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WORLD’S TEN BEST BAR EXPERIENCES

7 May
Italy - Venice, Harry's Bar, San Marco

Harry’s Bar
Courtesy: Share Alike

HARRY’S BAR (VENICE, ITALY):  During my last trip to Venice, I became a “regular” at Harry’s Bar, albeit sadly only temporarily. By the second visit, the waiter inquired if I would again like a bellini, (Prosecco with rosy-hued peach puree.)  Thereafter, when I entered, he would give a nod and subtle smile. Whenever I am in Venice, I relish spending time at this iconic bar where I find the ambience enchanting and service impeccable. I think the patrons who complain about the prices, dress code, and service just don’t get it. This is an elegant, historical place which has maintained the tradition that has made it so loved. If one looks close, it will become apparent that Harry’s has a surprisingly simple approach to drinks, cuisine and atmosphere. Bellinis are served in the simple clear highball-type glass etched with the Harry’s Bar logo. They favor local, relatively inexpensive wines over high-priced wines. The food is simply but perfectly prepared, such as the popular French toasted cheese sandwich.  The upstairs dining room also serves fresh, simple, sumptuous food. I like to slide into the bar in the afternoon to relax and refresh myself in between exploring areas where tourists are seldom seen. My smile, polite salutations and attempts at speaking Italian have always been greeted with nothing but cordial attention and professional service. For me, Harry’s is worth every penny I’ve spent there.

Calle Ocho

Calle Ocho

CALLE OCHO (BORDEAUX, FRANCE):  Cuban music was blaring out onto the pedestrian-only street in Bordeaux. Ever a lover of music venues, and a huge fan of Cuban music, I ventured in. This was an atmospheric, dive bar with mojitos being mixed and served non-stop. Cuban cigars were plentiful in the din of the music and many languages being spoken. I made the mistake of saying a few friendly sentences to the enebriated woman beside me. That did it-she unleashed a torrent of words along with large plumes of smoke, telling me of  moving from Cuba to Bordeaux and then a series of unfortunate events that had befallen her with regard to love, work and where she lived. Shaking my head in a sympathetic manner apparently encouraged her, but in reality I only understood a portion of what she said. This loud, lively convivial Cuban bar was a surprising find in Bordeaux, although my new “friend” discreetly informed me of the abundance of ex-pat Cubans living there.

RIO SCENARIUM (RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL):  The exhilarating, pulsating rhythm of Brazilian samba greeted us as we exited our cab to the colorful three story beacon that is the Rio Scenarium located on an otherwise dark street. We were seated on the first floor where we primed ourselves with caipirinhas – Brazil’s national drink – and danced to the infectious music.  Samba was excellently executed, but all styles of dance were welcome. The crowd consisted of all ages; the younger crowd gravitated to the upper two floors for music more suited to their taste. We had friendly table neighbors, and talked when we could make ourselves heard. Rio Scenarium’s evocative atmosphere is an eclectic explosion of antiques, memorabilia, and kitsch.

Palapa Bar and Grill

Palapa Bar and Grill

PALAPA BAR & GRILL (AMBERGRIS CAYE, SAN PEDRO, BELIZE):  Sitting under the square palapa (palm grass) roof overlooking the crystal clear, vibrant blue of the Caribbean below is one of my favorite bar views. A half mile north of San Pedro town, is Palapa Bar & Grill. We stumbled on it, or more accurately, discovered it when our family was exploring the north end of Ambergris Caye while driving a golf cart (the standard mode of transportation on the island.)  The main bar is on the second floor which affords a panoramic vista of the water out to the barrier reef, the second longest in the world. We love the fresh fruit cocktails and “mocktails” for the kids. The other “bar” is in the water below where you can float on inflated tire inner tubes while buckets of icy cold local Belikin beer are dispatched to you by rope. Don’t forget to “leave your mark” by writing something on the bar.

