Sunday, May 1, 2016

Daytripping (and back) from Milan

To break up our visit to Milan in the middle, we took a local train to the town of Como Lago and got right on a two hour ferry boat to Bellagio.  The lake was a deep blue green and the surrounding hills were full of lush spring greenery, with picture perfect little villages at the bottom.  Beyond the hills we could could see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps.  After the helpful crew of the ferry took apart one of the walls on the boat to extract Trevor’s fallen iPhone(!!!!), we disembarked in Bellagio and climbed up the cobblestone steps to the streets of the village with shops and cafes.  We picked a simple place for some pizzas / salads / pasta and had a nice lunch.  Then we wandered along some streets away from the center of town along winding skinny roads with ivy covered walls and pretty homes and hotels.  The view from everywhere was lovely, especially at one point that looked out over the lake.   A shorter boat ride took us to the town of Varenna, were a short walk to us to the train back to Milan.   Back in our Brera neighborhood, we had some good modern pizzas at a bar called Dry (no, not like Drybar in NYC) and some dessert at the Milan Eataly, where they have a dozen flavors of soft-serve gelato. Eataly is HUGE, and way less crowded than the NYC location on 23rd Street, so it made us look forward even more to the opening in the Financial District this summer.

On Thursday morning, Matt and two kids had some American style breakfast at the “California Bakery” near our apartment.  At noon we showed up at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie 
to see “The Last Supper” as part of a tour with “Walks of Italy”.  Our tour guide handed out little headphones and a walkman type necklace so we could hear her easily, and took us into the church, in which viewing time was strictly limited to 15 minutes.  It was really cool to see a painting that has been so influential in the world of religion, art, and even modern mythology in person.  The tour had many more stops, so we continued to add to our daily steps as we made our way back to the Brera neighborhood and the Castello Sforzesco from Day 1 and on to the top of the Duomo.  It might have been a lot for the kids to put up with, but they were really good sports about it and we were all certainly rewarded with the views and the novelty of just standing on top of the great cathedral!  It was so cool.  We decided that if we lived in Milan, the top of the Duomo would be the place we would bring EVERY visitor!  I also liked that the tour guide told us a few things we might have not thought of ourselves and that she took us inside another church I might not have visited - the Church of San Maurizio at the Monastero Maggiore, which was a Benedictine convent in the 16th century, and we learned how most girls sent to the convent were just the second or third children in their family who would not inherit any land of their own, so were sent to the convent instead, where they still lived in relative luxury, though they would never marry.  The artwork on the walls here was colorful and beautiful.  
After the roof of the Duomo, we went to the roof of the big department store, La Rinascente to “il Bar” for some aperitivo and snacks.  Then the boys went back to the apartment and out for some Eataly pizza while Matt and I took Yamini shopping (H&M) and out for some Ramen for dinner.  It was soothing to have a nice soup after days of pizza and pasta, and the ramen noodles were on par with some of the best pasta we had been eating anyway.
On our last full day, we did all the activities Matt wanted to do.  We started with a visit to the aquarium in the nearby Parco Sempione, where the highlights were the flounder that blended in with the gravel in its tank and the turtles in the outside garden that were all trying to climb on the same slippery log to dry out in the sun.  We seriously spent a LOT of time watching these funny creatures.   Next stop was back to the Castello Sforzesco (third time) to see the very LAST work of art sculpted by Michelangelo, which was supposed to be a piéta-like sculpture for his own tomb of Jesus carrying Mary on his back, but which he did not finish before he died.  Pretty cool.   We managed to snag some amazing sandwiches at this small but VERY popular panini place called De Santis (I had salami and brie with truffle oil).  We did one detour for me, because on the first day Yamini and I took a walk I saw this giant supermarket that I wanted to visit.  I just love supermarkets in other countries.  (Got some good soap and lip balm to bring home.)  Finally, our last stop was the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, which is noted for its “artistic tombs and monuments” in Wikipedia!   It was a cool, sunny afternoon, and the cemetery was peaceful, lovely, and just the right amount of creepy all at once.

