El Palau de la Música Catalana

Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.

I guess the third time is a charm. It’s taken me that many visits to finally get into the Palau de Música and I’m so happy I did. We did it all, a performance and a tour. We saw a fabulous evening performance in the theater – this one featuring four very talented Flamenco dancers.  If you have never had a lesson is this classic Spanish style or tried to play the castanets while moving you may not truly appreciate this precision-oriented, graceful, and expressive form of dance. Tappers might appreciate the rapid-fire footwork and core control. We were treated to a variety of Flamenco styles during the 90-minute performance. It was a magical evening.

The following morning, we returned for a daytime tour. You really need to see the facility during the day to appreciate the magnificent stained glass and incredible tiled pillars and interior workmanship.

Domènech Montaner designed the theater in 1908 as a daytime venue, so it’s important to really appreciate the dramatic details, artistic details, and the way he channeled light into such a tightly configured space.  Montaner was Gaudí’s teacher and the father of Barcelona’s modernista movement.

English language tours are held every hour and during the week you can usually arrive 15 minutes early and get tickets.  You can also buy them online.  Our tour guide was excellent and at one point turned on music by the 4,000-pipe organ so we could experience the remarkable sound quality. What an amazing combination of artistry.

Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.Stained glass ceiling at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.Details at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.The artistry continues outside at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.

Gaudí’s First House – Casa Vicens

img_0576

I was super excited to learn that Gaudí’s Casa Vicens is now open to the public for tours.  Up until a few years ago, it was a private home to the second family to own it (after the Vicens). Now privately owned by a bank it is being run as a museum. The cab driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go, which gives you an idea of just how “new” and unknown this property is today.  Located in Gràcia, it was once considered a country house.

We bought tickets online for one of the two daily English-language tours and joined a couple from Hong Kong as we explored the incredible house. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this home reflects so many influences and is a testimonial to Antoni Gaudi’s incredible obsession with details.

Built between 1883-85, the home uses stucco, plaster of Paris, ceramics, iron, wood, and paper mâché in design elements on walls, floors, and ceilings. Nature, as always with Gaudí, was the inspiration for many of the designs, from the chrysanthemums used on tiles to the fan palm design on the fence and gate and the ivy pattern etched into the wall over the dining room fireplace. Color is everywhere and function is never forgotten with external panels that rotate to maximize breezes, areas that can be closed in the colder months and Gaudi’s first accessible rooftop, so charming who wouldn’t want to visit.

With my husband Fred on the walkable rooftop at Casa Vicens.A portion of the property had been added in an expansion that Gaudí had approved in 1925, and that area, as well as the attic, are now used for exhibits explaining worldwide residential architecture of the era, details of the workmanship in the home, and the former uniquely landscaped gardens long lost to the sell-off of the surrounding land. The original kitchen was housed in the basement, now repurposed as an eclectic gift shop and the outside features a small café.

Add it to your list of ‘must-see while in Barcelona’.

 

 

Barcelona: You’ve Walked, Now Take a Ride

img_0725

Being blessed with beautiful weather, we decided to take a ride on a Hop-on bus. We didn’t plan to “hop-off” but just want to enjoy the pretty day, fresh air and cityscapes. I also wanted to take an updated picture of the famous Gaudí cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, under construction for more than 100 years and still not complete. I was curious if there were the same number of cranes as when I visited a few years ago. The cranes were certainly not as visible as before, although still in use.  To visit this site, you now need an advance purchased ticket due to the large daily crowds. You could also rent a car or hire a cab and I’ve done both, but it is enjoyable to sit up high in an open-air vehicle to view the area. Be sure to ride through the beautiful Gràcia, Pedrables and Sarrià neighborhoods and get up to Montjuic for some great views of the city and surrounding area.

Crowds waiting to get into La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

A Return to Beautiful Barcelona

 

Barcelona is truly one of the great cities of the world. It really has everything, a waterfront, Europe’s largest port, mountains on the horizon, temperate weather, history and more history, leafy boulevards, grand houses, delicious food, a thriving artistic community, incredible architecture, museums, and charming neighborhoods. The city combines a melting pot of cultures while maintaining a strong independent identity all its own. It’s a city that has reinvented itself throughout the years and has worked hard to earn the reputation it has today.

I have heard other people say they’ve been here before or more than once and seen the city.  That’s just not possible, there is way too much going on here.  Having visited before we had covered the obligatory major sites – such as La Sagrada Familia and fabulous Gaudi sites such as Park Güell, Casa Batlló, and La Pedrera (Casa Milà). If you’ve never been, don’t miss these famous iconic sites. But when visiting this interesting and complex city carve out some time for walking because there is nothing like exploring sections of the city on foot. Read the rest of this entry

Seafood “Shacks” Serving 5-Star Eats

Newport, Rhode Island

Some notable highlights for good Rhody food include a hidden delight, Belle’s Cafe, at the Newport Shipyard with really good lobster rolls and an interesting setting featuring many of the yachts and sailboats in the area. Relax and enjoy all the activity around you.

