Madrid

Madrid, Spain – 20-27 May 2019

Got myself to the train station for my trip on the AVE high-speed train to Madrid – in fancy Preferente class! Actually, it’s not all that fancy – mainly a roomier seat than Turista class. It did include access to a “lounge” at the station, which was nothing to write home about…

When it was time to board, there was again not much to differentiate the Preferente experience from an ordinary ticket. There was no one to assist with luggage during boarding and when there was no room for my suitcase in the storage area at the back of the coach, I asked the attendant what I could do. She suggested their might be room in another coach and shrugged. So fancy!

I did manage to find some space at the front of the car (once I rearranged a bunch of other luggage) and was looking forward to sitting down and relaxing – I was sweaty and anxious after the not-very-soothing boarding process. And OF COURSE there was someone in my seat. Sigh…

It was kind of surprising since it seemed to be a couple traveling together – maybe they’d been unable to book two seats together and she was hoping no one would show up? But here I was, so I indicated that I suspected she was in the wrong seat, smugly showing my ticket and seat assignment – and she responded by pointing out that my seat was in Coach 3 and this was Coach 2.

MODED. CORRODED. MY BOOTY EXPLODED.

How humiliating! I can’t tell you how many times my eyes have rolled into the back of my head on planes and trains at people who can’t figure out where there g.d. seat is, despite them being clearly labeled. And now, here I was being THAT person in front of a whole train full of strangers rolling their eyes at the stupid rube who’s apparently never traveled before since he can’t even figure out where his seat is. What a maroon!

Oh, except it wasn’t a coach full of strangers – the couple I’d met the other night at Taberna del Rey just happened to be on this train and were witness to my idiocy. Happily, they weren’t as judgey as I usually am and we swapped a few updates on our trips, before I made my way to my actual assigned seat.

It turned out to be the best seat on the train though – given that the passenger sitting next to me was traveling with his cat (in a carrier, mind you)! And really, what could be better than taking a three-hour train ride with an adorable cat?

The trip went quickly and soon enough I’d arrived in Madrid at Atocha Station. “Can’t wait to check into my apartment!” I thought to myself, not realizing I’d be spending a substantial amount of time trapped in the station, given that it was pretty much impossible to determine where to get a taxi. There was one large sign that said “TAXI” with an up arrow. Does that mean I go upstairs? Or straight ahead? I did manage to find the end of the enormous line of taxis – but they disappeared up ramp to a destination that remained shrouded in secrecy.

Finally, after several trips up and down the escalators and walking in and out of several doors, I asked a police officer where to find a taxi – and she pointed me in the direction of another building on the opposite side of the parking lot, because where else would one think to hail a taxi than in a building other than the station in which one arrived?

Anyway, I finally made it to my apartment and got settled in – though not too settled. Due to a snafu with my original reservation, I had to reserve an extra night in a different category of apartment – meaning I’d have to move to a different room the next day. NBD, I thought – and boy was I wrong, as I’d find out the next day.

In the meantime, I had to make my way to Barberia Bearbero, about a 20-minute walk from my apartment. I’d been on the road about two weeks, so was definitely in need of a fresh fade. My appointment was with Jonathan, who had an impressive beard of his own – sufficiently so that I included a beard trim in my appointment. Typically, I wait ‘til I’m back home for Luis, my regular barber in SF, to trim my beard, since I’ve had many sub-par beard trims. I’m happy to report that Jonathan provided me with both a great haircut AND an amazing beard trim. So, if you need to clean up your Madrid lewk, Bearbero is the place to go!

Spent a quiet night back at my apartment. My GI tract had been feeling a little iffy since yesterday and this evening it started veering into “I think I’ve got food poisoning” territory. I felt lousy and didn’t want to stray too far from the bathroom. Ugh. By the time I woke up the next morning, I was completely miserable, with body aches, chills and fatigue added to the mix.

And here is where I was reminded of the difference between staying in an actual hotel and this apartment/hotel hybrid I was in: they aren’t very well-equipped to cater to guests’ needs beyond collecting your money. The staff were sympathetic to my plight – but insufficiently so to come up with some solution for my changing apartments that didn’t involve me having to wander the streets of Madrid from the 11AM checkout time to the 2PM check-in time. I remain unclear on why they couldn’t either let me stay in my room for an extra couple of hours or why they couldn’t have my new room cleaned up immediately – or even offered me some other room.

So, yes, I spent the next several hours ambling through the neighborhood, praying that I didn’t shit myself (which, I’m happy to report, I did not). I spent a fair amount of time in a small plaza that was frequented by locals and their dogs – so that was kind of nice, other than painful cramps and feverishness.

Finally, my new apartment was ready and I immediately got into bed so I could wallow in self-pity. I’d just arrived in Madrid and all my carefully-laid touring plans were at risk. Plus, you know how when you’re sick and you feel like you’ll never be well again? Yeah, that was me. Sure, I was being a little dramatic, but I’d been on the road for two weeks already and I was feeling lonely and unhappy – and complained about it on Facebook. It was very nice to hear sympathetic words from all my friends back home and elsewhere – and really helped to improve my mood.

Not only that, Enger, my BFF back home (and despite my instructions not to do so), contacted his mom who lives in Madrid and is a nurse and had her checking in with me regularly via text. Even though I was a little embarrassed by the whole episode, it was really comforting to know there was someone in town who could help me out if things took a turn for the worse. I’ve got a lot of good people in my life…

But I survived – miraculously! And I was able to re-arrange the schedules for all my local tours with the exception of a bike tour, so things worked out OK. All things considered (and with the notable exception of the unpleasant three-hour wait for my new apartment), the timing of this wasn’t so bad – and it was nice to be in a spacious apartment rather than a small hotel room while I was recuperating.

My first major foray back into being a tourist was a visit to the Prado, along with a guide from Context Travel, about whose tours I’ve raved in the past. And this tour was excellent! Andrea, our guide, was extremely knowledgeable about the many different works we saw – and clearly passionate about art in general. And while Las Meninas was amazing and fascinating, I was bowled over by El Greco’s work.

His large scale portraits of scenes from the Bible are astonishing – wild, even – and his painting feels so modern. But it’s the six small portraits in the second gallery that really took my breath away. As described on the Prado’s site, “El Greco was fully able to imbue this portrait with a remarkable formal tension between the visible and the hidden.”

I did a couple of other walks with Context, one focused on the Spanish Civil War and the other giving a general overview of Spain’s history. Both very good and got to see some parts of Madrid I might’ve missed otherwise.

One morning, I was craving an American-style breakfast and took the subway across town to someplace I found online – and had huevos rancheros, which I guess is American-style… They were OK, but sadly did not really hit the spot I was hoping for.

From there, I walked for about 20 minutes to what appeared to be the flagship location of El Corte Inglés – that is, their largest location in Madrid. And, it turned out to just be a big Macy’s style department store – in other words, nothing to write home about. As I eventually learned, the store started out quite small and began expansion after WW II, largely via the acquisition of other local retailers. Thus, they never really had a big fancy location like Galeries Lafayette or Selfridges.