We went back to the apartment to watch the last Netflix episode of “Shadowhunters” that Yamini got us all into during the week, and then the kids stayed in for dinner and Matt and I went to a lovely place with an emphasis on Italian preparations of fish and seafood called Da Giacomo.  We had an 8:30 reservation, which was a bit late for us, but it was fun because the place was packed and the food was delish.  We shared a tartare appetizer and then had our own seafood pastas, mine with shrimp and Matt’s with lobster (though he tried to eat our neighbor’s spaghetti with lobster and mussels instead).   I had a yummy strawberry tart for dessert and we got a slice of chocolate cake from a nearby British family celebrating a birthday.  It was a nice date to end a lovely week.   We would certainly want to return to such a friendly, easy to navigate and lovely city.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Livin' in Milano

Usually, I have a lot more planned on a vacation, but this one, I just decided that we should go there, check into our apartment for the week, and just hang out.  Of course, it is pretty easy to live in ANY city when you do not have to work or go to school, so just being on vacation makes it pretty good in the first place. . . and maybe that is what has made Milan pretty GREAT for us.

Arrived in the morning off an 8 hour flight and made it to the apartment in Milan’s Brera district by noon-ish.  The apartment was lovely - bigger than our NYC place, and in an excellent location for walking, subway and restaurants.

Wandered over to the Castello Sforzesco   but did not go inside, instead kept moving around the neighborhood and got a bite to eat - meats, cheeses and our first aperitvio of the trip.  Aperol Spritz for me, and a BOWL of Lambrusco for Matt.   Boys went off to watch soccer match at San Siro stadium - InterMilan won 3-1 (Yay!) and Yamini and I wandered around some more, finding her new favorite dessert - dark chocolate gelato!

On our first full day, we let the kids sleep in while Matt and I picked up some groceries at the Carrefour, and then we all made it out to the Centro Storico district to see the Duomo of Milan and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle shopping center.  Visited the small Museo Del Novecento, which has a great view of the central square and the Duomo, and did have some lovely art of its own.   Spotted the Aperol Cafe from the museum windows and headed over there for some more drinks and snacks after some shopping at Zara and some yummy inside out pizza bread at Luigi Panzeroti where the long lines are definitely worth it!   Did a trendy dinner later on above the DSquared2 offices at Ceresio 7, which despite the cool factor, stylish decor, swimming pool and sunset views, was super friendly with great food.  Two thumbs up.

Monday, which was Italy’s Liberation Day holiday, celebrating the fall of Mussolini's Italy and the end of German occupation in 1945.  We headed a bit further from “home” to the Fondazione Prada, funded by Miuccia Prada and her hubby before the Milan Expo on the industrial outskirts of central MIlan.  Lunch was again trendy but reasonable (something we are growing to like about Milan) at the Wes Anderson designed Bar Luce - coffee and yummy sandwiches.  Two great exhibits that we were able to check out were a group show called "L'image Volée" and a multi-room sculpture called "To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll" by Goshka Macuga. 

 Then we did a little more shopping at the D Magazine Outlet (like the designer floor of Century 21 with all Italian designers) and a little more wandering around the super-luxe fashion area until it was again time for an aperitivo (some Proseco), snacks and dinner.  At Dongio, on a cute little street, the pasta and desserts were the standouts.

On Tuesday, Matt and I checked out one of the several EATALY locations in Italy (pretty nice looking, but same stuff as in NYC) and then rallied the troops for a visit to the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology - very cool!   The museum had early to modern versions of telegraph / telephones, radios, and televisions, and entire buildings devoted to trains, airplanes and ships.  Then we met up with our friend Eric’s Italian cousin, Barbara Nahmad, an artist, who is showing her work at the gallery in our Brera neighborhood.  She took us on a walk through several gardens to the Porta Ticinese (a popular area with young people) and on to the Navigli canals, where she has her studio and where the nightlife is now booming.  We also walked by Milan’s oldest synagogue, which was quite beautiful.  Exhausted from our 23K steps that day, we returned to the neighborhood and had some delicious food (raw sausage, risotto cakes and mini raviioli to die for, desserts that vanished in 5 minutes) and a bottle of Pino Nero at Ravello 18, thanks to Morgan and Dudley’s rec from their trip to Milan.  A pretty good three days in which to get to know Milano.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Madrid - NYC en Español

