Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

Archive for the month “July, 2019”


74142366-0EF9-474D-86FC-3936032558DBAs well-planned as they may be, every vacation has its surprises and sometimes the unplanned turns out to be the best. This was certainly true of our experience in Ezcaray, a visit brought about when we fell in love with the gorgeous mohair and wool blankets in our San Sebastián apartment. Early on the last day of our week there, I decided to ask our host where we might be able to purchase them thinking there was probably someplace nearby. He explained that these blankets could only be found in high-end stores at rather exorbitant prices none of which were in San Sebastián. He advised us to make a trip directly to the factory where we could acquire them for a mere fraction of the cost. Furthermore, he informed us that it was a beautiful drive and worth making even though it was located two hours south (back in the direction from which we had to come to arrive in San Sebastián). We looked at each other and said, “Well, what the heck? We’ve got the whole day.”

So off we went back through the truly breathtaking Basque Country to the tiny village of Ezcaray (pop. 2,000) that owes its fame to the amazing mantas (blankets) produced by the aptly named company of Mantas Ezcaray in business since 1930. Arriving at siesta time as we Americans often do, the factory was closed and were were “forced” to check out one of two stellar hotel and restaurant establishments in town, Palacio Azcárate. The small, intimate bar had an inviting tapas menu with some unique selections only costing 2-3€ each — prices and quality you often hear people talk about but never seem to find. We tried a few and they were delicious.


4E21B407-FE11-4005-A43A-B02788E6478EEventually, it was time to head over to the factory. The entrance was adorned with a bench upon which several woven products were arranged enticing the visitor to continue inside even in the heat of summer. Our first encounter was an array of looms used in the weaving process. Then we moved on to the showroom where an extremely knowledgeable and helpful assistant was waiting to show us their wares. She brought out blanket after blanket laying them all out and explaining their various qualities. There were so many designs and colors to choose from that we were like the proverbial “kid in a candy shop”. Purchasing one or two is what I originally had in mind, but Norman had other ideas. As he pointed out, we were never going to be there again. So after much hemming and hawing trying to decide which ones we liked best… we ended up buying FIVE! We chose three large ones for our two beds (so we can alternate??) and two smaller “sofa-sized” ones for each of us to use when we cozy up in front of the TV during the winter. All tolled they added up to less than the cost of a single blanket in a retail store. What a deal!


Our assistant busied herself folding our beautiful new treasures into two gigantic plastic bags specifically created for their products. While she was doing that, we pondered how on earth we were going to get them home. Our San Sebastián host offered to ship them to us, but that would have meant leaving them behind with him and we weren’t sure how that would all work out. In the end, we decided to carry them along on our journey and figure it out later.

018486EF-5B13-4C9C-8219-886164F103B8These have to be the biggest souvenirs ever, but fortunately, they don’t weigh much. That’s one of the beauties of these blankets. They are 73% mohair and 27% wool making them lusciously light and able to keep you warm or cool depending on the season. Just recently we purchased a large, lightweight, inexpensive suitcase which accommodated all five blankets perfectly. The cost of the suitcase plus the airline’s extra baggage charge will be totally worth it in order to enjoy them in our home for years to come. I know we will experience many comfortable nights and so many good memories every time we use them.


Mantas Ezcaray… Ready to Roll!

Vamos a la Playa… Again!

82BFBD14-FCF2-4426-86A4-23A16245F65BWith the major sight-seeing events behind us, it was time to begin Vacation, Part 2, also known as “The Vacation from the Vacation”. In order to do that, we had to go to our favorite place in Spain and my first small introduction to the country in 2012, San Sebastián… or, as the Basques call it Donostia. What more fitting beginning to a true vacation than a week at the beach, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. We returned to San Sebastián for three days in 2015 and really found out what La Concha Bay had to offer so we knew we needed to spend more time here.



With no agenda whatsoever, we settled in to our sprawling (by Spanish standards) three bedroom, two bath art-filled luxury apartment just a few blocks from Ondarreta Beach. After shopping at our favorite grocery store, Super Amara (somewhat akin to Whole Foods), we were all set to relax… and relax we did. First, however, we had to download some user manuals so we could figure out how to work the TV, the stove, the oven, and a couple of other appliances – more challenges than we had in previous locations for some reason. It took two of us to decipher the magic to manipulating the remote control to login to Netflix, but once we succeeded, we were happy campers… watching the full three hour plus version of Spartacus we realized neither of us had ever seen. Believe it or not, these are our favorite vacation moments.


We took advantage of the first full day with 85 degree weather to make our way to the beach, rent a cabana, and chill out for the afternoon. Soaking up the sun, wiggling our toes in the sand, and wading in the cool Atlantic waters of the bay were the only physical activities we attempted. Norman started rereading The Basque History of the World then took a long nap while I finally finished Winter in Madrid. 