I took the subway back over to my apartment near Chueca – and this is when I learned that, while the Madrid metro system is extensive, it’s not especially rapid. There are kind of long waits (by which I mean 10+ minutes – which is not nightmarish or anything but adds to the travel time) and there are long walks at transfer stations. And the trains are always packed. Anyway, walking is usually a more pleasant option and often won’t take much longer.

I did get a chance to visit my local branch of El Corte Inglés – and it was frankly a lot more interesting than the one I’d schlepped too. This was thanks to the supermarket in the basement and the gourmet shop up on the top floor, where they sell both fresh and packaged gourmet foods and have a bunch of different counters for tapas and other tasty bites.

I really love visiting supermarkets in other countries and this one was no exception. There was a whole aisle of tinned tuna and seafood; and another dedicated solely to canned white asparagus. And, like at supermarkets the world over, there were slow-moving, oblivious patrons getting in my way regularly. Just like being back home!

I was quite happy that I chose Chueca as my homebase. I was actually just off Gran Via, across from Chueca proper, which is Madrid’s gayborhood. I didn’t really sample any of the gay nightlife, thanks to both my being down for the count for a couple of days and not really being properly adjusted to local time, i.e. going out to a bar at 1AM. But the ‘hood itself is both lively and charming, with plenty of nice streets to wander, some cute shops and tons of cafes and restaurants.

A particular favorite of mine was Casa Lolea. First of all, they served great sangria – by which I mean sangria that was made with wine, juices, fruit and spices. As I’d learned in Sevilla, to my great and long-lasting chagrin, restaurants most often prepare sangria by combining wine and orange soda pop. Not good. At all. But Lolea has very good bottled sangria, made even better with some fresh fruits and other flavorings. Plus the place is cute and comfy for a drink; the food was tasty; and the servers were all charming and friendly. This was my home-away-from-home-away-from-home here in Madrid.

Since I liked this place, it’s also where I took Arelis, my friend Enger’s mother. When I told him I was going to Madrid, he said I had to meet her and I was excited to do so – though when he followed it up with, “Oh, and she doesn’t speak any English,” I was somewhat more apprehensive. As it turned out, we were fine. It was a little easier talking via text (since I can copy/paste to and from Google Translate) but we made it work in person too. Though let’s face it – I think both of us felt like everything got a little easier once we were at Casa Lolea, sipping on sangria.

Another neighborhood place I enjoyed was Conservas Nudista. I mean, yes, sure, it was the name that caught my eye (heh) – but it’s got a cool modern vibe and menu full of their own conserved foods, mostly seafood, but with some vegetables as well. I had a nice afternoon snack there and stocked up on tinned tuna and mussels to bring back home with me. I’d’ve included some of the vegetables and beans, but they were packed in glass with brine or oil and I was worried about the hassle of getting them onto a U.S.-bound aircraft. Sigh… It’s the same reason I didn’t bring a case of Lolea sangria home with me. Guess I’ll just have to back to Madrid to have them again.

Arelis stopped by my apartment a couple of days later on Sunday, my last day in Spain. She had a couple of things for me to bring home for Enger. She also surprised me with a gift for me: three bottles of wine! She already knows me well…  Though when I was messaging with Enger later, I did inquire, “What exactly did you tell your mom about my drinking habits?”

I loved Madrid – and all the places I visited in Spain – but between my illness and the fact that I was at the end of three weeks on the road, I was a bit lazy about documenting my activities – and most of the museums don’t allow any photography (which ultimately is a good thing – but it def means I have fewer photos of this leg of my trip). I probably didn’t get to try as many places to eat as I’d’ve liked, given that I spent a few days just eating rice and heat-and-serve tortilla española from the supermarket. Though, TBH, I spent most of the time when not on a walking tour either wandering on my own or relaxing with a glass of wine and a plate of jamon somewhere… This by no means a complaint! And I hope the photos I’ve posted give some idea of how wonderful Madrid is and how much I enjoyed my visit.

I flew home on Iberia. Madrid’s airport is pretty nice – though getting through immigration at the satellite terminal was a bit of shit show. Iberia’s lounge was OK. Very spacious, yet still quite full. The selection of food that morning was not extensive, though the tortilla española was fine.

Boarding turned out to be fairly annoying, thanks to the dreaded SSSSS notation on my boarding pass that flagged me randomly for additional security check at the gate. The process was not especially well-managed and they had hordes of other SSSSS designees crammed into a dingy office space adjacent to the gates.

Once I’d passed muster, I got back to the gate and had my boarding delayed by a tour group leader arguing with the gate agent about boarding group numbers. It was very tempting to pull an, “I’m in business class, let me through!” but tempers were flaring and I didn’t want to add to the agita.

There’d been an equipment change – I think when I booked, it was an old A340, but instead we got a nearly brand-new A350! It was a real treat. Seats comfy, food decent and flight uneventful. I had a couple of hours layover in JFK, relaxing in the Alaska Airlines lounge before my connecting flight home in Alaska’s business class – which was perfectly fine, though after starting my trip in Lufthansa first and having just been on Iberia’s long-haul business class, the Alaska Airlines 737 business class was, while serviceable, a much less deluxe experience – but def an upgrade from coach!

And soon enough, I was back home – and planning my return to Spain same time next year.

Sevilla

Sevilla, Spain – 15-20 May 2019

Up early the next morning and I took the ALSA Supra Economy bus to Sevilla. I’d’ve taken the train, but apparently track construction meant the train only went part of the way and then you transferred to a bus… A non-stop “affordable luxury” bus ride seemed preferable. 

Took a taxi to my home for the next five days, the Rey Alfonso X, smack-dab in the middle of Centro. I followed along on Google Maps for the short ride – and I was pretty convinced once I got to the hotel, I’d never find my way out of this maze of narrow twisty streets.

The hotel was very nice – though I got not-so-great room. It was large-ish, with a separate living area – but it was in the basement and only had one window, which looked out on an interior lightwell. And the bathroom was on the other side of the living room and down three steps – making for quite a trek when I’d wake up to pee in the middle of the night. I mean, it was all fine – but I got to peek into some of the other rooms, which appeared a little smaller but filled with natural light and some of them looking out onto the plaza in front of the hotel. Eh, I didn’t come to Granada to sit in my hotel room anyway…

Once I’d settled in, I headed out in search of tapas – and I didn’t have to go far. There are restaurants everywhere! I chose a place with good online reviews that was about a two minute walk from my hotel. It was fine – nothing to write home about. I sat at the bar, next to a foursome of loud Brits and got to hear the following exchange.

Loud Brit, speaking loudly in English: “I’ll have a glass of rosé.”

Barman: “Rosado?”

LB: “Rosé!”

Barman: “Rosado?”

LB: “ROSÉ!”

Sigh… I mean he did say “thank you” – but would it really have killed him to learn the word “gracias”?

After dinner, I met up with some new friends I’d met online, an American couple – Ralph and James – visiting from Alaska, of all places. We met for a glass of wine at a place just around the corner from my hotel. Our itineraries had some overlap, so they shared some good tips on what they’d done so far.

The next day, I had a morning bike tour, which gave me a nice overview of the city and some much needed time in the saddle. The other riders weren’t the friendliest, but it was a small group and the guide was very knowledgeable. Several places would warrant a return visit on my own. 