 Swing Dancing to Stompy Jones at Top of the Mark


Swing Dancing to Stompy Jones at Top of the Mark

TOP OF THE MARK (INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL: SAN FRANCISCO): Swing dancing on the 19th floor rooftop bar with a spectacular 360 degree panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline is a rarified experience. Located on Nob Hill in the Intercontinental Hotel, the historic bar opened in 1939.  What made this locale particularly fun was the live entertainment. On several occasions, I had the chance to listen and dance to the Stompy Jones band, who play revved up “jump style” swing music.  The sextet was formed in 1998, and has since received numerous accolades and awards, even being featured in two movies. Donning characteristic short 1930’s-style ties, the band features bounce, piano, thumpin’ stand-up bass, double-shuffle drumming, trumpet sax, and vocals. I also enjoyed the talented pianist and vocalist, Ricardo Scales, who plays many musical styles; my favorite is Latin Jazz. Sample the ambitious “100 martinis” offered at Top of the Mark.  The last time I was there the service was extremely poor, even though the bar was not that crowded.

MOCAMBO BAR (TAORMINA, SICILY, ITALY):   After an Italian woman spontaneously stood up and danced an exactingly authentic tarantella to the live transient band at a panoramic restaurant in Taormina, we were eager for more music and dance. We headed down the street and in the main square found Mocambo Bar. Unaware of its storied past, opening in 1952 and hosting a number of celebrities, we settled in on the outdoor patio adorned with oleander and orange blossoms which had views of Mt. Etna and the sea. Not usually one for audience participation, when summoned, we reluctantly joined other enlisted audience members to play various percussion instruments with the keyboardist in the indoor part of the bar.  Our shared experience and musical ineptitude cemented an immediate bond between we newly recruited musicians; we sat together sharing travel stories, laughing, drinking and dancing. It was a magical night.

Hearst Castle's Neptune Pool

Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool

HEARST CASTLE NEPTUNE POOL PATIO (SAN SIMEON, CALIFORNIA):  We sipped our sparkling wine by the Neptune Pool, against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the imposing Casa Grande (more commonly called Hearst Castle) on the other. Construction of the Neptune Pool with its Roman temple façade  began in 1924, and after several design changes was finally completed in 1936 with marble pavilions, serpentine tiles, fountains, and alabaster lanterns.  We dressed in period clothing, as did many other attendees at “Enchanted Evening,” the Castle’s annual gala.  We walked around the pool while sampling appetizers and listening to the chamber string orchestra in this mesmerizing location. As the fog rolled in, the lighting proffered an ethereal atmosphere. We reluctantly tore ourselves away and headed for the dinner and auction with hopes of winning the opportunity to swim in the Neptune Pool.

HEMINGWAY BAR (RITZ, PARIS, FRANCE):  Tucked in the back of the Ritz is the legendary Hemingway Bar. Renowned bars are often over-rated – the Hemingway is a noteworthy exception. The atmosphere is cozy and clubby with wood walls and comfortable leather chairs, tasty snacks and fantastic cocktails. Papa’s gun, bust, and mementos adorn the walls. Mixologist extraordinaire Colin Field made this the place to get the city’s best cocktails. The Ritz and the Hemingway Bar closed for major renovations not long after we stayed there in 2012, but plans are for the Bar to re-open after the improvements. I just hope they will retain the original atmosphere and convince Colin Field to return.

Gran Caffe Chioggia Courtesy: Creative Common

Gran Caffe Chioggia
Courtesy: Creative Common

GRAN CAFFE CHIOGGIA (VENICE, ITALY):  Located on Piazzetta di San Marco with views of St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s palace, the clock tower and the lagoon, Gran Caffe Chioggia is always my final stop for the evening. The band is phenomenal, the best on the Piazza or Piazetta, and I daresay some of the most talented, entertaining musicians. Led by the exceptional violinist, Joseph Martin Miotti, the band plays a dazzling array of musical styles including classical, gypsy, swing, rock, tango, movie themes and more with the other band members playing piano, stand-up bass, accordion.  The charismatic Joseph manages to communicate humor in some songs such as his quirky rendition of the theme from the Pink Panther movie (which can be seen on YouTube.). We found the tuxedo-clad waiters professional and polite; service can be slow and it is expensive, but there is not a cover charge to listen to the music as there are in other venues on the Piazza. Many people choose to stand outside of the seating area to enjoy the music, but I prefer a more experiential encounter by sitting in the thick of the action.  In inclement weather, the band plays under the historic portico. During my first visit many years ago, on a rainy evening we enjoyed swing dancing to the band’s big band sounds under the warm, amber-hued lighting under the portico.

