Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Italy #11

The romanticized ideal of a trip to Europe is sunny effortless days of rapturous delight being immersed in Old World culture and cuisine. Sounds great, doesn't it? Sometimes, however, a trip requires a bit more effort and results in a little less rapture. Like for instance, this latest visit to Italy, two and a half weeks in Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Pavia.

I'm glad we went; we saw some wonderful things and ate some delicious food. But this trip more than any other was beset by difficulties beyond our control.

It began pleasantly enough, with a gorgeous sunrise over Italy as our airplane began its descent into Milan.

Sunrise over Italy

Click on any image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Little did we realize that would be about the last time we saw the sun. Every day, day after day, was gray and overcast and frequently drizzly, with temperatures varying from cold to really cold. Perhaps it was the weather that contributed to another problem, our difficulty overcoming jet lag. It seemed especially bad this time, endless hours tossing and turning at night followed by utter brainlessness in the morning, disrupting our plans the first four or five days until we accommodated ourselves to the new routine. Next time we'll bring along more zolpidem.

Almost immediately we realized that northwest Italy, Lombardy and Piedmont, are significantly more expensive than other parts of Italy. Our hotels in Milan and Turin were almost double what we usually pay. At neighborhood restaurants, primi piatti (first courses, mostly pasta) were €11 to €15 ($14 to $19) and secondi piatti (second courses, meat and fish) were €18 ($22) and up. Most places did not have house wines but instead offered wine lists with bottles €18 to €25 ($22 to $30). So, a dinner of, say, one antipasto split between us and a primo or secondo piatto each, along with water and wine, was around €60 to €90 ($75 to $110). (For comparison, on our last trip to Lisbon, in May, we rarely spent more than €20 ($25) for our main meal of the day, whether it was dinner or a big lunch.) The food was expensive but, as expected, very tasty. Here's a snap of my pork tenderloin with caramelized pear and wine sauce at Milan's Hostaria Borromei.

Filetto di maiale

At the end we had to deal with a sciopero, a strike of transportation workers, that cancelled most rail travel. Without going into all the messy details, I will say that during the final few days of our trip we had many anxious moments at train station ticket offices figuring out how and when and whether we could get back to Milan and from there to the airport. Add to that a very delayed flight from Malpensa and we were lucky indeed to make it home on time.

These problems aside, we were excited to see a lot of Italy we had never seen before.

Milan is a big, bustling, prosperous city, not particularly charming or inviting but one would never lack for something to do. We saw Da Vinci's "Last Supper" but were more impressed by the works in the Brera and Poldi Pezzoli museums. The Duomo in the center of town is magnificent, inside and out, and we were lucky that the clouds broke ever so slightly for the hour or so we spent on the roof terrace.

Putting up the Tree

Turin was much more to my liking, at least at first. The city center has several large squares and an easy-to-navigate grid layout. The energy level seemed lower and more relaxed than Milan and we were looking forward to a more leisurely pace. But two days after we arrived it was the big holiday weekend, L'Immacolata, when every Italian in Italy is out and about. Museums that were deserted on Friday had hours-long lines on Saturday. Even with the dense crowds, we got to see the famous Egyptian Museum and the Museo dell'Automobile, and rode a really cool cog railway up to Superga Basilica overlooking the city. Unfortunately the weather was so gray and foggy we couldn't see much, so we went back down to mingle with the masses.

L'Immacolata

Then it was onward to Genoa, my favorite city of the trip. The hills and pastels of a port reminded me of Lisbon, and we had fun riding elevators and funiculars to different levels of the town. We visited the tiny fishing village of Boccadasse and spent a pleasant afternoon in the Museum of the Sea. And best of all we had almost an entire day of sunshine.

Genoa

The final stop was Pavia, a small town outside Milan. We spent all of an afternoon at the famous Certosa di Pavia (the Wiki link includes some great photos), a short train ride away in an even smaller town. The weather was wet and cold, we had to walk a mile along country paths, and we weren't supposed to take photos, but the Certosa is a magnificent thing, the sort of place that everyone should see once in their life. Other than that, Pavia was rather dull. I'm not sure I'd want to visit there again if it weren't for Osteria della Madonna: fantastic food and great service so good that before we left the first time we made reservations to go back for dinner the next night. The divine Antipasto della Madonna included such things as a plate of lard (scrumptious) and this, their rendition of a Waldorf salad.