Returning from the beach quite rejuvenated from our journey to the Basque Country the previous day, we were able to kick back and enjoy the fruits of our Super Amara shopping spree by preparing a Langostino Salad dinner accompanied by an incredibly inexpensive but super delicious bottle of Spanish wine. It was a perfect first day of the rest of our vacation.


Madrid: Paseo del Arte

¡Ay, Madrid! Capital of Spain and object of my academic desires in 1973. ¡¡Por fin!! (Finally!!)

We exchanged our Córdoba casita for a top floor apartment in Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighborhood, the family home of our host, Rosa. Unfortunately, she was not able to greet us in person as she spends part of the year in Florida and had not arrived in Spain for the season yet. My disappointment stems from the fact that since I first made the reservation last August, Rosa and I have become friends – pen pals of sorts – regularly exchanging e-mails and learning about each other’s lives. I was excited to have a Spanish friend again, especially one who knew my country as well as her own and had been looking forward to meeting her.

The major focus of our stay in Madrid was to tour several art museums – a paseo del arte (art walk) which was the name of the triple museum pass I purchased in advance. Most famous are those located within the “Golden Triangle of Art” – all within easy walking distance of each other though we could have done with some slightly cooler temperatures. When it’s in the 90’s and climbing, an art museum is a great place to be. You can be guaranteed of air conditioning for the artwork if not for you.

On the first day, we started off at the Thyssen Bornemisza, the newest museum which opened in 1992. This museum houses an immense and varied private collection that was once the second largest in the world. There were so many works of art here that we really appreciated, it was impossible to choose which one we wanted to take home — a game I always play. However, unlike the following two museums, there was no prohibition to photography here so we were able to come away with some nice “souvenirs”.

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After a break in the museum café for a bite to eat, we felt like we were on a roll so we bravely headed over to El Prado, the Spanish national art museum which is primarily dedicated to Spanish art from the 12th to 20th century. The collection is overwhelmingly vast with notables being the works of Goya, El Greco, and Velásquez. While the Thyssen provided endless variety expressing a multitude of emotions, for me the Prado exuded a certain sameness from room to room with a repetition of religious and political themes in dark colors evoking even darker feelings. The one salvation was the opportunity to see Velásquez’s most famous painting, “Las Meninas”. Displayed in its own special space, one of the particular attractions of this very large work is the clever way in which the artist painted it. We see Velásquez standing behind a canvas looking out at us as he paints the portrait of the king’s daughter attended by her handmaids (las meninas) and an assortment of other characters. In addition, we see the reflection in a mirror of her parents as they look on at the proceedings. This painting has been thoroughly critiqued and analyzed over the years so there are many interpretations as is always the case with great art. In the end, it is whatever the viewer chooses to see.


Las Meninas by Diego Velásquez

Day Two, time for more art… but first a stop at the oldest and possibly best pastry shop in all of Madrid, La Mallorquina, conveniently situated near our metro exit in the Puerta del Sol location of kilometer zero, literally the center of Spain. What a selection! The secret here is to feast your eyes on the delectable offerings downstairs and then head upstairs to order with table service and a great view of the plaza.

Once we were plied with enough caffeine and sugar, we were ready to take on the Museo Reina Sofía which houses an impressive collection of 20th century modern art. While this genre is not usually my preference, surprisingly I found a number of works to my liking here. The central motive for this visit was to view one of the most important pieces of art in this collection, Picasso’s “Guernica” — the painter’s graphic portrayal of the horrific massacre of an entire Basque village by the Germans (with the support of Spanish General Franco) during the Spanish Civil War. We arrived early to avoid the crowds and I was able to spend some time quietly contemplating this historically and politically significant work. Informed by the reading I have been doing about this period in Spanish history, it was a very moving experience for me.


Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Norman has been an avid jazz fan and musician all his life and has introduced me to the jazz world over the many years we have been together. When we travel, we always look out for ways to connect to the jazz community. This time we hit the jackpot discovering that one of our most favorite musicians, Paquita d’Rivera, would be playing at a small local venue during our stay. So on a warm Monday evening in Madrid we set out for Club Clamores for a 10:30 PM concert. It was a very intimate club hidden away downstairs in a fairly residential neighborhood. We have seen Paquito on a couple of other occasions that were excellent but this was by far the best concert ever. Perhaps it was because Paquito, Cuban by birth, was playing to a truly Latin audience and was more at ease in his element. This was definitely the highlight of our stay especially for Norman.

Last but never least in this city and only because we ran out of days and needed just one more little dose of art, we decided to make a short trip to a museum that Rosa recommended to us… the Museo Sorolla. This museum was originally the artist’s home — one of the few lucky ones who had enough money for a very comfortable life and was able to spend all of his time painting. This is a small, very relaxing place to enjoy some interesting works of art with impressionist leanings.