Norman Vito at Petrossian Bar

Norman Vito at Petrossian Bar

PETROSSIAN BAR AND LOUNGE AT BACCARAT BAR (BELLAGIO, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA):   Located in plain sight, but under-appreciated, are two gems for live music.  The elegant Petrossian Bar, located just across from the Bellagio’s front desk and around the corner from the gorgeous flower conservatory and botanical gardens, prominently displays a one-of-kind Steinway grand.  The pianists are extremely talented; I spoke with several of them who all had interesting histories to share. For example, Norman Vito told me of growing up in the Philippines and his experiences with Imelda Marcos and Van Cliburn. The music starts at 10 a.m. and continues with a
series of pianists until closing at 12:45 a.m. The Petrosssian Bar has varied offerings including traditional afternoon tea service, Russian specialties such as caviar, smoked salmon, and vodka samples, and a nice selection of wine and specialty-infused cocktails. Only a few short steps away is the Lounge at the Baccarat Bar, which features classic jazz in a stylish, sleek environment. The rotating musicians typically include a pianist/vocalist and a stand-up bass. The Lounge affords of a view of the high-end Baccarat gaming. I was quite amused by the cast of characters playing Baccarat – those dressed to the nines, slouchy-dressed, nervous chain smokers, young hipsters, superstitious seat movers, and more.  The bar offers a good selection of wine and cocktails. Performances start at 4:15 p.m. and continue until 1:00 a.m.

Harry's Bellini: Hope to see you soon: Cheers!

Harry’s Bellini:
Hope to see you soon: Cheers!

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Alluring Alicante: Top Stops

4 Apr
Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Living in the beautiful, low-cost Mediterranean area of Spain known as the Costa Blanca offers many advantages, not the least of which is the opportunity to travel to enticing, affordable historical and cultural places in the country. Since moving to the Costa Blanca, I have been enjoying nearby venues, all within about an hour’s drive. Almost everything in Alicante is centrally located, so no vehicle is needed once you arrive, although local trams are available if one wants to explore outlying areas.

 

The cosmopolitan area, now known as Alicante, has been inhabited over 7000 years, with periods of rule by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. One of the iconic sites visible from much of the city of Alicante is the hilltop Santa Bárbara Castle, which dates back to the period of Muslim rule starting in the 8th century. It was named for the saint day on which Castilian forces captured it on December 4, 1248. Over the centuries it endured many captures and bombardments, and was sometimes used as a prison. After a period of disuse, it was opened to the public. Entry is free, but there is a small fee to use the elevators to get to the top, or one can walk to the top. The panoramic view is spectacular.

 

Alicante Barrio

Alicante Barrio

Located near the Santa Bárbara Castle, is El Barrio, “the Old Quarter,” which features narrow pedestrian streets, with colorful homes and flowers, a photographer’s delight. There are numerous interesting historic buildings including St. Mary’s Church, built between the 14th to 16th centuries on top of a former mosque. Its ornate baroque façade and interior are a worthwhile stop. The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) is a baroque building located behind the Explanada Park. Besides the beautiful architecture of the exterior, inside there are historic archeological remains, the famous “blue room,” a chapel, and cota cero, a reference point inside the building from where the height of sea levels throughout Spain can be measured.

 

El Barrio also has shops and stores featuring everything from handmade crafts to luxury brands. Leather manufacturing is a major industry in the Alicante area, so inexpensive quality leather products are widely available.

 

alicante-axplanade

Iconic Explanada

Alicante is well-known for its regional cuisine. There are many dining options, from informal to formal including traditional tapas to innovative gourmet tapas, paellas, fish and seafood, as well as other types of regional Spanish and international cuisines. For foodies, a visit to the Mercado Central will delight the senses with abundant displays of fresh and unique offerings. There are places to purchase prepared food in the market, and cafes just outside. Another area offering quality cuisine is in the marina area, which can be reached by taking a stroll down the Explanada de España, which is the palm-lined walkway along the Mediterranean. It is paved with six and a half million marble floor mosaic tiles laid in such a way as to create a wave-like appearance; many consider this one of the most beautiful beachside walkways in Spain.

 

Spaniards love friends, family, fun, and festivals. To that end, in both the Old Town and in the Marina areas, there are many inviting sidewalk cafes for socialization and rejuvenation during the day, and lively bars or discotheques where people party until the early morning hours.

