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Nature and Iconic Buildings In SLO (San Luis Obispo) County

2 Apr

San Luis Obispo California has been named by Oprah Winfrey as “the happiest place in America.”  New York Times best-selling author and explorer, Dan Buettner, called San Luis Obispo the top spot for the happiest places in the United States in his book Thrive.  San Luis Obispo was also one of ten recommended best places to see by the L.A. Times. I was fortunate to live there for nearly 30 years with my three boys, and here are some photos that show some of the highlights.

Whale breaching at Morro Bay

 

 

 

Hearst Castle, San Simeon

Hearst Castle pool

Monarch butterfly grove: Pismo Beach

San Luis Obispo Mission (1772), with bronze sculpture of local bear

Iconic, kitschy Madonna Inn: famous restaurant, theme hotel rooms, and great live music for swing dancing

California wildflowers: Eastern San Luis Obispo county

Historic Queen Anne house: San Luis Obispo

Vineyard near our home in Templeton

Elephant seals during their migration and breeding: San Simeon

D’Anbino Cellars: wine and top live music venue by award-winning cousins in music, film, and tv

“Goatee” surfing: Pismo Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Quality, Bargain Travel within Europe

8 May

Water Wheel: Treviso

While I loved my new life as an ex-pat in the lovely Mediterranean village of Altea, Spain, I relish the opportunity to affordably travel to other destinations. For my most recent trip, I went to Venice, Paris, then back to where I live, with all three flights costing only 150 Euros.

 

There are many low-cost options available for transportation and accommodations. My original plan was to go to central Spain to the historic, beautiful and interesting cities of Salamanca (with arguably the most beautiful plaza in Spain), Segovia (with its intact Roman Aqueduct), and Avila (with its intact medieval city wall), all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain has the second most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after China.

 

Piazza San Marco

However, getting to those locations from where I live is not easy to do in a timely manner via train or flight. I did not want to rent a car or take ride-sharing Bla Bla Car. As I did not want to spend many hours to get to my destinations, I looked at the direct (non-stop) flights that departed and arrived from the two airports closest to me, Valencia and Alicante. Originally I found direct flights from my preferred airport of Alicante to many destinations, and I decided to go to Venice, then Paris, then home to Alicante airport. I also checked for airlines and hotels that accepted dogs, as I initially planned to take my small dog, Pepper. I subsequently decided not to take him because it would preclude us from going to events like the ballet in Paris, or restaurants which have only indoor seating.

 

Often flight, bus and other transportation schedules within Spain and Europe are not published until a few months before departure. Whereas my initial search found direct flights from Alicante to Venice, when I went to book it, there were no scheduled flights for March, none until July. Being flexible and willing to search for other options can yield reasonable alternatives. I was going to meet my son in Venice on a Sunday in March, and all the flights with more than one leg took a ridiculous length of time. I then found a flight the prior day, a Saturday, to Treviso, which is only a mere 30 minutes train ride to the Venice train terminal for only 3,40 Euros. I decided to get a hotel in Treviso, “The City of Art and Water,” that Saturday and explore the town, which has interesting history and culture. The next day, I strolled around town before heading to Venice. Of course, I had researched, and where necessary, scheduled all the connecting ground transportation for the whole trip. That was not necessary for the train from Treviso to Venice. In Italy, (and some other European countries), after you purchase your ticket, you must validate it in one of the machines on the wall or you risk getting a large fine when they train staff check your ticket.

 

As private water taxis are very expensive in Venice, as are taxies in Paris, I scheduled them on Alilaguna, a group water taxi for about 14 Euros one way and 25 Euros roundtrip, and Blacklane for a roundtrip private transfer from Paris Orly airport to our hotel in the Plaza Vendôme area for about 50 Euros each way.

 

One unexpected issue we had on the flight from Venice to Paris on Transavia was just as we got to the staff to present our boarding passes we were told we could only have one carry-on, and that we would have to put any other items including my purse in my carry-on suitcase, which was already stuffed full. I had to throw out a few items in order for my purse to fit. All three flights were about two hours. It was the first time I had taken low cost airlines, and found them organized, and comfortable enough.

 

We enjoyed stops in historic churches, art museums, live music venues, and public gardens. Included in this article are some of the interesting sites we saw on this trip.