Day 1
Arrived in Madrid around 4pm, and figured out the public transit thing to get to our hotel in the Salamanca neighborhood, which is very upscale.  Noticed a lovely restaurant right on our corner, that we would not get to try because it was packed every single night with well dressed Madrileños.  We went for some old school tapas nearby, and then had tickets to see Atlético Madrid play Real Socieadad at the Vincente Calderón Stadium along the river.  Taking the metro there was like being on a packed 4 Train to Yankee Stadium, however I think Atlético Madrid are more like the Mets (though with a better record than the Mets) and Real Madrid are more like the Yankees (with the larger, snobbier fan base).  Fans were crazy screaming, singing, and waving banners around, especially since the team scored two goals early on.  We had really good seats and could see all the players well.  Only problem for us was all the people smoking around us.  They don’t sell beer at the games, just some really bad junk food, and we were happy we had eaten dinner first.  Trevor was in soccer fan heaven, and it was really fun for all of us.

Day 2
Bad day for Amy - I felt lousy all day (24 hour bug?).   Trevor stepped up and picked a good museum to go to - the National Archeological Museum, which was right near us in a gorgeous palace. 

It was so well organized and spread out over three floors, with an amazing collection of artifacts from pre-history through the 19th century.   I would think other museum directors could learn a bit from their collection.   There were many objects similar to the collection at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the interesting difference was that most of these objects were native to Spain, whereas in the US, the whole collection was procured from other places.   The rest of the family wandered around the Calle Alcalá, and they did make it to the best Churro place, San Gines.    I recovered a bit for a lovely dinner at Taberna La Carmencita, where the menu had descriptions of where the food was sourced, and all the items were traditionally Spanish, but prepared as if your Spanish mother happened to be the best cook in the whole country. 
We had some simple grilled vegetables with Spanish olive oil and chunky salt, some nice chicken and meat dishes, homemade ice cream and the best slice of traditional chocolate “birthday cake” ever.

Day 3
Not a great weather day, and Amy still not feeling 100%, but we made it to the Prado Museum.  Focused our efforts there mainly on Velazquez, El Greco, and Goya.   It was cool seeing “Las Meninas” by Velazquez in person, after seeing how much it inspired Picasso at the Barcelona Picasso Museum.  Since, we didn’t make it to El Greco’s adopted city of Toledo, we had to make due with the collection of his work at the Prado, which was excellent.  For Goya, we saw the famous May 3, 1808 painting of the Spanish partisans being shot in the square by Napoleon’s troops, and they had a whole special exhibit of Goya paintings that emphasized the social classes and life in 19th century Madrid of the Hapsburg dynasty.  There was also a visiting exhibit from a museum in Basel, Switzerland.  It had ten Picasso paintings in a variety of styles at the Prado, and works from other European painters of the 1920s at the Reina Sofia Museum, that we would see on our last day.  

After the museum, we tried another well known churro place, Maestro Churro, but found it quite disappointing.    Our next activity to keep us out of the rain, and keep the walking minimal for the day was to check out a movie.  Movies in Madrid, we learned, are shown in their original language with subtitles, so we had no problem watching “Insurgent”  (Insurgente en Espanol), which was pretty good.  The theater was a bit retro, but did have assigned seating (that Trevor doesn’t like), and served beer, which goes nicely with movie popcorn.   We also had time to wander around the center of Madrid (Puerta del Sol, now called "Vodaphone Sol") which was a bit like Times Square and do a tiny bit of shopping in Zara.  

After the movie, we went back to our hotel neighborhood, and the kids found an American style bbq restaurant, while Matt and I had some dinner at a seafood restaurant, with some grilled razor clams, and the cutest little “coquinita” clams in a green garlic sauce.

Last Day
Got motivated to wake up a bit earlier than usual (after all the late night dinners and walking we had been doing, it was easier just to sleep in most mornings), and started our day with a metro ride to the Lavapies neighborhood, which is where the Jewish citizens of Madrid used to live before their expulsion from Spain during the Reconquista.    In a neighborhood church, there was a brief mention that the building was on the site of an old synagogue, but other than that, no traces remain.  This neighborhood was more diverse and less stuffy than our hotel neighborhood, and had its own nice indoor market, the Mercado Antón Martin, which had Japanese and Mexican stalls in addition to the fish, meat and produce. 