 

Prices for a nice hotel typically start around 70€; an apartment or vacation rental may be even less expensive with two or more bedrooms, kitchenette, common living areas and laundry facilities; most beverages including wine, beer, water, and soda for around 2€; and menu del dias (two or three course special menu of the day for as low as 10€.)

Retiring to a Fun, Inexpensive, Quality Life

20 Mar
Altea on a rare cloudy day

Altea on a rare cloudy day

Today I got up at the crack of noon. It’s not something I do every day, but it is a luxury I relish after those late Spanish nights out with friends. Yesterday, I had two Norwegian friends over to my house for a traditional American dinner, something they asked if I would do. Here in Altea, in the Costa Blanca area of central Mediterranean Spain, it is sometimes difficult to source some typical American food ingredients, but it makes for a fun challenge. When I wanted to make authentic Jamaican Jerk chicken and could not find habañero peppers, David, a chef and co-owner of my favorite local bar, AlteArte, volunteered to buy some for me at a commercial food market for restaurants. AlteArte is a local mojiteria (bar specializing in making mojitos) and arts bar.

 

After our American dinner, Daniel, one of my invited guests, was hosting his monthly movie night at AlteArte, so we took the short walk to it in the center of the historic old town at the top of the hill. We stayed late enjoying the busy, convivial atmosphere. The prior week Daniel had me to his house for a traditional Norwegian dinner. Both he and his roommate each created their unique regional specialty dishes. Being from north of the Arctic Circle, Daniel’s dish was roast pork with crackling skin. Delicious! I love the opportunities to meet new friends with whom I can exchange our different cultural traditions. Another particularly memorable experience I have had was when a Nepalese family invited me to their house for a delicious, homemade meal at their home. It was my first time eating traditional, homemade Nepalese food, and afforded me the opportunity to get to know more about their lives and culture in Nepal.

 

Seafood paella

Seafood paella

There are always challenges when trying to re-create and share American traditions to my friends in my new home country, Spain. However, mostly I embrace the new cultural and food customs here. Jamones (various types of ham and pork products) are a Spanish favorite, served simply as thin slices or often as an ingredient in many dishes, like steamed clams with pieces of ham. I have even found ham in the usually vegetarian gazpacho blended soup and in steamed clams. There is an incredible bounty of fresh fish and seafood from the local Mediterranean. I enjoy spontaneous daily forays to local bars where, in the evening, I get a free tapa with my glass of wine for as little as 1, 20€ ($1.32.) Inevitably, I encounter friends with whom I enjoy genial conversation.

 

Bar Cuba

Bar Cuba

Although I was an avid live music fan when I lived in the Central Coast of California, here in Altea Spain, there are many diverse activities, including the many regional Spanish festivals, live music, in addition to the time spent celebrating new cultural experiences with friends. One of my regular favorites is going with friends to Bar Cuba, for salsa and other types of Latin dancing to live music by Rafa, a friend who is originally from Venezuela. Bar Cuba is co-owned by Raúl and Nikki; Nikki is a friendly, competent businesswoman who originally hails from Jamaica. Other nights she schedules salsa and other Latin dance classes, karaoke, televised soccer games (fútbol), and specialty international dinners. Living in Spain allows me to enjoy traditional Spanish festivities, as well as experience cultural experiences from the variety of ex-pats who live here.

 

With the low cost of living in the Costa Blanca, I no longer have to work, and can focus on friends and fun. The Spanish are known for their many festivals, which offer spectacle and fun. Where I lived in California, it was nearly impossible to function without a car.

Moros y Cristianos festival

Moros y Cristianos festival

Here in Spain, I relish no longer having to have a car. I walk to all of my local activities, or take convenient, efficient, inexpensive public transportation to nearby towns, with unexpected health benefits. Instead of finding it difficult to even arrange a short monthly get together with a friend in California, here in Altea, rarely does a day go by where I don’t meet up with friends, whether planned or spontaneous. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that I live in one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, with such an inexpensive cost of living, and fulfilling quality of life.

 

10 Best Images of Moros Y Cristianos Festival Altea: Entrada Mora

8 Nov

In my two prior posts, I blogged about one of Altea’s most celebrated holidays, Moros y Cristianos. As promised, this blog post will focus on the highlight of the festival, the Entrada Mora, the spectacular parade of the “Moors.”

