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GUERNICA in LA OROTAVA, TENERIFE

CHICAGO

Too old for Ibiza, too young for Madeira, I look into Tenerife. I passed a promotional poster for the Canary Island in a Barcelona travel agency window back in the late ’90′s and the image has been stuck in my head ever since.

Conde Nast Traveler:

The Canary Islands have long been a bolt-hole for Europe’s sun-starved horde.

Well that sounds awful. I read on:

But beyond the beaches, Ron Hall finds spectacular vistas, striking architecture, and a new attention to syle.

Much better. From the portrait Ron Hall paints, the archipelago suffers from a split-personality, the condition being most manifest in its “most beautiful and varied” isle, Tenerife.

Bad Tenerife — Southern Tenerife — is rife with drunken, sunburnt, topless, fowl-mouthed Eurotrash flocking to foam parties, discos and casinos. So I read. Reports may be exaggerated.

Good Tenerife — Northern Tenerife —  is blessed with charming Spanish colonial towns (La Orotava, Puerto de la Cruz, Garachico), genteel watering holes, seventeenth-century aristocratic mansions converted into sophisticated family-run properties, and Teide National Park, Spain’s largest national park.

Tenerife Village

I choose Good Tenerife, Northern Tenerife. Specifically, the winsome village of La Orotava.

ATLANTIC OCEAN

I peer down at the Atlantic Ocean. My stomach tumbles. 

I’m flying alone to a remote island somewhere off the coast of Africa (the coast of Africa!), based on some recommendation from some guy I don’t know and when I land I’ve gotta find my way to some obscure village — La Orotava? La Avatoro? — and schlep my luggage to the Hotel Alhambra — a former gentleman’s residence (according to the website) and I don’t even know what a ‘gentleman’s residence’ is I think it’s a brothel and I’m going to be trapped in it by an owner who will make me look at bad paintings (according to one Tripadvisor poster, anyway) and my family doesn’t even know where I am let alone how to reach me once they finally figure out I’m missing how will they find me do they even know how to dial outside the U.S., no they don’t know to dial 011 or to drop the zero before the city code and they’ll balk at the long distance rates and I will never be seen, or heard from, again someone better look after my cats when I’m dead and gone I’m so fucked.

Sometimes I get a little nervous at landing.

LA OROTAVA

My bus ride to the village of La Orotava is brief, pleasant, and seamless. Not at all what I feared. The Hotel Alhambra is located two blocks from the station. Along the way I pause at crosswalks to allow cars to pass, but they actually stop and wait for me. I’m not used to this civility: in Chicago drivers accelerate when they have a pedestrian within their sights.

I arrive. So this is what a gentleman’s residence looks like. It looks pretty nice. I ring the bell and seconds later Antonio greets me warmly through the ornate wrought-iron gate.

HOTEL ALHAMBRA FOYER

Antonio is an sleepy, pony-tailed teen. I like him. I follow him into the foyer where Lennon’s Imagine plays in the background. The moment is surreal, my standing here sharing an entire mansion with a single stranger, listening to one of the greatest songs of all time, on a sunny afternoon somewhere off the coast of Africa.

Hotel Alhambra is bright and open. Cheerful, even. Not at all brothelesque.

Antonio takes me on a brief tour of the magnificent 18th century residence, dutifully describing the over-the-top (but awesome) murals in the dining room, which were painted by Venezuela’s renown Antonio Otazzo, who vacations in La Orotava. They’re a little intense. A woman may or may not be masturbating as a horse and bull look-on.

Hotel Alhambra Dining Room La Orotava

These must be the “bad” paintings to which the Tripadvisor reviewer was referring. Actually, I think they’re fabulous, not that I’d want them adorning the walls (and ceiling!) of my own white on white on white minimalist loft, though.

Antonio leads me to the second floor where busts (representing the four seasons) guard over what just could be a courtyard from Rick’s Cafe Americain.

Hotel Alhambra Balcony La Orotava

Hotel Alhambra La Orotava Foyer

I’m eventually led to my chambers. I love my chambers! 

Floor-to-ceiling windows open up to fresh air and a view of the ocean, a departure from my home in Chicago, where my bedroom overlooks el tracks, electrical wires, dumpsters and the occasional rat.

Hotel Alhambra View La Orotava

The bathroom!