We headed to the Reina Sofia, the second in Madrid’s museum triangle (we skipped the third), and saw more of the great works from that Swiss Museum, a lot of post-war modern work from Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and some of their European contemporaries. 

The most interesting work was from the period of the Spanish Civil War, including Picasso’s Guernica, which Amy had seen as a teenager when it was still being held on deposit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while Picasso hoped the government of Spain would return to democracy to replace Franco’s dictatorship.  It was fabulous, and we learned that the murder of civilians in the Spanish town for which the painting is named, was aided by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, working for Franco.  They also had Picasso’s companion Dora Maar’s photographs of the work in progress, so you could see how Picasso made changes during the painting.  

After the museum, we popped over to the nearby “Steakburger” for some classic American hamburgers in a sit down restaurant, that seemed to be equally popular with Spanish people.  (They did offer burgers in either beef or ox, but we all stuck to beef.)  The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Parque del Retiro, which was green and beautiful, and we had the best weather of our time in Madrid and we chilled out by the pond and the boat lake, relaxing, and taking pictures.  

The last evening was a great one.  We switched to the western half of Madrid for another park, which featured the Temple of Debod, brought to Madrid when Egypt’s Aswan Damn was being constructed and many temples along the Nile were about to be flooded.  So basically, it was a partner temple to our very own Temple of Dendur in New York.  The location of the temple had great light to watch the sunset and a great view over parts of the city.  

We got a bit lost one last time on our way to dinner, but found our restaurant, Bosco de Lobos, a really cool place, inside Madrid’s College of Architecture.  The food was Italian, but by way of Spain, so they had eggplant parm croquetas, delicious pasta, a calzone with Spanish ham, and what William deemed the best margherita pizza he ever had.   We finished off the night with a walk through the hopping Chueca district and some yummy home made ice cream (helado) at Mistura.  The guy who owned the place was really sweet and said he hopes to come to New York and maybe open a place there one day.  We hope to see him soon!  (And we hope to be back in Spain for more. . . )

Barcelona - Partly Sunny, Partly Gaudi

Arrived in Barcelona at 9am from our overnight flight.  Took a taxi to the apartment we had rented from UP Suites BCN - nice place, a bed for everyone, big kitchen (which we didn’t use much) a patio deck, and three bathrooms!  It was not check in time yet, so we wandered over to La Rambla, the wide avenue, that somewhat like Fifth Avenue has many big stores & many tourists walking up and down.  We walked by Casa Batlló, the first of many structures we would see designed by modernista architect, Antonio Gaudi.   Then we wandered further down to the famous Boqueria market, which was closed for Good Friday.   We had some tapas for a light lunch and spent some time in the Richard Meier designed Contemporary Art Museum (MACBA), which was crowded outside with young Barcelona men and boys on skateboards.  So far, Barcelona was giving off a bit of a San Francisco vibe, which would continue, due to the windy streets in the older neighborhoods and the hills around the city.   We went back to the apartment for a long nap, and stayed in the neighborhood for a lovely dinner at Restaurant Toto.

Day 2
Matt and I woke up earlier than the kids and took a walk over to Miro Park and Plaça D’Espanya, where an old bullfighting ring has been turned into a fairly boring, but attractive shopping center.  We gathered up the kids and took the metro (subway) up to Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi, at the request of Güell to be a neighborhood of luxury homes overlooking the city, with a marketplace and surrounded by parks and gardens. 

Unfortunately for Güell, investors didn’t buy in, but luckily for the public, the city took over and it is now mostly public space.  We were glad that we got out of the train at a place above the park, instead of taking a cab to the main entrance.  It was really pretty walking down to the space from above, and we didn’t feel the need to buy tickets for the preserved area, just for the privilege of sitting on the mosaic benches.  We did grab a taxi outside the main entrance to head back to the center of Barcelona, and decided, based on my National Geographic book, to have some Chinese food for lunch, which was pretty good!