Osteria della Madonna

Oh, and Pavia has a covered bridge, first built in the 14th century but completely rebuilt after it was almost bombed into oblivion during World War II.

Ponte Coperto / Covered Bridge

Our last Sunday we were up early and off to Milan and then the Malpensa airport. The confusion and lack of information caused by the strike led to some tense moments but we at last reached our Ibis hotel for a quiet last evening. Up early again on Monday to catch our flight to New York's JFK, we had to walk to one end of Malpensa's huge Terminal 1 to check in, then all the way to the other end to go through security, then back again to the other end to our departure gate.

Like I said, sometimes these trips to Europe require a bit of work.

I've posted a few snaps from the trip on Flickr and you can see them here. And don't forget, there's always a slideshow version with even bigger pictures.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

PoPTPoP

We returned Tuesday from an extended weekend in Philadelphia, one of the easiest and most pleasant trips we've taken. We got upgraded to first class both ways, and our Bank of America VISA card got us free admission to a couple of expensive museums. Our hotel, Loews, was across the street from the SEPTA station: it only took us 35 minutes to check out, walk to Reading Terminal, hop a train to the airport, and get through TSA security to our departure gate. (The TSA PreChk program is the greatest thing to happen to air travel since 9/11.)

Most of our time was spent at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation. We were particularly interested in the Barnes, as this was our first visit since they moved the collection from Merion to central Philadelphia. There was a lot of controversy about the move but I think they did the right thing; the new building is well done, duplicating Barnes' arrangement exactly, and it's much more accessible to the public.

I've posted a few snaps from the trip on Flickr and you can see them here.

William Penn Welcomes Us

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

On Saturday, while we were at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I realized how much I enjoy taking snaps of other people, complete strangers, posing for photos. The east steps of the museum, made famous by the Rocky movies, are a favorite place for wedding parties and quinceañera celebrations, so of course I took a lot of photos of people taking photos.

The Wedding Party

I've created a new album on Flickr, PoPTPoP (Photos of People Taking Photos of People). It also includes PoPTP (Photos of People Taking Photos) and PoPPfP (Photos of People Posing for Photos). I'm sure I'll be adding to this album soon.

No more traveling, at least for a few weeks.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Return and Departure

Last week, we returned from our month in Buenos Aires, our seventh trip there but our first since 2011. Because of inflation and 'unofficial' currency exchange this may have been our least expensive trip yet. We found some new good restaurants, saw a tango show and a couple of concerts at Teatro Colon, caught Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe in Robert Wilson's "The Old Woman," and enjoyed going back to some of our favorite places.

I even managed to snap some photos to add to the hundreds I've already taken in the city. Here's my Flickr album from the trip and as always there's a slideshow version.

A few days after we got back to Texas we were off to Austin, to celebrate Terri's 50th birthday at her parents. We ate some great food and saw some interesting birds, including a golden-fronted woodpecker, a first for me. Unfortunately, Lake Travis is still very low as the drought in Texas continues.

Drought on Lake Travis

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Now that we're back from Austin and have had enough time to check the mail and do laundry, it's time to leave again. Tomorrow morning we head to Philadelphia. The last time we were there, in 2009, I hadn't yet started my blog and my cameras were not nearly as nifty, so maybe I'll find some words and images to share.

We have other trips planned later in the year, enough to once again go from Gold to Platinum at American Airlines, but more about those later.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Matter of Money

We're pretty good at managing credit and debit cards for traveling. We don't pay annual fees or foreign transaction fees, we've never paid an ATM charge that wasn't rebated, we've switched to chipped cards when offered, and we even get one to two percent cash back.

But none of that is relevant in Argentina right now, where cash, physical money, is king. I won't try to explain the complicated Argentine economic situation -- google the news for a thousand varying explanations, if you're interested -- but I will try to give an idea of how it affects our daily life during our month in Buenos Aires.

True or false?

The government here manipulates the currency exchange rate, meaning that the peso's official value in dollar terms does not reflect its true purchasing power. When we've visited in the past (most recently in 2011), the difference between the official rate and the black market rate (the so-called dolar blue) was not big enough to concern us. We used our credit and debit cards and all was fine. Lately, however, because of the financial turmoil in Argentina, the spread between the official and unofficial exchange rate is widening almost every day. As I write this, the 'official' exchange rate is 8.39 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the unofficial dolar blue rate (compra, buying pesos) is 13.53 per U.S. dollar. That means the dolar blue is more than 60% higher than the official rate.