 

For me, one of the many considerations, albeit not the most major, in making a decision to move to Spain was the ease and cost of travelling to relatively nearby European and African countries.

 

 

 

Taxi Travel Perils and Moros y Cristianos in Altea Spain

9 Oct
Moros

Moros

“The taxi driver wouldn’t follow the directions you provided. He said, ‘Moros y Cristianos’ and ‘impossible,’ then stopped, unloaded our luggage and told us to get out. We don’t know where we are.” This was the first comment from my friend who had just arrived in Altea from California. In addition, the WhatsApp wouldn’t work for her, so I hadn’t gotten any of her prior calls. Having not heard from them at the expected arrival time, I then called her via regular (expensive) international mobile rates, which is when I received her panicked statement.

 

Camels with Moros

Camels with Moros

In anticipation of the arrival of my two girl friends from California, I fretted over possible, or should I say probable, problems with the cab driver getting to my apartment during the annual Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christian) festival. This was not my first problematic experience with Spanish cab drivers. My fear was realized, in spite of spending several days providing a map and writing out the directions in Spanish (and English so my friends could see if he was going the right way.) At the beginning of the directions was the admonition in Spanish (which my friend read aloud) not to go the usual way due to the Moros y Cristianos festival. In response, he simply entered my address into his guidance system, and drove to the starting spot of the parade, at which point he dropped them off on the highway (Carretera 332) that runs through Altea.

 

Christian fila party across from my apartment

Christian fila party across from my apartment

After eventually figuring out where they were, I found them near the start of the Moros y Cristianos parade route. With luggage in tow, we then proceeded to the seats on the parade route a local friend had saved for us. Although I had told them they would be in Altea during the Moros y Cristianos festival, they had no idea of the magnitude and pageantry of it. The festival commemorates the Christians reconquering the areas of Spain that had been conquered earlier by the Moors.

 

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King in the procession to the church plaza from my window

Nor did they anticipate the incredible level of noise associated with most festivals in Spain. In the early morning, there is the despierta (wake-up) when the local filas (brotherhoods) proceed up the hill toward the church plaza while their respective brass bands play and others fire noise-making guns and firecrackers, all the while drinking and smoking. (Having attended the festival for two years, I have only seen one Muslim participate.) Throughout the day, the many filas have parties at their individual sites, with food, alcohol and music. The fila Moros across the street from my balcony, Els Malvins, have a fabulous group of musicians, which I am privileged to enjoy without having to leave my home. In addition, there are many other adjunctive activities such as midnight fireworks, re-enactment of battles between the two groups,

 

Solemn religious procession

Solemn religious procession

The festival culminates with evening parades, first the Moros, the next day a solemn religious procession, and finally the Christians. After those parades, the filas return to their home sites where they continue to party until the early hours of the morning. In addition, there are live music/dance venues that start after midnight and go for many hours. I don’t know how they can stay awake that long, let alone, party that intensely. Tellingly, on the day after the festival ends, almost all of the local businesses are closed, apparently for recuperation and clean up.

 

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Quail with apple slices, grapes fruit compote

 

My friends were thrilled with the Moros y Cristianos festival, as well as many other aspects of Spain, including the friendly international locals, the many varieties of activities, day trips to other towns, fabulous food and the ambience of beautiful Altea.

 

 

Adventure to El Campello

3 Sep
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Enjoying Xiringuito Ton-Tin with Sandie Sheppard

 

 

With so many interesting places and events here on the Costa Blanca in Spain, I have decided to start taking short trips to some of these spots. Serendipitously, I met a woman at a local jazz fusion concert, who also is a live music fan. While we shared a table, I was expressing my frustration about the difficulty finding information on the internet about live music venues. She then volunteered that she knew several live music venues and offered to send me the information.

 

Xiringuito Ton-Tin in El Campello, just north of Alicante, was one of the locations she recommended. During July and August, they offered daily performances every evening. The day we went the saxophone and trumpet players were featuring jazz, soul, bossa nova, and swing. The two musicians were fantastic. A few people danced, but at other events there seem to be far more dancers. Xiringuito Ton-Tin features a wide variety of music genres, and will continue to have live performances in September. It is located on the beach, with the seats and tables and large globe-shaped white lamps, all situated on the sand, which we loved. For those unfamiliar, Xiringuito, also spelled chiringuito, is typically a small beachside business where one can get beverages and snacks. Many times they are only seasonal summer spots. Xiringuito Ton-Tin regularly posts their calendar of events and video excerpts of concerts. Reservations are recommended as many tables were booked in advance.

