Monday, August 29, 2016

A Walk Down Bitter Street

This is why I travel.

On Sunday afternoon, Mary and I took a walking tour of the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, in Barcelona.  The streets are narrow, and paved with stone.  Some of the buildings here date back to the 12th Century, or earlier.  There are remnants of a wall and an aqueduct constructed by the Romans when they founded the city of Barcino around 15 BC.  Some of the buildings, like the Church of Santa Anna, (12th C.) retain their original look.  Others, like the Cathedral of Barcelona appear as a patchwork of styles built over centuries.  The old coexists with the older, and all of it coexists with the new - the bars and restaurants, the tee-shirt shops, the tourists with their iPhones - though if these buildings could talk, I suspect they might wish we would hurry up and be replaced by whatever comes next, since they have seen, and mostly survived, everything for hundreds of years.

At one point, early in the afternoon, we closed our guide book and, instead of returning to the main thoroughfare and the next site to see, we followed the narrow, winding street - Carrer de Montsis (“Carrer” is Catalan for “street”, like “Calle” in Spanish) - just to see what was ahead.  After a few steps, we reached the point where Carrer de Montsis met Carrer de Amargos.  Hanging on the wall at the intersection was a sign made of painted tile.


We stopped to read it, and were attempting to translate, when an old man approached us.  He was wearing a bright red shirt and carrying a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, like he was returning from the market with a bottle of wine for dinner.  He spoke first, and it took us a few brief exchanges before he switched to English.  He guessed that we were trying to understand the words on the sign and said, “It’s Catalan”, indicating the regional language of Catalunya, “I put it there.  And another one down there.”  He pointed at a spot on the wall down the Carrer Amargos where another sign hung.

“I have lived on this street my whole life.  I was born in #7 and now I live in #12.  And I’m 91 years old.”  He said something that I didn’t understand about the Queen of Spain.  I think she
 was the inspiration for the signs.  He struggled to find the right words, telling us that the sign said something like “the street will embrace you”.  

His English was halting, but far better than my Spanish.  I asked him his name.  He told us his name was Emile, and that he had been a photographer, working over 40 years in a small shop at the other end of the street.  He said he had spent many nights developing film, making and developing prints, holding them up in the red light of the darkroom and marveling as the black and white images appeared on the paper.  He told us that every day he wrote two or three letters and sent them to friends.  “Not the rat a tat a tat”, he said, mimicking the motion of typing on a keyboard.  “I write like this”, and his hand moved as if gliding over paper with a pen.

We told him that this was our first visit to Barcelona and he told us he hoped we would enjoy it and come back again.  Then he shook our hands, with a grip stronger than any I have encountered in years.  He smiled, kissed the back of Mary’s hand, and walked off down the street.

When we returned to our apartment late in the day, I was determined to understand the words on the sign.  I leaned heavily on Google Translate to get the basics of Catalan to English.  Then I used a bit of poetic license to capture the meaning that I think Emile was trying to impart to us.  The street name, Carrer Amargos, translates literally as “Bitter Street”.  His sign, I believe, means this:

  “Pedestrian, do not stay long on Bitter Street, for you will find it to be not bitter, but a place that will embrace you.”

A place that may embrace you for 91 years.  A lifetime.  I think we are all looking for our home on Bitter Street.  It’s nice to have met someone who lives there.

This is why I travel.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Napa and Yountville - Day 2

There are lots of different ways to visit wineries in the Napa Valley.  You can drive yourself, ride a limo, ride a bus.  We elected to ride bicycles and had signed up for an outing with Napa Valley Bike Tours.  The description on their web site sounded like a fun way to spend the morning – a casual ride over beautiful back roads, pedaling leisurely between the rows of grapes, enjoying the sunshine and clear valley air and getting to taste some delicious wines.  We were looking forward to the experience.

Most of the marketing pitch turned out to be true. 

We arrived a few minutes early at the tour company in Yountville, well-rested from our first night at the Writer’s Retreat.  There were eight of us in the tour group – me and Mary, a couple from Toronto who looked to be about our age, and a group of four young women who were doing a girls’ weekend in Napa.  They had read the same description we had, and came dressed for a stroll in the park – cute outfits and sandals.  The couple from Toronto looked pretty serious – he had biking shoes.  We had sunscreen and athletic shoes.

We met Carolyn, our tour guide. 

