A Visit to Bangkok, Part 3: Wat Pho Temple

If I had to choose the one place in Bangkok that I found most inspiring and alluring, it would have to be Wat Pho.

The head of an immense reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

The head of an immense reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Wat Pho is a Buddhist temple complex in the same neighborhood as the Grand Palace. As a tourist, I was directed to take the SkyTrain to the pier where the tourist boats go up the river. I took the tourist boat twice.

Travel Tip 1: You can either purchase an all-day pass on the river boat for 150 baht, or if you are really heading to one destination and plan to get off the river once you arrive, ask for the one-stop ticket. Then you’ll only pay 40 baht.

Travel Tip 2: Women are not permitted into temples unless they’re covered. You can’t wear anything above the ankle. A pair of light weight slacks and a tee shirt that covers your shoulders and the top of your arm, is fine. If you aren’t wearing the right clothing, you’ll have to “rent” a wrap which you’ll tie around your waist and will cover you to your ankles.

When you get off the tourist boat, you have to walk through a make-shift bazaar building that is on the pier. There are a bunch of vendors selling a variety of souvenirs. Once you exit the bazaar, you come out into an area where there are street vendors selling food and drinks.

A young man selling freshly made pomegranate juice near Wat Pho.

A young man selling freshly made pomegranate juice near Wat Pho.

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Good Good Good Papaya Salad. 40 baht is about $1 US dollar.

Good Good Good Papaya Salad. 40 baht is about $1 US dollar.

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A woman looks over her choices of grilled meats at a street vendor's stall

A woman looks over her choices of grilled meats at a street vendor’s stall

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But once inside the temple complex, your eye is drawn to the ornate and intricately tiled buildings that adorn the large tract of land that composes the complex.

The architecture of Wat Pho

The architecture of Wat Pho

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When you are not looking at the amazing architecture, there are many wonderful places where you can stop and rest.

The man made waterfall and koi pond is delightful

The man made waterfall and koi pond is delightful

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I only saw one monk while I was there, which surprised me

I only saw one monk while I was there, which surprised me

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For some reason, the majority of people I saw at Wat Pho were tourists and not monks. I only saw one monk while I was there, and he walked so quickly across the courtyard I could barely snap a photo of him as he passed me.

Within one of the courtyards, I found...

Within one of the courtyards, I found…

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You can take many hours to explore this wonderful site because there are so many nested courtyards, each with their own set of sculptures, or alters with flowers, or perhaps you’ll see a line of buddhas sitting and meditating. It’s all beautiful and peaceful.

A charming monk figure sits nestled in some greenery

A charming monk figure sits nestled in some greenery

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Beautiful handmade flower alter

Beautiful handmade flower alter

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Flower Alter detail

Flower Alter detail

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My advice to anyone visiting Wat Pho:

  • bring water
  • dress appropriately
  • don’t rush
  • allow the serene nature of this place to inspire you
  • investigate courtyards and other out of the way spots
A mythological creature stands watch over one of the temples

A mythological creature stands watch over one of the temples

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A moment of peaceful solitude

A moment of peaceful solitude

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A Visit to Bangkok, Part Two: Peeking Into Chinatown

Red Lanterns festively displayed by a street vendor in Bangkok's Chinatown

Red Lanterns festively displayed by a street vendor in Bangkok’s Chinatown

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There’s something familiar about Chinatown.

No matter what city you’re in, whether it’s New York City, San Francisco, Hong Kong, or Bangkok, the images you’d conjure up for Chinatown are roughly similar.

Street view - Bangkok's Chinatown

Street view – Bangkok’s Chinatown

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Street vendors hawking their wares, a variety of foods for sale – some of which look totally unfamiliar – and lots of small Chinese grocery stores selling packages of dried fish, along with Chinese tea shops and restaurants.

Colorful rolling carts displaying fruit in Bangkok's Chinatown

Colorful rolling carts displaying fruit in Bangkok’s Chinatown

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Bangkok’s Chinatown felt familiar in the way that I described, but there were unfamiliar sights too.

I WISH I could have gotten a photo of the strange machine I saw on many street corners used to roast chestnuts in what looked like circulating black gravel stones. I’ve never seen such a machine before.

But, to me, the way to see a place is by watching the people.

Woman washing pans in a food stall

Woman washing pans in a food stall

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More washing going on in the alley

More washing going on in the alley

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Walking along the crowded streets

Walking along the crowded streets

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And, of course, tasting the food. The vegetarian fare I sampled included Mapo Tofu, Chinese green leafy stuff with mushrooms, and something new to me: Iced chrysanthemum tea with lemon and honey. It was all delicious!