Flo’s Clam Shack (in Middletown), is a local favorite for fresh fried clams and fried everything else! Best fried clams I’ve ever had.  Bring your appetite.

Bodega Bay, Northern California

The Russian River flows into the Pacific on the Sonoma Coast and much of the coast is part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach.  Highway 101 runs along this dramatic, protected area.  We drove the stretch between Bodega Bay and Jenner. It was uncrowded and seemed so remote, with wild, uncorrupted beauty.  There was no cell service.

All this scenery and wine tasting made us hungry and we headed back towards Bodega Bay (where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds) and the Spud Point Crab Company.  You don’t come here for a luxury setting, comfortable chairs (picnic tables outside), bathrooms (across the street at the marina), or heat (it was cold and windy); what you will get is terrific crab, shrimp and clam chowder.  They have won awards for the best clam chowder on the Pacific coast and I can taste why, it was wonderful. Service was fast and friendly and we were soon on our way to San Francisco.

Key Largo, Florida

Alabama Jacks has the best conch fritters ever. We can’t even remember how long we’ve been coming to this great South Florida spot – at least 25 years, and it is always consistently fun. First, let me say, the food is great. The Conch Fritters are incredible, actually one large mound, not wimpy, little bite-size croquettes like most places. Other favs include the smoked fish pieces, fish spread, and peel & eat shrimp.
The setting? Well, it’s special too: all the way down deserted-looking Card Sound Road, right where Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties meet, on a permanently anchored barge, with a water view on the Gulf side.

It’s casual, very casual; a weekend-bikers destination that attracts boaters who dock, as well as a mix of locals, tourists, kids, Coast Guardsmen, red hat ladies, and every type of person you can imagine. From tattoos and designer shorts to sunburns and square-dancing costumes, nothing is out of place. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons they play host to a country music band, and patrons will be even more entertained by the friendly local clogging crowd.

Alabama Jacks is the way Florida used to be and has a vibe far too few get to experience these days. So, when you’re in Miami/South Beach for a visit, keep driving south and see what Florida is really about.

Pensacola, Florida

Pensacola is pleasant, walkable and friendly. We were visiting on a Monday and the historic tours weren’t operating, but on the plus side, Monday is 25 cent oyster night at Atlas Oyster House. So, that’s $3 for a dozen terrific, plump Louisiana Gulf oysters! I think we ate about three dozen.

 

Secrets of European Christmas Markets

IMG_4048-0

I’ve had the good fortune to make two trips to see Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets.  Once with my Mother on a river cruise and once with a girlfriend. Both trips were kaleidoscopes of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.

I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions by taking tree decorating to the next level. Germany alone has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  This entry will give a recap of my market experiences and tips for markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland, listed in alpha order by city. Find out about markets in: Basel, Cologne, Colmar, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Lucerne, Ludwigsburg, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Stuttgart.

The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats, and goodies of every description.  Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, of which I am not a fan – I’ll stick with hot chocolate. I love that the Germany markets sell cute mugs as traditional market souvenirs. They are customized for each location and year. Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  They generally open around 11 AM till 9PM in the evening.  But times can vary, so be sure to check the links provided for current info.

Many markets only take cash, so have your Euros ready, and lots of items are easily available in the U.S. with no savings evident, this is NOT bargain shopping. Look for the special, locally made items and know you will pay a fair price. Be wary of anything electrical, it will not work if you bring it back to the U.S.

While you make your way through the markets here is a list of local treats to taste-test:

German Christmas Markets

  • ֎ Chocolate-covered gingerbread
  • ֎ Springerle
  • ֎ Lebkuchen cookies
  • ֎ Weckla – Nuremburger sausages in a hard bread roll
  • ֎ Bredle cookies
  • ֎ Brenton (marzipan) cookie
  • ֎ Snowball

Read the rest of this entry

5 Historic Hotels Southerners Love

The South has some legendary grand hotels, and many Southerners would love to keep them all to themselves. These are five of my favorites, all elegant, renovated, and award-winning:

The Hermitage Hotel | Nashville

Lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, NashvilleThe Hermitage Hotel is really the grand dame of them all. The architecture and décor are the very best of Southern elegance. From the minute you step into the beautiful lobby staff is attentive and friendly. Our room was lovely, spacious and totally modern in every amenity and function. Famous Green Men's Room at The Hermitage Hotel, NashvilleWe started the evening with local friends in the hotel’s iconic Oak Bar (with a quick side visit to see the famous Men’s Room). Then out the door of this conveniently located hotel to hit some of the cities great nightspots and hear some excellent music. Read the rest of this entry

We Should Know Our History: The War Between the States

Manassas National Battlefield ParkThese days our country is divided politically, pretty much 50/50 and friends and family with opposing viewpoints cannot seem to have a civil discussion without breaking down into name-calling. I keep hearing people say “it’s never been this bad” and “I’ve never seen our country so divided”.