She gave a short talk on safety, riding etiquette, and the route we would be taking.  The bikes were new, 18 speed models.  Most of us had paid the extra five bucks for the optional gel seat cover.  (This turned out to be a wise move.)

We pedaled for several blocks through Yountville, everyone getting familiar with their bikes and settling in to a single-file line.  When we got outside the city, Carolyn picked up the pace.  It was clear that this was not going to be “leisurely”.  We rode for some distance along a side road, then turned onto a much busier highway.  It had a bike lane, but it still took us a while to get used to the cars and trucks whizzing past. 

After a while – our memories differ on how long it might have been – we turned off onto another side road and stopped for a water and photo break.  I heard a lot of panting and some groaning as the group took a quick break.  Despite the unexpected exertion, we all enjoyed the scenery.

After catching our breath, we rode for another 10 or 15 minutes to the first winery – Saddleback Cellars.

We sat at a picnic table under an umbrella and sampled six wines.  We tasted some Charbon grapes straight from the vine – sweet and very tasty.

Much of the grape harvest had already been completed.  There were large boxes of Charbon grapes stacked near where we sat.  While we were tasting, these were being emptied into a crusher.

We might have been grumpy when we arrived at the winery, but we were happy as we saddled up to ride away. 

It was about a 20 minute ride to the next winery - Goosecross Cellars.  They had a brand new tasting room - it had opened the day before our visit.  We sat on their new deck that looked out over a vineyard. 

We enjoyed sitting outdoors  and sampling their wines   We tasted five and bought two. 
It was probably a good thing that the tour only visited two wineries.  The limos and busses were looking pretty good as we rode back into town.  We arrived back where we started about 1:15 in the afternoon.  We grabbed lunch at the Yountville Deli next door, then headed back to the Writers Retreat for a nap.  We needed to rest up before our dinner at Bouchon!

Note:  Reality had to set in eventually.  As I publish this post, I'm back home.  Vacation is over and I'm back at work.  It may take a few more days between entries, but I'm determined to continue writing the story of our vacation.  Going back and looking at the pictures takes me back to all the fun we had.  It's helping me maintain that post vacation afterglow, despite numerous challenges to my good mood! 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Napa and Yountville - Day 1

Our planning for this vacation took place over several weeks in July and August.  We initially agreed on the start and end points, then started filling in the details.  The itinerary was pretty fluid for a while as we reviewed the road atlas and consulted Google Maps to identify what seemed like reasonable stopping points along the way.  It began to firm up as we started booking the AirBnB locations.  We made some choices about places we would not see, like San Francisco, which we had visited several years ago.  But the decision to stay in the Napa Valley was nonnegotiable.  We both wanted to visit some vineyards, and Mary was determined to eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.

Thomas Keller is a renowned chef and restauranteur.  His premier restaurant, The French Laundry, in Yountville, CA, has been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide and has received numerous other awards.  It’s one of those places that dedicated foodies have on their bucket lists.  We gave it serious consideration for a while.  It’s a very expensive place to eat – the seven course tasting menu costs $295 per person.  The price includes tip, but not wine.  Add another three hundred for wine.

But we could make a case for it.  We told ourselves it would be a “once in a lifetime” meal on a “once in a lifetime” vacation.  And we were convinced…for a few days.
Then we took a hard look at the menu.  It changes daily, so we wouldn’t have been able to predict exactly what we’d get.  But every time we looked at the menu, we realized that there was something on it that one of us didn’t like.  There were options, but some came with “supplements” – additional charges.

And then we thought hard about the price.  Over a thousand dollars for one meal?  Really?  Who are we kidding?  Reluctantly, we scratched The French Laundry from our itinerary.  We’ll go there when we win the lottery.

Fortunately, Thomas Keller also owns three other restaurants in Yountville – Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and ad hoc.  We decided that Bouchon would be our special meal for the trip.  It was still a splurge, but wouldn’t require us to take out a loan for dinner.

While that decision was being made, we were also booking accommodations.  We found the Writer’s Retreat in Napa, CA on AirBnB and decided that it met our basic requirement for a one-of-a-kind, quirky place to stay.  Booked it.

What we didn’t realize, until we arrived in the area, was that the restaurant and the room were in different towns.  Not too far apart – about 10 miles – just enough to register on the inconvenience meter. 
Image from Google Maps

Getting to Napa from Carmel took a few hours and got us onto an interstate highway for the first time on this trip.  (We had not missed the interstate system!) We took Hwy 1 northeast out of Carmel and Monterey.  We were quickly out in farm country.  We passed through Castroville, “the Artichoke Capital of the World”, then cut across Hwy 152 to the 101 freeway.  We went through Gilroy, “the Garlic Capital of the World”.  (I swear I could smell garlic in the air before we got to Gilory!)