Sevilla is really just gorgeous. Beautiful architecture, the charming and narrow cobblestone streets of El Centro, jacaranda trees blooming everywhere. Just an absolutely lovely place. Sure, it’s touristy – but for whatever reason didn’t feel overwhelmingly so.

In the afternoon, I took a tour of the Alcazar Real. First off, some advice for anyone planning to visit the Alcazar: sign up for a tour! It’s worth every penny if only to skip the insanely long general admission line. Mine was with Amigo Tours and I really enjoyed it. The group was a bit on the large side – though we were all provided with headphones to listen to our guide, so it was easy to hear her descriptions of what we were seeing. She also pointed out my “twin” in one of the tapestries – some old guy with a crazy beard. I liked her.

The palace is quite beautiful – and the gardens even more so. TBH, my photos don’t do it sufficient justice – it’s an incredible place. Sadly, I probably didn’t spend enough time wandering the gardens – I think they were a lot more extensive than I’d realized. But it was already feeling like a long day – and Ralph and James had invited me to join them for a glass of wine, so…

I met up with them nearby and we ambled across the river and walked around Triana for a bit, stopping for a glass of wine and taking in local religious celebrations that filled some of the streets. We ended up back in El Centro and had a bite to eat next to the cathedral as dusk slowly settled over Seville. It was a lovely way to wrap up the day.

The next morning, I was up early and headed to the train station for a day trip to Cordoba, about a 45-minute ride on the high-speed AVE train. My visit coincided with Cordoba’s annual Patio Festival, in which locals open their beautifully decorated courtyards to the public and compete for the honor of best patio. I’d signed up for a tour and was very excited for this visit.

I met up with the group at the appointed location and the fellow leading the tour couldn’t find my name on his list of attendees. I was going to show him my email confirmation but he said it was no big deal and just come on along.

After about 25 minutes of walking and our guide sharing lots of details on the history of Cordoba, I wondered why we still hadn’t seen any patios – and experienced a sinking feeling as I began to suspect this wasn’t the right tour. I asked the guide and he confirmed that I was in fact on the free “Walking Tour of Cordoba” – not the patios tour. 

He called HQ to figure out a solution – which consisted of giving me a location on a map and advising that I “might” find my tour group there. This was about one km from our current location. So, off I sprinted. 

I have to confess, I was pretty unhappy about this turn of events. It was very tempting to just say “fuck it” and head back to the train station (or at least to get some wine somewhere) but I was really eager to take this tour, so I continued on my way, feeling quite confident that this was a wild goose chase and the likelihood of me finding my group was about zero.

I made my way to the location I’d been given (once again, thank you Google Maps!) and it was one of the patios. I poked my head in, looked around for the blue-shirted guide, asked one of the local fellows working there about any tour groups – and as I expected, no dice. 

I walked up and down the street I was on, checking the vicinity and around the corners. No luck. What a shitty day this had turned out to be. Was trudging back the way I came, when I see a fellow in a bright blue shirt with the tour company name on it, along with a small group of tourists. I run up to him, panting, as I say, “PERDONA ME, ARE YOU ALEJANDRO?” Apparently, unused to sweaty, wild-eyed, hobo-ish foreigners getting up in his grill, he was a bit taken aback, but did confirm that he was Alejandro and that – miraculously – I’d found my group. Who’d’ve thunk it?

Spent the next hour-and-a-half walking the streets of Cordoba and looking at the beautiful courtyards all gussied up for the festival. It was an enjoyable visit – though the morning’s adventure had left me feeling a bit frazzled. 

After the tour, I found a nice place to eat and had some albondigas and rosado – both of which helped my mood quite a bit. Got the train back to Seville and other than being very crowded, it was uneventful. 

A bit later, I was wandering Sevilla trying to find someplace to get a bite. For whatever reason, this proved challenging – and given all the agita from my adventures in Cordoba, I was feeling a bit blue. I walked past a little tapas bar that looked nice but was empty and I felt a little weird about being the only patron, so I kept going. But then I said to myself, “Self, stop second guessing! Just go have a glass of wine and a snack.” And so I did! And what a great decision that turned out to be.

The fellow behind the bar at Taberna del Rey was so nice, not only advising me on the menu but tolerating my fractured Spanish. And the tapas were delicious! Started with a montadito stuffed with meat, along with an ensalada rusa – which is essentially potato salad with tuna added, so of course it’s great. Then at the barkeep’s recommendation, I tried what I think translated as “beef in red sauce” – a small dish of simple beef stew. The meat was tender and tasty and I loved it.

The place had filled up some and I’d also had a couple refills of my glass of rosado, so I was feeling AOK and a bit loquacious – sufficiently so that I struck up a conversation with the English-speaking couple sitting nearby, recommending the beef stew. Turns out they were New Yorkers and had visited some of the same places I’d been, so we had a really nice time trading tips and experiences. 

Anyway, this turned out to be one of my favorite evenings in Seville, bringing together all of the things that make travel fun: meeting new folks, trading stories and good food and wine. What more could I ask for?

Spent the remainder of the weekend wandering Sevilla. Well, except for Saturday evening, which I spent watching Eurovision Song Contest on my laptop while gossiping/criticizing with one friend in Milan and another in Zurich. I’m so international!

My visit to the Plaza España was a little intimidating at first, as there was some sort of military ceremony being set up – which meant the plaza was densely populated with Spanish soldiers, many of them carrying large automatic weapons. So, yes, a little daunting – but who doesn’t love a man in uniform? It also helped that many of them were bearded and beefy. <fans self>

I walked past an outpost of El Corte Inglés, Spain’s only remaining department store. Sadly, they were closed on Sunday so I didn’t get to visit – but I will say this: their building in Sevilla is a really cool ’60s style and their mid-century logo is an amazing bit of design.

Another stop over the weekend was at the Museo De Bellas Artes De Sevilla. I was actually just looking for someplace to kill a bit of time – and what a good choice it turned out to be! Housed in a beautiful old palace with many courtyards, the collection covers several hundred years of Spanish arts. 

I recall specifically walking into one large gallery, filled with large-scale paintings, only to find my eyes drawn immediately to a smallish portrait of a bearded man. Turns out, this was my first encounter with El Greco and it was a portrait of his son, Jorge Manuel. It was exquisite – and made me all the more eager to see more of his work when I get to the Prado in Madrid. 

As much as I was eager to see Madrid, saying goodbye to Sevilla was not easy. Truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited: amazing architecture everywhere along the charming little streets winding through the center – plus great food and friendly folks. I hope I’ll be back again soon.

 

 

Granada

Granada, Spain – 12-14 May 2019

Said my farewell to David and soon enough, I was at the lovely-to-look-at-but-terrible-to-navigate Bilbao Airport – the most onerous part being the main entrance to the gates after security. There are three poles dividing the entry and the departure monitors are immediately inside – so every jackass stops literally blocking the door staring at the screen while the rest of the crowd bottlenecks behind. Really shockingly poor design. 