Hotel Alhambra Bathroom La Orotava

HOTEL ALHAMBRA KITCHEN

I’ve napped — which is probably a big mistake jetlag-wise — and now I must prowl La Orotava for a decent meal. Antonio and his father intercept me on my way out the door to inform me that the residence will be vacant tomorrow morning because they’ll be taking Antonio to the university. We keep talking, as best we can anyway, considering the language barrier.

“Have you seen our paintings?” The Owner asks in Spanglish. How could I miss them?

He leads me to the dining room and educates me on both the painting, Sleeping Europe, and the painter, Maestro Otazzo, Antonio translating as quickly as he can. I comprehend maybe 25% of what I hear but I The Owner’s passion is obvious.

“(Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica… (Spanish) (Spanish)… Picasso… (Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica…” 

I perk up. Guernica is my favorite painting. I viewed it at the Reina Sofia several years ago and I couldn’t tear myself away: I’ve never been more moved by a work of art.

“Would you like to see Guernica in 360 degrees?” asks The Owner.

“Sure.” Who wouldn’t?

THE REFLECTION ROOM

The Owner and Antonio are escorting me into the restricted recesses of the mansion, guiding me down an endless corridor straight out of The Shining. We stop before a locked white doors marred by angry black scrawl.

THE REFLECTION ROOM

The Owner withdraws a medieval skeleton key from his pocket.

Holy crap. I am alone in a mansion with two men, on an island somewhere off the coast of Africa, and I’m about to enter some sort of secret, forbidden chamber. This is insane.

The doors open. Row after row of skulls stare me in the face. I’m frozen, transfixed. I tentatively enter the ballroom, which is bare of furniture save for an oversized, orange, elaborate fainting couch. A mural encompasses its four walls and ceiling.

??? … !!! … ??? … Otazzo may not be for everyone but his work is undeniably powerful, visceral. I’m speechless. Confused. Wowed. Insulted. Impressed. My impotent descriptions fail to capture the emotions his visceral paintings evoke. They cover it all: war, politics, humanity, religion, suffering, hell, heaven, life, death.

Now I get it. Guernica in 360 degrees.

The Owner explains the mural to Antonio, who attempts to describe its nuances to me. We spend a great deal of time discussing the scene in which the Statue of Liberty, clothed in an American flag, grasps a missile in one arm and an assault-rifle labeled EU  in the other. The weapon pierces a dove in flight and Lady Liberty weeps. The Owner goes to length to explain to me that the image is not anti-American: it’s anti-Bush. I’m anti-W too.

I ask about the fainting couch and learn that it’s where Otazzo slept for the month it took him to create his masterpiece.

The Owner allows me to photograph the room, but requests that I keep the pictures only for myself.

I am grateful. What an honor to be privy to this secret work of art, and to have its owner take the time to explain it to me. I will continue to cross oceans and continents for these rare travel moments.

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DINING ALONE in LISBON

LISBON

I am dining alone (happily), leaning back at an outdoor table at a random cafe in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, sipping a $4.00 glass of tart vinho verde. I would be smoking a cigarette right now if I smoked cigarettes.

From goLISBON:

Bairro Alto is a picturesque working class quarter dating from the 16th century that has traditionally been the city’s bohemian haunt of artists and writers. 

Its grid of streets is quiet during the day, but is transformed at night into the city’s vibrant nightlife quarter. Behind colorful and graffiti-ridden façades is a variety of traditional and international restaurants, tourist-packed fado houses, and a multitude of bars and alternative shops that stay open until late at night. Throughout the week, and especially on weekends you’ll find people of all ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles bar-hopping through the cobbled lanes or standing outside with a drink in hand enjoying the city’s usual mild nights. 

Lisbon at Night

THE GERMAN COUPLE

The German couple to my immediate left receives their bill. They inspect it more closely, pulling their itty-bitty, tortoise-shell, rectangular-framed glasses down to the noses to ensure they’re reading the check correctly.

They squint, they mutter. “Butter?!?”…”Butter?!?” they protest. Uh oh, I know what’s coming next.

The livid twosome fights with their server over having been charged for bread and butter that they did not order, but was brought to their table, which they subsequently ate.

I’ve witnessed this scene before since arriving in Portugal. Here the restaurants may deliver unordered olives, bread, butter, or cheese to tables and charge if the items are consumed. Observing the skirmishes that ensue is all part of the fun of dining alone.

