Thursday, April 26, 2012

On The Road Again: New Orleans and Beyond

City Park, New Orleans
Jim: A friend once asked Angie if she would move to a town just because they had a good restaurant.  Without skipping a beat she answered “Sure!” I'm not positive that she would actually do that, but I know she would drive 2000 miles for a great breakfast.

Angie:  I would! A few years ago I read in Gourmet magazine about
Under the Hill Saloon, Natchez
 this place in southern Arizona called the Bisbee Breakfast Club. (I still haven't forgiven Conde-Nast for canceling Gourmet.  I used to get some great ideas for recipes from them, but even better I learned about restaurants around the country that I might want to visit. And their photography was excellent. And I was all set to attend one of there foodie workshops where you get to meet and sample the work of New York's best chefs, when they went out of business—so suddenly that their editor, Ruth Reichl didn't even know it was coming.)  Anyway I told Jim we had to go to Bisbee, and on our next trip to the Southwest, we did.

Jim: Yeah, and I have to tell you this.  When we're on the road, we often stop at a Cracker Barrel for breakfast, and I always gross Angie out by ordering the country breakfast special with eggs, grits, and biscuits and gravy.
Angie:  I can't stand biscuits and gravy!

Jim: When I saw biscuits and gravy on the menu at the Bisbee Breakfast Club I had to try them. They were out of this world.  The biscuits were big, light, and fluffy, and the gravy was flavored with some herbs—I think rosemary and thyme and I'm not sure what else. Delicious!

Angie:  They were.  I tasted them, and I have to agree with Jim that they are wonderful.  So  I can't wait to go back to the Bisbee Breakfast Club, and though I won't order biscuits (there are too many other great things on the menu, and they don't fit into my low carb, high alcohol diet), I'm sure Jim will share some of  his with me.

Somewhere in Mississippi

Jim: So on this trip to New Orleans and then to the Southwest, we are looking for some more great eating along the way.  I told Angie that instead of calling it a photography trip, we should call it a food trip with some photography thrown in.  And we've decided to make this blog mainly about the food, so if you're interested in combining traveling with good eating, stay tuned.   

At the French Quarter Fest in New Orleans

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First Report from Spain 2010

 We immediately loved Madrid, a very modern town with lots of history. One of the biggest surprises was this train station, with a tropical garden in the center. We wish we could say that it was as efficient as it was beautiful. Well, actually it is, in one respect, because the trains arrive and leave on the dot. But our experience trying to get a Eurorail pass here was right out of Kafka. It's too long to tell here, but here are a few details.  We stood in line marked "International" as instructed, only to find when we got to the front that we had to draw a ticket first. So we drew our ticket and came back to the line. It moved fairly fast until it got to the number just before ours, which was 822. Then the number above the ticket window switched to 472.  We protested to the agent at the window, who informed us that we were supposed to have gone to another window, as directed on a screen that we hadn't noticed. Since our number had already come and gone, we had to draw another ticket. Finally we made it to the right window, only to be told that we had to go to another station (by train) to get the pass. The whole thing took us a half a day, but we finally got our pass.

The good news is that you can travel all over Spain by train and by bus. And the trains between some of the major cities travel at 180 miles an hour, so that you can get to where you're going a lot faster than by car. We feel that we've really missed the boat, so to speak, for not developing a system like this if the U.S.

This is the high speed train in the Madrid station.  It gets to Barcelona in 4 1/2 hours.

The charm of Madrid comes from both the old and the new. Just off the Plaza Mayor is the newly decked out and reopened Mercado of San Miguel. It contains 33 booths selling seafood, cheese, wine . . .and you can shop to go or do as the young hip crowd in Madrid do and enjoy your copa de vino and tapas standing or sitting, if you're lucky, at a table.

We were glad we'd decided to spend three nights in Madrid, because it gave us time to just wander around as well as visiting some of the obligatory sights (like the great museum El Prado, where we got to see works by Spain's great painters like Velasquez (Angie's favorite), Goya, El Greco, as well as some great Rubens and Rembrandts.

Naturally we loved wandering the crowded streets of the old section of town, with its colorful shops, but it was a restful relief to stroll through El Parque de Buen Retiro (something like "the park of good retreat"), full of grass, trees and shade, and lovers taking advantage of it all.

There was something magical about the place, and we even think that some of the trees harbored forest spirits, if not elves.