Dinner was delicious

Dinner was delicious

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If you’re wondering whether or not to take a stroll along the crowded streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, stop and buy some fruit from a rolling cart and then ducking into one of the many restaurants or tea shops to eat a snack … the answer is yes, you should. But I would say that for Chinatown in any city around the world………

 

A Visit to Bangkok, Part One: Chatachak Weekend Market

A line of serene buddhas sit in contemplation at the Wat Pho temple in the heart of Bangkok

A line of serene buddhas sit in contemplation at the Wat Pho temple in the heart of Bangkok

 

I must begin with this note:

I began writing this post after I returned from my trip to Bangkok, which was BEFORE the bombings occurred in the city. I’m deeply saddened by the news that whoever bombed center city Bangkok was intending to target tourists and locals, in an attempt to damage the tourism that Thailand enjoys.

Tourism is a major point of economic support for the country. If you are thinking of taking a trip to Thailand, I think you should proceed. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to Bangkok.

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It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post. Just after my last posting, I took a 10 day trip from Manila to Bangkok, Thailand … with a mini-trip to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) Cambodia embedded with the main trip.

One of the many incredible faces carved into the sides of the Buddhist temple within the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia

One of the many incredible faces carved into the sides of the Buddhist temple within the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia

Since arriving in Manila back in June, I’d only ventured to Hong Kong for a brief weekend. So a planned 10 day trip to Bangkok was very exciting for me, since I have not seen much of Southeast Asia and Manila is “too close” to these places not to have some “local” adventures.

I had never been to Thailand, and I was anxious to go. I had heard so many wonderful things about Bangkok, but I also heard scary things too about pickpockets. It turns out that, just like any big city in any country around the world, you DO need to have your wits about you. You need to pay attention to your surroundings, and you need to go to normally reasonable lengths to protect your belongings. But if you do, I honestly don’t think the vast majority of tourists would have a problem.

I had no issues in Bangkok with safety, and I roamed around many neighborhoods in the day and evening, and I also went to densely packed locations with tourists like the Chatachak Weekend Market and loved it.

In this post, I will focus on some of my experiences at the market.

If you go on Sunday in the middle of the day, be prepared for large crowds at Chatachak Weekend Market!

If you go on Sunday in the middle of the day, be prepared for large crowds at Chatachak Weekend Market!

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If it's made in Thailand, chances are you will see if for sale at the Chatachak Weekend Market.

If it’s made in Thailand, chances are you will see if for sale at the Chatachak Weekend Market.

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Everybody comes out to shop.

Everybody comes out to shop.

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Chatachak Weekend Market was a major highlight of my trip to Bangkok. If you are in town on a Saturday or Sunday, I strongly suggest you plan to spend a minimum of 2 hours walking the market, although you could spend much more time than that.

It’s very easy to get to… just take the SkyTrain to the Mo Chit exit, then when you walk down the stairs of the SkyTrain (follow the signs directing you towards the “Chatachak” exit) walk alongside Chatachak Park. You can follow the crowds because that’s where everyone else is going too.

This is one place where I would be more careful with your belongings because the crowds are very dense and inside the market “hallways” it’s a tight squeeze. Also, if you don’t look like a local, you automatically look like a tourist… so try not to be obvious about where you keep your money, phone and camera. If you’re snapping tons of photos with your camera and not attending to your wallet, well, that’s not a good idea.

I had no problems whatsoever both times I went to the market, and I spent hours walking around each time. I kept a small, zipped purse with a short, strong strap clamped under my arm … but my larger canvas bag with my purchases I didn’t feel concerned about since I doubted anybody who was there to pick-pocket wanted to steal the incense or t-shirts I was buying! All of the photos I took, I used my cell phone camera (that includes all my photos, I don’t have a separate camera with me on this trip) and that worked well because I could quickly snap my shot, and slip my phone back into my purse and zip it back up.

Most of the vendors were so nice! They love to haggle with customers over the prices, and if you are a good customer, you will haggle (a little bit) with the merchant. If they are asking 100 baht for something, offer them 60 baht, then they will say they’ll give it to you (special!) for 80 baht, and you can settle for 75 baht and everyone is happy. Once you have concluded your purchase, it is customary to say thank you, and bow a little bit with your hands clasped in front of you. If you do this, the merchants will truly love you, because it shows you respect the local culture.

When I haggled with this soap vendor, she was so charming! She got excited when she found out I was an American from New York City, USA, and traveling alone no less! She insisted we take our picture together. It was a terrific experience!

When I haggled with this soap vendor, she was so charming! She got excited when she found out I was an American from New York City, USA, and traveling alone no less! She insisted we take our picture together. It was a terrific experience!

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I will be writing more posts about my experiences in Bangkok, but I want to emphasize how wonderful the city is and how welcoming and helpful most (not all, especially cab drivers, but most!) people are that you come in contact with in the city.

More to come soon!

 

Cultural Gluttony: BB King, The Armory Show and more

This week I’ve binged on culture and this post covers my wanderings.

I saw BB King and Robert Cray live, went to the 100 year retrospective on the Armory Show at the NY Historical Society, and saw blues artist Joe Nemeth for his one night NYC performance.

I've got a golden ticket!

I’ve got a golden ticket!

Read on for details!

BB King and Robert Cray – live at the State Theater

BB King is now 88 years old, and I’d never seen him play live, so it was a treat to see him this week.