Anyway, I hustled myself to the Sala VIP (thanks, Priority Pass!) which was not much to behold, but was a nice space to chill with a reasonable selection of food and drink. The staff were especially nice – actively shushing the loud-mouthed-English-speakers (not sure of their nationalities, but it was a bunch of 40-ish white dudes traveling on business, natch) as we rolled our eyes at one another in disdain. Perfecto!

Once it was time to board, it was at the dreaded remote gate. I’d booked on Iberia since it’s a “real” airline as opposed to the budget Vueling. WELL! My money was not well-spent! In addition to the 30 euro (!) charge to check my bag (and which I’m pretty sure wasn’t made clear during my original booking), they were VERY strict about boarding by group number – which normally I’d be a fan of (even though I was in the sad Grupo 4 this trip). However, they maintained this rule FOR BOARDING THE BUS TO GET TO THE AIRCRAFT! Once we were out there, it was every person for themselves. The whole process was ridiculous and the ground crew were pretty surly.

Once on-board, all was OK. There was one FA who was Not The One and honestly, I want her on every flight I take. Every time some dumb asshole put their backpack or tote in the overhead, she was all, “You need to put that under your seat. The overhead is for suitcases. Are you fucking stupid?” (I think I’ve translated correctly). There was a similar lecture delivered to jerks trying to put more than one piece of luggage up there too. She was as vigilant as an eagle and I appreciated that. 

Initially, I thought the middle seat in my row empty – but there were still two more busloads of passengers to board and the flight was at capacity. But I had a quiet row – though the row across from me had a couple with their baby traveling in mom’s lap while dad had three different bags of food and toys to keep the little one occupied. 

He was pretty cute and we played peek-a-boo throughout the flight. Little kids are typically either terrified or fascinated by my beard and he was the latter. I think I earned some good travel karma, as I made a small contribution to distracting him from crying over the hour-long flight. The parents even thanked me on the jetway in Madrid! Not all heroes wear capes…

Made my way to the Plaza Mayor Sala VIP in Madrid during my short layover (thanks again, Priority Pass!) and it was pretty nice! Good views of the tarmac, not crowded and a nice selection of drinks. 

Boarding time again and my gate was naturally at the complete opposite end of the airport – and I was last in line save for a handful of other stragglers… Which was worrisome until I realized we were flying one of those commuter jets where you load your carry-on bag into the hold from the tarmac – so no fretting about fighting for overhead space. 

In front of me while in line to board was rich-looking business fellow having a bizarre conversation with some other dude about the relative downsides of various violent methods of death. It was semi-creepy. And he literally never stopped talking the entire time we were in line and walking down the jetway and across the tarmac. And lucky me, he was sitting directly in front of me on-board. Thank Zeus for my noise-canceling cans!

Soon enough, we were on the ground in Granada and I made my to the Gar Anat Hotel, my home for the next couple of days. The place was very nice and my greeting from Lorena at the front desk was lovely. She was kind and helpful throughout my stay.

The next morning, I had to present myself at the entrance to the Alhambra at 8AM. Given that it was about a 30-minute walk, it was an early start to the day – so early, that I’d miss out on breakfast at my hotel, though Lorena had arranged for a bag lunch to be prepared for me which was great. 

The walk up there was lovely and I arrived early which gave me a chance to take several hundred photos of a couple stray cats chilling near the gate. I found my guide Gabriella by the appointed time and was lucky that it turned out to be a small group. 

I didn’t know much (OK, anything) about the Alhambra and Gabriella was excellent, thanks to her broad knowledge of both the history and architecture of the site. We spent most of the first part of the morning in the fort – which also had amazing views of the city of Granada and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. 

We spent three hours visiting the complex, ending at the Generalife, the palace and gardens of the Nasrid rulers who built the Alhambra. And yes, it was lovely. In fact, while I understand the tour saving the best for last, it might’ve been nicer to start there, given that by the time we arrived the crowds were pretty intense by this relatively late hour. 

Headed back into town after the tour and popped into Bodegas Castañeda where I had my first encounter with tapas as they are served in Granada – they’re included with your drink! I was a little confused at first. I’d ordered wine, obv, along with tortilla española and jamon iberico. I was presented with my tortilla along with a little slice of bread with some cooked ham and tomato sauce. I figured I’d mispronounced something when I ordered, so NBD especially since the ham was delicious. But then, I was brought my plate of jamon iberico – at which point I also ordered another drink and was brought a plate of chips and marinated anchovies. I finally figured out that with each drink, one is served a tapas of choice from the bar. As it turned out, this is the custom in Granada – and it’s one I can get on board with!

Anyway, had a little siesta back at the hotel and soon enough it was time for an early-by-local-standards dinner. I decided to check out El Bar de Fede, as it’s apparently “gay-ish”, if the internetz are to be believed. Well, I think they were referring to the very cute, very nice staff – at least one of whom I recognized from one of the “dating” apps I use. The patrons were a pretty standard crowd. 

Happily, the food was quite good. I had albondigas which were very tasty – though sadly, only came in a full portion, meaning I both ate too much and didn’t finish. There are worse things in life…

The next day I didn’t really have anything on my agenda. In fact, I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying Granada. The central tourist area around the Plaza Nueva is very touristy indeed and it felt very crowded. 

But my first order of business was to find some breakfast – after poking around online, I found Café 4 Gatos which sounded nice. So, I followed my map and found myself walking up the hill along cobblestone streets lined with beautiful carmenes – the walled houses that make up this lovely part of the city. 

The cafe was great – it seemed to be serving mostly tourists, but I bellied up to the small bar and had a simple and delicious tosta with ham and cheese, along with an ice cold Coca-Cola. Perfection.

After breakfast, I just wandered the neighborhood. It was really quite lovely and very quiet. Eventually, as I strolled past many lovely carmenes, I stumbled across one that had been the home of Belgian artist Max Moreau – and it was open to the public and free to visit. 

WELL. I immediately fell in love with the place. Several small buildings made up the residence and his studio, plus a large lower garden and a smaller rooftop terrace – all with spectacular views of The Alhambra. It was such an unexpected experience and felt like I’d discovered a local secret. In fact, I saw a couple who’d I’d exchanged “hellos” with at breakfast as I left and I caught up to them and insisted they retrace their steps and visit! Yes, I’m a busybody.

As I kept wandering up the hill, I stumbled across one of the several spots in the neighborhood providing amazing views of the Alhambra and the mountains. My mixed feelings about Granada had obviously disappeared at this point. It was really good for me to spend some time in this tranquil and beautiful part of this city.

Spent the afternoon doing more tourist stuff – cathedral, museum, shopping, tapas – followed by a nap, then another dinner at the same place as last night. Why not make things easy on my last night? Tomorrow I’m off to Sevilla!

Bilbao

Bilbao & San Sebastián, Spain  – 10-12 May 2019

Up early this morning and met David down in the lobby before heading to the bus station for our trip to San Sebastián to meet up with my friends Michael and Justin visiting from NYC. I suspect I could have figured it out on my own – though probably with lots of agita and stress, so having David to get me there was fantastic

We arrived mostly without incident, despite missing the 11AM bus and having to take the noon instead. It was just more opportunity for us to yak (esp since someone who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with Gayvid slept for most of the ride).