Patio of the Museo Sorolla

Happily, I was able to locate another Corte Inglés not far away so we could have lunch. Of course, I did have an ulterior motive. This time I wanted to do some shopping. I just happened to notice a display of some beautiful scarves (one of my favorite accessories) through the cafeteria window. So, of course, I had to check them out. Luckily, it is the season of rebajas (sales) and they turned out to be rather affordable. Even better, I discovered the scarves were all done by Galician designer Roberto Verino making them true Spanish souvenirs. Art in fashion – a piece I could really take home and a perfect way to end our Paseo del Arte in Madrid.



La Mancha!

Leaving Andalucía and heading north we entered the region of Castilla-La Mancha where we decided to take a very brief side trip on our way to Madrid. This is the land of Don Quijote, a nobleman who imagined he was a knight and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, a farmer who served as his squire. These characters from the 17th century novel Don Quijote de La Mancha written by Miguel de Cervantes carry out an array of crazy knightly adventures including one of the most famous that involves windmills. When Quijote encounters the windmills, he is convinced they are evil giants and tries to fight them albeit rather unsuccessfully as he is thrown off his horse and injured. As part of my Spanish literature studies in college, I was assigned this book and made a valiant effort to get through all 863 pages. Don Quijote has had a great influence on literature and language inspiring other novels like The Three Musketeers, the word quixotic (extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical), and the idiom tilting at windmills (fighting imaginary enemies). Even if you haven’t read the book, you are probably familiar with the story due to the fame and recognition garnered by the 1965 musical The Man of La Mancha and its uber-popular theme song, “The Impossible Dream”. As we drove through this area, it appeared we had been transported to Quijote’s La Mancha…


The capital of La Mancha is Toledo, home of El Greco and one of the most well-preserved medieval towns. In fact, the entire town was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986. We exited the motorway, easily found a place to park in this heavily touristed town, and took a quick walk up a very steep hill and through the narrow cobblestone streets to check out a few of the sights.


Toledo’s Tagus, longest river in Spain


View of the outskirts from the top

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Finally, we stopped in for lunch at La Malguerida where we enjoyed some traditional local dishes including a very tasty gazpacho and a delicious pork and pea stew called carcamusas with a side of potato chips which seem to be Spain’s current favorite snack.

After returning to our car where we were greeted with a parking ticket on the windshield (Oops! Parking for residents only – no wonder it was so easy – but where was that sign??), it was time to complete the day’s journey to Madrid. Wow, that was an expensive stop but definitely worth it!

Andalucía Pt. 2

Next stop in Andalucía… Córdoba. While the previous city of Granada had a population of about 230,000 people fitted into a mere 34 square miles, the city of Córdoba spreads out over 484 square miles with 325,000 residents. If you do some quick math, you realize that there’s a great difference in population density in these two places. This along with the fact that the land is relatively flat in Córdoba creates a much more open and spacious feeling.

In Granada, sitting on the patio of our modern hilltop apartment in the ancient Albycín neighborhood, we certainly enjoyed the view and appreciated the unique beauty of the area.

However, Córdoba was a completely different experience. We had our own private two-story, three bedroom casita with surrounding gardens and pool situated behind gates on the property of some incredibly generous and gracious hosts. Every afternoon, we spent hours by that pool. It was such a delight and a bit of a welcome relief from the congestion of Granada. We found it quite easy to get around on the local bus and very comfortable to be out and about exploring.

And what did we discover? The other iconic Andalusian landmark commonly referred to as “La Mezquita” (mosque), another curious example of the melding of religious and cultural influences that has occurred over centuries of Spanish history and one of the best examples of Moorish architecture. Currently serving as a Catholic Cathedral, the Great Mosque was built on top of a small catholic basilica in 784, eventually reconverted into a Catholic Church during the Spanish Reconquista in 1236 and finally given a Renaissance remodel in the 16th century. The result is an intriguing structure with architectural features of its various predecessors still present. With each new iteration of this monument, little effort was made to tear down the old so a jumble of different architectural features on are still in place. The most notable feature is the seemingly never-ending multitude of stone columns joined by distinctive red and white arches providing the classic photo op.

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Ancient monuments are not the only draw to Córdoba. On our second full day, we set out on the bus to explore some of the modern downtown area. We encountered beautiful parks and plazas as well as wide, inviting avenues. It was here we had our first “Corte Inglés” experience… something I had been wanting to do for a long time. I learned about El Corte Inglés when I first became friends with The Spaniards. It is Spain’s only remaining department store chain, the largest in Europe, and third worldwide. It’s comparable in quality and price to Nordstrom in the US with the requisite, very affordable cafeteria generally on the top floor and often with a great view… allowing you to rest up and keep shopping, of course! With easy-access restrooms and air conditioned comfort, it’s the perfect place to take a break when you are tooling around the city, especially when it’s so hot. We headed directly to the cafeteria and yearning for something different, chose the traditional Spanish Ensalada Rusa, a non-traditional Ensalada Mexicana, and a couple of beers all for about $23.

Though our tour of the city was short and the weather quite hot, we found that Córdoba was definitely a city we would enjoy visiting again.

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