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San Francisco Pictorial

15 Sep

Reminiscing on some of my favorite travel spots. This one is about my last trip to San Francisco, and some of the interesting sights we experienced.

Top of the Mark (Mark Hopkins Hotel with panoramic view of the city) where I enjoyed swing dancing to Stompy Jones

Crazy candy store with gigantic treats and other entertaining items

One of the outdoor food stands, obviously this is the creme brulee cart

Interesting building from San Francisco’s China Town, the largest China town outside of China

Chinatown’s R & G Lounge. Authentic and delicious food. Been there several times, as did Anthony Bourdain, I later learned

Graffiti in China Town

Moon Pies and other bakery goods in China Town

Selection of Chinese teas in China Town

 

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Highlights of Cordoba and Sevilla

19 Jun

Here are some photos from a recent trip my son, Michael Marlen-Starr and I took in Cordoba and Sevilla. I highly recommend Cordoba, with its beautiful flowered patios; Roman, Muslim and Christian history; small town feel with friendly people and great food; plus live music and dance venues.

Patio of our Cordoba B&B

Roman temple at Cordoba

Mezquita: Cordoba

Narrowest street in Cordoba: Michael and me

Organ: Mezquita Cordoba

Roman bridge: Cordoba

Mezquita: Cordoba

Mezquita: Cordoba

King Alfonso: Alcazar Cordoba

Garden at Alcazar, Cordoba

After a short trip via train, we arrived for a short visit of Sevilla. Here is one view of the Cathedral of Sevilla

Stained glass window: Sevilla cathedral

Tomb of Christopher Columbus: Sevilla Cathedral

Former minaret at Sevilla cathedral

Visual Valencia

7 Apr

When my youngest son was visiting for the summer, we took a trip to nearby Valencia, the third largest city and Spain and the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia (Comunitat Valenciana, in the local Valenciana dialect.) Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BC, and has historical ruins from the Roman and Arab occupations.  I have also shared my recommendations in a blog post of the top 10 things to do in Valencia. But now, I want to share the visual delights of Valencia, from the beautiful historic buildings, the Lonja de la Seda  (Silk Exchange, built between 1482 and 1548, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the mind-boggling architecture of the City of Arts and Sciences designed in part by native-born Santiago Calatrava, and, of course, street entertainers, and food at restaurants and in the famous Mercat Central (Valenciana for Central Market.)

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City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

One of a number of exhibits at the City of Arts and Sciences

One of a number of exhibits at the City of Arts and Sciences

Ceiling of La Lonja de la Seda, originally painted blue with gold stars

Ceiling of La Lonja de la Seda, originally painted blue with gold stars

External window at La Lonja de la Seda with view of internal stained glass window

External window at La Lonja de la Seda with view of internal stained glass

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Valencia Central Market

Inside the Central Market

Inside the Central Market

Yummy offal

Yummy offal

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Spectacular array of vegetables

Delicious whole calamari

Delicious whole calamari

Jamon bellota at the venerable Casa Vela, since 1908

Jamon bellota at the venerable Casa Vela, since 1908

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Fun, Food and Music: Two Days in Javea

10 Dec

Altea

Travelling requires planning, and then when things go awry, flexibility. I love living here in Altea, on the Mediterranean, in Spain, but I also want to continue my life-long love of travelling to new places.

 

To that end, I have been looking to explore nearby destinations, and places further afield in Spain and beyond. However, from where I live, it is often not easily accessible to other areas of Spain, and beyond. The local tram, now over 100 years old, is a major way to travel from Altea to the north to Denia and to the south to Alicante, and destinations in between. It is about an hour by tram from Altea to Denia and two hours south to Alicante. However, the tram has been undergoing upgrades, and so now only runs to Calpe, three stops north of Altea, and then you need to transfer to a bus which substitutes for the tram. I was going to Javea, (aka Xàbia) a little less than an hour north of Altea. While dogs are allowed on the tram, when I went to the local tram station and asked if I could take my dog on the bus, (since it was a substitute for the tram), she called to ask her superiors. She told me it was not allowed.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

So I had already made Pepper, (aka Pimienta) my small dog, a portable carrier/backpack incognito, by tacking on black scarfs inside on the netting, so I could “sneak” him onto bus public transport. But when I took the tram from Altea to Calpe, and tried to transfer to the bus for destinations north beyond, I was told I had to leave the backpack in the luggage hold in the bus, (which is the same as the animal transport policy for public buses in Spain.) I could not leave the dog in the soft backpack in the luggage hold.