Granted, by the time we arrived, I was very nervous about making it on-time to our lunch reservation at 1:30 – but we took a cab and arrived at the restaurant Justin had reserved for us at exactly 1:30! And yet, neither he nor Michael were anywhere to be seen… I was convinced we’d arrived at the wrong place and was having a mild panic attack – especially since my phone wasn’t working. Oh, I didn’t mention that I’d re-started my phone at the bus station in Bilbao, but didn’t remember my local SIM card PIN and was locked out of my phone? Yeah, that happened.

Luckily, David convinced the lady at the restaurant to grant us access to wifi and I called Justin – who advised they were already on “Spanish time” and were on their way to our (correct) location. Phew!

Lunch was lovely – the restaurant located next to the sea with views of both the ocean and the charming town of San Sebastian. Food was great, though as always, the talking was even better – and everyone was super impressed by my mind-reading trick that involved an illustration of a duck. Just ask Justin!

After lunch, we ambled about the town a bit – it was lovely despite the overcast weather. We ended up back at the apartment Justin and Michael had let – so nice! On the top floor right in the center with a lovely terrace where we had a bit of bubbly… This is really the fucking life.

Sadly, it was soon time to say our farewells to Michael and Justin. We caught our bus back to Bilbao, walked around a bit before dinner, then hung out for awhile at my hotel, talking about everything under the sun. Finally, it was 1AM – time to go out for drinks, which is still crazy to me, but is the custom here.

Had a few drinks at a couple of different bars. I got to meet lots of David’s friends (he seems to run into someone he knows every time we walk down the street) who were all so nice and welcoming to me, despite the language differences. I made it ‘til about 2:30AM before I had to call it a night and everyone else went out to go dancing until morning.

I was up at a relatively reasonable hour and spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Old Town. I also had my first pintxos! David had promised to teach me how the “system” works that evening, but I was on my own and hungry when I stumbled across Mercado Ribera – with an entire first floor dedicated to small shops selling all manner of pintxos. The place was pretty hectic, so I just ordered a few things from one stand (after observing the process from a bit of a distance) and managed to acquire a few skewers of olives and anchovies and a boccadillo with ham. Oh, and a glass of wine, obviously.

WELL! Everything was amazing. As much as I enjoy some fancy meals on occasions, the most delicious food often seems the simplest. All the ingredients were of superb quality and it was a perfect way to start the day – or start the afternoon, as the case may be.

David was supposed to meet me at 2:30PM, but apparently got a slow-ish start to his own day after the previous evening’s activities, so was running a little late. But I had no complaints wandering about on my own in Old Town. Probably the highlight of my walk was seeing a woman out walking her dog (there are so many dogs here! I loved it.). He looked Border Collie-ish and was not a tiny thing. He was standing on his hind legs, front paws around her waist, eyes beseeching while she repeatedly told him he had to get down – until she finally let out an exasperated sigh and picked him up and carried him. The doggo looked absolutely delighted with his victory. I suspect this is a regular occurrence between these two.

Once David arrived, we had a nice visit to the Bilbao Historic Museum. It’s great old building and provides a nice introduction to Bilbao and Basque history. The descriptions are all in Spanish and Basque, so I was very lucky to have my local interpreter along to assist. Among other things, I learned that a significant number of Basque shepherds emigrated to the western US to tend sheep.

Next up: more pintxos! David took me to Plaza Nueva in the center of the old city. The main square is surrounded by a dozen or more restaurants selling pintxos, with tables packed with diners in the center of the square. We tried three or four places and it was wonderful, as the photos make clear. And the prices! Generally, a couple of pintxos and a glass of wine runs less than 5 euros! I could get used to this quite easily, thank you.

Also, while I really thought everything we ate was delicious, I especially liked Gure-Toki, since they had most of the waiters were sexy AF. #fuego

Had a bit of a siesta later that evening before David took me to a groovy Asian-fusion place called Panda. I often feel like I’m “cheating” when I travel and eat anything other than local cuisine – which is a little ridiculous, I admit. It’s not like he took me to Applebee’s! And the food was great. Started off with gyoza and a couple of steamed buns stuffed with short rib char siu. We both got mains of stir-fried rice, mine spicy with vegetables, while David’s delicate palate went for a mild version with grilled veal. So good!

And some wine of course. There were a few rosados on the list and prices were 8 or 9 euros a glass, which seemed reasonable enough to me. Except that wasn’t the price per glass, it was for A BOTTLE! A FULL BOTTLE OF GOOD WINE IN A RESTAURANT FOR ABOUT TEN BUCKS! Coming from San Francisco, this was both shocking and delightful.

Made an early night of it (finishing dinner at about half-past midnight – which still feels crazy to me, but I also kind of love it) and I headed back to the hotel. I got packed and organized for the next leg of my trip.

David met me Sunday for a last lunch together, though we had a bit of time to hang out together beforehand and the strangest thing happened. We were sitting on a little floating platform on the river, next to a bridge. I asked David to take my photograph while I ran up to the bridge and posed leaning over the side. Then two local fellows approached me and one was very happy and dancing and grabbed me and spun me around, jumping up and down dancing and singing in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying and tried to explain that I didn’t speak Spanish. It was all over in the blink of an eye.

As I walked back toward the stairs, I reached into my pocket and discovered my wallet was missing – though all my cash was still in my pocket (I don’t typically carry cash in my wallet). Before I could even react or comprehend what had happened, the guy who’d approached me yelled at me, “Hey, is this yours?” and was holding my wallet. He gave it back to me after checking my ID that was in there. Both my credit cards were still in there, along with all the other odds-and-ends. So, the story has a happy ending – I dodged a huge bullet! – though I’m pretty sure the “nice” guy who returned the wallet had actually picked my pocket. I’m guessing he wasn’t interested in credit cards, only cash, which he didn’t get. It was a very freaky experience – though again, I was so, so lucky I didn’t lose anything.

Anyway, I’ve switched to using my little money pouch that attaches to my belt and goes inside my pants. Better safe than sorry!

The remainder of the day was great. We revisited Plaza Nueva as planned and I ate more pintxos (and drank a bit of wine) before it was nearly time for me to make my way to the airport. I didn’t have an particular expectations about what Bilbao would be like, but I have to say I’m a little bit in love with this city – not least because it’s home to the wonderful David who showed me the best of his hometown. I can’t wait to come back!

Going to Spain!

San Francisco, USA & Bilbao, Spain – 7-9 May 2019

In a stroke of luck, I was able to change my original adequate-but-longish (and with the dreaded “mixed cabin”) flight to Bilbao to a much superior routing: SFO-MUC-BIO. And in Lufthansa first class! What a treat this was going to be.

Arrived without issue at SFO and hustled my way to the United Polaris lounge. It’s new and I’d read many good things about it – but let’s face it: “United lounge” is not a phrase that inspires either confidence or visions of luxe travel. I’m quite pleased to report that my doubts were misplaced. The lounge is spacious, very nicely designed with plenty of room to hang out along with a dining room, a buffet and a bar – and the staff could not have been friendlier. Honestly, it was kind of shocking – which speaks volumes about my expectations with anything United branded. I hope they manage to maintain the level of service over time. It’s really about as nice as any lounge I’ve visited overseas and is vastly superior to any other domestic lounge I’ve seen.

