night. One interesting fact about Lamego is that it is considered to be the place where port wine was invented, not Porto as one might expect. We had little interest in port but Lamego had a couple of interesting sights and placed us in good position for the long list of things we wanted to accomplish in the Douro the next day before returning to Spain.

There weren't many Airbnb's available around Lamego and we ultimately chose a place calling itself Casa do Batista in the tiny village of Britiande, four miles to the south. Once we arrived at the village our GPS took us off the main road and into an area of orchards and vineyards, ultimately depositing us at the wrong house. Google Maps recognized the name but led us to a spot in the same area where there was nothing but a solid stone wall with one rusted iron door and no signs. We inquired at a couple of houses nearby and no one had heard of Casa do Batista. The host didn't respond to messages on the Airbnb app but someone answered to the phone number and we communicated in a broken Spanish/Portuguese hybrid. I tried following his directions a couple of times and got nowhere. Eventually he told me he would meet us in the village at a spot that I recognized. The person on the phone turned out to be the elderly father of our host, which may have explained some of the difficulty in communication. We followed his car back into the orchards and ended up at the exact same spot Google Maps had taken us to. Our host's father went to the rusty iron door, unlocked it, and brought us inside a walled compound.

Our annoyance at having wasted close to an hour for the simple lack of a sign or a doorbell dissipated almost instantly once we got a look at the place where we would be spending the night. It was one of the most unique, idyllic, delightful residences we've ever stayed in all our travels. The only place I could compare it to on Airbnb would be the farm we stayed at in southern Slovakia. In front of the house was a small patio completely roofed by grapevines that would have collapsed from the weight of enormous bunches of unripe wine grapes if there wasn't a trellis supporting them. The yard was an apple orchard where the fruits were also green, but edible to anyone partial to a little sourness. The house was rustic but very modern and comfortable on the interior, with a second floor balcony that had sweeping views over all the farms and orchards in the area. Adjacent the the residence was a tiny winemaking operation that was dormant as harvest season wouldn't begin until late September. It was one of those moments that reminded us why Airbnb's are worth all the minor inconveniences that come with them. No B&B or hotel could have brought us anywhere near as close to the heart and soul of the Douro Valley.
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Despite its small size, Lamego has more than its share of attractions for visitors. After settling into our Airbnb we drove directly to Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The 18th century rococo church stands atop a steep hill from which a breathtaking 686 step staircase descends to the town. The double staircase has nine landings decorated with beautiful azulejos, intricate columns and friezes, and ornate balustrades. There are so many details in the design and so many angles from which amazing photos can be taken that one could easily spend most of a day meandering up and down the staircase. It was one of the more remarkable sights we had experienced thus far on our journey.
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Dusk was falling and we had one more stop to make before dinner. Lamego has a tiny old town on a hill in the center. At the top of the hill is the medieval castle which now consist of just a wall and a short watchtower. The best parts of visiting the castle are the narrow cobblestone streets that lead up to it and the view of the modern town and surrounding countryside from outside the wall.
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Normally I don't ask our Airbnb hosts for restaurant recommendations since we've had a few notable disasters with that approach, but something led me to go against my better instincts in Lamego. Their suggestion was o Padrinho on the outskirts of the city which didn't seem particularly well-regarded on TripAdvisor. We went for it anyway and found a huge, casual restaurant at the side of the highway that was practically full. After a short wait we were given a table and provided with one of the longest menus I've ever seen. Not only did they have pretty much every typical Portuguese dish I could have imagined, they had a large selection of exotic meats such as venison, kangaroo, and alligator. Of course these weren't local but we let our curiosity guide our appetites and ordered some of the unusual dishes as well as some typical Portuguese food and pizza for the kids. The food preparation was great and we agreed it was the best restaurant meal of the entire trip. Given the popularity of the restaurant and the quality of the food it was hard to understand why it was halfway to the bottom of the TripAdvisor list, but then again some of the best restaurants in Miami don't chart very high either. It's a good reminder that there's no perfect system for choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar city.

On the way back home we heard loud music coming from the village and remembered we had seen a stage being set up earlier in the day. Spenser had fallen asleep so Mei Ling decided to stay home with him while I drove the older kids back to town. We found the road through the village lined with parked cars and eventually had to walk several hundred meters to get back to the main square where a huge party was in progress. Most of Britiande and probably half of Lamego was packed into the small square dancing to a live band. We never found out what the occasion was but we had fun checking out the vendors and jumping around to the music until we were exhausted.

Despite our heavy agenda the following day we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the villa in the orchard. Once we were finally done lounging around the patio underneath the grapevines, o Padrinho had opened and we went back for another huge meal. It was one in the afternoon before we got back on the road. Vila Real, about half an hour to the north, was the largest city in the area and had the only daily municipal market I could find. Unfortunately by the time we arrived and found a place to park the only people left were the cleaners that were hosing the place down. Our trip hadn't been for nothing as Vila Real was also the site of the Casa de Mateus, an 18th century rococo palace originally built for a wealthy family and now in the hands of a foundation. In front of the ornate palace is an enormous reflecting pool which was unfortunately brown and murky on the day of our visit.
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The exterior of the palace was quite reminiscent of the church and staircase we had seen the previous day. There was also a winemaking operation in a couple of outbuildings, which seems to be a requirement for any freestanding structure in the Douro Valley. The gardens were very elaborate and well-kept, and exploring them was the most enjoyable part of visiting the palace. Neither of us felt that a tour of the interior was likely to be worth the time and the hassle.
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I was attempting to coordinate a late arrival in Salamanca but our hosts seemed determined to have us there by eight, which meant we had very little time to see the valley. I set a course for Pinhão which seemed to be the quintessential riverside town. Serpentine roads took us through an amazing landscape of terraced hills and finally deposited us at ground level just where the Pinhão tributary dumps into the much wider Douro River. The town was surrounded by wineries but all were now closed late on a Saturday afternoon, and the last boat cruises on the Douro had returned to shore long ago. It didn't really matter as these were all things we had already done in Bordeaux and Rioja. Instead we used our short time in Pinhão to take the winding road up to the viewpoint above the town at Miradouro de Casal de Loivos. Here we got the classic view of the S-shaped curve in the Douro that features prominently in every guidebook and website.
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I had hoped to take a northern route to Salamanca, stopping in the ancient walled town of Mirando do Douro where the river passes through a deep gorge. Unfortunately the only way we would come anywhere close to the eight PM deadline our hosts in Salamanca had set for us was to drive directly along the shortest route to the main highway, and that's what we did. I think we would have had to stay overnight in Miranda to do it justice and it was far from the only part of northern Portugal that we skimped on during this trip. Fortunately, it was clear that we left enough unfinished to justify an entire trip dedicated to northern Portugal and Galicia some time in the future, perhaps during the wine harvest. I could see doing a circle that began and ended in Porto and covered some of the territory we missed on this trip from Ourense to Coimbra. I think we could manage it in a couple of weeks, similar to the road trip we did in Sicily in 2017.
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We raced all the way to Salamanca picking up at least one automated speeding ticket to find no answer at the door of our Airbnb. The hosts didn't respond through the app either, and when called them they gave me a keycode for the front door and the location of the room key in the inside mailbox. There was no requirement for any person-to-person interaction whatsoever, and we could have arrived just as easily at any time we wanted. Why they insisted that we arrive by eight instead of just sending us the keycode through the app is something I'll never understand, but it's far from the first time something like that happened in Europe and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:31 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel blog tony lamego pinhao vila_real friedman mateus_palace Comments (0)

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