His eight piece back-up band, consisting of 4 horns, a keyboardist, drummer, base player and guitarist were great, and from their ages I’d say they’ve been playing with BB a long, long time.

BB with the band - 8 pieces!

BB with the band – 8 pieces!

The State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ is an intimate setting, and for my $100 (USD) ticket I got a seat in the “front balcony” of the theater, above the main hall and overlooking the stage. I could see what was happening on stage clearly, but I wasn’t close enough to get good cell phone photos. Still, you can see some of the stage set-up… :-}

Lovely view of the State Theater stage before the show

Lovely view of the State Theater stage before the show

Robert Cray and his band opened the show with a one hour performance of some of his classic popular blues hits like Strong Persuader, but I’m sorry to say he never played Smoking Gun, probably his biggest hit. Still, Cray’s voice and guitar playing are top notch.

The Robert Cray Band

The Robert Cray Band

It occured to me, during Cray’s set, there’s a reason why he made it as a professional. His stage presence is strong but easy going; he’s so obviously a talented and capable musician.

After Cray’s band finished, the re-set up process created about a 45 minute intermission before BB King’s band came on.

Once BB’s band came on, they played two numbers without him as a warm-up, and then he joined his band and played perhaps five or six songs total to finish the evening.

BB likes to patter with the audience and joke around, which fans know if you’ve seen videos of his performances or listened to his live albums. This performance was no exception, and BB delighted in leading the audience in a sing-a-long of “You Are My Sunshine” and then kidded around with some of the folks down in front near the stage.

It was extremely charming that as his band was playing When the Saints Come Marching In to end the show, BB didn’t really want to leave the stage. People rushed to the front of the auditorium to shake his hand, take his photo and get his autograph… while they still can.

BB King is rushed by adoring fans at the end of the show!

BB King is rushed by adoring fans at the end of the show!

I can’t blame them – BB King is a living Blues legend.

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The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution – new show at the NY Historical Society Museum

Original 1913 Armory Show set up

Original 1913 Armory Show set up

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Cutout of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase in front of the NY Historical Society

Cutout of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase in front of the NY Historical Society

I’d been greatly anticipating seeing this show at the NY Historical Society and finally got the chance to go yesterday. The show will be up until early 2014, so there’s plenty of time to see it.

Duchamp - Nude Descending a Staircase

Duchamp – Nude Descending a Staircase

Travel Tip: Since it’s only the second weekend since the show opened, I’m happy to report it was crowded. Still, tickets are readily available at the museum, you may not need to reserve them online. (I called the museum to check on ticket availability and was told to come in.)

Matisse - Blue Nude - 1907

Matisse – Blue Nude – 1907

This retrospective show is very small compared to the original Armory show, which had hundreds of artworks. In fact, the entire NY Historical Society coverage consisted of two galleries, while a third gallery covered pieces shown “soon after” the Armory show but not from the show itself.

Still, the curators of this show have gone to lengths to explain the original placement of the artworks and the cultural context for the showing of these works. One thing that fascinated me was the curator’s emphasis on how the artists were found for the show. Half of the works at the original show were American, the other half European. There is a lot of good reading material in the show too, and if you’re interested, there is a catalogue for sale.

What surprised me most about the show was that many of the works shown were not only “not shocking” they were traditional landscapes and portraits. It turns out that the organizers of the original Armory show were trying to show viewers an art trajectory, from the classical European, to the American point of view, and then the big divergence with Cubism and Fauvism and so the traditional works were a purposeful lead in, to help the viewer acclimate to what they saw in the final gallery.

Van Gogh - Mountains at St. Remy - 1889

Van Gogh – Mountains at St. Remy – 1889

This final gallery was the only section of the original Armory show which showcased the “new” works, and the public was shocked by them due to their bold colors, multi-varied perspectives, non-traditional forms and in some cases content.

One of my favorite “put-down’s” of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was that it looked like a “splinter salad.” The reaction was clear: critics of this art were severely challenged to understand the new forms.

Although today’s viewers will likely not be shocked by the Matisse, Duchamp, Gauguin and other paintings and sculptures they see, it’s good to be reminded how new art forms CAN shake viewers up, and CAN challenge them to think about art in new ways.

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Joe Nemeth at Terra Blues, Thurs, Oct 17th

What can you say about Terra Blues on Bleeker Street in NYC except that it’s a Blues Institution. This venue attracts top talent from all over the world to come and play blues, and yes, sometimes the acts are only in town one night – as was the case with Joe Nemeth, a blues harmonica player and five time Grammy nominated musician.

Joe Nemeth - Blues harmonica and lead singer

Joe Nemeth – Blues harmonica and lead singer

Nemeth and his band played a funky blues first set, and then… the electrical power went out for the amps in the back of the stage.

Nemeth was undaunted by the set-back, and sent his band offstage to take a break, while he decided to sing solo, just a boy and his harmonica, and he brought down the house.

Joe Nemeth at Terra Blues in NYC (bad lighting!)

Joe Nemeth and his base player too at Terra Blues (bad lighting!)