Soon enough it was time to board my A340 bound for Germany. The first class cabin consists of 2 rows seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. I was in 2K – which was great, as my original seat was in the middle, but at check in I was able to switch to the single window seat.

While the seats are not quite as private as the “suite” style seats on other airlines, it was perfectly comfortable and almost infinitely adjustable. Once airborne, there’s a partition on the aisle side of the seat that can be raised for privacy.

Service was friendly and on-point – though it seemed to me that the the German-speaking passengers received more attention. I imagine this could be that they are regulars up here in the pointy end of the plane rather than points junkies like me – this isn’t necessarily a complaint, but I did notice it. Anyway, I was mollified with the excellent rosé champagne that I was served while we were still on the ground and again once we were en route.

Dinner service started with caviar (with vodka, natch) and some lovely appetizers. I chose chicken for dinner – it was simple but very tasty, with a white wine sauce and some barley and wild rice. Dessert was an unmemorable apple tart – though I had a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue with it which was fantastic.

Changed into the PJs that were provided to first class passengers and the FA converted my seat into a bed and made it up for me while I changed. Once I settled in, with my eye mask and earplugs at the ready, she asked if I wanted to be awakened for breakfast or to sleep as long as possible. I chose sleep.

Next thing I knew, I was being gently awakened and advised we’d be landing in 15 minutes! Now, that is the perfect way to get from SF to Europe.

My layover in Munich was four hours – which frankly was perfect, given that I had access the first class lounge during my stay. I disembarked, followed the signs to the lounge. Upon entering, there is a dedicated immigration counter and my passport was stamped immediately and into the lounge I went!

WELL! It was quite roomy and sparsely populated with some nice views of the gates (though not the runway unfortunately). I took a shower in a large and well-appointed private bathroom, then settled into one of comfy chairs by the window, where one of the several very gracious attendants brought me a drink.

Next I had some dinner in the dining room. First, a beef filet from the a la carte menu, then a few selections from the buffet. It was all very, very good – as was the chardonnay I had with dinner.

As I was finishing dessert, the receptionist who checked me in approached me and said, “Mr. CompleteOutrage, I’m so sorry to tell you, but your flight to Bilbao has been delayed 45 minutes.” I indicated that having to spend another 45 minutes here was not a bad thing!

My only “disappointment” about my lounge visit in Munich is that I didn’t get to use their limousine service, since my ongoing flight was boarding in the same terminal as the lounge (literally right next to the lounge). Had my flight been at a different terminal, I would have been driven across the tarmac to my aircraft in a Mercedes sedan directly to the jetway. Maybe once I save up my points again, I’ll get a chance to try this…

Soon enough, it was time to board. My flight to Bilbao was in business class – which is not much to write home about on a regional flight. I didn’t get to board separately from the rest of the passengers and business class seats are identical to coach – but they leave the middle seats empty. Eh, it was fine – I had the first row to myself and flight was only two hours.

Arrived BIO and was eager to get to my hotel. Even in first class, I’d still be traveling for more than 18 hours. Sadly, we arrived at a remote stand, meaning the indignity of cramming into a bus for the trip to the terminal – but it went quickly enough and there were no delays getting through customs since I’d already done that in Munich.

My driver from Blacklane greeted me as I exited baggage claim. He was very friendly and a good driver – though I think it’s unlikely I’ll use this service again. It was on the pricey side – I think around US$70 – but I figured it was easier than dealing with a taxi in a new city when I arrived after midnight. The service I signed up for was dubbed “business class” and indicated I’d be traveling in a Mercedes E-class – but I was actually driven in a minivan. And while there’s nothing wrong with a van, I’m not sure I’d’ve been willing to pay $70 for that privilege… I guess once I’m home, I’ll have to put on my “I’d like to speak to a manager” wig and send Blacklane a strongly-worded email.

Whatever the case, I was at my hotel soon enough, checked in without any issues and then sent a message to my friend David. He and I met online five years ago (!) and have managed to stay in touch regularly. He’s Basque and a native of Bilbao. I was of course very excited to finally meet him IRL – not to mention how great it is to visit a new city and get insights from a local.

By the time, I got to bed it was well after 2AM local time – but still mid-afternoon back in SF. I did my best to sleep, but after remaining steadfastly awake, I decided an Ambien was in order once it got to be 4AM. I was hoping I’d manage to sleep ‘til 10AM or so…

Next thing I know, I’m hearing a knock on the door and friendly, “Hola!” – it was housekeeping and it was 1PM! I was shocked I’d slept so late, but honestly, it got me pretty close to being on local time, so it was a fine way to start my visit.

I’d not gotten to see much of my surroundings on the way in from the airport – and it turned out I’d chosen a wonderful location, with my hotel facing the Nervion River and the Guggenheim Museum located about 200 meters to my right. While I didn’t have any view from my room, it was a lovely walk to the museum.

The Guggenheim’s exterior is frankly just as spectacular as one imagines – though perhaps a bit smaller in person than I’d thought (but really, what isn’t..?). As for the interior? It’s… fine, I guess. It’s showing its age a bit, but more than that, there seems to be a lot of space dedicated to stairwells, elevators and other non-gallery functions.

The current exhibitions were Morandi, an Italian painter. While I enjoyed the work, the space wasn’t the greatest, especially the lighting. There was also a Jenny Holzer exhibit which I enjoyed very much. I like her work and the space dedicated to the show was used to great effect.

Next stop was Museo de Bellas Artes, which David had recommended to me. A much more old school setting and quite charming. The current show was the ABC’s of Bilbao, with each of the galleries dedicated to a single letter (Art, Bilbao, TBD). Yes, it was a little gimmicky – but i enjoyed it very much, as it provided a great cross-section of different media and subject matter.

Had a lovely amble back to the hotel – the charms of Bilbao grow on me with each moment – for a bit of lie-down before performing my elaborate and time-consuming beauty regimen before heading downstairs to meet David in the lobby.

And lo and behold, there he was! It was both strange and wonderful to meet this person in the flesh after knowing each other via the internets for so long. We headed out into a drizzly evening and walked to a local movie theater for a screening of Beast, a suspense thriller set on the island of Jersey. It was good – though he and I had different opinions on it (which seems pretty much how we react to every movie we’ve discussed, with one of us loving it and the other not so much – with exceptions though!).

After the movie, dinner at Mina, a one-star Michelin place I’d found online. It was a lovely little place, up a flight of rustic stairs to a stone-walled room but with a contemporary decor inside. A lovely place. The head waiter was a bit snooty – I guess we weren’t his kind of people – but the rest of the staff were very kind and explained everything we ate in English (for me) and Spanish (for David). The sommelier in particular was very knowledgeable and so friendly.

As for the food? It was pretty great! Though frankly, the conversation was even better. David and I talked each other’s ears off – though being Basque, he definitely had the advantage in the talking department (#notacomplaint). At any rate, photos of all the wonderful food and wine we had are below.