 

Pepper at a concert

Pepper at a concert

To get there, we took the tram from Altea to El Campello, which took a little over an hour. I brought my little dog in a wheelie back-back, although I have gotten inconsistent information on whether pets are allowed, so I just placed the backpack in a position between my legs where no one could see what was inside. When we arrived, we ate at a local restaurant across the street from the ocean, and a very short distance from the tram station from which we exited. I only booked the trip the day before we left, yet still managed to find a reasonably-priced hotel that was pet-friendly in nearby San Joan d’Alacant. It was a bit too far for us to walk, so we took cabs to the hotel. A couple of times, the drivers appeared to be taking a circuitous route, which unnecessarily added to the fare, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the area to give directions.

 

The next morning, we took a cab to another area of El Campello, including a busy, active beach area. It offered numerous cafes and restaurants, a variety of water sports including an inflatable floating gym for kids. In the heart of central El Campello, there were some quality eateries for very reasonable prices, and interesting stores if you enjoy shopping (which I don’t.) We headed back to Altea mid-afternoon. This was a very economical trip, even with all of the activities, food and beverages. I am looking forward to my next Costa Blanca adventure.

 

Have you had any memorable short trips?

Summer Fun in Altea Spain

21 Aug
Summer in Altea's Casco Antiguo with craft booths

Summer in Altea’s Casco Antiguo with craft booths

While Altea (Spain) always has many entertaining activities, summer brings additional fun offerings. Ever a music fan, I appreciate the variety of city-sponsored live bands playing at various outdoor venues, including 40’s style Big Band, jazz fusion with a Mohawk-sporting accordion and keyboard player, flamenco, regional (Valenciano) folk music, to mention a few. I also went to a rock jam session held on Sunday afternoon at a local tram station, which had an eclectic, inviting atmosphere.

 

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One of the 60 mural paintings hanging from balconies in Altea’s Casco Antigua

In Altea’s hilltop Casco Antiquo, (Old Town), the church plaza and the walkway to it, which are sparsely filled during the winter months (as exemplified my Facebook cover photo), are now packed with throngs of visitors and locals. This month in Casco Antiguo there are a display of 60 painted murals by different artists which hang off balconies, hence named Balconades d’Altea. Also during the summer in Casco Antiguo, there are many artisan craft booths featuring various types of original art, jewelry, leather and more. Most restaurants in Casco Antiguo are open for the summer season, with many types of cuisine available such as Spanish, French, Italian, and other ethnic cuisines.

 

 

 

L'Olla fireworks

L’Olla fireworks

In June, we had the San Joan (Valenciano) for St. John festival, which features water-inspired activities, including parades and midnight bonfires at the beach, which normally are prohibited. Another popular summer beach activity is the spectacular firework display, Castell de l’Olla, over the Mediterranean. People head down to the beach with beverages and/or picnics for the midnight show, which this year lasted over 30 minutes. Alternatively, people may watch the show from the comfort of their balconies or terraces, as I did, or a café in Casco Antiguo’s plaza.

 

During the summer, many people enjoy going to temporary, seasonal chiringuitos, beachside bars/restaurants, which offer full service food and beverages with tables, and shade, if desired. I recently went to bonavida, a great chiringuito on the beach where I love their fried fish and seafood plate. (I recently posted a short video from it on my Facebook.) On many of the beach areas, there are lounge beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent.