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However, after his one solo song, the power had not come back on, and so he too took a break. Unfortunately, many in the audience didn’t wait for the electrical repair and got up and left. Since it was only Thursday night, and I knew I had a busy few days ahead (to see BB King the next night, and then off to the Armory show too) I also decided to call it a night.

Young drummer for the Joe Nemeth band

Young drummer for the Joe Nemeth band

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The very talented lead guitarist for the Joe Nemeth band

The very talented lead guitarist for the Joe Nemeth band

Does it look like I was sitting right next to the stage? Because I was at the very first table next to the stage. I could have almost reached out and touched the lead guitarist’s cowboy boot!

Enjoy!

Pondering Museum Visits – and Guernica

In a previous posting, I mentioned how moved I was by the tremendous trove of art at the Prado in Madrid. And indeed, the Prado is a location of global art treasure, just like the Metropolitan in NYC, The National Gallery in the UK, and the Hermitage in Russia, among other seriously notable museums.

However, as a tourist with limited time to see museums it’s important to spend time wisely when choosing which museums to visit when you land in your destination of choice.

And it’s not just about time, either. It’s about the human eye and brain getting overloaded with images. I’ve visited enough museums to recognize there is such a thing as over-stimulation and museum fatigue. After about 2-3 hours, I usually need a break, or possibly need to stop wandering through galleries to “process and absorb” the things I’ve seen.

With this in mind, I want to mention the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, which houses Guernica. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica_(painting)

Guernica is housed deep within this relatively small museum of contemporary art, in a bunker-like gallery designed to display only this towering painting. And although the room is reasonably large, it still somehow isn’t large enough to contain the painting. I can’t describe it adequately, and unfortunately in keeping with the museum’s policy, photography is not allowed in this particular gallery.

And once you’ve seen Guernica, for your $8 euro ticket price, you can essentially leave the museum. I know I’m being harsh in my commentary, and it’s not that I don’t like seeing cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque, or seeing the many Miro on display in Spanish museums, but I must call the Museo Reina Sofia out on this – there is NOTHING in that museum that can come close to the experience of seeing Guernica. There is not even one other piece on display that had an impact that could even touch what it’s like to see Guernica in person. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZCTrM3yfug)

Don’t get me wrong – I walked the entire museum. I saw the permanent Richard Serra installation on the first floor. I looked at the giant Calder sculpture in the courtyard. I walked by many Picasso, Braque, DuBuffet, Miro and other works on display. But… I’m sorry to say this because I sound like a total art brat and snob to make such a comment (apologies in advance) but I have seen these works before many times.

This brings me to the core of what I’m getting at with the museums we choose to visit and why.

At the Prado, I can see totally unique works by Bosch, Goya and many others that I cannot see anywhere else in the world. I got a bit of an “art high” walking around the Prado – an experience I remember having when first viewing The Temple of Dendur at the Met so many years ago. It’s just a brain-freezing, arresting, overwhelming moment when you see something that is a towering human achievement.

And Guernica delivers this experience, no doubt. I had seen reproductions of Guernica over the years, but nothing could compare to seeing it in person.

But, I’m sorry to say, if I want to see those brown and black cubist paintings that Picasso and Braques did side-by-side for a few years and that look very similar to one another… there are a lot of them, and I see them everywhere. After a while, I don’t even really bother looking at them because my mind “knows” the image.

And once you have seen two dozen paintings by Miro, which I have in a variety of museums, I’m sorry, but I “get it” and I know the style and I can even enjoy the image but it’s something similar happening over and over.

Perhaps this is one reason Guernica has such impact. It’s a combination of cubist style and figuration – plus the historic content which is essential in understanding that scene of war horror.

But I digress.

Museums often have a “mission” to display art history, and present some chronological view of art through the ages. And in that world tour, Cubism is in there, and so yes, you will be shown those brown and black Picassos because he created that new style and it was an important moment in Art History. Yes, I agree.

Unfortunately, since many/most museums have this same mission, you wind up seeing many of the same painters over and over, and you see paintings of the same style, and in the Museo Reine Sofia I just found that I’d “seen it before” when it came to anything other than Guernica.

Am I saying don’t go to the museum? NO. I am saying if you have the chance to see Guernica, just the experience of seeing that one work is completely worth it – in my opinion. It is like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado, a one of a kind and not replicated in any other painting globally. The painting – unto itself is a piece of Art History.

But consider what I’ve said when it comes to visiting museums. What is it you hope to “experience” at these institutions, and then make your choices accordingly.

Yes Virginia, there are vegetarians in Madrid and Barcelona

Despite the fact that Iberico pork is an object of national worship in Spain (I’m not kidding – they have a chain of stores called Museo de Jambon, the Museum of Ham) and despite the fact that Spain is known for its gastronomic legends like El Bulli … I’m here to tell you that you can not just survive, but thrive, as a vegetarian in Madrid and Barcelona.