I still hadn’t fully adjusted to eating dinner at 10PM, so I went back to my hotel right after dinner, hoping for a good night’s sleep before our day trip. In one of life’s many wonderful coincidences, two of my dearest friends, Michael and Justin, just happened to be staying down the road in San Sebastian and David had kindly agreed to squire me there on the bus (#howthemightyhavefallen h/t Jean Parker). Looking forward to this next adventure!

 

Bangkok: My Old Friend

Bangkok, Thailand – 19-25 November 2018

As I’ve been lucky enough to say half-a-dozen times, I’m back in Bangkok. One of my favorite cities and home to my friend, Ak. The city here is both familiar and brand-new every time I visit, thanks in large part to the extremely lively bar and restaurant scene – and on this particular trip, the first ever Bangkok Art Bienniale, with displays and installations throughout the city.

I was soon enough checked into my home-away-from-home here, Le Méridien – and, as usual, I was welcomed by the staff like they’d just seen me yesterday. I really do love this place.

One of the things that’s so nice about coming back to Bangkok is that, while in some ways I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do and see here, I’ve certainly made a dent in my previous six visits. And there’s something very relaxing about being able to explore a big city like this at a leisurely pace.

For the most part, I’ll let my photos tell the story of this visit, though there are of course some places I’ll need to call out specifically, either because they are new – or just continue to be amazing.

In the latter category is the restaurant Thai Niyom. Ak and I discovered this place last time I was in BKK. It was still new then and was pretty quiet both times we ate there. But the food! So good. The most amazing dish I ate last time was cabbage stir-fried with fish sauce and garlic. Simple and simply fantastic. And this visit? Same dish, still amazing! We ate here twice again. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. And they got a Bib Gourmand mention – very deservedly so. I was happy to see the place is doing a brisk business – not only because they should be but so that I can look forward to more meals there next time I’m in BKK.

Ak and I also had a lovely afternoon tea at Peacock Alley in the new Waldorf Astoria. Tea in fancy hotels is a bit of hit-or-miss prospect in my experience, with style often winning out over substance all too frequently. I’m happy to report that this tea was mostly quite good. It was absolutely stylish, a sunlight-filled modern room overlooking the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. There was a nice selection of tea-infused cocktails which were as tasty as they were delicious. The sweets and savories were really gorgeous – clearly made with Instagram in mind – but were also quite tasty. There were a few duds, but overall everything was quite good. Granted, I’d’ve preferred a higher savory-to-sweet ratio, but that’s been true just about everywhere I’ve had afternoon tea.

Another very special evening was spent at Sawaan, a new-ish fine dining restaurant serving Thai food – and the recent recipient of a Michelin star. Since this was a “fancy” dinner, I’d reserved for Thanksgiving – which is obviously not celebrated here, but it felt like a good reason to celebrate.

Well, this place was delightful. The service was just lovely – warm and welcoming and the entire staff really went out of their way to make sure our evening was special, as I’d mentioned in my reservation that it was Thanksgiving for me and a belated celebration of Ak’s 25th birthday. They served us a complimentary round of drinks for the holiday and presented Ak with a wonderful extra dessert at the end of our ten-course meal.

And the food? Just wonderful. Large multi-course tasting menus can feel daunting at times, but this one worked really well, not just in terms of the food but in the pacing. Several of the dishes were served with some theatricality, though it didn’t feel precious – and the food itself was amazing.

A few standouts: Fresh amberjack minced tableside with a dozen different herbs and other flavorings. A fat, buttery oyster presented in a bowl, into which a ewer of mushroom broth was poured, gently poaching the mollusk. A slice of Iberico pork, cooked simply but with a complex marinade of Thai herbs and spices.

It was a wonderful meal – and a really fine way to spend Thanksgiving. And I was indeed thankful – not just to be spending the holiday with my good friend Ak, but also being reminded once again of how very lucky I am to get to travel to amazing places like Bangkok.

We also visited the just-opened Icon Siam, a huge new shopping mall on the banks of Chao Phraya. The place is pretty swanky and includes an indoor “floating market” with plenty of local food and snacks for sale. Of course, for us, the best part turned out to be the outdoor promenade along the river – it provided many excellent opportunities for us to pose for our lives. And honestly, I wish I had Ak around as my personal photographer on the regular – he always manages to make me look good in photos.

While I didn’t come close to seeing everything on display for Bangkok’s first Bienniale, I did see quite a bit. Choi Jeong Hwa’s (South Korea) work was displayed in several locations and was always colorful and engaging. I especially liked Sornchai Phongsa’s (Thailand) installation at BACC – it was fascinating to see and was given particular depth when I learned that the artist had hired undocumented immigrants to build the structure, a commentary on the many stateless residents of Thailand. 

Thanks to all the amazing food, cool bars, great art and fun times with Ak, my six days in Bangkok flew by. Soon enough, I was winging my way back to real life in SF. Looking forward to my next visit to Thailand in October!

 

First Time in Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos – 15-19 November 2018

Despite the short distance, it was a bit of an all-day affair to get from Phnom Penh to Luang Prabang, thanks to having to fly via Bangkok. But it was a mostly uneventful trip. The flights were short and I spent my layover in the Miracle Lounge at BKK waiting for my connecting flight, thanks to my Priority Pass. Lounge was comfy enough with some very tasty food. Granted, I was less than pleased with the old white lady putting her bare feet up on a chair while she kicked back and listened to Christian sermons on her phone – with the external speaker natch…

Oh, and then there was the fellow who was seated in my row on the flight to LP. I was on the aisle, reading my magazine during boarding and he needed to get past me. Rather than saying “Pardon me” or some other normal method of interacting, he just stood in the aisle staring at me – while all the other boarding passengers were stuck behind him – until I finally felt his freakish gaze and looked up.

“Oh, did you need to get in here?” I asked.

He just continued staring at me. Very peculiar. Oh, and once he was seated (and while we were still sitting at the gate), he reported to the flight attendant that the passenger in front of him “tried to recline their seat.” I think he was expecting her to reprimand the other passenger? All I can say is I’m happy the flight was half empty and I moved one row back to get away from this weirdo.

As we approached LPQ, we were flying over the lush green mountains of this province. It was actually a tad intimidating, because we were clearly descending but there sure didn’t seem to be any large, flat expanses of ground that might accommodate something like – oh, I don’t know – an airport. Eh, I’m sure the pilots know where they’re going.

I was listening to music on my headphones as we approached LPQ – and Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” shuffled on. It’s a quintessentially American song – yet it seemed the perfect song to hear as I started my latest adventure. And it was one of those moments I have sometimes when I travel where I realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to visit different countries, meet new people and experience cultures other than my own. It got me a little misty-eyed…

Arrived at LP’s small airport and made a beeline for Immigration. Laos does “visa-on-arrival” which I’d done when I visited Siem Reap a couple of years ago (Cambodia now has an online visa system, which makes it way easier; Laos is implementing one this year, I believe), so I knew I wanted to be at the front of the line so I could make it through quickly.

And I did! Things went very smoothly. The two immigration officers at my counter started off in the typical serious and unsmiling manner shared by customs officials all over the world – which is fine! They aren’t CS agents, after all. But after verifying that I wasn’t an undesirable who’d be denied leave-to-enter, they began quizzing me about my beard, how long it took me to grow it, etc. They were all smiles, as friendly as could be and quite fascinated with my beard – which, let’s face it, IS pretty impressive. It was a nice welcome to Laos!

