Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Beaver Creek and Happy Holidays

I used to love to ski.  Really, really loved it and couldn't get enough.  I still like it fine, but my ardor has cooled.  With each passing year, I just increasingly prefer to spend time on a warm beach than on a cold chairlift.

Traditionally, our family has spent our winter holidays at the Beaver Creek Ski Resort, since forever.  For the last several seasons, I grumbled about coming here, trying to amass enough votes to change our holiday location to somewhere warm like Hawaii.  Thankfully, this winter provided some of the best ski conditions in years, with a great deep powdery base but generally bright and clear daytime skies.

Even I admit that you can't beat the beauty of these mountains on a clear, snow covered day.  And while I no longer ski as crazily as in my college days, even I found the conditions this year to be inspiring.  I was out on the slopes for almost the entire time of every day during our week here.

There is also a lot to be said for tradition.  We find comfort in reuniting in the same lovely town, skiing the same wonderful slopes, and eating at the same favorite restaurants we have enjoyed for years.  Beaver Creek isn't home, but it now almost feels like it is, at least for the winter holidays.  And ultimately, the holiday season is about feeling at home with one's loved ones.

There was one twist this year.  As the flip side of the incredible ski conditions, Mother Nature dumped a ton of snow on us just before we had to fly back out.  Normally, we fly into and out of nearby Vail Eagle airport, but for a variety of reasons, we flew in and out of Denver this year, which is a couple hour drive through the mountains.  The normally uneventful drive was quite treacherous this year.  We made it, but not without sweaty palms, slipping tires, and lots of squinting trying to gain better visibility.

OK, maybe next year we WILL try somewhere warmer!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

¡Viva España! Madrid Day 3

I woke up in a terrible sweat.  I couldn't tell if the meds were helping or not, but I really didn't feel great.  Nevertheless, I wasn't going to spend my last full day in Spain in my room.  I rose out of bed on this sunny Sunday, heading first back to Puerta del Sol.  I wanted to eat brunch at a restaurant just off the plaza, and spent the gentle stroll doing one of my favorite travel past times, people watching.  The square itself wasn't that crowded yet.  Were people sleeping off their hangovers?

One performing duo showed the levitation trick I've seen elsewhere before. They obviously had hidden a support bar under all that clothing, but I still find it cool to watch when well done.

I read many rave reviews of El Buscon, and I entered just as it opened.  The free sausage tapas that accompanied my beer were quite tasty, which was a good sign.  I ordered several dishes, and each was delicious.  I left full, happy, and feeling a bit better with food in my stomach.  This restaurant is definitely worth trying.

It was turning into a lovely day.  I debated whether to do something outdoors with my time, or check out the Prado.  I decided to walk to the Prado, and then sit outside for awhile, thus killing two birds with one stone.  It was a wise choice, as I saw an invisible lady (other than her shoes) as well as someone's doppelganger.

I liked the Prado.  I actually took a couple photos before being informed this was a no-no.  I did manage to snap this one by van Hemessen (The Surgeon) earlier.  I thought it appropriate because the patient appears to be in utter agony.  That's the way I felt at moments during the past several days, except my pain was a little lower.

I lingered in the museum much longer than I thought, because it was already nightfall when I exited.  People who know me do not think of me as an art aficionado.  They view me as an art cynic if anything.  They are right.  I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but I generally don't go gaga over paintings or sculptures, and I've been known to smirk at those who do.  (Having said that, a few such as Michelangelo's David have literally taken my breath away.)  So why did I find the Prado so interesting?  Or the Reina Sofia the prior night?  I puzzled over this as I walked back in the night.

I was hungry, and sought out that nice last Spanish meal.  One recommended place had the famous bulls on the wall.  Umm, I just didn't feel it so I walked out.

I recalled a restaurant only a block from my hostel, the Public.  It had been absolutely packed every night that I walked by.  I decided to try it and ordered the omelet and calamares.  The meal set me back only 18 euros, but I found the decor and service much better than the food itself.  I couldn't really complain about the food, but I wished I had gone back to El Buscon instead.

I woke the next morning with mixed feelings.  I was a bit sad to be leaving Spain.  The trip had been an eye opener for me, and left me with many reasons to return.  At the same time, it was the holiday season and I was anxious to see to my family.