If you use a credit or debit card to buy something, you'll pay at the official rate. A liter of milk at the nearby Carrefour supermarket is 16 pesos, or $1.90US. But if you could pay at the dolar blue rate, it's $1.18US. An even better example is our dinner last night, when we had a large pizza and a liter of beer at Romario's. The total bill with a tip of more than 10% was 200 pesos; officially that's $23.85, but in dolar blue it's $14.80. Think of it this way: using dolar blue is like having a 40% off coupon for everything in Argentina.

Now comes the tricky part: how do you trade your dollars for pesos at the dolar blue rate? For that you have to find a cueva (cave), a place that trades pesos for dollars. Since this black market currency trading is technically illegal, cuevas do not advertise and are not clearly marked with a big sign out front "Get Your Pesos Here!" Instead they are regular shops, selling jewelry or mobile phones or houseware. The fact that they trade currency spreads by word of mouth and nothing is ever written down. And illegal or not, they are everywhere, a pervasive element of life in Argentina to which the authorities turn a blind eye.

So, you ask your neighbors and friends and shopkeepers if they know of a trusted neighborhood cueva. They'll tell you about a place around the corner or down a block or two, where you'll take your crisp new $100US bills and lay out two or three or four of them on the counter and ask what rate they're offering today. (Used bills and those of smaller denominations might work, but you wouldn't get as good an exchange rate.) The rate you get will be close to, but a bit less than, the posted dolar blue compra rate. The cueva takes your dollars and gives you big wads of Argentine 100 peso bills. (Although the inflation rate is horrible, the government refuses to print any bill larger than 100 pesos, worth about $7.50US, as it would be a tacit admission that inflation has gotten out of control.)

Trading dollars for pesos is incidental for casual visitors like us, but it's survival for Argentines. Because of numerous economic crises over the decades, many people here have saved up U.S. dollars whenever possible to protect themselves during peso devaluations like now. While the government is down to less than $30 billion U.S. in hard currency reserves, various estimates put the total amount of U.S. dollars held privately in Argentina at $100 to $200 billion.

Besides the cuevas there are also arbolitos (little trees, so-called because they stand outside covered with the green leaves of currency), guys who walk around shouting Cambio! Cambio! Cambio! But the arbolitos and the cuevas on Florida Street downtown cater mostly to tourists and there is much greater risk of getting falsos (counterfeit bills). (I wrote about the problem of phony bills in Argentina back in 2009. Nowadays the incentive for making counterfeits is greatly reduced because even the largest bills are worth so little.)

Currency trading for day-to-day expenses is certainly more exciting than simply handing over a piece of plastic to buy stuff. Leave the credit cards at home and bring $100 bills. Don't exchange more than a few hundred at a time because you never know whether the rate will go up or down. If the dolar blue goes up, stores and restaurants will get cheaper for those with dollars because they can't raise prices fast enough to keep up.

It's a bit of a game for travelers like us, trying to get best deal for our dollars. But it's serious business for Argentina where unemployment and inflation are rising and most people are just trying to get by.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two Thoughts and an Update

Thought #1: We greatly underestimate the role of chance and luck in our lives. Those of us born into middle class families in the United States in the twentieth century take the circumstances of our birth for granted without realizing how remarkably lucky we are to begin life in such a privileged position. (Imagine, for a moment, starting off as a peasant in rural India, say, or being the child of an addled meth addict living out of her car.) Every day, year after year, countless little happenstances beyond your control affect the direction of your life. While I'm happy to take credit for whatever good I have done and try to accept responsibility for my failures, I know that blind fate has played a major role, for both good and ill, in determining much of what I have and what I don't have, how I ended up where I am.

Thought #2: Even more than we underestimate the role of luck, we completely overlook the fact that half of the population is, by definition, below average. Whatever you'd like to measure -- intelligence, skill, hand/eye coordination, height, common sense, shoe size, geniality, literacy, courage -- half of the people are going to be less than average. Remember, too, that all these qualities are relative: if you consider yourself smart or sensible or wise, your superiority is only possible because a significant number of your fellow humans are dim-witted, scatter-brained, or foolish. No matter how much we, as a species, improve ourselves by raising the average of intelligence and dexterity and overall ability, half of us will never measure up.