My hotel had sent a shuttle to collect me and soon enough, I was checked in to my lovely and spacious room at the Kiridara Hotel. The place is located a bit outside of town, which turned out to be mostly OK, especially since there are bikes available for guests to borrow. The property is quite beautiful, built into a hillside and looking down toward the Mekong River and the surrounding countryside.

My room was large and comfortable, though the space wasn’t used as well as one might hope. There really wasn’t much of a workspace – which, granted, this is a resort not a business hotel, but there wasn’t anywhere comfortable to set up my laptop – yet there was a ton of wasted space near the closets that would’ve been the perfect spot for a small desk.

There was also a huge terrace – though it was right next to the pool. There were some plants separating the terrace from the pool area, but it wasn’t as private as one might hope. But the view was really great. Well, except for the huge mansion down the road that looked something like Graceland East. It was wildly out of place (it belongs to a wealthy Laotian construction company owner, according to a shuttle driver I met later that week) with its Greek columns and pediments – though in a nod to local culture, there were also several huge bronze elephant statues flanking the entry gate. Kudos to the hotel though for planting a thicket of bamboo in a moderately successful attempt to obscure this mega-home from view.

Had dinner at the hotel – it was just OK (breakfast was similarly uninspiring for the rest of my visit), though my cocktail was very tasty: a Lao-jito!

Up early the next morning to head into town and meet up with my bike tour to Kuang Si Falls, about an 18 mile ride outside of town. I’d been very excited to do this ride, though I’d had a bit of a quandary booking the tour with Tiger Trail Adventures: I could pay double and go on a private tour, i.e. me and a guide or – if some other folks signed up for the tour during my stay in LP – join the group tour. I’d been checking with Tiger Trail regularly and it was just the day before that they told me a group was going on Friday. Perfect! Or so I thought…

Now, don’t get me wrong – the tour was fantastic. The ride out there through the countryside is absolutely gorgeous. Plus it was a nice long ride and included a few challenging-but-doable hills along the way. And our guide, Cha, was very good.

But, as an experienced cyclist, it wound up being disappointing since our slowest riders ultimately set the pace of the trip. Actually, that’s not quite true – Cha and I were typically way out in front together (though even he had to walk his bike up one of the hills that I cycled up with relative east – all my riding at home through SF’s hilly terrain paid off!), with the nice Finnish couple in the middle and bringing up the rear, an older couple from Idaho and our other guide. The couple were not experienced cyclists.

Far be it from me to tell people what they can and cannot do on vacation – but if you don’t ride regularly, does it really make sense to sign up for a riding tour that goes for 18 miles and includes hills? And while they weren’t the worst tourists I’ve ever encountered, they were very American in their demeanor, so not exactly my favorites.

Ultimately, it just meant that we had to stop every now and again to wait (sometimes for quite a while) for the rear guard to catch up. Not the end of the world – but had I been on my own, we probably could’ve made it to the falls in two hours rather than the three-and-a-half it actually took.

Again, though, I was particularly grateful for our guide letting me set a fast pace for us up in front. It was a really wonderful morning – the scenery of course and putting some serious miles in the saddle, which is always so good for me physically and mentally.

One of our stops along the way was at a local silk shop. A very friendly merchant ran the place – though for me, the highlight was the absolutely adorable puppy who was probably only a couple of months old. She was fluffy and playful and loved being around people. She was gamboling – gamboling I tell you! – and just a delightful little furball that I wish I could’ve smuggled home in my suitcase.

Once at the falls – which despite being a huge tourist draw were not overwhelmingly crowded – we walked up through the forest path to the main falls and gawked and gazed and took photos. They really are lovely.

Walked a bit further down to one of the pools where swimming is permitted. The water was pretty chilly but it was a refreshing and the water was pristine.

Next, some lunch at a local place back near the entrance, before riding down to the Mekong River. We boarded a boat for a leisurely trip back to town. As is so often the case with boat rides of any sort, it was a bit longer than I’d’ve liked – but it was relaxing and certainly much nicer than being in a mini-van. Personally, I’d’ve been happy to get some more time riding – but even so, it was a really wonderful day and I highly recommend this tour.

The rest of my stay in LP was pretty laid-back. Spent some time by the hotel pool. Made regular use of the bicycles-for-loan from the hotel to get into town.  

Had a couple of very nice meals at Pha Khao Lao – well, actually the same two meals: larb meatballs which were delicious! Owners are a husband and wife – he’s from UK, she’s Lao. He was very friendly and took great care of me on my second visit, making sure I got to try some of the local sausage along with my meatballs. A really charming place with such good food and a friendly local staff.

I also had a couple of meals at Le Banneton, a French bakery at the eastern end of LP’s main drag. It was a wonderful spot to relax and watch people go by or just take in the temple across the road. A very yummy jambon-beurre sandwich was the highlight, especially the good quality baguette. Pastries were tasty, though some of them seemed to suffer texture-wise from the local heat and humidity.

I was really just delighted with my visit to Luang Prabang. I think I was expecting something more overwhelmingly touristy and that’s not how it felt to me at all. Granted, I avoided the sunrise crush of tourists thronging the local monks collecting alms each morning. Everything I’d read about it made it sound both overwhelming and often disrespectful – though it is a huge draw for tourists. I’m sure it’s fascinating, but the cons seemed to outweigh the pros.

Really, the only thing that I ultimately didn’t like about my stay was my hotel. Granted, it was a lovely property – but beyond that, it fell short in many areas. The bikes – which I loved having use of – were not particularly well-maintained, many with squishy brakes. The shuttle to town didn’t seem to hew to the posted schedule – which is not the end of the world, but there was never any communication from the staff about when/if the shuttle was leaving or arriving. The staff in general were very friendly – but seemed unequipped to respond to anything other than the most basic requests.

Case in point: my last day was Monday and my flight was at 5PM. I asked for a late check-out at 2PM and was refused since, the fellow at the front desk explained, the entire hotel was fully booked for Monday. Fair enough – though I did ask if they expected all the guest to arrive at precisely 2PM, the stated check-in time. I didn’t really get a response.

There were a variety of things I could have been offered: use of a different room; access to a shower and changing room; a compromise of 1PM check-out – but there was nothing. Just repeatedly being advised that I had to be out of my room at noon.

And so I was! I hung out by the pool reading (though not swimming, since all my bags were packed and I wouldn’t have any place to shower and change before my flight) for a couple of hours. When I did leave at 2PM for the airport, not a single guest had checked into the hotel. Furthermore, the couple in the room immediately above mine gathered their luggage and checked-out – at 2PM.

Then I had to wait around for the hotel shuttle to the airport, with no advice as to why it was now 15 minutes after I’d scheduled my ride and I was still sitting by the front desk with my luggage and various staff members hanging around. I finally inquired and got to the airport with plenty of time – but the whole experience on my last day at the hotel was really poor. I have to say, as beautiful as the property is, I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

But Luang Prabang? Don’t miss it! Really just a wonderful spot that I hope to visit again soon.