Between Madrid and Barcelona we got off the train at a little town call Catalayud and took a taxi twenty miles up into the hills to the Monasterio de Piedras (Monastery of Stone). It has been converted into a national park and a lodge where we felt like royalty while we enjoyed some of the region's great food and wine.
Trails around the Monastery went through part of the preserve, a land of canyons, streams, and waterfalls. A tip from our friend Jay had sent us to this place that revealed a side of Spain we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

One of the highlights at the Monasterio was the aviary with the "vuelo de los rapaces" or the flight of the falcons. We were amazed at the control the falconers (two intrepid women) had over these birds, helped by generous handouts, of course, and a little frightened when the birds grazed us with their powerful wings as they came in for a landing. 

From the Monasterio, we caught the high speed train on to Barcelona, which turned out NOT to be our favorite city in Spain, for many reasons, one big one which we'll explain later.  The center of the city is attractive and modern, although a few blocks from the main thoroughfares, the streets are dirty and the buildings covered with graffiti (not that a little dirt and litter bother us a whole lot--we've traveled in places that are worse--but Spain is a modern European country, and Madrid led us to expect better.)

What saves Barcelona, of course, is the beautiful modern archictecture, especially the Gaudi masterpieces that are scattered around the city.

It was no novelty to see women in high heels riding motorbikes in Barcelona.  In fact, although this photo doesn't show it, motorbikes outnumber cars on the streets downtown.  When the light changes to green you have to watch out for the barrage of them crossing the intersection.

OK, here's the story about our experience in Barcelona, as Jim tells it:

Barcelona 2010: The Magician's Assistant

You'll see this coming before I did.  That's because I never thought it would happen to me.  I was ready for the woman with the sick baby.  When she tried to hand it to me, I would turn around and let her drop it on the ground, if that was what she wanted to do.  I would ignore the crowd of urchins trying to attack me, hold my possessions securely and yell “Ladron! Me robaron! Me robaron!”  I would fend off the street vendors offering watches, sunglasses, and the like.  I would decline advice from the overly helpful young man on the corner.  My camera strap was over one shoulder and under an arm so that the camera could not be snatched away by someone riding by on a motor scooter.  My wallet was in a zippered and velcroed pocket which I could hardly get into myself. The crowd in the Gaudi Catedral de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was not particularly heavy. Boy was I na├»ve!

But let me make a little digression. We find that traveling in Spain is a lot different than traveling in Mexico.  For one thing, there is such a mix of people here that we can't tell where anyone is from until we hear them speak. There are tourists from all over Europe (we've run into very few Americans) and such a mix of cultures and appearances! We've been especially impressed by the number of really tall, very slender women, always fashionably dressed, that we've seen on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. One thing we haven't seen in any numbers are the begging Gypsy women that I remember pestering us on my first trip to Barcelona (that was almost 40 years ago—Generalissimo Franco was still in power.) OK, now back to the Gaudi Cathedral.

It's really hard to get a good original shot inside or outside the cathedral.  For one thing, it is still under construction, although building began in the 19th century.  Then the portions are so sweeping and the light so varied, that it is hard to decide where to point your camera. I was changing lenses from a wide angle to a longer lens when I noticed my back pack was open. That's funny, I thought, I must have forgot to zip it shut the last time I changed lenses.  I checked, and nothing was missing. No problem, but I've got to be more careful. I zipped it shut, and aimed my camera toward a detail in the vaulted dome of the cathedral.

One of those very tall, slender, well dressed woman with a tiny pocket camera pushed up against me, aiming her camera at the same thing I was looking it. Irritated, I moved aside to let her get her shot.  It never fails, I thought.  Someone sees you with a professional looking camera and they think they should be getting a picture of whatever you're shooting. I mentioned that to Angie, then aimed my camera again. There she was, pushing into me again. I left the spot in disgust, and within a few minutes we exited the cathedral. I sensed something different, felt for my wallet, and of course found the pocket where it had been unzipped and empty.

From now on, a warning to any photographers near me. If you get too close, you're likely to feel a sharp elbow in your ribs or worse, even if you're a tall, good looking woman!

I got lots of sympathy from these guys at the Sagrada Familia!

Kind of interesting that the woman in the information booth where I made my complaint gave me a preprinted map to the nearest police station and the telephone number to report my Visa card stolen.  Visa delivered us a new card by FedEx the next day!