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Entrada Cristiana (Christian Parade Entry): Altea

25 Oct

In my last post, I gave a brief summary of the annual Moros y Cristianos  festival, and showed some of the opening day festivities.  This post will feature a few photos from Entrada Crsitiana, and next post Entrada Mora.

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Top Festival Photos: Moros y Cristianos in Altea Spain

12 Oct

Moros Y Cristianos Festivals or Festes de Moros I Cristianos,  in Valenciana, are very popular on the Costa Blanca, where I live. In my town, Altea, the main festival takes place at the end of September, honoring San Blas (Saint Blaise, in English.) However, the preparation for the main festival takes place all year long with each crew or brotherhood. Each of the many groups has its own marching band.  As is typical of many festivals, at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., (early by Spanish standards), there is a despertá, where musicians, drummers, and ear-numbing pellet guns stroll the streets with this form of an early wake-up call. And it is early as many of the festival participants party into the wee hours of the morning, with live bands starting nightly some time after midnight. This main part of the festival occurs Thursday through Monday, with the most popular event being the Monday night Entrada Mora, the parade featuring the “Moors.” I did ask around to find out if any actual “Moors” or Muslims participated, but was told no. This type of festival would not “fly” in the US but there are a number of festivals in Spain that may seem politically incorrect in other countries. In some of the photos of the brotherhood of the Moros, you will notice cigarettes and beer in hand, during the daytime marches. One of the “brotherhoods” has their headquarters just across the street from my patio, so I often get to witness their preparation and celebrations. Whatever one’s feelings are about the political incorrectness, the local atmosphere is electric with anticipation and excitement for the festival, and the music and costumes are fantastic.

In my next two blogs, I will provide photos of the Cristianos and the Moros, respectively.

Opening Day Festivities

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Procession up the hill to the Church in Casco Antiguo with many fabulous musicians

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Preview of my next post on the Entrada Cristiana

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Preview of post on Entrada Mora

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FISHING FIASCO ON THE ZAMBEZI RIVER

14 Jun

While fishing on the Zambezi River, I turned around from the boat’s railing and saw my pink wallet suddenly being shoved back into my purse. At first, with the bright sun, I wasn’t quite sure what I had seen, but then I realized one of the two local fishing guides intended to steal money from my wallet while the other man was the look-out. Usually one for confronting mistreatment right away, I paused, realizing the two of us were alone on this fishing venture in the middle of the Zambezi River with the two guides. These were desperate times in Zimbabwe, with the continuing pillaging and mismanagement of the economy by President Robert Mugabe, not to mention his human rights atrocities.

Almost worthless ten million Zimbabwe dollars

When we were in Zimbabwe, we were given local paper currency from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in the amount of “Ten Million Dollars,” which at the time was worth a mere 66 cents. There was even an expiration date on the bill. It continued to depreciate so much that this past week Zimbabwe took their currency out of circulation. One can now exchange 35000000000000000 Zimbabwean dollars for $1 U.S.

A guide at the elephant refuge center explained to us that before Mugabe took power Zimbabwe had better employment rates and quality of living; the ongoing deteriorating economic status of Zimbabwe’s citizens made things even harder for those who compare their current situation to their lot in the past. We were told that many Zulu were killed by Mugabe. Some of the Zulu warriors danced and sang for our tour group at the grand, colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. (I plan to later post video of their performance.)

As these thoughts quickly raced through my mind while on the fishing boat, I decided to casually meander over to my purse at the back of the boat, pretend to need my lip balm from it, and then carry it to the front of the boat where we were fishing. The river has a number of dangerous animals including hippos and crocodiles, and I feared if we confronted the two men that they might be desperate to protect their precious livelihood. We tried to look nonchalant while continuing to fish.

IMG_1006We were supposed to take a sunset Steam Train across the Victoria Falls Bridge over the thunderous, misty falls, but the train wasn’t running due to the inability to pay for needed parts. Our tour had also scheduled a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. If they couldn’t get parts for a train, I wondered about the maintenance of the helicopter. So that is one of the reasons we instead opted for the unique opportunity to fish on the Zambezi River. That option may have been no safer than the helicopter ride. In both cases, we and all of our tour companions ended up safely back at The Victoria Falls Hotel where we watched the colorful sunset, flanked by mist from the Victoria Falls on one side and the baboons running around the grounds and up the walls of the old grand dame hotel.