Much to my pleasant surprise, I had several excellent meals at vegetarian restos in Madrid and Barcelona, and since I was only in each city a limited amount of time I did not exhaust the list of possible vegetarian places I could have tried (not to mention I went back to places I liked and ordered something different from the menu.)

MADRID

  • In Madrid, I can highly recommend the food at Artemisa – http://restaurantesvegetarianosartemisa.com/ which offers a more ‘gourmet’ spin on vegetarian cuisine. Prices are in the middle range, expect to pay $6-8 euro per starter and $11-15 euro for a main dish. They also cater to people who need gluten free or vegan dishes.

I had the “Queen of Africa” dish, which had two “fillets” of eggplant topped with a delicious mixture of pureed vegetables, spices and chopped pistachios. Also on the plate was a refreshing salad mix. A few days later I went back again, and ordered a hummus appetizer from their specials menu, and then had a layered eggplant gratin dish that was quite rich and yummy.

The waitstaff at Artemisa are pleasant and nice, but the service at Artemisa is slow. For example, on my first visit, I was literally the only person in the restaurant and had to wait 20 minutes to place my order. Once I ordered, I waited a long time for the food. I know I’m not the only one who felt the service was poor, customers kept looking around for wait staff that were not available.

Still, if you can be patient at Artemisa, you will be rewarded with good food.

Travel Tip: In Madrid, you can order “agua del grifo” (pitcher of tap water) for free or you can purchase a bottle of sparkling or still water – it’s your choice. In Barcelona you will not be able to order agua del grifo at restaurants.

BARCELONA

  • In Barcelona, I’d suggest giving Veganoteca a try – http://www.veganoteca.com which offers both vegetarian and strictly vegan dishes too. The day I was there I ordered the “special plate” which included a wide variety of foods – salad with fresh corn, small quesadilla with cheese and veggie filling, fresh melon and pineapple slices, a few pieces of brie. For dessert a two-bite piece of apple strudel and organic yogurt with museli topping. All that and a bottle of water was included, and the whole meal was under $10 euro, which is an excellent deal.

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  • If you’re feeling more adventurous, give Teresa Carles a go – http://www.teresacarles.com This resto was established in 1979 and is rooted in more of a “scientific” approach to food as a way to improve health. As a result, they offer a variety of drinks for health purposes (I had a divine glass of lemon, pear, and ginger juice with organic honey that I’d love to replicate at home).

I also ordered a dish that was two poached organic eggs on a bed of spinach, sun dried tomatoes and a really delicious variety of mushrooms in perhaps an olive oil based sauce. My one “nit” with this dish is I cannot stand undercooked egg whites. Runny egg whites are not my thing, so I had to send my dish back for further cooking, although I was told this is how they normally serve the dish.

Service at Teresa Carles is also very slow. Once I ordered, I waited 20 minutes for my food, and there was only one other table of customers in the resto. I’m not sure if this kind of service is typical in Spain, or just the particular vegetarian places I went, but it’s better to know these things beforehand.

LINKS

Other Links for Vegetarians Traveling in Madrid and Barcelona

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Finally, any blog post about Barcelona and vegetarians would be incomplete if I did not mention La Boqueria, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Boqueria, a public and tourist landmark in the heart of Barcelona, on the main street Las Ramblas.

La Boqueria is a market full of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, olives, cheese … along with standard provisions for non-vegetarians (meat, fresh seafood, etc.)

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So if you are a vegetarian, go forth and enjoy the bounty of choices available. 🙂

Jazz in Madrid and Barcelona

As regular readers of my blog know, when I go traveling, one of the things I enjoy is seeing live jazz. And on my trips to Madrid and Barcelona, I sought out jazz venues in each city. In both cases, I was handsomely rewarded with great performances at famous venues in each city.

Check these out:

The Flamenco Jazz Company - Cafe Central - Madrid, Sept 2013

The Flamenco Jazz Company – Cafe Central – Madrid, Sept 2013

Madrid – Cafe Centralhttp://www.cafecentralmadrid.com/

At Madrid’s Cafe Central the jazz I saw was heavily flavored with Spanish style. The Flamenco Jazz Company was playing the night I went, and their jazz is a fusion of both flamenco style singing, Spanish guitar and drums/percussion melded with jazz. The combination was exciting.

Cafe Central is a unique venue since it’s got lovely Art Deco architectural touches around the small space. The venue is intimate, so make sure you get there before the show starts to be able to see the stage.

Also, as opposed to the well deserved party-all-night reputation Spain has, at Cafe Central the music is on from 9-11pm so if you want to see the show, you must be there for those two hours. The two hour show will cost you about $12 euro per person.

Barcelona – Jamboree – http://www.masimas.com/en/jamboree

If the name of this venue sounds familiar to hard-core jazz fans, it’s because this place has been around for decades. Ella Fitzgerald played Jamboree, along with other jazz notables.

The Jamboree venue is in a vaulted basement, with surprisingly good acoustics. I sat to the side of the stage, as opposed to most of the guests who sit in front of the stage. I had a fantastic view of the band up close and personal. I was literally 10 feet from the drum kit, and I got to sit next to the singer before she went on.