 

So I had to regroup. I ended up taking a taxi to Javea, for 48 €. Originally I booked the Parador in Javea (paradors being historical buildings converted into hotels and restaurants), but the booking website incorrectly said they allowed dogs. Then I booked The Hotel Rodat, also a 4 star hotel.  It was a lovely hotel which reminded me much of hotels in the Santa Barbara area of California. Unfortunately for me, the dog-friendly rooms were down many stairs, (with no disabled access nor rails for the stairs) and no ability to eat in any of the hotel restaurants with your dog; in Spain, usually there is outdoor seating where pets are welcomed. I was planning to eat at their 1 Michelin star restaurant. The room service only had a limited menu, and did not include any dishes from the Michelin-starred restaurant and very few from the more casual dining restaurant. A dog-friendly hotel where you cannot eat at any of the restaurants? No bueno.

Thus I proceeded to the L’Arenal beachside region of Javea where I enjoyed some snacks of berberechos and lobster soup at Fontana Restaurant. The outdoor covered roof with gas heaters allowed a cozy view of the beach walkway and all of its activities. Afterwards, I walked about two miles to the port to Varadero restaurant and bar where Destry Spigner, a local blues and soul singer was performing. In addition to enjoying his performance, I had a tasty snack of Spanish cheese and hams.

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berberechos

After a restful night’s sleep, I enjoyed the garden area outside my room while Pepper played fetch. I then returned to Los Remos, a restaurant which had an enticing menu that I had seen the previous day, but was unable to eat at as the kitchen was closed after 4:00 p.m. until the dinner service. I am glad I returned as I had one of the best meals I have had in Spain, (bogavante azul) and superb mixed sautéed vegetables. While dining, I watched the busy beach area, with youngsters getting surf lessons (although there was hardly any surf), families walking and playing, and dogs running on the beach (which is not allowed in the summer, but tolerated in the winter.) Happy and sated with my outing, I returned to Altea via taxi, for the same 48€ that it cost me to get to Javea from Calpe.

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blue lobster (bogavante azul)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Trip: Historic Guadalest

28 Oct
Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Walking through the 1300+ year-old man-made rock hewn tunnel is the only way to get access to the historical and picturesque village of Guadalest, Spain. The town is situated inland within walled fortifications on a pinnacle in the mountains. Historically, it was an important strategic site as its location made it impenetrable. In spite of its inland location and a drive on serpentine, hilly roads, the town is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain, with both historic and touristic offerings.

 

The area of Guadalest was occupied by the Moors starting around 715 A.D., and the Alcozaiba Castle was built in the 12th century. All that remains today of that Castle is a restored tower. The Moors brought their traditions of terraced farming, which are visible throughout the surrounding landscape and still widely used in this area of Spain today.

 

The Castle of Guadalest was built during the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. In July of 1644, an earthquake destroyed much of the castle, and in December of that year, much of the town. The castle was further damaged by a bomb during the War of Succession in 1708. The Castle’s hilltop remains are still visible from below, or one take the steep trek to castle ruins.

 

Panoramic view from Guadalest's walled old town

Panoramic view from Guadalest’s walled old town

Other points of interest are the remains of Peñon de Alcala, the watchtower that is located on a rocky peak which juts straight up from the ground, and the jail/dungeon dating back to the 12th century. The charming Baroque-style Catholic Church built in the 18th century was restored after it was burnt and looted during the Spanish Civil War. Next to the church is the Orduña’s family home which is now a museum. The Orduña family rose to prominence in Guadalest from the 1600s until the death of the last heir in 1934. For book lovers, the museum boasts a large historic library with approximately 589 books from the years 1500 to 1800. A look over the town’s walls affords panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, the glimmering blue reservoir below, and the Mediterranean on the vista.

 

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

There are eight other museums, which range from the quirky the Salt and Pepper Museum, the historic Ethnological Museum of the Valley of Guadalest, and the macabre Torture Museum. There are the usual souvenir shops, but also unique regional products and high quality items for the home or gifts. Cafés are available for a respite or quality local fare.

 

To get there, one can take the short trip by a tour bus or car. The drive is hilly and windy, but not treacherous, and is quite scenic, with one route passing another castled town, Polop. Bring good walking shoes, as the route up to the historic areas of Guadalest are steep and the round rock pathways can prove slippery. Near Guadalest, there are the waterfalls, Fonts de l’Algar, and numerous physical options such as hiking, biking and mountain climbing.

Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!