Along the way, we saw this guy and had to snap a picture.

So, Katie and Sarah, we wanted you to know that your convertibles are not just sporty toys.  They’re practical, too.  You can drop the top, load up your box of tools and stepladder, and go on off to hang sheetrock or paint houses.

The 101 took us east of Silicon Valley.  We considered taking a short detour into Cupertino to give some face-to-face feedback on the latest IOS release to Tim Cook at Apple, but our schedule was pretty tight.  (Look for it in an email, Tim.)

We continued east to I-680 which took us north, bypassing all the urban congestion on the east side of San Francisco Bay – San Jose, Milpitas, Fremont, Hayward, San Leandro and Oakland.

We arrived in Yountville around noon.  We couldn’t get into the AirBnB for a couple hours, so figured we’d get lunch and look around town.  It was a really hot day, up around 95 degrees.  Everywhere we went in California, people told us about the excessive heat, usually adding, “but it’s supposed to be much cooler next week”.  We parked along the main drag, Washington Street, next to a beautifully tended garden. 

We guessed that it was the kitchen garden for the French Laundry and Bouchon.  We walked down Washington Street, through a small, well-tended, local park that had some amusing features.


After passing several tasting rooms and restaurants, we stopped at the Pacific Blues Café and ate big sandwiches, washed down with iced tea.

After lunch we dug out the address of the AirBnB and realized our planning error.  The Writer’s Retreat was 10 miles back south in Napa.  It took a few minutes to get there, but we were delighted with what we found. 

The Writer’s Retreat is a one room cabin on a secluded side street (really a gravel road).  It’s tricky to get to, but once there you feel like you’re a thousand miles from civilization. 

It was probably the smallest of the all the places we stayed, but still very comfortable. 

The watercolors on the wall were done by Monroe, the owner. 

We decided to do a simple, casual dinner, knowing that the next day was our big meal at Bouchon.  We started searching for something local in Napa.  There were several good prospects, but one was too intriguing to pass up. 

Clemente’s is a family-owned Italian take-out place that has been operating in the area since around 1925.  It was originally owned by the Tamburelli family and operated as the Depot Restaurant.  Clemente Cittoni started work there as a bus boy in 1961 and worked up to become a part owner.  Somewhere along the way, it became Clemente’s and moved to its current location – inside a local liquor store. 

We found the place and were enthusiastically greeted by Joanne Cittoni, Clemente’s daughter, now one of the owners.  I think everyone working there was a member of the extended Cittoni family.

When she learned we were visiting, she took over.  “Look, here’s what you’re gonna need – You need a half dozen ravioli’s, a half dozen malfatti.”  (“Malfatti” is Italian for “mistake”.  These were Invented by Mrs Tamburelli years before, when she ran out of prepared ravioli and had a full restaurant.  It is a ball of ravioli filling, rolled in flour, boiled and doused in tomato sauce.)  “And you’re gonna need some gnocchis and some sweet breads.”  We just stood there, smiling and nodding.  We paid our bill at the checkout counter of the liquor store and carried out our dinner.

As it turned out, the story was more compelling than the food, but that’s the chance we take.  There's always tomorrow!

Friday, October 02, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Exploring Carmel and Monterey

After our hike at Point Lobos, we went back into Carmel to find breakfast.  We ate at the Carmel Belle, a little café in a building with several other shops.  We were so hungry by then (around 10:30am) that we didn’t stop to take any pictures.  Mary’s breakfast was the best of the two – a bowl of polenta with mushrooms, tomatoes and some other goodies.  The place was neat and compact, with a nice selection of breakfast and lunch items.  The seating was open and comfortable, with about a dozen tables, an open fireplace (not needed on this day) and a sofa and two chairs next to the fireplace.