In the context of our short U.S. history, nothing could be more divergent than the War Between the States, fought from 1861 – 1865.  Keeping it in perspective, the stunning loss of 622,000 lives was almost more than our losses in all other U.S. wars combined.  Based on population percentages, that’s equivalent to 6 million today. It was a war in which family members were often on both sides of the battle and I can see that clearly reflected in my own ancestry research.

Manassas National Battlefield ParkThe battlefields are now national parks, under the management of the National Park Service and while Gettysburg may be the most famous there are many others.  On this trip north, we stopped to visit Manassas National Battlefield Park. Up until this battle, the general population was treating the warlike performance art theater, riding in from cities with picnic baskets packed, to watch. The battle at Manassas ended that trend as the violent, bloody battle and death toll of young soldiers from both sides sent the observers into a fast retreat. The First Manassas Battle is more commonly known as the Battle of Bull Run and it is considered the first major battle of the war, fought in July 1861. A second battle was fought in the same area in August of 1862.

Manassas National Battlefield ParkToday the pastoral setting has been beautifully maintained and buildings restored. There is a nice Visitor’s Center with interesting exhibits and a well-done movie explaining the battle. Rangers lead informative tours and hikes. Located near Gainesville, VA, the park is bisected by US Highway 29.

Some might wonder who won this battle, but from my point of view, no one wins a fight with his brother.

Pumpkinpalooza

Entrance to Nall's Produce amazing pumpkin patch, Alexandria, VANalls Produce in Alexandria VA has the best pumpkin patch I’ve ever been to. And, imagine my surprise to end up chatting with one of the owners. Valerie Nall was wearing a “Robert is Here” cap.  For those lucky enough to be in the know, Robert Is Here is a wonderful produce operation in Homestead, FL, not too far from where I live.

Valerie told me the Nalls Produce enterprise was started by her father from a card table set-up to sell produce; I should’ve found out how many pumpkins they had – it must be in the thousands.

They came in every color range possible: white, bright orange, mottled, and striped.  In every possible size, they had big pumpkins, GIANT pumpkins, record-breaking pumpkins, tiny pumpkins, fairy tale pumpkins, and gourds in every crazy shape and size.

The wall of pumpkins at Nall's Produce features one of every type; this is one section.

Pumpkins for even the tiniest customer at Nall's Produce in Alexandra, Virginia.We had a great time with our baby granddaughter and enjoyed trying to get her to sit still for one of the many great photo op locations.  Older kids were having a blast running around bales of hay, crawling through “tunnels” and picking out pumpkins.  Parents were pulling red wagons with piles of gourds and pumpkins.  Most sales are by the pound, but some items are individually priced, like the tiny perfect pumpkin our daughter bought for our grandbaby. Nall’s wall of pumpkins was an art installation all by itself. Check it out if you are anywhere in the DC area.

A Mountain Railroad Experience on the Moonshine Express

Take the Moonshine Express run of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and I promise you will not be disappointed.

Onthe Moonshine Express: seven shots of moonshine later.After booking our tickets online, we picked them up at 9:30 the morning of the trip and boarded the Carolina Shine car around 10 AM.  Before we even started rolling, we were served three of the seven moonshine flavors we tasted.  Starting with the basic White Lightening, we moved quickly on to Apple Pie and Cherry.  Our second flight featured Peach, Blueberry, Pina Colada, and Salted Caramel. Peach and Apple Pie were my favs . . . and I did try them all. Heartier souls can order all sorts of shots and/or moonshine-laced cocktails in addition to wine or beer from the well-stocked bar. It was a happy train car.

We rolled out of the Bryson City, NC trainyard under diesel power about half an hour into our five-hour experience, on a route along the beautiful Nantahala Gorge.  Our energetic, funny host, Steve, kept us entertained with all sorts of historic facts and trivia as we chugged along about 20 miles per hour through forests, around lakes, and over rivers.

Tasty BBQ lunch on the Moonshine Express with the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad..

A tasty BBQ lunch was served before our hour-long stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. At the Center, you see some beautiful (and scary-looking) class-5 rapids, as well as a kayak training course used by Olympic athletes.  There are ample restrooms, a restaurant/bar, and a shopping area focused on active outdoor clothes and accessories (think wetsuits and paddles).

Read the rest of this entry