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.

 

 

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!