One of our favorite ways to understand a new city is to visit a grocery store.  We've done this is every major American city we've visited and also in England, France, Belgium, Italy and a few other places.  Seeing what's for sale tells us a lot about the local community.  Comparing prices gives us a sense of the cost of living. 
So on this morning, on our way back to the car after breakfast, we walked through the local grocery store - Nielsen Brothers Market.  It is a small place - less than 10,000 sq ft - the size of most local grocery stores when we were growing up.  (Yes, kids, there were grocery stores on the planet as it was cooling!)  Nielsen Brothers bills themselves as a specialty grocery, and the product offerings reflect that focus.  They had a small, but well-stocked produce section, a full meat counter, a separate wine room, an extensive selection of whiskies and a small cabinet with cigars.  It fit the bill for a grocery store catering to well-heeled vacationers.  But it was not all caviar and cabernet.  On the way out, we saw a hand-written chalk sign advertising their breakfast sandwiches.  They were significantly cheaper than what we'd paid up the street - an economy tip for our next trip.
We didn't spend any more time in Carmel, or, as it's formally known, Carmel-By-The-Sea.  There are plenty of places to shop there - lots of craft stores, clothes stores, restaurants and specialty shops of all types.  I'm not much of a shopper, so someone else with have to review all those places.
Later in the morning we took the “17 Mile Drive” around the Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach.  Several people had recommended this outing, and it shows up in all the guide books and lists of things to do in the area.  Having now done it, I’d suggest anyone coming to the area skip it.  You pay $10 per car to take a tour of a wealthy neighborhood, look at some coastline – which is pretty, but no better than other spots we saw along the drive for free.  You get to watch some rich folks tee off on some beautiful golf courses, and contend for spots in the turnout parking lots with dozens of other tourists who got the same recommendation. 
I thought the stop at the Pebble Beach Golf Course might be fun, but when we arrived they had most of the parking area cordoned off for some event, and it didn’t appear that we were going to see anything more than the gift shop…so we kept going. 
The other main draw of the 17 Mile Drive is the “Lone Cypress” – a single tree growing on a rock in a bay.  This one is different from some others we saw along the trip in that someone built a wall around it and landscaped the slope below it. 

But... like every other tourist in the area, we stopped for a photo in front of the tree. 
Ours, however, was taken by another person - reciprocating our offer to take a photo of them, unlike many of the others which were snapped from the end of a selfie stick.  (Somehow, the silliest thing invented in years…wish I’d thought of it!)

We had packed a picnic lunch (left over takeout Chinese and a small bottle of wine – pretty fancy!) and decided to find a spot to eat on our way to the Monterey Aquarium.  Yelp – our second most used navigation app – showed us “Lover’s Point Park” in Pacific Grove, a small town that abuts Monterrey.  The park looked out over Monterrey Bay and had several picnic tables.  It was sunny and quiet – a great place to have lunch.

After our picnic we drove a couple miles to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The Aquarium is located on Cannery Row.  The area got it’s nickname from the fish canneries that were located here In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Photo from The Dead Writer's Society blog

John Steinbeck, who grew up in nearby Salinas, wrote about life in the canneries in his novel Cannery Row.  (I read it in high school and have forgotten most of it.  Having just reread Travels With Charley, I’ve got more Steinbeck on my “To Read” list.) 

Today’s Cannery Row is several blocks of tourist shops and restaurants.  I wonder what John Steinbeck would think of Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company?

We enjoyed our visit to the Aquarium.  Our AirBnB hosts, Michael and Jill, had provided passes for our use,  so we didn’t feel any pressure to “see it all”.  We stopped to take in two of the major exhibits.  (Sorry…no pictures, but I've inserted links to the Aquarium web site.) The first was the sea otters.  These guys were livin’ large in their tank.  Floating on their backs and gliding through the water.  We hadn’t realized how big they are – four to five feet long, and a good 8” – 10” in diameter. 
The other exhibit was the kelp forest - a large tank with a variety of fish ranging from a schools of small, silvery sardines and anchovies to a hammerhead shark.  They swam amid 20' tall kelp plants.  We noticed that many of the fish seemed to be napping.  They just hung suspended in the water, not moving.  (To be fair, it was late afternoon and I’m often ready for a nap then, too.)
There were also some very interesting exhibits about the canning industry.  The aquarium had been built on the site of the Pacific Fish Company Cannery, which processed fish from 1916 until 1973.  A central fixture of the cannery were three large (two stories tall) boilers used for cooking the fish.  

Image from Library of Congress

The boilers have been restored and are part of a permanent exhibit on the canning industry.

