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SERENDIPITY AT SANTA CATERINA HOTEL

25 Feb
Santa Caterina Hotel Lobby

Santa Caterina Hotel Lobby (Courtesy: Hotel Santa Caterina)

Looking at the vista of sparkling blue water against the backdrop of the Amalfi Coast’s rugged terrain from the balcony of the luxurious Santa Caterina Hotel, we languished over the refreshing local limoncello lemon liqueur. One of the hotel staff approached us saying that the son of the owner of the hotel was getting married the next day and would be having their rehearsal dinner reception at the hotel that night and we were invited. The hospitable parents of the groom, Francesco, own two of Amalfi’s best hotels, including the renowned late 19th century liberty style villa, Santa Caterina. All of the wedding guests were staying at the Hotel; we must have serendipitously booked our hotel reservations before the wedding date was set because everyone else seemed to be part of the wedding party or wedding guests.

Having just arrived after spending a few days in gritty, crowded, tasty Naples, we relished the calm serene, comfort, and Italian elegance the Santa Caterina offered. We were excited about the opportunity to have an insider’s experience in an authentic Italian rehearsal dinner reception.

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Bar at Santa Caterina (Courtesy: Hotel Santa Caterina)

As expected, the many small appetizers were creative and sumptuous, some of the best food we have ever had. Drinks were plentiful, served by the friendly, impeccably professional staff. The bride, Sarah, an American, incorporated local lemons and limoncello into the reception décor. Appetizers were served in the lobby which had traditional, colorful Amalfi floor tiles. The buzz of many languages was a result of the multinational guests who hailed from ten countries.

After the formal dinner, and numerous toasts to the bride- and groom-to-be, we danced to a variety of types of live music and chatted with the convivial guests. We retired to our beautiful  room, thankful for being able to experience such a genuine Italian celebration.

Evening View of Santa Caterina Hotel

Evening View of Santa Caterina Hotel (Courtesy: Hotel Santa Caterina)

The next day the couple exchanged vows in the 9th century Roman Catholic Amalfi Cathedral, which of course, we did not attend. Instead we spent a lovely day wandering the ancient streets of Amalfi. While I generally abhor shopping, I was determined to buy some of the decorative, hand-crafted Amalfi ceramic pottery, specifically colorful plates and address tiles. Meanwhile, when the newly married bride and groom exited the church in the town’s main plaza, they were greeted with cheers from townspeople and tourists alike. That night after their wedding reception, we watched their colorful firework spectacle from our room.

Historic and Tasty Jijona: Costa Blanca Day Trip

18 Dec
Jijona (Xixona)

Jijona (Xixona)

Another great day trip in the Costa Blanca area of Spain is a day in Jijona, a short drive in the hills northwest of Alicante. Jijona, also known in Valenciano as Xixona, is famous for its Turrón, an almond-based nougat.

 

Turrón is particularly popular at Christmas time in Spain. Jijona has a yearly four-day Christmas festival, which obviously features turrón, along with other Christmas- and winter-oriented gifts, like hats, scarfs, toys and more.

Jijona Christmas festival

Jijona Christmas festival

 

Turrón is typically made from finely ground almonds, egg whites, honey and sugar. It comes in a variety of textures and forms. There is one with a soft paste-like consistency, which, to me, had a gritty, not pleasing texture. There are soft and hard turrón bars, with pieces of almonds. I saw chocolate-flavored turrón, turrón-flavored gins and liqueurs, and many other non-traditional additions. Samples are generously provided from the Christmas parade of wooden stands located in the central market. There are also other Christmas-related exhibits, and food/tapas booths with adjacent seating where people can rest their feet, and enjoy a snack and beverage.

 

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

The Moors brought almond farming and turrón to Spain during their occupation of the area. During the 16th century, King Felipe II praised turrón, which increased its popularity. Historically, there were a few main families who dominated the turrón market. These decaying family mansions feature beautiful architecture and are visible on one of the main streets in Jijona: Monerris Planelles family home, Rovira family home, and Aracil family home. Only turrón made in Jijona and Alicante can receive the official seal of authenticity, “Consejo Regulador de Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.” There are tours available at the turrón museum and factory. Several other areas have a similar type of nougat like turrón, including Catalonia (Spain), France and Sicily.