And now for the update. You may have noticed that my last blog post, Porto and Beyond, was back in March, after we had visited northern Portugal. That was not our last trip, however.

In April we spent a few days in Boston. We walked around, went to museums, and I ate a lot of Boston Cream Pie, but the highlight was catching a comedy show, Jim Belushi and the Board of Comedy, that included our friend and favorite funny guy, Brad Morris. As always, snaps from the trip are on Flickr.

Terri and Brad and Me

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Then, in May, we went back to Portugal, the third trip there this year. (Have I mentioned that we like Portugal?) We spent two weeks in Lisbon, which we know fairly well by now, but this time we rented an apartment in a different part of town, the São Paulo bairro. As much as we enjoy Portugal, I think we went too late this time. It was quite warm, even hot at times, crowds of people were all over town, and because everything was blooming in the beautiful Portuguese spring, I was sniffling and weeping and sneezing every day and night -- I was allergic to something or everything.

Even with the heat and the crowds and the allergies, Portugal is lovely. Our favorite place for Sunday morning coffee was at the Arte Antiga museum, which has a beautiful terrace overlooking the Rio Tejo.

Sunday Morning Coffee

We went back to some of our favorite places and got together with friends we've made on earlier trips. We had a delicious lunch with Ana and Manuel at Granja Velha, took the tram to Graça to say hello to Antonio at A Cabreira, and stopped in to see Werner and Mario for great pasta at Gato Pardo. We also visited a couple of palaces we had never seen before, and had fun at the puppet museum. More than once we had a tasty meal at the little tasquinha on the ground floor of our apartment building, run by our neighbor Angelina. We ate grilled fresh fish or roasted chicken almost every day, and I had way too many -- or not enough? -- pasteis de nata. On our last day we went to the opening of the fancy new food court at the Mercado da Ribeira.

You can see what a good time we had by looking at the snaps from the trip on Flickr. It's even more fun to sit back and watch the slideshow and let Flickr do the work.

Since our return we do what off-season travelers do during high season: not much. While the rest of the world is rushing about we're at home, my lethargy increasing as each Texas summer day grows hotter than the one before.

Another Fort Worth Sunset

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Porto and Beyond

We began with the familiar: fly into Porto and spend a few days at the same cozy little apartment on Rua Formosa where we had stayed before. We weren't sure what we were going to do, but after we got there and settled in we had no trouble finding new places to visit and new restaurants for our dinners.

The Portuguese Center for Photography is housed in what used to be a prison. After decades of neglect, the building has been beautifully restored and now makes an ideal exhibition space, and there's even a fine collection of cameras on display. Travel writer Stuart Forster has a brief background piece on the center over at Huffington Post UK.

Of course we spent a lot of time in my favorite activity, walking around looking at buildings and people. One of my favorite walks in the world is up and down Praça da Liberdade, between City Hall and the São Bento train station, admiring the grand old buildings and watching the crowds.

Click on any image below for a larger view and more details.

Praça da Liberdade

My other favorite activity is eating, and we found some great new places. The best was Pedro dos Frangos, which we happened upon while walking back to our apartment one afternoon. I saw the luscious chickens roasting on spits in the window and said, "This is where we're eating tonight!" (Ironically, Pedro dos Frangos is on Rua Bonjardim; 'Bonjardim' is the name of a famous roasted chicken restaurant in Lisbon.) The perfectly cooked chicken, a big mound of french fries, a large salad, and a jug of wine came to €17, about $23.

Pedro dos Frangos

After enjoying the familiar in Porto we began exploring the unfamiliar by taking a bus to Viseu, a city of about 50,000, 50 miles away to the southeast. There were a couple of fine museums, interesting old churches, beautiful azulejos (tiles), lovely parks and squares, and plenty of people and buildings to look at.

Viseu - Igreja da Misericórdia

Igreja dos Terceiros de São Francisco

As we've come to expect throughout the country, the food in Viseu was delicious. In fact, I had one of the best meals I've ever eaten in Portugal, leitão da Bairrada, roast suckling pig with a tangy oil and pepper sauce, accompanied by fried potatoes and a salad at Restaurante Cacimbo.