We spent the late afternoon walking around the neighborhood a bit more, as we had tour reservations for Gaudi’s Casa Milà (La Pedrera).  We checked out El Corte Ingles, Spain’s big department store, and had some tapas at Cervecería Catalana.  (Excellent Spanish Omelette Sandwich!) 
  La Pedrera was really cool - Gaudi designed this building at the request of a very wealthy couple, but it is an apartment building for many families, and some people still live in the apartments today.  It has several round interior courtyards, and beautiful windows with iron balcony railings inspired by seaweed.  You can visit a sample apartment, which demonstrates how the haute bourgeoisie lived at the start of the 20th century.  The coolest part is the roof, on which Gaudi disguised the normal mechanical necessities for the building with sculptural elements that look like guard statues standing on duty.  Some of these are covered in mosaic tile or even broken champagne bottles!   We were up there around 8pm, when the sun was just starting to set, so the light over the city was beautiful.  

Once it was dark, we made our way to the Palau Nacional, where a large avenue leads up a hill to the palace that serves as the National Museum. In front of the museum is the Magic Fountain, a giant water show with lights, colors, and music. . like Las Vegas came to Spain.  It was fun to watch, and we walked around all sides of the spectacle to get some different views and practice our photography skills.  

Day 3
It was a very sunny morning, so it was a good day to head to Barceloneta, the beach and harbor neighborhood, which has a bit of a Santa Monica / Venice Beach vibe in some places.  We had lunch at a great "beach shack" which is actually operated by a cool Barcelona chef / restaurant owner - Carles Abellan.  At one end of Barceloneta is the 1992 Olympic Village, which now has some modern apartments, office buildings and an area filled with trendy clubs and restaurants.  At the other end, there was more of family scene with Barcelona’s large aquarium.  We visited the aquarium, which had a great variety of fish and ocean life from all over the world --and some cute Penguinas! 

Then we decided to head up another hill to the Castle of Monjuïc.  Two ways to get there, cable car from Barceloneta, or metro to a funicular (a little train that goes up the center of the hill itself).  We thought getting to the funicular would involve less walking, but were led astray after putting in the wrong destination in Google maps, so we probably doubled our walking distance  -- 22,000 steps that day!  We finally realized the funicular entrance was INSIDE the metro station, and eventually figured it out.  After a short ride (with a really drunk Scottish couple), we got the payoff of our next lovely view of the city at dusk.
We were on a roll with the view-thing.  For dinner, we picked a more traditional Spanish restaurant back at the bottom of the hill, and we had some nice paella and good wine.

Day 4
Easter Monday, we were out of luck again with a different food market being closed - the Mercat de Santa Caterina this time.  But it was a sunny morning to walk around El Born, another part of the older Barcelona, that is filled with little cafes and independent boutiques.   We got some great Italian lunch snacks (El Gusto) and took some sandwiches, fruit, and chips for the road.   Then we took the metro again to Tibidabo, which is way up on a hill, and went to our highest spot yet, via ANOTHER funicular up to the Tibidabo Amusement Park and the gorgeous church Temple de Sagrat Cor.  

Yamini went on a ride that took her even higher than the top of the church on the top of the hill, and the rest of us soaked up some sun, as it was pretty breezy up there.   We metro’ed it back to our last Gaudi edifice, the still under construction La Sagrada Familia.  Rather than booking the tour here, so we sadly missed the inside, we admired all the fancy work on all sounds around the outside.  Dinner back in the fancy Passeig de Gràcia (L’EGGS by Paco Perez) and back to the apartment to get some sleep for an earlier wake up the next day.

Day 5

Up earlier than usual for all to visit the Picasso Museum with advance tickets booked on line.  Not as much of the master works we are accustomed to seeing in pictures (more of those in Madrid, NY, or Paris), but an amazing collection of his work from the youngest age.  He did portraits at age 14 that would be the best work of some artists today!   The museum also featured all his work on a series called “Las Meninas” after the most famous painting by Velasquez. 
As a bonus, the museum had a show celebrating the artistic friendship and inspiration shared by Picasso and Salvador Dali, and there were great works by each artist that we had never seen.    Since it was back to work for Barcelona on a Tuesday, the Mercat de Sant Caterina was open, and we got to imagine what it would be like to shop in that glorious temple of food on a regular basis.  We just grabbed some coffee and snacks before picking up our bags at the apartment and heading to the train station for the trip to Madrid.  It seems just as we got really proficient at getting around Barcelona, it was time to leave.  We will have to return!