I had the pleasure of seeing Carla Cook, a jazz singer with a great voice and energy. I felt a little bit like I was “cheating” to see her in Barcelona, because she is currently from Brooklyn, but we New Yorkers get around! She did a few original songs, and then paid homage to Duke Ellington several times in her quick set.

Jamboree sets only last one very brief hour, which flies by quickly. The night I was there, shows were 8-9pm and 10-11pm, at a ticket price of $12 euro at the box office ($10 euro if you get advance tix online.)

Serious Spanish Art Loot – The Prado

I only wish I could show you some images of art at the Prado Museum, in Madrid, Spain but they do not permit photography of any kind, and it’s no wonder.

I spent hours wandering around the museum today with my mouth hanging open, gawking at the serious loot of centuries of Spanish colonial rule. There must be, and I do not think I’m exaggerating here, billions of dollars of art in that museum. It is beyond a national treasure for Spain.

Since I’m from New York City and I cannot help but try and compare museums to my “home town” museums, I have to tell you that the particular collections located in the Prado are not replicated – or anywhere NEAR closely available – in NYC. Believe me, that’s saying a lot.

Let’s start with Goya, since there are so many incredible Goya images housed at the Prado. In particular, the “Black Paintings” (including Goya’s Dog, or The Drowning Dog as it’s sometimes known) are in one gallery together. The other famous image from that collection is Saturn Devouring His Child, probably one of the earliest expressionistic paintings known.

But Goya isn’t even the beginning.

I have never had the pleasure of seeing Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in person. It is… beyond words. I visited that painting three times within the hours I was in the museum, and still I could have stayed staring at it for hours more if I had had more time. There was another piece called The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, also by Bosch that was magnificent.

Beyond that, the self-portrait of Albrect Durer really enchanted me. A young Durer with gorgeous long, curly blonde-red hair, in a jaunty black and white striped cap, with the upper part of his chest exposed told me a lot about him. I have a little art crush on Durer now. Clearly I was born in the wrong century. 🙂 The other pieces by Durer that left a lasting impression were his portraits of Adam and Eve.

Rubens, Velasquez, El Greco and many other gigantic canvases line the walls of galleries, towering over the spectators. In gallery after gallery, I had to stand back six, eight or ten feet just to view the image being shown. But then I wanted to get as close as possible to the Carravagio painting of David with the severed head of Goliath. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_GUJjvCBWY)

There are too many museums to see in Madrid in just four days. I have already seen the private Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum with its fantastic Kandinsky’s, Picasso’s, Braque’s and other examples of cubism (I will post in the future, with images, since they allow photography.) I want to see the contemporary art museum too, on a different day (I need to be rested from the visual overload.)

But if I could only see ONE museum in Madrid, it would have to be the Prado.

Thank goodness I don’t have to make that choice!

P.S. The Prado allows visitors to visit free during a 2 hour window ‘later’ in the day. If you’re coming to town, check at the museum to see when you can come for free. Otherwise, admission is 14 euros and totally worth it.

A European Year (So Far)

Way back on April 23rd this year, I published a blog post called Vacation Planning: Amsterdam. In that post, I mentioned that there were three (3) cities at the top of my European travel wish list, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dublin.

I proceeded to spend time in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Belgium. Then, because I had to travel for work, I was able to visit London, Luxembourg and went back to Belgium again.

It had been more than ten years since I set foot on the Continent, so visiting Europe twice in one year was an astounding opportunity.

But, as luck would have it, I have go back to Europe for work again! Since it is the end of the summer, I decided to take a week off before having to do my business portion of the trip and take a week to go to Spain.

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ESPANA HERE I COME!

Originally I was thinking I would go straight to Barcelona and spend the entire vacation there, but then I remembered that six days in Amsterdam felt like too much. So instead, I’ve opted to go to Madrid and Barcelona.

Since this year has been very hectic in terms of the amount of travel I do for work, and my ability to do elaborate planning is at a minimum… I did some brief reading online and figured out a few things:

– Madrid has more museums than Barcelona

– Madrid is less costly than Barcelona

– Barcelona is known for being touristy, and probably has better nightlife than Madrid

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Given these extremely basic rudiments for decision making I decided to spend four (4) days in Madrid, first, and see the city sights from a Sun to Wed timeframe, and then spend Thurs to Sun in Barcelona with my “Friday and Saturday nights” reserved for the nightlife of swingin’ Barcelona. Although it won’t stop me from seeking out mid-week nightlife opportunities in Madrid while I’m there!

Also, rather than take inexpensive high-speed-train between Madrid and Barcelona on my Thursday and lose nearly the whole day, I’ve opted to fly Iberia Air between the two cities because the non-stop flight is about an hour. It’s costing me about $100 USD, which is totally worth it vs. sitting on a train for 6 hours. Iberia offered even cheaper flights ($80 USD) but too early for me, so I splurged a bit more for the time I wanted to go.