Leitão da Bairrada

After three nights in Viseu we took a bus to Coimbra, the largest city (population 150,000) in central Portugal and home to an old and famous university. Our first evening we walked up to the university, which sits atop a hill in the center of town: Lisbon is hilly, Porto is hillier, but Coimbra is insane. Our first task the following morning was to buy bus passes to ride the elevator/funicular from the lower town up to near the top.

Coimbra has long been a cultural center and was even the capital of Portugal during part of the Middle Ages, so there were plenty of buildings to look at, including a fine Gothic church, São Tiago, the old and new cathedrals, and Igreja Santa Cruz. We went to our first fado concert, done in the Coimbra style, performed by men only. (Fado is a uniquely Portuguese song form, as much a part of the culture and national identity as tango is for Argentina.)

Fado ao Centro

We toured the old university, where we were awed by the Joanina Library (no photos allowed, but the link includes a 3D virtual visit). At the center of the old university is a gorgeous plaza.

Universidade de Coimbra

One day we walked across the Mondego River and toured the grounds of the Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha. The convent was built in the 14th century but had to be abandoned in the 17th because of frequent floodings. Excavation and partial restoration were not begun until the 1990s, and now there's even a well-designed modern visitor center.

Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha

We ate well in Coimbra. Late on the first afternoon, on the recommendation of Joanna at Fado ao Centro, we went to Nata Lisboa to try their pastéis de nata and were wowed: just about as good as Pastéis de Belém. We went back every afternoon for a hot-from-the-oven pastel and a glass of Madeira. Our favorite dinner was at A Cozinha d. Maria, where we feasted on steak with pepper sauce (Terri) and grilled veal (me). In the course of the meal and after a delicious dessert we swapped travel stories with our new friends, Wendy, who recently retired after 30 years as an American Airlines flight attendant, and her husband, Steve, a recently retired engineer. Wendy and Steve are braver than we are: they rented a car and were doing a grand tour of Portugal.

NATA Lisboa

Naco da Vitela Grelhado

On our last night in Coimbra we met a Danish sculptor, Jesper Neergaard, and his wife, Lilloian, a painter. In the course of a long and interesting conversation, they both highly recommended the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro. We had not planned on making it there but they were so persuasive that we got up early the next day so that we could visit the museum before catching our train back to Porto. I am so glad we did: the museum was wonderful. In the deep basement are excavated Roman ruins, the ground floor has incredible sculptures from churches in the area, and the top floors are devoted to paintings, including a wonderful triptych by Quentin Massys.

Deposition of Christ

The Passion of Christ

The trip back to Porto was pleasant and uneventful. We checked into the airport hotel and had a surprisingly good meal at a restaurant a quarter-mile away, O Malheiro: two of the biggest veal rib steaks I've ever seen, each an inch thick, and perfectly grilled. The next morning we were up way early and in the air on the way to Madrid by nine.

And a lot of other buildings and meals and stuff I didn't mention. All of the snaps from the trip are on Flickr. As always, there's even a slideshow version. While you're looking at snaps, I'll sit down and start thinking about the next trip.

Museum Bench

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tourists and Travelers

Hearing about one of our recent adventures, John Pickett said, "You're not tourists, you're travelers." (Our friends John and Dana Pickett are the parents of our friend Tina Pickett Holmes.) Even without a lot of explanation, this compliment felt right, reflecting my attitude about seeing the world. (Last year, Terri described in more detail The Way We Travel.) Then, a few days ago, I read a Rick Steves column that fleshed out the distinction between the two:

I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage, and returns home unchanged, with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture, and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a tourist, I've been one myself quite a few times. Big sights are big sights for a reason, and knickknacks are difficult for many people to resist. But for me, being a traveler is more comfortable: I love going to lesser-known places, loitering and exploring, figuring out bus and train schedules, pondering a menu in an unknown language, and relishing the unplanned and unexpected. We'll never see most of the world but the places we do visit we'll get to know fairly well. So far, my only souvenirs are small pins from some of the places we've been, along with thousands of snapshots and memories.

Pins

Click on the image for a larger view and more details.

We've been traveling and touristing regularly since 1999, and I've been posting some of my favorite travel snaps since around 2008: Here's my Flickr travel sets.

All this talk of traveling makes me eager to stop writing and get back up in the air. Tomorrow we're off again, this time to northern Portugal, our 60th trip together, the 37th outside the United States. We'll fly into Porto, where we'll spend a few days, then venture out to Viseu and Coimbra.