Image from Wikipedia

Video displays along an adjacent wall showed old film footage of the way the cannery operated.  It employed many women from the area (in the 1920’s and 30’s, when women rarely worked outside the home) to sort freshly caught sardines into conveyors.  The fish were gutted and had their heads sliced off by machines, then the bodies were placed into oval tins for cooking in the boilers.  They were cooked once in open cans, then a second time when the cans had been sealed.  Working conditions were tough – 14 hour days in mostly wet and drafty conditions. 

The canneries failed after the fishing industry in Monterey collapsed in the 1950's. 


After leaving the Aquarium, we returned to The Secret Garden for a second night.  We stopped at a Trader Joe's along the way and picked up sushi and wine for a simple supper.  We listened to our host’s eclectic CD collection – Yo Yo Ma, KT Tunstall, Sarah McLaughlin, Santana – and reflected on a busy and interesting day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Point Lobos

When we checked into the Secret Garden in Carmel, Michael, our host, recommended that we visit the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Cypress Grove Trail.  On this trail, he told us, we would see one of only two places where the Monterey Cypress trees grew naturally - the other being on the Monterrey Peninsula around Pebble Beach.  (More on that in a future post.)  While Monterrey Cypress are found other places, it's because they have been planted there by people.

On Wednesday morning, Sept. 23, we decided to visit the park early in the morning to get in a walk before breakfast.  During a couple hours spent at the park, we saw some spectacular scenery.  It was the highlight of the vacation so far, and it spoiled us for some of the scenery we saw later in the trip.

Point Lobos is a 350 acre park located three miles south of Carmel on Hwy 1.  The reserve includes several offshore areas - accessible only to divers.  

The name "Point Lobos" is derived from "Punta de los Lobos Marinos" or "Point of the Sea Wolves" - so named because sea lions frequent the offshore rocks.  We saw a few of these original residents during our hike.  They were sunning themselves on a rock about a hundred yards offshore.

The Cypress Grove trail takes you through the Allan Memorial Grove - named for Alexander Allan, an engineer and conservationist who, in the 1930's, bought much of the land that now makes up the Point Lobos Reserve.  At that time a real estate developer had drawn up plans to sell a thousand tracts for houses and create a subdivision called "Carmelito".  We are fortunate that Mr. Allan intervened!  The trail follows the contours of a point that juts out into the ocean.  The combination of forest and ocean creates some memorable views. 

As we began our hike, before we ever saw the ocean, we saw the cypress trees silhouetted against a clear blue morning sky.  There is something about the shape of these trees that lets you know you are no longer in your familiar back yard.  You are approaching something wild and different.

In the morning light, the forest could be alternately beautiful and spooky.  Some of the trees looked like they belonged in story books.  Harry Potter could have had a nasty encounter with this one.

And then we rounded a bend in the trail and began to see the trees against the backdrop of the sea crashing over the rocks.

Following the trail leads to views of larger rock formations, with Carmel across the bay in the background.

In places, there is an eeriness to the grove.  Some of the trees are bleached white by the salt spray.  Many have an orange lichen growing on them.  The combination is otherworldly.


We spent over an hour walking slowly along the mile long Cypress Grove trail.  It was early in the day and there were no other visitors to the park.  The only sound was that of the surf, and the occasional sea bird flying nearby.  In some places, the early morning fog had still not burned off.


A different trail in the Reserve takes you around Whaler's Cove and to the Whaler's Cabin - a small structure built in the 1850's by Chinese fishermen.  It has been restored and now houses a small museum with exhibits on the various commercial fishing ventures that have taken place in the area over the last 150 years.  During the restoration, pieces of whale vertebrae were found used as foundation stones.  The large tree at the end of the building was probably a sapling when the cabin was built.  It now protrudes into the building.  In this photo, Mary and Katherine, the docent on duty, are setting up a telescope to get a closer look at a pair of egrets across the cove.

So much of what we've seen on this trip is accessible (though not fully appreciated) through the window of a car.  Our experience at Point Lobos was shaped in large measure by the time and pace of our examination.  To see it required us to get out of the car and make an effort.  We could not rush by it, talking on cell phones or listening to the radio.  We had to walk slowly and deliberately.  The path was prepared for us, but it was rocky and uneven and required our attention to every step.  We had to "be there", to be aware and mindful of our surroundings.  And because we took our time, we came away with clear memories, images not blurred by velocity or inattention.  We saw something worth seeing ... and worth remembering.   

Sadly, my small photos on this small web page don't do justice to the beauty we saw at Point Lobos.  I guess you'll just have to go there and see it yourself.  Please do!