As I already mentioned, I didn’t have a lot of time for planning and there have been just a handful of websites I used to try and figure out neighborhoods so I could pick a decent hotel in the “right spot” to enable convenient getting around.

Here are the few I used which might be helpful if you are doing similar planning:

In the end, I wound up using Expedia to book my hotels because I was permitted to pay for the room in US dollars (and therefore will avoid a credit card transaction fee associated with my purchase.)

This has been quite a year of travel for me, so far, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Spain for the first time. One thing I’ll be looking for on this trip are the cultural differences between Northern vs. Southern European countries. I don’t speak Spanish (just a few really basic phrases like agua fria, por favor) and will continue to rely on smiles and the good will of strangers.

Since I’ve secured the main building blocks of my trip: air travel and hotels… I will spend some time before I go trying to figure out what I can learn about local transportation, and the main sights I’d want to hit while in each city.

If you’ve had a Madrid or Barcelona experience you’d like to share, or a suggestion for a “must see” place, please add it in the comments section.

As always, there will be photos and stories to come of my Spanish adventures!

A final Netherlands – Belgium vacation mash-up

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Belgium. If you’ve read any of the preceeding posts (about 9 so far I think) about the trip, thank you.

This will be my final post, with a melange of images that give you a taste of the many places I visited … some of which I haven’t mentioned yet.

(The blogging about the trip begins with the post “Going Dutch” and adds from there – you can also find them if you search my “Travel” tag.)

Boat making its way on a Brugge canal

Boat making its way on a Brugge canal

Travel Tip: Brugge is beautiful, and worth seeing as a day trip. Stay in Gent, Belgium and travel to Brugge for an afternoon.

The Delft town square

The Delft town square

The other side of the main square in Delft is this magnificent church

The other side of the main square in Delft is this magnificent church

Canal porn - Another tourist taking a canal beauty shot - Delft

Canal porn – Another tourist taking a canal beauty shot – Delft

Travel Tip: The three images above show you everything you would want see in Delft, in my opinion. I suggest you go elsewhere to spend your limited travel time and budget.

Stitched sculpture of a woman - SMAK Contemporary Art

Stitched sculpture of a woman – SMAK Contemporary Art

Travel Tip: And when you go to Gent, if you like contemporary art even a little bit, you would do well to spend an afternoon at SMAK, the Contemporary Art Museum.

Detail - stitched sculpture

Detail – stitched sculpture

Bicycle sculpture - SMAK

Bicycle sculpture – SMAK

Canal in Amsterdam

Canal in Amsterdam

Don’t get me wrong (from my previous blog posts, I mean) Amsterdam has it’s charms. When the sun peeks out from the clouds, and a lone boat sails down yet another picturesque canal in the center of the city, you could come to like the place.

Me taking a photo of tourists taking a photo of themselves in Rembrandt Square - Amsterdam

Me taking a photo of tourists taking a photo of themselves in Rembrandt Square – Amsterdam

Yeah, the place is over run with tourists but what can you do but go with the flow? After all, I was one of them.

Detail of something I liked at the Rijksmuseum

Detail of something I liked at the Rijksmuseum

And the art is pretty cool, no matter which museums you like best.

Writer sculpture - Eye Film Institute Amsterdam

Writer sculpture – Eye Film Institute Amsterdam

Despite all of my experiences, I still found it hard to encapsulate them into blog posts. There was so much to write about, and I didn’t even realize it until I got home.

View from top floor of the Amsterdam library

View from top floor of the Amsterdam library

Top Secret Travel Tip: This is the best view you can get in the city of Amsterdam. Behind Centraal Station, you can take a free ferry across the water. Find the Amsterdam Public Library, and go to the 7th Floor, which is their EXCELLENT restaurant. Go to the outside deck, and snap a couple of incredible shots of the city, then go back inside and get one of the most reasonbly priced, delicious lunches you’re going to find.

Worn Out - Van Gogh sketch

Worn Out – Van Gogh sketch

When it was time to leave, I was ready to come home to New York City… still the best city on the planet.

Brugge Beauty Shots

After all the moaning and whining I’ve done on the blog about the bad weather and difficult transportation conditions, I’d like to show you some photos I took in Brugge, Belgium.

Yes, these are beauty shots, there is no way around it. Brugge is a beautiful town and a designated Unesco World Heritage site.

It’s a town for tourists, the place is overflowing with them, but it’s easy to see why. The architecture is magnificent, even on a grey-skied, rain-drenched day like the one I spent there.

The view from my overpriced tourist hotel room in Brugge, phenonemal view

The view from my overpriced tourist hotel room in Brugge, phenonemal view

A rainy street scene - Brugge, Belgium

A rainy street scene – Brugge, Belgium

The views along the canals in Brugge are so charming, and somehow the misty rain just added to the romantic feel of the photos. I doubt you can take a bad photo there.

Canal view of Brugge - ancient buildings and lovely greenery in the mist

Canal view of Brugge – ancient buildings and lovely greenery in the mist

Yeah, yeah… “oooh and ahhh”

The charms of Brugge

The charms of Brugge

Come on, aren’t you getting tired of seeing all this loveliness?