 

Snow well

Snow well

There are other interesting things to see in Jijona including historical churches and a convent, the remains of a castle (destroyed in the Spanish War of Succession), “and snow wells” (thick walled round buildings located in the cool Carrasqueta mountain range which came into use in the 18th century to store snow for making ice cream.) In August, there is a Moros y Cristianos festival, which are very popular in the province of Alicante. Parking is typically a fair distance from the touristic areas, but are well-marked and on an easy, gradual incline.

 

 

Inside Secrets to Spain: Top 3 Tips

19 Nov

Here is my article about Spain which was just published in Insiders Abroad:

http://www.insidersabroad.com/spain/blogs/inside-secrets-to-spain/posts/gallery-thumb-thumb-thumb-expat-spotlight-dawns-top-3-tips-for-spain

Is There Customer Service in Spain?

11 Nov

I love most things about living in Spain, but customer service is not one of them. I have even contended they should remove the Spanish words for customer service, “atención al cliente,” from the lexicon. I have previously recounted my problems in receiving packages with my personal belongings from California. When I first reported no monetary value for the old personal items mailed to me, the Spanish authorities returned the package to the U.S. I tried unsuccessfully twice more to have my belongings sent. The last time, I completed all the requirements within the mandated time period, paid nearly 100 Euros in customs fees, and they still returned my package to California. By this time, all the potentially breakable items had broken. I never received the refund I requested. One package I did eventually receive was gaping open and the contents from the top of the box were missing; the Spanish postal service was not even professional enough to tape it closed. Then the postal worker who “delivered” the box claimed it was heavy and asked me to help carry it into my apartment.

 

If I mail order something from the U.S., there are huge import taxes, but there are some things worth paying extra for that I cannot get here in Spain. I have also mail ordered items from Spanish companies, and more often than not, the couriers claim they tried to deliver my package, even when I had been home the whole day. When I call the number they provide for the supposed missed delivery, they argue with me, saying they did come to my place and ring my doorbell. They are never wrong, and never apologize. One agent insisted they had a photo of the courier at my door, but when I asked them to send it, I was told they could not.

 

My friends and I have had similar difficulties when using a taxi. Some drivers will ignore directions I provide to avoid traffic snarls. They may bark at you for having an inadequate command of Spanish. The other day, our cab driver from our town of Altea was unfamiliar with any of the streets or major landmarks in our village.

 

Most of the time the food here is great, but there are occasions when the restaurant serves sub-par food. If they ask how the food was, and you give an honest assessment, most of the time, I have received the blank “Bambi in headlights” look, with no offer of any reparations. Once, when I tried to return or exchange a podiatry device which broke after one use, the pharmacist looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said there is no guarantee on products they sell. WHAT?!

 

I recently learned of an even more ridiculous incident. A woman bought a pair of shoes, and when she got home and looked at them, she discovered they had given her two different sizes. When she went to correct the error, with receipt in hand, they insisted they had made no mistake, even suggesting she may have gone to another store to buy another pair to make a mismatched set. Her husband had no better success in attempting to rectify what should have been a simple exchange, accompanied by an apology.

And I won’t even start on confounding, changing requirements of the government bureaucracies in getting required documentation for a visa, registering your living address, getting a bank account and more. There is even a hilarious videos representative of many people’s  exasperating experiences, which I have previously viewed on YouTube, although it seemed to have been removed when I tried to find it.

My recommendation in Spain is to remember, The client is always wrong.

A Humorous Guide to Smoking in Spain

2 Nov
  1. img_1410Although smoking is not allowed indoors, it doesn’t count if you light up while heading for the door.
  2. Nor does is count if you stand in the doorway and smoke.
  3. You can stand at the outside window counter of a bar/restaurant designed for serving people outside, and while facing the inside, blow smoke inside.
  4. You can smoke in an outdoor restaurant patio, even if enclosed or babies/children are present.
  5. You can hold your baby or child while smoking.
  6. You can throw your lit cigarette into the street when finished, regardless of whether you are walking, driving, or are on your third or fourth floor home balcony.
  7. You can publicly smoke at your job.
  8. You would rather sit outdoors so you can smoke, even in inclement weather.
  9. Don’t worry if your smoking bothers anyone else.
  10. You can smoke outside the gym door before and after exercising, and if you need a smoke break during your workout.
  11. Buy household items that can be used both as vessels for serving food and as an ashtray.
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    Cups that can be used to serve food such as allioli (Spanish version of aioli) or can be an ashtray.  I’m not kidding. See the four protrusions on top designed for putting cigarettes when vessel is empty.