A note about language.  One of our problems in Barcelona was that all the signs are in Catalan rather than Spanish. And while we could figure most of them out, some of them left us totally perplexed. We asked one of our cabbies how many Barcelonans spoke Catalan, and he said 10 per cent. But the government wants to preserve the language, so everything official is written in Catalan, and it's taught to all of the school kids.  So the parents don't speak it, but the kids do--a situation every teenager would love! We wouldn't have recognized the police station if we hadn't asked some guy in a truck for directions and he invited us to hop in and took us there.

And then service people in Spain don't believe that Americans (or Brits for that matter) can speak Spanish.  While we speak enough Spanish to get around, understand directions, order food, and even carry on conversations with our patient friends, we don't consider ourselves fluent in all situations. That is made worse by the fact that there are dialects and accents in Spain that don't in anyway resemble what we are used to hearing in Mexico. We can understand people who speak standard Castellano pretty well, but that seems to be a minority when you get out of Madrid.  And what's worse, when we are recognized as American tourists (which isn't very hard), people just assume we are speaking English, even when we are using Spanish (admittedly with an American accent). When we got to the police station, Jim asked the officer in charge if he spoke English, thinking it would be easier to conduct official business in our first language. But the officer said not at all, and we went ahead and handled our report in Spanish without difficulty.  He even complimented Jim on his Spanish.  But another officer who knew a little English, who was giving us directions back to our hotel, insisted on talking to us in English.  Our Spanish was much better than his English, which we could barely understand, but he thought he had to talk to us in English anyway. Later we stopped in a little pizzeria for a bite to eat, and Jim offered the coupon books which we hadn't used after our aborted trip to the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia to our waitress, she said "I'm sorry, but I don't speak English."  Jim said, "But I'm speaking Spanish!" and she replied, "Now you are, but not before."  She had no trouble understanding him once she realized he was speaking Spanish and not English as she expected him to.  Most people in Spain who deal with the public do speak English, since it is the universal language for all the Europeans who travel (except maybe the French). The exception seems to be people in official positions. Like the person at the train station who dealt with international reservations.  He spoke only Spanish. Go figure.

From Barcelona we trained down to Alicante, a resort town on the Mediterranean south of Valencia. It's a beautiful town with a wide Esplanade along the waterfront.  In the summer it's jammed with European tourists, but at this time of year it was lively, but not overcrowded.  It was a great place to relax after our Barcelona experience.

                                                                             We were sitting at an outdoor cafe on the Esplanade having a drink, when Angie noticed a photo shoot going on. This bevy of beautiful young women in traditional dress were being photographed, and neither they nor the photographer doing the shoot seemed to mind us getting into act.  (We weren't the only ones, by a long shot, but we were probably the most persistent.) They even posed and smiled for us in between their official photos.

One thing we loved about Alicante besides the beautiful women was the great food.  We found a little Italian restaurant (owned and staffed by real Italians) which served some of the best seafood and pasta that we've ever eaten. Every meal, of course, accompanied by a bottle of very good wine, all at about a third of what it would cost us in Ann Arbor for something not nearly as good. and every meal was followed by a free serving of lemoncello, a very tasty Italian aperitif. The name of the restaurant is La Pecatta di Gola (the sin of gluttony). Viva la temtacion!

That's all for now.  Look forward to seeing you all soon.

With love from the Fotogypsies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"For all in tents . . ." a poem

I've been carrying the first one and a half lines of this poem in my head for decades!  Then, when Angie and I were on our sailboat Escapade in the mid Eighties, we had an experience that began to add life to them. We were motoring down the intra-coastal waterway past Marine World when we saw two porpoises making a streak in the water past us.  We fantasized that they were making their break for freedom.  The idea continued to percolate and finally came together as a poem while we were traveling in Newfoundland a couple of summers ago.

For all in tents
and porpoises and whales
kept captive for our delight
I apologize.
Nor do I think it right
to discriminate
against beasts of the field,
although there may be some debate
about the food we eat--
I love my meat.
But it makes me sad
to see hogs and cattle
stuffed into pens like sausages.
I would rather we take
just what we need
from all the gods have given--
that would be heaven!
We have grown too many,
but at the least
I will take my pleasure
from seeing the beasts
where they freely roam
in their native home--
or not at all.

Jim George