I took the direct and cheap metro to the airport.  Once there, United Airlines once again offered me an affordable upgrade to business class, which I immediately bought given the condition of my body.  I wasn't sure that I could actually sit in a coach seat for the duration of the trans-Atlantic flight.  As I snuggled into my bed seat soon after take off, I knew this was money very well spent.

From 30,000 feet in the air, I thought back on the past two weeks: Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Seville, and Madrid.  As I closed my eyes, I could still picture the Sagrada Familia, Mezquita, Alhambra and more.  I could still hear the joyful singing in the square of the Albayzin district, the laughter in the pubs and bars everywhere, and the broken Spanglish conversations I had with the many interesting people I met.  I could taste the delicious tapas and Iberian ham.  I could still see the heartfelt flamenco at Anselma, and chuckled recalling my attempts to sing along when I knew neither the lyrics nor the language.  These thoughts rattled around in my head as I drifted off to sleep.

I would have to return to Espana soon.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

¡Viva España! Madrid Day 2

I awoke to a bright, crisp day.  I thought to begin the day visiting the Royal Palace, but it was totally freezing when I stepped out.  I went back up to my room to put on more layers before heading over.  Only a few other fools besides me dared brave the early cold, or perhaps others were still sleeping off their Friday night partying.  That was fine by me as fewer people meant better photos.

Then again, the frost in the park outside the Palace may indicate that the wiser ones had stayed indoors this morning.  It's not surprising that December can be cold, but that didn't mean I liked it.

Both the palace, and the church across the courtyard, looked different compared to the night time visit yesterday.  In part, the lack of people seemed natural in the moonlight.  Against the bright morning sun, however, both buildings seemed abandoned somehow.  A little while later, however, people started to trickle in, so I went to the gate to get my ticket and entered.

I found the Palace more interesting than I anticipated, in part because the audio tape tour was actually better and more informative.  The design and furnishings of the interior conveyed how the palace must have functioned in historical times, and the armory and pharmacy were just fun places to poke around.  My biggest disappointment was the total ban on indoor photos, even without flash.  This is a pet peeve of mine.  I understand how some venues might be sensitive to flash photography, and I also understand how from an intellectual property viewpoint why some art venues might ban all photography.  I can even appreciate how religious sites might prohibit photography as simply inappropriate while people are worshiping. But to ban it in a historical palace just struck me as petty and boneheaded.

The day had not warmed up much when I exited.  I thought I would check out what was happening at Puerta del Sol, the very center of Madrid, on this Saturday morning.  I meandered over in that general direction, stopping to poke around here and there at whatever caught my eye.  As I mentioned in Barcelona, I still don't get this penchant for placing mannequins in outdoor patios.  Do they keep burglars away?

I stopped inside Plaza Mayor again as it was on the way.  One of my most memorable sights of Madrid was encountering the local Spider Man.  At first, I thought the bowling pin shaped costumed hero must be a joke, but then I noticed the official action figure, pot belly and all.  El Hombre Araña es fantástico!  The scene at the Plaza hadn't changed much from the prior night.  People of all walks were out just having fun, even in the colder weather.  In fact, all the streets were once again soon bustling with loads of people.

Just outside the plaza, a crowd had gathered outside the antique clock store Antigua Relojeria as the puppet performed on the hour.  Ho hum.

I was still headed to Puerta del Sol, but the crowded streets made it slow going, not that I was in a rush.  I occasionally did a body check as I get paranoid about pick pockets, but I encountered no problems during my entire visit.  Indeed, I really enjoyed just being out and appreciated how these pedestrian zones can add vitality to a city center.  I wish we had more of these in the cities back in the U.S., but I guess we Americans love our cars too much.

Puerta del Sol is just a great place to hang for awhile and people watch.  That is exactly what I did.  I also ventured off and explored some of the side streets, but soon got hungry since I hadn't eaten breakfast.

I thought it was a little strange that Vodafone had become the corporate sponsor of Puerta del Sol.  I suppose in an era of naming stadiums after corporations, this isn't a total shock.  And technically, Vodafone is branding the metro stop, not the square itself.  Still, it felt odd.  Imagine if Central Park were called General Motors Park, or if Picadilly Circus were rebranded as Samsung Circle.