ON DINING ALONE

The German couple leaves and I redirect my eavesdropping to the conversation behind me. I can’t see the group, but I hear that it’s comprised of a married couple from New Jersey and two male flight attendants. The four of them shared the same flight to Lisbon earlier today and now are dining next to each other. They order pitchers of sangria to celebrate the coincidence.

I dial-in closer. The husband holds court now, boasting of his recent investment (several million) in a company producing some sort of petroleum-related technology. It converts water to gas, or mud to oil, or something to that effect. I strain to hear the name of the corporation, but I can’t make it out.

I enjoy dining alone. Sure, it’s a little annoying when the hosts asks “only one?” or I’m seated in Siberia, but I’m not otherwise self-conscious about it. I’m so easily entertained by the goings-on around me that, when not dining alone — depending upon my company — I often wish I were dining alone.

ROBERTO & MARCELLA

Another couple has joined our informal community, seated to my left. They appear to be on a date, but I detect no chemistry between them as their conversation jerks and halts.

The man orders for both and the dish — an obscenely large plate of meat — arrives quickly. A look of disgust fleets across the woman’s face and the spontaneity of her reaction amuses me. She catches me smiling at her, which causes her to laugh. The clueless guy wonders why his date and I are suddenly sharing a joke, presumably (correctly) at his expense, without having exchanged a word between us.

The guy looks to me for an explanation, to which I reply that it’s just a really big plate of meat for two people without going into detail of how it’s not the most romantic way to start a date. Introductions are exchanged. Esme. Roberto. Marcella.

Roberto speaks English but Marcella does not, so he and I fall into conversation. Marcella doesn’t appear to mind our private exchange, in fact she looks relieved. I learn that she is from Brazil, currently living in Lisbon, and he lives elsewhere in Portugal. He is visiting the city for the weekend and they met in a bar the last time that he was in town.

“You don’t mind dining alone?” he asks, incredulous. I don’t understand why the thought of dining alone and traveling solo is so daunting and/or disagreeable to so many people.

“No, I often prefer it,” I reply. Looking at Marcella, she seems happier now watching people walk by than when she and Roberto were forcing conversation.

“Until tonight, I was so lonely in Lisbon I nearly cried,” Roberto confesses.

Wow. I occasionally get lonely with I travel by myself, but I simply take a walk or read a book and the feeling dissipates. I’m fortunate that a running narrative in my head keeps me amused. I do understand the desire to share thoughts and observations with someone else, but blogging fills that need for me.

We both take a sip of wine as we consider each other’s situation. Roberto wondering what’s wrong with me that I’m dining alone as I wonder what’s wrong with Roberto that he hates dining alone.

Roberto breaks the silence, volunteering that, as we speak, he is testing “anti-hangover” medication, mail-ordered from Russia.”They’re called KGB pills,” he explains, because the KGB developed them during the Cold War years to ensure that boozy soldiers remained alert. Per the package directions, he tells me, he swallowed three red pills prior to dinner and three black pills await him at the end of the evening.

I ask Roberto if Marcella is also on the formulary in anticipation of becoming shitfaced tonight. She is not. It should be an interesting date.

Finished with my meal, I thank Roberto and Marcella for their company, snap their picture, and offer to e-mail it to them.

Dining alone in Lisbon

THE FOURSOME

Emboldened by three glasses of vinho verde, I interrupt the strangers sitting behind me that I had been spying on earlier in the evening, and ask for the name of the stock they had been discussing. The married man repeats it for my benefit, and we banter for awhile.

They ask me if I am a journalist and also for the scoop on Roberto and Marcella, revealing that when I wasn’t observing the foursome, the foursome were observing my newfound threesome.

I eventually bid the group goodbye, and the flight attendants (who are feeling no pain) urge me to pull up a seat and join them for even more pitchers of sangria. I appreciate the invitation, but decline it. I know my alcohol limits (I took no prophylactic KGB pills earlier) and the difference between three glasses of wine and four is the difference between being silly and being stupid, between feeling fine in the morning versus awaking with a headache.

A very enjoyable evening dining alone in Lisbon, though. If you can call it that.