No?

Okay, here are some more… but you asked for it…

Lovely canal view - Brugge

Lovely canal view – Brugge

Brugge town square

Brugge town square

This next one feels like cheating, too easy to romanticize it…

Horse and carriage - Brugge

Horse and carriage – Brugge

Another canal shot in Brugge

Another canal shot in Brugge

Okay, that’s it for Brugge. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you – it’s a beautiful place but being run these days for tourists.

Travel Tip: If you are going to go to Brugge, do it as a day trip from Gent which is close… Gent is a bigger city that is gorgeous and you’ll have a ton of options in the evening for entertainment and the hotels will be much more reasonably priced!

Gent is Great

Cuppola style gazebo in Gent. Around the corner in this park is SMAK, the contemporary art museum.

Cuppola style gazebo in Gent. Around the corner in this park is SMAK, the contemporary art museum.

Gent, Belgium is the only place I visited during this trip where I wished I could have stayed longer. Much longer!

Gent (also spelled Ghent) is a fantastic city: it has medieval architecture and cobblestone streets like Brugge; it’s a University town so there are students and a great vibe; there is an amazing art scene including SMAK (among many other museums and galleries I didn’t have time to visit); and it has a swinging nightlife with several jazz clubs, including the Hot Club de Gand where I spent my one precious evening in town.

But most important to me? Gent is a real city. It’s not a place geared specifically for tourists (like Brugge and Delft) … it does not feel like an artificial environment, no, it’s the coming together of ancient traditions and modern Belgian culture with the hum of workaday life.

Landmark church in Gent with tram tracks out front - a blending of old and new

Landmark church in Gent with tram tracks out front – a blending of old and new

Travel Tip, Lodging: The nicest hotel (and most moderately priced of all the places I stayed) during my trip was at The Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof.  It’s a contemporary styled hotel with all the amenities: a chic bar, great concierge service, a wonderful breakfast (not included with the room), and a stellar staff who make you feel like nothing you could request is too much for them to accomodate.

What few hours I had to wander around Gent, I used oogling the magnificent architecture. I’m disappointed to have to report that due to the misty and overcast weather I did not take many photos outside. (Most of my shots were taken in SMAK. I’ll be putting up another post about art from the trip later.)

Travel Tip, Snack Food: Because it was so chilly, I went into a (mostly) organic snack shop called ExKi (just off the main town square) and had a bowl of cream of mushroom soup. It was divine. Food like that is served in New York City, yes, but only in a fine restaurant and not at snack shop prices (with free WiFi too.) This place has great options (for both vegetarians and non-veg) and I recommend it for lunch or a quick snack break.

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Travel Tip, Jazz Festival: For anyone who loves jazz, you may also want to know about two festivals going on this summer. The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands from July 12-14; AND the Gent Jazz Festival from July 12-20th (which will include stars like Diana Krall this year.)

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After a late siesta (nap), I went out on the town to the Hot Club de Gand for a night of jazz and making new friends.

You won’t find the Hot Club de Gand if you look for it on the street because you have to know where it is to find it (thank you again, Sandton staff.) The club “entrance” is a one-person wide, dimly lit, cobblestone alleyway. There is a sign, but you’ll miss it if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The top secret alley entrance...

The top secret alley entrance…

You snake your way down the alley, and on the right side is a corregated tin door (if this sounds like an adventure, it is!) When you open the door you are in the “garden courtyard” of the club. But once you go inside, it is jam packed, with no room to move!

The night I went, there was a revolving set of jazz musicians taking the stage (the musicians were all guys in their 20’s). When I came in, a drummer, guitarist, and base player were playing acoustic jazz; 20 minutes later the drummer switched out and a piano player came up; 20 minutes after that the base player and lead guitarist switched out, and so on.

I’ve never seen that kind of “open mic” set up, and it was a lot of fun watching all the musicians play together when you could tell their abilities to improvise were being tested in front of the crowd.

In the meantime, I made friends with a New Zealander named Kristen at the bar. She was staying at a youth hostel up the street, and she introduced me, in turn, to a group of people at a table… some from the hostel (Laura from Florida, an Indian guy who had relocated to Australia, a guy and gal from Canada, and two others were local.)

But certainly the nicest guy I met had to be Peter, a former Amsterdamer who moved to Belgium and lived in Gent. Peter and I sat next to each other, joking all night. When it got to be about 2am and I said I had to get back to my hotel, Peter offered to walk me back.

(What is it about gentlemanly Dutch guys who want to escort a tourist woman to her hotel? I don’t know, but it was the second time in the trip it happened, and I felt lucky to have the company. It should be noted that like Jon in Amsterdam at Alto Jazz Cafe, Peter was a perfect gentleman and deposited me at my doorstep safely.)

Gent is extremely charming at night, and that night it was especially so, lit by street lamps with mist in the air giving the whole town a golden glow.

I remember my precious hours in Gent fondly; I have to figure out a way to get back there soon.