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?

A Fulfilling, Less Stressful Life Running an Artsy Bar in Idyllic Altea Spain

7 Jun
saraanddavidaltearte

Sara and David at their artsy bar in Altea

In the same week, Sara Wilson lost her job as a staff writer for a major business magazine, and her husband, David Fernandez, lost his position as a private chef for socialites in New York City. They used that as a springboard to “re-examine our careers and quality of life.” They originally met in France, married and moved to California, then to New York to further their careers. Even though they liked certain aspects of living In New York, their lives were stressful, too money driven, and they didn’t get to spend much time together. Sara reflected, “Life gave us solution when we got laid off within a week of each other.” After considering their options, they initially decided to move to more relaxed Spain with the idea of opening a restaurant with David’s father. When that didn’t work out as anticipated, Sara and David started exploring other options, and eventually settled on opening a bar and eatery.

 

Sara reported, “My six years at the magazine job interviewing entrepreneurs helped us in the process of starting our business.” She added, “Ironically, I learned from people’s stories and their tips for success.” David had previously completed culinary training in Paris. She noted, “David is more of a visionary and risk-taker than I am, but it was our joint talents that helped us develop a successful business.”

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Picturesque and historic Altea

They spent several months exploring towns in the Costa Blanca area along the Mediterranean. They briefly looked at touristy Benidorm, but it did not possess the attractive and friendly location they were seeking. Then, “Unexpectedly we encountered a village paradise…called Altea,” recalled Sara. “We loved Altea’s stunning coastline, white pebble beaches and inviting and tasty restaurants lining the promenade.” But it was when they entered the old town, once a fortress, that they were really “awestruck. We loved its picturesque, narrow, pedestrian streets, punctuated by small artisan shops, that lead up to the hilltop church plaza.” Thus they set about on finding a place in the old town, known as Casco Antiguo.

 

Not long thereafter, they found an apartment and a place to start their dream business, a café/bar which was promoting various forms of art. “The rent was the cheapest we had found, and was the right size for just the two of us to run.” It consisted of two floors that had been transformed from an old house. We liked the fact that it had a mezzanine, a decent stock room, it was just one street down from the church plaza, and was on one of the most charming streets of Altea.” The business had been operating primarily as a sports bar, with a focus on the arts, as well, hence the name AlteArte. Importantly, “The bar already had a local clientele.”

They bought the business, but not the building. Sara stated, “We had been warned that it was important that the business have an existing business license. Just as we were ready to finalize the purchase, we learned that AlteArte did not have a business license.” The owner had applied for it and it was reportedly in process for a substantial period of time, (not unusual with the Spanish bureaucracy), but it had never been completed. Once the owner was aware that this unresolved issue was holding up the sale, the license was quickly approved. Sara and David speculated that the business license application was likely languishing with the local authorities, and that the owner, who was a local native, got the process completed quickly. Sara said, “It helped to buy a turn-key business, with an established clientele.” The prior owner, who sold them the business, wanted Sara and David to be success, and was supportive in a variety of helpful ways.

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Typical evening with friends at AlteArte

Sara and David “wanted to change the ambience to a cozier environment, which we did by adding tables and changing some of the décor.” They later hung their now iconic multi-colored bicycle upside down from the ceiling, and added some other kitschy design elements. They provide Wi-Fi, and show major soccer matches (“fútbol”).   “By changing things, we lost some of the former clients but gained others.” During their first year in business, they were often complimented on their tasty mojitos, so they decided to make that a focus. They setup an increasingly growing mojito menu, and identified AlteArte as a “mojiteria,”which set it apart from the other bars. They also make “nojitos,” alcohol-free mojitos. Adapting to client demonstrated preferences, “We abandoned our early idea of making it a coffee-centric business, instead focusing on our excellent selection and preparation of teas,” in addition to other typical bar beverages. Although their service focus is primarily on beverages, they also have a small selection of tapas and quesadillas, the latter being a popular, but rare item in Altea.