I felt like eating something different, so headed just up the street to Oishii for ramen.  The restaurant's name and menu seemed authentic enough, and the conveyor sushi system was reminiscent of the mass places in Japan.  The ramen, alas, was very run-of-the-mill.  It wasn't terrible; I am just a bit of a ramen snob.  As I looked at the mural on the wall, I had that vague feeling that I had seen that model somewhere else before, but couldn't place her.   That bugged me while I slurped down the last of the noodles.  I must be getting old.

I consulted my guidebooks, and decided to do a loop towards the museum area.  It was a fun walk, with the mix of civic buildings, offices, residences, and small side streets.  Crowds of families, couples, and tourists were everywhere as well.  I was a bit surprised to find that one the main streets radiating from Puerta del Sol was filled with "working girls", but they didn't seem to bother everyday people.  They only reacted when a "customer" approached them.  Everybody has to make a living, I guess.

The neighborhood changed, and became much less crowded, as I got closer to the museums.  This may sound stupid to those who are more knowledgeable, or perhaps I am just guilty of lumping all of the Iberian peninsula together, but the area reminded me of the walks I took in Lisbon, especially with the big hills, the make shift bars and colorful murals.

I reached the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and thought about going in.  I noticed, however, that admission was free that evening, so decided to return later.  Instead, I walked down the block trying to find a lunch spot.

I found a tapas place.  I ordered beer and some food and sat outside, just watching the people go by.  All was fine, until a bird decided to use me for target practice.  Luckily, the bombs landed on my jacket instead of my head or my food.  The Chinese say this means I get good luck.  I'm not sure whether that prediction is true, because my body had been aching again all day.  I was desperate enough to go to a local pharmacy to see if I could get some relief.

I found a nearby drug store, and managed to convey the type of medicine I needed.  I walked back to the hostel to take it and get some rest.  I took a different route back, along museum row.  This path was more classically picturesque, especially with the Prado and other prominent buildings.

I stopped by the Goya statue.  Birds bomb him all the time, and he is a famous Spaniard.  That made me feel less bad about the earlier incident.

I continued back, and noted that this route really did have a very different feel than my earlier one.  I was seeing the opposite sides of Madrid.

As I approached my hostel, I noticed a unique breed of street performer on Gran Via.  A crowd had gathered, causing a commotion and some heated discussion.  I realized that she was not a performer, but a protester against the new antiabortion rules.  Whatever one's politics, her protest was powerful enough to engender quite visceral reactions among the passerbys.

I rested my sore body in the hostel. I couldn't tell if the medicine helped, but I did manage to nap.  It was nightfall when I awoke.  I was still in pain, so took some more meds.  Deciding that I was not up to walking much, I hopped on the metro instead to Reina Sofia.  Annoyingly, the metro broke down just one stop later, and forced me to walk anyway!  Who said the bird bomb brought good luck?

I actually liked the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.  That surprised me because I am not a huge fan of much modern art.  I got so bored at the Tate Modern a couple years ago that I sat outside until my companion finished.  Sure, I appreciate the MoMA.  It's just several blocks from my apartment.  But I haven't been there in a decade and have no plans to go for another decade.  I do like "free", however, and that's why I was inside the Reina Sofia.  I don't know if it was the Spanish angle, or whether my tastes had changed, but I really enjoyed that evening walking around their galleries.  Or maybe I was just feeling a groove because I was medicated.

The museum has a bunch of Picasso works.  The museum generally allows photography, but I discovered (after I shot these) that they don't allow people to photograph many of the Picassos.  I'm not sure why.

I always found Salvador Dali a bit bizarre, and his works here did nothing to change my opinion.

I didn't recognize many of the other artists, but found some that were either visually pleasing, or made me stop and think, or both.

I stayed until the museum closed, and it was quite late when I headed back.  It was a weekend evening, and people were starting to venture back out into the night.  I leisurely strolled back, reflecting on my productive day.

I wandered the local neighborhood for a dinner place.  Nothing jumped out until I bumped into the Restaurante Gumbo.  I love Cajun food!  But could it really be authentic?  All the way here in Madrid?  The place was packed, and the maitre d' told me it would be an hour wait.  I was starved.  I just asked directly in English whether I could sit at the bar.  The guy smiled and said "No problem."  The affable gentleman ended up being the owner, and was apparently originally from Louisiana.  Whatever the case, the food was quite good.  Perhaps not as the good as the food I had just eaten in NOLA a couple weeks earlier, but authentic enough to pass muster.

I half limped back to my hostel and took a hot shower.  Before I knew it, I was snoring in bed.