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME LUNCH at ARZAK

SAN SEBASTIAN

San Sebastian is a charming seaside town known for its preserved turn-of-the-century architecture, devotion to pintxos (Basque-style tapas) and dedication to gastronomy. It boasts more Michelin stars per square foot than any other city. I’ve traveled the foodie meccas of Singapore and Penang and although the citizens of both take their cuisine WAY seriously, they don’t compare to the diehard San Sebastian epicures. I traveled here to join them in their food obsession for a few days.

Every evening around 8:00, (what seems like) the entire population materializes and roams the picturesque/decrepit alleyways, migrating from one pintxos restaurant to the other. I just follow the crowds, pointing at (I don’t speak Spanish so bueno), and eating, what they eat. I especially love to trail the small cliques of octogenarian women with back-combed hair who stroll the streets arm-in-arm in their formal clothes and sturdy heels.

CHICAGO

Several months before my visit to Spain I booked a lunch reservation at Arzak, a perennial favorite on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sometimes reaching a rank of second on it.

In typical overly-eager American early-to-bed-early-to-rise fashion, I had requested a noon reservation. In typical laid-back Spanish late-to-bed-late-to-rise fashion Arzak had informed me that lunch reservations start at 1:30. The Spaniards have got the right idea.

ARZAK

Once seated, I open my Moleskin notebook, ready to record my experience for my annual holiday letter. Being the only solo diner, and scribing away, I’m aware that I appear to be a restaurant critic. Although I’m not impersonating one intentionally, I don’t discourage people from forming the opinion: the mischaracterization sometimes has its perks.

I don’t usually consume a 14-course meal for lunch. I typically just graze the day away, my personal dietary rule being no eating meals in between snacking. But I’m dining at ARZAK, so I opt for the entire tasting menu, which amuses the attractive, 50-something couple from Sydney seated beside me.

The courses commence: Caldito de Pochas con Guindilla, Platano Macho con Arraitxikis, Lamina de Queso con Datilesy Papaya, Arroz con Mousse de Setas (below). Each one is a delightful, delicious, miniature masterpiece.

Arzak dish Arroz con mousse de setas

The Australian couple and I have been chatting, and I have learned that they own a home in Aspen, that their jet was custom-built, and that they  have yachts docked on three continents. They’re not bragging, rather these details have surfaced in natural conversation. You can learn a lot about someone over the span of a fourteen-course meal.

The parade of dishes is relentless: Calabacin Kefir y Frutas Atomizadas, Carabineros con los Verdes, Flor de Huevo y Tartufa en Grasa de Oca y Txistorra de Datiles, the unfortunately named (fish) Rape con Hilos y Medula (below). Despite having studied a month at a Spanish language school in Barcelona and Salamanca, I have no clue what I’m eating. Which is fine, the surprise is part of the fun.

Arzak fish Rape con hilos y médula

By this time Lang and Sue have invited me to join them and their crew (the Australian Olympic Sailing Team!) in Chicago in September when they’ll race in the regatta. The offer that is as daunting as it is exciting. Also by this time I Am Stuffed. I mean, in gastric distress at the amount I’ve consumed.I can only nibble at my other-worldly Cordero con Cafe Cortado (below).

Arzak item Cordero con cafe cortado

My half-empty plate is cleared and Elena Arzak, the joint head chef of the restaurant (with her father) and Restaurant’s 2012 Veuve Clicquot award winner for World’s Best Female Chef, appears at my table, concerned that I do not like the food. I explain to her that I don’t even eat entrees, let alone 14 courses. She is very nice and I’m flattered that she has stopped by to speak with me.

Forging on — so happy, yet miserable — I attempt to finish my decadent Tortilla Fea de Chocolate con Lechuga (below) and Hojaldre de Leche.

Arzak Dessert

The final menu item, Frutas Pomposas, is too beautiful to eat, even if I were capable of doing so.

Arzak Frutas pomposas

Elena Arzak stops me on my way out of the restaurant and offers a personal tour of the kitchen. Because lunch service is still fast underway there’s no chance to go upstairs to see the 100,000-bottle wine cellar or the famous spice room, which contains greater than 1,400 varieties. Not that I’m complaining: I’m honored to be treated to a look at any part of the machine-like back of the house.

Between experiencing one of the most amazing meals of my lifetime (equaling, if not exceeding, visits to Alinea, Per Se, El Bulli and Noma), meeting one of the best chefs in the world, talking with billionaires, and being invited to join the Australian Olympic Sailing Team in a few months, my lunch at Arzak today was pretty damn perfect.

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