 

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Casco Antiguo in Altea

Asked if they have encountered any problems or challenges in setting up their business, they reported initially the neighbors complained about noise and the tables and chairs they had placed on the stairs adjacent to their building. “Eventually, we were able to make peace with the neighbors, after convincing them that we would keep the noise down, and not cause them any problems.” During the slow time of year, they do minor renovations to AlteArte, but they noted it is hard to find qualified people who complete the work in a timely fashion. After deciding to start their business in Altea, Sara quickly began learning Spanish, something she felt essential in running their business.

 

The owner of their building had been renting out the top floor to various people as a shop with touristic and artisan items, but after a series of several failed businesses there, he asked Sara and David if they were interested in adding the top floor to AlteArte. “We decided to take this opportunity to expand. The top floor is primarily for special events and gallery exhibits, as well as weekly intercambio (Spanish English language exchange.)” AlteArte exhibits “one or two artists’ works each month.” The middle floor is an inviting area with pillows and populated with board games.

“The customers, new and old, shaped AlteArte’s atmosphere by natural evolution.” They have about an equal percentage of local and expat customers, with “most ex-pats in this area of the Costa Blanca area of Spain being Scandinavian.” In the beginning, most of their clientele came through word of mouth and Facebook. After opening the gallery on the third level, we reached out to local newspapers and magazines to promote those events.”

After they first opened in February 2010, Sara and David ran the business by themselves. “During our second and third summer, we hired our first employees. In our fourth year of operation, we hired Emily as our first full time employee. She had been a patron, and she had a good work track record of seven years at one local restaurant.” They emphasized it is very important to check out the reliability and work history of potential employees in Spain as there are generous laws favoring them, such as being allowed substantial sick leave just after being hired. A few months later, they hired another young woman, Ampy, full-time. Both employees are friendly, competent, and able to communicate with the clients regardless of what language they speak. “We pay them a little more than the typical local wage, and uncommonly, we also give them one day off a week including during the busy summer months.”

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Sara and David inside AlteArte

When asked about other start-up or ongoing expenses or requirements, “there was an initial food safety course, basic business insurance, and nominal annual taxes.” They have not had any tax liability in the United States based on their Spanish net income. “We recommend using a gestoria,” which is a person whose task is to deal with the idiosyncrasies of Spanish government departments, for paying complex fees and taxes. “We receive an annual visit from the health department to check for correct refrigerator temperature and proper sanitation.” With regard to promoting AlteArte, “We have done some marketing by advertising our business in local tourist maps. Because we are in the Old Town, which is a steep, historically-protected area, we are not required to have handicap accessible facilities.” Sara reported, “AlteArte has allowed us to cover all of our expenses including the luxury of having two employees” which affords Sara the opportunity to spend long visits with her family in California. This year she has had two separate one-month visits with her family. AlteArte has given David, now 40, and Sara, 37, “a more comfortable, and significantly less stressful lifestyle than at our prior high pressure jobs, and the opportunity to spend more quality time together.”

 

When asked what advice they would give to others considering opening a business in Spain, they recommend, “Be patient and committed.” They said, “One cannot expect to open a business just for a summer, and turn a profit.” They also stated it is important to understand the demand for the type of business one is considering, and the required permits if starting from scratch. “It is also essential to have enough capital for start-up costs, slow periods, and unexpected expenses.” Sara said, “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know before we started how many businesses end up closing down.”

Now celebrating over six years of operation, AlteArte, is a favorite with local ex-pats, Spaniards, and international travelers. They feature monthly art exhibits by local artists; a book club for which Sara often arranges for the author to be present in person or remotely; live music; weekly Spanish-English language exchange (intercambio); movie nights, craft, drama and dance workshops, cooking competitions, and many more. Asked about her most cherished memory, Sara quickly reported it was when director Eugenio Mira, an Altean native, chose to premier his movie Grand Piano at AlteArte, and afterwards had a question and answer session.

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!