 

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

There are many water sports available with a number of seaside businesses offering such activities as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, boat rental, sailing lessons, fishing, kitesurfing, and more. I love snorkeling, and every Christmas school vacation, I took my three sons to warm spots with good snorkeling, such Australia, Belize, Hawaii, Mexico, and various Caribbean islands. The Mediterranean in Altea is warmest in July and August, reaching 25C/80F degrees. For me, that is an ideal snorkeling temperature, so I scheduled a boat snorkeling tour this past week. It was postponed due to unusual rain, so I went the following day. The water was not as clear as I was hoping and the sea life not as vibrant to those which I am used to, but it may have partially been due to the recent rain. I enjoyed it anyway. There are also places to snorkel right off the beach without a boat. The dive center from which I took my snorkeling trip was located at Greenwich Marina/ Pueblo Mascarat. It was my first visit there, and I discovered new restaurants, and live music venues, including one, Macao, with outdoor lounge seating, which I plan to soon attend.

 

In the towns adjacent or near Altea, there are also many activities. This week-end there is the three day Festes de L’Albir, (Fiesta of Albir) with a car parade, children’s activities, food and beverage stand, music, games, and walk to the iconic lighthouse. Several bars in the Albir beach area offer live music, including soul, Latin, rock, comedy to name a few. Bar Cuba is one of my favorite spots, which offers complimentary bachata or other types of Latin dancing at 2000 on Saturday evening, and live Latin music for dancing Saturday and Sunday evening. They also feature other dance lessons throughout the week such as kizomba, salsa, line dance, and mambo for a nominal fee. I enjoy the instructive and professional complimentary bachata

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

lessons with Andres Ledesma so much, I took some small class private lessons with him.

 

What are your favorite summertime activities?

Sant Joan Festival in Altea Spain

26 Jun

BOOM BOOM BOOM. The sounds outside were so loud as to cause my dog, Pepper, to run to hide under the bed. I peered out of my window which affords a view of the cathedral at the top of Altea’s old town, where I was surprised to see fireworks midday. The fireworks signaled the start of the day’s Sant Joan Festival.

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Waiting to be doused with water at Sant Joan festival in Altea

Sant Joan Festivals are very popular in Spain, particularly in the Province of Valencia where I live, as well as in Catalan-speaking areas, and Galicia. Sant Joan is the Valenciana and Catalan languages way of saying Saint John. The Sant Joan festival in Alicante is Spain’s largest, and one of Alicante’s most important festival. The festivals occur around June 23, the day of Sant Joan, typically with numerous days of activities that vary with the location.

In Alicante, there are large “Ninot” characters that are set on fire, much like the famous “falles” festival in Valencia in March. The Ninot are amusing parodies of famous people or politicians made of wood, cardboard, mud, and other items. This year’s Alicante festival occurs for four days. There are noisy early morning (for Spain) wake-ups, parades, costumes, music and many more activities.

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Sant Joan parade with masks

In my town of Altea, when I first heard about the impending festival, I had no idea what to expect. My initiation to the festival was the booming fireworks midday, followed later by a parade of locals with cartoon character heads. There have been three early morning wake-ups by noisy participants yelling, playing instruments, and more fireworks. My apartment is on the street where all the local parade participants go as they head up the hill to the cathedral in Altea’s main plaza. One afternoon, there was a huge pan of traditional paella cooked in the plaza for all to sample. One midnight during the festival, people wade into the ocean. After all, St. John is remembered for baptizing Jesus.

This festival requires stamina. The first group of parade participants, which included many musicians, continued to march and perform for more than 12 hours. During the second afternoon parade, the noisy participants of all ages wore torn t-shirts and were soaking wet as they made their way up the hill. There were two groups, each carrying a tall tree, many drinking from large jugs or other vessels of wine, while the people watching on from their apartments above dump and spray water on the giddy participants.

 

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Raising the tree

 

Once done with the procession, in the plaza the trees are hoisted to stand erect. Men attempt to climb the tree as high as possible onto the unstable trees to tie on their ripped t-shirt. An ambulance was waiting nearby for anyone who might fall. However, I think it is nearly as dangerous for the women who wear spindly high heel shoes while walking on the uneven, rocky plaza surface, or dancing when the late night band plays.

 

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Climbing the tree to tie on a flag

Today, Sunday, parade participants wore traditional costumes while trekking up the hill to the accompanying music followed by a “solemn” mass. There are numerous activities scheduled including more music processions. (Altea music schools for youth and a professional school for adults so music is always a prominent part of any festival.) There will be more fireworks, and in the plaza another giant communal paella, and disco music starting at 11:00 p.m.

 

What has been your favorite festival experience in Spain?